No more “Catching Up “ posts. Phew. There are at least four new collections/pamphlets staring at me from the shelf above my Mac screen, and they’re all demanding that I write about them.But I’ll take my time, and raise no false hopes about when and how.
I’m planning to recharge my batteries. That’s the priority. Chemo knocked me for six; I wasn’t prepared for that. But I’ve started going for walks again. The first one was a shock to the system inasmuch as I only managed a mile of easy walking; but in the last couple of weeks, egged on by my partner, it’s getting to be 4 or 5 Km, and the target is to be doing it every day until it’s no longer painful.
And this brings me to stocking fillers. I’ve been posting on Facebook about being introduced to the remarkable variety of field paths that start pretty well at my front door, and which I was almost totally unaware of until a couple of weeks ago.
There’s one that starts when the road I live on becomes a bridle path, and then a field path that eventually links to a path that leads you over the River Calder, under a railway line, and finally to the canal, beside which you can (if you want) walk for miles and miles. I’m no fan of towpath walks, mainly because no matter how far you walk you still seem to be in the same place. But I knew the path…and thought that it was the only one. It’s a popular path, part of the Kirklees Footpaths system, and for 30+ years I’ve been aware of groups of walkers passing our front window. To my shame I wrote a stocking-filler about what I thought was their being kitted out as if for hard walking in the Cairngorms, as opposed to having just come a quarter of a mile from the town centre. I poked fun at their Goretex, the OS maps slung in pastic wallets dangling round their necks, their Brasher boots, their air of being on a risky expedition.
Today I went for a walk in the sun, and I had boots on. And I had two walking poles. I beg absolution
However. Stocking-filler time. For the anniversary of 9/11 I posted a poem on Facebook about the memory of where I was at the time the first plane was flown into the Twin Towers.
Out of the blue
The Inter-City comes into Wakefield
on a curving viaduct of ten great arches,
built by men who mainly could not read or write,
who worked with picks and shovels, barrows,
hods, and rope and block and tackle.
Wonders, remarkable as pyramids, that endure
like great cathedrals, that no one notices.
Under the arches, small businesses spring up:
builders’ merchants, body shops, scrap yards,
and Cesar’s Ceramics where we went one day
to buy tiles of a particular shade of blue,
when Capitol Radio cut into Erasure’s
Blue Savannah with a news flash that a plane
had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
As we drove home with our boxes of blue tiles,
a second plane crashed into the second tower.
For hours after we got in, we watched
the images repeat. Small glittering planes
in a cerulean sky, the smoke, the dust, the dark.
To my considerable surprise, it sparked a long thread of comments in response to one that took me to task for the use of ‘cerulean’ …..a word I suppose I took for granted. Anyway, I watched the arguments unfold about words that should be at all costs avoided in poetry.
There’s a myth that Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business proscribed the use of the word ‘shard’. Being one of those who believe that the only rule in art of any kind is that there are no rules beyond asking: does this work?, I was intrigued to see that ‘cerulean’ could well go the way of ‘shard’. Which reminded me that I wrote a defence of ‘shard’ and all things shard-y after spending a very hot afternoon in Alicante scrambling up steep shaly slopes looking for fragments of Iberian pottery. Shards, in fact.
From Mare Nostrum’s Anatolian shore,
ten leagues distant, ‘midst arid, jagged
mountains, eagle-haunted airie heights,
there stands a tow’ring cliff of golden stone.
If to its rocky foot, with faltering steps
the dauntless Traveller would ascend
by goat path tortuous, through brittle thorn,
and bitter dust, as ‘twere of dead sea fruit,
blooded,dwarfed below that precipice dire,
beneath his feet appear, among the roots
of juniper and ericacae desiccate,
fragments of the ancient potter’s art…
broken amphorae, rough bowls and goblets
that, for two millenia lay spurned
by hoof of goat, scorched by tropic suns,
blown at every wind’s caprice, unheeded
even as great Empires rose in pride,then fell.
