Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 5 August 2015


The Ophthalmologist's Wife

He married a blind girl
I remember –
a quiet thing with
empty eyes.

Desperately tactile,
she longed for the night,
and the marriage bed's
gift of homogeneousness,
but he couldn't see
and she often slept alone
as he burned the midnight oil.

(For F.)

20 August 1983

In Samuel Beckett’s play That Time he talks about a place called Foley’s Folly. Although not the most autobiographical of writers Beckett did regularly incorporate the names of familiar places in his works, e.g. in Waiting for Godot Vladimir recalls a visit to the Eiffel Tower and picking grapes in the Macon Country. When the writer Eoin O'Brien, who had set himself the task of tracking down and photographing every geographical location ever mentioned by Beckett for his marvellous book The Beckett Country, looked for Foley’s Folly he encountered a problem: there was no such place. O'Brien thought it might be Taylor’s Tower but that was not it. So he had no choice but to approach the author who, at least on this occasion (he wasn’t always as helpful), pointed him in the right direction:

Sam pored over the photographs, fascinated by the beauty of the place, but then, to my disappointment, informed me that he had never been there. Instead he directed me to Barrington's Tower, which, of course made much more sense in that it was close to Cooldrinagh, where he had been sent "supperless to bed" in punishment for his childhood peregrinations. When I asked him why he had changed the name, he said: "Eoin, there's no music in Barrington's Tower."

I’m sure Beckett would’ve been more than familiar with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge had had to say about poetry:

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.

Which brings me to my poem. Homogeneousness (or, alternatively, homogeneity) means “composition from like parts, elements, or characteristics”. It’s the right word—and the better of the two—but a five syllable word is a bit of a mouthful and neither is especially musical. Homogeneousness is the softer, which is why I chose it, but I would’ve preferred something else, a three syllable word ideally.

The English lexicographer Henry Fowler wrote: “Those who run to long words are mainly the unskillful and tasteless; they confuse pomposity with dignity, flaccidity with ease, and bulk with force.”

I doubt Beckett would’ve agreed with either Coleridge or Fowler and I’m happy to stand on his shoulders. He was every bit as careful with the words he chose in his prose as he was in his poetry. Why have two standards? That said, frequently the English language is just plain unhelpful when it comes to available synonyms. I’m not sure what I would do today with this poem. It’s fixed in my head now and I wouldn’t change it but I still struggle with that eighth line. Any suggestions?

sad woman


Gwil W said...

Maybe to simply leave out 'gift of' is the solution?

Jim Murdoch said...

Never considered that, Gwilliam but if I did I'd probably used 'homogeneity' instead. That would give me the three syllables I was looking for.

vito pasquale said...

Gwilliam's comment is interesting in that, before I read it, I was wondering if "of homogeneousness" could be left out. It leaves it up to the reader to come up with what the marriage bed's gift is but I don't think I would have ever come up with the picture you've given of homogeneity. I know this isn't a satisfying suggestion, just one that occurred to me in the moment of reading the poem and your question. I was also trying to think of euphemisms for homogeneousness (not synonyms). None would fit within the context and the rhythm of your poem though. I was thinking of something along the lines of whitewashed intoxication. The poem itself is wonderful.

Jim Murdoch said...

I like the idea of “whitewashed intoxication”, Vito and you’re quite right, “of homogeneousness” could be left out and the marriage bed’s gift left to the readers’ imaginations. I’ve had a look at synonyms for “gift” and one that jumped out at me was “edge”:

        she longed for the night,
        and the marriage bed's edge
        but he couldn't see

I really wanted a level playing field but I suppose a blind person would have an edge in the dark. I did come across a three-syllable word which would fit with my original concept:

        she longed for the night,
        and the marriage bed's
        gift of equipoise
        but he couldn't see

“Counterpoise” would also work but a simple solution might be to go with “symmetry”. The problem with the other two is they’re unfamiliar words and even though I’ve looked up sentences that use them they don’t feel right here. In fact now I feel the need for an extra syllable! “[T]he marriage bed’s gift / of cool equipoise.” Yeah, I know I’ve moved “gift” up a line. This poem mat not have the regularity of my later work but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a rhythm and that’s what snookers me. I’m pretty sure that I gave up with “homogeneousness”. I should’ve sat on it.

Kass said...

I like the commenters suggestions, but wonder about a simpler word like 'melding'...

The high points of the poem for me:
"desperately tactile"

...and the fact that the Ophthamologist can't 'see' - These aspects get lost with the cumbersomeness of 'homogeneousness'.

Ken Armstrong said...

I like it a lot. It captures those moments when someone really needs us to be present and we are not. I wouldn't know how to tell you to change a thing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I can see where you’re going with ‘melding’, Kass, but that really wasn’t what I was aiming for here. There’s no amalgamation, no joining, but there is a levelling of the playing field. I know I threw this open for comment and all comments are valid but once the word has been chosen it’s up to readers to work with it. Yes, they supply the meaning but within limits. If I wrote that my character was ‘sad’ I wouldn’t expect my readers to make him happy because they thought I’d got it wrong. I have a poem coming up which I was looking at earlier today in which I use the word ‘superfluously’ and it seems such an odd choice now. What was I thinking? My thinking is that that wasn’t the best word but it is an interesting and thought-provoking word so we’ll let it stand. I did look to see what other words there are out there related to ‘meld’—I was hoping for ‘meldation’—but there aren’t many. I don’t invent too many words but just as taction is related to touching I think we need to think about the bigger picture as far as melding goes.

And, Ken, yes, you’re on the right tracks there. I use a phrase in my new book, “the constant presence of absence,” and even though I’ve discovered others have used similar expressions—there really is nothing new under the sun—the fact that I came up with it myself still pleases me. It’s what the woman in the poem is feeling. I’ve heard people talk about feeling the presence of someone who is absent but I’ve never experienced it. Once I met F. there was a constant F.-shaped hole within me and the only way to fill it was to be with her.

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