Poem of the Week: ‘Agave in the West’ by Donald Davie

Harry McNamara 5 February 2019

I like the sidewalks of an American city,

Broad, shadowed stone. I think of Agave,

 

Queen of the maenads, after incestuous fury

Shocked and quiescent, pleading for the cage:

Grids of a rectilinear plot, her cities.

 

Leaving the wilderness, she counts the loss

Of a world of signs – in algae, moss,

Guano lichen, all the blooms of stone;

In cross-grained baulks and boles, in timber grown

Noble in groves or into monstrous shapes;

In rock-formations, cloud-formations, landscapes.

I like the sidewalks of an American city:

 

Sunstruck solitude of parking lots;

Taut vivid women, hair close-shaved from the armpit;

Glass walls run up, run out of the canyon’s lip.

Barber my verses, pitiless vivid city.

 

‘Agave in the West’ is cold, though not, I do not think, because of the freight of academic difficulty. Though the poem wields the tools of learning and literary inheritance, it is interesting to consider how Davie treats this material, and how he prevents it from occluding the larger poetic tenor of the work.

His difficulty is rewarding and complicating; it makes it all uneasy. The first line of Geoffrey Hill’s vast Speech! Speech! (2000) helps his readers with this problem: ‘Erudition. Pain. Light.’ That is it. Hill adopts a quasi-religious sentiment to express the illumination found in the labour of reading. Hill has given it all away, this is the entire poetic project worked out in the first line.

Davie’s learning attends on ‘Agave in the West’, though it is a poem concerned with merging familiarity with unfamiliarity in order to offer moments of illumination amongst this difficulty.

I referred to a coldness in the poem, though Davie begins it with warm energy of ‘I like’. The verb aids the establishment of a unified poetic voice in rational, uninterrupted syntax. The second verb of the stanza, ‘I think’, again conjugated into a simple first-person, resumes a tone that is reticent, conscious of its formal requirements, and refraining from excess. The city’s ‘Broad, shadowed stones’ are drawn out: Davie’s vision of an American city is here depopulated, constituting cold material rather than people. The adjective, ‘shadowed’, presents us with an image described in terms of absence. He is quick to fill the space with his learning, with a tradition, as he thinks of Agave.

I find Davie’s formal caution deeply reassuring, indicative of a poet conscious of his place in a larger poetic project. We find then a poet who takes all this seriously, who attempts to qualify the project’s significance.

Davie pivots with his learning from an American city to the poem’s underlying myth, he provides his readers with some learning: ‘I think of Agave,/ Queen of the maenads’. His parenthetical aside rings with modest pedagogy. Though Davie is careful that the poem is not engulfed by the classicism, Davie cannot help the professorial elucidation.

Putting Agave’s story aside, the second stanza confirms the quiet depopulation with which the poem had begun. We are in the aftermath of some chaotic energy – ‘after incestuous fury’ – emerging into a ‘Shocked and quiescent’ still. As a closure in this furious wake the figure craves structures, a formalised existence: ‘Grids of a rectilinear plot’ is a complex vision of order, pairing the cold polysyllabic ‘rectilinear’ with the more familiar ‘plot’, which offers both a nostalgic sense of agricultural place together with the shadow of a poet’s technology, with plot as an element of artistic design.

Davie repeatedly employs this technique of pairing the familiar with the unfamiliar. When the poem delves into a list in the third stanza – ‘in algae, moss,/ Guano, lichen, all the blooms of stone’ – the taxonomy is largely removed and scientific, though flecked with familiarity as ‘moss’ brings us home. Notably, ‘moss’ clicks the list into the rhyme with loss, ensuring the structure. Though it is the example of the unscientific dialect, intoned with something warmer, it is a key to the poem’s technical togetherness. Davie finds safety, homely comfort even, in his poetic formality.

