Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sound, Sense and Structure in Charles Bruce’s “Back Road Farm”

The following is the complete text for a column on a poem by Charles Bruce that appeared in Arc on-line last year and that is being re-printed this summer. DWK

Back Road Farm

This house is built within a sheltering
Sweep of the hills. You will not find the sea
From attic windows; and the seasons bring
No lift and change of tide, here in the lee
Of the land’s high windbreak, where the buffeting
Onshore wind is tripped on the mountain’s knee.
No mist of blowing salt is flung to sting
The trusting flesh. You will not find the sea.

This property is private. Drifting rain
Beats on its shingles and its native stone;
The wind of August on its leaning grain
Is dark with shadow, and the leaves are blown
To a soft thunder. But the hills remain;
Their strength is certain and their purpose known.
Only at night, in the stillness, low and plain
You can hear the far deep rumor of sea on stone.

[From The Mulgrave Road by Charles Bruce (MacMillan, 1951) with permission granted by the family.]

Choosing to live a life on land instead of on or near the sea is a common theme in several poems from Charles Bruce’s 1952 Governor General’s Award winner The Mulgrave Road. Bruce is never entirely clear about why a life on terra firma should be privileged over one lived on water, but what is masterful about his treatment of the subject here are the ways in which he establishes, then modulates, the binary opposition of the two elements. It’s an achievement in sound and structure that younger or even more established poets might pay attention to or perhaps even emulate.

Bruce begins by sharing his bias towards a farmer’s life in language that underscores the reliability and predictable strength of the land—established first in the internal rhyme of the opening lines, i.e. built/hills/will—then later in the description of hills as containing “certain strength” and the solidity of “native stone.” The sea, by contrast is “blowing salt…flung to sting / The trusting flesh,” in a rocking iambic pentameter that reinforces the uncertain vagaries of wind and rain and ocean storm.

The contrast with the land is heightened by lines that then move gently away from internal rhyme towards more rough and tumble, alternating vowels and consonants, i.e. “the buffeting / Onshore wind is tripped on the mountain’s knee”—a wonderfully evocative line that captures perfectly the feel of a Nova Scotia land and seascape. Line repetition in “You will not find the sea” and parallelism in “No lift and change” and “No mist of blowing salt” further underpin the poet’s argument or meditation on land and hills as places of comfort and security, separated from the uncertainties of the sea.

At this point attention should be paid to the octaval structure and alternating rhyme scheme of the poem’s two stanzas, understanding that both stanzas employ these structures for contrasting semantic purposes. Stanza 1 suppresses the musicality of the alternating rhyme by enjambing lines 1 through 4 and 7/8 to mirror the force and flow of the onshore wind upon the hills, but without sacrificing entirely the pleasure of the more subtle rhyme scheme. By contrast, Stanza 2 makes way for four end-stopped lines, which re-enact the abrupt interruption of “drifting rain” by “native stone.”

Pulling back a little from the poem you notice other ways Bruce manages the binary opposition of land and sea, notably in the echoing rhymes that occur at the ends of line 2 and line 8 in both stanzas. Repeating “sea” and “stone” at line 8 in their respective stanzas helps to sustain the central rhyme in each stanza, while lending added weight to the contrast between earth and water across the stanzas.

Contrasting word shapes play a role in distinguishing the elements, too. For example, every line in Stanza 2 but one ends in a hard monosyllable, while Stanza 1 pivots around two key polysyllabic line endings “sheltering” and “buffeting.” Notice as well the four “rain” rhymes in Stanza 2 and the fact that the last word in each line ends with an “n”, providing a kind of sonic reminder or echo of the rain that allows its sound to carry throughout the stanza.

Something else, subtle and quite lovely, also happens in Stanza 2: the poem’s mood begins to shift slightly. Vowel sounds, like the weather elements they are intended to capture, become softer, as in “Drifting rain” and “leaning grain,” with “leaves…blown / To a soft thunder.” A more ruminative rhythm, created in part through the use of monosyllables, and coupled with sibilants in the last two lines (like the hiss of foam on a rocky beach) softens the poet’s observation even more.

Only at night, in the stillness, low and plain
You can hear the far deep rumor of sea on stone.

Yes, the hills remain strong “and their purpose known”. But Bruce chooses to end his poem in a way unforeseen by the rest of the poem: he quietly transforms the sea from a combative force whose contrapuntal effects help define a life lived on land in absentia to one with an actual (though distant) salutary presence. In much the way that the Elizabethans used the concluding couplet of the sonnet to modify or overturn its original premise, Bruce tempers his earlier harder convictions about the land with a quietly interpolated nostalgia for the distant sea. It’s this incremental shift in perspective and attitude towards the sea that is the most authentic part of the poem and the poem’s most profound comment on how human beings relate to their landscape - with ambiguity and uncertainty, with shifting affection and fear. Like the rest of the poem, it’s a wonderfully subtle performance, achieved principally by the careful weighing and interweaving of sound within the poem’s structure.

Before The Mulgrave Road, Bruce was known principally for two collections Channel Shore and Tomorrow’s Tide, containing poems that deliberately echo the tone and style of classical epic poetry. “Back Road Farm”, like the rest of the poems in The Mulgrave Road, represents a significant departure over those earlier poems. They’re better focussed thematically and, like this poem, draw upon a richer and more precisely balanced poetic diction. But what is particularly striking is Bruce’s virtuosity in using sound to recreate his landscape. These poems reveal a dexterity and mastery over materials unlike many other poems from that period—or for that matter, any period since.


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