Often I discover English poets whose visas seem to have been revoked before they made it across the Atlantic. Take Peter Redgrove (1932-2003), who before last week was no more than a name. He’s a minor poet, “visionary” and “Jungian,” with a fatal hankering after the “mystical,” what Larkin called the “myth kitty” (a phrase that always brings to mind the lisped name of the saloonkeeper on Gunsmoke). In Poems 1954-1987 (Penguin, 1989) I found a poem (I can’t call it a sonnet, though it has fourteen lines) I liked. In “Serious Readers,” Redgrove displays a modest sense of humor:
“All the flies are reading microscopic books;
They hold themselves quite tense and silent
With shoulders hunched, legs splayed out
On the white formica table-top, reading.
With my book I slide into the diner-booth;
They rise and circle and settle again, reading
With hunched corselets. They do not attempt to taste
Before me my fat hamburger-plate, but wait,
Like courteous readers until I put it to one side,
Then taste briefly and resume their tomes
Like reading stands with horny specs. I
Read as I eat, one fly
Alights on my book, the size of print.
I let it be. Read and let read.”
Redgrove might have made a better poem had he written it as light verse and treated his trope as a joke. Recall Karl Shapiro’s “The Fly” and its immortal first line: “O hideous little bat, the size of snot.” Rhyme and metric regularity would have helped Redgrove’s poem, but I do like the notion of treating flies as readers, which brings to mind the first edition of Ford Madox Ford’s Return to Yesterday (1932) that I bought earlier this month. As previously noted, I found a four-leaf clover pressed between pages 120 and 121. What I missed until I started reading the book was an equally flattened housefly between pages 54 and 55, but it gets better. These pages of Ford’s memoir are devoted to his brief but admiring acquaintance with Stephen Crane. The fly fell out of the book as I was reading it but left a pale brown stain on the first appearance of the word fly in this passage:
“He would put a piece of sugar on a table and sit still until a fly approached. He held in his hand a Smith and Wesson. When the fly was by the sugar, he would twist the gun round in his wrist. The fly would die, killed by the bead-sight of the revolver. That is much more difficult than it sounds. One may be able to use a gun pretty well, but I never managed to kill a fly with the barrel much less the bead-sight.”
Presumably, some previous reader or owner wished to annotate the text with the referent of fly. The Smith and Wesson wouldn’t fit.