Michael Mooney’s Land

W. S. Graham, Malcolm Mooney’s Land
(London: Faber, 1970)

        Yesterday
I heard the telephone ringing deep
Down in a blue crevasse.
I did not answer it and could
Hardly bear to pass.
                   [from the title poem of Malcolm Mooney’s Land]

Malcolm Mooney’s Land (Facts)
[…]
Telephones have not been installed in crevasses yet.
[…]
I am always very aware that my poem is not a telephone call. The poet only speaks one way. He hears nothing back. His words as he utters them are not conditioned by a real ear replying from the other side. That is why he has to make the poem stand stationary as an Art object. […]
                    [from Poetry Book Society Bulletin, No. 64: Spring 1970]


W. S. Graham was not the first writer to connect poetry with the phone, but his use of the unanswered or unanswerable phone as a synecdoche for lyric is one of the most memorable. It crops up a number of times in the work: in the two connected examples above, and in the later ‘What is the Language Using Us for?’, when he writes:

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can’t get out.
I pay well for my messages
Being hoisted up when you are about.
            [Implements in their Places, Faber 1977]

Graham lived a truly ‘telephoneless’ life in remote Cornwall, and access to the nearest phone would have involved walking to the local pub, making phoning inevitably something of an eventful act. He was used to living unfussily without life’s amenities (like electric, a bathroom or cooking stove) after occupying a coastguard hut at Gurnard’s Head, one of the furthermost points of the South West Coast of England. This wild, Celtic coast is continuous with these poems’ unpopulated narrative contexts of arctic exploration.

And yet Graham afforded the phone a special status. As a device it is a particularly adept embodiment of the essential lyric paradox of proximity and distance, something Graham worried at so playfully and productively in his oeuvre. When using the phone, we confide in a device which trades in estrangement, as Jonathan Culler writes in his landmark study Theory of the Lyric (2016), ‘the rhetoric of calling makes it difficult to tell the difference between the animate and the inanimate, as anyone with a telephone answering machine can attest’. Graham was a poet who mined language most generatively at night: indeed, many of his poems are nocturnes. This no doubt enhanced the telephoneless aspect of his cottage, leading to what his friend Edwin Morgan called a ‘lone star state’.

by Sam Buchan-Watts