4 minutes reading time (851 words)

THE INSISTENCE OF MEMORY

A poet doesn’t have to be well-known to be remembered.

When I was recently (and for the first time) in New York, I had the privilege of visiting a lady in that city who had been a great reader all her life.  Her Manhattan apartment was a quiet and lovely space, far above the traffic and bustle. Most of the wall space was lined with books, from floor to ceiling. You could sit and read there for weeks, months, years, decades.

We spoke about George MacDonald, because I had come from Scotland and she thought I might know and like his work, which indeed I do, though not as any kind of expert.

I read MacDonald’s books for children in my early years and loved them passionately. He said, of course, that he wrote not just for children “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” I think I will never forget Princess Irene, in The Princess and the Goblin, who, on a miserable wet day—too dreich and dreary to go out—gets lost in the “large house, half castle, half farmhouse” where she is growing up. She scrambles up a little steep stair and finds herself:

“ in a little square place, with three doors, two opposite each other, and one opposite the top of the stair. She stood for a moment, without an idea in her little head what to do next. But as she stood, she began to hear a curious humming sound. Could it be the rain? No. It was much more gentle, and even monotonous than the sound of the rain, which now she scarcely heard. The low sweet humming sound went on, sometimes stopping for a little while and then beginning again.”

The humming noise comes from a wheel, at which a “very old lady” sits spinning.

The “very old lady” is Irene’s “grandmother”. Irene thinks she may be as old as fifty, but she is far older than that. Everything has incredible visual clarity, but nothing more than the grandmother’s fire place:

“…Irene looked again, and saw that what she had taken for a huge bouquet of red roses on a low stand against the wall was in fact a fire which burned in the shapes of the loveliest and reddest roses, glowing gorgeously between the heads and wings of two cherubs of shining silver. And when she came nearer, she found that the smell of roses with which the room was filled came from the fire-roses on the hearth.”

Later the magical grandmother is able to put her hand into the fire and lift out one of the roses. This whole haunting scene came back to me in the apartment of another magical lady in Manhattan.

I didn’t know (I have just checked) that MacDonald was a profound influence on C S Lewis, whose children’s books I also loved. And on J R R Tolkien, whose works I loved in turn. And of course, C S Lewis was a friend of Ruth Pitter, whose poetry I had gone to the United States to discuss.

Everything connects.

In that high-up apartment in Manhattan, we talked also about poetry. The lady I visited did not like all poetry—and why should she? Why should anybody? But she liked some of it very much. She was a life-long reader of The New Yorker, and sometimes she cut poems out of that magazine and kept them. She shared one she had by heart. She had read it first about sixty years ago.

This is what she had cut out, kept and remembered:

Time is not a healer

by Gerta Kennedy

No sorrows pass.
They all remain
In the honeycomb

Under the heart's drain.

Nature quickens:
The comb's alive,
And the bees of pain
Spring from the hive.

She had never seen another poem again by that poet. She had looked out for her, but no more Gerta Kennedy poems had crossed her path.

Marcia Menter and I, who were visiting together, set about an Investigation. Marcia in particular found out quite a lot about Gerta Kennedy (1913-1994), who was born and died on November 7th. Though certainly not prolific, she had published two books of poems, Native Island (1956) and Water Ways (1988). She married, had three sons, and was later divorced.

Native Island includes ‘Time is Not a Healer’, though the first line has changed, from "No sorrows pass" to "No passion passes", and the punctuation is different too. It reads: “No passion passes, / they all remain / in the honeycomb / under the heart’s drain.” First word capitalization has gone. Exchanging "sorrows" for "passion" is significant. Marcia liked the second version. I prefer the first, but with the punctuation of the second.

But no matter. The lovely thing is the idea that a poem could follow someone around for the whole of their life, just one small lyric saved from the perishable pages of a magazine.

As Stevie Smith said, "The poet is not an important fellow. There will always be another poet."

But the one little poem, now. That's quite something.


ACRONYMIC
DEATHS AND ENTRANCES
 

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Friday, 23 August 2019