meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –
O dass ich tausand zungen haite. Armageddon.
But all the same, a bit of a lad. No more than a lad,
father of four, and husband of (I think)
a small girl, left all alone to scrat and fend.
My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat
with her head in the swelling horn
of the wind-up gramophone.
Listened to the scratchy tinnitus
of brittle shellac records until
they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.
Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,
inthe beck that ran hot from dyehouses,
than ran blue and plum and crimson red.
Who died (I think) wreathed in bindweed,
those wide white silky flowers,
and the pink of balsam, sour as a sink
I post this most years for Armistice day, though over time, as I learn more about my family …sometimes from strangers, who know more about them than I do…I realise that when I wrote this poem I was writing about a false memory. I believed, at one time, that my Grand-dad Alfred had died after being invalided back from France. I now know that he served in the Territorials as an enthusiastic volunteer…he had been made Sergeant, after all..and would have been off to France with his pals had he not being sent back from the camp, suffering from Hodgkinson’s Lymphoma. He died soon after, in hospital in Chapel Allerton. All the rest of the story is as true as I can tell. While we remember The Fallen, let’s always remember the ones left behind, those women like my Grandma who went on paying the price of war long after it was over. Who always go on paying the price.
This year let me add an extra poem. There are thousands of statues dedicated to “The unknown soldier’. How many are there dedicated to the Unknown Mother/Wife/Sister/Daughter ? This is for them.
Today’s (returning) guest is someone I first met about eight years ago at the Monday night workshops of The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. Like another poet at these workshops, the much-missed Mark Hinchcliffe, she has a unique voice, and one that I didn’t quite tune into until I heard her do a full guest reading a year or so later. You may have had moments like this, when you suddenly hear what you’ve been missing, when you hear the tune that brings the meaning and the passion along with it. She’s a poet who has the quality of what Keats called negative capability, that ability to en-chant a place or a moment that bypasses the writer’s personality. It’s a voice that takes you on walks into, along and out of the imbricated valleys of the West Yorkshire Pennine, and along moorland tops; on walks at the edge of things by seashores and dunescapes; on walks through the thin places of the world, across thresholds. It’s the kind of quality that’s hinted at by the layered, ambiguous title of her latest cornucopia of a collection On the way to Jerusalem Farm.
When I last wrote about our guest, I said
“there are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.
I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around then..it’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.”
So, let’s welcome again Carola Luther. Let’s start with what pretentious restaurants call amuses bouches , like this taste of the way she she can pin down the texture , the physical reality of things encountered on those walks, the business (or busy-ness) of the world out there :
The woodpecker grinds open its gate and the evening rituals begin:
the deer lips the earth, the mallard dips, birds call and chunter
as if before doorways of shops, squirrels running along branches
doing chores like the branches are streets
from Theft (from Herd. Wordsworth Trust 2012)
and then this which stops you short as you realise you have walked through one of the thin places into a different but flatly unignorable reality
The man who thought he was alone in my tree
croons a song of comfort. A tenor.
He sings to the beasts in a tongue I don’t know
but it could be Hebrew. Perhaps he’s a cantor.
He reminds me of my mother so I join in quietly
in Levantine Arabic, her home language.
I’m godless and tone-deaf but harmonise
as well as I can.
From The Rising (first publ. The Compass Review 2016)
The Carcanet blurb for On the way to Jerusalem Farm gives you a clear sense of the the range of landscapes and narratives you can expect in its hugely generous 150 pages:
Carola Luther’s new book On the Way to Jerusalem Farm explores the complexities of living in a damaged world. How, it asks, does such a world live in us, and we in it?
At the centre of the collection are three sequences, ‘Letters to Rasool’, ‘Birthday at Emily Court’ and ‘The Escape’. On the Way to Jerusalem Farm moves through the world, seeking and finding not answers, but sometimes, a means of continuing. The speaker in ‘Letters to Rasool’ travels onward through scarred and depleted landscapes, and searches for a lost beloved. The ageing residents of Emily Court celebrate a birthday and dance. Spring of a kind still comes. And in ‘The Escape’ there are colours to be found in the distant sea: ‘A whole translucent geology, / cross-sections of light and water’.
Poetry for Luther is a way of finding a way, of making connections and sharing our complex lives in an interdependent present. The roles of lover and beloved become – almost – interchangeable in these richly visualised poems.
So much for the range. As to the voice,Kim Moore wrote in one of her Sunday Poem blogposts that that a lot of Carola’s work has the quality of a ‘a prayer or a benediction’
The Carcanet publicity for another of Carola’s collections Arguing with Malarchysays something similar, and much better than I’ve managed so far
full of voices: tender, sinister or angry, the glimpsed depths of their stories, the distances they have travelled. Carola Luther’s poems are alert to the ways a life can be briefly snared in the turn of a phrase – or in the moment when language fails. She explores silence, absences, the unspoken communication between animals and human beings, the pauses and boundaries between what is remembered, forgotten or invented, the living and the dead.
Basically, both of these pick out what I think is a numinous quality in Carola’s work…’a prayer or a benediction’; ‘the glimpsed depths’; the way they are alert to ‘the moment when language fails’…and thereby rescues it through language. It’s this quality of being alive to the moment that makes me think of Carola Luther as something more than ‘someone who writes poems’. Let’s meet her.
Carola was born in South Africa, from where she moved in the early 1980s.
Her first poetry collection, Walking the Animals was published by Carcanet Press in 2004 and shortlisted that year for the Forward Prize for First Collection.
Her second collectionArguing with Malarchywas published by Carcanet Press in 2011.
She was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2012. Herd, a pamphlet of poems written in that year, was published in by The Wordsworth Trust (2012).
She has also written texts for theatre and mixed media performances including the libretto for Lilith, (composer, Dimitar Bodurov) a piece commissioned and conceived by soprano Claron McFadden.
Recently she wrote about herself and her new collection for the Carcanet blog about what a friend called her ‘doubled vision’
I suspect ‘a doubled vision’ is something that will be shared by many people who have moved from the country of their birth. I have not experienced the trauma of forced migration so of course I cannot talk to that. But for me, after arriving here in Britain as a willing immigrant and living here for decades, I still see the country through a stranger’s eyes at times, as well as through the eyes of a lucky inhabitant. Perhaps this is what my friend meant – seeing from both close and far. And close sometimes feeling more ‘home’ than far, and far sometimes feeling more ‘home’, than close could ever be.
My partner and I are currently moving house from the Ryburn valley to the Calder valley. It feels like a big deal, despite the fact that our new place is only seven miles away, and the landscape and communities, not so very different.
Strangely, I had the opposite sense when I first came to the area. Arriving for the first time in the Pennines, I had an unexpected sense of recognition, almost of déjà vu. I felt I ‘knew’ the shape of the landscape somehow – not of any specific place, but rather, its ghost geography, an imaginal sense of the moors, the weathers, the valleys, the creatures. Without knowing why, I felt oddly at home. And so I came back. And I stayed.
It struck me later with a little sense of shock, that this feeling of recognition may have come from the poems of Ted Hughes.
Having grown up in rural South Africa, I think I may also have recognised something else. This was how Hughes seemed to experience the natural world as intrinsically powerful, and bigger than us. His creatures and landscapes were magnificent. Whether calm or violent, his animals and the elements were potent.
So much has changed since then. Ecosystems everywhere feel critically depleted and fragile, and the health of the earth highly dependent on how human beings go forward. This reversal of my childhood understanding may also inform any ‘doubled vision’ in this collection. In some poems I notice bewilderment and hardly-understood sorrow for the natural world around me. But there are also I hope, poems celebrating what remains beautiful and vital – connection, friendship and the small, brave things that help us keep going.
And so to the poems. Acknowledgements and thanks, first to Carcanet for granting permissions to use substantial chunks of the work…if you read the previous post about Carola, you’ll see that that see writes long poems. And that they are packed. That there’s no slack in them. Which makes it hard to choose a selection that does justice to a 150 page collection.
