Poem of the week: The Human Voice from a Distance by Judith Willson

Carol Rumens
·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Historical image collection by Bildagentur-online/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Historical image collection by Bildagentur-online/Alamy

This week’s poem is from Judith Willson’s impressive second collection, Fleet. Central to the collection is the figure of a 19th-century Londoner, Eliza S, who was taken to court and accused of deserting her two children, a charge she denied. Eliza’s husband may have been implicated. An Italian migrant, described as “a dealer in foreign birds” he is sympathetically treated: his story, too, is an important imaginative source for Willson.

Eliza was given a short prison sentence, “with hard labour”. Nothing more is known about the couple, nor the fate of the children. Willson is the kind of writer who has a gift for bringing research alive, and infuses sparse facts with mystery and pathos.

From this central exploration, ripples expand and overlap, the results including this haunting and multilayered poem. Willson’s first stanza locates us. The printer Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made a “phonautograph” recording of Au Clair de la Lune in 1860, after what he described as “the imprudent idea of photographing the word”.

Willson finds tragic resonance in the ghostly and unstable sound of the recording, and in the fragments of the song she selects for quotation. The full text and English translation of Au Clair de la Lune are included here.

In stanza two, the “burnt-out city”, the reply of Pierrot “into onrushing wind”, and the trees “torn down in the boulevards” suggest, variously, revolution and war, natural disaster and the deliberate act of demolition. A darkened future is reflected in the mysterious transformation of the song into a “black-sailed ship” – perhaps a reference to the myth of Theseus and his father Aegus. As it struggles on, “bearing its burden through breaking waves / bearing on through the night”, the ship also comes to symbolise the overloaded boats in which present-day migrants so often risk and lose their lives.

The migrants become the singers in the fifth stanza, after the nicely judged doubled stanza-break: “We rock in our small boats / Singing like a storybook in the moonlight / Ma chandelle est morte / Je n’ai plus de feu”. But at the same time, a metaphorical, ecological shipwreck is implied, in which humanity runs out of resources and the only trace of us is “debris / floating on oily water”. The near-rhyming of “morte” and “water” quietly emphasises the catastrophe.

Fleet is an important book: it seeks to recover lost voices and sharpen our awareness of imperial cruelty and exploitation, while unveiling a future in which the once most powerful species is itself endangered.