Poem of the week: Pool by Rowan Williams | Poetry


A twig breaks. Quickly, kindly
staging the haiku, one or two new frogs
plop in the water, where their youngest
parents lie or skitter, hundreds
and hundreds of big swept commas
from the composer’s workbench
in the sandy shallows, hundreds
small oily breathing pauses in the water
boring paragraph. When their breath
swollen eyes and shining limbs,
they will also wait, throbbing at the edge of the pond

Edge, listening to danger,
for the dry foot of this uncertain
upper world that no one predicted
when it was all wet for a long time without noise
clauses between the wriggling of black breath;
ready to jump from this new purgatory
back height in constant darkness, far away
(for a while at least) terrors
of what the sun sucks up –
green, limbs, lungs, even words
or wings.

The pool begins with the surprising sound that puts “one or two new frogs” to “promptly, obligingly” to stage “the haiku” by jumping into the pool. The haiku, of course, is Basho’s. The English-speaking translators liked to mimic the sound the frog makes when it hits the surface of the water, but Basho, according to its Japanese commentators, is more oblique: its third line simply says “sound of water”. There is no onomatopoeia: it is left to the reader’s imagination. Rowan Williams may be doing the same sort of thing with his opening line, “A Twig Breaks”. You have to imagine the creaking and frightened leap of the frogs towards safety.

The literary allusion takes on a typographic twist when the tadpoles in the “sandy pools” of the water are seen as “hundreds / and hundreds of big commas swept / from the composer’s bench …”. double life of the amphibian with the coexistence of type and text, print and language. It may also refer to one of the translations of Rowan Williams’ collection, In the Days of Caesar by Waldo Williams. The latter is a beautiful poem, intensely from and for Wales and the Welsh, but suggesting a transformation that seems limitless. Here is the last stanza:

Well, little people, and my little nation, can you see
the secret buried in you, that no Caesar ever captures in his lists?
Will the shepherd not come and look for us in our wilderness,
brings us together to give birth again, weaving us into one
in a song heard in the sky of Bethlehem?
He seeks us as a treasure trove of words for his work, the winner of the sky

In the last line of the translation, the compound Old English word “wordhoard” may suggest that lesser nations will also be redeemed, in the form of poems, or perhaps a poem, by the “heavenly laureate” . Pool tadpoles are perhaps the essential punctuation marks for opening the verbal treasure.

In the second verse, it is the turn of the new cohort of adult frogs, now fully “bloated” and able to breathe on land as well as under water, to prepare for “the fissure of danger”. The life cycle is ruthless. Predation and desiccation are suggested by the “uncertain upper world dry land / which no one predicted / in the days when it was all wet for a long time without noise / clauses between the quiver of black breath”. The grammatical metaphor persists with “clauses”, a callback to the “dull paragraph” of water sentences. But now an aquatic luxury is realized in the epithets “all wet for a long time without noise” with their echo of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas, and perhaps a nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ delight in “wild and wet”.

The long sentence which crosses the stanza and which begins after the hyphenation of the new verse (“When their breath…”) continues until its brief climax. It is written in the future, but promises an inescapable certainty: the new frogs “throbbing at the edge of the pond” will also be ready to jump out of the “new Purgatory / height again in constant darkness”. Older emerging life forms may be implicated in this description. Less than gleefully sun-struck once on dry land, they are nostalgic for the earlier stage of development.

Williams constructs an incredibly varied vertical structure as her phrase finds its purpose in the two-line list of “what the sun sucks up – / green, limbs, lungs, even words / or wings.” Language itself takes a lesser place in the disrupted democracy of organisms and parts of organisms. The redemptive possibility implied by “Purgatorial” is closely kept alive, obscured by the uncertainty in which all life forms participate, “the fissure of danger” which they fear and represent, as soon as they emerge in self-sufficiency. . Even the sun is disturbingly framed, its symbolism clouded, perhaps, by the environmental danger the poet now perceives in its life-giving radiance. In the last line, there are only two words, two syllables.

Pool is from Rowan Williams’ New Poems section Poems Collected. In addition to the Waldo Williams translation mentioned earlier, Poem of the Week has already featured Rowan Williams’ poem on Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev.

This article has been modified. An earlier version incorrectly included the word “wings” instead of “limbs” in the penultimate line of the poem.

Comments are closed.