O! shattered reliques of an Ancient Race!
And say, how should the Traveller, besmeared
with toil, and foul with cloying dust and blood
Apostrophize a single Piece of all this Multitude?
Two thousand years it’s lain in dust
on a thorny hill, this broken pot,
waiting, patiently, for that mot juste
from all the lexicon of crock that poets have got
not fragment, splinter, scrap or shiver,
remnant, or chunk, or flake, or sliver.
Dismiss all injunctions laid upon the bard.
Sometimes only one word will do.
So, Take up your pen and write it: shard
More stocking fillers next week. Or perhaps an appreciation of a collection that’s snagged my attention and won’t let go. Who can say?
Here we are at last. Thought we’d never get here. Except we haven’t even started, not by a long chalk. I’m thinking of those pioneering Himalayan climbers who took months just to get to the foot of Everest, and essentially they still hadn’t started the job they came to do. Here I am at last, and still scrambling around, looking for a likely line. Daunted. Because Martin Malone’s The Unrerturning is a hefty piece of work, a
sequence of merciless hymns to our cultural obsession with the First World War …an effort
to create meaningful acts of witness for ‘a nation/with so many memorials/but no memory..
a collection of great ambition and originality [Peter Robinson]
As PW Bridgman says in his London Grip Review
it is widespread failures and (inescapably) distortions of historical memory that are Malone’s central concern…..
with a conjured mythology about war [I would say THIS war, in particular]..a false record that has been cultivated
and propagated to serve certain political ends
The more I’ve chewed this over, the more I’ve come to think that I need to put the whole business of assertions about ‘conjured mythologies’ in some kind of context. Because there are lots of them, and many are mutually exclusive. After all, there were more than 16 million dead — armed forces and civilians.
Let’s play a game of association, bearing in mind that we’re already primed to be thinking of WW1 poetry and poets. If you think of the First World War, what images come to mind? Would they, perhaps, be like mine.. a silhouette of a procession of gas-blinded men? miles of mud, barbed wire? artillery men trying to drag a floundering horse out of a crater?
If you had to choose just a single image, would it be a poppy?
Like this one, for instance, which featured in the Yorkshire Post this week. It’s certified to have been plucked from the battlefield in 1916 by the brother of one killed there in action
“The dried poppy – described as “one of the most poignant symbols of brotherly love ever seen” – was plucked in memory of Private James Henry Lester. It’s up for auction amongst a collection of WW1 memorabilia, and expected to raise in excess of £1000; the family owners hope
“that a museum may purchase the items and put them on public display, a permanent reminder of the sacrifices made by an entire generation.”
After all, we’re concerned with ‘conjured mythologies’. Which is the concern at the heart of Martin Malone’s collection.
When you’re asked to think of WW1, is your default image one of Flanders Fields? If you like, it’s easy to argue that our collective ‘memory’ has edited the World out of World War.
For instance, if I ask you to think of a battle, I think the odds are that it’ll be The Somme, or Ypres. Something like that. But if you were French, it might be Verdun, or the Ardennes; if you were Italian, it might be Isonzo. For Russians, Tannenberg, for Romanians, Bucharest.
Like I said, Flanders is probably your default …not Macedonia, or Sinai and Palestine, or Egypt, or the Congo, or Mesapotamia/Iraq, or the Dardenelles where Attlee was the penultimate man of the beach in covering the retreat from Suvla Bay.
And if you’re like me, you probably didn’t think of naval warfare at all….Jutland, The Falklands. In truth, there were few naval engagements, which is ironic, especially for those mythologists who still sing Rule Britannia(Britannia rule the waves). Navies were mainly engaged in blockading enemy ports in an effort to starve them into defeat. And so on.
Our collective memories and myths shrink the world.
Here’s another thing. If I ask you to name the first bit of WW1 writing that comes to mind what’s the odds that it’ll be a poem? A bit of Wilfred Owen? A bit of Rupert Brooke? Isaac Rosenberg? Edward Thomas? August Stramm?
