I’m settled, now. Each spring, I know,
the house across from the shop
puts out its plastic daffs
on the table, in the bay.
And long ago and far away
my dead dad sneaks, overnight,
to plant a plastic yellow bunch
of fakes amongst his lover’s flowerbeds
(before she died, this is) – a tease
that took her in, almost to August.
This is the way the seasons go.
The way someone unseen puts out
a weird and plastic tribute. Out of love,
we have to hope.
This is a short poem by Ramona Herdman with whom I read in Norwich recently. I very much enjoyed both the poems and her manner of reading, neither coy nor over-keen to impress, allowing just enough variation to make the poems dramatically effective without making a song and dance of it. The first part of her reading was mostly in high-profile but sprightly rhyme offering a teasing music to subjects that in themselves were often deeply serious. I liked her reading so much I asked her for a poem afterwards and she sent me three of which I chose this.
I chose this one because the subjects - memory, death, love, intimacy, falsehood - as embodied in the central image of the plastic daffodil, are presented with tenderness but also with an inbuilt irony that offer us a genuine understanding of a genuine human experience. The poem seeks the right level and feels truthful as a result.
That level is comprised of various elements. The poem's deliberate avoidance of poetic diction is not too programmatic. The register, comprising key terms like daffs, dad, and weird, is natural without being affected. It is interesting that the title has daffodil rather than daff. The title establishes the position we are reading from, the text is the performance we are witnessing.
As often in voiced or performed poems, variants of dramatic monologue, we enter the poem in medias res. The present of settled, now implies a past less settled. That immediately suggests recovery from a state of intense emotion, an emotion that becomes part of the poem, its very context. The unsettled state before the poem concerns two dead people whose relationship is coventionally illicit, father / husband to lover. The substition of the fake for the real (a plastic yellow bunch / of fakes) and sneaking (the dead dad sneaks) is the point. One of the illicit lovers - the woman - might be supposed recently dead. In any case we have two important intimate deaths, both mentioned, but both, as it were, off stage. The poem is not about the emotion at the point of those deaths, but later, now, as seen with a wry humour. But we must remember that the planting of the plastic daffodils was itself a curious joke, practised - then - on a mistress still living.
Human emotions are complex. Love is very complex. A writer may present a pure emotion - rage, for instance - effectively in dramatic terms but the terms of the drama - the assumption of some psychological form of classical mask - have to be clear for us to accept it. Once we are surrounded by the trappings of realism (shops, daff, table, dad, etc) the need for complexity becomes more pressing and this is what the poem gives us. What is fake is itself complex.
The colloquial tone of much of the poem is balanced by phrases like And long ago and far away,...This is the way the seasons go, and Out of love, / we have to hope. The first has a touch of irony. It is a common expression that became the title and first line of a popular musical song by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, its romantic haze quickly snapped into place by my dead dad sneaks. It is, in effect, a cliché used against itself, at one with the plastic daffs, or at least we register it being so without making a heavy point of it. This is the way the seasons go, is also song like, but here the song has no ready popular referent. It gently pushes the poem into a region beyond immediate circumstances, the equivalent of 'Twas ever thus, or Heigh-ho, the wind and the rain. It takes the particular and offers a universal in it. Life is like this, it is seasonal.
Those are two justified uses of cliché. The last phrase reminds me of Larkin's passionate yet agnostic attitude to love. The hope in it is provisional. It is the poem settling uneasily in its nest.
I like it very much. The only line I am unsure about is a weird and plastic tribute. The weirdness seems like a comment imposed from above. We can see the weirdness for ourselves. The plastic in the poem has been applied to the daffodils already: it is the subject. Maybe I am wrong; maybe it is the point at which the authorial voice of the title reasserts itself, but is the only point in the poem where the pressure eases off and provides an interim solution, the only time the poem hesitates. Maybe one could move directly from This is the way the seasons go to Out of love... It's a risk, a big step-up in the poem, maybe even abrupt, maybe, even, a touch brutal or clumsy. But it's tempting.
I love the spirit of the poem. It has a humane generosity that is not sold cheap. It is the real daffodil.