Poem of the week: Pool by Rowan Williams

The Guardian
The Guardian
‘Fat commas swept / from the compositor’s workbench’ … tadpoles seen from below.


A twig breaks. Promptly, obligingly

staging the haiku, one or two new frogs

plop in the water, where their younger

kin lie or skitter, hundreds

and hundreds of fat commas swept

from the compositor’s workbench

into the sandy shallows, hundreds

of little fat breathing pauses in the water’s

dull paragraph. When their breath

has pumped up shiny eyes and limbs,

they will wait too, throbbing by the pond’s

Edge, listening for the crack of danger,

for the dry foot of this uncertain

upper world that no-one had predicted

back when it was all wet long soundless

clauses between the wriggle of black breath;

ready to leap from this new Purgatorial

height back into steady dark, away

(for a while at least) from the terrors

of what the sun sucks upwards –

green, limbs, lungs, even words

or wings.

Pool begins with the startling sound that sets “one or two new frogs” to “promptly, obligingly” stage “the haiku” by leaping into the pool. The haiku, of course is Basho’s. Anglophone translators have enjoyed imitating the sound the frog makes as it slaps the water’s surface, but Basho, according to his Japanese commentators, is more oblique: his third line simply says “sound of the water.” There is no onomatopoeia: this is left to the reader’s imagination. Rowan Williams is doing the same kind of thing, perhaps, with his first sentence, “A twig breaks.” We have to imagine the cracking sound, and the frogs’ frightened leap to safety.

Literary allusion takes on a typographical turn when the tadpoles in the water’s “sandy shallows” are seen as “hundreds / and hundreds of fat commas swept / from the compositor’s workbench …” The metaphor may connect the double life of the amphibian with the coexistence of type and text, print and language. It may also allude to one of the translations in Rowan Williams’s collection, In the Days of Caesar by Waldo Williams. The latter is a beautiful poem, intensely of and for Wales and the Welsh people, but suggesting a transformation that seems boundless. This is the last stanza:

Well, little people, and my littler nation, can you see

the secret buried in you, that no Caesar ever captures in his lists?

Will not the shepherd come to fetch us in our desert,

gathering us in to give us birth again, weaving us into one

in a song heard in the sky over Bethlehem?

He seeks us out as wordhoard for his workmanship, the laureate of heaven

In the last line of the translation, the Old English compound “wordhoard” may suggest that lesser nations, too, will be redeemed, as poems, or perhaps one poem, by the “laureate of heaven”. The tadpoles in Pool are perhaps the punctuation marks vital to opening the verbal treasury.

In the second stanza, it’s the turn of the new cohort of adult frogs, now fully “pumped up” and able to breathe on land as well as under water, to prepare for “the crack of danger”. The life cycle is merciless. Predation and desiccation are suggested by the “dry foot of the uncertain upper world / that no-one had predicted / back when it was all wet long soundless / clauses between the wriggle of black breath”. The grammatical metaphor persists with “clauses”, a reminder of the water’s “dull paragraph” of sentences. But now a watery luxuriousness is realised in the epithets “all wet long soundless” with their echo of Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill, and possibly a nod towards Gerard Manley Hopkins’s delight in “wildness and wet”.

The long stanza-crossing sentence that began after the caesura in line nine (“When their breath …”) flows onwards to its brief culmination. It’s cast in the future tense, but promises inescapable certainty: the new frogs “throbbing by the pond” will also be poised to leap from the “new Purgatorial / height back into steady dark”. Older emergent life forms may be implicated in this description. Less than joyously sun-struck once on dry land, they’re nostalgic for the earlier evolutionary stage.

Williams builds an impressively varied vertical structure as his sentence finds its goal in the two-line list of “what the sun sucks upwards -/ green, limbs, lungs, even words,/ or wings.” Language itself settles to a lesser place in the jostled democracy of organisms and parts of organisms. The redemptive possibility implied by “Purgatorial” is narrowly kept alive, obscured by the uncertainty in which all life-forms participate, “the crack of danger” they fear, and represent, as soon as they emerge into self-sufficiency. Even the sun is ominously framed, its symbolism darkened, perhaps, by the environmental hazard the poet now senses in its life-giving radiance. By the last line, only two words, two syllables, are left.

Pool is from the New Poems section of Rowan Williams’s Collected Poems. As well as the Waldo Williams translation mentioned earlier, Poem of the week has previously featured Rowan Williams’s poem about the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev.

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