The Sunday Poem: No 13 Neil Rollinson
Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 13 Neil Rollinson
Sunday 28 February 1999
Can I make it home, or do I shit
in the woods? I squat above the moss,
breathing its pheromones, my scrotum
shrunk like a walnut in the cold breeze.
I push quietly in case the dogs
on their morning walks come sniffing.
It drops on the leaves
with a muffled thud, and the smell
is like marzipan, not offensive
as it is against the clinical spruce
of the ordinary bathroom. It steams
in the dirt; the undigested sweetcorn
bright as stones in a brooch.
Coconut milk, rice from Shanghai,
spice from Afghanistan,
all remaking itself; feeding the trees.
I clean myself on a sycamore leaf,
smooth as a grocer's handkerchief.
And then I see them: pregnant
as fish bowls, weird as a hedgeful
of skulls. I pull one out of its hole
gentle as a midwife, palping the domed
head in my hands; I carry it home
on the bus; it sits in my lap
like a baby, plump, bald as an arse,
smelling of milk and cinnamon.
"Poet" is from Greek poieo, "I make". You don't need to be a psychoanalyst to remember that shitting is a primal image of making. As Heaney says in an essay, one of the pleasures in life is when I show you my mudpies and you show me yours. No subject- matter is "poetic" in itself: what matters is what you make of it. You can make poems out of anything, just as The Penguin Book of Wine-Making says you can make wine out of tea leaves. This poem re-writes the "nature poem" but is also, as its first verb tells you, about the discovery of making - and "re-making".
It was a risky project in terms of tone. The poem could turn arch or giggly, or make a boringly deliberate effort to shock. Instead it tells you about gentle surprise when the world is stranger and kinder than you expect, about how context changes things ("not offensive, as it is against the clinical spruce of the ordinary bathroom"), about bringing "home" the riches you meet. "Exotic" is how you see, not what. The cinnamon smell of the fungus and Shanghai and Afghanistan imports (last night's curry, presumably) sit in this English pastoral "bright as stones in a brooch" themselves. Treasure, like puffballs (or babies), turns up when you least expect, changing your life as poetry changes your vision of the ordinary world.
He pulls this off through his command of music and image. The sound that resonates all through is the "O" of "home". Between the first "home" and the last, you get pheromones / scrotum / cold / stones / brooch / coconut / grocer's / bowls / hole / domed. Then back (with extra harmonics from "cinnamon", "bathroom", "marzipan", "sweetcorn", "Afghanistan") to "home". The sound holds the poem together like a resolution repeated through a song. The other dominant vowel, the "ee" begun by "breathing" (breeze / leaves / offensive / steams / feeding / trees / clean / leaf / handkerchief), belongs only to the first 20 lines. It stops when the puffballs appear, like a cadence marking the "then I see them" moment when the poem moves into new rhythms. The run of vowel-chimes round the key word "smell" - clinical / bowls / hedgeful / skull / pull / gentle - plays also into the hole/bowl sound. Runs of three pull particular lines together: consonants (F in "sniffing", "muffled", "offensive", T in "shit", "squat", "walnut); and vowels (I in "bright", "rice", "spice", short O in "moss", "dogs", "drops").
And images? As vowels make the poem into a particular sonic world, so the metaphors make a specific image world. Everything is related imagistically just as (the poem says) everything is related biologically. The puffball at the end is "bald as an arse"; as his own arse at the beginning. He pulls a "pregnant" fungus "from its hole" like a midwife, reminding you how he himself "squatted". The images "re-make" opposites into each other, turning human waste to birth and food. The smells of turds and puffballs are milk, cinnamon, marzipan. This is no bathroom emanating artificial "spruce" but a real wood; yet its leaf is "smooth as" a human artefact, "a grocer's handkerchief". Why grocer, not (say) bus conductor? Because grocers mean food, wrapping up, preparation. The images talk of taking care: rice "feeds the trees"; the fungus sits on his lap "like a baby", he "pushes quietly" in case dogs turn up on their "morning walk". The birth, food, nature images create a pulse of tenderness through the poem, letting looked-after things (dogs, turds, puffballs, babies) be very physically themselves.
Paradoxically, he gets this effect by metaphor, which re-makes things into something else. But his images have a double kick. "Pregnant as fishbowls"? Fishbowls don't get pregnant. But a pregnant tummy can he as round as one; you can look into both (via ultrascan) and see livestock inside. So you get a triple relation - puffball, bowl, tummy - which underlines the pregnancy motif (tummy, "domed head") and accentuates the look of the objects in the title, the image you carry away, like the poet on the bus, from the end of the poem.
c Ruth Padel, 1999
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