How bleak the morning was, how oily bleak:
we woke up cabined in our bunk like beaus;
I kissed your temple where it met your cheek;
we prattled and for hours never rose
from bed—marooned like storm-flung geese there, blown
into an Amazon of ways that stray
the mazy air with tropical cologne.
We two lost geese a fug had forced to lay
upon the nowhere of a riverworld,
we honked at talk, touched beaks and lowered looks
that fevered in our feathered heads and curled
our webby toes. My shoulders were the nooks
of ponds, how bleak, and on, your throat and head
afloat. A goose migrated from the bed.
LISTEN to ‘Beaux’ by Nick Ascroft
Nick Ascroft is from Oamaru, has lived in Te Anau, Dunedin, Oxford and London, and these days kicks about Wellington, working as an editor. He has published three collections of poetry through Victoria University Press, the most recent being Back with the Human Condition (2016). He has also published a soccer guide through Bloomsbury in the UK, How to Win at 5-a-Side (2016). He will soon be one of those annoying new-dad types.
Ascroft comments: ‘The poem “Beaux” represents everything I love and hate about sonnets. I wrote it around 2004 or 2005, and it was the first (of many) sonnets I was to write for Kate, now my wife. It being distant enough in years from my having written it, I feel detached enough to appraise it coolly. Ha, I wish.
‘The thing with a sonnet is that, like an argument you lost years ago, it never feels finished. Every little problem or regret I had when writing it is still alive, itching at me, suggesting other solutions. I love rhyming metrical poetry and often from an over-technical, over-mathematical standpoint (note exactly 140 syllables here). Allow me to be a bore on this a little before I get to the poem’s story. At times in sonnets I abandon what is most musical or euphonious for a strict abstraction of syllable stress dynamics.
‘Phonology and phonetics were the main point of interest in my linguistics degree, and English syllables fascinate me, in their dominance hierarchies of stress and in the way they rhyme. By dominance hierarchies I mean that syllables are not simply stressed or unstressed (though they definitely are these things), but they also have local stress-dominance relationships with neighbouring syllables. For instance, “We two lost geese” could be seen as four full stressed syllables. English however is desperate to add a lilt. To my ear this falls most easily into iambs: “we TWO lost GEESE”.
‘While on syllables, I always allot words the pronunciation and number of syllables from my own New Zealand accent, so “our” is a single syllable pronounced the same as “are”, while “hours” is two syllables. The rhymes in this one are less baroque than some I am drawn to, perhaps thankfully. I like the “cologne” and “blown” rhyme the most, and the red herring of the “throat”/“afloat” rhyme that interrupts the final couplet. It’s that “beaus”/“rose” rhyme that troubles me. Not as a rhyme. It’s always nice to rhyme a plural noun with an irregular verb form, the variety adding punch.
‘But it’s the meaning and the oddness of the original metaphor before everything turns into storm-flung geese that bothers. We woke up cabined in our bunk like boyfriends. I’m imagining some sort of gay “in-the-navy” scene here, I guess, and the gender-bending is bizarrely pleasant, that a male-female couple woke up feeling like gay lovers. But “beaus” isn’t commonly used in this way. It tends to mean boyfriends to one person— say, a series of boyfriends— so “like beaus” is confusing: are we like rival boyfriends to another person? But worse I suspect it originated out of the desire to rhyme “beaus” and “rose”. It’s one of those sins, a line written for the rhyme as opposed the rhyme written for the line.
‘In the original version I spelt the word “beaux” and still expected a “beaus” pronunciation, which was a stretch, so to keep the amusing plural I changed the title of the poem to ‘Beaux’ (the original title made zero sense anyway). I like that inconsistency, but it elevates this “problem” with the poem to seem the central theme, which is unnecessary misdirection. The poem would better be called “Goose Leaves” or something. And that’s the story the poem is telling. We were “young and insane” (as per the Magnetic Fields song) and had only been together for months, living only it seemed in my bedroom--sleeping, binge-watching Seinfeld, doing all-nighters on Kate’s end-of-semester essays and dissertation, falling in love— and it was wonderful. Yet here was I off away for five weeks on a pre-planned trip to Europe with friends. I was a fool, a goose. An important thematic motif of my poetry.