Thursday, April 10, 2014

Puzzling over value #5 Vicki Feaver's 'Judith'.

So for a change, something very positive. Instead of all the reasons I don't think something works, here's some of the many reasons I think something does. 


Wondering how a good woman can murder
I enter the tent of Holofernes,
holding in one hand his long oiled hair
and in the other, raised above
his sleeping, wine-flushed face,
his falchion with its unsheathed
curved blade. And I feel a rush
of tenderness, a longing
to put down my weapon, to lie
sheltered and safe in a warrior's
fumy sweat, under the emerald stars
of his purple and gold canopy,
to melt like a sweet on his tongue
to nothing. And I remember the glare
of the barley-field; my husband
pushing away the sponge I pressed
to his burning head; the stubble
puncturing my feet as I ran,
flinging myself upon a body
that was already cooling
and stiffening; and the nights
when I lay on the roof - my emptiness
like the emptiness of a temple
with the doors kicked in; and the mornings
when I rolled in the ash of the fire
just to be touched and dirtied
by something. And I bring my blade
down on his neck - and it's easy
like slicing through fish.
And I bring it down again,
cleaving the bone.

by Vicki Feaver

A poem can open a space where a certain type of thinking, through and in language, becomes possible. This doesn’t happen in all poems, nor is it any kind of criteria for poetic excellence. But it is one of the pleasures unique to poems, which is simultaneously private and public. 

This poem, Judith by Vicki Feaver, begins by explicitly opening this space, which is one reason for using it.  It then moves swiftly through a series of contrasts, which occur on different levels : semantic, syntactic, imagery and while it resolves into action at the end, it leaves its initial question formally unanswered.  

In case there’s any doubt, I see this as a strength. You might have the kind of mind that prefers to believe everything has a neat answer,  in which case you’re not going to like this poem or my approach to it.

I can imagine an essay topic: ‘According to Vicki Feaver’s Judith, how can a good woman commit murder?’…but that’s an essay question and part of everything that’s wrong with certain academic uses of poetry. If the poem opens a space,  essay writing shuts it down. They are two different ways of thinking. Both have their place and time. However, essay writing, especially when driven by preconceived ideological frame works, whether they are formalist, structuralist, post structuralist, Queer, Feminist, Marxist, Post-colonial eco-critical or Post something else, never give the poem a chance to breathe, never bother to listen to what the individual poem is saying.

It’s the bunker mentality approach to reading. Which I like to avoid.

The core question intriguing the poet is stated explicitly in the first line but also by the juxtaposition of  ‘good’ and ‘murder’.  The two terms are generally treated as mutually exclusive.  The diction of this poem looks simple but isn't. The choice of murder, instead of execution, or assassination, either of which could be valid in this case, juxtaposes an apparently irreconcilable value judgment: ‘good’, against an act that, by normal definition, is ‘not good’.

It also slyly hides the ambiguity of how. One obvious answer to Feaver’s question is a rather banal “with a very sharp blade as though you’re slicing fish”,

The /I/ who enters, wondering how a good woman can murder, is Judith, who speaks the poem and is as yet unsure of her ability to kill Holofernes, (she’s usually portrayed killing him, or returning from the deed with his head. In Feaver’s poem she pauses) but that /I/ is also Feaver herself, who is thinking through her answer to her own question in the poem she’s writing by imaginatively entering the tent of Holofernes and becoming Judith.

At the same time, the reader is also pulled into the question because it is impossible to read the poem, written in first person, without experiencing the sense of being the person speaking. Read it and the reader becomes /I/. Poet, reader, fictional persona, all enter the tent of Holofernes to find their answers.

The first sentence, although grammatically accurate, collapses a sequence of events. It’s obvious she can’t enter the tent while holding his hair in one hand and her blade in the other, but the speed of movement mimics the poet’s imagination moving from question to imagined observation, and the protagonist’s slight hesitation before entering and the speed of what happens next.  

Speed of movement characterizes the poem; there are only five sentences, the last two being the shortest.  Four of them start with and. In 31 lines two end on a full stop, and four are paused slightly by a comma. The absence of end stopped lines and the run on sentences contribute significantly to the effect of swift thought.  

Feaver’s imagination allows her to visualize the woman looking down at the sleeping man, and risk the danger of what could be seen as a stereotypical response: for a moment Judith imagines herself in his bed, melting to nothing on his tongue. She admits to herself the attraction of a simpler, more familiar option to what she plans: to be safe, and held, and to dissolve.

But the thinking is associational: her loneliness, her desire to melt to nothing, evokes (because caused by) her husband. The flush of unexpected desire is contrasted to the longest sentence in the poem, which balances on its semi-colons the facts of her husband’s death and its immediate aftermath; night and morning.

Contrasted to the stillness of the tent and the sleeping man we get a set of painfully physical images: glare, burning, puncturing, which arrive in a breathless rush of remembered actions: I pressed, I ran, flinging. There’s the careful ‘a body’ rather ‘his body’ and the silence in the slight pause after cooling and stiffening which then opens on memories of nights on the roof (linking back to the emerald and gold stars of H’s purple canopy but also to cooling and the later ashes).

Thinking through language? The simile in the third sentence

my emptiness/ like the emptiness of a temple/with the doors kicked in

is, I think, a good example. The contrast in diction is there again; temple, with its associations of religion and ritual and dedicated space and the unavoidable link between temple and body (OED Temple N1 usage 3) and the bluntness of kicked in. Temples as spaces set apart for religious purposes, respected, revered: against the brutality of the more idiomatic usage of “kicked in” with the obvious indifference and rejection of all a temple might stand for….also the loss evoked by emptiness, a once purposeful, busy place now empty, the loss of function, the sense of separated space that was once elevated by its separation is now bereft, having been violated, still separated but no longer functioning according to definition. The image opens out, suggesting her feelings after her husband’s death as complex and necessarily ill-defined and returns to her sense of loneliness and the sleeping man’s fumy sweat, her desire to be “touched and dirtied by something” even if it is the cold ashes of a fire.

There’s another contrast/seeming paradox here, which hints at the complexity of bereavement: night time is associated with regret and sadness: temple, something occupied by a divine presence,  has been ruined, but the morning brings a different desire to be touched and “dirtied”.  A desire to be ruined in a different way.  Which links us back to the warrior and his fumy sweat.

The last two sentences, once more starting with and, are comparatively abrupt; short and grammatically simple. Her memory causes her to ‘bring my blade/ down on his neck’ there could be a pause at the line ending, but the alliteration (by, bring blade) and all the run on sentences before it, push the eye to stress ‘down’. The pause comes after neck.... instead of a full stop, a dash, almost as if she surprises herself. And then the chopping starts.

The poem doesn’t explicitly answer the question “How does a good woman murder?” if we take the question to mean, how is it a good woman can commit a murder…there’s no neat QED at the end.  The answer is most definitely not ‘for the equivalent of king and country’, or ‘to protect her embattled people’…none of this appears in the poem, though  Judith will return to a hero’s welcome.  

None of this means that someone who wanted to couldn’t read the poem and come up with an answer.  
But just as her reactions to her husband’s death are complex: (how to read the pair:  pushing away/pressed in,  my husband/pushing away the sponge I pressed/to his burning head) it is unlikely that anyone’s actions in a situation like this are reducible, in reality, to a single cause.

Browning claimed for art at the end of The Ring and the Book,

Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, so the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought

The space does not shut itself. It offers the possibility of reflection,  should the reader wish to reflect, and because it is reflection in language, the experience allows for the consideration of the possible complexity of action and motive through the imaginative linguistic performance of that action.  

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