How many of you thought first of memoir (Vera Britten? Robert Graves?)
Or novels…All quiet on the Western Front ? (Eric Remarque’s book was burned by the nazis). Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy ? Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914?
And if we’re thinking of image making, how about film? Paths of Glory ? Oh what a lovely war ? Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.
The scale, both spatial and temporal, is clearly beyond daunting. Martin is quite clear about this in various interviews he’s given about The Unreturning, and about his more recent Selected Poems. A couple of extracts will make the point:
“The Unreturning …… was a subject given/ gifted me on the basis of funding for my Sheffield PhD. My main challenge was to say something new about [the poetry of WW1] from the perspective of its centenary.
Both academic research and my creative practice did, indeed, look to poets like Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, however, as well as the even more obvious ones. For the Ghosts of the Vortex sequence, my purpose was to seek out some of the lost, or lesser-known, narratives of the conflict and convey a sense of its global dimensions and legacies: hence poems like ‘Ansky’s Lament’, ‘Legacies’, ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’, ‘Nostos’ and ‘The Turnip Winter’. German Great War poetry is, in many ways, more interesting than the British stuff – certainly, it often feels more modern and experimental – though it’s an all-but-lost canon. So, I wanted to be a bit more 360° than is often the case with UK writing about the war.”
“The complicating factor in a project such as this is the pervasive nature of the Great War’s literary legacy. Already the most poetically memorialized conflict since Troy, its writers provide the urtext to our collective sensibility of much subsequent warfare, while its historical stature as global event represents something of a dragon lying across the threshold to our under- standing of the modern world
Catherine Reilly’s estimation that, in Britain alone, there were 2225 published poets of the Great War (1978) is a formidable enough legacy, further deepened by the remarkably privileged position enjoyed in UK culture by that small body of poets who have since emerged as representatives of its core canon [my italics]: poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Laurence Binyon and John McCrae, all of whom are studied widely in schools or habitually appear in Remembrance Day ceremonies. “
What he sets out to do is to provide some sort of perspective on the failures and distortions of historical memory, both about the war itself, about the ‘truth’ or otherwise of its poetry, and what he sees as conjured mythologies, the ‘trench honesties’ occluded by ‘one century/ and the paradigms of myth’. And when you consider the ‘truth’ of the poetry, it’s as well to remember that this war was unprecedented, mechanised, industrialised. There was no language ready made to account for it. Which brings us to Martin Malone’s poems, and particularly at this point, an extract from one about Wilfred Owen at the time of his recuperation after Craiglockhart.
They were dying again at Beaumont Hamel
as you stroll Borage Lane,
three days after your twenty-fifth birthday,
mind yet cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…
At number seven, you unlatch the gate,
take out a key and stroll up to the white front door.
Searching for peace, you retreat to the attic with its tiny skylight,
the shrieks of children playing soldiers down the street.
Here you are Chatterton and Keats,
half in love with death’s idea
while making best use of its dutiful shadow.
You write your mother, go over old drafts,
‘defectuosities’, and ‘the inwardness of war’.
Briefly, you pause to listen to swallows skirruping their early return,
then back to your notes, strike-throughs,
séance and retrospection,
another time-strafed Edwardian
caught out in the open with defective kit…
(from “Ripon Work”)
It’s the last two lines I find particularly poignant; Edwardian poetry, with its roots in lyrical Romanticism, simply wasn’t set up to deal with the horrors of trench warfare, particularly if your mind was
cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…
It’s Martin’s concern with the disjunction between the limits of language at any given time, and the actual experience it’s trying to realise that colours the whole collection, which, as one reviewer pointed out, and as the book’s jacket copy correctly declares, is in effect a “Great War diptych in which the later dissenting voices… parley with [war poetry’s] more traditional elegiac forms.”
