Commentary on Ospita
Ospita is the word Hospital with the first and last letters removed. It’s also the third person singular of Italian ospitare: to house, shelter, entertain. It took a long time to find this word, wanting to capture the central derivation from hospes and avoid structures specific to person or institution. More remotely I might trace echoes of words such as auspice, pity, spite (as in Spitewinter)... but the central P pretty-well excludes the ‘hostile’ group, while admitting marginally both guest and stranger. The Danish for “Peter’s house” would be “hus Peter” (I used to live in Denmark). But in Latin “Os Petrus” might well be Peter’s mouth, or his bone(s).
An ospita is a white thing. In this work it is mainly a building or institution, like a hospice, set up for the working of good. On another occasion it was a small Romanesque Cathedral in a town in France. Occasional images through the work (calcium, sarsens, sheep) remind me also of the whiteness of limestone, and so of other pale zones which are set apart, such as Wessex or the Peak District.
The lines are basically decasyllabic with irregularities, but 9-syllable lines are not uncommon, and dominate in stanzas 4, 5 and 7. Stanza 5 has mostly 8 and 9 syllable lines. Final lines or couplets of stanzas tend to expand towards 12. Only the last stanza is strict, alternating 10 and 8 syllables throughout until the last line in 10.
There is plenty of end rhyming, irregularly, two to five lines apart, sometimes forming ABAB or ABBA quatrains, and four times forming a final couplet – like parcels of sonnet procedures flitting around, appearing and disappearing. The entire sonnet presence in this poem or sequence is remembered. But the last stanza is strict: ABAB CDCD EFG EFG.
The building’s offers are its offices, flashing also into stardom. The sealed jar is like a cinerary urn or a canopic vase. I assent because I was sent, consigned, with a covering letter and a jar, sealed like the one on the hill in Tennessee, the jar of what is. I assent to the inevitability of slow harm as to the slowing of harm, concealed under a letter such as the H stolen from hospital. I want to enter, you see, quietly, unnoticed by all those seniors. As I brought a jar I am offered a cup, which once taken the dream is broken open, and this initial scenario actually was a dream. Everything in it seemed then to inhabit the day and to wish to bring the governing and the familiar together, if only as a wish. But I am now buried deep in the building like a foundation deposit. The asters echo the stars from a long way back; they are also masters (seniors) who, like the hospital, have lost their initial letters, though I have a covering letter which would serve all of them. They are fallen stars playing golf on the far links (the far left / the fair lynx) and slowly giving birth, like links in a chain. Beyond that I don’t know: whether the links link through golf to gulf and gulf to war, which is what was going on at the time, creating a need for new doctors or at least hospital assistants over there, on the far links, a need which has done nothing but increase since, and lynch law still prevails.
As a novice you seek seniors to guide you. I thought of Lorand Gaspar, who is both a poet and a surgeon, if he would welcome me into the edifice. But what is brought forward is the outer surface of our being, the coat and cast, the coat cast before us. The seniors being both new and old are capable of knowing this, and guiding us into trust. Faithful gets the L missing from the end of hospital to stress its age, and the precision and scope to be taken under the wings (coils) of the heart, sought through these corridors.
Meanwhile there are slender ghosts smiling to the third tune. This was intuited, lyrically or not, but Claire Malroux, faced with the task of translating it, poor thing, asked me about it specifically in Gascony, and I think I replied that the first tune is ‘I’, the second tune is ‘you’, and the third tune is next. Which could mean that you set yourselves into this kind of intention, corridors of the heart indeed, and while the dialectics of passage serve as impulsion enough there is another possible presence, a third term, not only absent but also frail, and thin and insubstantial (like a stranger’s thin arm) and not instructing anything, but smiling, to, like dancing to, a further rhythm. In that case ‘what is false’ could be anything not yet realised (‘false’ is a false rhyme with ‘coils’, as ‘senior’ with ‘slender’) and if you’ve got it in the pestle you’re getting somewhere, because you have separated it from what means. False is negative, and the meaning thing is the chiming thing that you cultivate out of yourself, or represent within yourself. It chimes across to others, evidently, not clouded in occultation. This is what it seems to say. How are we doing so far?