Too start, I’ve chosen part of the very first poem of hers I heard (and, at first, didn’t quite get) at one of those workshops in The Albert.
two / no / three launching
to get away hsh
by trees beech / no / birch
between us and light
like shutters / no / film clips
in the pixilation
and confusion of brush
they pretend to be memories
in black and white
passengers on a platform
silent with suitcases
no / suitcases and trunks
there they go / vaulting
landscape / no / let them be
landscape / no /
carriages of trains
flickering behind landscape / no /
trees / behind trees
nnn the wind
its empty coat hung
in the trees
Back then I was stalled by the look of the poem on the page, not sure what to make of the elisions/compressions/slashes/pnonic invention. Later I learned to hear it. It’s a script for a performance of what could be an optical illusion, a trick of the light, the flickerbook images seen through trainwindows. What I hear now is the heartlift of catching sight of what may be deer, and the letdown of their vanishing. I think it’s lovely
Form the deer I’m moving to a character, Rasool, who’s never fully explained and haunts a sequence of poems that are almost, but never explicitly, set in the uprooted landscapes of the disposessed and displaced, the victims of war and poverty.
On Finding the way
Now I’ve turned the corner
I can see her Rasool
the architect of sands gazing at her small city
It looks Moroccan
and not just because it’s the colour of lions
This beach might be my longing
or yours but this morning I woke on it
The tide had receded
and the sand beneath me was cold and hard
Standing I saw no dog no bird
no woman or man
and from the flat sea which could have been mercury
no rock or whale-spout or hoop
of dolphin not even a fibreglass boat
I recalled no-one had seen fish for decades
I miss you Rasool
And I remembered how shorebirds
used to run between waves
and on their way in
and on their way out
the waves did not always
wash away imprints
three wire toes arrow
after arrow pointing
to where the bird had run from
where I should go
Who would not weep Rasool
I followed directions and turned back walked east
around the headlands
And now I can see her
her white shirt flapping
in the crook of the bay
She is crouching down
brown hands at work on her next suburb
I imagine small arched windows
walls bleached pale
or salt-pan camels
Is it a dream, this apocalyptic shorescape? It certainly has the precise physical detail of dreams and also their disjunct narratives. All I know is the way it’s anchored by that image of
the architect of sands gazing at her small city
That moment that draws you in, and holds you, along with the narrator’s unassuageable sadness. Magic.
The next extract works the same kind of spell, though in a landscape that’s ostensibly closer, geographically to the ‘home’ of West Yorkshire moorlands. It’s a poem that understand that skylines and and the shift from night to day are thin placesin which anything may happen, and when we see things as if for the first time.
Dawn on Nab Scar
I wait in the dark, as if on one foot, tense with the balance of almost
falling, other foot held above the ground. In the minutes before dawn
we are always waiting, stretched between two momentous things. Interminable,
and never arriving, the weight of proof has suddenly come, and I realise
I have missed the moment of change – there’s already more powder of light
than darkness in the air. Dawn hauls its pale mirror
up through Rydal Water; there are clouds today so I watch the clouds
whitening the lake’s surface. Mist in tufts rises like grasses.
Below the house on the farm, a pinkness used to stain the morning mist
above the Broederstroom. Tall grasses in the muddy dam.
On this day, years ago, sixty-nine people murdered at Sharpeville.
Was I implicated? No, yes, where does it begin, and end?
Above me, a whole town
wakes: the woodpecker begins its morning routine, opening and closing
the door to its castle, creak, creak, again and again; the little birds whistle
in their swept-clean market place as if no more conflict can ever come,
no bombs, no divided Jerusalem; just there in the distance, spring brightening
the greygreen, green, maroon trees reflected in the water. Two narrow deer
see me and stand, as if they too are reflections of trees with their mossy horns
and legs like the limbs of birches, and they stare, and I stare,
and we slip in and swim, we are lake-ideas, our eyes
pools of brightening water: there is the past and also the future,
something oracular about eyes and water, and if I close my deer-touched eyes,
this road below me could be the road to Woodbush, not a lane on Nab Scar
between White Moss and Grasmere, a lane I’ll walk down when I return
for breakfast, and hear on the radio news of another massacre, this time in Syria.
Why am I thinking of T S Eliot’s ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. I think this poem might just enact something like it’s opposite, as we begin on tenterhooks, barely balanced, straining. The magic happens, and somehow we’ve missed it. I chose this poem, I think, not just for its numinous quality, but also for the element of autobiography, the authentic voice of the poet as opposed to a persona. It’s a shock, that connection between an old home (which contains massacres) and a new one which shows you plainly that there are massacres wherever you go. It’s a poems that brings so many themes together. And the elusiveness of deer, too.
Two more…just a short extract from one:
I chose this because as I heard Carola read it in The Albert pub, I ‘heard’ her voice properly for the first time. I loved the glee of this visions of moorland pylons metaphormosing into vengeful witches flying widdershins over unsuspecting Halifax.
Midnight, Beltane, Soyland Moor
Ruche after ruche night is gathering, cloud piled
over the moor, dim scone
for a moon, flat pallor lidding Huddersfield, Halifax
Up here it’s cold. Dead sheep, winter –
keeps dragging back
to unfinished December
out of kilter. On the skyline, pylons. Skeletal
goddesses they hum
as if a sun-surge has come and gone
or something huge and clandestine is passing down lines
and they listen in
O soldiers of ruins make preparation
and fields remain empty. Where do we go?
The sea-starved sea. These days, screens
are our lamps, yet tonight I want oceans,
oracles stinking of goats
in the dark, ribald women
On the skyline, pylons. Tension
a kind of desire. Ambiguous
as they are, for a moment I imagine
they could show us how: Elbow. Knee. Elbow. Hah!
Give birth. Show your steel
farthingales, Hoist skirts. Pant. Point
your six arms downwards,
wake the earth. Hoist!
Let’s finish with one complete poem that I first met when the Monday Workshops became virtual, and we became inured to seeing ourselves in celebrity squares. This one I choose because of the way it shows Carola at her job of rescuing the significant and magical from the wasteful flow of minute by minute and the rush of things moving on. It’s a poem that challenges the notion that the world is completely reliable. Tractors and ploughland furrows seem resolutely solid, and smiles and waves reassure us of out connection,
but here the physical world is tilt and slivery and fluid. The tractor becomes a foundered boat, and it’s driver has vanished. Crows flock in their hundreds, in this short unnerving film of a poem.
Walking away from the town,
I passed a half-ploughed field,
furrows turning inside out and black
behind a new tractor. The driver smiled,
waved, and I waved back
watching him tilt
the balance of light. In the unharrowed part
sun rilled between bleached-out oat-stalks,
its silvery influx running like water.
Crows were landing to feed there.
On the way back from my walk,
the tractor was stuck on the field’s far side,
marooned in the dusk. As if it had foundered,
was a wrecked boat leaning
under the weight of birds
hundreds of them now,
crows mostly, flowing over
the tractor’s cabin, or hovering above it
waiting to land, occupying the green
while other birds ransacked
islands of unploughed ground.
I called out. I couldn’t see the driver
anywhere. Calm yourself I thought.
Home-time, that’s all.
So I too made my way home, and left the crows
trawling for seeds in their ragged lines,
while smaller birds bobbed
between the great, sunk wheels,
shrieking Corvus! Corvus!
What can I say? There’s no way I can do justice to 150 pages of poems, all as good as each other. It’s a bargain at £11.99, direct from Caracanet.
It’s been an up and down sort of week. Showers and bright periods. Whole days of sub-aqueous gloom, afternoons of sunlit autumn colour that made bits of our garden look like a Kaffe Fassett jumper. Flu jabs and boosters, and Boris the Gladiator on the front page of the Sunday Express today. And then there’s the actual exrement pumped into or rivers and onto our beaches by companies siphoning billions out of the system. The sun’s out now. This morning the rain was torrential and some of it was making its way through a bedroom ceiling. The most recently decorated one, natch.
