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Friday, 14 January 2011

Snowing On Raine

Paul Muldoon's poem of 1994, "Incantata", is arguably the most influential mid-length poem written in Ireland and the UK in the last two decades - and perhaps the finest, too.  It has certainly had a huge impact on a certain sort of longish, clever, playful, sinuous, syntactically and formally adept poem that Paul Farley, John Stammers, Don Paterson and Roddy Lumsden (to name a few of the best mainstream poets writing after Muldoon) like to write.

I was not that surprised to come across a poem in a similar vein - one of remembrance of a dead loved one, with intricate rhymes and word-play - by Craig Raine in his new book (first for a decade) How Snow Falls - which is one of those titles that makes me cringe a bit as a Canadian writer, and also reminds me of popular titles such as Snow Falling On Cedars, Snow, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Mr. Snow, and The Wrong Kind of Snow - among others.  The again, Raine does not seem to mind familiar titles, since the poem in question is called "A la recherche du temps perdu" which is so cliched as to be, I imagine, some kind of irony - perhaps signalled by the epigraph from Wilde at the start, from The Critic as Artist.

The poem uses artifice to, in its last words "make you here" - punning on "make you hear" - so the poem wants to both commune with the dead, and resurrect the dead.  The dead person is a former girlfriend who, after Raine broke up with her, had other lovers and died of AIDS.  Now, what strikes me about this poem, what makes it different from Muldoon's say, is that the mourner comes across as a rather rancid poetic speaker, obsessed with sex, of a rather crude topshelf kind.  I am not about to assume this is Raine himself, but if it is, it is a brave poem to publish, because it is hard not to read the poem without becoming a bit put off.  Firstly, there is a constant reference to the dead woman's "c*nt" - without the asterisk in the actual text - making this a sort of "In*untatas" if you will.

Whenever the poem seeks to evoke how special this woman is, we move quickly from her mind and interest in books, to her rude bits, which at one point we are told "stank of fish" - hardly a kind or original comment to make about any woman, living or dead; it feels rather childish, or at the best, boyish.  However, feminine hygiene aside, Raine's poetic speaker promises her will never forget the former lover, especially the way she removed her bras - once again, reducing her spectre to a one-dimensional figure of a randy dirty weekend type of fling, a bit of all right, a campus hottie - and not, as we are used to in elegies, a nobler person.

Raine admits he wants to make this "real" - and such honesty, while a bit fin-de-siecle - cannot be anything but taken at face value as a more naked exposition of desire and remembrance than most of us are likely used to.  I suppose, what one would recall most about an ex-lover would be the lover bit - and, for some men at least, that would include bras and sex organs.  But what of the soul, the passions?  Well, she reads C.S. Lewis, but that quickly off-rhymes with "clitoris" - again, a subtle and playful slippage.  When the speaker attends her funeral, all he can do is think about whether she has given him AIDS.  It's a curious poem, full of life and self-interest, and a desire to possess a decomposed corpse.  Swift once remarked that women "shit and piss".  As do men.  And, when we are dead, we stink up the place, until poets make us smell sweet - if they do, if they do.

Poet Helen Mort has a thoughtful take on all this, as well, which I encourage readers to check out.
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