‘Syrius’ is probably a mistake for ‘Sirius’ but crossed (as in a garden) with Syria or Scythia, places of great hope and despair. At the time I wrote nobody had made an enormous problem for us out of the nearer approaches of Asia (in some respects they should have done). The other possible occluded word is Syrinx, the vocal organ of birds, up in the trees. Sirius is the brightest star in the heavens, the dog-star (dog and bird fighting for a place in the sky), and from a very long way away, it looks down on our chiming bells, our inner gardens, which are ground in the pestle and grounded on the ground, and broiled, which means cooked in the fire.
Then a scene, a hospital kind of scene. Notice how the vowels of ‘blood in the sink’ echo ‘Open to Syrius’ and the former is itself echoed syntactically by ‘call in the night’. Rhythms, like pieces of prosody floating in conversational speech, calling us to act. The intern, nurse, whatever he or she is, is on call, and gets on with it. I feel that the last two lines, by being so like an Alexandrian couplet, try to force ‘pain’ and ‘light’ to rhyme (chime, or mean) together. But the rhyme was anticipated and displaced by line 12.
Calcium night light was another unheralded arrival. At the time it was a way of starting the third stanza, echoed from the end of the second. It’s also the title of a piece of music by Charles Ives, of which I now have no recollection. But calcium is a white substance which recurs later in a natural form as ‘sarsens’, white rock, and the light that lights these acts must be old and bright, like the dog-star.
There’s an interesting prosodic thing going on here. If you look two syllables before the end of the 4th, 7th and 10th lines you can get a series of three interlocking ABBA quatrains: man, die, cry, can / across, holds, enfolds, loss / never, drop, top, river. Another (pain, don’t, won’t, again) is interrupted by line 11. And what’s all that about? That urging (the self) forward again, the strophes falling over each other, as I tend to (‘I cast my whole life at your delay’), pulled back by the ‘pain of incompletion’ (which is everybody’s future).
Any other problems around here? I don’t think so. The ‘call’ here is the same one again, of course, or wishes to be – the call to a calling, the doctor’s call, the call out to some eminence, some vertiginous performance. That they should be all one call, the call to wound and the call to heal, each to their appointed ends. And that can only be, I suppose, through some plurality. I climb down, and refuse to be distracted from the working lessness I am, with a bit of moan, a bit of song moan.
There are three shouts in this set of which this is the second. A man shouts in pain (‘Amen’ shouted in vain). So there is a way, an opening, because there is a problem or failure. The god is defeated long before we are, by this pain, we become older and maybe wiser until the death-bed explodes. Then ‘we’ return to a performative attenuated ‘I’, a long solo, or a long time alone.
I think there is some undercurrent in this one focused on diphthongs, set by voice in line 1 which opens a door onto a route which threads through the poem. The fruit set against eluct (another word which doesn’t exist, but easily distilled from two words which do – a struggling to bring forth, or a bringing forth struggling) then later the voice squeezed back out, like fruit juice... Fruit always suggests light (luit) and eluct/elucidation in the struggling-forth of a voice, focused finally, of course, on ‘lust’, the burning light. It’s all wrapped in the duality of the diphthong until the voice bursts out of it, and all these consonances and jars open into the sentence in quotes, than which nothing could be plainer. But let me not omit to note that sink becomes singing because its consonant is voiced, and that is now a fruiting and an enlightening. And the pain of lessness, the most widely spreading force we know. The whole sonnet is clasped pain at start and end, but what starts as a physical pain goes through the voice tunnel and emerges as a mental pain, dispersed. You could also, probably elect wisdom; that would be all right too.
The bell is a funeral bell (see below) or a market bell, a calling together which spreads apart. Its passing vibrations (passing measures) are what a person becomes in the final incompletion of a life, dispersing where it can, seeking to attach itself to the future by hooks of pain by which it can be recognised centuries later on the other side of the earth.
