When Gran fell downstairs and died I wanted to visit her house,
stand on top of the stairs and at the bottom
and on each step between her life and death.
I climbed carefully as once I’d climbed through cloud forest
over the tangle of roots on my way to see
Angel Falls from the mirador of Alexander Laime.
When I reached the lookout point where the whole cataract
can be viewed, sweat in my eyes and needle-fine spray,
there was drizzle, a driving wind,
dark clouds obscured the head of the falls.
For about a third of a mile up the amphitheatre
I saw how water after it has fallen so far
seems to flow back up then fall again
as air – spirals, comets, flames.
I thought of Jimmy Angel, discoverer of these falls,
how, after his death, his wife Marie
had a bush pilot fly her right up to the head
where sudden cloud can cause a crash.
And against the winds she opened the cockpit window
to throw his ashes, spray burning her face.
Then Laime the hermit built his hut on Rat Island
so he could watch dawn turn the plummeting waters to fire.
All night Gran was restless as rockets exploded
and fireworks lit up her uncurtained windows.
By four a.m. the ninety years of her life gathered forces
against the torrent that battered the panes.
Nine hundred metres to fall from the summit.
Bone and water, bone and air, the corridors
in sandstone where marrow has carved passages,
the base so strewn with rocks I could not see the plunge-pool.
But when I went and stood in Gran’s hall, looking up
at the air that contained aftershocks and echoes,
the air I wanted to collect in boxes and label,
as I’d scooped the red soil at the foot of the falls
for proof of my visit, it was as if I was underwater,
all my childhood in her house falling on my head,
against my eyes, down my mouth, all the water and fire of my life.
– Pascale Petit
from Heart of a Deer
Pascale Petit’s “Mirador” is ostensibly a simple poem. There are two main threads – the death of the poet’s grandmother as a result of falling down stairs, and the poet’s memory of visiting Angel Falls in Venezuela. (A third strand – which makes up the entirety of the third stanza – is almost an aside, relating how, after Jimmy Angel died, his wife scattered his ashes at the top of the falls he’d discovered.) The whole poem is written in modulations of the past tense, and it is that which helps to disguise the complexity of levels of memory. Six levels of memory, in fact:
- The initial past tense (“when Gran fell downstairs”) which can be considered functionally as the present tense, since the poem as a whole is framed within this context.
- The secondary past tense (“as once I’d climbed through cloud forest”) which functions as the ‘normal’ past tense: this is the level of ‘memory’ to the previous tense’s ‘present’.
- The tertiary past tense is a memory from within a memory. In many ways it stands outside the poem – a story that adds a bit of detail to the context of the falls, which seeds images that are picked up later in the poem.
- The fourth past tense is only just a little later than the initial past; Gran is in the process of dying. (“All night Gran was restless … bone … bone” and “marrow has carved passages”) It feels very similar to the (functionally) present tense.
- The fifth tense is fleeting – an awareness, rather than a memory of, a greater past (“all my childhood in her house”), although you could probably dismiss it as an extension of/ stance within the initial tense.
- The same can be argued of the sixth tense, which is really just an a-temporal (poly-temporal?) opening up: memory + moment + projection into the future, implied by “all … of my life”.
Despite the complexity, the flow from strand to strand is fairly straightforward, although moving by intuition and association rather than by logic or chronology. The triggering event (her grandmother’s death) begins the poem, then we move into the memory of climbing the falls that is triggered by association with her grandmother’s fall down the staircase. Then we move to a deeper level of memory – the story about Jimmy Angel’s ashes being scattered at the falls and the subsequent building of the mirador. The link between the grandmother and Angel here is death (and the double meaning of the word “falls”, not to mention “Angel”), the link between Angel and Laime is both location (Angel Falls) and fire (cremation ashes for Angel, dawn turning “the plummeting waters to fire” for Laime.) This cascading fire reference leads us back to the grandmother’s death, with water and fire being used to describe her last hours. We can interpret lines 23-26 literally – fireworks being let off on a stormy night – or figuratively, the rockets symbolising either her pain or her life force, being ultimately overcome/overwhelmed by “the torrent that battered the panes” – unconsciousness and death.
