Cursive by Vishvāntarā
HappenStance, 2015 £5.00
Shared Living (Annie Fisher)
There’s a poem titled ‘Service’ in this pamphlet that catches certain aspects of communal living perfectly. Vishvāntarā lives in a Buddhist community, but what she writes about here could apply to many shared living situations.
There’s a simple story: a member of the community (Maureen) attempts to play her part by offering to donate some (fairly unattractive) dinner plates from a charity shop. The plates aren’t wanted by the group.
The poem anatomises the subtle feelings around this – how easily pain is inflicted and felt within a group; how it can be as invisible and as painful as a paper-cut; how vulnerable each individual is and how easily marginalised.
The poem’s title is exactly right. That one word ‘service’ (which has a double meaning here) brings a small army of related words with it to my mind: loyalty, duty, obedience; commitment – the language groups use to bind their members. Vishvāntarā captures the ‘us-ness’ of groups, the in-crowd-out-crowd mentality: ‘Some of us wanted new dinner plates’, it begins. And later:
A note had been left
on the kitchen table with space for us all
to give our opinions. Someone wrote
‘indifferent’ next to their initials.
The plates are described as a little community themselves – the ‘five white sisters’ with their tiny, individual cracks and imperfections. At the end, the poet observes Maureen packing up the plates. We feel the observer feeling Maureen’s big-but-tiny pain in this moment. And then the poet looks out of the window and sees the ‘dinner-plate of the moon’.
This is the ultimate solitariness of us all, even in a group. And we all know this. It’s not just about living in community. It’s about living.
Where is the poet? (Charlotte Gann)
Of course, there’s always a ‘poet’ present in poems, just as there is always you – the reader. Sometimes a silent observer; at other times a reliable (or unreliable) narrator. At very least, a ‘point of view’ (POV), as they call it.
Sometimes another character – I, or she or he – also then appears. This may or may not be ‘I’, the writer – and you may (or may never) know whether it is personal. It often doesn’t matter.
However, sometimes, to my mind, a poet appears in a poem or a set of poems in a way that’s much more vital and humane than this.
I think of a moment in a long poem (‘Diary of a Night in Matlock Bath’) in Peter Sansom’s collection Careful What You Wish For, where the poet, ‘burdened down (not like me)’, lies down ‘tired beyond sleeping’, in a wood, ‘where no path was’.
For me, this poet is more bodily present within the poem than most – and allowing himself to be seen as utterly human – and that is what moves me.
I am grateful for poems like these, and Cursive is full of them.
Whether addressing a woodpecker, a stag, or a mouse, or entering a deliciously empty kitchen (while everyone else attends 7 am meditation), part of the poem’s ‘story’ is the relationship between observed and observer.
Far from poems of detachment, then, these seem to me poems of attachment. And, frequently, it’s human relationships that come under scrutiny – ‘the sadness’, Vishvāntarā writes, in ‘The Service’, ‘was for all acts of love/ so reasonably and innocently rejected’.
Here often is love – unspoken, missed. The complex dance where our awkwardness becomes itself part of the pattern.
I’ll close with ‘Visit of a Great Spotted Woodpecker’:
He looks around, upside down (I adore him!), makes crunches
my coach would be proud of, to jab-angle down at his seeds.
His outline makes half a heart-shape. I discover
my mind, behind the caravan curtain, is the other.