Glyn Maxwell, Young Avengers, and Art's Present Past

One of the great pleasures of my new life as a postgraduate is the ability to pursue things that I just didn't have the time for when I was a student. My favorite of these pursuits is a foray into a genre, poetry, which has always made me feel vaguely illiterate; because I now work at the school from which I graduated last May, it wasn’t so strenuous to find a way in, and I'm lucky that my job has afforded me both the access and the time to take a class on the subject. (I know that this is not-comics, but bear with me.) We've been focused mostly on the sonnet but, last week, my teacher decided to expand our horizons a little bit and gave us a packet that included the poem above, Glyn Maxwell's "My Grandfather at the Pool." It's really an amazing piece and I suggest that, if you are inclined to do such things, you take the time to read it out loud. In particular, those of you who are interested in how words sound as well as what they mean should do this; I can't quite explain how stanzas like "This photo I know best of him is him/With pals of his about to take a swim" feel as they trip over your lips and spill out into the world, and its something you really should experience for yourself. 

Although I could type your eyes off, counting the ways I love "My Grandfather at the Pool," I'm going to go ahead and break one of the first principles of the appreciation of poetry (Archibald Macleish: "A poem should not mean/But be") as a way into a thought I've been kicking around for awhile, about the nature of stories that people get particularly attached to, that is, the kind of stories that produce fans. In the poem, Maxwell describes an old photo of his grandfather, taken around the start of the First World War: 

This photo I know best of him is him
With pals of his about to take a swim,

Forming a line with four of them, so five
All told one afternoon, about to dive:

Again, you should read this out loud-- it’s nice reading, sure, but poetry is meant to be spoken and to be heard; let it bounce around your ears for a while and see what happens. 

Back to the picture: Maxwell is clearly looking at this photograph in the present tense. The immediacy of “This photo” (as opposed to “That photo,” which would suggest distance) even seems to put it in his hand, and we’re looking at it with him as he narrates: 

Merseysiders, grinning and wire-thin,
Still balanced, not to late to not go in,

Or feint to but then teeter on a whim.
The only one who turned away is him,

About to live in the trenches and survive,
Alone, as luck with have it, of the five. 

Leaving aside the harrowing beauty of that passage, take note of two, or maybe even three, different tenses. Although almost the whole passage is in the grammatical present, it's “not to late to not go in,” after all, “About to live in the trenches and survive,” is suggestive of the future and “The only who who turned away is him,” is ambiguous and possibly in the past. Maxwell gets all of that time, past, present, and future, out of one little photograph.

Reading “My Grandfather at the Pool,” I was struck by the fact that this is true of art as well as of documentation; although Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 16th century, she’s been smiling all this time, right now, before now, and she will after now, too. Odysseus is still finding his way home. At the same time, though, he's also landed on Ithaca's shores, met up with his son, and is now slaughtering his wife’s suitors. Similarly, Steve Rogers is still dead and Bucky Barnes is still Captain America, even as Barnes is the Winter Soldier and Rogers has put the flag back on. I only have to look at the painting, or open up Homer, or take the lid off of my longboxes for it to be true. 

The point, here, is that all the stories that have ever been written or painted or photographed, and so on, are happening right now or, if I’m a little more careful, they have the potential to be.* This is because art doesn’t operate the same way that our experience of time in the real world does; my first time reading “My Grandfather at the Pool” is past, but the poem is always present (and this, despite the fact that its writing and its subject are past as well!) Maxwell is always holding the picture of his grandfather, and his grandfather is always turned away. 

This is an important point for fan communities. When a story that you love is moved into a new direction that you don’t like, the original story, the one that you loved so much that you can’t stand this one, can’t be ruined, by definition; it’s still happening, it’s always happening.** Watching Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie respond to Young Avengers fandom after the preview pages for their new YA series hit, I’m reminded of my esteem for those two creators (Gillen actually pointed to a fact of comic book production that might sate some of the criticism when the book actually comes out next month, and McKelvie doesn’t think that the changes are much more than superficial) but I’m also frustrated that we’re having this conversation at all: there are plenty of legitimate reasons to call serial art bad, but insufficient similarity to what came before is never one of them.***  Young Avengers fans are perfectly welcome to dislike what Gillen and McKelvie do with the characters, of course they are!, but they need to be able to evaluate the comic fully and in its own terms before they can make a legitimate judgement about it, or even about its relative merits. Although I don’t want to speak categorically, much of the criticism of the YA preview, certainly all of it that I’ve seen, fails on both counts.  

Maxwell ends “My Grandfather at the Pool” by bringing into the clear the sentiment he has, to that point, implicitly expressed about the nature of the photograph he’s holding in his hand:

And things are stacked ahead of me so vast
I sun myself in the shadows that they cast:

Things I dreamed but never dreamed were there, 
But are and may by now be everywhere,

When you’re what turns the page of looks away,
When I’m what disappears into my day. 

My teacher closed out conversation of the poem by pointing to that second stanza, in particular “But are and may by now be everywhere.” “When’s that now?,” he asked. It’s now. Right now. That photograph documents a particular moment, and it will do so until it and each one of its reproductions is destroyed, and so that moment is always happening, no matter what James Maxwell and his friends wandered into later. Similarly, those first issues of Young Avengers? They’re happening too, right now, in your longbox or between the pages of the hardcover, and they don’t have to be colored by what came next-- art, unlike life, doesn’t work like that. If those are the stories that you want, then you should go to them. That’s why you have them. Cherish them because, inevitably, they won’t be the same as what comes next; that's what exciting about the telling of new ones, after all. 

*Let’s save a conversation about the flashback for a different day.

**This obviously isn’t universally true, as George Lucas’s various versions of the first Star Wars trilogy and lost episodes of Dr. Who can attest, but I would say that those are specific examples, one of a creator belatedly editing his own work and the other of shortsighted behavior by a broadcaster, and that they speak to specific circumstances. 

***Similarly, insufficient faith to the source text is also not a very particularly valid critique when we’re talking about adaptation, but I’ll have to find another poem if I want to talk about that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment