The hired van speeds down dual carriageways
containing us who function or don’t function
as chemicals trigger off and trigger on
the infinitely occurring, infinitely dissolving images
of blown trash, tarmac, post-war brick,
the image of a wedding in the brain, seeing
our long-lost whose eyes water or remain
painfully dry, committed to their forgetting
as we are to pinning one face to one name,
the single firework of a human life, standing
still in a shower of detonated rain,
flake falling away from flake as
the one mind defoliates, flowering
down through the night air to pollinate
among leftovers of wedding cake, pink rags
of cooked ham, wrinkled balloons, beer cans,
among the assembled silences in which
there is no speech fit to be made,
while outside, on the Dublin city canal,
two snow-white midnight swans paddle by,
steer headlong through confetti, snapping bread.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2004 was Hamish Whyte.
Jackson once played in a band which spent two years in Dublin – possibly the source of this poem, one of the best in his award-winning collection Fire Stations.
This poem began in 1992, when I was sharing a two-bedroom basement flat in Dublin with four musicians (members of the band I was playing in at the time). In fact, I had left the band at that point, but couldn’t afford to move out. Depression quickly set in: the lack of privacy, the constant bickering, the woeful sound of a fretless bass being plucked at four o’clock in the morning. Our singer, Martin Furey, got married in October. By that time I found social interaction a torture; the weakest piece of small-talk became an impossible struggle.
It was only after taking a midnight stroll by the Dublin canal a few weeks later, and being startled by the sight of two swans cruising along in the dark, that I found something to celebrate. After that moment, I began to feel balanced, re-connected to the outside world. A similar event is described in Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Skunk Hour’, which I’d read for the first time earlier that year, and I may have had this poem subconsciously in mind when I started writing ‘The Chemical Wedding’.
It began as a conscious experiment, an attempt to get away from the strict forms I normally used. I might even have had the idea of jazz improvisation in mind, for which (again) I can only blame that godawful fretless bass. The intention was to suggest a stream of consciousness, really; an outburst, a controlled explosion which would safely contain the depressive impulses. And, of course, their resolution. The poem itself played a part in this resolution: I’d written practically nothing for six months, so the outburst was also the breaking of a creative block.
The title of the poem is taken from the Rosicrucian text ‘The Chymical Wedding’, first published in 1690. The psychologist Carl Jung used the phrase to describe the conjunction (physical and spiritual) of male and female, and it is this sense of ultimate (idealistic?) order which is being opposed by chaos and dissolution in the poem, or the pastoral as opposed by the city. The swans became a significant symbol because they are one of the rare animals which mate for life, and I’m happy to say that Martin and Jane Furey are still together after twelve years.
Looking back at the manuscript, the kick-start line was ‘The image of a wedding in the brain’, after which the first nine lines came rattling out in one go. And I’ve drawn a picture of a swan to finish the draft, balanced by its reflection on the water. I hadn’t intended to include the poem in my first book, Fire Stations, until I emailed a copy to my friend Roddy Lumsden. He suggested there was definitely something in this old piece, so I re-wrote bits of it (the first lines were originally ‘Through the bland disfigurement of the city / This car holds everything it can hold / Which is us who function or don’t function’) and it’s now one of my favourites.