There is a laminated poem inside the staff lift, held up haphazardly by ancient blu-tack. I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s been here long enough that my colleagues and I fondly refer to it as Lift Poem.
The job (which is bookselling) involves many flights of stairs, and so sometimes, I take the lift. Or I’m headed to the staffroom and don’t want to waste my break on the stairs. Either way, the lift is a snatched moment, hidden from customers, in which to catch your breath, slump against the wall, and more often than not, to read Lift Poem:
When I die, I will see the lining of the world. The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset. The true meaning, ready to be decoded. What never added up will add up, What was incomprehensible will be comprehended. - And if there is no lining to the world? If a thrush on a branch is not a sign, But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day Make no sense following each other? And on this earth there is nothing except this earth? - Even if that is so, there will remain A word wakened by lips that perish, A tireless messenger who runs and runs Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies, And calls out, protests, screams.
Before I say more about Lift Poem, it feels necessary to mention that somewhere amid the pandemic, finishing a poetry masters and moving to Scotland and back, I fell out of love with poetry. When people asked how my writing was going I would experience a full body cringe. Trying to read a poem, any poem, I felt a terrifying boredom, a resistance. I had renewed understanding and compassion for the many people alienated by poetry, who would rather read literally anything else. This, too, felt shameful to admit. My interest in poetry and writing of poems had been, for years, something I loved about myself and a way of connecting with others, through workshops, gigs, and swapping drafts. Poetry had given me a community, and now I couldn’t even read a single poem, couldn’t look it in the eye.
But here I was, at work, five days a week, and there was this poem, every time I stepped into the lift. Despite myself, I began to read it, with the same casual disinterest with which one reads a cereal packet. The first few times I felt nothing. I couldn’t get a sense of what the words meant. Individually, I understood them, but together, my mind skated over them.
Weeks passed, and Lift Poem remained, glossy on the wall, the same words in the same places.
But reading it now, I felt a sense of frustration. The sentences started coming together as units that made a kind of sense, but what did the poem itself mean? Why wouldn’t it come straight out and tell me, given that I’d gone to the trouble of reading it? The flipside of this petulant frustration was a sense of curiosity. Something started happening when I read the poem. There was just enough time, from the basement to the third floor, say, for something to start gently whirring in a disused corner of my mind.
And then suddenly I had read the poem enough times that, even if I didn’t completely understand it, the words had gained a familiarity, so that just reading it gave me a sense of relief. My mind didn’t have to have its own thoughts for a minute – it could think the poem instead. I wasn’t engaging with the vast concept of ‘poetry’, I didn’t even need to turn down the corner of a page or press a little heart to show how I felt. It was just there, every day, and I could read it. It felt like even though the words remained the same, each time I read them I felt differently, and knew the poem a little better.
So. Lift Poem is called ‘Meaning’ and is by Czeslaw Milosz.
The more I’ve read it, the more it seems the perfect poem to read at work, surrounded by the everyday objects of crates and trollies, kick stools and books. The opening line ‘When I die, I will see the lining of the world’ is entirely self-contained, its meaning both there for the taking, in the apparent openness of its declarative statement, and also hidden. What is the lining of the world? This first line is possibly my favourite – it’s like a little promise to oneself. Like, right now there’s something hidden about our experience, but when the biggest thing to happen happens, that will change. Or, right now, a customer is driving me up the wall, but when I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The next two lines are also end-stopped, the syntax completely contained by the line. Three small statements in a row, unlinked by commas or dashes:
When I die, I will see the lining of the world. The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset. The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
For ‘bird, mountain, sunset’, I fill in: beyond lifts, capitalism, my mid-twenties, cluelessness, crates of books. The ‘true meaning’ of the third line suggests there is a single truth, just waiting to be discovered, an idea which I find appealing in this moment, when so much is so uncertain. The next two lines – ‘What never added up will add up, / What was incomprehensible will be comprehended’ – build on this promise, acknowledging that in the present moment of the poem, and seemingly for the speaker’s whole life, much has felt beyond understanding. In these first five lines, the four full stops add emphatically to the firm, reassuring tone.
