Monkey Puzzle by William Gilson
As an American living in Cumbria, Bill Gilson straddles both the world of his own memories and identity and the present one he finds himself living in. Many of his poems manage to conflate the present and past almost seamlessly, so the reader’s in two places at once.
Each time I read this poem I see more in it, make more connections as it brings together diverse worlds, inhabiting and holding them quite naturally with eloquent emotional restraint, describing through this diversity a moment of integration.
Great-Nanna, she’s dead.
Her shiny-box’d remains made
slow movement, mechanised
into the oven, and the curtains drew closed.
tea for us yet-alives
Her coffin, being English, seemed to me
old-fashioned: a bevelled shape,
wider at the shoulders.
in morning’s living room
the central heating kicks on.
Out there’s the yet-dark,
September, the moon
Now from the CD player’s speakers
comes the sound of a piano’s
hitting taut and tuned strings.
A man’s hands and fingers
set them going forty years ago.
I imagine myself joining him,
taking a chorus.
I imagine I am able to play the piano.
It is a jazz blues with chord changes
every two beats,
here it comes round again –
I hear myself laying down a line.
As I play,
bending low over the keys,
I’m thinking of Great-Nanna, who I
did not know well at all, I’m remembering
what her son – Alison’s dad – said
as he stood up from his folding chair
next the mechanical catafalque,
how he improvised –
I surprise myself with the beauty of the line.
I float it at first just lightly atop,
letting it sink of itself into the stream’s flow.
With pared-down language in a distinctly American voice the scene of the funeral is set and the motif of the poem appears with ‘slow movement’. We then proceed almost casually, but with careful scene-setting, to the very different world of the pianist and the ‘piano’s/little hammers… set…going forty years ago’, followed by closely focused attention to the music where his mental re-enactment describes how the mood of the music and the listener coincide.
The slow movement of the poem is reinforced by the irregular and sometimes hesitant lineation echoing the improvised fluency of the blues. I particularly enjoy the parallel between playing a blues and writing the poem when he hears himself ‘laying down a line’ . This then takes him and us back to the source of the poem, the earlier funeral, in such a way that I, as reader, remain both with the music and the funeral.
That crucial word ‘improvised’ linking the blues player with the father-in-law’s eulogy leads on to an exquisite single line with which the poet surprises both himself and the reader. And the last two lines are precise and simple, almost delicate, in their evocation. A slow blues executed with an ease that belies the skill and experience behind it.