It’s hard work getting into that particular loft space. There’s a patch of sodden insulation, but not a sign of any slates missing, no wet patches in the brickwork, no crumbling mortar, no torn roofing felt. As near as I can tell, because the rain and wind were coming from an unlikely direction, it’s blown hard under the solar panels and managed to set up some capillary action, siphoning (gosh..siphoning, again) rain water down the cabling. It’s remarkable how much water can get shifted like that.
What’s a boy to do. Apart from going out and breaking windows. What did Jimminy Cricket say? Give a little whistle. When in doubt, let’s have a laugh. Of sorts. Three stocking fillers, increasingly bittersweet.
The first one stems from when I taught in a huge Comprehensive school in the 70s. I would sometimes wind up some of my stroppier 15 yr old girls by telling them straightfaced that the Bay City Rollers were (like The Archies) a made-up group, that they only existed on film. I can’t remember the prompt that dredged it up from my memory. But here we go.
Not many people know this, but
I’m not thinking about Theresa May lying about wheatfields,
or the one about Jacob Rees-Mogg once being a rent boy
in Winchester, who would sing, for senescent clerics,
in a pure treble As long as he needs me; and not the one
about Margaret Thatcher liking latex underwear, or the one
about Donald Trump’s secret friend. The secret’s the friend’s idea.
He’s terrified the truth will come out, and that’s him finished
at the snooker club. No. I’m thinking of the Bay City Rollers
not being an actual band, (unlike The Archies, who were
but just looked like Hanna-Barbera cartoon figures);
the truth is they were all Action Men
and if you look closely at archive film you can just make out
the metal screw and bearing that joined the gripping hands
to the thin wrists, because sometimes the tartan scarf would slip.
The Bay City Rollers could not be seen with real screaming fans
because they were only six inches high and thiose teenage girls
would have looked bigger than King Kong. So all the fans
were Action Men as well, and then there was the problem
of the theatres and the cinemas where they played, and the hotels
where they stayed, and then you had the streets where the hotels
were supposed to be, and the cars and buses, and taxis
and here’s the problem with lying, you have to keep on lying
till it gets too complicated. Which is why you suddenly
didn’t hear any more of the Bay City Rollers. It was easier
to set fire to the model sets and all those tartan Action Men,
and then put out a press release to say The Rollers had retired
the act and would be concentrating on their individual careers.
So tell me the name of a single song that any of them recorded.
There you are then.
I blame Peter Sansom for this. I’ve just tracked it down in a notebook. Whitby. 2017. The past is another country. Which may just be a segue for the next poem, which I wrote for a band that used to play support for Tom Russell in various venues around Castleford, back in the day. The last time I saw them live was in The Lupsett pub in Wakefield. That shut down this year, which makes this poem just that little bit more poignant.
The Collier/Dixon Line has only changed
its lineup once in thirty years. Last year
Dennis sacked his lead guitar. ‘Fancied
taking new directions. Couldn’t be doing
with that.’ They played cruise ships all along
the coasts of Scandinavia, sang Johnny Cash
to rivers throwing themselves off mile-high cliffs.
They don’t do upstairs rooms these days. ‘Sorry,
pal,’ says Dennis (though he’s not), ‘we don’t do steps.’
In gigs in estate pubs and Working men’s
they have a faithful following. Wives
and friends of wives who have danced together
since they were at school. They can do it
with their eyes shut. So they do. The spins,
the checks, the turns still glamorous in dreams
of stocking-tops, layers of paper nylon underskirts,
beehives brittle and scratchy with spray,
and pearlised mouths that lipsynch every song.
Bye bye love
Bye bye happiness
Bye bye sweet caress
I think I’m gonna die.
Bye bye, my love, bye bye
Apologies for the sentimental slant of today’s cobweb. The clocks went back last night, and suddenly it’s dark at teatime. Just one more and then I promise to spend at least part of next week planning a post about a new collection by someone whose poetry I like a lot.
Of late I’ve been taking some comfort from the fact that Anthony Wilson has revived his poetry blog, and I look forward to each new post, partly because there’s sometimes a wistful quality about them that chimes with me for complex reasons I’ll not be sharing. His latest one struck a chord. Particularly because he’s writing not just about struggling to write poetry, but also with the idea of putting it ‘out there’. I’ll add the link in a moment but I just want to share this extract in which he ponders on the ins and outs of keeping away from ‘social media’ …. which he elected to do for the sake of his spiritual/mental well-being; I understand that, totally.
“On another level altogether, it (ie, this deliberate withdrawal) just feels lonely. I have been battering away at some stuff for a while now, which, thanks to the help of some very kind people, might one day see the light. Some of it is emerging, slowly and cautiously. But it still feels lonely. My instinct is to hide, both the poems and me. Yet out it must. I wish there was another way.
On the plus side, a huge advantage of following McLaverty’s advice is that it can insulate you from what Heaney describes so acutely in the ‘Singing School’s’ final poem, ‘Exposure’: ‘friends’/ Beautiful prismatic counselling/ And the anvil brains of some who hate me’; and ‘what is said behind-backs’. The poets I look up to, Kennelly and Heaney among them, seem to (have) be(en) able to navigate a path between the private and the social (in the fullest sense) which fulfils the obligations of each without cancelling the other out. I aspire to be among them.”
Anyway, while I, like Anthony, am tentatively working on new stuff that may or may not turn out to be the real deal, and while I am less and less confident about sending stuff ‘out there’, whether as submississions or competition entries, I’m re-engaging with new poetry from other folk. I can’t cope with writing appreciations of new collections every week…there’s a bucket list that I’ll deal with as and when. In the meantime, to keep the Cobweb ticking over, I’ll go on making do with stocking fillers. I think today’s suit my mood. And the first one lets me share my pleasure at encountering a new word. Haruspex. Did JKRowling pinch it as the name of a character at some point? If she didn’t she missed a trick.
Things could only get better. Or worse.
It was hard to tell. I was cleaning a mackerel.
Or maybe it was a chicken. Definitely
not a rabbit or a squid. But the light that fell
on the wet insides made a kind of pattern.
One of those like when you see the face of Jesus
in a muffin. Though it wasn’t that kind of pattern.
I mean, it wasn’t Jesus. It wasn’t a face at all.
It was more runic, I suppose. Though that’s not it.
Anyway, it was the strangest feeling.
One that says: something awful is about to happen.
Not instantly, but fairly soon.
It wasn’t a cataclysmic flood or purgatorial fire
or death of the firstborn sort of thing,
but it would be awful in a diffuse,
non-specific way. You know when
someone writes in a story about
a nameless dread. It was exactly that.
I thought perhaps I should tell someone,
but thought I might feel silly. So I didn’t.
And here’s another that was kicked off by a workshop prompt. I think I must have been reading Middlemarch , and, as usual, being much moved by the way Casaubon’s need to be remembered by posterity makes him blind to the fact that he’s essentially a sad failure in the here-and-now
When I come to write my memoirs
I shall hesitate over many things. Pens
for a start. Inks. Nibs. And paper. Lined or plain?
And a routine. A fixed time every day, like Trollope?
Stop after two hours, mid-sentence, regardless.
Or after two thousand words. Or as things dictate?
Middle of the night, esprit d’escalier. Perhaps
a dictaphone? Though transcription is a bore.
An amenuensis would be nice,
but who would you trust, and they’d want paying,
regular hours. Food and drink and board?
Who knows. Anyway, that’s out.
Notebooks, perhaps. But not Moleskines, in case
people notice, and ask if you’re a writer and then
tell you that they do a bit themselves
and wonder if you’d like to take a look,
and tell you how they’re fascinated
by Temperance, or the evolution of the urban bus.
And then, of course there’s the problem
of chronology. Alpha to omega? Or start
at the end, work back? Or in the middle?
How do you know where the middle is?
Will there be photographs? And the voice?
Wry? Authoritative? Detatched? Assertive?
Ironically diffident…like Esther Summerson
I have great difficulty beginning my portion of these pages.
