I wrote ‘Burnt Rose’ in Newsham Park in Liverpool, on a nature-spotting walk with my son. Sometimes we take our notebooks to the park, along with a football and some snacks, and write down — or draw pictures of — what we see. That day we found, under a tree, a rose that had been burned: it was no longer possible to see if the rose had originally been red or black.
This poem began as an attempt to write – with forensic detail – about the object in front of me, but as I was writing I was also aware that the rose had powerful, almost talismanic power. The poem practically wrote itself towards its charged emotional climax as the rose became invested with its potential as a symbolic object of spurned love or desire.
The brevity of the poem reflects two things: the necessity to write quickly as my son was calling me back to a game we were playing, and – related to this – the challenge of capturing an intense fictional relationship in the fewest amount of words.
Often I have two kinds of visual maps of a poem in my mind as I start to write. The first is the poem as it looks on the page, its initial lure on the eye of the reader, but the other is to do with the mapping out of the imagery, an internal structure of sound and sense, as if I’m seeing the exoskeleton of the poem as if through a voile – a network of connected images – as the words rise to take their place on the page. Once I’d used the metaphor of “Atlantic fishscales” to describe the petals, I knew I wanted to create a vortex through which that far-off location would be refined down to a very specific locale: this local park in Liverpool, this tree.
‘Burnt Rose’ was added late to the manuscript of my upcoming collection, Speculatrix. I’d thought that this poem (and a number of others) might be the start of something new, to be published later, but on the request of my publisher — Tom Chivers — to see my latest work, his conviction that this poem fitted the book was absolutely right. ‘Speculatrix’ is a Latin word for a female spy which I had discovered during my research of Jacobean drama for the poems that became the long core sequence of the book. This poem shares with that sequence a focus on watching and observing, as well as that charged, often charred symbolism that I’d found in many Jacobean plays. The note before my poem ‘The Changeling’ ends:
“When Diaphanta doesn’t come out from the bedchamber Beatrice asks De Flores to start a fire and then kill Diaphanta in the confusion.”
Passion, fire, flowers: what I thought was the start of a new kind of poem in ‘Burnt Rose’ was very much the overspill from a long period of writing Jacobean-inspired poems.
Hotel bedhangings¹ clamped & artichoked,
lovescrawls² pooled in the folds of a dress,
floodlit eyelids, Atlantic fishscales³
stitched in a whorl of ash-musk,
dawnblue petals adrift down oilways4, pressed relic
of Thameside5 flesh-sale scorched under a tree
in a park in Liverpool6. Inside the pleats
a corpsed pupa de-robes a web of voiles7,
bodybagged in the silk of tannins, sleeps
inside silk catacombs8, charred in the flame of a Cook’s Match9.
Talisman? No, burnt rose. Forget about us10.
1 – ‘bedhangings’ – Earlier this year I read Susan Howe’s Bed Hangings, a brilliant poetic sequence which explores the fashion for curtaining beds in 17th and 18th Century America. Through this Howe uncovers the broader themes of colonialism, religion and Puritanism. The image of “bedhanging” struck me as a good one for the folds of the petals, which had been “clamped and artichoked”. The image of “artichoked” suggests the heart of that vegetable, but also a hidden meaning of “choke” which, along with “hanging” – hints at a situation which has not ended well.
2 – ‘lovescrawls’ – Compounded words feature a lot in my writing, especially poems that attempt to get under the surface of nature. I like the way in which two words brought together can suggest so much more than the sum of their parts, though my rule for using them is that they must flow together as one new word – “lovescrawl” offers the symmetry of being book-ended with ‘l’s.
3 – ‘Atlantic fishcales’ – This is the beginning of suggesting a love affair which might have begun as far away as America. I felt that suggesting the petals were Atlantic fishscales brought in the right kind of sheen of the fish, as well as suggesting a journey of lovers through far-off waters.
4 – ‘dawnblue petals adrift down oilways’ – The journey continues here, “dawnblue” suggesting the activity of the lovers as well as the sea now merging into “oilways” – which de-purifies the beginnings.
5 – ‘Thameside’ – I spend my life, these days, largely between two cities: Liverpool and London. Much of Speculatrix is London themed and I imagined the rose here as fleetingly passing through the metropolis, perhaps in a suitcase or an inside pocket where it is closest to the heart of its recipient.
6 – ‘Liverpool.’ – Full-stop used after “Liverpool” here to suggest arrival in this spot.
7 – ‘Inside the pleats / a corpsed pupa de-robes a web of voiles’ – Inside the burnt rose was the charred cocoon of an unhatched larva. In the context of the poem this larva is anthropomorphised into the potential fate of one of the lovers – though it could also be the heart itself.
8 – ‘silk catacombs’ – I had visited the catacombs of West Norwood Cemetery to write my prose book In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery (Penned in the Margins, 2014).
9 – ‘charred in the flame of a Cook’s Match’ – I liked the merging of complicated poetic language with the everydayness of a Cook’s Match. This is a technique I often use, along with anachronisms of time and place.
10 – The final line seems to want to retain the symbolism of the burnt rose whilst taking it away: “No, burnt rose”. Through the imagined colloquialism “forget about us” that feat of finality in burning the rose also retains an awareness of the symbolism inherent in the act. But the burning of the rose is the ritual through which symbolism is replaced with a non-Eros driven literalness: the “no” of the line is also a “yes” to the future.
Chris McCabe will be launching and reading from Speculatrix on Thursday 27 November 2014, in the deep atmospherics of a 12th century crypt in Clerkenwell. Book your free place early for what promises to be an unusual and magical event.