Saturday, March 03, 2007

Stone Blind

Thinking back to last weekend and a discussion with George about drill bits. I tell him my brother is planning to illustrate one for my collection of poems about life on the oil rigs.

George remembers a story told to him by an Indian poet who describes how he was up on a ladder, trying to screw down a piece of corrugated iron to the roof of his house. The electric drill with which he was trying to pierce the steel plate kept skidding off the mark, leaving curious traces. It could not find purchase. This, said the Indian writer, was the metaphor he would call on to represent his approach to writing.

It made me think of that famous sentence of Samuel Beckett's from Worstward Ho: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

This idea of failure, or incompetence with an electric drill, seems, at first, strange in a world where the majority of society has been programmed to value success, the achieved work, completion.

I remember at school, I once finished a general studies essay with an open ended question. 'Never finish with a question' wrote the teacher in red biro.

A few days after our meeting, I listened to an interview with George on the radio. He talked about the poem as a building that might be haunted. Of returning to poetry as one might return to a once visited house. Does it matter if we return always to the same house? Not at all, there is always a new door to open.

If the poem works, a ghost might be discovered behind the door, haunting the structure constructed by the poet. What matters is not the house, it is that the house is haunted.

Imagine writing a poem about a place, an experience. You try to make it true, to avoid falseness, but you are drawn to a certain story, a certain emphasis. In doing so facts are changed, falseness creeps in. You fail.

Later you read the poem. You see you have failed. You go back again. You try to put it down true. Pressing hard, you discover things you hardly remembered, and things that were mere associations. You slip further off the subject. You skim wider.

The harder you drill, the harder the thing gets. You see you will never penetrate the thing, but in skimming around it, you circumscribe it.

Incredible that man can drill through rock with a bit nine inches wide to a depth of several kilmetres. It is the theoretical equivalent of a hair being slowly pressed several inches vertically into custard.

The bit eating eating. Churning rock between its teeth.

I remember seeing a used drill bit lying on the deck. What would become of it? It looked kind of heroic, all ground down.

Today I visited the opthalmologist and discovered I will have to start wearing glasses. Too many hours spent staring at a computer screen at work.

I feel rather like that drill bit.

Without warning me, the opthalmo fired a jet of something into the centre of my eyes. Without explaining, he asked me to go and sit down in the waiting room. As I sat staring at the telly in front of me, I suddenly realised I could no longer focus on the screen. It was as if I was going blind in real time.

I had no idea what was happening to me, and the opthalmo never bothered to explain. He saw me again for some more tests. I told him I couldn't see properly and he said it was because he had put something in my eyes. I walked back to the office, everything around me unalterably blurred.

Back at the office my colleague told me my pupils were hugely dilated, blackness filling the iris. She warned me to shade them, something the opthalmo had not bothered to do.

Can a look not 'drill into you'? 'Be penetrating?'

An unfocussed look could not drill into you or penetrate.

Unfocussed I was unable to work. I sat and discussed with a colleague, as a manager would.

I remember the snake-headed Medusa slain by Perseus who could turn humans to stone if they looked directly at her. How did Perseus slay her? He approached by watching her reflection in his shield. The reflection could not slay him. Its power was diminished.

In the interview, speaking of a particular poem, George describes how he stands behind his mother's back, their eyes communicating in the mirror. He explains how eye's meeting in reflection are ambiguous, lke the shared glances of passengers on trains who do not stare drectly into each other's eyes (for fear of being turned to stone...) but instead gaze at each other's reflections.

This is allowed, because their gaze is ambiguous, at once taking in the external scene and the reflected world. Only the inner focus knows the truth of what is being penetrated.

My powerlessness at work, in my unfocussed state. Nothing ambiguous about it.

Tomorrow I'll be buying some pebble lenses.


Lucy said...

Intriguing, full of matter. I'll be back to read it again.
I'd like to see those drill bit pictures.
Don't you always remember those teachers putting those cretinous things in red pen? Though perhaps those are the things we learned most from...

Dave said...

terific post! (And writing about writing is usually a big snore for me.)

BTW, I'm afraid I probably won't be commenting here again, due to the hoops Google/Blogger makes me jump through (I have more than one account, and I have to sign our of one and into the other, and then retype my comment, which has gotten lost in the interim). I'll still be reading, though. Cheers.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Lucy - well, I think on a point of style, my teacher was probably right. But philosophically, and outside the bounds of styles, I am quite happy to leave the questions hanging if that leaves the door open to further thought.

Dave - thank you. Sorry to hear about these problems with commenting.

Ivy said...

A very evocative post, Jonathan. Thank you.

George S said...

I hope your eyes will soon be OK, Jon.

The Indian writer was a novelist, not a poet. It was just that he claimed that what he was doing was exactly the same as poetry, and he used the drill bit example to illustrate it. That is to say he had a focus of attention but found himself wandering, the wandering (the sliding drill-bit) being what he considered to be the essence of the poetic process Whether it is the essence of the poetic process or no is another question.

The great example of the sliding drill-bit in fiction is Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. It was the book he most frequently referred to.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Ivy and George

George - I was quite intrigued by this idea when you mentioned it because I hadn't really thought of 'revisiting' a poem-place in this way before.

It doesn't seem to me to be the 'essence' of poetry but it's one approach.

My poems about the oil rig somehow test this approach because I have to keep going back to the rig in my head and re-imagining it in order to write about it. Which is actually very difficult. It's much easier to write directly from experience.

What is true is that I often have to find some sort of focus point or key image in order to start the oil rig poems. I guess you could say that the rest of the poem does indeed wander around this focus point.