James Lasdun, “Chainsaw I”

Chainsaw I (from Landscape with Chainsaw)
James Lasdun

As though you held in your hands
the severed head of Orpheus
crying his own sparagmos;
the mutilated bower
falling, still in flower –

or your own split kingdom’s
hybrid of lion and unicorn:
at once dismembering tooth
and clarifying horn.


The only thing literally happening in this poem: a mutilated bower is falling. It has flowers. It may be the case it is being attacked with a chainsaw, but we have no direct evidence.

Now a bower can be a framework supporting plants and thus full of flowers. But it can also be “a shaded, leafy recess,” a “woman’s private chamber” and “a rustic cottage.” A bower is a place in nature that affords us space.

Our individuality, sexuality and growth seem to be destroyed by something chainsaw-like, our “own split kingdom’s hybrid of lion and unicorn.” But the opening simile (“as”) does not merely suggest “death.” Orpheus gave us music and his sparagmos is Dionysian.

The notes which compose any piece of music form and reform wholes. But the things which comprise music are not always musical. And yet, those things, like Orpheus’ cry, might be the essence and end of music. Something about this sort of inquiry feels forced, but to focus on the mutilated bower itself is only to see too much at once.

“Lion” and “unicorn” bring up our propensity to violence, our use of imagination. Our growth is growth out of. Violence is obvious and direct enough. We dismember our own space, we are the chainsaw. But “clarifying horn” isn’t just fantastic or musical. It seems necessary the musician would turn back to see Eurydice, that he wouldn’t trust the gods or her. The cry, the sought-after, is the achievement. The natural space was ready for our departure. We weren’t.

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