Weekend gloss: Olaf

The idea here is that having posted a poem on the Monday, I post a short gloss on it at the weekend…

Olaf is a “dream poem”, written a short while after the birth of my son Oliver. I had had a strong sense that this tiny infant belonged to a kind of dream-time, that his birth and early infancy were a process of slow awakening to the world, and that in his newness he was also somehow very ancient. I don’t mean that I imagined him to be the reincarnation of some old, much-transmigrated soul, but that he had not yet fully entered time. Without believing in any sort of species-memory or anima mundi, I felt that this newborn existed in a common ancestral before-time with every other newborn who had ever lived. (A few years later my grandad Ted picked up a red-faced and squalling Ruby, Oliver’s recently-arrived younger sister, and said teasingly, “You think you’re the first, don’t you?”). So Olaf, who appears to be a Norse warrior of some kind, is my dream of Oliver dreaming himself as Olaf, who at the end of the poem appears to be re-entering the dream-time himself as he falls into REM sleep (he may also be dying).

Olaf in his woundedness and exhaustion seems to blur somewhat into his surroundings, his own breathing mirrored by the trees leaning in and out in the wind. Nature is busy around him, with midges and minnows moving in their own patterns. Much later, in Cold World, I made a speculative connection between such human-independent natural processes and the hidden life of the unconscious, recovering from the “ground-zeroing” of consciousness inflicted by dejection. Coleridge’s phrase “the secret ministries of frost” suggested to me that a frozen world could still be in process. You have to trust that something is happening without being manifest, without giving any sign of itself. Olaf’s world is warm – he is “connected to nature”, as one says – but it is also coming apart, weakened at the joints, so that inner and outer life flow into each other. The vision here is ecstatic rather than dysphoric, subjectively overflowing rather than withdrawn, like Hopkins in one of his better moods.

I’m sentimental about the poem, and can’t really tell (and don’t really care) whether it is a good one or not: for me it recalls new-parenthood, as a dazed, sleep-deprived, slightly psychotic state which affords access to a strangely familiar kind of bliss.