A key theme that runs through Ruth Valentine’s latest collection is the idea of the shadow line, the one between the living and the dead, and between sea and sky, that utterly notional ‘horizon’ . I’ll come to the business of the sea later, but given the story of death and resurrection and the way this Grunewald altarpiece contains both like a conjuring trick, it’ll be nice to start with this tour de force .
To make water flow wherever it’s told, you need
a wooden box with four divining-rods,
a compass, several men with boots and shovels,
a pump to shift it by its own volition,
and me, Meister Mathis, hydraulic engineer,
clerk-of-works, model maker, stonemason,
also painter of many-hinged altar-pieces,
so men and women with St Anthony’s
sacred fire charring their blood and skin
stare and are healed. I work in tempera
I mix myself, with just a little oil
so the colour goes on clear, like a held note
on an angel’s trumpet: here it’s cinnabar,
red mercury. Jesus dies,
his whole weight hanging from his nailed-up hands,
blood from his head wounds; but when the fathers turn
the panels outward on feast-days, his linen shroud
flames in the up-draught of his resurrection.
I observe where I am, and paint: the leering faces,
green skin, festering lesions, how the sinful
imagine their souls. For the Last Supper,
I sit the ungainly tired apostles round
an oval table, in twos and threes, arguing,
and Christ the least of them, or the least human,
already half disincarnate. At the far end,
fingertips pressed together in explanation,
is my namesake, Mathis, Matthew the tax collector,
a clever man, used to working out the cost,
already glimpsing the next afternoon
when the sky will darken and the saints’ graves open.
It’s a poem that stopped me in my tracks, in much the same way as UAFanthorpe’s ‘Tyndale in Darkness’, because of its easy familiarity with the world of the drainage engineer/visionary painter, and also with his imagined dreams in what feels like a wholly authentic voice. Stunning.
You can read an earlier post about Ruth from 2017 via this link
Or you can jump straight in with this introduction:
Ruth Valentine has worked as an undertaker and as a celebrant at secular funerals. In Downpour she draws on her experiences to compose an extended meditation on dying and death, its emotional grammar and its painful but necessary rituals. Bleak and brave, serious and sad, Downpour is an unflinching study of the physical realities of dying
Ruth grew up in Sussex, but has lived most of her adult life in London. She has been a teacher, advice worker, voluntary sector manager and consultant. Currently, as well as writing, she conducts secular funerals. She began writing seriously at the age of forty. ……. In 2000, looking for a new direction in her writing, she enrolled on the MA Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her novel, The Jeweller’s Skin, was the somewhat unexpected result.
In her website (http://ruthvalentine.co.uk/index.php/about/) she writes. “I write poetry, novels and short stories, and non-fiction. You can find details here of my published work, and sample poems and extracts. Go to the poetry page for details of my latest books, Downpour and Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars.
To this we can add A Grenfell Alphabet ., and now If you want thunder [Smokestack 2021]
And it’s this latest collection that I’ll be celebrating today.
The Smokestack publisher’s blurb will you that:
“Ruth Valentine’s tenth collection encompasses the tragedies of the public world – civil-wars in Syria and Sudan, knife crime in North London, the Iraq-Iran war – and our private griefs. At the heart of the book is an extraordinary alphabetical sequence about the Grenfell Tower dead and the society that allowed them to die. It’s a book about the morality of politics and the mortality of us all, a study in remembrance and forgetting, about the indifferent sea with its soft lullabies and cold temptations, time spreading its blankness over everything, and ‘busy humanity with its suitcases and phones, its sudden weeping…”
I enthused about and shared several of the Grenfell poems in my 2017 post, as well as a wonderful poem about Tolstoy and railway stations (which reappears in the latest collection). I want to concentrate, though, on the business of mortality which is never far away in this collection.
You’ll search Google in vain for detailed reviews of Ruth’s work….a fact which is both astonishing and inexplicable…..but I picked up a couple of comments that resonated in this portmanteau review via Happenstance. Here’s the link
and here, the comments which I wish I’d thought of first:
“Valentine is a very gifted poet. She has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on, and there are further hints, subtle, understated, but always pulling you towards an exploration of something you realise has universal importance—but by being brought there as a travelling companion of the poet, you discover it in parallel with the poem. It’s almost as if you’re walking around in the poem itself, seeing the whole landscape of it.”
“Ruth Valentine is able to reach across from the living to the dead, bridging that great divide in tender ordinary words.”
It’s the business of the living and the dead, and also of the divide between them which, in this new collection, seems to me to be symbolised by the transition from land to sea, and the sea in all its multifarious and drowning shapes.
In August I wrote in a post:
“I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case.
I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told, the whole business being managed and sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Director’s nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly. “
Which is why, I suppose, I’m so grateful for poets like Ruth Valentine, who can write about ‘these moments’, about living with the dying and considering the business of setting out to die. And who, I should add, can do it via utterly memorable/unfogettable moments that draw you in, like these
a poem, slipping in mildly off the broad
cobalt: goes into the furnace a black powder
and comes out radiant, butterfly, dragon, dolphin
The goddess of forgetting
is pale and very old, with long stained teeth
and, of course the constant reminders of the the sea and its mutability
What use to the world is water that thinks it’s stone
…sun covers the sea in silver-leaf
and the Icarus wind falls into the water
…sea…snatching a child of a cliff, and twirling him
in swaddling clothes of spindrift
As I said, I’ve chosen to concentrate on poems that place themselves where the sky is enormous and isolating and where the landscape inevitably ends in a shadow line like the numinous dividing ‘lines’ in Rothkos great canvasses.The collection is in six sections, or chapters, and each one contains a tidal river, or a sea shore, or saltings or estuaries reedbed and marsh and the dangerous unstable effulgent light off such places. As though you find yourself in a Turner that’s suddenly become live and cold and dangerous. This first poem is the opening poem of the first section, and and contains whole millennia of refugees
on the passage between the islands the boat was clutched
in the hands of drowned farmers, who pulled it down
into the wave’s ploughed furrows, bellowing
my carrots fresh from the earth? where are my oxen?
in the hands of drowned merchants with topaz rings,
fingers of fishermen clawing through the traps
of their lobster-pots
the wild boat shook them off
and headed out to the plain of cormorants
folding themselves like paper, plunging down
to the wrecks and the jetsam, all the jettisoned,
whoever steps awkwardly away from land,
unborn children venturing on an ocean
though grandmothers weep and the soldiers shrug and yawn
I found it next to impossible to clear my mind of the appalling image of the fleeing being dragged down by all that had gone before, drowned by the clawing hands of history. Who can tell if they escaped in that wild boat, or who may plunge down with the cormorants ‘folding themselves like paper‘ into the detritus of the jettisoned and abandoned and wrecked.
I’ll stay with the business of water and of drowning in the three poem sequence that ends Section 2. I’ll remind myself of what one reviewer wrote about the way that
Ruth Valentine has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on.
The Inshore Waters
all water inland silent do not disturb
the shoremen at their hedging and ditching dreams
you could drown in this stuff lingeringly a dancer
past the leap of his youth your port-de-bras superb
the staithe then the river channels across the marsh
basalt molten but cold all unmet depth
paralysed motion weedless no pulse no splash
as if it were flowing backward as if the waves
might thicken and surge between the reeds upstream
the low pale sun catch a silky flash of green
on the throat of a breaker before it broke you’ve seen
just such a choker glint at a beach and gone
What use to the world is water that thinks it’s stone?
When you choose to drown
you’ll have to get into a rowing-boat and make
oar-scars on the polished surface. You’re facing back
to the staithe you left, willows and reeds. It’s miles
to the sea from here. You’re flagging. You pull the sculls
across your thighs, rest, float; but the water wants
to haul you in to the bank. Far off, in front
(if you turn your head) there’s a bit of sheen in the sky,
a taste of salt to the cloudscape, so you try
again for the open ocean. A starting swell
rocks your coffin-cradle. Keep going. You’ll do well
to reach the sea before sunset, but the dark’s
just as good to drown in. That isn’t a meadow-lark
or a seagull crying, it’s you as you smell the tide,
as you hear the scrape of the shingle. Now, decide:
do you sit in your boat till it’s toppled, or pull in
to the riverbank, step out to the sea wind
and the sky, the breakwaters, the flying spindrift –
if it ever was stone – fire-opal and amethyst.