Then doubt creeps in, or rather, cuts straight in with a dash:
- And if there is no lining to the world? If a thrush on a branch is not a sign, But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day Make no sense following each other? And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
This sudden list of four questions, one piled on top of the other, creates a sense of rising panic. These lines vocalise the worst fear – what if there is no more than this, no secret meanings? The first question echoes the opening line back to us, its initial certainty flipped on its head. In fact, this whole section is full of mirrors, repeated images. The thrush on the branch becomes a sign in one line, before being stripped of that meaning the following line. In these two lines, the almost exact repetition of ‘a thrush on a branch’ emphasises the plainness of these words, and their most literal meaning: there is something heart-breaking about ‘just a thrush on the branch’.
Here I think of Plath’s poem ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, a poem about the stubborn meaninglessness of our everyday lives which occasionally and unexpectedly dissipates:
I only know that a rook Ordering its black feathers can so shine As to seize my senses, haul My eyelids up, and grant A brief respite from fear Of total neutrality.
These two terrors, Milosz’s fear of there being ‘on this earth […] nothing except this earth’ and Plath’s fear of ‘total neutrality’ are the same fear. If we are neutral to everything, there is nothing here for us. At least, that’s what the ending of ‘Meaning’ suggests to me:
- Even if that is so, there will remain A word wakened by lips that perish, A tireless messenger who runs and runs Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies, And calls out, protests, screams.
These closing lines do not quite answer the preceding questions, but offer an antidote to this unspeakable fear. Where the poem’s opening line promises certainty, these closing lines hold hope in the face of endless uncertainty. And this is the part of the poem that I don’t quite have my head around yet. I’m not sure, yet, and maybe won’t be sure, what the word is ‘wakened by lips that perish’, and the ‘interstellar fields’ and ‘revolving galaxies’ seem too big to address or even acknowledge. But what I think the closing lines suggest is that, in our frustration at the seeming meaninglessness of things, we create a kind of meaning. Despite the ‘perishing lips’ and the screams, there’s something comforting in the idea of the ‘tireless messenger who runs and runs’. In fact, this line seems a good way to describe a poem: constantly trying to communicate something, which is never complete, because our understanding of it can always shift. My colleagues might read this same poem and get something entirely different from it.
There is no ‘true meaning’, but there is always this search, this desire for clarity and meaning, something of which comes back to me, as I ride in the lift, reading this poem.
I’m still finding my way back to poetry, but spending time with Lift Poem, even if just for a moment of my day, has allowed me to take the pressure off myself, and instead to just enjoy a poem. I’m reminded of something Seamus Heaney said once – which I cannot find to reference, so you’ll just have to take my word for it – about how we don’t need to know hundreds of poems. One or two good poems, he said, if you know them really well, can sustain you for a lifetime. By stepping briefly into the lift of a poem, we step outside of our lives and into a little room that takes us somewhere, even as we stay inside it.
 ‘Meaning’, Czeslaw Milosz: New and Collected Poems 1931-2001, p.569.
Service by Emily Pritchard It’s good to care about a place. All day, the shelves empty and fill slowly, undiscernibly. All day I move from counter to trolley, from customer to stock to customer. I say thank you three times each transaction, speed-walk around the shop in search of something someone wants. I clasp my hands together in an instinctive gesture of reassurance or petition. Behind my mask, I’m smiling, carried through by how this morning my dear friend bent her head over the font, how the water fell onto her shiny hair. Afterwards he handed her a small white cloth to dry her head and then a candle in a cardboard holder. I place your receipt inside the cover of your book, then slip the book into a paper bag. What if I didn’t rush to have a different life? The left knee in all my trousers worn away from placing books on low shelves, my knee kissing the ground.