Old Parmenides, the pre-Socratic philosopher, held that all change was an illusion. Nobody quite knows what he was on about, though his follower Zeno tried to ‘prove’ that nothing moves with his paradoxes about arrows never logically being able to arrive at their target etc. I like to imagine Parmenides being bitten by a mosquito while he insists nothing moves, and Zeno being interrupted in his thoughts by the sound of an arrow thumping into a tree. The opposite view, that all is in flux and that it’s fixity that’s an illusion, is more conventional, and to me more intelligible. That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that it’s right. Yet the occasional achievement of a kind of stillness, it seems to me, could be a key to what another philosopher almost called ‘a considered life’, though the beautiful word ‘still’ itself is endlessly shifty.
Images and ideas of stillness and movement have been recurring unbidden in some of my poetry over the last few years. It may go back to a novel I wrote twenty years ago, Sidereal Time, in which a central character, thirty-four year-old schoolteacher Sarah Bowen, struggles constantly with the thrilling/terrifying onrush of time and even manages on a few occasions to make it stand still, or seem to. But this more recent emergence of the theme may have started with poems I wrote for a handprinted booklet with linocuts by Sara Philpott called Still Air. Those pieces are to do with a particular landscape in Breconshire and the sense of stillness and movement that arises out of the differing, sometimes imperceptible sometimes dizzying, dynamisms of astronomy, geology, the seasons, climate, and plant and animal life.
In some of these poems, which I’ve added too since the little booklet appeared, moments of apparent stillness – let’s say ‘rest’ since music is important to the set – became apertures through which to apprehend the contrasted dynamisms of the world and their harmonies and dissonances and to apprehend something of our place in them. In some pieces, in a largely impersonal kind of poetry, I continued the formal experiments using what I call river rhyme that I’d begun in a few poems in a book called Air Histories.
The two new poems in The Lonely Crowd Issue Eleven, ‘Still’ and ‘Even in dreamscapes’, are more conventional in form but continue the exploration in different terms. ‘Still’ arises out of the personal, out of what may be my earliest fragment of memory, of an old man, an ex-collier, standing above me on an upstairs landing, and draws out other meanings from its title. ‘Dreamscapes’, responding to Breughel, touches on the paradoxical power of a painting to apprehend movements in stillness, and so to examine experience. Moving on from Still Air, it touches on both the natural world and a process of apprehending it in art, a process that’s simultaneously analytical and synthetic, transformative in mediating disparate experiences into something both new and familiar, and, in its final, dynamic stillness, contemplative.
Literature and the plastic arts have a peculiar access to this power, the short or shortish poem in particular. The printed page invites us to follow a line which if we perform the piece, on the air or in our minds, has duration, travelling through time as music does. Yet the poem has a sculptural quality. It stands still on the page frozen in all its moments and we can walk round it and contemplate its fixity while we ourselves may move through it. Memory, more subtly, has a similar contemplative, examinable quality. Both have the power to strobe moments and repeatable passages of apparently changeless, contemplative intensity from the world. We’re enabled to be onlookers and participants in what I take to be an intensification of consciousness, of moments when we can be at our most alive.
Yet there’s always the moment when the mosquito bites and the arrow goes thwock. Both memory and art exist in time and are fugitive, and their capacity for stillness is a kind of enabling and enlarging illusion. So Breughel’s perching crow at rest has the power to watch the shifting picture but is quietly, irrevocably, gloriously unable to avoid being part of it. I’d hope that the poem itself manages to suggest more than I’m able to get at in the previous sentence. I’ll make no attempt at some neat gloss here on the more complex ‘Still’ in its simultaneous exercising of and meditating on memory. It’s my hope that it will become the title poem of a new collection that gathers together other pieces including ‘Even in dreamscapes’ and the completed ‘Still Air’ sequence.
Christopher Meredith is the award-winning author of four novels and three collections of poetry, and also translates Welsh to English. His collection of short stories Brief Lives is published by Seren. ‘Still’ and ‘Even in Dreamscapes’ are featured in Issue 11.
Banner image by Jo Mazelis.