The poem begins (opening set of three stanzas on page 7) with the narrator’s attempt to imagine what the childhood of his wife, the ‘You’ figure, would have been like. This is probably inaccurate in detail - which introduces the theme of ‘imagined you’. The teacher, Miss Bosse, is telling the children about the trans-Sahara trade carried on by Tuareg (‘Buzus’ in colloquial Hausa) before the Europeans came by sea and opened up different trade routes. But it’s all this ‘sand’, the Sahara, that lies between that school and Europe where the narrator lives, and in the next section, it’s over this Sahara that ‘You’ is imaged (mis-imagined in fact) now flying to come to live with the narrator in England. The same ‘sand’ is the medium in which ‘You’ learns to make her letters in English. The desert image and the Buzu image recur later in the poem when the narrator and his then lover meet a Buzu family on a camel on the road, and as nomads, they contribute to the theme of home, homelessness, travel and exile.
here’s a lizard on the classroom wall, and the narrator imagines it ‘as if’ listening to the lesson, so still and flat there, empathising with what’s going on. This introduces the theme of empathy explicitly. The writer is already trying to empathise with that small girl ‘You’ once was, and that lizard too seems to listen ‘as if’ empathising. But this would be an illusion, a poetic one to be sure. The lizard does not have the ‘mirror neurons’ that make empathy possibly, and so this is the first suggestion that having a feeling of or about ‘empathy’ need not be reliable, deep as it may be. As the poem goes on the lizard recurs as an emblem of callousness (it deserts its young at birth), with its ‘lizard brain’ of primitive feelings from which, somehow, over evolutionary time, in humans, the idea and feeling of love have developed.
This opening section also introduces the idea of differences in culture, the culture which the schoolgirl has naturally is shown most clearly in the way she carries her books home through the guinea corn in a pile balanced on her head. This is something that she cannot remember having learnt, and seems natural, and the ‘technique’ of it would not have been explained to her or reflected upon. Yet there is an irony in that the books she carries with such intuitive ease are books written in English, from a school in which she has to acquire aspects that that other culture. She carries this culture ‘naturally’ on her head, but has yet to internalise it. This is turn is an image of the way ‘knowledge’ of ourselves – like a history of African written by an explorer or a European scholar - may well be hidden from us,. And not only that, it is a narrative, and this narrative is a merging of the things told and the teller, another image of the meeting of an ‘I’ and a ‘You’. This is all made possible by the complicated brains cells which allow for communication, and other cells which link us instinctually to that lizard, if not in our capacity for love. And the ‘quest’ of the lover narrator is a question not just for You, but to be involved in the ‘You’ that the loved one may utter when thinking, or whispering of herself. But then there’s a sense in which the lover’s attempt to empathise with the loved one, the ‘you’, is also a kind of whispering to himself, which on one view of love, would amount almost to the same thing as whispering to himself, ‘you’ in that view, being almost merged with ‘I’, as seems to happen with babies, or young children learning to speak, who say ‘you’ when they mean ‘I’, because ‘you’ is what everyone keeps calling them.
In all this I’m not trying to be a post-structuralist and analyse ‘you’ out of physical existence. I’m thinking of both ‘you’ and any kind of love as being perhaps ‘essentially metaphorical’, but also as embodied always in something else, which comes much closer in the end to the African ‘You’s perspective than the Western ‘courtly’ lover in his – as I describe him later – crumpled tights.
On the love theme
It’s a love poem, but not primarily an outpouring of ‘romantic’ feelings. It’s as much ‘about’ love as ‘in’ love. The ‘You’ of the title is my wife, but also - in the act of being written - a fictive ‘character’. Indeed one of the themes in the poem is exactly this, how the ‘real’ person we see, love (or hate, or admire etc) is imagined as, seen as, that ‘reality’. The empathy the writer - also already a ‘first person narrator’ - has for ‘you’ is an imaginative reaching out, so that the You who seems ‘real’ is real in being so imagined. And one tension in the poem arises from thinking about love as, as Hannah Arendt once wrote of it, as an illusion created by poets, and at the same time in thinking how, even so ‘love’ is not ‘merely’ imagined, how it is experienced between people who, because of differences in culture, have, also, different conceptions of it. “I love you” if you mean by ‘love’ ‘x’; but if you mean by love ‘y’, well I don’t suppose I do. But you can love me according to ‘x’ if you like, and I’ll love you according to ‘y’. The narrator’s western approach to love lives in the tension between the scepticism Arendt shows, deeply, and a Hardy-like ‘wishing it might be so’. By historical background and education the narrator inherits a sense of love which derives, eventually, from courtly love, which is based on an idea of empathy, of the oneness of two people both spiritually and physically. This gut sense, experienced as a need, becomes part of Western individualism (and the loneliness of that), and is tempered by the You figure’s more other-directed embodied approach to love as what you do day to day in a wider family context.
The poem uses the idea of love as a ‘social construct’ on the one hand, but also as ‘natural’, to do with memories of childhood mother-love, on the other. The narrator tries to see the plea in Arendt’s doubt, and does that by seeing love as the effort of imagination, that and the need we have, in art (itself a ‘labour of love’), to create ourselves, ‘fond’, though this attempt may be.
