Michael Donaghy, an American poet living in London, wrote a pamphlet titled wallflowers: a lecture on poetry with misplaced notes and additional heckling (London: The Poetry Society, 1999).
Having discussed Tony Harrison’s poem, “The Timer,” he says: “Now let’s watch another magician, one who uses an altogether different principle of enclosure. Keep your eye on the cup:
The Story of the White Cup
I am not sure why I want to tell it,
since the cup was not mine, and I was not there,
and it may not have been white, after all.
When I tell it, though, it is white, and the girl
to whom it has just been given, by her mother,
is eight. She is holding a white cup against her breast,
and her mother has just said good bye, though those
could not have been, exactly, the words. No one knows
what her father has said, but when I tell it,
he is either helping someone very old with a bag
or asking a guard for a cigarette. There is, of course,
no cigarette. The box cars stand with their doors
slid back. They are black inside, and the girl
who has just been given a cup and told to walk
in a straight line and to look like she wants
a drink of water, who cried in the truck
all the way to the station, who knew, at eight,
where she was going, is holding a cup to her breast
and walking away, going nowhere, for water.
She does not turn, but when she has found water,
which she does, in all versions of the story, everywhere,
she takes a small sip of it and swallows.
Here the American poet Roger Mitchell blocks our habituated emotional responses, our escapes into historical abstraction, sentimentality, or that media-generated phenomenon, "compassion fatigue," by a formal subterfuge. We can’t possibly know where and when the "story of the white cup" takes place until we encounter the words "box cars"—halfway through the poem, when we’re in too deep to back out. Even the title is strategically misleading, for this is the story of the story of the white cup. Like Coleridge, Mitchell has interposed a voice compelled to bear witness, "I am not sure why I want to tell it," a formula that might as easily imply indolence as urgency. The style is studied artlessness—no similes, no metaphors, no discernible poetic diction—but the storyteller must offer us specificity, focus, or the story evaporates, so he fills in the gaps (‘When I tell it, though, it is white’) informing us at every stage of his decisions: "but when I tell it/ he is either helping someone very old with a bag/ a worn valise held in place with a rope/ or asking a guard for a cigarette." "Bag,” of course, is blurry, so he slowly twists his lens to a sharper image, to more information, to the desperation and fear implied by the incongruous "valise" overpacked and held shut by a rope. But whatever its colour, the one object beyond fabrication is the cup, the talisman at the centre of the story, a story framed by a voice, a voice framed by the poem. And it’s the cup that locates us in the present of a German or Polish railway station in, say, 1942, in the presence of the poem. Because in Mitchell’s "telling" the past tense is transmuted at every point into the present—"I am telling it....it is white.”