Another patient has died. The ospita is beginning to look like a waste of time. It stammers the word ‘escape’ until we are trapped in it, escaping only from what we need. It would be folly to think of escaping from language (remember this was 1986; it would be folly also to be trapped in language). And the whole thing becomes a source of new dolour (new dollar? if you like, though the routes to it are not worked out). And here it comes, the new sorrow: a woman shouting a name in an institution. A perfectly common English name such as any dead or dying husband might have. Also the name of an old English poet, who might be evoked much as Orpheus was, though not normally in this kind of connection. An angry English teacher shouting down a corridor at schoolchildren the name of the author of the poem they’ve got to learn for homework? Learn for instance No.71: ‘How Vertue may best lodg’d in beautie be’ which would be rather like expecting wisdom to arise under its own power from either pain or healing. But the doctors subscribe to Playboy and our culture hangs in bits.
So the ‘dor’ sound which has been bouncing around sadly lately (Romanian for ‘longing’ but I didn’t know that at the time, and hadn’t been there) brings the course to a door which slams shut, shut as the skull. The author (Arthur) gets somewhat defeated here, apologises, feels he has brought us to this pass (as he has), strives desperately to dream a future, a fruiting out of this fall, starting with the light on the leaf which is of course the very beginning of a very long cyclic process of regeneration. The ‘erection’ bit is unusually harsh for me and I once changed the word to ‘direction’ and then to ‘election’. But it is only the leaf again, or it is like all that urging in Shakespeare’s first 17 sonnets, where ‘men as plants increase’. No solution is posited here (or there), ‘everyone’s to blame’ as Little Dorrit said. And the smear of water which means the possibility of future life is now a lake, a very quiet one where the boats (wait). ‘boats wane’ must come from boatswain but the way they wane is as the moon does. And if we don’t find a use for them they will sink.
A kind of underground episode, enclosed (off-duty) in a windowless room and what goes on outside, which is a rather beautiful night pastoral of birds and wheat. The plovers came from a song by Ivor Gurney to words by Wilfred Gibson,
All night under the moon plovers are flying,
Over the dreaming meadows of silvery light,
Over the meadows of June calling and crying,
Wandering voices of love in the hush of the night.
All night under the moon, love, though we’re lying
Quietly under the thatch, in the dreaming light,
Over the meadows of June together we’re flying,
Wandering voices of love in the hush of the night.
The music stresses every move the words make by constant modulation, a shifting ecstatic stairway, the speaking time-sense slowed and floated into the permanent moment, and is so high and difficult in its breath control that probably only Eric Partridge could ever sing it properly.
This is the outside music; inside we just attempt some jazzy fragments, some schoolboyish modernities which nevertheless tense the roots of our hopeful wings for a moment, and fall to silence. Unable to compete aesthetically, we ask the ethical question, which is only the common old question, you know, ‘What’s it all for?’ etc. but rather musically bound up in speech-rhythms that have caught a prosody the way people catch colds, indeed quite probably building to a sneeze at the end of the sentence, the open A. The structure is repeated. As you keep repeating things they will, with luck, extend, and merge, and with each repetition the peewits are closer, there on our minds and chests and lips. But don’t think the peewits are ‘humanised’; we just adore them so much for being what they are that a sense of them lives in our hearts, and falls with us.
Ornithological note: according to me this bird has three names for three of its properties: plover because it follows the plough, lapwing because it flaps its wings, and peewit because it goes ‘peeeee–wit!’.
This was somewhere on the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula, there was a church bell sounding, or I thought of one (because actually the churches are mostly well inland). I was once receiving directions from an old man in a village in Transylvania and a single bell started tolling some distance away, and he stopped, and asked, ‘Who’s died?’
This stanza maintains a rhyme scheme as strict as that of 10 in its way, ABAB CDCD EFE GFG (with E affiliated to A and gulls affiliated to terns) except that all the rhymes are imperfect, to the point sometimes of being hard to discern. And with uneven line-length, kind of wobbling along as the ospita turns on its side and drifts along the coast and the hospital stands empty, for the two have become separated. Clearly action is needed but the white hens who used to be brilliant metallic birds before the kissing stopped warn us against any kind of forward precipitancy. Clearly it is time for a statement, about death, which no hospital is going to abolish or contain ever. As soon as the statement starts those old prosodic song structures raise their heads again, alliterative strides, and the rhymes become real and shiny.
