'Listen now again' is how the first poem in The Spirit Level ends. Did you feel that there was some reprising of earlier themes in this book, albeit from a different perspective?
I didn't. That first poem is as much about middle age as about a rain stick. The instruction to listen was directed more to myself than to the reader, a reminder to keep the lyric faith, to trust in what you might call the George Herbert syndrome – 'And now in age I bud again . . . / I once more smell the dew and rain, / And relish versing'. 'The Rain Stick' is about being irrigated by delicious sound, about water music being created by the driest of elements – dessicated seeds falling through a cactus stalk. I'd occasionally seen and heard rain sticks in shops that specialized in ethnic goods, but I'd never heard anything like the one in the Brandes home in North Carolina. It was so lush and I was so entranced that Rand and Beth made me a gift of it – which is why the poem is dedicated to them.
So the poem is really about 'keeping going'?
THE RAIN STICK
--for Beth and Rand
Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk
Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly
And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,
Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
The glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next
Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.