Knowing your place: a polished gem (8) Steve Ely

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Here’s a first…I’m writing this from the island of Arran; there’s a banner of cloud streaming from Goatfell. On this side of the island, the rocks that run into the sea are water-fluted sandstones; oxblood and ochre and tan. Unbelievably old. The granites of the high fell are youngsters. Half the places on the island were named by the Vikings. Everything’s layered.

Robert Macfarlane’s lovely book, Landmarks, begins with this sentence.

This is a book about the power of language -strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place.

I think I want to turn that on its head today. Writing about Jane Clarke a couple of weeks ago, I found myself speculating on ways in which  language (and therefore,  our writing) is shaped and informed by the landscapes where we feel we belong. How we come to feel secure in one landscape or another is a mystery. But I recognise that the poets I love the best are ones informed by their landscapes. Norman MacCaig has dual citizenship in Assynt and Edinburgh…but just think of that poem of his when he’s travelling ‘home’, the train heading ‘North’…he knows for a certainty where he belongs and that he needs to be there. R. S. Thomas wrestles his language out of the incorruptibly bleak, out of the hard thin lands of upland farms and the disciplines of faith. Tony Harrison is always Leeds (and Beeston) no matter how far he travels. I’ve never been one for cities, but Leeds is different. It’s part of home. Poor old Larkin, I sometimes think, always aware of a kind of rootless homelessness among the Mr Bleaney’s and the hare-eyed clerks in municipal parks, of the world through train windows, other people’s weddings, and memorably, ruefully (?)

Coming up England by a different line
For once, ………………………………………
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here.”

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which.


I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

It’s as though he can’t locate his personal history in the history of place, as though it had no significance other than the awful paradox of making no impression. I imagine he’d have been disdainful, but I find that close to heartbreaking. Place isn’t just topography. It’s story. I grew up in a mill town in the West Riding (or, as my guest today might say, thrydding). There was a mill at the bottom of the street. Behind the mill, on the steep valley side, a railway line; beyond that, farm lands and old farm buildings. beyond them, open cast mining, brickworks, all interpenetrated by woodlands and small bits of farm land. At the top of our street was a ramshackle dairy farm, and beyond that, old pit workings, a prefab council estate, more farm land, small mills, a foundry. One of the dairy buildings was a barn that my art teacher found had been a chapel of the Knights of St John. It was hundreds of years old. Some time in the 60’s the farm was sold and it was all torn down. No one noticed. Basically, I grew up in layers of history that no one seemed to take much account of, in the industrial West Riding where fields and woods and 16th Century manors like Oakwell Hall were a short bike ride away. Most of the mills have been torn down, or converted to designer apartment units; the handsome 19thC chapels are carpet warehouses or have been demolished and replaced by shiny mosques. History round our way doesn’t come in neat layers, like it does in the first history book I saved up to buy when I was nine: Our Island Story,  by H.E. Marshall, that splendid romanticised Whig account of why Brittania shall forever rule the waves. Real history is like those layers of geological strata that are buckled and riven by tectonic forces, scoured by glaciers and ice sheets and rivers and weather. It’s full of nonconfomities and erratics. It’s rich, confused, and often overlooked. It’s not the history I was taught at school.

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I think that’s why today’s guest, Steve Ely speaks so directly to me in his collections, Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland. He reminds me of the jolt I got when I first read E.P.Thompson’s The making of the English Working Class, and Hobbsbawm, and The common muse, and Roy Palmer’s The Rambling Soldier, of when I first listened to Charles’ Parker’s radio ballads…especially The ballad of John Axon ….. and Tony Parker’s Red Hill (the story of a mining community). He reminds me of a scion of the MacDonald’s at Dunvegan Castle. I asked him what the date was so I could write a cheque to pay to go into ‘his’ castle. ‘Trafalgar Day.’ he said. But what’s the date, I asked. ‘Don’t you know your history?’ he said. I can’t describe the condecension. Esprit d’escalier had me laying him low with a line about knowing MY history, and that it wasn’t the same as his. Because, yes, I do. Englaland isn’t edgeland. It’s right in the middle of England, the landscapes of farms and pit villages and power stations and their great white plumes of condensation, despoiled monasteries, forgotten castles, the remains of priories – like the gateposts in Steve Ely’s photograph here. It’s the landscape that D.H.Lawrence wrote about, and his loathing of the man-made England. Because pit villages are never pretty or picturesque in the way of, say, Pennine mill towns. But they are surrounded and interpenetrated by an older farmed and forested England. Which is Steve Ely’s ground.

