In January I was delighted to receive a complimentary copy of the ever excellent The North magazine, which is published by The Poetry Business based in Sheffield. It included a close reading of a new poem of mine published in the previous edition.
The North have kindly given permission for me to include the article in full below.
Close Reading: ‘The Wall’ by Heidi Williamson
First published in issue 57 of The North magazine, January 2017.
In this new feature, we ask a writer to choose a favourite poem from the previous issue of the North and to write a response.
From issue 56, Lesley Jeffries chose ‘The Wall’ by Heidi Williamson.
“… there is something urgent about arriving so soon at a main verb in the poem. So many poems tend to work the other way around …”
Nights you call out, I pad
the hallway to your duvet flung wide,
your leg dangling down, tender and crooked,
still warm, your small palm cooling on the wall.
Your soft toys shift and slide as I cover you.
My mind slides towards small absent ones
I cared for in passing: dusting the bunk
of a girl newly turned from the wall in sleep.
Edging between the wall and the soft anchorage
of the bed, I turn my bedspread back; lay hands
along its length and see how awkwardly
it rucks; how hard it is to settle it enough.
This is a deceptively simple and very beautiful poem. I think the first thing that struck me was its visual quality, and of course it also resonated with me as a parent, however long ago it was now that I dragged myself from bed to soothe one of my (two) children. Somehow those night hours stay with you don’t they?
So, I’ll lead up to my favourite part of the poem by talking about each of the three stanzas in turn. The first one consists of a single sentence which arrives very quickly at the main action (‘I pad’) after only a short adverbial opening phrase (‘Nights you call out’). There is something urgent about arriving so soon at a main verb in the poem. So many poems tend to work the other way around – starting off with a long list of adverbials (or an unusually long grammatical subject) which seemingly delay the action beyond what is normal, making the reader wait for the resolution of knowing what is happening. This, as I say, is the reverse. We know that the narrator of the poem is padding down the hall very quickly. Just as quickly, perhaps, as s/he would leap out at the sound of a cry from the child.
The North, Issue 57
The other noticeable thing about these opening lines is the missing words. We might expect ‘Nights when you call out’, but the when is missing. Again, speed is of the essence when a child is calling and we know how to fill in the missing word anyway. Likewise with pad (down) the hallway. The preposition is missing, but we know that we have to get there fast and it is not absolutely necessary to the sense.
Once in the room with the child, there is time to take in all the details, so the rest of the sentence echoes the gaze of the loving adult taking in the duvet, the leg and the palm. Notice how each of these is postmodified by reduced relative clauses:
your duvet (which is) flung wide
your leg (which is) dangling down, tender and crooked,
still warm, your small palm (which is) cooling on the wall
Quite apart from spoiling the music, the relative pronoun and verb would also introduce time back into this sentence, which, having raced to be beside the child, is now timeless and photographic in its stillness. The leg has additional, unusually postposed, adjectival modification (tender and crooked, still warm) which works so well; like a filmic panning of the scene by the eyes of the adult – and thereby also the eyes of the reader. What a lovely touch, too, to know why the child had her hand on the wall. She has overheated and now, perhaps is crying out because of cooling down too much.
The second stanza has two sentences. The first line makes up one of them and it provides a musical intensity of fricative consonants (s/f/z/sh) in the opening words (Your soft toys shift and slide). This onomatopoeic effect directly mimics the sounds of the toys as they are moved by the duvet being straightened. The rest of the stanza divides into two, though it is one sentence.
The first part takes the sliding of toys and transfers this movement metaphorically to the mind, which for a moment moves from the present to think of ‘small absent ones I cared for in passing’. We are not told whether these are other children who have grown up (or died?) but it seems less sad and more casual than this, and could refer to foster children or friends’ children or other family members, but seems to only occupy the narrator momentarily as she is back in the room by the second half of the sentence.
The dynamics of the narrator’s mind seems to have its own will as it slides of its own volition and the effect is of the narrator watching her own mind wandering, which evokes one of the manifestations of being half asleep.
The mind then brings the narrator back into the room by ‘dusting the bunk of a girl newly turned from the wall in sleep’. It seems odd for a moment to find the child referred to in the third person, as she has been you until now. But this is the word which cements our understanding that it is the mind which is dusting the bunk and not the narrator, who would have continued to use the second person.
And here we are, at my favourite spot in the poem; the one that made me choose it to write about. The opening line-and-a-bit of the third stanza is an adverbial clause:
‘Edging between the wall and the soft anchorage
of the bed’.
Why is this so effective? Well for a start, I think it sums up perfectly the vulnerability of human beings getting up from a deep sleep in the night when our surroundings, however, familiar, seem less safe than in the daytime. Here, we have a bed which is quite near the wall, so the narrator needs to edge between them.
But more importantly, the bed is the safe place, which is captured perfectly by anchorage, summoning up as it does the sense of a voyager who has found somewhere secure to stop for a rest. But of course a bed is much softer than your average anchorage and the fricative sounds of the resulting phrase soft anchorage make the point in sound as well as meaning.
This arrival back to the narrator’s own bed is less immediate than the opening move to the child’s room. This longer journey is captured by the long adverbial discussed in the previous paragraph. The next few words get us to the crux of this final sentence, which lasts for the whole stanza, just like the first one. But in this case, the action is split into three: ‘I turn my bedspread back’; ‘lay hands along its length’ and ‘see how awkwardly it rucks’. None of these three actions involve snuggling down into the bed or going to sleep.
There are three actions, which rhetorically sounds like a complete set of actions. We don’t get a sense that there is going to be any sleep soon. Nothing is quite right here and unlike the child who can be soothed and covered over when she cries out, the adult in the poem has no such comfort. The final line provides a hint of this discomfort by recasting the complement of the final action (‘see how awkwardly it rucks’) instead as how hard it is to settle it enough.
My mind slides back to those small absent children …
Lesley Jeffries is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Huddersfield. She is the author of a number of books and articles on the language of poetry, including The Language of Twentieth Century Poetry
(Palgrave 1993). She is working on a new book on the language of contemporary poetry. She also works on political language, which is not so different from poetry at times.