Keston Sutherland, Elizabeth Bishop and the end of a poem.

We all like a poem to end well. As poets we try to find satisfying ways to finish what we’ve said and as readers we (I) expect something that either summarises what’s been written or gives us something else to think about. Paul Celan and John Matthias do great endings in the above sense but I want to write about endings that disrupt our expectations i.e. ‘wrong’ endings.

Light streams under the door when the milk falls out
and though it isn’t the door
revolving between the MOD and BAE Systems
it is the door light streams under
the door nothing chic, middlebrow weird.

That’s the end of Sutherland’s ‘The Proxy Humanity of Forklifts’ and I’m about to describe it’s wrongness but before that:

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

That’s the end to Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ which (for all kinds of reasons is one of the finest poems of the 20th century.

If we define wrong poetry as being in some way banal and thus unpoetic then these are both examples of wrongness. Sutherland’s ‘revolving door’ quip is a cliché that has been written by journalists, poets and diarists since at least the 17th century but the stuff that surrounds it redeems its wrongness. I would point to the brilliant last line and the questions that it throws up as well as the ‘B’ movie image of the light under the door to indicate that Sutherland knows exactly what he’s doing and does it in such a way that leaves most contemporaries trailing in his wake. Bishop’s poem is about the birth of consciousness of a seven year old girl. She’s already given us both the place and the date so we don’t need this information again, the ‘it’ that she’s back in is the everyday reality of the waiting room and she’s returning to it with a heightened awareness of herself (“an Elizabeth“). So, all of this information is superfluous, banal, unpoetic and therefore wrong, except for “The War was on” which disrupts the ostensible theme of the poem or takes us to an entirely different level.

‘Forklifts’ can be read as a scathing polemic against the unfolding fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan (hence the revolving door thing) but the ending seems to allude to fear – this light certainly isn’t the light of hope for a bright new future. Initially, two bits are puzzling – ‘when the milk falls out’ and all of the last line. Milk is usually kept in refrigerators and the door would need to be open for it to fall out. ‘Forklifts’ also contains a real patent to a fridge door closing mechanism in verse form (which is fairly high up on the wrongness scale in itself) so things start to make a bit more sense but not much because I need to pay more attention to that particular part of the poem. I also need to point out that light would stream out of the top, the side and the bottom of the fridge if the milk fell out. We then come to the last line, what do these three adjectives refer to? Why isn’t there a comma between ‘middlebrow and ‘weird’? Why aren’t these two hyphenated? Why does it seem to work so well?

It works, I think, because it writes against itself, the image of the light under the door is used but disrupted in different ways, the startling juxtaposition of the adjectives (especially ‘middlebrow) on the last line and the ‘revolving door’ quip which parades its own banality.

The end of ‘In the Waiting Room’ presents different kinds of wrongness but is equally disruptive. Place names and dates (especially when repeated) are fairly banal- we know where we are from the first line and we know when we are from the end of the first stanza but Bishop disrupts this by reminding us that the First World War was ‘on’ and that the ‘night and slush and cold’ would apply to the Western Front just as much as Worcester. Thus we are thrown from a description of the consciousness of a child to our own memories/awareness of these terrible events. That’s why it ‘works’, Bishop was skilled enough to take the risk and make the difficult point directly and personally to the reader.

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