John H Davies: Fractured Limb
John H Davies is a poet I stumbled across via his ‘Daily Bread’ poetry blog, in which he writes an original, new poem, each day and will continue to do so for one year. A quick glance through what has been posted so far confirmed that this was one to watch and Mr Davies has kindly granted me permission to feature his work on Unseen Flirtations.
I highly recommend browsing his blog – there are some real gems on there and the whole poetic journey is fascinating to watch. Below are one recent poem and a quick flirts. Consider your appetite whetted.
It struck the bough half way along its length
at the moment I chanced to be looking out
across the field towards the old oak.
Rather a forlorn tree, not the majestic
symmetrical shape you see in books
and standing alone at the head of a ragged hedge.
And yet it framed the window perfectly,
and it seemed unfair that it should be singled out
for such a ferocious, random attack. The lightening
felled the branch with a fizzing crack, and it
maintained a horizontal attitude as it fell
to the ground in slow motion, as the rain
hammered against the glass pane, the whole event
seeming oddly detached from reality,
and I searched for some divine meaning
but found none; a random act of nature;
and returned to my work, looking up some
half hour later to see the tree slowly burning
from its base, the flames eventually dying
to a pyre of smoke, doused by the still
teeming rain, and realizing I had witnessed
a random act of nature defying nature.
The tree lives on, still rather forlorn,
but every inch a king.
-John H Davies, 4th February 2011
The free-flowing form of the poem invites the reader to focus on the narrative, which unfolds in something of a prosaic style. An unfussy, direct structure asks us to concentrate on the story being told rather than the poetry in which it is expressed. That said, self-contained subordinate clauses in the first eight lines of the poem almost create a sturdy list of observations/ assertions as details are heaped on top of one another. Each of the first eight lines makes sense on its own terms and can almost be taken in isolation. This soon gives way to a more erratic enjambment which is altogether more fluid, forcing us to run ahead with the narrative. It is telling that this happens at the moment when ‘lightening’ enters the story, left hanging at the end of the ninth line. We literally have to trip onto the next line to make any sense of what the relevance of this lightening is.
What I find particularly effective is the lack of line break at the pivotal moment of lightning striking. In fact, it all happens so quickly that the poem doesn’t have the chance to regroup, already having moved on to the aftermath of the event before it has completely subsided.
The opening sentence is completely stripped of decoration, presenting a scenario that is unembellished, free of adjectives and adverbs. All we know is that ‘it’ struck the bough when the speaker was ‘looking out across the field’. As the poem progresses its vocabulary expands to give evocative, sometimes emotive detail, with powerful adjectives (ragged, ferocious) and onomatopoeic verbs (fizzing, hammered). The effect of this is to give the poem a jolt of vitality that parallels the impact of lightening on a tree. In all of this there is an air of gravitas in the speaker’s lexicon. Words such as ‘pyre’, with its connotations of ritual and ceremony, nod to the intensity of the event for the speaker, while ‘witnessed’ suggests that what has been seen is something far more than casual.
The tree’s journey is detailed in a storyboard of powerful images, from ‘forlorn’ (not majestic), standing alone, falling in ‘slow motion’, slowly burning and ‘doused’, back to forlorn, and ultimately a ‘king’ (so majestic after all). In this sequencing of events we are given a range of images that create empathy between us and the tree. The final lasting image of the tree as ‘every inch a king’ elevates the forlorn figure to something greater and , like the poet, we have ‘witnessed’ it happen through each dramatic stage.
Generally speaking, the poem is replete with natural imagery, described in some detail. Within this, there are noteworthy contrasts that are 1) striking and 2) highlight the volatility of the natural landscape. The poem starts with quiet, almost dull calm, then spikes into the ‘fizzing crack’ of the lightning strike, contrasting with the subsequent slow burning and ‘teeming’ rain. In terms of imagery, this is a fairly busy poem that only rests once the majesty of the tree is restored.
Rhythm and Tone:
As stated above (see Form), enjambment keeps the poem moving but those initial self-contained clauses allow us to pause and digest each new piece of information. The rhythm fluctuates when the lightning strikes and clauses begin to be split between lines (The lightening / felled the branch with a fizzing crack, and it / maintained a horizontal attitude as it fell). Naturally, this creates as shift in tone from calm to urgency. After this peak in action, the poem takes another shift into more contemplative zones, as the speaker begins to reflect upon what he has witnessed before concluding that the tree is regal.
In all of this, the poem achieves a balance of reverence and philosophical meditation. As the speaker states, this poem is a reflection upon ‘nature defying nature’, a documenting of something rare and remarkable that highlights the potency of nature and understated beauty of destruction. There is nothing grandiose about this, even if the event itself is extraordinary. There is no ‘divine’ meaning, despite the fact that what has happed is ‘detached from reality’. You could argue that this is one of the central tensions in the poem, between the spiritual and the terrestrial, but I don’t think this is entirely fair. Nature just is. Things happen. Mythical oaks get felled by lightning, and all we can do is watch on in quiet awe.
If there is any overriding message it has to relate to the constancy and resilience of nature, which, symbolised by the tree, can even defy itself. The tree can be destroyed, felled, burned and left smouldering, but still lives on in a forlorn yet regal glory – damaged, but not defeated. As the title implies, this is a meditation upon a ‘fractured limb’ that will mend and, ultimately, persevere.