A breaker rises and roars at you. Safe at last,
you pour down its throat.
You won’t do it of course, walk into the sea and drown.
More likely a bout of asthma, a derailed train.
Though if one day it comes to it, the cancer back,
some antibiotic-resistant inward muck,
you’d do something to finish, you hope. Not a rowing-boat:
you’ve never learned to row anyway. No note
to whoever was going to find you in your bed
or more likely, sprawled on the kitchen floor. So you could
buy a one-way ticket down to some drab resort,
walk into the waves. Get a tide-table first,
you don’t want to be striding out across the sand,
the water knee-high for miles; you might change your mind,
which isn’t the point. Or is it? But are you brave,
could you keep on walking deeper until the waves
felled you and held you under? You’d hold your breath
as it spun you below the surface. It seems that death
may not come when you call. Or you have to yell
again, at the top of your lungs, before they fill.
What I like so much about this sequence, apart from the unnerving way the three poems address the unthinkable, is their versatility. The first announces itself very frankly as a poem, happily parading its technique in much the same way a a wave breaks over a rock and runs back on itself and reforms. DHLawrence wrote a praise poem for that, didn’t he. But the next two seem so easily conversational, unnervingly, apparently prosaically and rationally discussing (or advising on) the likelihood of attempted suicide by water going right or wrong, that it’s easy to overlook the craft of it all. It’s so easy to not notice that they are both sequences of rhyming couplets. When you do and go back, the music of full and half rhymes seems obvious. I love it.
I did say that I’d concentrate on the shadow line poems. There’s so much more (not least, the Grenfell Alphabet in full, as well as a remarkable poem sequence Cobalt, about the dying of a friend) but you’ll need to go and buy the book. I really think you should. For a taste of the range you can expect, though, I’ll finish with one that’s darkly, wickedly funny. The Notes at the end explain that for Valentine’s (Who else?) Day 2016 Bic relaunched its pink ballpoint pen ” designed specially to fit the hands of the ladies”.
I’m pretty sure that the last bit is Ruth’s take on it, which is whyI’ve put it in inverted commas.
Sonnet Written With a Pink Pen
My tiny hand is frozen, having cleaned
mould out of the fridge. I’ve scoured the loo,
made chicken soup, altered a pair of jeans,
addressed a meeting. It’s what women do.
I’ve dressed a dead man in his football shirt
and laid him in his coffin; known the stench
we all may melt to; comforted the hurt
partners and enemies. I didn’t flinch,
or not in public. For thirty years I’ve written
poems of death and exile, sex and grief,
Pinochet, Kosovo, London riots, love.
Now that I’ve got this pen, though, I can prove
my feminine vocation: violets, kittens,
cupcakes and curls. Imagine my relief.
Thank you, Ruth Valentine for sharing so many of your poems. It was a joy to have you back as a guest.
And now, the rest of you will want details of the book you will surely buy before the day be out. Here you are.
Well here we are, on an unfeasibly sunny day in October when the stuff in the planters can’t work out whether to put out more blossom or just curl up and die, and the country in its sleep of reason is out in force, unmasked and undistanced.
We went up to the cinema complex in Birstall this lunchtime, determined to overcome our suspicions and nervousness about Out There (where There Be Tygers, and the world’s winds puff their cheeks from the corners of the map). We have been in no enclosed public spaces for at least 18 months, and it makes you timid. Cautious, anyway. Neverthless, we want to see James Bond on a big screen, and we went to check out the seating and booking arrangements for a showing at 10.15am next Tuesday, when it’s plain we will not be jostled by crowds.
Which is just as well since there were queues of cars happily burning fuel as they waited to get through the DriveThru Macdonalds; Nando’s car park was rammed as was every other fast food joint. Goodness knows what it was like in IKEA. No one…or hardly anyone, was masked. Everywhere seemed happily oblivious to the parlous state we’re in. It was unnerving.
I’ll tell you how serious the state of England is. You can’t find anywhere with Auntie Bessie’s Giant Yorkshire Puddings in stock. I remember the dismay when, some years ago, there was a fire at Auntie B’s factory in Brid, and there were no giant Yorkshires to be had for months. I remember the joy when they came back.
I guess this put me in a nostalgic frame of mind…you know the kind of thing. We didn’t have two pennies to rub together but we were happy. That kind of nonsense.
So I’ve been trawling the stand-ups and the stocking fillers for something that fit the mood, and came up with these.
In the early 60s you could effectively get a job just about anywhere simply by knocking on the office door and asking. I’m not talking about salaried work. I’m talking about the kinds of jobs that someone has to do, the ones that Tory politicians call ‘low-skilled’ and have never themselves tried to do. Most folk of my generation have done them if they were students. “Holiday jobs’. I worked in a biscuit factory, a woollen warehouse, delivering Christmas post; I picked potatoes….The latter was the only one that would now be called a zero-hours one. The thing was, you didn’t get paid lots, but you did get paid. Everyone who’s done temporary jobs as a student has her/his own stories. Here’s two of mine.
The first is set in 1964. Eventually it was published in the first issue of Strix, and was used in an exhibition in Leeds celebrating the experience of work and immigration. But originally, it was just an anecdotal poem for open mics.
There’s jobs I’d rather forget like the biscuit-tin steamer at the biscuit factory and the paint factory machine that clamped lids onto tins of bright blue hot enamel and the drums of acetone that melted sacks of cotton and working with the engineer from Pakistan and the doctor and the tailor and the rest who lived in one small terrace house where the beds were never cool who came to work to work and nothing else these men who kept to themselves or were made to keep to themselves because in those days I didn’t know which was which but anyway would rather miss the break not just because it’s in a lavatory open to the sky and because they don’t understand this fifteen minutes in the smell of piss and cigarettes is sacrosanct because they only want to keep on running pieces through their big machines that turn miles of polyester stuff into something with a nap and tumble it to a semblance of a leopardskin for steering wheels and the seats of Triumph Heralds and Cortinas but any way they’d rather stand in cleaner air and wonder how soon they can get back to work and crank the pieces out piecework being the system and the point because they don’t smoke and they send every penny back to Pakistan because one day their children will own taxicabs and chipshops barbers kebab houses small garages off-licenses that never shut and one day they will build mosques with golden domes and the men I have to work with don’t like work and the one I’m partnered with comes late every morning because he doesn’t have a family in Pakistan waiting on the next instalment for a ticket on a plane and neither do I but I need to work and turn the pieces out but I’m not let to start the machine till he clocks in and I don’t want to have to watch him have his breakfast which is always in his jacket pocket and always is a battered fish he bought the night before on his way home from the Institute and he swears it’s better the next morning and swears the smell of curry makes him sick.
The second is set in the following summer of 1965. The Silver Paint and Laquer Company was the creation of Leslie Silver who went on to become Chairman of Leeds United and be awarded an OBE, but in this incarnation, his factory was a fire hazard, and after three weeks I was the longest-serving person in the place apart from the permanent staff like the chemist, the drivers, the engineers and the folk in the office. For younger readers, Queen Salote of Tonga was the smash hit of the Coronation procession in 1953. She had a ball
A temporary post
In those days you could walk down Bradford Road and get a job with anyone
just for the asking, like the one I had working on a machine that turned printed
polyester fabric into fakefur leopardskin for the steering wheels of Triumph Heralds
and Cortinas but that was nothing in the light of the Silver Paint and Laquer plant
in Burnley’s old mill buildings where everything was a flat affront to Health and Safety
where the extractor fans were always breaking down and where I spent one summer’s
afternoon pouring drums of acetone and bales of cotton pellets into a paint mill making
white enamel without any ventilation, the day I rode home and up the wrong street on
my Lambretta and tried to get into someone else’s house, and after two days off
sick I got shifted into filling tins, like the rush job for Queen Salote’s palace, and I
hope it got there quickly because she died five months later, but mainly I remember
the bright blue gloss that came still hot from the paintmills and melted all the shellac
seals of the tins I poured it in and lidded. It was cerulean. That kind of blue. I’ve recently
been told off for using it in a poem. If you know a better word than bright, I’ll gladly use it.
