This poem responds to Geoffrey Hill’s injunction, given during one of his recent lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, to the young poet to produce something farouche and surprising: “give us a black swan“. It doesn’t fulfil, or claim to fulfil, that rubric, but rather attempts to sidestep it – rather than “stir up the agon” with Hill, getting tied up in the paradoxes of attempting to fulfil an order to behave unpredictably, it focuses on a very normal thing, “a white / swan on black water / drifting”, and makes it the central figure of a perceived change in, or shift in the sense of, the surrounding natural world.
Black Swan is the title of a fun but ultimately silly film about ballet and sex, and of a book of Nassim Taleb’s I never got all the way through. The latter’s sense of a “black swan” as a surprising event of uncomputable probability is more what I, and I assume Hill, had in mind, although I wouldn’t put it past him to have been thinking of Natalie Portman at the same time.
The “black swan” is an event characterised by its inability to be grasped by what Taleb calls the “degenerate metaprobability” of orthodox accounts of the character of financial risk. Black swans show up from time to time in the normal run of things, but appear as unthinkable exceptions from the point of view of a theory of probability that takes risk to be structurally manageable. Hill’s choice of metaphor appeals to us to see the culture industry, including what is recognised and promoted as poetry within it, as based on a similarly defective, because risk-averse and managerialist, theory of literary profit and loss, and constitutionally unprepared for the black swan that a good poem can sometimes be.
The gambit taken by this poem is to treat a white swan, an ordinary inhabitant of nature, as an “evental site”, a being on the edge of the void. It’s also quite simply the recounting of an anecdote. Many years ago I was out walking along the riverside in Tupsley, Hereford, with my girlfriend at the time who was visiting. Evening had fallen, and we saw a swan drifting in the middle of the river. Chloe, who was studying Classics, felt the presence of the Goddess in the situation, and argued quite sincerely that we should turn back and not continue walking through the fields. Something had changed, and we were no longer welcome: it would have been crass and imprudent to go on disturbing the place with our youthful and somewhat quarrelsome presence. Electing to take ourselves seriously about this, we turned about headed briskly back home, full of spooky thrills and a strange relief at having recognised what was required of us.
The title is from Werships, a piece by the Australian death metal group Portal, which ends with the repeated lyric “Bow! Oh Graving Faces!” – this seemed appropriate to the manifestation of a supernatural visitor.