Castaway Tales dips briefly into the variety of poems reimagining Crusoe’s time on his island by looking at poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Walcott at the end of chapter 3. This was only a sample; this note looks at the longer sequence by Iain Crichton-Smith, published in 1975. Castaway Tales notices that language is transparent and unproblematic in Robinson Crusoe, but that matters are a lot more complicated for later castaways, though very many of them gives names to their island, and keep a journal. Examples of this complication include Tournier’s Robinson and Golding’s Pincher Martin. Unease at the instability of language weaves its way restlessly through Crichton-Smith’s sequence.
These poems revisit the story of Robinson Crusoe in a bleak, disillusioned mood, sometimes taking the form of parody, as with ‘Friday’s Fragments’ (poem 39, near the end of the sequence):
More often there is an oscillation between curt, rough poems, simple in vocabulary and of chopped or inverted syntax (for instance, ‘With knife carved Margaret’ poem 5), and more fluent and articulate poems , more confiding in tone (for instance, ‘The wind blows in my chimney. How mournful it is! I can hear in it voices of exhortation, of warning, and of regret.’ poem 11). By way of preliminary formulation we could say that the curt, rough poems treat his time on the island, in solitude, in contact with objects and tools and activities (choppy strings of verbs), and the more fluent treat an opening out into dreams, yearnings and memories, that is, the ways in which Robinson on his island is never sealed off from the world and from other possibilities. (This is close to the opposite of the position in Saint-John Perse’s Images à Crusoé, where the remembered island is rich, mysterious and regretted, and the city in which Robinson, Friday and the parrot now live is confining, squalid and threatening.) But the situation in The Notebooks of Robinson Crusoe is less stable than this; the lyricism, or approach to lyricism, can be turned also on the island:
Island, what shall I say of you, your peat bogs, your lochs, your
moors and berries?
The perpetual sound of the sea.
The spongy moss in which feet imprint themselves.
The mountains which darken and brighten like ideas in the mind.
The owl with its big glasses that perches on a late tree listening. (poem 30)
Further, poems in both moods are likely to end in recoil, in closure of what seemed to open for a while; as here. ‘What shall I say?’ opened out; ‘This I say’ closes down:
This I say:
One man cannot warm the world.
This I say:
The world of one man is different from the world of many men.
Or at the end of one of the poems in which he dreams, this time of being a Western gunfighter (lots of these poems concern boyhood fantasies, the comics, comic heroes and so forth):
dreamed we fell
over and over.
If I could fire
just once more
I’d know who fell.
The source of this disillusionment or bafflement that so often recurs, a kind of sad rhythm, is hard to define, and this is perhaps why the sequence is so effective. It’s clear that the old myth no longer frees or enlarges this castaway. The encounter with Friday ends with the parody of the Lord’s Prayer quoted above; when it begins, with Friday placing Crusoe’s foot on his head, it shifts into the memory of a sex scene in a movie (poem 36). Crusoe becomes his parrot (‘I am the parrot of a lost routine’, poem 24) or his parrot regards him from his red cage as he walks by the ruffled sea (poem 11). (Compare the grim and frightening nocturnal encounter with the parrot, or a parrot, in Perse.) The ‘two shoes that were not fellows’ that sadly washed ashore on Crusoe’s island in Defoe (58) reappear in one of this sequence’s poems of yearning:
Today there were washed ashore one powder puff, one glove, and one wellington.
There was also a newspaper too soggy to read.
I made fantasies of the owner […]
And then, in conclusion:
Mermaids of whom legends speak, why do you never rise out of the clear waters with your round white breasts, reading a current newspaper, above the brine’s eternal routine? (poem 26)
The mermaids’ reading of the newspaper shatters Robinson’s appeal here, and if that doesn’t do it the echo of Prufrock (as ineffectual a character as Defoe’s Crusoe is an active one) and the word ‘brine’ where we might have expected, say, ‘foam’, will do it.
These moments when Crichton Smith’s poems come close to Defoe’s novel only to reject its confidence might seem debunking, but the sequence is more painfully uneasy than that would suggest. Perhaps the instability of language is what is behind this unease, as indeed is suggested by the sequence’s oscillations between the blunt (even flat) and the lyrical, and by the way its evocations and valuations (of the world of comics, for instance) so often fade into bafflement. Many poems are direct in facing this inadequacy of words. The word won’t connect the thing and the knowledge of the thing (‘Nevertheless how can I nail my “sea” to sea, my “hill” to hill. And how can my “well” furnish me with water?’ poem 28). Expressing the self often leads to a kind of erasure, as in poem 17, a version of the passage in which Defoe’s Robinson sums up what he has been spared and what he has (Robinson Crusoe, 83-4); the poem lists all that this Robinson lacks (‘I do not have TB, cancer, heart disease, or any plague […] I am not feverish with love’) only to end with
Why then am I not happy?
The erasure is bleaker in poem 21, quoted in full here:
March and the world is white again
like notepaper, like a newspaper.
I could write a letter
of the plainest marble.
The wind goes over and over.
I am a fictional character
in the white newspaper.
Someone on a liner is reading me.
Even his imaginations of rescue come to an abrupt stop on a sliding of language, as in poem 6:
Today I wished to write a story. It would be of a man wrecked on an island many years, feeding on fish and flesh, limes and oranges, who rushing down a long slope to meet his rescuer (in punctilious blue) would run through him bone and sinew to the other side.
‘Punctilious blue’ interrupts the momentum (it recalls a detail from an earlier poem about the ship Robinson was travelling on when he was wrecked), and ‘run through him’ where we would have read ‘run him through’ stops it dead. The echoing of ‘solitude’ in ‘solicitude’ similarly enacts the sliding of language in another poem of misgiving (poem 27):
It is possible that, aware of my kingship here, I would not return to anonymity there but that, breeding hauteur in my solitude, I should recoil from the momentary and dramatic solicitude of others.
And all this is mediated; it’s not happening, it’s being reflected on, or seen in a mirror (poem 31), or written (‘I could write a letter’, poem 21; ‘I wished to write a story’, poem 6). The comics and their heroes which he remembers and rejoices in (- but their language was primal, ‘The colours before God. The primitive gossip and chatter of the spheres’, as for instance “Yap. Yap. Grr. Woof” in poem 32) give way to more sinister media figures, and it’s the world of TV rather than that of comics that he is to return to:
Singer of TV, flashing your artificial smiles, their insincere punctuation, you are made of light and you make the light. (poem 22)
Also: ‘Language is other people’ (poem 34 – and this poem begins by telling us ‘I have read them all – Sartre, Wittgenstein, Ryle’) and
I shall clamp my teeth.
I shall not bleed language (beginning of poem 24)
but of course he has to keep expressing himself, and almost always to keep ending with that note of bafflement:
This is a comic place.
I shall carve my name on the trees
over and over. (end of poem 24)
(We learn that ‘Island’ in Crichton-Smith is always likely to refer to the actual island that he grew up on and painfully left, a situation repeated often by the protagonists of his novels – the novels always tend to be critical, or bitter, about both the narrowness of home and the falsity of the city, the wider world. See Douglas Gifford’s essay on the novels, ‘Bleeding from All that’s Best: the Fiction of Iain Crichton-Smith’, in The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies, edited by Gavin Wallace and Randall Stevenson, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1993, 25-40.)