There’s lots of roads that I like in Britain. I like the one along the Tay , through Dundee to Broughty Ferry….two great bridges as a bonus; I love bridges. I like the great sculptural sweep of the M74 up to and beyond Beattock summit. I like the single track from the Gaellic College over the hill to Achnacloich on Skye. I like the Newbury bypass and Beacon Hill. But there’s a special place in my heart for this stretch of the M62, the dam on the left, the farmhouse islanded between the two carriageways because the farmer wouldn’t budge when they built the motorway, the great single arch of the bridge by Scammonden where the motorway runs along the top of the dam wall. I love it specially at night, preferably in winter, with frost on the whaleback moors, a misted moon, and hundreds of small bright lights in the valleys off to the north. Which is a very roundabout introduction to this week’s post.
The green wooded clough below the dam in the photo is the start of the Ryburn Valley. The road on the other side of the reservoir, the old Oldham Road, will take you down the valley, and eventually to Sowerby Bridge, home to Sally Wainwright’s ‘Happy Valley’ (Holmfirth, eat your heart out), and also to the Puzzle Hall Inn, home of the world-famous Puzzle Hall Poets. Which is where I first met today’s undiscovered gem, Simon Zonenblick. And one of the poems I’ve asked him for has a bridge in it. So, maybe, not such a roundabout introduction, after all.
It’ll come as no surprise to learn that ‘undiscovered’ is, yet again, inaccurate; just a testament to my coming late to all sorts of poetry and poetry worlds. What attracted me to Simon’s work was hearing his performance of it at open mics, where I was much taken by the clarity of his reading, the way he gives consonants their due weight, the way he paces his reading so that what you hear is sound and meaning at the same time. I think his poetry is marked by attention to the precision that consonants give you; there’s nothing vague or loose about it. He counts Heaney among his influences, and it shows in the textures of his writing. Textured…that’s the word I was casting about for. Just listen to this poem (I think ‘listen’ is the right word…read it aloud. Listen to those end consonants).
Like dusty 1940’s novels stacked on shelves in draughty attics
we are the overlooked, largely forgotten,
in some cases never even glimpsed.
We are the wildlife post-watershed,
the casts of characters unaccredited,
we scuttle, skirt or skulk,
drag ourselves through moonlight nettles,
beds of sedge and water’s edge
and the thorn-thick inner worlds of woods.
As the town’s last train slides
into the lamp-lit rained-on station
and streets are steeped in night
occasional kitchens simmer in light
and roads, suburban avenues, deserted yards and carparks
teem with quiet multitudes.
Now, you could argue that it’s a poem that could stand a bit of pruning, but I think it’s a poem to perform, and needs more words than a poem that stays on the page for the eye. Maybe this is a piece of special pleading, because it’s a criticism levelled at lots of my poems, and the ‘defence’ is the same. I need those redundancies. I’ll leave that in the wind, say that ‘Overlooked’ also operates in the world of one of Simon’s main concerns, which is our relationship with the environment and the natural world, and leave him to speak for himself ( in the 3rd person) before leaving you with two more poems for your Sunday night delectation and delight.
Born in Leeds, he attended Leeds Art College 1997-9, lived in Huddersfield during a short-lived attempt at studying English, and later worked in mental health. He worked in social services in London, on market stalls, in Primary education, as a freelance gardener, and in public libraries, as well as briefly running a drama group. He still works in tourist information and in libraries. Much of his more recent poetry is rooted in the Ryburn valley, and his themes are concerned with the depredations on the natural world, the disfigurement of old towns and villages, the way the eco-system suffers desperately from short-sighted policies and greed. (It strikes me that many of his poems are observed from trains that run through the edgelands of towns and cities; it also seems no accident that the valleys of Calderdale are threaded by disused railways, like the one in the picture, somewhere up the Ryburn valley.)
His first collection, Little Creatures explores the worlds of micro-organisms, insects and mammals; the second is Random Journeys [pub. Unpretentious Arts: Ripponden…..a company run by husband-and-wife team, Antonia and Brian Kinlan]. He helps to organise the artSBridge Festival based in Sowerby Bridge….which involves him amongst other things, in interviewing local writers. He gets support and encouragement for his poetry from Gaia Holmes’ writers’ group, and poetry events like The Puzzle Hall Poets, Genevieve Walsh’s Spoken Weird (where he recently delivered an impassioned defence of slugs) and Square Chapel events in Halifax. This year he wrote and narrated a film about Branwell Bronte (who was, for a time the Station Master in Sowerby Bridge, and later, up the line, at Luddenden Foot, where he was equally unsuccessful); the film’s had two successful showings and will be generally available ere long. He also manages two websites: http://sites.google.com/site/ryburnramblings/home, and Cascading Fictions at http://sites.google.com/site/cascading fictions/ where he publishes fiction fron Britain, America, and pretty much anywhere else. So there you go. Undiscovered indeed.