So, set this poem from the second part (The Unreturning) against Ripon Work, and you’ll get a sense of the way it works
41. War Poet
Beneath this creeping barrage squats our chap, in his breast pocket the scribbled draft that sets off a vintage look: hapless subaltern, sick with sin, chewing pencil and pity onto notepaper doomed to be found upon a mud-matted corpse. En route to legend, Herr Krupp’s handiwork tears its messy path through temporal, parietal and the red wet thing of a line-break. Let us rest here a while then dig down to the destruction layer where we find change come suddenly and everywhere, and everywhere the final week of this poets’ war: Boudicca’s wrath, shock and awe, the stratified earth of charred words pulling free of decorum.
“The first half of the diptych (collectively, “Ghosts in the Vortex”) does indeed consist of poems, mostly written in free verse, which are conventionally presented and employ language and diction that beautifully reflects Martin’s own earlier absorption in poets like Edward Thomas, and the landscapes of, say Eric Ravillious. The second half, by contrast, comes to us in prose poetry form and speaks in a conspicuously more modern voice. The prose poems look back at some of the content of the first half, offering an often acerbic, but nevertheless lyrical, commentary on real truths as they have sometimes been refracted though systematically distorted lenses. (PWBridgman in London Grip).
Some of the poems made me consider the disparate backgrounds of those who fought, especially before conscription. There were the Pals Regiments who could not initially be supplied with unforms, and who were subsequently decimated; there were those who were rejected because of the effects of malnutrition. Later, of course, the need for men to fill their places became acute, and thus were formed the Bantam Regiments of men below 5’3”…the Jewish East-ender Isaac Rosenberg was one of them. There were those conflicted, like Owen and Edward Thomas who enlisted later in the war, And there were the enthusiasts, the beautiful, blue-eyed bourgeouis boys like Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell.
Martin’s momentarily unsparing of Julian Grenfell and his “Krupp-made end”.
Warm with late spring, in a field near Ypres,
you were never happier than on this big picnic,
chatting with the General when that shell struck
He can just as easily borrow some of the acerbity of Sassoon when dealing with others, like Sassoon himself, and Robert Graves, who bought their own superior gear from the Army and Navy stores)
Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men with your tinned kippers and today’s Daily Mail; the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.
There’s one poem in part two of the diptych that savages the literal business of the memorabilia of wars, and it illustrates for me the to-and-fro of reverberation between the two parts. I like way the distinctively modern dialect throws a light on Sassoon’s use of his demotic. I like the savagery of it.
Buy it now for two-seven-five, condition as shown in photo, too well-made to be repro, the kosher stuff of a lost patrol. As metaphors got real and euphemism ugly, the Aldershot Design lugged its rough rigging onto the dog-tired shoulders of our line. And, if you’re browsing for archetype, for “how it really was”, then scroll no further than this, one belt; two braces; bayonet frog; pouches for ammo; one haversack; valise with two straps and carriers for the head and helve of an E-tool. This was our hyperlink, a one-piece jacket for the universal soldier: Dai’s Greatcoat, Hotspur’s mail, John Ball’s frayed thread for the fucked-up Grail of Mametz Wood. Epic failure/ epic fail
Equally, Martin Malone can write with a deft lyricism that conjures the literary/poetic world of the age.
As though nothing happens
our hemisphere shoulders the sun,
the hill asleep on its trove of peat,
the sea is soaked in light.
In the days before Johnsmas
we bear fuel to the sgùrr,
our own brief blaze stoked
in its hours and seasons
by the darkness and the light.
I love the completeness of this, its precision (its echoes of MacCaig, too), and not least for the way it sits alongside much bleaker, more deliberately disturbing poems, like the one about the artist Kokoscha, shot in the head and wounded in the lung, left for dead on the Russian front, and later declared insane by his hospital doctor.
KNIGHT ERRANT, 1915
A spitted dragoon
prone in pike-grey,
Oskar Kokoschka considers his fate
and wonders if you can paint a premonition
or, in the war of endless coincidence,
is this just another incident
bereft of the brush
to anoint its meaning?
