Saturday, 13 August 2011

Angelic dogwood

This poem, by John R Campbell, is called 'Pastoral'; it first appeared in the magazine Poetry in 1993:
The dogwood is angelic,
despite your protests. If it pleases you, then,
it's pastoral, and if you had a hand
in its beauty, it's beautiful.
But who posed this question of the dogwood,
you have to ask. And then wander the woodlots
in search of an answer. It's hopelessly old fashioned,
but there's something to
the symmetry of trees,
something more than the dappled
halves of an equation.
It provokes you to assert the impossible again,
and in this way you repeat yourself--
I mean you regenerate yourself--
your romantic body, fed by romantic proteins,
clones its romantic cells, and branches
in a pasture you'll never see.
There's a lovely balance there between 'If it pleases you, then/it's pastoral', and 'If it pleases you, then/it's pastoral'; that is to say, between an understanding of pastoral in terms of its capacity for generating pleasure, and an sense that 'the pastoral' is located not in any topographic place (the countryside, for instance), or even in any vegetative or rural feature, like dogwood; but in the presence of another person. I like this last idea especially. This elegantly formed balance is part of the poem's larger point, of course; the urge to 'reduce' the natural world to its material components (cells, proteins, equations) as against the sense of the world as something more (we might even say: something more numinous) than its constitutive elements) -- the poem in fact not wishing to prioritize one over the other, but instead to aprehend both in 'harmony', the 'something to' the world around us. It's hopelessly old fashioned in more than the sense of that phrase as a piece of self-deprecating conversational filler (in which neither 'hopelessness' nor the ancientness of 'old fashioned' take their fullest force). 'Wander the woodlots in search of an answer', like Shakespeare in Milton's most famous pastoral poem ('On summer eves by haunted stream ... sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,/Warble his native wood-notes wild'). And like a Renaissance pastoral, the poem is also an eloquently veiled invitation to sex: for the chance that a woman's beauty, as lovely but fleeting as the dogwood bloom, should be 'reproduced', 'regenerated', at a cellular level, and committed to the future world of pastures 'we' will never see.

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