Friday, August 15, 2008

Ending a Collection

I’ve been reading Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel, The Gum Thief. On page 141, one of the characters photocopies the last two pages of 100 randomly-chosen novels to see what common ground exists in their endings. Her conclusion?

“It’s not in every book, but it’s in most books. It’s this: when a book ends, the characters are often moving either towards or away from a source of light – literally – like carrying a candle into a dark room or running a red light at an intersection or opening curtains or falling into a well or – this list goes on. I circled all the bits about light and there’s no mistaking it.”

Now the character making this observation is a twenty-something woman approaching the end of her “goth phase,” and I don’t know whether Coupland has himself ever looked through 100 novels at random to establish the facts. But I wondered whether there was any common thread at the end of poetry collections, partly because my own pamphlet ends with the phrase, “a spin of bright dust in a thread of light.” So I chose 12 poetry collections from my shelves and here’s what I found at the end of each:

You wore your cummerband with the stars and stripes. I, kilted in lime, held a stethoscope to the head of the parting guest. Together we were a couple forever.
(John Ashbery – Where Shall I Wander)

Your nephew, Charles, applied
the necessary, transfiguring gold,
and at last on darkness the dark eyes
closed, brimming with the memory of colour.
(John Ash – The Parthian Stations)

I dream my unborn daughter:
within her palm
one sand-grain’s infinite

coastline becomes one country, becomes
the whole inhabited land.
(A B Jackson – Fire Stations)

turn-ups, a polka-dot dress, one blustery day;
her arm hooked round his arm
as if that could stop him blowing away.
(Stephen Knight – Flowering Limbs)

where the past turns, its face sparkling like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die.
(Denis Johnson – The Incognito Lounge)

- The stars will soon be out.
- I think so: the beam, the blister, and the blaze.
(Edwin Morgan – A Book of Lives)

McAdam wakes in a hospital bed singing
a tirade of love songs

in a language yet to be born
(Andrew Philip – Tonguefire)

This is the right light, this pewter shine on the water,
not the carnage of clouds, not the expected wonder
of self-igniting truth and oracular rains,
but these shallows as gentle as the voice of your daughter,
while the gods fade like thunder in the rattling mountains.
(Derek Walcott – The Bounty)

Falling light as casts
Laid down
On shining waters,
Under the moon’s stigmata

Six thousand miles away,
I imagine untroubled dust,
A loosening gravity,
Christ weighing by his hands.
(Seamus Heaney – Wintering Out)

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.
(Wallace Stevens – Harmonium)

They stumble all night over bones of the dead,
And feel they know not what but care,
And wish to lead others, when they should be led.
(William Blake – Songs of Experience)

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.
(Sylvia Plath – Ariel)

There is plenty of light in these passages, isn’t there? Also, perhaps even more prevalent, a movement into an unknown or unspoken future - whether positive, negative or plainly ironic. That’s in spite of the many different strategies employed. Of course, this might just be a fluke, but I didn’t deliberately choose these books to prove a thesis. It’s just the way it’s worked out.


Unknown said...

I don't think it to be a fluke, sometimes the point of poetry is the discovery that we are not all-knowing but are working towards some sort of enlightenment, whether on the part of the reader or on the part of the writer. These kinds of endings show an awareness that poetry isn't fixed, it's always got somewhere new to go, for each writer.

Besides, leaving on a relatively upbeat note can leave a warm taste in the mouth.

Ben Wilkinson said...

I agree with Barbara's sentiments here - poetry's ability to help make sense of the world (particularly the untangible, invisible and nonsensical) leads naturally to books ending on poems that, for want of better words, melt to air.

In fact, the first book I picked up - Daljit Nagra's Look We Have Coming to Dover! - does this, and also includes the focus on light you're talking about:

from behind di chocolate bars
vee stare past di half-price window signs
at di beaches ov di UK in di brightey moon -

from the stool each night she say,
How much do yoo charge for dat moon baby?

from di stool each night I say,
Is half di cost ov yoo baby,

from the stool each night she say,
How much does dat come to baby?

from di stool each night I say,
Is priceless baby -

Another which springs to mind, and probably one of my favourite endings to a collection, is from the closing title poem of Don Paterson's Nil Nil:

In short, this where you get off, reader;
I'll continue alone, on foot, in the failing light,
following the trail as it steadily fades
into road-repairs, birdsong, the weather, nirvana,
the plot thinning down to a point so refined
not even the angels could dance on it. Goodbye.

Anonymous said...

Not so sure about the light thing, or enlightenment as such ... but most seem to be invoking the possibility of a humane order, either directly, or indirectly by invoking the possibility of its ruin or absence.

Maybe this amounts to a defence of poetry -- which is fitting for a final poem.


Marion McCready said...

In the restored edition of Plath's Ariel where the sequence of poems are rearranged according to the manuscript Plath left, the ending lines are -

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
suceed in banking their fires
to enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

It still fits in with the concept, I come away with the image of the bees flying towards the light of springtime.

Coirí Filíochta said...

It is only now i have read this Rob, that a light has switched on.

I often think the subconscious is the real light. And as i read this, Ashberry, Heaney, Morgan and the current heavyweights, do all end on a stanza with the word light in the final scene, and my own rendering would run parallel to your own (acutely incisive) observations, but instead of light and dark, the words Faith or nihilism.

Not that all the endings fall distinctly into the effervescence of an unquenchable faith the poetry of Ashberry, Heaney and Morgan display, but there faith does appear, their language but an extension of their minds, and the rest of them, it was interesting to read this para-placing of a random selection of contemporary poets, as viewing them in this way, it is like you've done all the hard work, and the readers eye is lucky to have been recipients of this exercise, as it adds to our own critical store of Judgement processes and further evidence adding or detracting from our own faith in relation to that of those around us.

apprentice said...

I tend to agree with the others. Light is so fundemental to us all that's hardly surprising we turn to it for inspiration.

Maybe this quote best defines the poet's need for light:

Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all the others were making ships. ~Charles Simic

Anonymous said...

This manner of looking at a text reminds me of J-P Sertin's experimental novel, p.52 - a fictional exploration of what happens on p. 52 of 52 texts.
(you can find that work here:

Rob said...

Thanks for these comments - some interesting observations. I only take my 'conclusions' here quarter-seriously, if that. It was a bit of fun. If I took another twelve books, it probably wouldn't work out - maybe I should try that and see. I'll do that and let you know.

georgyriecke - thanks for that link. I enjoyed reading your blog too. I'll link up.

Jane Holland said...

This is a interesting point. I only finished my long poem, 'On Warwick Castle', a few weeks ago. The last two lines (of 642) are 'and hard to the heights/as light fails.'

By Jove, there really is something in this light at the end of the tunnel idea!

Though of course Virgil ended - or was it left unfinished? - his great masterpiece, The Aeneid, with shadows ... not light.