Poems To Live By: ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’

The Shape of Nothing Happening

Dust knows the places we have forgotten, or we never see,
marking out the margins of our world: the window ledge’s
cracked paint, the bevelled edges of a door frame,
the dado rails, the skirting boards, stifling the emphatic

corners of our lives. It fills the gulf behind the sofa,
that small domestic void that stands for losing and forgetting,
or for finding once again. It stands for things
that outlive their necessity; for us busily outliving

ours – particles slow dancing in the shaft of light
shedding the excess that each day we renew.
Its tininess is a feat of scale, but it cannot disappear.
It is the shape of nothing, the shape of nothing happening,

and of nothing’s impossibility; matter worrying away
at trying not to be, and being all the while; reminding us
there are no absolutes, that all is graded on the scale,
that all is incremental, deciduous and undecided.

Patrick McGuinness

If ‘The Tyger’ was about the greatest of subjects, contemplating the divine, ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’ is about the smallest and most insignificant. Dust. McGuinness is a writer who is interested in spaces, places and identity. In this poem he takes us to spaces we ignore, spaces in which we spend our days but rarely pay attention to, that which slowly builds on ‘dado rails’, ‘skirting boards’. One of the things I love about this poem is just that. That poetry can be made of anything. Even ‘The shape of Nothing Happening’. How can nothing happen? But more (or should it be less?) than that, it’s not even solid. Just a shape. So much of my pupils’ first attempt at poetry was always trying to say something important. A real poet knows that a poem can be about nothing, and still hold great power.

The poem holds that paradox. It reminds us that even our own domestic world, even those elements we carefully decorate (‘bevelled’, ‘paint’) become forgotten, ignored. McGuinness plays with size, the gap behind the sofa is a ‘gulf’, but also the ‘small domestic void’. And dust itself is a paradox. Dust’s ‘tininess is a feat of scale’ yet, ‘it cannot disappear.’ But the poet isn’t just interested in dust.

From the beginning it’s personified, it makes him consider what it is to be human. Dust stands ‘for us busily outliving’ our own lives. There’s an echo there of Macbeth’s idea that life is ‘full of sound and fury,/signifying nothing’. As dust is insignificant, collecting in the unseen corners of our homes, so we are the same. Our lives are, in some way, ‘the shape of nothing happening.’

But he recognises something else too. Even when we are ‘busily outliving’ our own lives, he recognises that like dust we are, ‘particles slow dancing in a shaft of light’. It’s a beautiful line. There is beauty to us, there is renewal, something eternal even. After all, ‘it cannot disappear’.

Perhaps the only note that doesn’t quite fit is the claim that ‘there are no absolutes’, followed by an absolute statement, ‘all is graded’. Is it another paradox? Perhaps. The last line makes up for it. So much of what works in poetry is sound and it’s essential to this last line. The paradox of our existence remains. ‘all is incremental’ yet also ‘deciduous’. And then that beautiful echoing of sound, ‘deciduous, and undecided’. The pause adds to this final word as does the negative prefix. Our lives, no matter who we are, are uncertain, unstable.

Like every good poem, this makes me see the world anew. From the very first emphatic word, ‘Dust’, McGuinness makes me appreciate how small we are, how tiny existence is. We are ashes to ashes, we are dust to dust. And yet, like dust ‘slow dancing in shafts of light’ we are beautiful beyond compare.

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