Well, that was a more than a tad self-indulgent. But next week proper service will be resumed, and I’ll be sharing my enthusiasm for a poet whose work never fails to move and excite. See you then.
No more “Catching Up “ posts. Phew. There are at least four new collections/pamphlets staring at me from the shelf above my Mac screen, and they’re all demanding that I write about them.But I’ll take my time, and raise no false hopes about when and how.
I’m planning to recharge my batteries. That’s the priority. Chemo knocked me for six; I wasn’t prepared for that. But I’ve started going for walks again. The first one was a shock to the system inasmuch as I only managed a mile of easy walking; but in the last couple of weeks, egged on by my partner, it’s getting to be 4 or 5 Km, and the target is to be doing it every day until it’s no longer painful.
And this brings me to stocking fillers. I’ve been posting on Facebook about being introduced to the remarkable variety of field paths that start pretty well at my front door, and which I was almost totally unaware of until a couple of weeks ago.
There’s one that starts when the road I live on becomes a bridle path, and then a field path that eventually links to a path that leads you over the River Calder, under a railway line, and finally to the canal, beside which you can (if you want) walk for miles and miles. I’m no fan of towpath walks, mainly because no matter how far you walk you still seem to be in the same place. But I knew the path…and thought that it was the only one. It’s a popular path, part of the Kirklees Footpaths system, and for 30+ years I’ve been aware of groups of walkers passing our front window. To my shame I wrote a stocking-filler about what I thought was their being kitted out as if for hard walking in the Cairngorms, as opposed to having just come a quarter of a mile from the town centre. I poked fun at their Goretex, the OS maps slung in pastic wallets dangling round their necks, their Brasher boots, their air of being on a risky expedition.
Today I went for a walk in the sun, and I had boots on. And I had two walking poles. I beg absolution
However. Stocking-filler time. For the anniversary of 9/11 I posted a poem on Facebook about the memory of where I was at the time the first plane was flown into the Twin Towers.
Out of the blue
The Inter-City comes into Wakefield
on a curving viaduct of ten great arches,
built by men who mainly could not read or write,
who worked with picks and shovels, barrows,
hods, and rope and block and tackle.
Wonders, remarkable as pyramids, that endure
like great cathedrals, that no one notices.
Under the arches, small businesses spring up:
builders’ merchants, body shops, scrap yards,
and Cesar’s Ceramics where we went one day
to buy tiles of a particular shade of blue,
when Capitol Radio cut into Erasure’s
Blue Savannah with a news flash that a plane
had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
As we drove home with our boxes of blue tiles,
a second plane crashed into the second tower.
For hours after we got in, we watched
the images repeat. Small glittering planes
in a cerulean sky, the smoke, the dust, the dark.
To my considerable surprise, it sparked a long thread of comments in response to one that took me to task for the use of ‘cerulean’ …..a word I suppose I took for granted. Anyway, I watched the arguments unfold about words that should be at all costs avoided in poetry.
There’s a myth that Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business proscribed the use of the word ‘shard’. Being one of those who believe that the only rule in art of any kind is that there are no rules beyond asking: does this work?, I was intrigued to see that ‘cerulean’ could well go the way of ‘shard’. Which reminded me that I wrote a defence of ‘shard’ and all things shard-y after spending a very hot afternoon in Alicante scrambling up steep shaly slopes looking for fragments of Iberian pottery. Shards, in fact.
From Mare Nostrum’s Anatolian shore,
ten leagues distant, ‘midst arid, jagged
mountains, eagle-haunted airie heights,
there stands a tow’ring cliff of golden stone.
If to its rocky foot, with faltering steps
the dauntless Traveller would ascend
by goat path tortuous, through brittle thorn,
and bitter dust, as ‘twere of dead sea fruit,
blooded,dwarfed below that precipice dire,
beneath his feet appear, among the roots
of juniper and ericacae desiccate,
fragments of the ancient potter’s art…
broken amphorae, rough bowls and goblets
that, for two millenia lay spurned
by hoof of goat, scorched by tropic suns,
blown at every wind’s caprice, unheeded
even as great Empires rose in pride,then fell.
O! shattered reliques of an Ancient Race!
And say, how should the Traveller, besmeared
with toil, and foul with cloying dust and blood
Apostrophize a single Piece of all this Multitude?
Two thousand years it’s lain in dust
on a thorny hill, this broken pot,
waiting, patiently, for that mot juste
from all the lexicon of crock that poets have got
not fragment, splinter, scrap or shiver,
remnant, or chunk, or flake, or sliver.
Dismiss all injunctions laid upon the bard.
Sometimes only one word will do.
So, Take up your pen and write it: shard
More stocking fillers next week. Or perhaps an appreciation of a collection that’s snagged my attention and won’t let go. Who can say?
Here we are at last. Thought we’d never get here. Except we haven’t even started, not by a long chalk. I’m thinking of those pioneering Himalayan climbers who took months just to get to the foot of Everest, and essentially they still hadn’t started the job they came to do. Here I am at last, and still scrambling around, looking for a likely line. Daunted. Because Martin Malone’s The Unrerturning is a hefty piece of work, a
sequence of merciless hymns to our cultural obsession with the First World War …an effort
to create meaningful acts of witness for ‘a nation/with so many memorials/but no memory..
a collection of great ambition and originality [Peter Robinson]
As PW Bridgman says in his London Grip Review
it is widespread failures and (inescapably) distortions of historical memory that are Malone’s central concern…..
with a conjured mythology about war [I would say THIS war, in particular]..a false record that has been cultivated
and propagated to serve certain political ends
The more I’ve chewed this over, the more I’ve come to think that I need to put the whole business of assertions about ‘conjured mythologies’ in some kind of context. Because there are lots of them, and many are mutually exclusive. After all, there were more than 16 million dead — armed forces and civilians.
Let’s play a game of association, bearing in mind that we’re already primed to be thinking of WW1 poetry and poets. If you think of the First World War, what images come to mind? Would they, perhaps, be like mine.. a silhouette of a procession of gas-blinded men? miles of mud, barbed wire? artillery men trying to drag a floundering horse out of a crater?
If you had to choose just a single image, would it be a poppy?
Like this one, for instance, which featured in the Yorkshire Post this week. It’s certified to have been plucked from the battlefield in 1916 by the brother of one killed there in action
“The dried poppy – described as “one of the most poignant symbols of brotherly love ever seen” – was plucked in memory of Private James Henry Lester. It’s up for auction amongst a collection of WW1 memorabilia, and expected to raise in excess of £1000; the family owners hope
“that a museum may purchase the items and put them on public display, a permanent reminder of the sacrifices made by an entire generation.”
After all, we’re concerned with ‘conjured mythologies’. Which is the concern at the heart of Martin Malone’s collection.
When you’re asked to think of WW1, is your default image one of Flanders Fields? If you like, it’s easy to argue that our collective ‘memory’ has edited the World out of World War.
For instance, if I ask you to think of a battle, I think the odds are that it’ll be The Somme, or Ypres. Something like that. But if you were French, it might be Verdun, or the Ardennes; if you were Italian, it might be Isonzo. For Russians, Tannenberg, for Romanians, Bucharest.
Like I said, Flanders is probably your default …not Macedonia, or Sinai and Palestine, or Egypt, or the Congo, or Mesapotamia/Iraq, or the Dardenelles where Attlee was the penultimate man of the beach in covering the retreat from Suvla Bay.
