If you have hit a deer on the road at dusk;
climbed, shivering, out of the car
with curses to investigate the damage
done, and found it split apart and steaming
far-flung in the nettle-bed, utterly beyond repair
then you have seen what is not meant to be seen
is packed in cannily, coiled, like parachute silk
but unputbackable, out for the world to witness
the looping, slicked-up clockspring
flesh’s pink, mauve, arterial red,
and there a still pulsing web of royal veins
bearing the bad news back to the heart;
something broken, something hard, black,
the burst bowel fouling the meat
exposed for what it is, found out – as Judas,
ripped from groin to gizzard, was found
at dawn, on the elder tree, still tethered to earth
by all the ropes and anchors of his life.
Frances Leviston, “Humbles”, Public Dream. London: Picador, 2007.
© Frances Leviston.
I like how this poem presents itself in a long, complex, sentence, which might be a lesson on how not to interpret poetry. T.S. Eliot once claimed that “comparison and analysis need only the cadaver on the table, but interpretation is always producing parts of the body from its pockets, and fixing them in place”. Eliot is favouring facts and the description of a poem’s technical characteristics over interpretation, i.e. over choosing a meaning for the poem. “Humbles” illustrates what happens when the cadaver is already on the table, describing a “What's done cannot be undone” type of situation, in which those “who have seen what is not meant to be seen” know that some things are “unputbackable”.
In Frances Leviston’s poem, someone hits a deer on the road, leaving the car to find out “the damage done.” From this moment on, the observer seems to be characterizing what happened to the deer and to his “flesh’s pink, mauve, arterial red” where there is “still pulsing web of royal veins”. Still, the language used is mechanical, as may be perceived in expressions such as “apart and steaming,” “utterly beyond repair,” “slicked-up clockspring,” which may refer to a clock, but also to a piece of a car’s motor. This is followed by an enumeration of the things that were once packed but, after being broken, are difficult to put into place again, such as a parachute silk. The line “but unputbackable” establishes a difference between the parachute silk and the deer’s bowel, between objects difficult to put back into place, and lives which cannot be replaced, thus causing certain moral guilt.
In a moment of pause, the observer sees the time it takes for blood to stop pulsing, the interval which is needed for the veins to bear “bad news back to the heart”. Everything changes and might not be repaired, “something broken, something hard, black”. In what is “out for the world to witness” lies the exteriorization of what is usually hidden and may now be “exposed for what it is”, thus leading unexpectedly to the biblical image of Judas, who, like the deer, was discovered at dawn “ripped from groin to gizzard”, his insides exposing the nature of his crime for all to see.
A piece of literary criticism might be willingly trying to reveal what is hidden, the formal technique of the poem, which, if exposed, may not be put into place again. One could, for example, describe Leviston’s brilliant use of consonantal repetition within lines or how the use of alliteration in “black / the burst bowel,” “from groin to gizzard,” “out of the car / with curses to investigate the damage/ done” is extremely skilful. One could also explain how her punctuation of the poem, which helps to delay meaning, places the reader in a similar position to those getting out of the car or observing Judas and pausing to make sense of what is happening.
Dissecting a poem’s internal organs, interpreting it to decipher its meaning affects irrevocably its reading. The exercise of “humbling” the reader (umbles names the insides of a deer, but “humbles” is also the way Judas is here doubly murdered, both hanged and ripped apart) should lead him to read the poem and nothing more, without showing its internal or external organs, as I’m afraid I might have done.
Maria Sequeira Mendes
Maria Sequeira Mendes is a professor at the Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon, and collaborates with Teatro Cão Solteiro. She wrote for the first time about poetry at primary school, but the composition had spelling mistakes. It was then she promised she would never write about poets who used difficult words to copy. This has proved to be a difficult oath to live by.