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I first met him about a year ago; the circumstances were inauspicious. I drove with the poet, Kim Moore to a Saturday morning reading. On the way someone pulled out directly in front of me and smashed up the front of my car. It was still driveable, just, so we got there. It was not a well-run affair. Open mic.ers got more time than the four guests. A lot more time. Kim read in the time she was allowed, and then our day was saved by Steve Ely. He read one poem about the demolition of the headstocks and winding gear of a pit village near Hemsworth. A sin and a shame. That’s the five word, utterly eloquent, eulogy of the poet’s mate, Craig Emerson who, like thousands of others, spent his  working life there. It’s an electrifying poem. It makes the hair stand up on the nape of your neck. And so do the others, full of elided, compacted histories where you’re hardly surprised to find Arthur Scargill engaged in dialogue with the Duke of Wellington, and where the Battle of Orgreave is no more contemporary than the battle of Brunaburh, and where the language of Langland is alive and literally kicking.

Steve Ely is a poet, novelist and biographer. His most recent book of poems is Englaland (Smokestack, April 2015). His previous collection, Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack, 2013) was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. His novel Ratmen was published by Blackheath in 2012. His biographical work about Ted Hughes’s neglected South Yorkshire period, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire; Made in Mexborough, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August this year. Of himself he writes:

‘I live in Upton, near Pontefract and have lived in and around that area for most of my life. In my teens and early twenties I worked my way around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. I was a fork-lift truck driver for three years. I went to Sheffield University as a youngish mature student where I read Biblical Studies. After that I became a secondary school teacher, specialising in RE & English, ultimately becoming Headteacher. (I taught Andrew McMillan at Darfield Foulstone School. I was Deputy Head then. I taught Andrew History in Y7, filling-in a slot on the timetable.)
After 20 years senior leadership in secondary, I left to ‘go freelance’, which in practice means a bit of consultancy, a bit of supply teaching and various writing-and-related stuff. I’m teaching creative writing at Huddersfield University from September this year. I’m married with two kids. The two constants throughout my life have been football and nature, particularly birds. I was active in the Green Party for much of the mid-80s/early 90s and in the SWP for three or fours years either side of that. ‘

He doesn’t say much about his passion for medieval history, secular and ecclesiastic, for the driven alliterative rhetoric of medieval poetry, or indeed, for whippets, but he doesn’t need to. His poems do that. And there are a lot of them. It’s next to impossible to choose from this rich wordhoard. So I’m glad he’s chosen for me….and even then I’ve had to be highly selective. He writes, very often, in big chunks that have to be read aloud, if not declaimed. Often they’re not comfortable, and sometimes they are downright exhausting. I love them. The three extracts he’s sent me  let me illustrate everything that speaks to me in his poetry. The first one speaks for that landscape I wrote about at the beginning…and that he’s passionate about.

Winter nightwalk

Blanketing snow has smothered the night in hush.

Traffic roar absent, cars drifted to  their

street-lit kerbs.   Owls         puffed up in

hawthorns, foxes quivering in holes; just me

on the path from Ringstone Hill, my boot –

steps in the creaking snow, the only sound

in the Universe.

Snow at night creates its own light,  a soft

luminosity, dulling the world in glow; in

which the footpath stretches before me, a

blue slash through the winter-wheat field,

moon-illumined to the chopped horizon

and the edge of Howell Wood. I halt at the

stile where the trees begin, in the silence

of the snow.

Bluebells lie dormant in the peaty loam, as they

have at this time since the melting of the

glaciers, before stone axes sounded in  the

forest and hand-ploughs opened the sod.

Perhaps it was these, our neolithic fathers,

who ringed hengestones on the hill, long

smashed into wall-stone          by puritan

sledgehammers?             Only the name

and mystery remain.