The lizard in the opening passage – and he returns from time to time throughout the poem – is an old fashioned ‘symbol’ of the callous in nature, and he morphs into the dragon the knight has to face in defence of ‘truth and pride’, as well as exemplifying the ‘lizard brain’ from which all these feelings, including those of love, come, feelings which in psychoanalytical or naturalistic terms are shown in the mother-child relationship; and the first exchanges there of gaze, speech sounds, involve those ‘mirror neurons’ without which we could not experience love, or feel someone else’s body – however partially and imperfectly ‘in’ us, ‘with’ them. It’s also worth mentioning here how, some developments of the study of language, show a relationship between words and the nerves in other parts of the brain connected to the ‘thing’ those words refer to.
On the form
Commentary on page one, love theme, and form
The poem is written in a stanza form called ‘rhyme royal’, the one used by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare in The Rape of Lucrece. The differences are that the rhymes are now half-rhymes and the stanzas are arranged into sets of three. Metrical form is, of course, not new, but we can still think it through freshly and perhaps see new meanings in it. The rhythm of ordinary conversational speech has the stressed syllables falling at roughly regular intervals in time (a kind of beat), and always coinciding with the rhythms of accompanying gestures, so the alternating (or ‘iambic’) rhythm can be seen as a stylization of that ordinary natural speech rhythm. The regularly space fall of the stresses (and the slacks being adjusted in speed to accommodates that) is reinforced by having ‘dip’ between the stresses contain just one syllable.
It’s interesting to think of metre as a way of ‘miming’ or stylizing language itself. Language is made essentially out of limits and boundaries, and was described by the early Wittgenstein as ‘the limits of my world’. Language is thus like Necessity, or a metaphor of Necessity; and just as we have to work within the meanings linguistic and physical Necessity allow, so in the poem we have to work within the space the verbal Necessity of the form (metre etc) allows, just as the hero has to work within a ‘grammar’ of Necessity, just as in our social and political lives we work within an inherited ‘grammar’ of custom, history, ‘common sense’/ideology. And within this linguistic web, like the spider Trickster in Hausa folktales, we have just our wits, that ‘cunning’ Joyce refers to. In other words the relation to form and invention in a poem can be seen as a metaphor of the same relationship in language and ‘fortune’ as such. This metaphor has some reverberation in You, since the stanza form is based on Chaucer’s poem in which the ‘real life’ tension between free well and destiny is played out. Chaucer uses the ideas of Boethius, who, in his Consolation of Philosophy, indicates one way in which situation and times we’re caught in always allow only a certain freedom in language as to how we interpret them.
The verse aims to be both intelligible as to surface meaning (who’s doing what to whom under what circumstances), but at the same time has ‘deeper’ meanings in its texture, there for the reader who wants them. This is connected to form because much of the momentum of the poem lies in the sentence patterns (grammar). In much modernist or avant-garde poetry emphasis falls on the foregrounding of the semantic, the posing of meanings as riddle-like apparent non-connections, juxtaposed elements for which the reader must supply the spark which jumps across the links them. And this spark is often outside the text. What I’ve tried to do is to bring out grammatical kinds of connection to try on the whole to show how meanings ‘flow into’ each other. The use of ellipsis of various kinds, which goes back to the ideas of Ezra Pound is but one way of doing what poets have always done, drawing attention to language itself. In You an attempt is to made to do this, also, through the use of ‘paratactic’ features of language, that is words, sounds and so on which are not ‘offstage’ . Besides the use of, often, the long sentence, this is done by the savouring of words along the lines that, sometimes, Shakespeare does in passages like
‘Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove’
where he turns key words this way and that in his hands to catch the light, as it were, in different ways, and makes the reader redefine and define again and then question them as a function of the sentence form. Shakespeare, of course, is also the exemplar of how to be thoughtful and yet lucid. It seems to me that there are often gains in surface clarity, as of course there are in more gnomic, allusive and ‘offstage’ approaches, approaches which to me always carry the risk of being too clever by half, and can imply a different – cliquish - relation with an audience from the one I’d like. To try and follow in the wake Shakespeare, and indeed Chaucer, in this, is of course a challenge unlikely to be very well met, but to try is also a homage.
This focus on the syntagmatic axis (forward moving, linear) of language, on joinings, leads to often to quite long sentences. Thus the first page of You is one sentence, landing on the title word ‘you’. The sentence is continued into the second page, and then after a couple of short sentences which highlight a turning point, one sentence then takes up the second and third pages. It’s the effort towards joining and resolution that the poem mimes in its grammar. Also, by making the reader think about the way the sentence runs, the poet can foreground intonation, so that the reader is the more likely to ask: How am I going to tune my voice to rise or fall or pause to make these clauses sound natural and right? The constraint here, like that of metre, is enabling. Intonation, especially rise and fall and pattern on pitch, is the main carrier of emotion in language, yet the hardest directly to indicate in writing.
It’s only since finishing the poem that it’s occurred to me that this interest in sentence and rhythm was probably stirred in me first by F T Prince, whose book on Milton (though obviously I don’t have the bardic aspirations Milton had) traces Milton’s own interest in sentence patterning in relation to verse form; and I recall, also, Prince’s emphasis on the importance of sentence structures in making free verse verse.