Monday, September 13, 2010

`Fatten, Hide Slugs, Infestate'

How odd and pleasing to read a poem for the first time and the following day to discover it illustrated in a quite literal fashion in one’s non-reading life. These things usually work the other way around for me. Here’s what I mean: I’ve seen references to the English poet Jon Silkin (1930-1997) but like sweet corn, he and many of his compatriots don’t seem to travel well. There are exceptions, hearty hybrids such as Hill and Hughes, but like most American readers I’m ignorant of much recent verse in England. Once again we’re separated by a common language. In an otherwise undistinguished anthology I found Silkin’s “Dandelion,” and have since discovered Gaw at Ragbag has already posted the poem, though we take opposing views of the flower in question:

“Slugs nestle where the stem
Broken, bleeds milk.
The flower is eyeless: the sight is compelled
By small, coarse, sharp petals,
Like metal shreds. Formed,
They puncture, irregularly perforate
Their yellow, brutal glare.
And certainly want to
Devour the earth. With an ample movement
They are a foot high, as you look.
And coming back, they take hold
On pert domestic strains.
Others' lives are theirs. Between then
And domesticity,
Grass. They infest its weak land;
Fatten, hide slugs, infestate.
They look like plates; more closely
Life the first tryings, the machines, of nature
Riveted into her, successful.”

I encountered the poem Thursday evening and rather liked it. Friday morning, I walked my seven-year-old to the bus stop, one block from our house on a corner dominated by a hulking white pine. In the crack between the curb and the road surface sprawled several fat dandelions and on one of them luxuriated a fat slug about five inches long, mottled in shades of brown. One can hardly call such a creature drab. When I lifted him by his midriff (I think), he retracted to one-third his elongated size but soon relaxed and out came the pale, swaying antennae, the mucus trail and the slow implacable journey up my fingers. Disgust and fascination vied in the faces of the kids waiting for the bus, but it was nothing new for my youngest son. “He does that kind of thing all the time,” he assured them.

What a rare audio-video convergence of poem and wildlife, but I’m fond of finding beauty among such scorned things as weeds and vermin. The dandelion is my favorite flower, in part because it is, as Silkin says, “successful,” adept at adaptation. Chesterton shared my sentiment and often cited the dandelion as a worthless aspect of creation in which he found much worth. In his Autobiography he writes:

“…what I said about the dandelion is exactly what I should say about the sunflower or the sun, or the glory which (as the poet said) is brighter than the sun. The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed.”

Plaintively he has Syme ask in Chapter XV of The Man Who Was Thursday:

“`Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe?’”


Gaw said...

Silkin's flower poems are, I think, a cut above his others. One of my favourite poems is A Daisy, which I posted on last summer along with some others concerning the same small subject.

David Latané said...

I have some Silkin poems up on a website I maintain --
linked through

I think his last poems are distinctly underrated.