Saturday, December 27, 2008
"Poem (‘In the stump of the old tree...’)"
I first encountered the work of Hugh Sykes Davies’ in a relatively obscure anthology, English & American Surrealist Poetry, edited by Edward B. Germain, & published by Penguin. Germain’s anthology is quirky: any book that counts Yvor Winters & Thomas Merton among the surrealists is certainly using a very catholic definition; still, the book contains some gems, & is notable for collecting works by the 1930s London Surrealist Group, which included not only Mr Davies, but also David Gascoyne, Roland Penrose, George Reavey, & Ruthven Todd (et al).
The London Surrealists were “orthodox” (to use Germain’s word)—they were political & social radicals, practiced automatic writing, & enjoyed lectures by renowned Continental surrealists such as André Breton & Salvador Dali. Tho none of these British writers are currently included in either the working Lit Crit or Poebiz canons (which, as canons are wont to be, always tend toward the conservative—tho the content differs, the form remains the same), they produced some intriguing work.
Hugh Sykes Davies was one of the founding members of the London Surrealist Group, & was an active member at least into the early 40s; the Second World War was a social & political disruption that caused the group to dissolve. Davies life story is itself fascinating, & the essay by George Watson at the link given above is well worth a read. Davies was a man of many interests & many friends—how many folks could claim friendship with as diverse a collection of fellows as Anthony Blunt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Salvador Dali & T.S. Eliot?—tho Davies & Eliot fell out over Eliot’s staunch Anglicanism & his lukewarm fascist leanings.
Among the most interesting poems produced by the group (in my opinion), Hugh Sykes Davies’ “Poem” is a wonderful example of verbal repetition producing transformations—Davies’ “Poem” is at some level the dream landscape inside “the stump of an old tree,” but each time we enter this landscape the elements change slightly. It’s kaleidoscopic. One might try to read literal meanings into the landscape—the “stump of the old tree” being, for instance, bourgeois society with its “sodden bible”; while there may be some element of this narrative underlying the poem, I’d argue that it’s the poem’s least interesting aspect (I always argue against any reading of a poem—unless it’s a deliberately allegorical medieval work—in which this=that). The poet in me delights in Davies’ technique & imagery, in the actual story told, & not so much in the meanings toward which this story might point.
Hope you enjoy this unsual & vivid poem.
Poem (‘In the stump of the old tree...’)
In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because
in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your hand down to see, because
in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because
in the stumps of old trees where the rain gathers and the trapped leaves and the beak and the laced weasel’s eyes, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and at the bottom a sodden bible written in the language of rooks. But do not put your hand down to see, because
in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm. But do not put your hand down to see, because
in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want to eat with it again.
Hugh Sykes Davies, 1936
© Hugh Sykes Davies