Tara Bergin's acts of language
The title poem of Tara Bergin's This Is Yarrow (Carcanet 2013) comes at the very end of the collection, as a kind of healing spell generated by the eponymous flower:
In this country house I had a dream of the city
as if the thick yarrow heads had told me,
as if the chokered dove had told me,
or the yellow elder seeds had made me ask—
and in the dream I went up to the dirty bus station
and I saw the black side of the power station
and as if the brown moth's tapping at the window
made me say it I said, do you still love me?
And when I woke and went to the window,
your tender voice told me: this is yarrow,
this is elder, this is the collared dove.
Yarrow is the little flower associated with healing stomach illnesses and minor wounds. But what is there to be healed?
Bergin has written a doctoral dissertation on Ted Hughes's translations of János Pilinszky, the Hungarian poet who witnessed Germany's concentration camps near the end of the second world war. Here's Bergin's introduction to the translations, which explains Hughes's process of "co-translating" with help from a crib. And here's Hughes's translation of "Apocrypha," the power of which comes from its wresting of a voice from total destruction, a procession from "belated bitter steps":
So I depart. Facing devastation,
A man is walking, without a word.
He has nothing. He has his shadow.
And his stick. And his prison garb.
I've been reading This Is Yarrow with a line from Pilinszky's poem in mind: "You are nowhere. How empty the world is." Bergin's poems are occupied with staging what they cannot thematize or make directly visible. Most often, this is violence or war. It would be less accurate to state that the world of these poems is empty, however, than to say that the capacity of language to represent the world has been emptied out.
But rather than making recourse to an experimental style, distancing herself from normative uses of language, Bergin instead imports various discursive schemes or genres into her text. These include interviews, directions for acting, a piece of academese, and a "piano composition for the left hand." "Questions," a series of mock-interview prompts, ends with
10. How powerful—would you say—is a poem not to do with war?
11. Did you like the violin?
12. Were you an insomniac?
13. Compared, I mean, to one about war?
The following poem, "You Could Show a Horse," subtitled "(an experiment in collage)," is two poems, one in italics with lines interpolated into the other, each offering slightly different descriptions of dead people on a dead horse. Near the end of "Acting School," the actors mime the positions of those in a water crisis: "And now we must practice how to drink water / when there is no water."
Other poems give an uncanny animation to impersonal actions, to language, or to flowers, making the poem have a slight feeling of drift from reality, without losing hold of it completely. This effect is difficult to describe; the closest visual equivalent might be a stop-motion film. Here is "Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon," an elegy:
It is unfair to thieve so cruelly, and in such hot light.
The theft has turned the upper fields white:
they are in shock, and pale from all their downy clocks.
But where is the boy's breath?
How will he blow these candles out?
Goodnight, goodnight, even though it is day;
the flower-head has closed, and turned away.
"Rapeseed" ends with a declaration: "We feared too much, / thinking the world / is reached only in violence." Achillea millefolium, the yarrow, shares its name with Achilles, and is occasionally associated with him. In the title poem, the question that the speaker finds herself asking to the deserted city in her dream, "as if the thick yarrow heads had told me," is "do you still love me?" But the final lines of the poem are lines of deixis, in which the world is reached by pointing and describing what the speaker already knows is there: "this is yarrow, / this is elder, this is the collared dove." This is a ritual not of naming the world, but of repeating the names that already exist, and it is a ritual not of reparation, but of coping with the world that is no longer there.
Bergin, Tara. This Is Yarrow. Manchester: Carcanet, 2013.