LYRIC COMPANIONS Penelope Shuttle “Poor London”


People of the poor London/ fast-shriven // in the blood-boltered ways / of men // The slain bus / flinging hands and eyes / into a Bloomsbury everywhere // City fast-shriven / in its ways — // under a black-slidden river / a broken train // whirling round itself forever / in the smokey-dark tunnel — // eyes hands legs

from “Will You Walk a Little Faster” @bloodaxbooks 2017

CONTEXT / FRAME OF REFERENCE Is this just then an intimacy entirely without the universal? Or is the intimacy companioned, even in the darkness, by something that at least promises some of the more universal? One has to say that some trace or shadow or ghost of the latter seems hard to shake off. Even in going down the creator will come up in an otherness exceeding itself, like an underground sea in which it finds itself swimming, perhaps drowning. We are under the underground, below Plato’s cave, where the light above earth does not penetrate. And yet deep down under, the intimacy is not avoided, for we are it, we are in it, and to be so is always to be companioned. The divine is here in the bowels of hell. Jesus harrows hell. Dionysus is also Hades. Orpheus sings in the underworld and the dead and the lords of the dead are moved. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 69.

Lyrics about evil are rare. Because of the “natural” (In modernity) swerve towards idealistic closure which confirms the transcendence of the individual self-defining ego, the otherness of evil gets short shrift, to use one of Penelope Shuttles’s favorite figures of speech. I call “to shrive” a figure of speech because it reconfigures the narrative of the human experience in profound ways. So the repeated use of this figure here creates an interpretive problem for anyone attracted to this brilliant poem.

The narrative of this lyric opens with the compound phrase “fast shriven.” But not before the theme is declared: “People of the poor London.” In a sequence of poems about London the emphasis is clear. That is about the only thing that is “clear” in this poem, which follows the architecture of traditional landscapes of hell. We hear Dante, we hear Blake, we hear Eliot, we hear Rimbaud. Clear as mud, our sucking groundless ground.

Above all the voices, we hear Shuttle. Phrasing is all: intensely musical, drawing on the equivocity of words not only as dictionary meanings but as sounds. “Fast-shriven” cannot be reduced to any one reference. Since “shriven” is rooted in a religious practice that is uncommon these days, compounding it with the ambiguities of “fast” (the tension between quick and permanent is exposed, the pointlessness of Lenten asceticism in a godless world) creates strange and haunting music.

The lyric narrative however gathers steam thanks to that polysemous opening. The next stanza deepens the chiaroscuro with “blood-boltered ways/of men.” Pray for us, Geoffrey Hill! Ponder the ponderousness—the weight and velocity— of “blood-boltered.” “Bolt”: to fasten, to flee. Humans first and last flesh and blood. “Bolter”: to sift, to investigate. This poem is above all an “investigation” in the Wittgensteinian sense of a mindful examination of the behavior of our imagination as fleshed out by our words. We are poor indeed when it comes to that, but it’s a wild ride. The narrative proceeding at warp-speed thanks to Shuttle’s verbal alchemy.

The image of the bus gathers the London poor, now imagined as a universal “fast-shriven” humanity. Nightmare is too nice a word. This bus—buses are familiar to readers of this book— is a state of deprived being, you can’t get out; don’t even think about it. Once again the compounding genius of English makes it imaginable: the slain bus. Not just the bus of the slain. Your mode of passage is you. As the Metaxy presupposes, we are all not only passengers we are passages.

The imagery of the poem now suffer the breakout of dialects. This not that. Released from the incubus (there’s that bus again) the imagery flashes in something like daylight. The image of circle (Dante’s fast-shriven denizens of hell are condemned to repetition) is powerfully plural, though the ambiguity of “circle” would be idealized by Emerson and idealists to this day. “Back-slidden” is among the strokes of genius among the dialectical moves in a section devoted to terrifying blur, “whirling round itself forever” in the afterlife as providential to the poor.

The poor of London: the reader becomes increasingly aware of how MUCH she is of this muchness. I use this tawdry phrase because Shuttle’s poetics is a poetic of excess. What makes this poem MORE than true to the case it presents with such artistic aplomb is its sheer liveliness. As a companion to a journey through hell, one could not hope for a more insightful, a more lively one. And since Hope is definitely not to be hoped for on the circling circuit of our slain bus, we will take the poem as offered.

POSTSCRIPT. From the lack of response on Twitter it appears that my interpretation fell on deaf ears. I consider the poem powerful as an expression of nihilism. Nihilism, at least since Baudelaire, has been a richly nuanced response to modernity. Some of the most effective modern works of art are nihilistic. Think of Francis Bacon, not to mention Picasso. One detail I should have mentioned in my “investigation.” I can’t read the poem down to the last line without thinking of Guernica. Shuttle’s profoundly resonant poem leaves the reader “dangling” with a searing image of dismembered bodies.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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