Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Tree in the River

Here's a nice image. It's a 3D geological model of the Paris Basin in the region of the city of Reims, which is the region where Champagne is produced. I have linked to it from the BRGM web site which has several examples of 3D geological models created to show the geology of different parts of France. It's all in English, so should be quite easy to understand.

You see in the image above all the geological layers that have built up in this area of Champagne since the Triassic period, which is to say since about 235 million years ago. It's a big ol' pile of sediment, some 5 km deep in the basin centre, all the layers thinning towards the basin margin in the north. It looks like the thinning is very dramatic in the model, but don't be misled by the scale which is very vertically exaggerated.

This thinning is due to the existence of a long-lived 'massif' of older rocks called the London-Brabant High. A massif is an area which is not subsiding, as opposed to the 'basin' areas around it which are. It was probably an area of hills or mountains that was generally free from inundation by the sea in the geological past. As its outline is no longer apparent in terms of modern geography, it can only really be visualised by the construction of the geology that built up around it in the past.

So, here's an interesting concept in geology, which is prevalent in all kinds of different areas: that something which was once present and has now disappeared may have left a fundamental impact on the geology that we see today. There are all kinds of analogies, but one that springs to mind, since it was recently the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima and Iran is currently launching a nuclear processing programme, is that story about the effects of the atom bomb: how first it casts a permanent shadow of the shape of a man on a wall, then turns the man himself to ashes. Cause and effect are separated. A terrible mystery is born.

What other examples are there in geology? Well, how about meteorites? When meteorites hit the earth they leave a gaping crater, but the meteorite itself is blown to smithereens, the resulting ball of dust and acidic gases being dispersed around the earth. At a smaller scale we might think of a tree sticking out of a river bed. As the sediment is transported around it, the tree exerts a fundamental influence on the structures developing in the sediment around it. Yet eventually, the tree is likely to rot and disappear, leaving the sediment that has gathered downstream compacted and preserved. The sediment is the history of that tree that is now no more.

I think these ideas may serve as a metaphor for what happens in poetry. The poet is the tree in the river. It is not usual for a tree to stand in a river. This is the independence of the poet. His words and poems are the sediment sweeping around him. The words have been used before, even some of the phrases, but the poet influences them as they pass, causes them to collect in certain ways. If the structures are stable, they will last and be preserved. If they are not, they will be washed away, further down the river of memory and time.

Eventually, the poet, like the tree, disappears. The words are the only waymarker to where he or she once stood. It takes some sophistication to unravel what all the structures mean, to determine exactly where the poet once stood, upright, forcing the sediment and current to first travel around, and then to accumulate in the lee of the poet.

That resistance, that force of displacement is fundamental to poetry. It is the strength of the poet that the uninitiated miss. To them, poetry is simply a pen travelling across paper. The poet knows, however, that he or she is standing up in a torrent, the whirling words all around, trying to snatch one of them, the right one, from the flow.

But fundamentally, there is mystery. Where the poet once stood will always be a matter of debate. Even the question of where he or she now stands is open to question, because the poet is always shadowy, shifting. As all life is.

Words, like sediment are misleading. Why words and sediment stay in place like they do is really in relation to fundmental physical laws. Instinctively I feel that the laws of language and the laws of physics are not too different and I might seek evidence of this by analogy with the visual arts, by the presence of prime numbers and their influence on the golden section which is utilised by artists to give their pictures a fundmental sense of balance.

I'm going to end with another poem by Paul Muldoon. It is called 'Why Brownlee Left'. It is about a man who should have been content with his life, and yet suddenly disappeared. Muldoon never explains why Brownlee left. He just did.

My friend, the poet GS once suggested to me that 'Brownlee' was Paul Muldoon, leaving behind his own homeland, going on to more exotic places, themes, imaginings. The poem begins:

Why Brownlee left, and where he went,
Is a mystery even now.
For if a man should have been content
It was him.

Why does the poet feel impelled to move on? Because he or she must. Because to stand in one place is to stagnate. And more fundamentally, because without this disappearance, there would be no mystery. Nothing 'to go figure'. 'Go figure' is one of the few pieces of advice Muldoon has ever given about his work.

Notice the name of the character: Brown-Lee. The 'lee' is a word denoting 'the side which is sheltered from a current'. The 'lee' is where sediment would gather behind a stone in a windy place, or for that matter, downstream of a tree in a river. The fact that this 'lee' is 'brown' is revealing of the way that Muldoon felt about his Irish, country origins. The poetry that accumulated there was 'brown'. It was to do with the earth. It was not 'green', a rather more envigorating colour.

That is perhaps why Brownlee wanted to leave his farm behind. He doesn't want to remain planted in one place. But, ironically, the place is implicit in his name. Just as Muldoon's own origins are implicit in his own name. It goes through him like the word 'Brighton' through a stick of rock. And nothing is brighter than a bright pink stick of Brighton rock...

What 'sediment' does Brownlee leave behind? The things with which he "should" have been content. The poem ends:

By noon, Brownlee was famous;
They had found all abandoned, with
The last rig unbroken, his pair of black
Horses, like man and wife,
Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.

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