Clumped flakes are falling,  bouffant and mute,

effacing this time, but not place; and with

the world buffered out, the spirits  come

jostling: Anglian farmers hauling   home

harvest, breaking bread in the beery oxgang;

salt-burned Norse, glistening with  pig-meat,

feasting from east and west hagues; gleaners

bearing baskets on balks  and byways, cottars

picking sticks in the gorsey assart; vardos

circled on the wood- smoke common,

colliers in mufflers, ploughmen harrowing

tilth: generations have trod these humdrum

acres,  lives written and erased in the

palimpsest of    earth; but in the snow-stilled

quiet of a  winter’s night, in mind,  in fancy,

or on the plasm direct, you can hear the

cacophonous landscape calling: a fair field

full of folk in clamorous reunion, saluting

the mongrel blood that runs in the veins of

kindred men.

I’ve tried very hard to battle wordpress reluctance to reproduce this poem as Steve intends it to look, with a hanging indent of the first line of each ‘verset’ (think of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns) , and the prose-poem stanzas left and right justified. I can’t get the symmetry of what he sent me BUT it clearly knows what it’s up to and it’s as close as I can get. It demands to be read aloud and attended to, with its echoes of Robert Frost, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, of Lawrence and Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’, its relish for archaic words- oxgangs and hagues- , the simulaneity of history in a single moment of time in a single place. The language I love for itself, as I do in this next poem.

John Ball

Wycliffe’s words and Langland’s gave the Englisc
back their tongue. Manor french and church latin,
cut-off in the throat, battening behind
the buttresses of keeps and cathedrals,
parsing and declining. Johon Schepe
proclaims his hedgerow gospel, singing
from the furze like a yellowhammer:
Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal.
The Kynges sone of hevene schal pay for al.
Be war or ye be wo; Knoweth your freend
fro your foo. Haveth ynow, and seith ‘Hoo!’
There were no lords in Eden’s commune.
Scythes sharpened on whetstones, gente non sancta.
War will follow the Word.

The four lines beginning : Johan the Mullere are by John Ball himself. It’s good, though not comfortable, to be reminded that men and women were mutilated and burned in the cause of a vernacular Bible, and that if you want to rule a people you take away their language, and that the tongueless man gets his land took. This is the history, and the passion for it, that the the young aristocrat of Dunvegan would never understand. It has to be fought for. There’s a lot of fighting in Steve Ely’s poetry. And scrapping, and brawling. He’s sent me a third poem that’s long enough to be published like a serial. Big Billy, the brawny bugger tamps down the turf on the grave of his dog, and his eulogy is as terse and packed as Craig Emerson’s for the demolished pit:‘he were a bloody good dog’; and then he’s off for the challenge of the fairground ‘Mighty Thor’, and a bareknuckle battle for afters.

[from : Big Billy]

Billy woke to the word, a wager whizzed
from the boxing booth, barrelhead-cash,
winner-take-all: will the whomper of Whalehead
risk his rep and rumble with Mankiller Sykes,
pro-pugilist, pummeller, fair-field punch-out king?
At stake, a score, if the scrape-sore scuffler’s
standing still after three sledgehammering rounds.
The half-cut hard-man bottomed his beer
and bounded for the booth. ‘Bladdered or not
I’ll back my brawl against this ballyhooed bum.
Lads, lend your lucre; let’s lay it on these fists;
In nine gloved minutes, I’ll guarantee
to double our dough; I’ll dump this dosser,
then royally-ratted we’ll riot and roister
next work-wagged week away.’

Lenny Sykes, Lupset Legend,
the heavyweight hitter that hammered Bill Hague;
Big Jack Beckett’s bang-out bane,
the brute that bested Bombardier Billy.
Slammed in Strangeways for slotting a copper,
he knuckled a nark and nailed him dead,
gaining his murderous moniker: Mankiller Sykes,
most feared and formidable fighting man
never to land the Lonsdale Belt.
Bare to his breeches, Billy bandaged his hands
and stared at his savage-set foe:
beer-bellied, balding, his best days over,
yet bristling like a battle-worn bear:
the slugger who sparred sixty rounds with Jack Johnson,
him canvas-crashing and counting out
with a jolting jab to the jaw.
Glimpsing his gaze, the grizzled-grappler
stood from his stool and snarled across the ring:
‘Peep on, you punch-drunk pipsqueak:
Sykes has gone soft, I see you thinking,
a globe-gutted grey-beard, a geezer gone to seed.
Well, in these gloves I guarantee, are guns to gimp,
lay-out and litter, a likely lad like thee.’

