I feel like Bleak House’s Esther Summerson this morning. I have a great deal of difficulty beginning my portion of these pages. Maybe because here we are, at the solstice, the skies are grey, there’s a cold wind, our lovely cat died on Friday, I woke up too soon after going to sleep too late, I want some sunshine, I want to eat breakfast outside, I’m feeling sorry for myself………..Well, we flag, from time to time, I guess. And then I think of today’s special guest, and my spirits soar. I should be playing Johnny Nash. I can see clearly now, I can see all obstacles in my way. The ideas begin to dance. Phew. (Does everyone do this, write absolutely anything just to get started, no matter what? Does anyone then not delete/cross it out?)
Anyway, to the point.
The last time I saw my guest for today, Yvonne Reddick, she was reading her highly commended and totally commendable poem about Roman soldiers in the streets, or what would be the streets, of 1st Century York. She read with beautiful precision and control, every consonant given its due weight, every pause and check falling exactly right. She always does. None of your dying falls and melancholy poeticism for Yvonne. So that’s one thing I like her for.
The first time I met her was (regular readers, you can now roll your eyes and get it over with) at a Poetry Business Writing Day. After all, that’s where I get all my new poetry and poets.I may be wrong, but I think that was the one where she brought a distinctly eccentric poem to workshop. The title gives you due warning: Holocene Extinction Memorial. Nineteen irregular stanzas, each of which might be an idiosyncratic label in a room full of unnervingly strange exhibits.
‘The Indefatigable Galapagos Mouse from Indefatigable Island wants to be invincible’
‘The Hacaath of Vancouver struggle with smallpox’
‘The quagga hopes Burchell’s zebra remembers her’
I have no idea if she made some of them up, or all, or none; I could Google them but I have no desire to find out. The thing is, she read with such emphatic conviction that I had no choice but to be convinced. I have no idea if anyone else was as taken as I, or even if it was ‘a Good Poem’. All I know is it was unexpected, and memorable, and that’s not the case with everything you hear in a workshop. It was like the poem equvalent of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford before it was tidied up and curated into rationality. Like the cabinets of curiosities beloved of the incumbents of Victorian rectories.
We can get used to all sorts of fashions and default settings in poetry, getting comfortable with psalms, and sestinas, and free verse, and minimalism, and stanzaic bits of ekphrasis and sonnets, and narratives. Which reminds me of a writing course I went on where elegant lyricim and exquisitely crafted velleities were the name of the game, and, en passant, one lady of letters remarked, languidly enough: ‘The anecdotal, the bus-stop conversation, has its own charm.’ by which I understood that it has no place in serious poetry at all. This set me to think of my own predeliction for narrative in poetry, and my inability to engage with, or be engaged by, self-referential stylistic games with fleeting moments, and the fragility of, say, a lemon. It also made me think of what does engage me. Emotional and intellectual surprise and challenge, That grabs me. I like novels like ‘The name of the rose’, and ‘Tristram Shandy’. I like MacCaig’s outrageous similes. I like the Metaphysicals. I like early Tony Harrison. I like ‘The Waste land’. I like to be out of my comfort zone, put slightly off -balance; I like creative disturbance. And so I came to like Yvonne Reddick’s idiosyncratic take on the world and its multifariousness.
Sometimes we ask of a poet we can’t pigeonhole: ‘Where’s she coming from?’ Well, how about starting with her biography. Yvonne grew up between Glasgow, Aberdeen, Kuwait City and Berkshire. She is an academic and writer, currently based in Preston, where she is Research Fellow in Modern English and World Literatures at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire. She’s also Visiting Fellow, at the Centre for the Study of International Slavery, University of Liverpool. After reading English at Cambridge, she studied for her PhD and began her academic career at the University of Warwick, where she also published her first pamphlet of poetry., LandForms, which was published by Seapressed in 2012.
One reviewer was clearly taken with the challenge of dealing with what I see as an intriguing erudition. The violence he does to syntax and semantics is a joy worth sharing. Yvonne says she didn’t understand it. Me neither. But it is enjoyable.
‘The binary is itself the uncomfortable site of negotiation, laying waste to and galvanizing its own division and divination
‘ Mostly by stanza, these lines betray navigational lyric, resplendent with lean overtures of isle:’
Well, there you go; decipher as you will. Yvonne’s research has seen her trying to decipher Ted Hughes’s notebooks on horoscopes and necromancy, reading David Livingstone’s beautiful copperplate writing in Zambia, and translating previously unanalysed Congolese writers from French. Deerhart, her next poetry pamphlet, will be published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press in 2016. You can see now why you should be prepared to be, with me, happily just outside your comfort zone. You should also understand that this is no cut and paste anthologiser of the strange, cryptic and bizarre. Like another favourite poet of mine – Julie Mellor – here’s a researcher who brings an imaginative sensitivity and a careful craftsmanship to her work. And it’s time that was given its chance to persuade you to share my enthusiasm. Here goes.
I’m called shinbone flute-singer, lyre-stringer,
August dry bird, jar fly.
My body is soundbox, drumskin, motor,
I tap my timbal – a ratcheting vibraslap
revving to a tom-tom.
I brace against the branch; wings and voice strain open –
when I amp it up to a whirring howl
my ballad could burst your eardrum.
My chirring fills woodlands, porches,
your sleepless house!
On windscreens, in gardens,
my kind lie in drifts,
lyric cicadas exhausted from calling.
This one drew me in, first with its sounds and textures -it’s great to read aloud – but also for the recognition of the shock of the NOISE of cicadas on a hot day in a steep sided valley. ‘Exhausted from calling’. Yes. For me this poems nails the sheer senselessness of that daylong racket. This next one takes me into a different climate, and a different voice.
My Grandmother Was A Pink-Footed Goose
I squint north –
clouds like the sails
of a goosewinging boat.
I blow on my fists,
feel the scrunched membrane
meshing index to thumb.
Nails press like quills,
as if each finger
could sprout a pinion
and my thumb could end
in a bastard wing.
Where are the flocks?
My Mémé was bird-bone hollow, all ribstrakes and flapping bald elbows, flesh slouched over a V of sternum. Shallow breath-râles, knuckly birdleg fingers. Her English evaporated as her mind nested the tumor. The remains: ‘J’ai ces … hallucinations’ of pools and oceans, my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.
Plume-cinder ash when we burned Mémé. The south-easterly hush-hushed it north.
A horizon speck
sharpens into focus
as a wishbone V.
Flying at altitude,
geese pant each second,
their heartbeats must blur –
how do they snatch breath to call?
The names of their nest-sites
freeze air as I voice them:
Touchdown of lipgloss feet
on saurian legs.
Parched beaks dapping
in algal-green pools.
The mere pours
off watermarked necks.
I wondered if anything could return
from those altitudes –
here are pink-footed geese
crying hark hark.
I think that’s a good place to stop on this undecided equinoctal afternoon, the mere pouring off the watermarked necks, the lipgloss feet, clouds like goosewinging boats, and the glad relief of the pink-footed geese crying ‘hark hark’.
I hope you enjoyed these as much as me. I hope you’re happily just out of your comfort zone. Yvonne Reddick…..thank you for being my guest.
Next week there’ll be a small informal ceremony. You’re all more than welcome.