Deflated Ego 9: Jane Routh on Jane Routh




The typescript's gone to the printer. For now, I'm between books. The poem I'm writing today stops and starts, switches register, splashes long lines round short ones, switches person, runs around for several pages and I'm having a great time. This is fun. No need to interrogate what I'm writing: how does it 'fit' the rest of the book? is it repeating ideas? is it good enough? It feels wonderfully irresponsible, as close as one comes to having a holiday from oneself.


It won't last. Any day now, a first copy of the new book will crash through the letterbox. I dread it. This is normal, I tell myself. Some years ago, a friend posted me a copy of her New and Selected first class, and rang the next morning to ask what it was like: was the cover OK? had I seen any typos? was it a good book? She couldn't bear to look at it. I know what that's like. It took me a couple of years to make friends with my last book. Then one day I looked at it and thought, oh did I write that.


It's strange how a small number of poems comes to define what you've written over a period of years. Good poems fall by the wayside. (Last week I remembered a phraseÉhad it been in a poem I'd written before? Completely forgotten, it took hours to track it down. It was a very good poem.) Nothing will happen to all those poems left out of the book, maybe a hundred or so put aside without ever being really finished, something not quite resolved to them. And then there were poems pulled from the pile that didn't quite fit the flow of the manuscript: nothing wrong with them, either: just on a different tack, or conversely with ideas too similar to a poem which had somehow already counted itself 'in'. And then there were poems my editor didn't take to: sometimes it's simpler just to drop those than struggle with a re-work.


The new book's not the one I was thinking it would be even as recently as a year ago. I had thought I was writing a book about memory - not what I remember, but the processes by which the brain invents and alters autobiographical memory. (I was reading a great deal about brain function throughout this time, to try to understand what was happening to my mother, as she 'lost' her memory.) Only a few of these poems made it into the final typescript. The Gift of Boats is more various: poems about working boats, the Flannan Isles lighthouse, the Lewis chessmen; about the land and its creatures. Photography gets into this book, too, for the first time. And a measure of bad news - illness, ageing... What holds it together? I worked at making a flow through the poems (though I know that assumes readers who work from front to back, and few of us do).


Already I've enough distance to hear an undertow of loss - even a poem about light meters is called 'Elegy for my Meters'. It's a remarkably cheerful undertow in spite of that. Maybe it's like laying a hedge (there's a poem about that, too): you cut out much of the growth, then take the strongest and straightest stems, saw part through them at the base and lay them flat. These liggers leaf up for a year or two, until new growth sprouts from the rootstock. In a few years time, the liggers are dead and you can pull them out. Start over.


Today's a lovely autumn day, clear sky and not much wind. Having no manuscript to fret over, nothing to struggle with that might form a new book, no idea whether there will even be another book, I'm off to clear the garden. Perhaps all those unused and unacknowledged poems function like compostÉ


    © Jane Routh 2010