By Stephanie Fullerton-Cooper
When we last examined the works of poet Philip Paschalides, we took careful note of his profundity, compared him to outstanding Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, as well as Romantic poet, John Keats, and celebrated the sheer beauty and poignancy of his works. My indulgent reading of Paschalides’ poems left a striking impact as I was also awed by the various interpretations that might be applied to his works. The Literature and Cultural Studies department of the Seattle Pacific University defines interpretation as “an explicit argument about a text’s deeper meanings – its implied themes, values, and assumptions. It pays special attention to the text’s contradictions, tensions, and ambiguities.” This for me has always been the beauty of literature - the idea that there might be as many interpretations as interpreters. As I passed a pleasant afternoon with the poet in discussion of his works, we exchanged thoughts on how I had interpreted his works and what responses it evoked in me versus what had inspired him to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard. The results were fascinating.
In “Manual and Cross”, Paschalides presents a persona who
Before the seated congregation,
Her hands inhabit the motions of the
Safety demonstration. (lines 1-4)
The poet continues to describe the persona at a spatial “point where South and North/and West and East cohere” (lines 5 and 6), reporting that
she knows the breathless mask
and tucked-up slide,
the first aid cask,
will no more save or hide (lines 9-12)
Perhaps because we are caught in an ongoing global pandemic, and also perhaps because of the reference to “the breathless mask”, my interpretation of this poem was of a woman who was praying for a loved one suffering from COVID-19 and struggling between a need to “save” or “hide”. She is seeking assistance through” prayer” or “human skill” – hence the title of “Manual” (help from human skill) or divine intervention as represented by “Cross”. In my interpretation, I noted her hands inhabit the motion of prayer. I saw the south, north, west, and east motions as somehow reminiscent of a hand making the sign of the cross, again in prayer. I concluded the thematic concern as religion, with the larger message being that it is what we believe that keeps us aloft. When Paschalides shared his inspiration in writing this poem, it was indeed about being ‘aloft’. He conceived this poem on a plane while the flight attendant went through the safety procedures for which hand gestures are so important. As for the title, “Manual and Cross”, it is drawn from cabin crew talk about arming the doors in preparation for take-off. I could not help but chuckle as this was far from my interpretation, and yet, not so distant, as the poem does indeed explore the diverse ideas in which we place our faith in order to stay ‘aloft’.
Similarly, in “The Most Legendary Exhibition of all Time Now in its Final Weeks!”, Paschalides follows the title with bracketed information, “(for Zacharie Caudeiron)”. My immediate conclusion was that the poet was writing about a major art show with Caudeiron as the artist. The poet begins with “They nursed the breathless coral of your lungs,/let them swell then slump into/the alabaster edges of the jar” (lines 1-3), and I immediately saw the artwork as glass blowing, the figurative labour of the lungs giving birth to a jar. The poet later spoke of “knicks and knacks”, “of wicking cloth, trainers … cans of coke”, and my interpretation was of the many usually discarded materials that Caudeiron had somehow turned into art. Paschalides speaks further of “shapes in silence shuffling past”, and I interpreted that to be the artistic shapes that these discarded materials later became with the artist’s intent being “to bring the history to life”. Again, my interpretation was far from what inspired Paschalides’ 2019 writing as Caudeiron was a friend making a trip to view a Tutankhamun exhibition, and the poem’s title was the actual text of a banner displayed across the window of a New York museum. The poem was much more about artistry than art, in this case the embalming and funereal crafts whose practice I referenced in part one of this article.
The sheer diversity of these interpretive activities emphasises that there is room for disagreement in interpretation. According to US philosopher Alan Goldman, “…some philosophers claim that interpretation is invariably weaker epistemically, that an interpreter cannot know, … that his interpretation is correct”. What is remarkable for me is not so much the correctness of my interpretations of Paschalides’ poems, but that the works so beautifully lend themselves to quite diverse interpretations, which cluster yet around a common zone of ideas, impressions, or feelings. Remember, the essence of interpretation is that it is debatable and based on implied assumptions.
Also remarkable is the structure of Paschalides’ poems and an exploration of his works would not be complete if no homage is paid to his structural devices. He admits to being very structured and quite methodical as he deliberates at length over what he produces. The poetry comes out of his various inspirations, but then he admits to “moving things around while I try not to change the essence of it”. There is a lot of fine tuning, he admits, “because I like format and structure”. Like T.S. Eliot, a leading English-language Modernist poet who believed “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job”, Paschalides states that “what I do, though not obviously structured, has a strong relationship with structure and is not intuitive”. Like Eliot then, he aims for perfection in his “constant vacillation between adherence to, and departure from, rhyme and regular meter”, but though he may move away from these, there is still a clear structure to be seen and admired.
Some aspects of his style are riveting, as Paschalides writes from seemingly simple origins to present works with profound meanings. In the 2015 poem “Press Release”, inspired when SeaWorld announced that it would phase out Whale Disney, the poet uses this simple announcement to explore liberty, loss, and what is lucrative. As he speaks to the liberated whales’ “half-remembered ways” (line 7), one ponders whether this freedom is saving or destroying the creatures echoing deeper discussions about all beings in captivity, whether the whales or the “ex-husbands” (line 3) that have been liberated from routines and relationships. Similarly, in “Almost daughter”, the poet uses the simple experience of a news story about polio, to explore the parallels between the end of a disease and of a relationship – does a past love, from some angles, not resemble a once incurable disease? Again, this seemingly simple occurrence draws profound conjectures about human experiences and human nature. And how can we not take note of his titles? Paschalides unapologetically references the origins of his inspiration in his titles, showing little regard for the usual capitalization rules, and not being concerned about the length or brevity of those titles. Some examples have already been explored in several poems referenced here, but of note too is “If you want to transition back to half-happy baby, feel free” to which Paschalides laughingly admits that “someone said it and I took it”. How can I not reference “Homoiousios”, the physical layout of which you have to see to fully appreciate? The writer structures it in such a way that two specific words jut out – and and or. This structure is of course deliberate, as we last time observed that this poem juxtaposes the observer and the observed who are trying to determine whether they are similar (and) or different (or). The structure creatively captures the poignancy of the message.
There are various schools of thought on what makes literature good or bad, and I agree with those who conclude that literature is considered bad if it is fleeting or formulaic, with no real aesthetic value and no permanence. Contrarily, good literature leaves a lasting impression, is sufficiently complex, aesthetic, stretches the imagination, and is truly artistic. Philip Paschalides’ poetry is good literature.