As March canvass turns
August into wounds,
his lung swabs blood
from the jag of Russian bayonet
and things begin to swim,
heading out towards allegory
and revenant self-portrait:
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?
He floats above himself as seraphim,
notes a passing influence of Grünewald
and the Northern Renaissance,
while Mahler’s widow looks on,
sphinx-like, close attendant
to his ever-present grief
and the narrow horizontal
of a stricken son of man.
I like the way that this reminds me that painters were way ahead of poets when it came to the profound disorientations of this war (and possibly everything else throught history). I like the way it takes the reader away from the provincialism of English war poetry, I like the widening perspective. And I realise, belatedly that it chimes with an image(the pikelhaube snout) in one of the prose poems from the second half of the diptych (The Unreturning).
10. School Run
If you’ve a minute, tweet this: the car-struck badger you’ve driven past these last two weeks, pikelhaube snout irate in death, body bloating with fetid air, hind-legs rigid in surrender. Kamerad, emptied of essence, this is the boy from your home village; that snotty kid with a terrier whose Dad liked a drink, the one who pissed himself when Miss Manning caught him with a rat in his desk. Him: always the last to put up his hand, always unlucky in love. His losing streak continued over here and now that’s him rotting away to your left, hung on the brambles of a B-Road: a passing stain in no man’s land, fuel for the coming spring. He’ll walk no more on Cotswold.
I realised a long long time ago I’d not do justice to the complexities and variety of this collection– lyrical, satitirical, rhetorical, polemical, extensively researched, and technically accomplished. Put all that together and you realise that it doesn’t add up to something you might recognize as currently fashionable. But do go and buy it. You’ll not be disappointed and you’ll certainly be educated. And you can dream that Michael Gove and his satraps could be forced to learn this poem by heart.
Thank you for your neo-concern
that we grasp the full facts
of this complicated matter;
for sending out, once again,
the officer class to explain
the subtle difference between
Blackadder and the nation’s history,
the one being truth the other comedy;
for pointing out our parents’ mistake
in taking Oh What A Lovely War!
to be anything but a sixties musical
and not how it really was. Thank you
for assuming our poetry stops at Owen;
for sending out the privately-educated
to explain that confusion in the ranks
between your national story
and literature’s false history,
as if, not royal families, but poetry
tips men into war graves.
Saxe-Coburg, be advised, your poppy
is not mine.
I’m grateful to you for letting me hear
Paxman attempt the phrase wor canny bairns.
And I do appreciate your engagement
with those events which legitimise
the contemporary state of affairs,
or, as you put it on a recent visit
to a sink school, make pride cool again.
I appreciate, as you say, the need
to understand the popular thinking
of the day; how words you are trying
to re-claim meant something real
to my grandfather right up to that morning
the Liverpool Regiment came unstuck
at Hermies, on the road to Cambrai.
As if history can make some
long term sense of the losses
and every lesson to be learned
is, once more, yours.
Martin Malone, thanks for your patience, and for your generous sharing of so many poems from The Unreturning.
ps. I’ll finish with one last thought. I’ve read a lot of reviews of the book and transcripts of interviews that Martin has given as well as articles he’s written. Sometimes, Google sends you down unexpected pathways. I came across the deeply depressing world of Poetry Notes and Analyses….the virtual world’s Cole’s Notes. Amongst other things I learned that there is no kind of filter. You’d be astonished to find that it’s commonly assumed by all sorts of writers, and even some reviewers, that Wilfred Owen’s poem The unreturning isa War Poem. The first two stanzas certainly sound as if they may be
In fact, it was written between 1912 and 1913, and it’s about a crisis of theological and doctrinal doubt. It has more affinity with the Dark Sonnets of GM Hopkins than with war poetry. There you go.
Martin Malone lives in north-east Scotland.
He has published 3 poetry collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011),
Cur (Shoestring, 2015)
The Unreturning (Shoestring 2019).
Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 was published by Hedgehog Poetry in December 2020.
In addition, he has published 4 pamphlets: 17 Landscapes (Bluegate Books), Prodigals (The Black Light Engine Room), Mr. Willett’s Summertime* (Poetry Salzburg), Shetland Lyrics (Hedgehog). Poems from these and his other work have been published in a wide variety of magazines & journals.
He reviews for Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Wales and Poetry Salzburg Review.
An editor at Poetry Salzburg and Honorary Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he has a PhD in poetry from Sheffield University. Currently, Martin is a Poetry Ambassador for the Scottish Poetry Library.
*Mr. Willett’s Summertime comprises 25 poems that were the early nucleus of The Unreturning
Still out of the loop, or many loops, befogged and becalmed, I nevertheless make a solemn promise that the next post after this one will be final one of the Catching Up series and will feature Martin Malone’s The Unreturning.
I won’t be a review. It’ll be more like a fan letter. I’m not up to analysis and summary and critical aperçus. Enthusiasm is the most you should expect. But there will, fingers crossed, be a lot of poems to enjoy.
A short post tonight, then. As you know by now, ‘stocking fillers’ are mainly stand-alone, one-off, ‘where did that come from?’ poems that more often than not are limited to outings at open mics. But some appear because a prompt in a writing workshop touched a nerve. I think these are the ones I’m most grateful for. Every now and then, at Poetry Business Writing Days, either Ann or Peter Sansom will invite you to think of a writer …novelist, poet, dramatist…and one of his or her creations, and then imagine them meeting somehow in a wholly unlikely location or circumstance. Jane Austen and Mr D’Arcy at a Ban the Bomb march, say. Dickens and Mr Gradgrind at a parents’ evening. As I say, the best times are when you’re ambushed. Why I should think of R.S.Thomas and of Cynddylan I have no idea, and why I should imagine them rubbing shoulders on a Parish trip to a Silver Blades in Swansea or Chester, even less. But here they are…and they even ended up in print, which I’m very happy about.
Cynddylan and the priest at Silver Blades
Hard and slippery, there’s no purchase,
unless, for one, consolation of a kind in bleakness,
the indifference of god, his chill disciplines
and the fear of falling, the nothing of stilled water
and the darkness under all,
and for the other
the thought of earthfasts rising in his frozen fields,
a broken ploughshare
and a shrunk clamp of beets in the lee of a barn.
They have no language for not working.
They want for the cold flags of a chapel,
a plain altar, absolution
for what will not be, precisely, named;
just a dusting of snow, the red of the Fordson,
sharp blue exhaust, a clutter of gulls
and a straight furrow.
.[Published as ‘The priest and the ploughman go skating’ Much Possessed. 2016]
The second, and similar prompt was to imagine the meeting of two writers or artists or otherwise famous people under unexpected circumstances. Norman MacCaig and the mountaineer, Mallory on a broken-down bus in Cambridgeshire, say. Pete Townsend and Beethoven swapping anecdotes about deafness. Peter Benchley and Damian Hirst seated together on a long-haul flight……..What happened on this occasion was that my mind sidestepped the ‘rules’. Possibly I’d been up to Heptonstall and Colden, and remembering lots of visits to Lumb Bank when it’s cold and wet and bleak, and the valley can be sinister. Anyway, Ted and Sylvia metamorphosed into the protagonists of a lost novel.
brittle as a mirror
worrying at little lines
exquisite as ants or wasps
half-aware of an open window
banging somewhere in this long dark house
in a clenched valle
of cold chimneys and black walls
cemented with orphans’ bones
of trees flogging themselves to death
balsam flattened by the weight of air
she cramps herself small and smaller
dreams of dwindling
into the fastness of a shell
white under a full moon
in a sky of no wind
somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over
rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage
like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall
and sing about the blood
Thanks for dropping by; it’s always good to see you. Stay safe. Go well.