This fourth stanza is crucial to the coherence of the poem. Here, the two threads (the falls, her grandmother’s death) get tighter and tighter together: does “Nine hundred metres to fall from the summit” refer (literally) to Angel Falls, or to the end of her grandmother’s life? Or both? Neither interpretation necessarily precludes the other, which is only possible because of the poem’s structure – woven together out of ‘unresolved’ metaphorical strands. Lines 28 and 29 bring this to a climax: “bone” (grandmother) “and water” (falls), “bone” (grandmother) “and air” (falls), “the corridors” (grandmother) “in sandstone” (falls) “where marrow” (grandmother) “has carved passages” (falls).
The fifth stanza brings the poem back to the original set of images (standing in the grandmother’s hall), and then opens out into a broad frame, encompassing past (“all my childhood in her house”), present (“falling” ), and an imagined future (“all the water and fire of my life”). All in one sentence.
The strands within the poem work by association. An elderly woman falling down a flight of stairs triggers the poet’s memory of climbing up through forest to see a waterfall. The mental image of the spray, swirling like “comets, spirals, flames” leads to the story of a man’s ashes being scattered at the head of the falls, and so on. Images of water and fire are played against each other throughout the poem, and serve to link the sections together – “cloud”, “falls”, “cataract”, “sweat” (which encompasses ‘hot’ as well as ‘wet’) “spray”, “drizzle”, “flow”, “spray”, “torrent”, “pool”, “underwater”; “comets”, “flames”, “ashes”, “burning”, “dawn”, “fire”, “rockets”, “exploded”, “fireworks”, “aftershocks”, “red”. Fire and water have always been associated symbolically with life, and the poet uses this image to conclude the poem.
Setting it all in the past tense disguises the temporal shifts; there’s an overall movement forward in time, but with little eddies and crosscurrents within the body of the poem. The structure of the sentences, with phrasal line and stanza breaks, is very natural. Small clusters of echoed sounds (such as the clumps of ‘d’ sounds – “needle”, “drizzle”, “driving”, “third” – in the second stanza, which deals with hard physical exertion), give a pleasing correspondence between sound and image.
There is also a satisfying aural linkage between first and last stanzas. Not only are opening images repeated or echoed – “down”, “mouth”, “house”; “life”, “died”, “fire”, “climbed”; “wanted”, “top”, “bottom”, “forest”, “shocks”, “boxes” – but also the metrical structure that ends both first and last lines: “I wanted to visit her house”, and “the water and fire of my life”. All of this serves to reinforce the sense of completion and return, and unifies the poem.
A more conventionally linear approach would have made one or other of the threads dominant. While this is a poem about the grandmother’s death (rather than Angel Falls), the falls are much more than just an image in the background. It wasn’t the image of the falls that allowed Pascale Petit to write about her grandmother’s death, but her grandmother’s death that allowed her to ‘properly’ (and evocatively) write about Angel Falls. The two threads allow exploration of each other; cross, recross and then come together. It’s like hearing a musical instrument being tuned: the oscillations are big to begin with, but swing round and through each other, come in closer and closer and faster and tighter until you have one, pure note being sounded. (For the non-musical, think of the sound of a dropped coin, spinning flatter and flatter until it rests against the floor.)
From a purely practical point of view, I am repeatedly amazed at the way that the different levels of memory in this poem move through (rather than past) each other. I love the way that casting the whole poem in past tense creates a ‘temporal privilege’, allowing the poem’s speaker an amount of omniscience. (No need to restrict yourself to knowledge that the poem’s speaker could or would have been aware of at the time – you can stand back from the events and relate them reflectively.) Memory as the cause, the subtext, the framing device, and the subject of the poem.