Friday, 6 April 2012

Airs for William Diaper

I have been tweeting from William Diaper's gorgeous version of Oppian's Halieutics. So it seems appropriate to put up this poem that appears in the New and Collected Poems (2008), and peculiarly appropriate in the association of Good Friday with fish, fish having been Diaper's special subject.

Airs for William Diaper

Here is a young fellow has writ some Sea Eclogues, poems of Mermen, resembling pastorals of shepherds, and they are very pretty, and the thought is new. Mermen are he-mermaids; Tritons, natives of the sea. Do you understand me? I think to recommend him to our Society to-morrow. His name is Diaper.

– Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella

My child, listen. When you and I arrived
fresh from our mothers’ wombs we floundered
in red air and bawled our guts out, shocked
by everything: the fearsome slap of hands
we could not see, the barbarity of cold
we needed wrapping against; the light that pressed
hard fingers against our firmly shut eyes
though we did not know it. Air was dangerous,
the terrible air we needed for survival
yet needed first to survive. And you and I
we were together in this as was the one
who nurtured you in darkness, eely, frothed
and struggling like Blake’s babe ready to sulk,
the alien familiar as we are still, my child,
you with your closed heart and I with mine.

He came to visit Swift who said: “It is a poor
little short wretch but will do best in a gown,”
though later he called at Diaper’s door
and found him “in a nasty garret, very sick”
in an admittedly poor part of town,
so gave him “twenty guineas from Lord Bolingbroke”
for his considerable gifts and knowledge,
as appropriate for a fellow of Balliol College.

A deep-sea fishiness is half of sex,
all wriggle, squirm, thrust, muscle, ooze and flex,
plus otherness and drowning as if this
were necessary to perfect our bliss.
Now fish, now slime, spermatozoa swim
from rampant pecker into depths of quim,
and so our eelets swell and drowse in heat
their limbs more fin than human hands or feet.
Too long in genial beds, we rise for air
as fish might rise for bait that soon must tear
the delicate mouth. Then watery substance parts:
light shoots barbed arrows through our fishy hearts.

To silver poets scaled in silver, gaining
the silver medal of the moon
like a delicate staining,
the small fry
who die
unremarked and soon,
whose skin is pale and silvery as a pond,
whose hair is frond,
who dance
according to the slim chance
of names like Diaper, Edward Chicken, Stephen Duck
with a year or two of luck,
then greeted by no Gotterdammerung,
but by the greater silver
of John Crowe Ransom, Norman Cameron.

Wrote couplets enough to furnish a whole choir
of scales and fins. His objects of desire
were human beings coupling, pair by pair,
each doubled vision swimming through the air.
now twisting, now cording like rope:
warmest flesh, the perishable face
packed with hope.

My child I sometimes despair of the loss
of that which is not clear to the naked eye.
When I myself was a child the table rose
like a giant, its sharp edges sky-high.
I did not know sky from ceiling, my mother
from God. The words would open and close
their fishy gills by my microscopic ear
until I learned to distinguish one from the other.
And so I watched the wordlings shuffling across
the deep spaces of my attention like specks
cavorting within the dimensions of their sex,
smaller than I was but more sweet and clear.


J. Marles said...

That's a great tribute to Diaper.

Since I first read it in "The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation" I've always loved this extended metaphor from the end of the first book of the "Halieuticks" (referring to the dazzling white shoals of the "Slime-Fish"):

"As when soft Snows, brought down by Western Gales,
Silent descend and spread on all the Vales;
Add to the Plains, and on the Mountains shine,
While in chang'd Fields the starving Cattle pine;
Nature bears all one Face, looks coldly bright,
And mourns her lost Variety in White,
Unlike themselves the Objects glare around,
And with false Rays the dazzled Sight confound:
So, where the Shoal appears, the changing Streams
Lose their Sky-blew, and shine with silver Gleams."

Most of that is Diaper's own invention as can be seen by comparing it with a prose translation of Oppian's original:

"As when the swift might of Zephyrus from the West shadows with snow-flakes a spacious garden and nothing of the dark earth appears to the eye, but all is white and covered with snow on snow; even so in that season, full to overflowing with the infinite shoals of Fry, white shines the garden of Poseidon."

George S said...

That's another marvellous passage and more inventive than Oppian, as you point out. Diaper doesn't write bad lines. You might argue that the poem is essentially a long list of fishes and their attributes but Diaper informs it with such lovely ghosts of desire, like a child with adult yearnings transferred into a universe of teeming, living creatures.

And thank you.

Dennis Tomlinson said...

William Diaper?? I thought the name might be a joke when I read it, but the infallible Wikipedia fills in some details of this associate of Jonathan Swift. Thank you for shining light onto the neglected literature of the eighteenth century.