Sunday, 1 January 2012

Poems I Like #4: Ambulances

My first - and most powerful - experience with Philip Larkin was This Be The Verse, one of the few poems that could fairly be described as 'brutal'.  Now, via Ivan (as usual - this blog is slowly turning into a From Wine To Water commentary blog), here's Ambulances, a much more subtle exploration of the same theme:

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.
Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,
And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede.
Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;
For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there
At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable insided [
sic, it seems] a room
The trafic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.
Like This Be The Verse, it's in iambic pentameter, but at once it's more complicated: we've got enjambment all over the place (between the fourth and fifth stanza, most notably), and trochees replacing the iambs for variety - None of the glances they absorb.  There's no Pope-like slavish dedication to form here. In this way Larkin's voice becomes less sing-song, more like a whispered conversation than a nursery rhyme.  The rhyme scheme itself is more complicated: instead of abab, it's abcbca.  That rhyme pair enclosing the standard abab verse gives Larkin more room to play around.

What about the ideas? Ambulances is a poem about - you guessed it - ambulances, threading their way through the streets of a city.  It's about children and mothers seeing people taken away in an ambulance, and thinking about their own lives.  So beneath the surface imagery, Ambulances is also a poem about death.  The titular ambulances play the role of Reapers (any Supernatural fans here?) or, more pretentiously, 'psychopomps': guides, bridges between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

All streets in time are visited - not visited by ambulances, but by the end that those ambulances represent.  And for those witnessing that end, it's possible to glimpse what lies beneath: the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do, which is permanent, blank and true. This is the great secret of the poem, buried in the middle of the middle stanza.  I'm not entirely certain what 'solving' means here - my best guess is that it solves the confusions, the problems of life; it's the answer to confusion.

The last two stanzas move from death to life, describing the dying man as something nearly at an end, in which families, fashions, love - all the circumstantial aspects of life - cohere somehow.  Life is construed as a relationship, a series of networks (or knots, a la Crispy), and, near death, they begin to loosen.  The very end is cryptic: the ambulance rolls off into traffic, death approaches, and all that we are // dulls into distance. Is this referring to the mind of the onlooker, which forgets the solving emptiness?  We know they only understood it for a second, so this explanation is at least plausible.

And now I feel like I've pinned the poem with a skewer through its thorax.  In an attempt to inject some actual appreciation (since this is a poem I very much appreciate), here's a few instances of Larkin's skill:

children strewn on steps or road  - I love 'strewn' here.

A wild white face that overtops    - wild white, in contrast to the red blankets.

Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed       -  stowed
is perfect, like a piece of baggage.

sudden shut of loss                     -  This is perfect and accurate.

It probably goes without saying that solving emptiness that lies just under all we do is existential, but just in case I'll finish with a Kierkegaard quote about much the same thing:

If at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid behind everything, what would life be but despair?

The children and women in Ambulances are lucky to forget it so quickly.

1 comment:

  1. Quite an achievement to write iambic pentameter in an eight-syllable line. Nice one.

    Actually, This Be The Verse is in iambic tetrameter (eight syllables, da-DUM). Ambulances is still eight syllables, but finding the feet is rather harder. It's definitely a tetrameter, but the stressing is a bit irregular.