Poetry Feature: Lent, Week Seven

‘Notre Dame’ – Ben Vince


Notre Dame

And the spire fell; the woodwork

and the stonework fell; the news

fell on fallen ears; above,

the flames rose and their smell

fell to flat thickets of crowds; the pews

fell silent; stained-glass fictions fell

like molten folding eggshells;

the King’s men came

and could not put it back

together again; the spire fell

like a comet off-orbit, scraping

the atmosphere with holy light;

soon, the fire itself fell;

laying down to rest, like a tired god

at the close of creation,

the second light of the day

went out, leaving what’s left

of the church, standing skeletal,

an oak felled in one warm stroke.

For Ben, the process of writing a poem is something that is often difficult to piece together once the poem is finished. It seems unnatural to think in reverse, tracing the progress from final product to first thought. Indeed, Ben remarks: “I can’t remember how I came to begin writing about the Notre-Dame fire. I often find this with many of the poems that I write, in that even once I’ve finished the initial sitting of the first draft, the thought that kickstarted it all will have left me in some way.”

In the case of Notre-Dame, Ben comments that “there was definitely something in the horrific grandeur of such a huge, spiritual and knowable building burning to the ground that fascinated me.” This being “the thought that kickstarted it all,” the process from here becomes more indeterminable. Something that is clear throughout the poem, however, is the repetition of ‘fall’. It is a purposeful reminder of the magnitude of the topic at hand; the destruction seems inescapable, and by the time the poem reaches the ‘skeletal’ structure at its close, the omnipresent echo of ‘fall,’ ‘fell,’ ‘falling,’ signifies a sort of irreparability. There is something insurmountable about the enormity of the fire – both physically and iconoclastically.

Ben comments: “Once I’d used the word ‘fell’ a couple of times, I realised that having it as a kind of anaphora throughout the poem could work to my advantage — sonically, the word performs a kind of falling in itself, and I wanted to try and place it in some heavy places.

“Lines 3, 5 and 6 all start with ‘fell’ (and it ends line 6 as well), and often I placed the word in a sort of rhythmic empty space — line endings or before a semi-colon — to try and get a feeling of the building crumbling into nothing, leaving empty space where before there was a structure.

“That crumbling feeling was something I really wanted to capture here; the long, single sentence broken up by awkward enjambments were a way for me to feel through the structure of the poem, like the church, falling away, breaking apart.”

Ben discusses his difficulty finishing the poem. It took time for him to find an ending which felt right – the first draft read:

“the smoke rose and rose

from the fire

like a fallen king’s funeral

pyre;

it rose higher and higher,

and as eyes fell to leaves fallen,

nothing risen

could touch the spacial

vaults above.”

This didn’t feel right as it coerces the reader, as Ben puts it, to “Suddenly and inexplicably turn upwards — to suggest that some sort of holiness was left in the ether seemed like a cop-out.

“So, turning instead to the idea of a ‘tired god’ was my way of trying to complicate the religious aspects of a burning church. Could this be seen as an act of God, and if so, is it of one tired and complacent, or punishing, or trying to rebuild and bring something together again?

“The return to the ‘woodwork’ from line 1 in the ‘oak’ of the final image was my way of imaging this circularity, rooting the action in the earthly; to look for divine action is sometimes a waste.”

Photo credit: Martie Swart, Flickr