Life Under Water

Maura Dooley’s new collection, Life Under Water, arrived late last week. I ordered it after I read Ben Wilkinson's review in the TLS a few weeks ago. Ben was a little ambivalent about the collection but his comments, especially the phrase “unreliable histories, human frailties and emotional distortions of memory recur,” led me to an internet search, a live reading and a click here to purchase. He deals at some length with the opening piece, The World Turned Upside Down, and to my taste that poem was worth the price of admission.

Whether consciously or not, Dooley reverses the point of view Auden presents in “Memorial for the City.” Her narrator looks out through a pane of ice, “To break and lift a frozen pane/ And see my city made strange...” instead of seeing the city, as Auden’s narrator does, “from the public side of her mirrors.” Instead of the city’s speeches and statistics, which fail to impress Auden’s speaker, Dooley presents, with what Ben Wilkinson calls “deft specificity,” things that emphasise the traits of Auden attaches, in “The Dyer’s Hand,” to his historian, rather than his poet– ‘an interest in human beings, and their lives, which he believes are not preordained by fate but depend on the choices they make, for which they are fully responsible, an interest in the present only insofar as it relates to the past and to the future, and interest in actions, great or small, which reveal the direction in which the actors are moving. ‘All of the historical moments Dooley presents involve the choices made by individuals and the consequences of those decisions.

She begins by evoking the Frost Fairs held on the Thames when it froze, and the way gazing through a waver of heat distorts the vision as much as looking through a pane of ice-“The way fires at Frost Fair once/ made all that was constant tremble “– a reference to the great fires that burned on the ice during the fairs, to warm the revellers and spit roast whole animals for their suppers. The fairs were well known for the numerous disasters and near disasters caused by the failure of the populace to heed the warnings that the ice was about to break. In Feb of 1814, for instance, the last of the frost fairs, a four day event that featured an elephant walking across the river, ended when the ice began to thaw suddenly and crack. In spite of several obvious warnings and an intermittent drizzle of rain the festivities continued until, on a sudden the ice “floated with the printing presses booths and merry makers, to the no small dismay of publicans, typographers, shopkeepers and sojourners.” The sudden breaking up of the ice had been recorded at least since the thirteenth century, and often enough resulted in loss of life and property, but none of these precedents or warnings seemed to make much of an impression on the crowds.
Halfway through the first stanza the imagery slides quietly into another event. The ‘tremble’ induced by the fires of the frost fair is followed immediately by “a shiver of flame, fire on ice, 1643, the country shook as it watched.” It is unclear where the frost fires end and the events of 1643, as the parliamentarians gain the upper hand over the King, leading eventually to his execution, begin but it does seem clear that Charles’ long series of provocations and ill judged decisions is behind the reference. The “Welsh prophetess” made the connection between fire and these events explicit in the publication of “Wonders foretold by her great prophet of Wales: which shall certainly happen this present year 1643 by strange fires, and great waters.” “That there shall also be many great fires in many parts of the city of London (mark you that now) for her doth very well understand there will be many hot fires.” I don’t mean to say that Dooley is referring directly to an obscure seventeenth century soothsayer, only that images of conflagration and flood were used, even at the time, to express the dire political situation.

The second stanza takes the phrase “fire on ice”, away from the concrete meaning attached to it in the opening lines and utilises its metaphoric aptness to the visual distortions of snow blindness, as in Josphine Johnson’s “As men who once have seen/ White sun on snow,/white fire on ice,/ And in a wide noon, shadowless,/ Gone blind with light, “ to move from the frost fairs and the civil war into the story of Berentz’s expedition to find a northern route to China. “The glint of refraction/ distorts the story handed down” of his winter in Nova Zembla after his ship was caught in the ice. Berentz chose, after their progress was thwarted, to separate from Corneliz, his expedition partner, and to proceed south-easterly, intending to round the northern point of Nova Zembla, a decision that led to his imprisonment in the ice. The details of the crew’s efforts to survive the bitter cold in a driftwood hut, combating polar bears, depression, and the constant darkness became, as Dooley suggests, refracted, over time, until, by the nineteenth century, Dutch nationalist poets promoted the story of the arduous winter in nova Zembla as a legend of national heroism. By the time it was translated into English, the story was already known as an adventure “so strange and wonderful, that the like hath never been heard of before.”

Dooley’s "bitter weeks of past and future/ held in the long cold of the moment,” vividly conjures the disorientation of the men huddled in their hut. The cold had stopped all of their clocks and they had no idea, in the long arctic darkness, whether it was day or night. Eventually they made a twelve hour sand glass to estimate with, but the feeling conveyed by Dooley’s phrasing, with its echo of Eliot’s “time future contained in time past, if all time is eternally present,” and of Auden’s historian with his interest in the present only as it relates to the past and the future, is of the long suspension of time in the cold and dark. Her image of "everything drained, thinned/ to a blankness, pattern that lost all pattern,” not only captures the dense snow falls and the two inches of ice on the walls around the trapped men but it echoes Auden’s vision in Memorial for the City, where “The humor, the cuisine, the rites, the taste, The pattern of the City, are erased.” Dooley, however, turns away from despair. Perhaps she knows that as the ice began to break around Berentz’s men in the spring “the piles resembled the houses of a great city, interspersed with apparent towers, steeples and chimneys,” rebuilding the civilization the cold and dark had torn down. The same “glint of refraction,” that distorted Berentz’s story also caused him to see “the sun at Nova Zembla on the 20th of January, 1597, fifteen days before he was expected,” a point of optimism and hope perhaps alluded to in her phrasing, and certainly in line with her next image. After a lifetime of looking, William Bentley manages to isolate, from the bleakness of snow, its individual flakes, and discover “no two ice flowers are alike,” moving from winter to spring inside a single phrase.