The merging of familiar and unfamiliar dialects in Davie’s poem produces bilingualism. It is a method of enacting the state of the exiled poet (Davie had an unsettled relationship with his England, and moved peripatetically between academic institutions). Considered in this light, the depopulated urban scene at the beginning dramatises poetic isolation, especially in a poem in which the first person pronoun is so central. The compounds of familiar and unfamiliar vocabulary represent the challenge of finding light in difficulty, the challenge for both the urban stranger and the reader. For the reader, it is a Hillian light, seeing Davie offer moments of familiarity beside points of academic aloofness. In this way, Davie brings the reference closer to his reader; illuminating his reference he brings Agave closer, even if we do not know her. Agave, the ancient Theban, is in the ‘West’, as the title informs.

For Davie, the city represents an order analogous with linguistic form. Emerson’s assertion that ‘Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone.’ (Letters and Social Aims, 1876) shadows the poem. As Agave’s grids are ‘her cities’, so language is Davie’s. A city is, to a degree, planned, ordered by infrastructure, and in which behaviour is codified by legal systems. That cities fail, that they are unstable, ought perhaps to be kept in mind as we assess Davie’s vision.

I said that Davie takes his project seriously, qualifying poetry. Though influenced in his younger years by the modernist school of poetry orbiting around Eliot, Davie made clear in Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) how vital poetic laws were in governing his principles of poetic ideology: ‘the development from imagism in poetry to fascism in politics is clear and unbroken.’ And, again in reference to these recently antecedent poets, that to abandon a logical syntax, ‘is to throw away a tradition central to human thought.’

The third stanza, beginning ‘Leaving the wilderness’, arrives at formality, as Davie maps urban formality onto a largely regular meter and ordered rhymed couplets. He describes pre-urban natural order of ‘rock-formations, cloud-formations, landscapes’, compounding his words into structures to enact the formations they describe. There is a vocabulary here of form and shape, it is designed and composed: the landscape as a landscape painting.

The paradox here is that the forms, the order, are found in the wild. We are not at this point in the city. Having left the wilderness, a former order is recalled: ‘she counts the loss/ Of a world of signs’. The concern for language systems is beneath all this again, as Davie hints at words uprooted from their signification, of moving into a world in which language is re-codified. The trope of the exiled poet is back with us again, of strange language. Allowing us to tease out the paradox, Davie lets the language system disintegrate as an ordering force emerges. Some forms are ‘Noble’ others are ‘monstrous shapes’: Davie’s delineation of order and wildness is not simple.

As the poem concludes, it is perhaps helpful to think about Agave. In Greek mythology she is the mother of Pentheus. In Euripides’ The Bacchae she, in a moment of Dionysiac frenzy, leads the blinded group murder of her son, culminating in the tearing off of his head. It is a dramatic allusion for Davie to draw from. We can see why the story appealed to him: Dionysiac rites are the model for festivals and the carnivalesque, whereby order is temporarily suspended and violence sanctioned in order to allow a release of wild social tensions. At the start of the poem frenzied energy is ordered by the cage, by exile, and its cessation is represented in the quietude after the storm with which the second stanza was concerned. The complex physics of the forces of order and the wild are confirmed when considering that a calendar of festive days, a system of sanctioned disorder, was an instrument of government in medieval and Jacobean statehood. A method of re-solidifying order by systematising disorder.

This is all rather chilling. As is the final stanza. ‘Vivid’ is repeated twice in close proximity, with a hint of sensualised, poetic frenzy. The city is reconstituted in glass not stone now, a cold architectural metamorphosis into a material of reflection for a self-reflective poem. It all ends on the cold brutality of the final imperative, ‘Barber my verses, pitiless vivid city.’ The verb is violent, a call for the dismemberment of the body of the text, reinstating frenzy. Or it is a haircut in keeping with the modern vocabulary of sidewalks and parking-lots: a trimming into order, a routine refrain from the wild. The vocabulary shivers precariously between order and disorder, proclaimed by a solemnly uneasy poetic authority.