Monday, November 28, 2016

`What Places Look Like When I am Not There'

A landlubber is forever leery of the sea. Sure, it’s beautiful, occasionally awe-inspiring, but always ominous and best appreciated from a distance, preferably by way of Melville or Conrad. I have a colleague who was born in Pensacola, Fla., and has lived in Houston (an hour’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico) since he was a child. He owns a boat, as does his sister. He surfs. A surfboard hangs on the wall of his office, next door to mine. He keeps a fishing shack on the Gulf and fishes almost every weekend. He is amphibian. I am strictly (non-aquatic) mammalian, as was Philip Larkin in “Absences” (The Less Deceived, 1955):

“Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.

“Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.

“Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!”

What is most absent is the human – nothing but water and sky, though some of the metaphors (“Fast-running floors’) are drawn from the human realm. Larkin’s sea is not hostile or malignant, merely alien and cosmically indifferent. He captures some of the complex physics of the ocean, which is never at rest, though an oceanographer complained to Larkin that “it is only waves coming in to the beach that roll over and drop like a wall.” The poet admitted his ignorance of wave behavior, which, he said, “seriously damaged the poem from a technical viewpoint.” As he often does, Larkin makes unexpected but appropriate choices of word – noting, for instance, that a wave is “wilting.” Larkin seems to have been particularly proud of “Absences.” In 1962, he contributed it to an anthology titled Poet’s Choice, and wrote of it:

“I suppose I like `Absences’ (a) because of its subject matter—I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there; (b) because I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet rather than myself. The last line, for instance, sounds like a slightly unconvincing translation from a French symbolist. I wish I could write like this more often.” 

Larkin finished writing “Absences” on this date, Nov. 28, in 1950.

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