The final stanza turns back to the warming streets of the opening lines, and the anticipated melt, to make apparent the vision of the poem and justify what Wilkinson calls the “ambitious ecological tone” of the work. The attitude of Auden’s historian is important here. He believed that this historical world is a redeemable world. The sleet and slush that confronts Dooley’s narrator when she looks out of her ice window is a “damp longing for silence,” “that might be a city made strange, life under water,” life after the untempered fire of the sun does its worst, life after the flood, but it predicts, as the Welsh prophetess predicted, an impending disaster that the right choices on our part might avert.

Dooley’s imagery is lyrical, concrete and metaphorically apt, at the same time as it is so richly allusive that in twenty-five short lines “it orders into a possible community a crowd of past historic occasions,”* and encapsulates Auden’s idea that “historical foundations are crucial for supporting a contemporary poetry which is itself meant to play a crucial role in the act of living.”**

**Daniel S Holder on Auden’s “Writing.”


Chris Bays said...

Mairi --

I have not yet read Dooley's "The World Turned Upside Down", but Auden's "Memorial for the City" was written after Auden saw the rubble and horror of World War II, a depressing time when millions of lives were lost because of the ideologies of largely right-wing totalitarian politics. As you mentioned, Dooley reverses the point of view Auden presents -- but does this comparison work? After all, Auden's memorial is the result of observing first hand the massive destruction of lives, cities, and souls--a wiping out of cultures in a time when it was difficult for the most optimistic to praise human nobility, let alone the free will of the individual. Dooley's poem appears to reflect a calamity on ice, something not quite as devastating as World War II (Please forgive me if this is not the case, as I may be misinterpreting what you have written about the poem). Thus, the view of these poets, especially in terms of defining the individual and a city, may be like comparing swords to atomic bombs. On another note, you make a good case about purchasing the book; some of the quoted lines are lyrical, clear, and beautiful. Where can I buy it at a reasonable price? :)

Mairi said...

Chris, I didn't mean to compare the content of the poems at all, only the respective viewpoints of the narrators, and their positions as historians, in Auden's sense of the term. Certainly I agree with you that there is no comparison to be made with the scope of suffering in Memorial. Dooley isn't actually concerned about whatever casualties there were in the little disasters mentioned - the loss of life was trivial - she's looking out at an anticipated disaster and Auden was looking at the reflected remains of an actual one. I think - I may be wrong - that her interest is actually in the possibility of averting something of the scope of what Auden is looking at through the choices and decisions of individuals. Here's the poem in it's entirety. Tell me what you think. I always appreciate the opportunity to clarify what I'm thinking about something and my connections here are probably murky. You can buy the book for $7.24 plus shipping at Alibris.

The World Turned Upside Down

To break and lift a frozen pane

and see my city made strange,
now, in these warming streets,
the way fires at Frost fair once
made all that was constant tremble,
a shiver of flame, fire on ice, 1643,
the country shook as it watched.

Just as the glint of refraction
distorts the story handed down
of how a skein of snow locked
a ship into ice at Nova Zembla,
bitter weeks of past and future
held in the long cold of the moment.

How did they dream in that white echo? Everything drained, thinned
to a blankness, pattern that lost
all pattern, a bleakness that took Wilson Bentley a lifetime to define.
Snowflake, no two iceflowers alike.

Oh, my poor language,
that offers so many words for snow
but never the weather to use them,
only this damp longing for silence
that is sleet, that is slush, that might be
a city made strange, life under water.

I love poems that are a white echo, but I have a tendency, when one really strikes me, to want to unpack them as completely as possible. Not an altogether good tendency perhaps, for the poems themselves.

Chris Bays said...


Thank you for sharing a wonderful poem. Yes, the poem anticipates a colder climate or lurking disaster to come. The last stanza is particularly powerful and disturbing. It reminds me of Caspar David Friedrich's "The Sea of Ice", a Romantic painting that had a great influence on Rene Magritte, the surrealist, and Mark Rothko, the abstract expressionist.
(You can google Friedrich and his art. I think you will like his stuff). I may be wrong, but Friedrich's art seems to reflect, to a degree, the distancing yet closeness toward humanity that is echoed in Dooley's poem; yet his clear images do not distort the world as much as glancing through a pane of ice. Instead, they reveal the essence, the sublime. Her poem also reminds me of Thomas Hardy's hawk-like vision of viewing human beings from a distance, awakening in us the sense of timeless melancholy or sense of death, the inevitable, as Robert Frost so aptly stated, when forecasting the fate of humanity: "ice will suffice". Thank you for sharing this interesting poem and clarifying what I misunderstood; it makes sense to compare each poet's historical view: one toward the past and one toward the future. I just hope Dooley is not prophetic about our near future.

Henry Gould said...

Thanks for this fine report, Mairi. The Auden background here rings some interesting changes on some of Geoffrey Hill's essays - very rich complex & roundabout writings, which I'm slowly trying to grasp...

Henry Gould said...

Mairi, your review is a good example of how we should proceed here! Sets a standard. Now I will have to go find this book.

Have been reading poems of Jim Powell, a Californian poet. Book from the 80s, titled "It Was Fever That Made The World". I see he has a new book coming out (or out), & I'm reading this in preparation. (Read it before, years ago.) I think he also finds a way to let the subject-matter speak for itself, without sacrificing poetry to prose.