Aug 16 2023
Poetry review – LET HIM BRING A SHRUBBE: Edmund Prestwich takes a close and appreciative look at Katharine Towers’ collection which draws on the life & music of composer Gerald Finzi
Katharine Towers’ pamphlet let him bring a shrubbe celebrates the life and work of the English composer Gerald Finzi. I’m not musically educated and had never heard of Finzi but found the poems thrilling, particularly the ‘Programme Poems’ directly inspired by his music.
I was struck by Towers’ talent for synaesthesia, the metaphorical presentation or actual experiencing of phenomena of one sense in terms of another. There’s something approaching magic in the way this can seem to blast the mind into new ways of working. It takes to an extreme the intensifying of neural activity that is one of the delights of poetry. We see it in lines like ‘Then in wanders the clarinet like Kiffer’ (‘Kiffer’ being the family name for Christopher, one of Finzi’s sons) or ‘A cello plods across the frozen grass.’ In these swiftly packed lines, not only are sequences of sounds visualized in terms of people’s bodily movements but whole brief scenarios are made to flash through our minds. In ‘On Chosen Hill’, a response to a Finzi nocturne, Towers imagines the composer looking out from the eponymous hill at night and conceiving his nocturne in response to what he sees:
Because this is the key of moonlight and lamentation the cellos will speak up first, describing a hill in darkness on the last night of the year.
What makes this stanza wonderful isn’t just the compactness and evocativeness of its separate images but the way it simultaneously speeds up and slows down the mind. There’s an explosion of mental activity as different images and mental processes run together. At the same time, the formality of the language, the organisation of the sentence as a logical proposition and its self-enclosure as both sentence and stanza produce a contemplative stillness suffused with a sense of mystery and awe. In the last two lines of the poem the synaesthetic effect is more sharply focused when sound is explicitly imagined as sight with
A year has gone by since you went up and saw one long low note moving over the face of the deep.
The lines remember the second verse of Genesis,
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
This crystallises the sense of awe behind the opening stanza. As well as suggesting the religious nature of Finzi’s inspiration, it seems to hint at an analogy between artistic and divine creation, perhaps along the lines of Coleridge’s description of the imagination as ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.’
However, this kind of linguistic pleasure and the emotions contained in ‘On Chosen Hill’ itself as a stand-alone piece are only a part of the story. let him bring a shrubbe works as a single integrated whole weaving together different strands. ‘Programme Poems’, responding to particular named compositions by Finzi, are interspersed with ‘Tasting Notes’ on different apples he grew in his orchards and with uncategorized poems about events or places in his life. The whole is rounded off by an explanatory ‘Author’s Note’, a brief prose biography of Finzi and ‘Additional Notes’ covering specific points. Each poem and each element asks to be read in the light of all the others. This happens both broadly, in the interplay between different emotional forces, and in a narrower way bearing on individual words and phrases. As an example of the latter, when one reads ‘On Chosen Hill’ in the context of the whole booklet, the word ‘lamentation’ in the first line takes depth of feeling and biographical resonance from the griefs of Finzi’s life. He was one of four brothers, three of whom were lost to illness or war before 1918; and his mother was widowed before the war began. Finzi himself died of leukaemia at fifty-five. On the broader front, interplays between, say, a sense of the ordering, consolatory powers of music and religious faith, the power of family love and the pleasures of apple cultivation are both more embracing and vaguer, more shifting, more shaped by the mindsets of different readers. However, in moving between the high style of ‘Because this is the key of moonlight and lamentation’ and the casual domesticity of a line like ‘Then in wanders the clarinet like Kiffer’, Towers’ art suggests how much both were pillars of Finzi’s life. The ‘Tasting Notes’ on apples add a third, beautifully realized element, but their impact depends too much on visual presentation for me to quote them here.
Fittingly in poems inspired by a composer, Towers’ verses delight by their musicality. There’s a purely sensuous pleasure to their rhythmic and phonetic patterning. But since poetry involves meaning as well as sound, there’s also a pleasure of a more intellectual kind, to do with how auditory echoes focus attention and set one thinking about the relationship between different ideas. We see this in ‘Father with boys and pears’:
A man and his two boys kneel at a half-filled basket, the year’s ripeness measured out in Doyenne du Comice grown against the south wall outside the book room. This is a nature morte, and these may be your last weeks. Kiffer’s fingers slowly turn each yellow fruit. As you watch you think of the long trills you will give to the piano – which is how music can be made to stand still.
The rhyme between ‘trills’ and ‘still’ leaps out as a sonic expression of the way the trills are a passage of stillness in the music. It’s not a complete rhyme, though. ‘Still’ is missing the final ‘s’ of ‘trills’ and this gives an immediate sensation of something’s being broken off, as Finzi’s life will be broken off by early death. And then, rereading the poem, the sound-echo between ‘half-filled’, ‘trills’ and ‘still’ takes on weight. The half-filled basket of pears comes to seem like a metaphor for Finzi’s shortened but productive life. Once the process of following these patterns has begun it goes on and on: more and more echoes come into focus, bringing more and more thoughts into focus with them. But perhaps the most important effect is not the prompting of specific thoughts by specific echoes but the general heightening of attentiveness and the blossoming of impressions and reflections that it brings.
Such analysis can seem dry, but reading the poem one receives the impressions and their emotional force directly. Loving communion (‘a man and his two boys’), grief at premature death (‘This is a nature morte, and these may be your last weeks’) and respect for the urgent, undaunted creativity of the artist (‘as you watch you think of …’) wrestle together and feed into each other. There’s a poignant contrast between human mortality and the relative triumph of art over death – a contrast which is consoling from one perspective, desolate from another.
Simply as text, and still more as the physical object beautifully produced by The Maker’s Press, let him bring a shrubbe sets in motion a rich interplay of arts. Churches and sculptures are finely evoked in several poems. The ‘Tasting Notes’ – brief evocations of different kinds of apple Finzi grew – are set out graphically as concrete poems. But saying that doesn’t express the way Towers is able to create a kind of fusion or shimmering between artistic modes, working in one as if it were another. Her ability to do this so well must relate to her gift for synaesthesia because the different arts in question focus on different senses. For example, the very title ‘Father with boys and pears’ makes one think of domestic genre paintings and approach the poem with the mindset one might bring to looking at a picture, seeing it from outside, in contrast to the way ‘Chosen Hill’ draws one into the composer’s mind in the act of meditation.
Finally, the very integration of let him bring a shrubbe makes it the more striking that its verse sections are written in such varied forms and styles, some making a point of their adoption of the voice or devices of some other specific work. For example, the poem ‘what it is about octaves’, beginning ‘for they contain the idea of leaping’, is written as a variation on the famous section of Christopher Smart’s ‘Jubilate Agno’ that begins ‘For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey’. Far from trying to suggest informal conversation or the spontaneous overflow of feeling and thought, Towers’ poems embrace and actively foreground their status as deliberately composed works of art. Stylistic variation between them seems designed to echo the way composers in the classical tradition write pieces in a variety of traditionally defined forms and for established instrumental groupings.