Poem of the week: Poem for Professor Frye by Nausheen Eusuf

A playful appropriation of some deliberately clunky metaphors manages to find startling life in them

Poem for Professor Frye

… ‘the pale dawn of longing’, ‘the broken collar-bone of silence’, ‘the massive eyelids of time’, ‘the crimson tree of love’. I have made these up myself, and they are free to any poet who wants them …
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

The pale dawn of longing descends,
ruthless and punctual in its disdain.
The soul, benumbed, dares not to face
the world outside the window frame,
and grips the bedclothes tight and close.

Father Time, with his massive eyelids
and crooked nose, has little time
for such inconsequence. He notes
the curled-up form and balled-up sheets,
and scorns the timorous race of men.

The silence glows like a broken bone
in an X-ray, where the flesh is dark,
and darker still the ghostly heart
that waters the crimson tree of love.

The literary critic Northrop Frye wrote in The Anatomy of Criticism that “poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels … the forms of literature can no more exist outside literature than the forms of the sonata and fugue and rondo can exist outside music.” However you feel about this, there’s no denying that intertextuality, under less formal names (influence, conversation, etc) has always been with us, and that it often liberates the inventive prowess of young poets.

Nausheen Eusuf enjoys some lively conversation, sometimes subversive, sometimes admiring, with other writers and texts in her first collection, Not Elegy, but Eros, published by NYQ Books in the US and BLB in Bangladesh. She shouldn’t be typecast by this predilection: Eusuf occupies wider worlds of public and personal engagement. And her more “literary” poems are never simply literary. This week’s choice is a good example of how the intertextual chrysalis can open bright, original wings.

Frye’s sardonic offer of those heavy-handed metaphors “free to any poet who wants them” are from the fourth essay in the Anatomy, Rhetorical Criticism. Frye describes the general principle, and enthuses about the “sudden glory of the fused metaphor” as the “emotional crux of the lyric”, citing classic examples, and subtler manifestations: Thomas Nashe’s “Brightness falls from the air”, Dylan Thomas’s A Grief Ago.

Pathetic fallacy of the obvious kind (“the pale dawn of longing”) gets a new turn from Eusuf right away with the un-dawn-like “descends”. Her further characterisation of the daybreak as “ruthless and punctual in its disdain” leaves us in no doubt: the literary trope of the pale, pining lover is being translated into a convincing portrayal of depression. At the same time, a parodic nuance is suggested not only by the diction but by the mixture of little stumbles (line one) and careful precision (line three) in the iambic tetrameter.

Although no persona or character has been defined, Eusuf’s narrative picks up the note of self-dramatisation, and intensifies it with archaism, as with the “benumbed” soul. The expression hovers nearer pastiche as the second stanza progresses, and yet the idea of a soul physically able “to grip the bedclothes tight and close” is oddly effective. If we forget the title, we could read this sort-of sonnet as every well-read non-poet’s misery poem. It gestures ineptly at the romantic and metaphysical set texts. And yet the misery is never in doubt.

A central characteristic of this kind of poem is that it ignores the warning signals an experienced writer would dodge from miles away. So Frye’s personification of time leads Eusuf to present Father Time, that most stereotypical of allegorical figures. Only now he is transformed through caricature, with “massive eyelids” complemented by a “crooked nose” in a striking sketch of the Titan as old bruiser.

Father Time, it’s comically noticed, has “little time” for the protagonist’s suffering. In fact, he “scorns the timorous race of men”. This sounds like a quotation from some lofty minor Victorian, but, if it is, I couldn’t locate it. It offers a revised characterisation, a Time living up to his weighty reputation (despite the broken nose).

The protagonist remains undefined, but details are suggestive. A foetal position is suggested by “the curled-up form”, the “balled-up sheets” evoke anguished insomnia. But the form is not necessarily bodily: it could be the kind of impenetrable questionnaire you fill in and give up on. Those sheets could be abandoned poems or letters. Perhaps the “longing” of the first line was directed not at a lost love, but worldlier hopes of achievement? The poem’s emotions are masked; the voice and figures belong to a pre-confessional age.

The last stanza gets to the crux of things. “The silence glows like a broken bone” is a brilliant piece of synaesthesia, transforming Frye’s comically precise non sequitur, “the broken collar-bone of silence”. Eusuf’s electric silence dramatises the extent of the loss. From the lit bone of the x-ray we penetrate darkness and further darkness. Love and the heart are old and jaded companions. But Eusuf’s image is more anatomical, the veins and arteries of the lover’s body forming the tree which is watered by the pumped out blood. It’s an image that displays the intrinsic, physical nature of emotion.

A poem that began with Frye’s array of deliberately inept and poet-patronising metaphors has found a pulse in them. To reread it is to realise that Eusuf has outclassed Frye with a real love poem, literary in diction but not bowed by its borrowings, serious enough after all to be taken seriously. The poet has shown the critic that art can break the rules, and still shine.

Contributor

Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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