I’ve been thinking that it’s becoming harder and harder to write a weekly blog without repeating myself. In fact, it’s harder and and harder and harder to write anything without repeating myself.
I see that in my increasingly desperate and intemperant rants on Facebook I keep on churning out the same old tropes about the Welfare State, about 1945, about betrayed democracy, about privileged public schoolboys and their unforgivable assumptions of entitlement, about the intransigent a priori stupidities of successive education ministers….see what I mean? Stream of consciousness anger. It does no one any good. It does me no good.
And now I’m editing and tweaking my first full poetry collection, and discovering the unnerving truth that I endlessly repeat myself. You don’t really notice till you put all the poems alongside each other that the same words and images pop up like pals at a party who’ve had a couple too many. There are an alarming number of birds. Dead ones. Cold. Sky. Rain. Huge. Dark. Lucid. Ash. Wind. Many high places. A lot of falling. Flowers. Rocks. Sea. (No urban landscapes, no interiors….nothing, really, of my day to day realities and their physical presence. Why?)
So it doesn’t surprise me at all when I look at my notes for today’s post and find with a sort of sinking feeling of deja vu that we’re back in the world of poetry workshops, and ones in Sheffield in particular. I’m very happy every time I find myself there, or remembering myself there. It’s just that I expect you won’t necessarily share my enthusiasm. ‘Here he goes again’ I hear you say as you exit your screen and go out to look at clouds with their dark promise of rain, and wind, and cold, edging across the huge lucid skies above your back gardens. But stay with me. It’ll be worth your while.
Because the deja vu moment will last just long enough to introduce my guest today: Jim Caruth. Who I met, and continue to meet, as I meet so many, at the Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. Some people make an impression straight away. It may be a poem about a train ride and drowning sheep. It might be a striking notebook (Martin Malone did that) or a hairstyle that involves a bright pink streak (she knows who she is). It could be so many things.
With Jim Caruth it was the voice that commanded the attention and then the poem that justified it. I’ll not take up your time with my thing about the unfair advantages of the Irish [North and South] when it comes to poetry. The dramas of their history and its terrible deprivations, the strangeness of their mythologies and folktales, the iconography of Catholicism and the transgressive disciplines of priests and nuns….and the voice, the accents. Enough to say that Jim has a voice, like Heaney, that you simply want to listen to, and that you go on hearing in his poetry when you lift it off the page. Think of Heaney and you’ll not go far wrong.
Anyway, the first poem I remember him workshopping, at the Premier Inn, in a room with several microclimates, was Pigeon Lofts, Penistone Road. It’s in his winning pamphlet The death of narrative , which I’ll give you the details of later.
It might have been because it described a rather melancholy bit of hillside that I would drive past on my way into, and out of Sheffield, and which always intrigued me. But when I think about it,it was precisely because it seemed to be so true to the place, so right, that it stayed with me, nailed down in one particular line
No one hears the wind / shake the perches free of bloodlines,
It still makes me shiver. And on another afternoon, in Bank Street, he workshopped Lethe, also in the collection, which elides a mythic Underworld with a salmon that leaps from a silver pool, and the entry into Hades of a shell-shocked, flustered woman with a harmless life of small sins of omission, who cannot remember the name of the Ferryman,
her face pale as a clock / her wide eyes emptying
It brings me close to tears, does that. I’ve known him a good while now, and I’ve been wanting him to be a guest on the cobweb for almost as long. So I’m delighted to introduce James Caruth. He was born in Belfast but has lived in Sheffield for the last 30 years. His first collection – A Stones Throw was published in 2007 by Staple followed by a long sequence – Dark Peak, published by Longbarrow in 2008 and a pamphlet – Marking the Lambs, from Smith Doorstop in 2012.
His poem from this collection – The Deposition won the Sheffield Poetry Prize in 2011. His work has also been included in The Sheffield Anthology (Poems from the City Imagined), Smith Doorstop 2012 and The Footing, Longbarrow Press 2013 which includes a sequence of poems Tithes, based around the village of Stannington in South Yorkshire where he lives.
His pamphlet The Death of Narrative was a winner of the Poetry Business Competition 2014
It was judged by Carol Ann Duffy who said –
James Caruth’s poems tell stories that draw the reader in. His voice is warm and moving, and there is music to his writing which is completely captivating. This is an outstanding collection.
It isn’t all she said. She said this as well:
James Caruth’s remarkable poems are unlike anyone else’s. They are knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic.
Well she’s woman who ought to know what she’s talking about, and I’m not about to argue. But you can make up your own minds. Jim has sent me three poems, and I think they not only show you the emotional and verbal range of the poetry, but also explain what I mean about the culture of the Irish and their diaspora, and why Irish poetry continues in such a rich contemporary vein.
The first poem I like in the same way as I like Lethe. There’s a precise lyricism in play that takes a very sure touch.
Your last days realised
in that small painting in the hallway,
a thin ditch stippled
across a stubble field.
from the old upright in the back-room,
over and over and over again
until you got it right.
That evening driving home
my head still full of you,
when out of the gloom, a fox,
your eyes alive in the headlights.
I was struck by the startling moment of metamorphosis in the last line. Struck later, by the fact that there are no finite verbs. That these stanzas are not sentences but moments.
The next poem I liked instantly when I first heard it read. It meets that criterion of Clive James about the image, the moment that makes the poem. And when I was reading around, doing a bit of background for the post, I came across this documentary photograph. Do you see what I mean about ‘the moment’?
Play the harp backwards
Who taught them to sling bridges from wires,
to walk straight-backed as convent girls,
along the narrow girders of high towers,
backs to the wind, never daring to look down.
Clustered in the tenements of Brooklyn
and the Lower East Side, like raucous gulls
lining the white hem of a small island
whose name comes in a half-remembered tongue.
At nights you’d find them in the bars
along the waterfront, reciting a catechism
of names as they listened to the old songs,
while outside snow fell on the desolate streets
and the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.
When the money ran out, they fingered
the dust in their pockets, staggered home
to small rooms, to dream of a mail-boat
rounding the Head, a town shivering
in the yellow glow of street-lamps.
There’s not a foot put wrong, is there? It’s a poem as deft and confident as the high-wire scaffolders and rivetters who built Manhattan. The images that nail it down:
straight-backed as convent girls;
like raucous gulls / lining the white hem of a small island;
the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.
There’s the history of a place and of a people caught in a moment in time. I wish I could do that.
Since Lethe is the place where we depart from the known and familiar to the strange beyond the water, I guess it’s right to finish with this poem that, I think, needs no explanation or commentary. Listen to it.
The emigrant’s farewell
I have come as far as I can.
To this point of the bay
where a granite edge and the sea meet
and retreat and the horizon’s
a purlin that holds up a red sky.
Something like grief is at my back,
a cold breath stirring the tide-line
of burger wrappers and empty cans
along the harbour wall. At times
when the wind comes at a certain slant
over the Head, you’ll hear them calling
their farewells to the faces lining the stern rail.
Some missed their mark, sailed out beyond
hearing into the vague and indeterminate.
Somewhere out there is a language of loss
but I have no words for this.
My head is full of easy metaphors,
sea, sky, failing light
and a voice that is saying –
go, but take nothing with you.
So, thank you, Jim Caruth for finally being a guest on the cobweb.It was worth the wait.
And remember…you can buy his books. So you should.
There’s more Irish poetry coming up before too long, but next week will be a return visit from another one of my favourite poets and one of my favourite people. Joan Jobe Smith is a big fan. You’ll need to be here early to make sure of a seat. Splash on some patchouli, break out the crushed velvet. Light a joss stick.