Evolving Mind and Sense
‘IF NO ONE asks me, I know what it is,’ Saint Augustine once wrote about time, ‘but if I wish to explain it to him who asks, I no longer know.’ Reading through Matthew Ewart’s posthumous collection of poetry, A Feather on a Finger (Verbal Arts Centre, Derry, 2004), I feel no small kinship to the old Carthaginian: after each of the poems in this marvellous collection the sense dawns that you have just glimpsed something subtle and important, something as elusively suspended as a star – but something with no guarantees attached that it will reveal itself should you look once more. In his introduction to the collection John Brown describes Ewart’s poetry as ‘Caledonian Zen’; it’s an apt description for the acuity of mind Ewart displays throughout.
A brief biographical note first: born in Lanark in 1946 and passed away this past year in Glasgow, Ewart seems to have held just about every job imaginable over the course of his life. Engineer, curator, jeweller, painter (one of his great loves), and more. From these experiences he developed a fastidious sense of attention to his mind and his environment which undoubtedly informed his poetry. Yet his work was not widely known. Robert Alan Jamieson, a friend and colleague of Ewart’s for many years, notes in a postscript to the collection that this remained the case despite the fact that Ewart won the Keith Wright prize at Strathclyde in 1983 and had been endorsed by Iain Crichton Smith. It is ‘strange to think,’ Jamieson writes, ‘that twenty years later, hardly any of his work is published. For there is no doubt that his poetry is fine.’
One of the nuances of Jamieson’s word ‘fine’ is the sense that Ewart’s poetry is keen, close-shaven, precise. And one would be forgiven for then thinking it is swift and cutting – but not so. Rather, his poems are the result of untold hours of meditation and searching. Their pace, owing as much to Ewart’s patient nature as to his indifference towards punctuation, is deliberate and measured. At the opening of ‘Cocoon’, for example, Ewart writes:
The birdwatcher sees no birds today
He has climbed from his linen sack
And his feathered camouflage
The intake of breath at the end of each line is perfectly timed – not too long, not too short – to let each unitary image coalesce in our visual field. Ewart’s work requires close listening, and close listening becomes a form of close reading which then leads to close seeing: the phenomenon recalls William Carlos Williams’ celebrated moment when ‘the eye and the ear/lie down together/in the same bed’. But Ewart shifts direction, leads us somewhere else, somewhere one step, one breath, closer to the core of the poem:
I stand with you clasping a hand
As if it were the only snowdrop
You stare at the empty trees.
The short stanzas, for which Ewart shows a fondness throughout the book, add to the sense that this guiding poetic sensibility is spacious, ecumenical – there is plenty of room here to stretch one’s legs and drink in the crisp, cold air. This is especially noticeable when Ewart allows his poems to slow so much that all distortion caused by motion dissipates. This occurs, among other places, in the last line of ‘Aeon’:
Now bell sounds celebratory ringing
Of aeons beyond heaven
To be, or that, then, to spend.
The speed, the structure, the gently intrusive commas: all are eerily reminiscent of the end of Wordsworth’s ‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal’; the effect is equally devastating.
Ewart’s ear, ever attentive, elsewhere relies on various forms of rhyme to knit his poems together; ‘Droplet’, for instance, makes use of a subtle slant between the words ‘droplet’ and ‘goblet’ to bridge the last two stanzas, and ‘Runes’ – one of the few poems in this collection longer than one page – offers a delayed rhyme that strikes in perfect contrapuntal harmony to otherwise dominant melody:
I am beautiful, but out there
Goes the world, made of sand
Running me through an hour-glass
Burying me with love
Turning me over and over
Hand in silken glove
At the last possible moment before the memory of the sound of ‘sand’ becomes overshadowed by the rhyme between ‘love’ and ‘glove’, Ewart slips the word ‘hand’ into the beginning of the line, nesting the two sounds and complicating the sonic relationships at play. Watering all of this activity is the ‘ing’ sound of the three participles ‘running,’ ‘burying,’ and ‘turning’; the result is a tapestry woven of three distinct threads whose colors never bleed.
Every now and then, though, certain words jut up like stalagmites through the cave floor of his poems: in ‘Earthworm,’ for instance, when Ewart describes ‘a crystal, tetrahedronal, pure / Held in a hand of silk’, that massive word stands out amid his other images in a way that ultimately clouds their clarity. By the time the tongue has worked itself around those five knotted syllables it has almost forgotten what came before, and so flounders briefly before regaining its path. A similar kind of moment occurs in the opening poem, ‘Gong,’ when Ewart quotes the poem’s unidentified you: ‘Flight is easy, as is memory/It’s careful tintinnabulation/Brings us here’. Again, the sense is that we are suddenly derailed from an otherwise unbroken train of thought. How to account for these moments? In truth I don’t know, except perhaps to write it off to the poet’s intuition of the mind’s rightness when it lands upon a word. It is perhaps this intuition more than anything else that sets poets apart from one another: writing that ‘nature’ is ‘as nude as an egg’, as in the poem ‘Mother Nature’, is to bury the reflection that nature is as nude as itself within a word only later yielding its cargo. It may be that this intuition steers as well the sense that the word tintinnabulation could have been no other, but the stumbling nevertheless remains.
These are minor flaws, however, in jewels otherwise quietly sparkling, and most of the poems pay similar dividends for those willing to listen closely to them. The gain is not entirely aural, however; Ewart as a poet is intimately concerned with the ways minds dance with knowledge. ‘Made of light are our thoughts, then,’ he writes in ‘Aeon’, ‘Of star-fired moon and sun
…’ His lines, like thoughts themselves, are often fragmentary and allusive, even provisional, but this fragmentation scarcely equates to any sort of incompleteness on their part: rather, they are grounded in a unique vision of the mind’s ability to negotiate (or fail in the trying) the natural world. ‘I wouldn’t now know a moon from a metaphor,’ Ewart writes in ‘Cold Rock’, ‘Or a star from the Bhagavad Gita’. Such variations on knowing are abetted by the general indifference toward punctuation I mentioned earlier, which to my mind likens Ewart’s poems to the early W.S. Merwin – that is, both poets’ general disinterest in guiding the reader through a linear poem with a linear argument. Minds, like the worlds in which they inhere – or is it the other way around? or some tightrope walk in-between? – scarcely follow such rules, and by opening up their poems to caprice and ambiguity (what, exactly, does the word without cling to in ‘Gong’ – as an adverb to the word moves, or as a preposition to the word will?) both poets make plain their delight in this tempestuous state of affairs.
A further affinity to Merwin is the torrid elementality of Ewart’s poems. Images such as air, snow, sea, and grass recur early and often throughout the collection (the longest poem here, ‘Child,’ is a spectacularly gorgeous example of this); it is as though Ewart views the earth as a space in which elements and images have velocity without teleology, continually whirling around with no measurable end in sight. But ultimately it is the very whirling of these images that keeps them aloft: the longer one spends with his poetry it becomes apparent that – like Emerson – Ewart allows the natural world to become his metaphysics, the zero point for whatever it is the word ‘reality’ sets out to describe. He admits as much in ‘Navigator’, where he notes that ‘Earth is mainly moisture/Truth the merest atmosphere’.
Ewart’s acts of mind, for that is what these poems more precisely are, bear their relation to language with equal parts respect and elegance. This is to say that Ewart knows his limitations
Copyright Benjamin Morris 2005