Beneath the hot, hot weight of night I hear the soft and midnight sea across an empty beach; like brief applause the slow percussion of waves, and of waves... And somewhere close, between the molten dark and the moonlit walls, cicadas gather to squeeze the plainsong, line by line, from the heavy, breathless, cloth of the air. Closer still, the hun-hum-hum of electric blades above my head carves the night's threnody to slabs of monotone, to a funereal bass repeating and repeating and repeating. And here, beneath it all, my own harsh melody is the rustle of a single, restless sheet playing over the damp heat of my skin and a long sigh, lost, like a prayer ignored.
For a long time, I considered this my best poem. Sadly, I can’t find any early drafts or working notes, and possibly this is because I seem to remember writing it fairly quickly – possibly even in a single sitting (although in those days, a single sitting might well last most of the night).
What I do remember, though, is that it definitely wasn’t written during the night that’s being described. That had occurred a couple of years previously, while I was on holiday in Kenya, and though I don’t remember ever detail of the ordeal, it was almost certainly nothing like as epic and tortuous as the poem would have you believe.
I was on the coast, but I doubt I could actually hear the waves that clearly. I did have an electric fan going all night to swirl the hot air round a bit, but I doubt it was really that noisy. And I doubt the cicadas were going all night. But that’s poetic license for you.
Also, although I had come across the word, I had no real idea what a threnody was nor, indeed, could I have accurately explained what plainsong was. But the idea was there to describe a long, hot, sleepless night in terms of the different sounds I could hear, and the sounds had to be different from each other, so I wrote down the things that would be making noise, and then found suitable aural descriptions for them.
Having spent those long hours creating it, I found that I really liked the end result. It was a little bit longer, and a lot more controlled, than the other stuff I was writing at the time and there was a definite sense of movement, of progression in there that stood out from the more static descriptions in my other work.
It was snapped up very soon after completion, being selected for the Sandburg-Livesay Award Anthology 2000 (although the anthology didn’t actually see print until 2004 and marked the end of the annual competition. Which was a shame, as the anthologies were beautifully produced, they always contained a lot of excellent work by excellent poets, and because they published a fair few of my own poems over the years!)
So why do I like this poem so much? I think it’s because it was one of the first times I really thought about the construction of a poem as well as its content. These days it’s pretty much all about the construction. I love playing with form, with structure, with the look of a poem, with the sound of the words. What I have to say is very much a secondary consideration to how I say it.
And in Midsummer Night’s Lament I can see the first signs of that attention to structure beginning to emerge. The use of repetition with ‘waves, and of waves…’ and also ‘the hum-hum-hum of electric blades’; the frequent use of alliteration, as with ‘the rustle of a single, restless sheet’; the sense of movement, from the distant sea shore, to the area outside the room, to the room itself and then finally to the bed and its occupant, these are all things I use – and love to use – when I write now.
So possibly this poem was the start of me finding my new voice. Or possibly the voice was already emerging, but that this was the first time everything had come together so successfully. Or possibly it’s because I took a break from writing poetry shortly after finishing Midsummer Night’s Lament, and the break ended up lasting about ten years, so this remained my most recently published work for a very long time.
It’s not my favourite poem any more. I don’t have a favourite now, because I love so many of my poems for so many different reasons and it seems unnecessary to single out any particular one, but it’s certainly still up there in my top…oh, let’s say twenty.
Finally, just a few notes about editing. As I said, I didn’t really do much beyond the initial creation period, and as it was accepted for publication almost immediately, I didn’t see the need to tinker with it at all. But for this edition I’ve made some small changes.
Firstly, as with a lot of my older stuff, I’ve removed the capital letters from the start of each line (except where it’s also the start of a sentence). To me it just looks better this way.
The second and third lines used to read as follows –
I can hear the soft and midnight sea Across the empty beach. Like brief applause
I’ve now removed the can from the start of line 2 as it was unnecessary, and I’ve changed the the in line 3 to an because there were three uses of the in the first three lines and it sounded a bit awkward – see, even for me, repetition isn’t always the answer! Also, the full stop has become a semicolon, because I now know how to use semicolons.
And one final change was with the word moonlit in the second stanza. Originally I wrote it as ‘the moonlight walls’ imagining moonlight as its own colour, but it was edited to moonlit (I’m assuming accidentally) on publication, and also on it’s first and only public reading (not by me) so I’ve given in to pressure and changed it. I still like moonlight though. I may change it back.