Everything Apart From Coloured Leg Warmers

Sunday, March 04, 2007

essay on From Long Distance

‘From “Long Distance’- or, to give it its proper title, “Long Distance II”, is a deep, touching and impressively subtle poem by Tony Harrison. Born in 1937 in the North of England, Harrison is a poet known both for his left-wing political views as well as his first-rate command of rhyme and structure and use of colloquial language. While “Long Distance II” is anything but political, it impressively showcases Harrison’s other qualities. As it as one of two similar poems rather than an excerpt from a poem, it can be considered and examined as an individual piece of work.

The poem is concise and tightly constructed, with four quatrains, each with a consistent abab rhyming pattern. In this sense it is traditional, and in style if not in content Harrison could be linked to the Movement, an important group of English poets of his generation (primarily poets born in the interwar years, such as Philip Larkin, D.J. Enright and Thom Gunn). Yet this tight construction is no hindrance at all to his communication of meaning and emotion. The first stanza establishes his situation effectively, informing the reader of the background to the poem while also establishing several questions in the reader’s mind. It is indeed worth quoting in full: “Though my mother was already two years dead/ Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas/put hot water bottles her side of the bed/and still went to renew her transport pass”. This stanza does a number of things: at the simplest level it tells us of the death of the poet’s mother, and of the strange behaviour that his father exhibits, behaviour that one assumes is the result of “living in denial”. It also, however, evokes an image of working-class England: from the slippers warming by the gas to the transport pass it is a vivid and memorable set of images.

The next two stanzas are an elaboration of the theme. Thus we hear of more of his father’s “symptoms”, as well as the fact that he is internally somewhat ashamed and tries to hide his feelings both from his son as well as from the outside world. To my mind the most poignant and noteworthy lines here are “to clear away her things and look alone/as though his still raw love were such a crime”. These lines paint a picture of an abiding and deeply physical (“raw”) passion that his father is unable to shake off despite his best efforts. It is the first expression in the poem of an ultimate conflict in literature and life, the battle between the heart and the head or in Freudian terms between the id, the ego and the super-ego.

It is the final stanza that contains the twist, and it is the stanza that is by some distance the most important. It is the first stanza in which we are introduced to the poet’s own thoughts and practices, as opposed to his memories of his father. The first line of the stanza is a direct statement: “I believe life ends with death, and that is all”. It is a pronouncement that shows Harrison to be in opposition to his father, at least on the surface. Yet while the last two lines contradict it, it is no false statement or irony but rather an honest expression of Harrison’s inner confusion. A reader expecting to see the poem conclude with Harrison’s mystery at his father’s behaviour will be either surprised or disappointed by the last two lines, although to me they constitute a superb and supremely memorable ending. “In my new black leather phone book there’s your name/and the disconnected number I still call”, Harrison writes, and here we see him establish a true cycle, link himself to his father and make a profound statement about how love definitively defeats reason.
Even with such a potent and definite ending, Harrison leaves a number of questions lingering in the reader’s mind unanswered, although I see this as a strength of the poem. It is certainly a poem that left me reflecting about it well after I had read it several times. Are the “both” he refers to his parents? It may seem likely but it is by no means absolutely so. We are told precious little about Harrison’s own symptoms: how closely does his behaviour resemble his father’s? Does he regard his father as insane? And for me, most signficantly, how would I or any other person react in a similar situation? To what extent are the reactions of the Harrisons, father and son, normal? To paraphrase Octavio Paz, while there may be no answers, the questions are still important.


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