Home > poets > Prism (by Norman MacCaig, 1971)

Prism (by Norman MacCaig, 1971)

The whole forest is illustrations
in a book of botany.
But on the crest of a tree
a myth makes the moonlight glitter
on the carving of chairs, on printing presses,
on the miracle of ink.
The whole city
is a code in a foreign language.
But a fable glows on a street lamp
and someone draws a thread
towards the Minotaur, someone writes
in biblical ledgers
a forty-year wandering. Circe
draws a curtain aside.
A fairytale rustles in a dark room
and a girl weeps for what she has lost
and for what she will never have – she weeps
because rat is rat, Prince Prince,
and toad toad.

Time to spend some time with a few of the manifold gems written by Norman MacCaig. I have one book at home with poems that span his entire creative life merely chronologically ordered (a collection strategy chosen by his son Ewan MacCaig that reflects best his prolific but momentaneous mind). I will discuss some poems of 1971. The year China became part of the UN. The year Mount Etna erupts. The year India and Japan weathered devastating Tsunamis (this is all online knowledge). The year Stravinsky died (I knew that one already). And the year I was born (an event one finds significant even when the rest of the world doesn’t).

One of the many threads through this book are reflections on language. Not an uncommon theme that is for poets, who are – maybe more so than novelists, but that might be an uncouth cliché – incessantly confronted with the machinations of language.

What fascinates him most in this poem is how language (and more generally, culture, encompassing illustrations, codes, stories, and so on) influences the way we experience our world (again in a broad sense, including trees as well as cities, etcetera) and confers clarity to it (how ‘a myth makes the moonlight glitter’ and ‘a fable glows on a street lamp’), in other words, how we see the world through the prism – hence the title – of culture.

Clearly MacCaig is wading here into the murky waters of philosophy and the theme will ring many bells to people versed in that type of cultural artefacts. But equally clearly this is no philosophy; just a few fleeting thoughts on a genuine but obscure dichotomy (on which side of the line – language or the world – would you put printing presses and the miracle of ink?). The good thing about fleeting thoughts is that they oftentimes capture experienced perplexities more directly than structured philosophical efforts.

Many thoughts in the poem touch upon myths and mythical figures, in accordance with MacCaig’s fascination for biblical creationism (‘in the beginning was the word’).

But ‘a girl weeps for what she has lost and for what she will never have – she weeps because rat is rat, Prince Prince, and toad toad’. There is something trivial in the duplicity that ineluctably distances us from the ‘thing in itself’. And what harmless matter could be more sad?

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