Now, two poems, a short one and a blockbuster. And just to show nothing is accidental in this cobweb, one of them has a bridge in it (as I said) and one has another train.
The train this morning
The train this morning’s like an otter
shimmying through shallows
inching into secrets by the reed-rich river bank.
Just gone seven and the moon’s a dandelion goddess
melting in mist that’s peeling to a cyan sky,
sun threads woven into cloud
and I’m sitting on a train that’s more a magic wardrobe
spooling through rivery morning air
moist with sprigs of rain
like the spray of garden sprinklers.
The window’s open to a panorama of promises –
woods and valleys,
and who knows what lions, witches, loves
as yet undiscovered,
I love the way this morphs into a world of water and air and light; I especially like that dandelion clock of a moon, its gauziness. Now, the next poem is a different thing altogether, a tumultuous, gleeful tour de force that I heard at the Puzzle a couple of weeks ago. We’d had Sarah L. Dixon, the Quiet Compere, and we had 18 on the open mic (including Gaia Holmes, Anthony Costello…tons of talent) but this one got a standing ovation. I type slowly, and it’s a long poem, so I’m off for a break and my tea. See you in a bit.
Right. That’s better. Here we go with a poem about a bridge on the A672 at Rishworth, down below the motorway. Simon explains that its name probably stems from the Anglo Saxon for artificial mounds such as barrows, but, because it sounds like ‘slither over’, asks what if it were constructed for the convenience of reptiles, passing through.
It sounds like a bridge specifically built for reptiles
and I imagine, as night falls, a procession
of snakes gleaming in the moonlight
as they wriggle through the rain.
This road, a slab of tarmac stretched above the river,
laid below a climb of rumpling hills that peel along the skyline,
becomes by night an unlikely catwalk, as successions
of slippery creatures sloop through sleet –
in the the still of winter midnights,
a dazzle of lizards flashes like a neon blaze
turtles multitudinous amble unhurried but in colours flashy as a fist of fish,
and, in a ripple of fire, salamanders spill scross the kerbs.
Amphibians aren’t excluded either –
cast an eye towards the puddles and you’ll see,
like bloated bruises, toads hobbling croakingly,
geriatric, pimpled groaners, creaking blobs,
clomping in stomp-footed strops, while their lither cousins,
frogs, dance like pricks of light, a flurry of jumping
as the long-legged leapers lift, bounce against chalk markings,
like Olympian long-jumpers;
as geckos flit and scramble, a slash of basilisk is streaked
across the darkness like a scaly sefaka, and misty air is slit
by the blade-like shimmy of iguanas flaring and thrilling onlookers,
such as those creeping cobblestones, the understated tortoises, who shyly
keep their distances,
Newts are squeezing through the bricks, delving into underworlds
beneath the concrete, caecaelians slither, non-natives who have heard
about this bridge, have slunk along on boats and elongate themselves
across the road, until the very ground’s a phosphorescent jungle of bejewelled bodies;
molluscs, too, are quick to join the jamboree, and, like buccaneeering morris-dancers
blubber along, slime-sheathed, veneering ice in viscid after-trails;
a muculent sludge of slugs navigates the darkness, antennae unfurled,
as snails aglint in lumpy rows go bumping through the night.
This unassuming road, this segment of a tapering thoroughfare threading the valley
out towards the violence of the motorway, cloak-and-hooded cranny at the foot
of wizened moorland, has become a zoological extremity – a jumble of reptilian
amphibious activity until one might discern, at rare intervals, the unexpected
crinkle of a crocodile clambering through the early morning mist,
alligators dragging themselves over cold hard tar,
even the Komodo dragon, its avuncular sloth belying patent viciousness.
Even more unusually, there’s a chance of spying those presumed extinct;
sole representatives of former types, species long-consigned to the Evolution’s index:
huge fat-flippered fish-ish beings, prehistoric sea-slugs, near-frogs
with bodies the same size as full-grown ant-eaters, splashing velvety webbed feet
over gritty Yorkshire earth. Over the bridge the slithering slinkers gumshoe, slipping through
the early hours, disappearing down the slopes to sunless distances.
Go on. See how much you’ll like saying this aloud, and how fast you can take it, and how your breath will hold up. Me, I’ll just sit back and treasure the effrontery of ‘ fish-ish’.
Simon, thank you for the poems and for introducing yourself. It’s been a pleasure.
Next week I think we’ll come back to Calderdale and the fascination of placenames, and how they work in poems. Among other things. See you then, I hope.