Do not deny,
Do not deny, thing out of thing.
Do not deny in the new vanity
The old, original dust.
From what grave, from what past of flesh and bone
Dreaming, dreaming I lie
Under the fortunate curse,
Bewitched, alive, forgetting the first stuff ...
Death does not give a moment to remember in
Lest, like a statue’s too transmuted stone,
I grain by grain recall the original dust
And, looking down a stair of memory, keep saying:
This was never I.
At the root of this poem, the third in Collected Poems (1938) the question is ‘What knows in me?’ – the simple but terrifyingly necessary question of every child – but set in the long perspective of time, ‘The old, original dust’. Laura Riding’s ambition was to see life not merely as a particle left over from history, the detritus of time, but in its long evolutionary process from its literal beginning to its end. As someone of the ‘new vanity’ (new time), she reminds herself, and us, that she is a physical ‘thing out of thing’, which is the only certain answer to the question ‘What knows in me?’, but if she could just remember, if she could recall ‘grain by grain’ what she is, then she is certain her alive contemporary self would not be her world self, ‘the fortunate curse’, and that ‘This was never I’. Life, the poem begs, must surely have a better reason than mere mental and physical existence in the historical turmoil of millennia. There must be a reason.
The desire to fix herself in time, to find or to make an area of stillness in the ever-bewildering shift and sweep of history from which she could speak out unhesitatingly and know that what she said was authentic, instantly true – something everyone surely desires – this is central to the poems, and the self-realization of the fact of it occurs in this first section, ‘Poems of Mythical Occasion’. Another open reference to it occurs in the preface to Progress of Stories, published in 1935 (long before Robert Graves took the statement for one of his poems), that there is ‘only one subject, and it is impossible to change it’.
In her search for certainty Laura Riding began to turn the world on its head. To begin with she eschewed what might be called the conventional poetic modes of the day. It might seem strange to call the modernist movement (Yeats? Eliot? Pound?) of the first two or three decades of the century ‘conventional’ when everything in it seems to speak of difference and experiment, but the one thing the modernists all had in common was their dependence on the world of reality for the imagery of their poems: the essential ingredient of all modernist poetry is its reliance on images drawn from the physical world. The modernist poets always look outward. They first see, and then they transcribe. However much variety there may be in modernist poetry, this objective world was always foremost.
Laura Riding did not write poems in this way. Her poems are not so many representations of the objective world. They ‘see’ in a different way. This is why readers have difficulties reading her poems: because they look for the images they have always known. This is how they (we) have been educated. Riding’s images are never quite images. The ‘statue’, for example, in ‘Incarnations’ is a fluid object which is made to dissolve ‘grain by grain’ as the poem proceeds. The ‘old, original dust’ at the beginning of the poem may seem a hard enough object to be called an image, but in what sense may dust be thought of as ‘original’, or, metaphorically, even ‘old’? If the reader concentrates on the imagery of ‘Incarnations’, the whole poem slips away, because the poem is not an exercise in imagery but is ‘about’ thought – it is, in effect, a thought-process. The seeming ‘images’ of ‘dust’, ‘statue’, ‘stair’, evoke a ghostly picture of, say, a ruined building of some grandeur, but such a picture is perfectly incidental to what is said. What ‘Incarnations’ does is to evoke the long distant and unknown past, essentially beginning with what the creation myth of the biblical books of Genesis the Torah and others search for, to discover what meaning these, the earliest stories of creation, hold for the present self. The question the poet asks, is ‘Am I merely a creature of the present – a transient, meaningless being – or is there purpose?’ It is this purpose which she uncovers in her Collected Poems, from the very first poem to the last (while it should be pointed out here that she rejects the idea of God as the creator of all things in her search for a rationale of existence). Eventually this leads to The Telling (1967, Chelsea) and the post-1940 work. It is a religious quest, stemming from the religious faculty of humanity, but not in any sense of the conventional, historical church or its establishments.