PORTOBELLO
by Glyn Maxwell
When you were the one reading
My palm, in the second hour of our one life,

And I, sitting back for good and noticing white stuff
Suddenly falling on Portobello and staying,

You couldn’t for all the books in the world have learned
More than one watching us,

Who buttered his torn roll, and in any case
I cared what the lines were meaning on my hand

(Of what’s to come, and when, and why that)
About as much as I cared what they meant on yours:

What mattered was who was reading it,
And whose it was;

I mean, when I look at the stars it isn’t the stars
I’m looking at.

— From The Breakage (Faber & Faber, 1998)

It’s spring; people are falling (if we can bang around an old truism) in and out of love. Here’s a tight, mysterious lyric on that most indefinable of emotional states by an English poet now living in the United States.

Glyn Maxwell’s The Breakage includes a whole clutch of poems I might rank among my favourites of the last few years, but I’ve returned to this particular one a number of times to watch it shimmer, dilate and flip sides, showing two or more of its faces at once.

When we’re lucky enough to find ourselves flutter-bellied and weak-kneed in another’s presence, are we drifting away from ourselves as we gravitate toward that other? Or do we actually home in on our true centres, the best of our inner lives? Likewise, when a union of two ends, must it acquire the bitter ache of time wasted, or can we redress some of the loss through vividly lived memory, valuing even what didn’t work?

Certainly there’s no doubt of the tender intensity and intermingledness the speaker of this poem feels (or felt) for his palm-reader. Maxwell has stitched this tone of intimacy into the poem’s fabric in part by redesigning a straightforward A-B-B-A rhyme scheme. Instead of quatrains, the lines fall into unrhymed couplets, giving the lyric a strong visual sense of closeness — not two peas in a pod, but a partnership of accepted difference. If some artists refer to their work as their children, this poem rightly received half of each of its parents’ genetic code.

But there’s a chink in the armour of harmony. Maxwell’s a consummate technician, yet there isn’t a perfect rhyme in the entire poem, only slant rhymes and uneven metre. The intimate voice we’re eavesdropping on seems to be bubbling over, unconcerned with technicalities (notice it’s only one sentence, like a thought that wants to talk its way to clarity before it runs out of breath). Tilt the lens slightly, though, and the poem is hinting at disintegration. It might now be pointing at an affair’s halcyon beginnings from a bereaved position of self-assessment.

The poem gestures toward love’s intimate relationship with time: The speaker “sitting back for good and noticing white stuff/Suddenly falling on Portobello and staying,” could be either settling into a lifetime of comfort and safety or remembering his own self-deception. (Even in Canada, we know snow doesn’t stay.) And that final image of star-gazing as an act of knowing self-delusion seems a wellspring of ambiguity, especially given that so many poets, critics and readers have pointed out that when a love poem is being written, the poet must be focusing all his or her energy on the beauties and trappings of language. So who is the love poem actually for? Sweet mystery.

–Ken Babstock

Ken Babstock’s last collection of poetry, Methodist Hatchet, won the Griffin Prize. This column originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, April 14, 2001. Look for more reprints from Babstock’s column in the coming weeks. If you are interested in writing a How Poems Work check out our submission guidelines.
You can follow both Glyn Maxwell @glynmaxwell and Ken Babstock @KBabstock on Twitter.