And if you’re like me, you probably didn’t think of naval warfare at all….Jutland, The Falklands. In truth, there were few naval engagements, which is ironic, especially for those mythologists who still sing Rule Britannia(Britannia rule the waves). Navies were mainly engaged in blockading enemy ports in an effort to starve them into defeat. And so on.
Our collective memories and myths shrink the world.
Here’s another thing. If I ask you to name the first bit of WW1 writing that comes to mind what’s the odds that it’ll be a poem? A bit of Wilfred Owen? A bit of Rupert Brooke? Isaac Rosenberg? Edward Thomas? August Stramm?
How many of you thought first of memoir (Vera Britten? Robert Graves?)
Or novels…All quiet on the Western Front ? (Eric Remarque’s book was burned by the nazis). Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy ? Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914?
And if we’re thinking of image making, how about film? Paths of Glory ? Oh what a lovely war ? Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.
The scale, both spatial and temporal, is clearly beyond daunting. Martin is quite clear about this in various interviews he’s given about The Unreturning, and about his more recent Selected Poems. A couple of extracts will make the point:
“The Unreturning …… was a subject given/ gifted me on the basis of funding for my Sheffield PhD. My main challenge was to say something new about [the poetry of WW1] from the perspective of its centenary.
Both academic research and my creative practice did, indeed, look to poets like Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, however, as well as the even more obvious ones. For the Ghosts of the Vortex sequence, my purpose was to seek out some of the lost, or lesser-known, narratives of the conflict and convey a sense of its global dimensions and legacies: hence poems like ‘Ansky’s Lament’, ‘Legacies’, ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’, ‘Nostos’ and ‘The Turnip Winter’. German Great War poetry is, in many ways, more interesting than the British stuff – certainly, it often feels more modern and experimental – though it’s an all-but-lost canon. So, I wanted to be a bit more 360° than is often the case with UK writing about the war.”
“The complicating factor in a project such as this is the pervasive nature of the Great War’s literary legacy. Already the most poetically memorialized conflict since Troy, its writers provide the urtext to our collective sensibility of much subsequent warfare, while its historical stature as global event represents something of a dragon lying across the threshold to our under- standing of the modern world
Catherine Reilly’s estimation that, in Britain alone, there were 2225 published poets of the Great War (1978) is a formidable enough legacy, further deepened by the remarkably privileged position enjoyed in UK culture by that small body of poets who have since emerged as representatives of its core canon [my italics]: poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Laurence Binyon and John McCrae, all of whom are studied widely in schools or habitually appear in Remembrance Day ceremonies. “
What he sets out to do is to provide some sort of perspective on the failures and distortions of historical memory, both about the war itself, about the ‘truth’ or otherwise of its poetry, and what he sees as conjured mythologies, the ‘trench honesties’ occluded by ‘one century/ and the paradigms of myth’. And when you consider the ‘truth’ of the poetry, it’s as well to remember that this war was unprecedented, mechanised, industrialised. There was no language ready made to account for it. Which brings us to Martin Malone’s poems, and particularly at this point, an extract from one about Wilfred Owen at the time of his recuperation after Craiglockhart.
They were dying again at Beaumont Hamel
as you stroll Borage Lane,
three days after your twenty-fifth birthday,
mind yet cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…
At number seven, you unlatch the gate,
take out a key and stroll up to the white front door.
Searching for peace, you retreat to the attic with its tiny skylight,
the shrieks of children playing soldiers down the street.
Here you are Chatterton and Keats,
half in love with death’s idea
while making best use of its dutiful shadow.
You write your mother, go over old drafts,
‘defectuosities’, and ‘the inwardness of war’.
Briefly, you pause to listen to swallows skirruping their early return,
then back to your notes, strike-throughs,
séance and retrospection,
another time-strafed Edwardian
caught out in the open with defective kit…
(from “Ripon Work”)
It’s the last two lines I find particularly poignant; Edwardian poetry, with its roots in lyrical Romanticism, simply wasn’t set up to deal with the horrors of trench warfare, particularly if your mind was
cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…
It’s Martin’s concern with the disjunction between the limits of language at any given time, and the actual experience it’s trying to realise that colours the whole collection, which, as one reviewer pointed out, and as the book’s jacket copy correctly declares, is in effect a “Great War diptych in which the later dissenting voices… parley with [war poetry’s] more traditional elegiac forms.”
So, set this poem from the second part (The Unreturning) against Ripon Work, and you’ll get a sense of the way it works
41. War Poet
Beneath this creeping barrage squats our chap, in his breast pocket the scribbled draft that sets off a vintage look: hapless subaltern, sick with sin, chewing pencil and pity onto notepaper doomed to be found upon a mud-matted corpse. En route to legend, Herr Krupp’s handiwork tears its messy path through temporal, parietal and the red wet thing of a line-break. Let us rest here a while then dig down to the destruction layer where we find change come suddenly and everywhere, and everywhere the final week of this poets’ war: Boudicca’s wrath, shock and awe, the stratified earth of charred words pulling free of decorum.
“The first half of the diptych (collectively, “Ghosts in the Vortex”) does indeed consist of poems, mostly written in free verse, which are conventionally presented and employ language and diction that beautifully reflects Martin’s own earlier absorption in poets like Edward Thomas, and the landscapes of, say Eric Ravillious. The second half, by contrast, comes to us in prose poetry form and speaks in a conspicuously more modern voice. The prose poems look back at some of the content of the first half, offering an often acerbic, but nevertheless lyrical, commentary on real truths as they have sometimes been refracted though systematically distorted lenses. (PWBridgman in London Grip).
Some of the poems made me consider the disparate backgrounds of those who fought, especially before conscription. There were the Pals Regiments who could not initially be supplied with unforms, and who were subsequently decimated; there were those who were rejected because of the effects of malnutrition. Later, of course, the need for men to fill their places became acute, and thus were formed the Bantam Regiments of men below 5’3”…the Jewish East-ender Isaac Rosenberg was one of them. There were those conflicted, like Owen and Edward Thomas who enlisted later in the war, And there were the enthusiasts, the beautiful, blue-eyed bourgeouis boys like Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell.
Martin’s momentarily unsparing of Julian Grenfell and his “Krupp-made end”.
Warm with late spring, in a field near Ypres,
you were never happier than on this big picnic,
chatting with the General when that shell struck
He can just as easily borrow some of the acerbity of Sassoon when dealing with others, like Sassoon himself, and Robert Graves, who bought their own superior gear from the Army and Navy stores)
Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men with your tinned kippers and today’s Daily Mail; the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.
There’s one poem in part two of the diptych that savages the literal business of the memorabilia of wars, and it illustrates for me the to-and-fro of reverberation between the two parts. I like way the distinctively modern dialect throws a light on Sassoon’s use of his demotic. I like the savagery of it.
Buy it now for two-seven-five, condition as shown in photo, too well-made to be repro, the kosher stuff of a lost patrol. As metaphors got real and euphemism ugly, the Aldershot Design lugged its rough rigging onto the dog-tired shoulders of our line. And, if you’re browsing for archetype, for “how it really was”, then scroll no further than this, one belt; two braces; bayonet frog; pouches for ammo; one haversack; valise with two straps and carriers for the head and helve of an E-tool. This was our hyperlink, a one-piece jacket for the universal soldier: Dai’s Greatcoat, Hotspur’s mail, John Ball’s frayed thread for the fucked-up Grail of Mametz Wood. Epic failure/ epic fail
Equally, Martin Malone can write with a deft lyricism that conjures the literary/poetic world of the age.
As though nothing happens
our hemisphere shoulders the sun,
the hill asleep on its trove of peat,
the sea is soaked in light.
In the days before Johnsmas
we bear fuel to the sgùrr,
our own brief blaze stoked
in its hours and seasons
by the darkness and the light.
I love the completeness of this, its precision (its echoes of MacCaig, too), and not least for the way it sits alongside much bleaker, more deliberately disturbing poems, like the one about the artist Kokoscha, shot in the head and wounded in the lung, left for dead on the Russian front, and later declared insane by his hospital doctor.
