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OTHER PEOPLE’S FLOWERS: ‘The Point of Vanishing Stability’ John Huddart

I set out believing I was a reader, a collector of books. It was marvellous that the children I taught could write engagingly – and it would certainly stand them in good stead when they became readers too. Years into teaching, struggling with the burdens of so many unread books, I was plucked from the classroom and deposited in the National Writing Project, because I had been snared by word processing.

The Project had several key principles – one was that teachers of writing should be writers too. How can you expect them to, if you don’t? So I started to write, to record observations, to explore poems as models, and to enjoy technical formality. And in those days, teachers often met and worked with professional writers – today, they simply have to work with the National Curriculum.

And then there is David. Always wise, and always a writer, he has been a continual example and inspiration. If you are reading this, you are one of David’s fans as well, and look forward to his monthly collection.

I too have a poetry website, and publish what I write on it. The url is www.jahuddart.com, and I email my friends with regular updates, though in not so timely a fashion as David.

The Point of Vanishing Stability I wrote after a week’s sailing in very stormy weather off the west coast of Scotland, which explains the context.

Some poems rush into the world, almost fully formed, and find their connections to the wider sinews of life, almost instinctively. This is one of them – would they were all like that!

 

The Point of Vanishing Stability

In a yacht, the point of vanishing stability

is reached when the vessel decides

it has had enough of gales and tumult,

and will overturn. In the boat we are on,

this is a measurable angle, defined

by calculation and testing. We are pleased

to learn it is 120°.

Summoning up our mathematical imagination

we place the mast well below the surface,

with our boat springing back to save us

as we tumble about our ends.

It is a phrase that seizes. Passing

straight from the workshop manual

to the page of possibility. As we charge

the waves, and crash through with

jovial insouciance, the world and

its endless chaos breaks upon the

decks to tumble past in salty streams.

 

And so we trust to all designers

that the keel will hold beneath, that

the mounting pressure on the sails

will spill from the tops like so much

laughter. And so with all the lubberly

uproar from our safety-conscious lands,

with bitter crowds converging

on the monuments they would disown,

with grave ministers of state who

battle with the tide of numbers

competing for our panic or our grief.

 

May the bow split water still,

may whosoever did the sums

and placed us in this sea have got it right.

Through edgy fears and sacrifice

we stand fast to the wheel, and

still keep on tacking home, past tipping

points that howl but never come.

 

 

 

 

©John Huddart 2021

 

 

© Copyright David Selzer
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6 Responses
  • Jane Barth
    April 30, 2021

    ‘…past tipping
    points that howl but never come.’

    A great last image, reminding us of how easy it is to feel fear. And can we always rely on the tipping points .never coming’? Something always seems to be howling behind us.

  • Ashen Venema
    April 30, 2021

    I can feel myself being on that boat. An evocative metaphor for the kind of trust we rely on these days.

  • Alan Horne
    May 1, 2021

    This is great, John! ‘…Endless chaos breaks upon the decks to tumble past in salty streams.
    You might possibly like this, written by a friend of a friend, from the Welsh Haiku Journal (I think strictly speaking it’s a haibun) about a sailing trip. https://www.waleshaikujournal.com/resolve-davey

  • Clive Watkins
    May 7, 2021

    In its very first sentence, this strong and eloquent poem moves almost at once from the language of nautical engineering (“the point of vanishing stability”) to the language of self-expression (“decides / it has had enough”). Though the ensuing lines place this abstract mechanical phenomenon in an immediately personal context (“the boat we are on”), as the poem progresses, it rapidly becomes apparent that the “boat we are on” is to be read metaphorically: the poem is employing the language of the “workshop manual”, with its measurable angles and mechanical forces, to explore forces at play within the social and political sphere. Reading this back into the first sentence, the anthropomorphism of “the vessel decides” can be seen not as a passing rhetorical flourish but as already going to the heart of the poem: our shared social and political life depends in some degree on human choices, not simply on the impersonal operation of the laws of mechanics. Read in this way “tumult” in line 3 is not just an expressive quasi-synonym for “gales” but preserves its literal meaning indicating the “Commotion of a multitude, usually with confused speech or uproar; public disturbance; disorderly or riotous proceeding” (OED). In this context, “angle”, “calculation”, “save” and even “ends” resonate with potentially political or social meanings. This gives the vivid and energetic writing that closes the paragraph a satisfying complexity: we charge

    the waves, and crash through with
    jovial insouciance, the world and
    its endless chaos breaks upon the
    decks to tumble past in salty streams.

    In fact it is clear that the vessel we are sailing in is “the ship of state”. (Other metaphors crowd in – for example, “all in the same boat”.) The doubling of language continues in the vigorous lines that follow, where the political connotations of the overarching metaphor come to the front. There are some splendid touches: the prayer that “the mounting pressure on the sails / will spill from the tops like so much / laughter; the “the lubberly / uproar”; “the tide of numbers / competing for our panic or our grief”. This continues to the end: “may whosoever did the sums / and placed us in this sea have got it right”; “we stand fast to the wheel, and / still keep on tacking home, past tipping / points that howl but never come.” The poem concludes in uncertainty. For the ship of state we are all sailing on, how close is the point of vanishing instability? Like the helmsman, “Through edgy fears and sacrifice / we stand fast to the wheel”, hoping for the best.

    A sophisticated and satisfying poem, which I enjoyed reading.

    Clive Watkins

  • John Huddart
    May 7, 2021

    Thank you, Clive. It was both a real and a metaphorical boat, and I am very pleased the metaphor worked so well.

  • Clive Watkins
    May 7, 2021

    A real boat, too, of course, John. That’s one of the attractions of poetry: at one and the same time a boat can be a boat and not-a-boat. To sound a less “lit-crit” and more autobiographical note, your poem brought back several memories (from nearly forty years ago) of when I built a small sailing-dinghy (not a “yacht”) in our garage with the assistance of our eldest son, who at the time must have been about twelve. I had done some dinghy-sailing in my teens; at school I was in the Sea cadets; our son delighted in the Arthur Ransome books (as I had done as a boy); and so the project seemed “right”. For a few years we sailed her in the Lakes and also locally. Then, about three and a half years ago, our son, now a father himself, began building himself a boat in his garage. He had the advantage of me in being good with his hands. She is clinker-built, of a type called Guillemot and very beautiful. He has named her Sirius, one of my forenames and the name of the cruiser on which my father had spent much of his War. (I have a poem about this, of course.) Unfortunately, the arrival of Covid has so far prevented her from being launched. I recount these things partly because I can still remember, as it were in my muscles and bones, the special experience of being hurried along over and through the water before a good breeze, an experience in which exhilaration combines with a lively awareness of danger. – It’s an excellent poem, John.

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