Kate Middleton, Passage. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN 978-1-925336-43-6
Thriveni C Mysore
Arresting the prospective reader by cover art that hints of probable shifting from green to grey, bisected unequally, past lesser than the bleak future, Passage, wonderfully wins over through worthy poetry. Serious literature of Kate Middleton as showcased through Passage evokes responsible reading rather than a leisure-time activity. If one finds it interesting in assessing the quantitative literature, it will be through Kate Middleton’s erasures, deftly handled, so much so that the poet’s erasures stand taller than the original text. Such an effect cannot be bought cheaply and easily. Lots of effort is spent on structure of poetry of Passage that leads to grateful appreciation by the reader. The simple notes provided at the end of the collection (110-16) are helpful for the understanding of dimensions of the poem as well as its framework.
Passage starts with the poem, ‘Lyric’, where the poet says:
song stages history’s long speech
reads whaler’s voyage, lion’s maw
Opens field of ancient voice
Folds its origami: Form
Collected under subtitle, ‘Past’ are 33 poems starting with ‘Untrod’ a cento after Tacita Dean (5). The poet says with such assertion as:
weather and the
up of time
The poem gives rise to concentric thoughts that leaves a trail of guessing to read the poet’s mind.
The poem, ‘Haw Count’ (7) is the first erasure poem after S.P.B Mais, This Unknown Island: ‘Haw count’ is gleaned from the first essay ‘Haworth’: ‘Good Evening! Have you ever played that game of making up lists of the great men and women of the past whom you would most like to have seen? …’, where Mais tries to meet Emily Brontë in Northern Heights (3).
‘Haw Count’ thus begins:
Have you ever played a hillsman away from bleak,
I think we are absences, lost in the climb to meet reality,
The poet creatively adds:
Hilltops stand under the beam of keen clear light.
and expresses the wildness as a muddy brown beck in a narrow ravine, calling out the strange crabbed writing as:
where haunting has least rubbed off;
is scarcely striking.
This, not only is suggestive of the hurdles faced in literary circles in the past, but also of the losing grip of such serious writing at present.
The poet’s mastery over material is demonstrated in the poem, ‘Lighthouse, Cape Otway’ (14). Giving attention to every detail, thereby holding the imagery in a powerful grip, she says:
A sandstone cone stacked
on limestone cliff, here
the gash made by human
with scar of lighthouse:
its Fresnel lens sliced
the waters uninterrupted
with its three short white flashes
soaring over waves
every eighteen seconds.
Such surgical precision can be seen all through the poem where the poet explains the place, introduces the reader to the lighthouse keepers’ graveyard and its condition. Of the families of lightmen, who are often nondescript for a genteel world, the poet says:
the lightmen’s families
lie miles from any other
place, and one stone reads
‘Sacred to the memory
of …’ The remembered name
now sunk beneath weed
As given in the notes (110), the poem, ‘On Bury Art’ is gleaned from the essay ‘Glastonbury: King Alfred and King Arthur’, from Mais, This Unknown Island.
To appreciate Kate Middleton’s erasure, it is delightful to read through the essay that begins with:
You know Camelot, of course. Everyone knows Camelot. The trouble is that everyone is so sure that his or her Camelot is the only right one.
… my Camelot is in Somerset. – where you may still see King Arthur’s Palace, and King Arthur’s Well, and look out over the forest-path known as King Arthur’s Hunting-track that leads straight across the island valley of Avalon, ‘deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard-lawns and bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea’, to the green knoll of Glastonbury Tor.
Mais says further that he would set out in quest of the Holy Grail and swore to find it perhaps at Glastonbury. He considers Glastonbury as a place of pious pilgrimage, for it was believed that St Joseph of Arimathea hid the Holy Chalice under the Tor and planted his staff on Weary All Hill. Concerning his vow to visit Glastonbury, Mais describes his journey thereof, accounting every twist and turn through the hill, his encounter with withy-workers; when he reaches the Tor he flinches at a car-park on one side of the Abbey gates and a cinema on the other, and calls them as ‘unexpected intrusion of modern vulgarity’. But he also portrays the silver shining tranquility and serenity that the place instills in his heart (Mais, Unknown Island, 25-39).
Middleton deftly handles this in her erasure:
You know Camelot
Know that the only true Camelot is a green knoll of midsummer
But you needn’t thread every moment with a clock
with the sacred cup under the Tor
buried between architecture and archaeology.
She cuts through finely:
After landing be content with the remnants of a blue silk flag.
(The monument is a severity of pardon and vigilance, a
black piled heap of black
shawls, blotted out by grey
rain, oriented by the Dog
star. A cinema. A strange
obliquity of grandeur.)
And you unravel the tangled skein of rock.
More. Of grail.
