When I told this story to a friend, he responded with the unexplained and, I thought, unhelpful comment that a lot had been written about coincidences, and I suppose he may well have been surprised when – immediately – I did not understand his thinking or recognise the link… or he may have realised that I had simply not got that far on in the volume he had recently given me – Paul Auster’s Collected Prose. Some days later – I could see why he had spoken as he did.
There is a whole section of short essays in which Auster recounts a number of strange, linked events – maybe two or three meetings, letters or telephone calls – that were all completely independent but at the same time were linked by a place, a person or, in one case, a song – his daughter singing and moments later a slip of paper fluttering from a new book with the first line of that same song, and nothing else, written on it. Having read these, I cannot pretend that my own single coincidence of timing is so remarkable, but nevertheless no other single word describes the almost magical juxtaposition of timing and relevance.
I was sitting at my desk – this desk – composing and typing a new poem. I always compose at the keyboard, although somewhere at the back of mind I am conscious that it is not the romantic image of a poet scribbling in notebooks replete with crossings out and corrections that people imagine… but having written this way professionally for so long, I find that I compose as easily, type faster than I could write and can make corrections or changes of order so easily on the fly that anything else would be simply too pedestrian. On this day, I was writing a short poem that reflected a mood caused, I suppose, by the fact that I had been confined to my cottage for about five weeks due to Covid-19 that was sweeping through country after country and with, in my mind, echoes of a podcast about the Beat Poets – Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso.
The poem, my poem, was called Corona Sutra, and to anyone who knows Ginsberg, the title and the last line, a direct quotation from him – ‘The gray Sunflower poised against the sunset’ – will be familiar. I had reached a couple of lines from where I expected to end and was just beginning to search my mind for a word or phrase that would perfectly describe new – fresh – life emerging from oceans when my iPad, which was also on my desk, pinged. I have on it an online dictionary that I use from time to time to check meanings or to find an alternative – a better alternative – word and the software is set to display a word of the day, most of which are entirely unremarkable – I think I have only followed up to discover a new word on half a dozen occasions over the years. But this time, as if it had been following my typing, with all its pauses for thought and correction, with the greatest attention, it presented me – precisely in the second I paused – with the word I needed… a word I probably would not have considered although I was sure that I had heard it used before. Not immediately able to remember but feeling that I should know its meaning, maybe I even had some premonition, I gave in and followed the link. The word was ‘ylem’ which means the initial substance from which all matter is said to be derived. Reader, I used it! How could I not have done so? Here is the poem.
And when in that world dusk
The last Adam has
His Eve despaired
And weeps to lie beside her
In civilisation’s arid dust –
Will he still hear each ragged breath
Yield to time’s dull pressure
Will promises of redemption
Still echo empty above the void
And will his fading mind despair:
Those mighty kingdoms of the world
Laid low by national pride
Those peoples who might
Destiny have thrust aside
And as the dry winds barren blow
Or some ylem sea-splashes to a desert shore
Will there be yet a God
Watching over the wasted land
Or did he only on Adam’s passing in memory leave
The gray Sunflower poised against the sunset