Leaving the City
When are my holy times
but the thrice-hourly spots
on the timetable: Moorgate
(after 10pm our destination
becomes elevated to Kings Cross);
God is the crackle over a poorly-
-maintained tannoy, a pre-
-recorded voice offering insincere
apologies and admonitions:
please keep your belongings
away from the closing doors.
When are the holy times but
morning, noon, night, and the
rattle of wheels over track,
each haunting whistle echoing
through the railway cutting
in an interborough call to prayer.
You will not find the soul within my eyes;
no steady gaze or sunset-lidded glance
holds such a thing. And should you try to prise
apart my truer ribs, you’ll realise
the heart beats dumb and takes no eager stance
on poetry. Ask not if the soul lies
in molecules that mingle and enhance
the neuron’s power to fire and analyse,
the trembling of a shoulder turned askance;
distill me not to body parts. You’ll chance
upon the soul in no such bleak disguise;
the soul is not the feet: it is the dance.
Appropriately for a poem which makes the bold philosophical assertion “the soul is not the feet: it is the dance” (in itself a beautiful statement harking back to the concept of eudaimon, of the joy of doing as opposed to being), the rhythm of this poem is exquisite.
The rhyme scheme is a modified terza rima; in a traditional terza rima the pattern runs to:
… and so on. In Artistotle two changes have been made to the traditional schema, tightening what is usually employed for longer-form poetry (The Inferno was originally written in terza rima) into something reminiscent of a villanelle’s “obsessive” rhyming pattern (although without the repeated lines).
The first of these changes is the restriction of the end-rhyme patterns to only two sounds: “-ize” and “-ance”. This is a move as bold as the statement the poem concludes with, as restriction necessarily places a challenge upon the poet and can often lead to forced-sounding rhymes and an ugly end result. Fahye, being a clever poet, chooses a rhyme pair which have a healthy selection of partners in the English language, and with the benefit of a large and precise vocabulary creates a natural-seeming, formal piece of rhetoric that seems to merely happen to fall into this narrow, carefully-selected rhyme scheme.
The second change relates to the layout of the rhyme scheme: in traditional terza rima the interlocking is continual, a chain of rhymes loosely holding together the poem’s progression like a hydrocarbon chain. There is not the harkening back to earlier rhymes, words, or entire lines that are present in the sestina or the villanelle; like the ballad, it is intended for perpetual progression if needs be. In Fahye’s iteration, the terza rima becomes folded in on itself, a two-step: the prongs of “glance” and “stance” match up with the invaginations of enhance/askance (another excellent demonstration of the poet’s vocabulary; these are not obscure words, but they are unusual ones chosen with care) and chance/dance, while, contrariwise, “analyse” and “disguise” fit into eyes/prise (an excellent pair as “prise” is what one does with eyelids which are wilfully shut) and realise/lies (another grand pair that carries its own meaning).
It is, in effect, as if the foot representing for “-ance” had stepped forwards, making the foot representing “-ize” step back, and vice-versa on the other side – like a couple dancing. It is rare to find such beautiful correlation between form and content.
The two central stanzas contain grand concepts: poetry, and science. They also double up on body parts (the body parts the poet asks not to be distilled to); while the first stanza carries only eyes, the second has both ribs and heart, the third neurons and a shoulder, and the fourth returns to the singular: the feet. This pattern of content – one, two-two, one – also follows a dancing couple’s feet.
Everything about the poem’s construction, therefore, builds up to the final declaration, and the closing argument is supported by that which as come before it: the soul, if not of the poet then of the poem (which is by the poem’s own admission the key thing), is indeed the dance.
Throughout this month I will be nagging readers to donate to MSF.