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Connection across continents

I met Elly in an online poetry class run by Exeter University back in... oh, 2006 maybe. I dropped out but Elly and I kept in touch. We shared our pasts and presents, our thoughts and fears, our shames and aspirations. We've both gone through dark and difficult times. I'm not sure how much joy. Presumably some.


She lives on the beautiful Prince Edward Island on the east coast of Canada, the setting for the Anne of Green Gables books. Something about that - the island, the stories, the long winters and the sense of something closer to the wild - fits with an aspect of Elly that I can only describe as semi-mythical.


A couple of times we wrote a poem a day for a month and shared them with each other. I think 'Moon As Eve' originated there. We used to keep a shared dream diary online, recounting our dreams and analysing each others, after listening to Jungian therapist John Betts in an online series.


She's been the one person I could always rely on to look at my pictures and read my poems, my short stories and my attempts at novels, memoirs and non-fiction. As I've stumbled about in the dark, she's made consistent progress as a poet. She's been published in an anthology and in a chapbook of her own.


Her style is often cryptic, always ambiguous. The tone has a wryness and detachment as well as a deep and insightful clarity of vision, seeing into both the vulnerability and the understated but courageous defiance of her characters.


I asked her if I could feature one of her poems and she generously agreed.


Through Binoculars We See

E. E. Nobbs


A woman not young wears a knitted sweater 

(it’s gray), sits on a blanket, holds 


with bare feet a long hank of wool, unfolded, 

stretched between them – spread apart

they're serving as posts. She’s wrapping


blue yarn into a ball, which grows 

as she works (I think of blue planets 

-- globes covered with water).


The woman not young sits all alone 

on the beach over there.

The wind and she are both calm;


With the warm day’s late-sun 

at her back

– and the tall dunes, 

she has set herself this task, facing

the ocean, as if waiting.


You can find a reading of the poem here.


Firstly, the title, which also acts as a sort of opening line or introduction, 'framing' the poem. The poem is the scene 'we' see through the binoculars. This distances us from the action, but brings us into the act of observing. The character on the beach is not out of this world, just at one remove. We can be aware of her if we look.


This woman immediately made me think of the Three Fates, the Moirai in Greek mythology, who decided the fate of every human. Atropos was the one who decided how each human would die, and held shears in her hand with which she cut the thread of life. Clotho was the one who spun the thread, while Lachesis measured its length. This character has a different role, however: she is not cutting or spinning, she is entwining everything (all life?) together into something that resembles the earth. Instead of chopping up lives, she is binding it all together. This suggests to me an interconnected world; Gaia - the biosphere encompassing all life.


The woman is described as 'not young' (a term that is repeated later - it is important). This leaves her age open. Do we imagine a middle aged woman or a crone? We are free to fill in the gaps. But the choice of the description is interesting. Is the most critical thing about a women in a superficial, image-ruled society, the fact that she is 'not young'? Or is this openness less a criticism of the way things are than an expansion of possibility? The key feature, for me, is that this is a woman with some knowledge of living. She is not raw; she has experience.


Apart from her grey sweater and her posture, we know nothing else about her. Note the placement of '(it's grey)' - the fact that it's mentioned means it matters. This woman is dressed down, self consciously plain, almost reminiscent of the nun, the governess, the spinster. The brackets reaffirm the self-effacing quality. We are shown, but only in a way that marginalises its importance. The ambivalence is striking.


We then get a description of how she is winding the skein of wool into a ball, using her feet to hold the two ends of the skein. There is an awkwardness combined with an un-selfconscious naturalness in the description which I find very effective.


The woman is all alone - her solitary state is made plain to us - but both she and the wind are 'calm'. One gets a sense of the connection between her and the natural world. The poet could have said that both she and the sea or the sky are calm, but, no, she chooses wind - and of course the woman is winding wool into a ball. That may not have been a conscious choice on Elly's part: if not, it's a glimpse into the poetic imagination. Connections and resonances. Richness.


The final verse is very beautiful. 'The warm day's late sun' reaffirms to me the fact of the woman's maturity, but also her acceptance of and a real pleasure in this maturity. It is 'at her back', in the past: she is facing willingly the coming of the night not mourning the end of the day. Maybe, you start to think, it is her own life, her own past, that she is drawing together, making sense of?


I love the phrase '-and the tall dunes'. The scene is being painted for us around the image of this woman, so engrossed in her task. And the dunes, to me, are not threatening, but protective. Nonetheless, there is no vegetation here, no other life. She is very much alone and separate, and yet entirely accepts that status.


This is reinforced in the final lines - 'she has set herself this task, facing / the ocean, as if waiting.' She, who had seemed to be one of the Fates, has chosen acceptance, and a busy productive acceptance, of her fate - seen in the force of the ocean. 'As if waiting' is interesting. Is she playing the part of waiting, but in fact just so focused that the time passing is irrelevant? Is she so at peace that waiting would not be the appropriate term? We are left to make up our own minds.


The layout of Elly's poems is always intriguing - the enjambement, as phrases cross not just lines but verses. This and the punctuation guide the reading - which I hope I managed to pull off - giving the verse an almost incantatory quality. The use of assonance is quite beautiful here: holds, unfolded, grows, alone. The sounds give a softer structure than rhyme and the repeated, hollow, somewhat mournful 'o' fits the mood perfectly. The emotion seems to lift with calm, sun, dunes - again fitting the sense of the verse and this feeling of grace in acceptance. Finally, facing and waiting, the present continuous verbs, suggest at an eternal moment. Being.


I hope I have done justice to a wonderful and thought-provoking poem written by a special friend - both in this sketchy analysis and in my reading of the verse.

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maplekey4
26 may 2020

I was debating whether to “try” to write a long, chatty reply to your reply to my poem. But time is slipping by and I’m going to stop fussing. You are IN TUNE with how I feel about the poem and your interpretations are in sync with mine and also open my eyes to things I hadn’t thought of. I love how you summarized my “style” (paragraph above the poem). I certainly tend to write that way, because that’s usually the way I am. Sometimes it’s a struggle for me to write clearly enough for readers (I’m happy if even some readers enjoy a poem of mine). This poem is longish for me; my usual tendency is very short poems…


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