I wouldn’t like the statement to be read as a reiteration of Marx’s hatred of Robert Owen or Herzen, though I couldn’t stop anyone. It does say that healing is not enough in the face of the demand of the (poetical) history to be maintained, but it doesn’t advocate wounding, or leaving the wounds to hurt. It wants a larger process, less of a goods delivered and hands washed, more of a setting this jewel into a world clasp. (See maybe the ‘Ways of doing good in the world’ section of Alstonefield V). I was thinking perhaps again of Lorand Gaspar, liver surgeon in a hospital in Tunis whose colleagues once saw him with a book of poetry and said ‘You read that kind of intellectual stuff?’ It didn’t make them any worse surgeons than he, but it subtracted something from a total which needs to be maintained somehow.
The rest of the statement revises the first line by re-stressing the moment into a progression. Bite could be byte, in fact that might have been a mistake, though I notice with surprise that I changed nothing for the Carcanet edition. I was at this time very new to computer language. I still am. The loss of the E from the makes very little difference that I can see, for prosodically the E would have been elided anyway. Perhaps it adds a spark of graphemic antiquity to the future condition. Yellow chime is something to do with the Yellow Emperor, who fixed the musical scale by measuring the vibrations of the monochord, graded the sounds, as he or someone else graded the daylight into colours.
I think there’s a Greek rhetorical term for the strange configuration of the first line. The statement we had all been waiting for was dreamt, and floated away on its side as dreams, and statements do. Time won’t go fast enough to wake the dreamer and get him out of bed. The sign that calls him is of course a distant semaphor but became a discant one as minds between dream and waking tend to get their consonants awry. A discant is an additional line of music floating above the melody. Oxide is generally what you get when you burn something in the atmosphere – smoke for instance (floating above). People are often grumpy when they have to get up in the morning, for reasons that probably extend back through their lives, and their beliefs or hopes are burnt into the air.
He finds himself (at some point I became a he, disowned as it were, by the author) alone. He falls into this down a slide of sweetness. Possibly the several initial Ss in lines 3 and 6 invoke the ghost of the lost ‘I’ in a faint underground scream in line 7 as it slides down ice-cream. If so that would be one of those nasty falling dreams, from great ambitions of world-saving, to a solitude.
He, meanwhile, is walking the moor at the beginning of The Return of the Native looking for a novel to enter, because nobody would listen to him. For this is the point of the whole thing really, to harmonise a life (yours, unless you’re a novelist) to harmonise a life’s properties and pass them on to further life, to keep alive. The harmony is what’s passed on, the verse, the resolutions. So there are signs of hope, at the idea, the birds are swallows. It cannot be they who crackle with fear, no swallow ever made a sound remotely like a crackle, it must be the russet fields. Perhaps they are about to be harvested, that annual human slow burning.
The end- rhyme here, faulty but persistent, takes a longer stretch - ABCD ABCD AB(C?)D (A)D. ‘float’ is not a rhyme exactly, but could be said to stand phonetically about half way between ‘flight’ and ‘fear’. Big strides and a hesitation, then a slip, stabilized.
Can you imagine the hesitation, and fear, that went into setting the word ‘right’ where it is, at the end? But it is right.