KNIGHT ERRANT, 1915
A spitted dragoon
prone in pike-grey,
Oskar Kokoschka considers his fate
and wonders if you can paint a premonition
or, in the war of endless coincidence,
is this just another incident
bereft of the brush
to anoint its meaning?
As March canvass turns
August into wounds,
his lung swabs blood
from the jag of Russian bayonet
and things begin to swim,
heading out towards allegory
and revenant self-portrait:
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?
He floats above himself as seraphim,
notes a passing influence of Grünewald
and the Northern Renaissance,
while Mahler’s widow looks on,
sphinx-like, close attendant
to his ever-present grief
and the narrow horizontal
of a stricken son of man.
I like the way that this reminds me that painters were way ahead of poets when it came to the profound disorientations of this war (and possibly everything else throught history). I like the way it takes the reader away from the provincialism of English war poetry, I like the widening perspective. And I realise, belatedly that it chimes with an image(the pikelhaube snout) in one of the prose poems from the second half of the diptych (The Unreturning).
10. School Run
If you’ve a minute, tweet this: the car-struck badger you’ve driven past these last two weeks, pikelhaube snout irate in death, body bloating with fetid air, hind-legs rigid in surrender. Kamerad, emptied of essence, this is the boy from your home village; that snotty kid with a terrier whose Dad liked a drink, the one who pissed himself when Miss Manning caught him with a rat in his desk. Him: always the last to put up his hand, always unlucky in love. His losing streak continued over here and now that’s him rotting away to your left, hung on the brambles of a B-Road: a passing stain in no man’s land, fuel for the coming spring. He’ll walk no more on Cotswold.
I realised a long long time ago I’d not do justice to the complexities and variety of this collection– lyrical, satitirical, rhetorical, polemical, extensively researched, and technically accomplished. Put all that together and you realise that it doesn’t add up to something you might recognize as currently fashionable. But do go and buy it. You’ll not be disappointed and you’ll certainly be educated. And you can dream that Michael Gove and his satraps could be forced to learn this poem by heart.
Thank you for your neo-concern
that we grasp the full facts
of this complicated matter;
for sending out, once again,
the officer class to explain
the subtle difference between
Blackadder and the nation’s history,
the one being truth the other comedy;
for pointing out our parents’ mistake
in taking Oh What A Lovely War!
to be anything but a sixties musical
and not how it really was. Thank you
for assuming our poetry stops at Owen;
for sending out the privately-educated
to explain that confusion in the ranks
between your national story
and literature’s false history,
as if, not royal families, but poetry
tips men into war graves.
Saxe-Coburg, be advised, your poppy
is not mine.
I’m grateful to you for letting me hear
Paxman attempt the phrase wor canny bairns.
And I do appreciate your engagement
with those events which legitimise
the contemporary state of affairs,
or, as you put it on a recent visit
to a sink school, make pride cool again.
I appreciate, as you say, the need
to understand the popular thinking
of the day; how words you are trying
to re-claim meant something real
to my grandfather right up to that morning
the Liverpool Regiment came unstuck
at Hermies, on the road to Cambrai.
As if history can make some
long term sense of the losses
and every lesson to be learned
is, once more, yours.
Martin Malone, thanks for your patience, and for your generous sharing of so many poems from The Unreturning.
ps. I’ll finish with one last thought. I’ve read a lot of reviews of the book and transcripts of interviews that Martin has given as well as articles he’s written. Sometimes, Google sends you down unexpected pathways. I came across the deeply depressing world of Poetry Notes and Analyses….the virtual world’s Cole’s Notes. Amongst other things I learned that there is no kind of filter. You’d be astonished to find that it’s commonly assumed by all sorts of writers, and even some reviewers, that Wilfred Owen’s poem The unreturning isa War Poem. The first two stanzas certainly sound as if they may be
In fact, it was written between 1912 and 1913, and it’s about a crisis of theological and doctrinal doubt. It has more affinity with the Dark Sonnets of GM Hopkins than with war poetry. There you go.
Martin Malone lives in north-east Scotland.
He has published 3 poetry collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011),
Cur (Shoestring, 2015)
The Unreturning (Shoestring 2019).
Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 was published by Hedgehog Poetry in December 2020.
In addition, he has published 4 pamphlets: 17 Landscapes (Bluegate Books), Prodigals (The Black Light Engine Room), Mr. Willett’s Summertime* (Poetry Salzburg), Shetland Lyrics (Hedgehog). Poems from these and his other work have been published in a wide variety of magazines & journals.
He reviews for Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Wales and Poetry Salzburg Review.
An editor at Poetry Salzburg and Honorary Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he has a PhD in poetry from Sheffield University. Currently, Martin is a Poetry Ambassador for the Scottish Poetry Library.
*Mr. Willett’s Summertime comprises 25 poems that were the early nucleus of The Unreturning
Still out of the loop, or many loops, befogged and becalmed, I nevertheless make a solemn promise that the next post after this one will be final one of the Catching Up series and will feature Martin Malone’s The Unreturning.
I won’t be a review. It’ll be more like a fan letter. I’m not up to analysis and summary and critical aperçus. Enthusiasm is the most you should expect. But there will, fingers crossed, be a lot of poems to enjoy.
A short post tonight, then. As you know by now, ‘stocking fillers’ are mainly stand-alone, one-off, ‘where did that come from?’ poems that more often than not are limited to outings at open mics. But some appear because a prompt in a writing workshop touched a nerve. I think these are the ones I’m most grateful for. Every now and then, at Poetry Business Writing Days, either Ann or Peter Sansom will invite you to think of a writer …novelist, poet, dramatist…and one of his or her creations, and then imagine them meeting somehow in a wholly unlikely location or circumstance. Jane Austen and Mr D’Arcy at a Ban the Bomb march, say. Dickens and Mr Gradgrind at a parents’ evening. As I say, the best times are when you’re ambushed. Why I should think of R.S.Thomas and of Cynddylan I have no idea, and why I should imagine them rubbing shoulders on a Parish trip to a Silver Blades in Swansea or Chester, even less. But here they are…and they even ended up in print, which I’m very happy about.
Cynddylan and the priest at Silver Blades
Hard and slippery, there’s no purchase,
unless, for one, consolation of a kind in bleakness,
the indifference of god, his chill disciplines
and the fear of falling, the nothing of stilled water
and the darkness under all,
and for the other
the thought of earthfasts rising in his frozen fields,
a broken ploughshare
and a shrunk clamp of beets in the lee of a barn.
They have no language for not working.
They want for the cold flags of a chapel,
a plain altar, absolution
for what will not be, precisely, named;
just a dusting of snow, the red of the Fordson,
sharp blue exhaust, a clutter of gulls
and a straight furrow.
.[Published as ‘The priest and the ploughman go skating’ Much Possessed. 2016]
The second, and similar prompt was to imagine the meeting of two writers or artists or otherwise famous people under unexpected circumstances. Norman MacCaig and the mountaineer, Mallory on a broken-down bus in Cambridgeshire, say. Pete Townsend and Beethoven swapping anecdotes about deafness. Peter Benchley and Damian Hirst seated together on a long-haul flight……..What happened on this occasion was that my mind sidestepped the ‘rules’. Possibly I’d been up to Heptonstall and Colden, and remembering lots of visits to Lumb Bank when it’s cold and wet and bleak, and the valley can be sinister. Anyway, Ted and Sylvia metamorphosed into the protagonists of a lost novel.
brittle as a mirror
worrying at little lines
exquisite as ants or wasps
half-aware of an open window
banging somewhere in this long dark house
in a clenched valle
of cold chimneys and black walls
cemented with orphans’ bones
of trees flogging themselves to death
balsam flattened by the weight of air
she cramps herself small and smaller
dreams of dwindling
into the fastness of a shell
white under a full moon
in a sky of no wind
somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over
rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage
like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall
and sing about the blood
Thanks for dropping by; it’s always good to see you. Stay safe. Go well.