Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her sixth post.
Glyn Maxwell is sometimes considered a “difficult” poet, but not in the tricky, jocular manner of John Ashbery or Paul Muldoon. Maxwell challenges because the progress of his poems follows their inner, musical logic to an unusually intimate degree; his poems compel his readers to learn another way of thinking.
For his signature poem “This Whiteness,” a kind of ars poetica, we are lucky to have a Rosetta Stone of sorts in his newish book On Poetry. On Poetry reminds us that the poet facing the blank page is also the poet facing extinction; the whiteness on the poem’s right side is nothingness pressed back, by the something of the poem. The whiteness of the poem is also silence, and its darkness, its mark, is breath. The whiteness is also time, and the poem its conquest—the conquest of time through form. Hence in “This Whiteness” the poem begins threatened by an avalanche—an annihilating onslaught of whiteness that also threatens suffocation and extinction.
The poem, set at an alpine ski resort, “begins” four times, each time nearly defeated by whiteness and rallying. Its speaker envisions himself first as a skier, outracing an avalanche of snow, “motion caught.” Then a climber sheltering himself in “these little stanzas” against a predatory wildness, the whiteness. Each start moves closer to his human reality. In the third start he’s in the town at the mountain’s base and spots an “angel,” an emissary of whiteness (“I ran from a word like that but I didn’t make it”). In On Poetry Maxwell writes that for a poem to thrive against whiteness it needs “a heartbeat,” and here, as so often, it finds its heartbeat in yearning (the love song, the elegy). The angel disappears of course (“I’m bereft like she was everything”), but the speaker, lingering without purpose, has “earned a stripe from whiteness”; they spend the day together; it leaves its card.
It’s lovely that this existential confrontation plays out in the wry imagination of a person not skiing at a ski resort, a marginal plight if there ever was one, watching the day unfold as changing light on snow (whiteness becomes blue by the end of the day, like the sky, the celestial infinity). Its concluding valhalla (small v), where heroes linger: a café table with a view on an empty chairlift, quite a quotidian Jacob’s ladder.
For Maxwell form is a poem’s musculature, but his form, recalling Frost’s, is deeply organic. Its repetitions and shadows are the instruments of his logic, and that’s why his poems can seem so hypnotic and mysterious. The line-break, as he writes in On Poetry, is the poem’s fortification against the nothingness of the white side, and mastering it is the foundation of poetry’s power. In “This Whiteness” skiing is the shadowy metaphor for the poem’s reversals. (Brodsky, who has a cameo here, makes a similar case in his essay on Rilke, “Ninety Years Later,” arguing that the “turn” of verse—Latin, versus—had its origin in the Greek orthographic practice of boustrophedon, named for the turns of an ox while plowing. As in “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes,” the poem discussed by Brodsky, “This Whiteness” features decisive turns. The angel turns away from the speaker—“typical angel”—and then the speaker from her—“when I glance back … her place is taken.”)
Accordingly, this poem works its turns, with subtle outside rhymes of the first and fourth lines, plus multiple internal echoes, to build its little shelter against the threatening whiteness. Skiing is turning with the whole body, as the line turns on the breath. The poem's mastery of whiteness is grounded in the body. By its end the poem has internalized its parlay with whiteness, and the poet, from his cafe table, becomes a serene witness at whiteness' edge.
Glyn Maxwell’s most recent book of poems in the US is One Thousand Nights and Counting: Selected Poems. In England this has been followed by Pluto. Hear Glyn Maxwell read “This Whiteness” here at Little Star.
This whiteness followed me at the speed of dawn.
A life-form in the fingers of an avalanche
I was, I was motion caught, I was a spot
found out by white, some foe of it, some germ
at frantic speed. The world sips its gluhwein,
high above in the tinkling chalet, stuffed,
beside the fire and betting on my chances—
who? down in the valley somewhere, blue now.
Gone, I begin again. Such is the motto
stamped on me by whiteness I enrage
by naming anything. That I only breathe
by naming I attempt to call my credo—
and see, the whiteness slashed me like a creature.
Stock-still I wait. They stash in these little stanzas
welcome rations but the thing’s outside,
pawing the air and pitiless with hunger.
Gone, I begin again. In the lovely village
every morning’s Christmas, and the shops
out-glisten nature. Nobody’s from here.
Enormous empty boots line up, the average
girl is an angel trying some on. An angel.
I ran from a word like that but I didn’t make it.
I made this shelter, I, and she doesn’t know it.
I won’t be there when she turns, typical angel,
time her own. I went, I began again—
it’s only the quest of the cold thing for the warm thing,
vowels to soften all, she cups hot chocolate
outside The Blue Grill, freezing in the sunshine,
and I think of Brodsky saying that for a star
to love its neighbor—there’s where the big idea
was had, such were the distances it traveled…
He made that out of words, but he lived there,
when one great desert left him to another,
twice. She ties her boots. What I mean by angel
is one who comes from nowhere to reveal
there’s nowhere but from now on it won’t matter.
She looks at where I was, then cools her gaze
as the hooded happy groups go slushing by
toward the hut that sends them to the mountain.
When I glance back from the peaks around, her place
is taken by some family and I’m
bereft like she was everything. The young
go sailing overhead, they’re all like them.
To not go up, to come this far from home
for nothing earns a stripe from the whiteness. We,
it and I, will spend the day alone
and dazzled in this blinding bright valhalla,
writing postcards from it we’re unlikely
to send until we’re gone, if ever. The sunlight
gave like a billionaire and falls like one,
in just an hour with red signs switching on
in every language till it’s out of sight.
The line of empty boots is back, the angel
nowhere to be seen but the old station,
posted there with all the past forbidden.
I saunter back with whisky to my table
and see the whiteness left its card. Evening.
The snow’s the blue of being not a thing
that ends and empty chair-lift after empty
chair-lift swing around and are still going.