It’s an epic fight where you’re battered with the sheer weight of alliteration. Billy prevails.

Sneering Sykes stripped off his bloodsmeared mitts,
and slammed two shire-shoes down. ‘So I swindled
a swanker, swelled with self-regard; so what?
To win’s the thing, to walk wadded
from the ring. Rip off those rabbit-punchers
and mittless meet me like a man; all in.’
Blood boiled in Billy’s barbarian brain
and tunnelled his vision in sanguined blur;
roaring he raced across the rope-ring
and bare-fist banged the black-heart blaggard
on the cleft of his crag-hard chin.
Knuckle and jaw-bone broke; the bully-boy
slumped and starfished-flat, spark-out on the boards.
Candescent with rage, the carnage-crazed champion
straddled Sykes’ sack-slumped carcass
swinging mug-mashing fist-shots left and right,
splintering sockets and champing cheekbones
until stewards and samaritans swarmed the ring
and dragged the demented destroyer away.

Calmed-down, cloth-cleaned, stitched back together,
the crocked king of carnival cradled his ale
in broken hands, bruised and bloated to blackening stubs.
Raw-ribbed, face-ripped, addled with aching,
the war-sore Woden wetted his whistle,
each poured pint dulling the pain.
And the lathered lads lifted their glasses and lauded:
‘Big Billy! You’ll never beat Big Billy!’

Except, of course life’s not that simple. Or else it’s too simple for comfort. The poems starts with the funeral of a fighting dog, and  it ends with another funeral. Billy’s dead at sixty-one, shrunk to a shadow, brought down by beer and brawling, bronchitis, black lung, and at his funeral sevice at St Joseph’s

the priest prattled him off to purgatory,

parsimonious with praise

I’ll finish with an excerpt from an interview he gave with Sheena Pugh. You can find the whole piece on her poetry writing website.

SHEENAGH: You’re very unafraid of words. That sounds an odd thing to say of a poet, but I’ve read so many reviewers, in particular, who seem downright terrified of any vocabulary vaguely out of the ordinary. Use an esoteric or archaic word and they’ll complain of elitism; use modern slang and it’s condemned as unsuitable or a “duff note”, as if modern argot and poetry were somehow incompatible. One of the things I like best about your work is how you cheerfully expect your readers to cope with liturgical language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, umpteen bird and plant names, lovely obscure words like xanthic for yellow, and you mix that in with army slang, business jargon, politician’s soundbites….

STEVE: Words are my business, and as such, every word, in every language — past, present and future — belongs to me. I’ll use them as I see fit. Relatively early in my poetic second-coming I was expressly warned-off from using the word ‘cerulean’ by a well-meaning would-be mentor. My response was to write a poem (‘fancy THAT’, from my unpublished book, the compleat eater) that deliberately and provocatively deployed the word. Since I began to write again in 2003, I’ve used a range of registers, vocabularies and languages — Yorkshire dialect, the cant of U.S. prison gangs, Calo (the Hispanic ‘creole’ of East Los Angeles) , and many more, including the examples you cite. In ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’ (Englaland) I also use two Romani words, ‘sunakai’ and ‘salno’, which both connote ‘yellow’. In the stanza of the same poem in which I use the word ‘xanthic’ there are five other evocations of ‘yellow’. I’m trying to make it golden.

You’ll not often feel comfortable, reading Steve Ely’s poetry, and you have to do the work of reading it aloud, because its roots lie in the poetry that predate literacy. But you’ll be rewarded, no question. Thank you for being my guest, Steve and for sharing the passion. And the landscapes. And the history.

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Next week we’ll be looking at lists. They’re more interesting than they sound. In the meantime you could be reading Steve Ely’s ……..

Oswald’s Book of Hours [2013 Smokestack Books] £7.95

Englaland                             [2015 Smokestack Books] £8.95

3 thoughts on “Knowing your place: a polished gem (8) Steve Ely

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