Friday, May 22, 2009
‘The Ugly’ by John Glenday
I love you as I love the Hatchetfish,
the Allmouth, the Angler,
the Sawbelly and Wolf-eel,
the Stoplight Loosejaw, the Fangtooth;
all our sweet bathypelagic ones,
and especially those too terrible or sly
even for Latin names; who saddle
their menfolk to the vagina’s hide
like scorched purses, stiff with seed;
whom God built to trawl
endless cathedrals of darkness,
their bland eyes gaping like wounds;
who would choke down hunger itself,
had it pith and gristle enough;
who carry on their foreheads
the trembling light of the world.
I like this a great deal; for although there is something awkward in its shift from the slightly lumpish, grotesque humour of the first two-and-a-half stanzas (the weird names, the ‘too sly for Latin’ gag, the male-sewn-onto-the-vagina’ bizarrenesses) to the deepsunk sense-of-wonder of the ‘cathedrals of darkness’ and the final beautiful image … which is to say, although there is an uncertainty of emphasis as to whether the opening three words refer to erotic or spiritual love … nevertheless that disjunction suits the poem. It’s ugly enough, formally, for the ugliness that is its topic to work aesthetically. That beastie from Finding Nemo as ICHTHUS: nice.
Not perfectly realised, mind. Stanza one is a little too much: ‘hey, look at these cool fish names I found!’, and stanza two gets a little tangled up, I’d say, somewhere between the ‘hide’ pun (the sly, the evasive, the hidden) and the more striking being on display angle—the male ‘saddled’ outside the female, ‘scorched; and ‘stiff.’ But the final seven lines are pretty much flawless.
I particularly like the way working down through the poem plays with the sense of sinking down through the levels of the sea. I like the way the surf-like sibilance is all in the top three stanzas (the sh and the s: Hatchetfish; Sawbelly; Stoplight Loose; sweet; especially; sly; saddle; scorched; stiff; seed) leaving the fourth stanza tonally as cool and free of hissing (the sole exception, buried in the middle of ‘gristle’, is part of a description of what’s not there) as the silent deep. The beasts ‘who carry on their foreheads/the trembling light of the world’ moving through a poetic space purged of sibilance’s white noise. A space of black noise, perhaps.
There are some more Glenday poems here. He deserves to be better known, I think.
[This post is part of an occasional series on The Valve: Excellent Short Poetry About Fish. For more ESPAF, see here].
A poem with just about everything within its little frame, ugliness, sex, religion, dreadful hunger, spirituality and fish. The final line doesn’t lose its impact but grows more powerful with every reading. A work of art.