“There was an old man of Toulouse,” Edward Lear once wrote, “Who purchased a new pair of shoes.” He continues his limerick this way: “When they asked, ‘Are they pleasant?’ he said, ‘Not at present!’/That turbid old man of Toulouse.” Anthony Madrid, a lover of limericks (along with ghazals, and more or less any kind of formal verse), says this about the Lear’s poem:
Someone could say it’s clever. To which I shrug. It is clever; there’s a technical ingenuity involved, OK. But the beauty of the thing has everything to do with the slight incongruities of asking a person if his new shoes are “pleasant,” and of that person’s responding that they currently are not. This is a very choice example of the “right wrong thing.” The wrongness is right.
If we were looking for a pocket-sized synopsis of Madrid’s poetics — his answer to Pound’s “Make it new” or Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of feelings recollected in tranquility” — we could do worse than to go with “the wrongness is right.” At the very least, it’s a good clue as to how we might read his latest collection, Try Never (Canarium, 2017).
Try Never consists of seventeen poems, each of them a series of stanzas, of which each stanza is one or another form of englyn, a venerable Welsh poetic form in three or four lines. Madrid’s primary inspiration seems to come from a twelfth-century Welsh manuscript known as the Red Book of Hergest, a treasury of the englyn. He draws particular inspiration from works collected in the manuscript that give bits of epigrammatic wisdom between insistent returns to a refrain. A translation from the Welsh reads:
Mountain snow, everywhere white;
A raven’s custom is to sing;
No good comes of too much sleep.
Mountain snow, white the ravine;
By rushing wind trees are bent;
Many a couple love one another
Though they never come together.
The function of the refrain is primarily rhythmic — a drumbeat to which we return. There’s a sense in which seeking meaning in it is futile, or beside the point. No one sweats over the meaning of “A-tisket, a-tasket,” or the relation of those syllables to the image of a green and yellow basket. But “Mountain snow” differs from “A-tisket, a-tasket” in having semantic meaning, so for many readers the poem will seem to invite us to play a connect-the-dots game. How do we draw a line between the aphoristic utterances and the context announced at the beginning of the stanza? Can we? Trees bent in the wind and lovers who love without coming together? “Okay,” we might say, “the image of the trees bending in tandem with the same wind might work as an emblem of souls in sympathy, while bodies remain apart.” But what about connecting a white-out blizzard and a saying about a raven, the upshot of which is not to fade out into sleep? Maybe there’s something here about fighting back against oblivion, not letting blankness overcome us. Sometimes it takes a little hermeneutic elbow grease. The leap between image and utterance is the challenge and, sometimes, the delight.
Sometimes Madrid’s englyns seem to invite these leaps. In the englyn pile that is Madrid’s poem “Cold Spring,” for example, the mind might be teased into wondering about the relation between the stanza’s opening images and the epigrammatic wisdom that follows:
Cold spring and a starling’s neck.
Redbud puts out a violet petal.
What settles disputes revives them.
You can lean on this for significance as much as you like. Madrid creates a parallel of sorts between the counterintuitive sense of solutions to problems also being revivals of those problems and the counterintuitive nature of Redbud budding not red but violet; the question of seasons and bird migrations and the cyclical return of disputes, and so forth. But none of it is definitive: any rightness to this kind of interpretation must be haunted by wrongness, too.
I don’t think this is really the way Madrid wants the poems to be read, though. In fact, having seen him perform these poems — I took two trains and an Uber through a near-typhoon to do so — I’m quite sure he’s more interested in working a kind of sly, musical magic with them than in having pedants sweat over marginal notes on significance. Consider this stanza from “Injured Bone”:
Injured bone. Here’s one to talk.
Akhenaten got the ankh by the tail.
Today’s worker ant has a crook and flail
And a monotheistic religion.
When you hear a stanza like this, especially amid a rapid series of similar stanzas, your mind picks up on all kinds of sonic echoes and related images. We hear the tail/flail rhyme, of course, but also the slant rhyme of talk and ankh, and the similar sounds of of Akhenaten/ankh. We pick up, too, on the image of the ant (a distant sound echo of ankh) with the implements of Akhenaten — who, like the ant, held a monotheistic faith. There’s something strangely right in this. Ants are group workers, like the pyramid builders we associate with ancient Egypt. And like the ancient Egyptians, theirs is a hierarchical social system. But … an ant with a crook and a flail? A monotheistic ant? We feel a web of rhymes and not-quite-right rhymes, and we get a flood of images that are sort of right but sort of not. The wrongness is right — as right a wrongness as a pair of shoes that is not currently pleasant. It’s so right I’d take two trains and an Uber through a Toulouse typhoon to hear Madrid read from Try Never again.