Lawrence Sail is one of those poets who seems to have been around for years – probably because he has. I wasn’t aware of his poem ‘The Cablecar’ until Ann and Peter Sansom used it as an exemplar in one of their Poetry Business Saturday writing exercises.
It immediately grabbed me as a wonderful poem, by which I mean a poem full of wonders and surprises. The shape and form of it – three chunky stanzas of seven lines each, with irregular syllable-counts per line – proclaims substance and so it proves.
That mellifluous opening pitches the reader straight into a nameless ski resort somewhere in the Alps. How often do poetry tutors enjoin participants to avoid adverbs? Yes, you can over-use them, but sometimes they work brilliantly. Sail’s use of ‘lightly’ in the first line is perfect: positioned mid-line, it’s like a stepping stone between ‘silver’ and ‘valley’. Although the primary meaning is that the cablecar moved with lightness, it might also imply a sense that the ‘silver box’ gleams with sunlight. If one reads the line without ‘lightly’, its absence is marked.
Then that extraordinary metaphor of the second line is sprung: ‘ape-easy’ is daring writing which trusts the reader to follow Sail’s thought. These days, many poets seem either too afraid to use metaphor and instead use simile, or they use metaphors which are so convoluted or absurd that they serve only to baffle or irritate the reader.
In the third line, the reader realises that the narrative persona is within the cablecar and not observing it from afar. There’s a Larkinesque feeling to ‘it had shrunk the town to a diagram’ – reminiscent of that magical line in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’: ‘I thought of London spread out in the sun,/ Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat’ – and indeed to the rest of the first stanza as a whole. There’s a lovely musicality to ‘the leaping river to a sluggish leat of kaolin,/ the fletched forests to points it overrode’. I confess I had to look up the word ‘leat’ – a watercourse leading to a mill – but I’m glad that Sail took the risk of using an uncommon term, the first of three within the poem, as we’ll see. The adjective ‘fletched’ is marvellous – I can see the chevron shapes of the fir trees’ branches, no doubt covered in snow. I don’t quite get ‘to points it overrode’. The last two lines of the stanza introduce a note of scientific curiosity, of the physics which drives the cablecar upwards. They also introduce the addressee – the ‘you’. Who is that? Is it just Sail’s way of trying to put the reader into his shoes?
The second stanza, like the first, opens energetically with a verb and then that perfect use of ‘whisked’. I can’t find the word ‘slurs’ defined as any kind of natural feature but I presume that’s what Sail must mean – like ‘moraine’, the masses of stones left after a glacier. I had to look that word up too, as I couldn’t quite remember it from O-level Geography. And then the poem takes the turn which you somehow expect, of the fear felt when the cablecar stops mid-air. It concentrates its focus on the immediate circumstances, in contrast to the wide lens of the first stanza. The anaphora ‘It had you[r]’ in three successive sentences works brilliantly because it echoes the halting progress of the cablecar. Sail’s use of different senses, his rendering of the various sensations and his alternation between long and short sentences all build vertiginous tension which climaxes with ‘It made you think of falling’. I had to look up ‘seracs’ of course, to find that they are columns or blocks of glacial ice.
Another reason why I like this poem so much is that the three stanzas are all self-contained parts, or movements, of the story that the poem narrates – so the stanza breaks are in the right places and there’s no artificial division into neat stanzas. So the third stanza, like the second did, provides a shift from the stanza which preceded it. The detail is on a wider scale again: ‘the broad-roofed houses decorated with lights’. Most impressively, though, is the very clever way in which Sail, with such sleight of hand, enables the narrative to relate the scene at the top of the cablecar’s route in retrospect, as ‘you’ are ‘lowered back to the spread valley’, because it allows the poem to end with five lines of glorious epiphany. The descriptive phrases Sail uses – ‘the giddy edge/ of snowfields still unprinted, that pure blaze’ and ‘a glimpse/ of the moon’s daytime ghost on solid blue’ – make beautiful, truly poetic lines without seeming forced. Again, I’m reminded of Larkin, specifically his mystical tones in the endings of ‘Here’, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, ‘High Windows’ and ‘The Explosion’.