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Adversity and dark optimism

The quest for a sense of purpose (title of the opening poem) is a recurring theme throughout this collection. So is the idea that Life is both a challenge and an ordeal, where situations unfold as if to test us. The title soon reveals itself as ironic:

The purpose of this morning
is to let the sun
rise high
above this building
and drag its shadow
from one side
to the other.

Meanwhile the subject sits at his office desk, contemplating birds and the distant hills, longing for escape from drudgery: ‘The gulls fly / westward, / making for the sea’. The mundane obligations of life have become obstacles to self-realisation.

In ‘Advice to Lot’s Wife’, he explores this theme further, in terms of finding direction: ‘Once you’ve decided what to do, / get on with it!’ The challenge is to hold fast to dreams and ambitions and not be distracted or led astray:

Don’t be
tempted by paths that lead away
from Zoar if that is where you say
you’re going.

This cautious optimism is then tempered by the warning: ‘Don’t […] be conformed / by cities where your brain is pawned / to pay the rent’.

In addition to the conflict between work and spirit, time is seen as another oppressor. In ‘The Time Fairy’, for example, the subjectivity of time is imagined as an external entity — some malignant sprite playing tricks to make life more miserable:

She wrings the moments
from all life’s pleasures
and drips them into
the waiting hours
when we are most desolate
and wanting.

Later, in ‘Music’, the poet revisits the idea that work can wear us down and diminish us: a friend who once played clarinet with a finely tuned ear has it ruined by ‘forty years of clanging in the shipyard din’.

I wouldn’t conclude that these poems are wholly optimistic; but rather a balance between positive and negative — sadness and joy.

John Short