I haven’t been publishing much recently. In the project to detail my commitment to New Zealand and its literature for the purposes of scholarship applications, I have stopped detailing New Zealand literature in anything other than self-promotional form. Below is a dissatisfying exegesis of a poem that I am still struggling with, and a slow-motion enactment of my failure to make much sense of it.
I first came across R.A.K. Mason in my last year of High School. My English teacher photocopied a few of his poems from The Beggar (1924), telling us that the book was so unappreciated at the time of publication that Mason was driven to throw a whole stack of them off Queen’s Wharf. What I remember most distinctly, though, isn’t the poems themselves: it’s the fact that the teacher had put bits together from different pages, shrinking them so they all fitted onto one double-sided page, with the poems arranged like a secret code, or acrostic, facing out at all angles, like a Giacometti sculpture.
Maybe the best way to get into Mason is to have his work literally pointing in all directions. A communist, he ran the full gamut of philosophical poetry; a philosopher, he edited a communist newspaper and wrote political poems. He was many things at many times, and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.
One of the poems struck out across the page was his haunting piece, ‘The Body of John’, published when he was only 19:
Oh! I have grown so shrivelled and sere,
But the body of John enlarges,
I can scarcely summon a tear,
But the body of John discharges.
It’s true my old roof is near ready to drop,
But John’s boards have burst asunder,
And I am perishing cold here a-top,
But his bones lie stark hereunder.
This poem seems so simple, and then so complex, and finally moving and enigmatic. Let me go through it line-by-line putting myself–like Mason–on display, to show how I try to read this poem.
What I note first is that the italicized sections all begin with a conjunction, ‘but’, disagreeing with the proposals formed in the previous line. My first thought is that this is a poem of split subjectivity, or at least of two competing ideas.
I keep this in mind as I look at the first two lines, which to me are rather unexpected. After the first line, I am waiting for a further lament of the onrush of corporeality, where the body fails and the mind remains sharp. Yet here the body ‘enlarges’. Is it the mind that has ‘grown shrivelled and sere’, while his body is suffused with with ruddy life?
The third and fourth lines give further hints. The failure to ‘summon a tear’ may reflect a withering of emotional faculties, while the ‘discharge’, I presume, is the sexual body acting independently from the suffering ‘I’. He is 19 after all.
The second stanza introduces the house metaphor. The ‘old roof’ is enigmatic. For the first time the non-italicized speaker is referring to himself in metaphor: the ‘old roof’ is probably a reference to his emotional or mental state. The metaphor works for this reading–if the roof is going to collapse then he has no shelter from the rain and the wind which will slowly wear him down.
Yet the second line complicate this a little. What are John’s ‘boards’ precisely? In the context of a roof, the boards could be roofing boards or floorboards, standing in for either the externalities (more likely) or the foundations (less likely). But why have the boards burst asunder? I thought that it was the body that was strong and the mind that was weak. Is it that the mental defences have caved in? By this point I’m sure that the weak mind/strong body distinction isn’t going to last the whole way through the poem. I’m going to have to think a little harder and be a little more flexible, to mix my metaphors.
By the third line the roof has collapsed. Left ‘cold here a-top’, we have the image of a man in a broken, roof-less house, left exposed to the elements. If the house is the flesh then the stripping away of physicality, to reveal weakness, fits well with the opening lines.
The final line invokes a restfulness after struggle. The bones are left ‘stark hereunder’, the last evidence that the structure–body and mind, as represented by the house–has collapsed completely. Are the bones the bones of his struggle, a struggle against the body itself? This is satisfactory, to a certain extent, as it seems to fit with the metaphors, which have been deployed by both voices, to resolve the struggle into an invocation of the inevitability and constancy of death.
External evidence is quite illuminating, and it’s reassuring in that it does not significantly shift my provisional reading. Rachel Barrowman, in her 2003 biography Mason: the life of R.A.K. Mason, has this to say:
It is a simple, powerful and elusive poem, all the more so when read in the light of its personal resonances: that John was the name by which Mason was known in his family, and also the name of a cousin…who had drowned in 1884 at the age of eleven. (57)
The biographical references help unpack the figure of John a little–suggesting that it is the artist and also one of the dead. Barrowman doesn’t go any further, leaving us with what we already suspected: the body of John is probably the body of the artist, and the non-italicized speaker is probably his voice. It still seems plausible that they cross over, too, collapsing the bats and beams of objective enquiry and thus the absolute rationalist distinction between body and mind, to find a more haunting, personal experience.
Yet, as a good reader of Modernist poetry, I still can’t help but go off hunting. I remember that on that sheet of paper we had a couple of other poems by R.A.K. Mason that also mentioned ‘John’, albeit in more specifically religious contexts. One was called ‘Footnote to John ii 4′, which is reproduced in this article, but I’m not sure how much help it is: it’s about Christ’s rejection of his mother as well as memories of childhood. Imagery of blood and pain return, fascination with the body, but it just doesn’t seem to be of all that much use–he’s not the first male poet to write about the horrors of corporeality, after all.
Thus I’m forced, damn it all, to return to the text. I think I’ve got somewhere, but I still feel that the key to a better reading of the poem is forming a better understanding of the relationship of the two speakers and how the house metaphor operates within this. Perhaps I need to loosen my categories a little, stop trying to read the poem so much like a crossword puzzle. All of which is to say that I’m still not sure, but I know that the poem is a powerful description of someone undergoing mental anguish, a shriek in the night-time of the soul. All of which is to say, of course, that I’m still a bit stuck.
Let me leave you with something a lot more simple–Mason’s description, at the end of ‘Sonnet of Brotherhood‘, of New Zealand,
…this far-pitched, perilous, hostile place,
This solitary, hard-assaulted spot,
Fixed at the friendless, utter verge of space[.]
Now that is New Zealand.