“Come October, it’s the lake not the border
that has been redrawn.” Lyn Hejinian
Lake full of danger,
of dull light in close season,
of heavy eyelids.
Flat lake, full of ghosts,
All lakes are like this:
of those who face them.
Facing the smooth lake
we see the backs of our heads
facing a smooth lake.
Who are the people
facing the lake? Are those heads
ours? Is that our light?
Do our dreams look back
at our faces and see lakes
of smoothed-out danger?
The lake sits in us
looking out with its blank eyes
though we turn away.
Should we feed the lake
our dreams or what we call dreams
and let them founder?
Now the lake mutters
to itself. We can’t hear it.
Let us lean closer.
ESSAY: For a few years now I have woken once or twice at night (it’s a product of age) and have sometimes had trouble in going to back to sleep. At such hours I have often written, usually on my phone as it is quiet and does not give out much light so does not wake my sleeping wife. The form I write in has tended to be the haiku by formal measure, that is to say the 5-7-5 count, because that fits well into the Twitter format that I have been using as an experimental notepad ever since I joined. It is in fact the experiment and the notepad that has kept me on it.
There is something about the isolation of night that can, if not liberate, at least lubricate the imagination. It also makes one a little bold. A verse dropped into the fast flowing stream of night – and we know it is not night everywhere – rides the stream a while then vanishes. Each verse of the poem arrives separately, rising out of an instinct to leap into the stream of words and go where it takes you. I generally allow a stream of linked verses ten tweets then gather them up later for editing, but the whole process of leaping and just writing just as it comes is an excitement in itself. The ear and the eye have nothing to distract them late at night: the only productive counter-force is one’s own sleeplessness and long-internalised practice.
In the case of ‘Lake’ Clarissa and I were in Ireland, in small town called Nenagh very close to Lough Derg and an even smaller community, Dromineer, that had given its name to the Literary Festival that had invited me. The chair of the festival, Eleanor, herself a very fine poet, had a house on the lake. She also worked on the rescue service which was required at least once a week because Lough Derg could be treacherous. It is a large body of water, some twenty-seven miles long and five miles wide, with a good many islands, including a Holy Island to which people pay pilgrimage. But the bottom of the lake varies from very shallow to very deep so boats can easily run aground and there is a sunken island that has to be carefully navigated around. Sudden storms break out which bring vast swells and waves that can come from two directions at once. Many have drowned there. Some have committed suicide. Eleanor’s own house that is to say the house she and her husband, Peter, live in, is on quite a large estate of wood and clearing. Peter’s is a very old and illustrious family going back several centuries and the house is full of ancestral portraits. It also has a ghost.
However, we did not see the house until the last day of our stay and the lake was only a glimpsed presence – a very calm if somewhat melancholy presence – behind glass in the boathouse where some of the festival took place.
Auden wrote a series poems titled Bucolics, one of which is titled Lakes. He regards lakes as relatively comfortable places. “A lake allows an average father, walking slowly/ To circumvent it in an afternoon” he begins, later noting that “A haunted lake is sick” but he does allow that anything bigger than the lake circumvented by the average father “Though potable, / Is an estranging sea’”
Lough Derg is too big to be comfy, and the immediate sight of a number of small islands is not as comforting as it might be. And in any case I have never found lakes to be as comfortable as Auden seemed to. They have a brooding stillness that appeals to something troubling, perhaps even a death instinct though it would be wrong to exaggerate that.
My poem began, as described, in the night, on our second night there, after my own reading with the poets Pascale Petit and Billy Ramsell. Pascale is an almost stateless individual, like me, but Billy is Irish through and through and one of the first things he said on entering the dining room of our accommodation was that he hated the English language. He wrote in English of course and the history of Ireland always provides a reason for hating anything English, but the phrase hung with me, even through and after the reading, into the night. Failing to get to sleep after an hour I took the phone and wrote the first verse as it stands. The first verse is the hardest but once it is there the rest is almost downhill. Not all the verses came out in the order in which they now appear and, the next morning, I jettisoned one whose material seemed to overlap too much with others. But the lake was established as a source of danger right at the beginning and its calm reminded me of closing eyelids. The ghosts of history had drowned in it: their judgment would be harsh. But the image that struck me first was of myself looking at a crowd of backs, including my own back, all facing the lake. The lake was turning as much into death as into history. Water that is too calm and still recalls another kind of calm and stillness. Who was the active agent here, we who were staring at the lake, or the lake whose eyes looked steadily back at us without much caring for us?
It was the confrontation with the lake that bothered me. Was the lake full of harsh congregations, of dead languages, of a hatred of all language? Jean Rhys had talked about feeding the lake. “All that matters is feeding the lake… You must keep feeding the lake” she wrote, though I first came across the phrase in the work of another poet friend, John Mole. That lake was potentially a good thing, a generative lake. That may be why it had to be fed. I could take refuge in it as an image of the Jungian collective unconscious but that’s not where I felt I had to go.
The lake had to be a little more accusing than that, more dangerous. The lake could look but it couldn’t speak. But then, at the end, came the idea that it may be speaking after all, if very quietly, as if muttering. It was our fault after all if we couldn’t hear it. We just had to get closer and enter the sphere of danger. And there was the lake, clearing and darkening as the clouds passed. GEORGE SZIRTES
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