The erasures and centos of Middleton’s Passage stand not only as poetic assertions but also shift lightheaded evaluations of structure poetry toward necessarily intellectual art worthy of examination, evaluation and gracious reception.
‘Study of a lion’ is a poem on Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ painting in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The much acclaimed painting is a black chalk, heightened with white, yellow chalk in the background, sketched in 1612. The poet adds more colour to the painting by her portrayal:
has stopped his mouth
with a single line
… Eyes steadily lighting
toward the years one swift textured paw
lifted ever so slightly
Patient as an avalanche.
Turning over one’s thoughts about several poems, the reader arrives at a single poem ‘Day Trip on a Visit Home’ (53) under the title ‘Present’. The poet in quick succession draws out the challenges of modern day, deals with worldly pleasures and pains, and assures of a promising road ahead that rolls out if one is ready enough to watch out:
to be astonished giving me permission
to plan the next excursion. Slipping once again
into the car
we followed the curved road
The poem ends poignantly:
‘largest,’ contracted beneath the cloudless sky.
Remaining poems of the collection are under the title, ‘Future’ and begin with a cento after Sir John Mandeville, ‘Dispatches from Earth’:
Let’s load the ships with calamus
and not the oil of mercy
The reader cannot miss the intended words, ‘oil of mercy’. The poem ends with a different note:
About ‘Passage’ the titular poem, the poet in her Notes (114) says:
This poem draws on a story reported on the BBC that, with the advent of ice-melt in the Arctic, the Northwest Passage has opened up in recent summers for the first time in a century, and bowhead whales have been passing through it. Research into bowhead whales indicated that their estimated lifespan is 150 years and that when dying bowheads are discovered, some still have nineteenth century whaling implements embedded in their bodies. The italicized text is drawn from the letter left behind by the last members of the Franklin expedition before their death: their explanation of their fate was written in seven languages.
This note is essential for the reader to fully explore the feel of the poem, ‘Passage’ (87). Had it not been to this note, the reader would otherwise have failed to bring up the response of receptivity that the imagery commands. The poet wonderfully starts with a startling opening line:
Melt has brought about
Bowheads from both sides
—pacific, Atlantic— meet in
press together century-old grazes
Not a single word can be lost in the cascade and the poet has succeeded in lashing out at human actions:
for them the passage never
empty but for whales
by the minute-hand of floe’s
advance and pass each other
in a season’s
song, allegro, warming into future tense.
In the poem, ‘Then Lie’ (108), an erasure of Mais’ ‘The Northern Highlands: Prince Charlie’s Country’, from This Unknown Island, the poet drags the reader towards disastrous reality:
The journey north is treeless
a world of grass and houses
and continues to unforgivingly serious imagery and word play, saying that the world is no more same as the often repeated ‘wonderful’, it has changed to impossible:
Repeat the word: ‘impossible’
as if forever
as if you see, north, the border
Passage ends with the poem, ‘Fable’ – a cento after Sri Hustvedt’s ‘Living, Thinking, Looking’. A line that startles the reader, ‘Dig and you shall find your own body alive’ (109), not only jolts one’s thoughts but creates an unending wave pattern, leading from one thing to another and then the next. One can take the zoomed view of myriad meanings in the final expression:
You can’t pay your electric bill. You’re stuck. It is bitter
to hear birds dull and interchangeable as postcards.
A guillotine hangs over your perfect marble house.
It is alarming with its profoundness. Taking the bigger picture into account, the state of our system is not a science fiction anymore. It is deteriorating by seconds. As the poet says, there may come a day of dead end. The word ‘dull’ resonates to mean extinct, with many species, flora and fauna getting erased from the planet, unnoticed, and without farewells. They gracefully end up as postcards to help future human generations, such a pity. It is obvious that a guillotine surely hangs over our perfect house. A house, of humans and humans alone, a house to human actions alone, to become the biggest territory occupied by any living thing created by Nature, not so becoming.
Though these are representative examples of intense poetry of Kate Middleton’s ‘Passage’, not a poem in the collection can be taken lightly by the reader. The poet’s attention to detail has made the pattern poetry valuable from literary sense, and also the choice of poet’s texts speaks volumes on her intellectual consciousness, her depth of exploration and her belief in an ideology. This in a way brings out awareness in the reader, of the infinite probabilities a rich literature can create in a human life, renewing energy, increasing vitality.
Mais, S. P. B. This Unknown Island. London: The Shenval Press, 1922
Thriveni C Mysore is a science teacher from Karnataka, India. She is locally acknowledged for her critical essays and articles on Philosophy and Education. Her books in Kannada on Philosophy and Science have won State awards. Being actively involved in Environmental Awareness Programs, she holds lectures and presentations for students. Amidst life’s complexities, she finds divine-solace in reading Nature poems.