The nagging question with number nine has always been the word ‘sarcens’. At that point the ‘protagonist’ has been picked up from the shore, buried, and sweetly forgotten. But ‘true numbers’ emanate from his body, ‘alternating black and white name-tags that flitter like sarcens in the tree-top.’ This is evidently some kind of resurrection. The word ‘sarcen’ is a mis-spelling uniting Saracen and sarsen, but they are the same word anyway. The Saracen, the Moor (black) is where, as in Shakespeare or the Crusades, morality becomes a black-and-white matter. If you see one, kill it. No blame attaches. It is the enemy threatening from outside, the alien. The word means ‘from the east’ perhaps in connection with an Arab word for sunrise (white). If the (black) outside is made into an enemy, treated as a hindrance to expansion and exploitation which requires eliminations, a rejection of these policies might suddenly render the black white. Hesitation, or the initial moment of realisation, the vision of harm, might cause a flickering. A sarsen is an erratic boulder of (white) limestone such as can be found lying around especially in Wiltshire. Apparently they got this name as meaning ‘heathen’, meaning something like ‘bloody great difficult things’. Problems, obviously. Unlikely things to find in the tree tops too, as are Arab warriors. But these emanations (messages) from the corpse body speak on its behalf to raise it into life as the flickering sarcens become small birds singing (in black and white like a digital recording) singing his centre (his hope) into holes (black) in the snow (white), and this is his distinction, against which the grey (merged) doctors admit defeat.
I think that’s what the last bit implies, but I do have difficulty concerning what exactly is happening when his centre (singular) enters (sung into) holes (plural) in the snow. It seems to work, but I’m not sure why. I could refer to notions of the self as a plurality in time (and its needs, and those of others, thus necessarily pluralised) and perhaps his entire ‘death’ was into the quality of a monadic self, or a monolithic, and behold, the monoliths are twittering in the tree-tops and spinning their bright and shaded sides around (Sarsens were a major material for some of the great Neolithic British ritual sites, such as Avebury.) The sarsen-birds embody my sense of both music and earthly space (creatures, growth) as active forces towards good when well related, here concerning the erosion of the self-solidity of first or third person. This would open the spirit to the tolerance of ambivalence, hopefully.
What goes on earlier in no.9 is something like a cross between an operation and a funeral, as the shipwrecked mariner lies on the shore, both processes being observed by the victim. No reference to Shelley was consciously intended, as his heart rose flickering out of his body on the sea-shore into the future. It is so comforting to the governors to have a final death, like a successful operation, these grey doctors from whom he had hoped to learn the techniques of the good. They now have him on a list, to be disposed of, one way or another. All those previous deaths become his death, which as the end of his wealth is the happiest moment. He redeems winter, the dead time, into the flickering spring (I get this via Shakespeare, Richard III, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent...’, whose triumphalist summer was tagged by ‘I am myself alone’). He lets them cut him up, he lets them bury him (lime is a substance which would reduce any human remains buried in it to ash)... This is beginning to sound like T.S. Eliot! – which it isn’t, it is a lot more ludic than that, in the figurations, such as the angel cake. It’s a sweet and light cake with a very pale substance, just about white, and in layers, like a crown. What’s it doing here? What indeed, but as the sweet side of a bitter-sweet consummation, the pretender’s crown vapourising into afternoon tea at the hospital.
Almost none of these terms of course occured to me at the time, and I claim no propriety on them. As I said concerning Aria with Small Lights, you don’t arrive at these things by mapping out a sequence of figures and then writing it. But neither is personal response the only way of reading, for intention also participates and is contracted by the reader, as in prosodic structure. The pivotal phrase is, ‘but winter is true numbers’. This is the turning point, the ‘But’ clause, the thing that settles the issue, and I can say exactly what I intended. Well I just thought, you know – winter: necessary cold, absolute temporal condition, things retract and wait, what can you do about it? Light a fire, have a hot drink, work, wait. It will pass. Numbers: measure, strict things, they rule us, we can’t deny them, we made them and we have to accede to them as we have to accede to winter, counting its days as they accumulate, and certainly counting the cost of keeping warm, and such numbers are true because we live them. I could go on, about ‘counting the call’ (in stanza 3) as if winter and numbers call to each other for mutual aid, to solve each other, as they do. But I intended little more than a coldness and a sense of observance and obligation in a strict measure, and things which make each other welcome. ‘true numbers’ is a also prosodic term and would signify fidelity to a prosodic system once adopted, however that is read in the current state of things.
The run of 2-syllable rhymes from winter: enter, inter, winter, blister, flitter, winter – strides through this stanza on stepping-stones as a discant to the action of interment, that it is also a striding out into the (winter) landscape, across the river.
