This week’s post, I promised, was to be a review. However, circumstance alter cases, and I only have one working eye tonight. This, I am assured, is temporary. But it means that my concentration is not what it should be, and I mean to do justice to my reviewee. Next week. Another promise to be kept.
A short post, then. Sunday night is Countryfile night on the Beeb. Apart from the ex Blue Peter presenters setting the comfy tone, as though addressing a group of Brownies, they are also wont to rhapsodise about going for a walk surrounded by Nature. They pronounce the capital ‘N’. All Wordsworth’s fault, I suppose, but he was genuinely rhapsodic, and I count the boat-stealing and the ice-skating in The Prelude among my favourite bits of 19thC poetry. In general, though, I’d happily see contemporary poets who use the word ‘nature’ (with an implied capital) slapped about with slim volumes of pastoral verse.
I’m ambivalent about the countryside, almost none of which, in Britain is completely natural. I am excited and moved by wild weather, and uplands. I do not warm to the postcard/jigsaw countryside of pantiled farmhouses with contentedly munching cattle. One of my ‘bibles’ when I taught A level English was Raymond Williams’ wonderful ‘The country and the city’ with its systematic review of the thread of idealising pastoral nostalgia that runs through English poetry, the bucolic that ignores the work of actual shepherds, or any kind of work for that matter…it took writers like Hardy to address that kind of issue. Soft, owned, fenced and hedged countryside makes me uncomfortable with its exclusiveness. An argument something like this started up in my head as I was driving through Devon in April on my way to Torrington…all it took to make me feel like a ruffian was the smug purple of UKIP posters plastered on tree trunks and barns, and I thought: this is the John Major/warm beer/village cricket vision of England that saloon-bar faux-toffs like Farage are peddling. This is white, male, middle-class little England. And even though the day was sunny, I wrote this poem in Torrington.
Wales and the Malverns blue and remote.
Green and hedged, and farmed and smug,
lush as a salad, these dairylands, whose butter
wouldn’t melt as April warms and fattens.
That was the mood I was in —–more than a bit of the chip-on-the-shoulder—–and there it might have stayed, except the road began to climb out of the broad green valley and into uplands, where I could have been stopped dead in in my tracks. Except I was driving. But I was saved by a lay-by, where I could pull over, and stare and stare at a sight that might have come out of a Lawrence short story. That time of year when uplands still haven’t quite got over winter. It wasn’t chalk downlands, but was like something Eric Ravillious might have drawn. So when I got to Torrington I wrote two poems, and this is the second.
(I’ll take the opportunity here to thank Ann Sansom for helping me to tidy this next poem up. Thanks, Ann. Editor sans pareil.)
But there’s a crackle in the air, a shimmer,
where valleys deepen, bedrock humps up,
shrugs off browsing cattle, crosses a line
into air and distance where birds hover,
skyline ashtrees bristle.
Uplands of gorse, blackthorn, hornbeam –
all barbed wire and circuitry; pale grey wintergrass,
papery fern sprawling and bruised and brittle,
cross-hatched and scratched with iron nibs in sepia ink.
Linen and rust.
The horse comes dark, bunching, flexing,
fluent and massive all at once.
Its rider is weighty and poised.
They flow together into the scooped downland.
They make a word. The word is : ‘galloping’.
This man in his patched tweed coat, his boots;
this brown horse rough with winter, steel
at the corners of her mouth, who turns as he leans
with a dip of the shoulder, hands sure and still
in the whipping mane of her long neck,
earth flying from her hooves.
Something elemental in the moment; something trite.
There should be girls with wide hats, abundant hair,
pale violet coats, and brilliant stockings,
Rose and emerald silk.
That felt better. Thank you, man on a horse somewhere on a Devon hillside on a pleasant April morning.
And thank you for reading. Normal service to be resumed next Sunady. Fingers crossed.