Siobhan Campbell’s Cyphers published review of Mary O’Donnell’s “Those April Fevers” Arc Publications 2015 was by any standards a model of the reviewer’s art. The themes of the book are identified. The various forms of verse used throughout the collection are explained. The poet’s voice is, as it were, announced. The writing is judged very carefully and very fairly. The reviewer’s response to the writing is firm – and positive . Not in a facile way but in a manner that is earned by the reviewer’s industry and insight.
The purpose of this letter is not to take issue with any point Siobhan Campbell makes but, hopefully, to add a little to what she has to say about a book which I too find delightful. Frequently lines occur which raise or allude to the question of naming. I propose to look at some of these, separated from the context in which they appear:
‘only you can see the shape
beyond the myths’ [BEYOND MYTHS]
‘I. . . . steady on shuffle journey down times alley;
where already, something waits,
those just-born stars. Fizzing’. [PLEASURE PRINCIPLES]
‘Each sponging down, each soothing powder
settles on the erasing moment:
evening, pills and night’s obliteration,
a patient laying out as colour is consumed’. [MARKINGS 2060]
‘Mid-way across, the sky opens. People
look up, puzzled, then hurry’. [VIEW TOWARDS A BRIDGE]
‘We saw a million dancing moons when the wind
chivvied the lake . . .’ [MOON VIEWING POINT]
‘Stephen looks at me. Electrodynamics and matter
are one thing, he says, its gravity that baffles’. [SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE]
‘ … a memory of ourselves
we shall never know
being now microscopic;
on the backs of barnacles encrusting the bells’.
[SEA LIFE IN SAINT MARK’S SQUARE]
‘The bird,scarcely visible from the passing car
sketched and quivered in the outspread slumber
of a cosmos indifferent to itself’. [PLEASURE]
‘We are waking and working to our worlds
what is known and unknown
the world still mine’. [THE WORLD IS MINE]
‘ Overhead,a bright steering cosmos
ticked silently,the enveloping dark pricked with light years
of stars,indifferent to it all’. [ THE COSMOS TICKED SILENTLY]
‘… No-one in their right mind
believes there is a celestial form
which our ailments will fit …’ [THE PARTS]
‘ … to Allah,
to another version of this-god,
that-god, whatever god, sun,
moon, crescent and sickle, myriad
universes, all newly exploded stars.
all that he may believes as his by right’. [BABY BOY QUARYAT AL BERI]
‘ …a prosecution of place and time, the lovely house
and our galloping parents, bound as much as us now
with secrets – unknowable, ours alone’. [SISTER-TRADE]
The lines I quote from “Those April Fevers” evoke two passages from Plato.
First, from CRATYLUS::the philosophers consider the process of naming things. We find Hermogenes addressing Socrates (HN Fowler’s translation in the Loeb edition).”Cratylus, whom you see here Socrates, says that everything has a right name of its own, which comes by nature, and that a name is not whatever people call a thing by agreement, just a piece of their own voice applied to the thing, but there is a kind of inherent correctness in names which is the same for all names both Greeks’ and Barbarians’. So I ask him whether his name is in truth Cratylus, and he agrees that it is.” And what is Socrates name?” I said. “Socrates” said he. “Then that applies to all men. And the particular name by which we call each person is his name”. And he said: “Well your name is not Hermogenes (1) even if all mankind call you so”.
Now, though I am asking and exerting myself to find but what in the world he means, he does not explain himself at all; he meets me with dissimulation, claiming to have some special knowledge of his own about which he would if he chose to speak it out clearly make me agree entirely with him. Now if you could interpret Cratylus’ oracular speech ,I should like to hear you, or rather I should like still better to hear, if you please, what you yourself think about the correctness of names.”
(1)That is, you are no son of Hermes. Hermes was the patron deity of traders, bankers and the like. And Hermogenes, as is suggested later, was not successful as a money-maker.
Second, from TIMAEUS: the philosophers discuss the nature of the Cosmos. The question of naming arises when Timaeus ponders Night, Day and Time…”in that circle which is second from the earth God kindled a light which now we call the Sun to the end that it might shine as far as possible, throughout the whole heaven, and that all the living creatures entitled thereto might participate in the number, learning it from the revolution of the same and similar
. In this wise and for these reasons were generated Night and Day, which are the revolution of the one and most intelligent circuit, and Month, every time that the Moon having completed her own orbit overtakes the Sun, and Year, as often as the Sun has completed his own orbit. Of the other stars the revolutions have not been discovered by men (save for a few out of the many),wherefore they have no names for them, nor do they compute and compare their relative measurements, so that they are not aware, as a rule, that the “wanderings” of these bodies, which are hard to calculate and of wondrous complexity, constitute Time.”
There are things out there for which we have no name. Somehow, we discern their presence. How reliable is our knowledge of the universe and as a corollary of that our knowledge of who we are if we do not know parts of the universe? Just as there are things without our orbit which have no name, so there are things within our orbit which do not have a name. The poet, like the philosopher, may experience the excitement and the danger of an encounter with the nameless.
Sharing with Mary O’Donnell this fundamental human experience is the essential pleasure which “Those April Fevers” affords the reader.