Whatever was decided at the end of 9, the ‘I’ can now return (‘he’ is buried) and walk freely out (of the ospita) and even sing: ‘As I walked out one morning in May...’ etc., in fact is fully attached.
It was a circular walk from Tony Baker’s house in Winster, Derbyshire. I don’t remember where I went but the momentous part was at the end. I came southwards from Cratcliffe and kept to the old high road (now graced with the name ‘The Limestone Way’ by our tourist-cinema managers) and below Westcliff turned to walk gently downhill through the fields towards Winster from the west. Small rough fields scattered with stones and sheep, a barely discernible path through a series of narrow styles in the low stone walls.
It was a pleasant day, sunny at first, and the grass-blades shone, but the word ‘blades’ has distinct suggestion of OED7, ‘a free and easy fellow’ etc., (with implications of wealth and leisure not mentioned by OED), the kind of fellow we so often have to pass through or among as we go about our businesses (rather curiously not given a separate etymology so perhaps to do with brightness and weaponry, or, Lord help us, ‘cutting edge’ thrills). So it was a normal day, all the bright things making the most of themselves. I walked without the wealth that stealth rhymes with.
The farmers in the Peak Distict are in my experience fairly unanimously angry if you walk through their fields, whether there is a path or right of way or not and I have twice been threatened with violence and many times with dogs. I met one particularly bitter old sod near Hathersage who used to shoot a gun at people on one of Trollope’s postal delivery paths which went through his bitter pastures. The fields here are not the easy sloping ones at the end of the walk, they are out of the general pool of experience where farmers and fathers get angry for good or bad reasons.
And so it goes on, the self as half a person seen from one side and another half from the other and how many more from every viewpoint and legal definition? This multiplicity now acknowledged from within on the strength of substantiality of act rather than pure being. The much bigger Peak walking poem, Alstonefield, also divides its protagonist into two as a token of a much greater multiplicity tied to a moral quest for certainty. Probably. Note the half-league (deep) boots which drive us through this course.
And so comes to the statement, which I leave. It probably comes at the furthest point of the walk, after which is return. It cuts the poem in half after line 7, right across the prosodic structure. The regularity of this piece in both rhyme and syllable-count (I don’t really believe in ‘poetical feet’, not even in a walking poem) I mentioned as a ‘strictness’ and it might be thought as a tight, binding thing, even an authoritarian restriction (though on whose authority I don’t know), but really it is a release, a freedom from care. Walking in King Wenceslas’ footprints. Note that although all the sonnet bits and vestiges we’ve had heretofore have leaned towards the English form with final couplet, this one, though it conforms to no whole-poem formula, is much more of a Petrarchan sonnet.
And so trotting along at steady and adviseable pace, we descend the fields past the diminished and wooly Saracens, to the house, protected by banks, as houses should be. And what you expect to find in any house: warmth, music, etc. It’s all over, and the person is where persons belong. There are just a couple of notes--
‘Gurney piano’ is odd, it sounds like a make of piano but isn’t. Again as if swallowing the terms rather than articulating them. It’s another glance at Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) poet and musician, who suffered a double neglect. Firstly ignored by association – one of those ‘Georgian’ ‘conservative’ poets like A, B, C, etc. who we don’t want to know about, because they’re ‘pastoral’ fodder for the English middle-class who as we know are inherently evil. Secondly removed from his context and taken seriously only because he suffered under mental illness, as if that automatically made him ‘modern’, with a tendency to be admired for his least achieved poems (like Sylvia Plath, for not unrelated reasons). Gurney had a habit of taking night-long walks through the Gloucestershire countryside and getting back at dawn to improvise on the piano.
The last line is a throw-away. As far as I was concerned it was all over at ‘piano’ and there was nothing to add. After a lot of impasse, I stuck this line on the end. It seems to be roughly all right.
Note. In writing this commentary I made a decision not to consult James Keery’s essay on Ospita in The Gig 4/5, which I remember as being highly perceptive and helpful. Nothing I say here has the authority to contradict anything he says there, or any differing reading anyone should ever make.