My kind of poetry: Ruth Valentine’s “If you want thunder”

A key theme that runs through Ruth Valentine’s latest collection is the idea of the shadow line, the one between the living and the dead, and between sea and sky, that utterly notional ‘horizon’ . I’ll come to the business of the sea later, but given the story of death and resurrection and the way this Grunewald altarpiece contains both like a conjuring trick, it’ll be nice to start with this tour de force .

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Grünewald

To make water flow wherever it’s told, you need

a wooden box with four divining-rods,

a compass, several men with boots and shovels,

a pump to shift it by its own volition,

and me, Meister Mathis, hydraulic engineer,

clerk-of-works, model maker, stonemason,

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also painter of many-hinged altar-pieces,

so men and women with St Anthony’s

sacred fire charring their blood and skin

stare and are healed.  I work in tempera

I mix myself, with just a little oil

so the colour goes on clear, like a held note

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on an angel’s trumpet: here it’s cinnabar,

red mercury.  Jesus dies,

his whole weight hanging from his nailed-up hands,

blood from his head wounds; but when the fathers turn

the panels outward on feast-days, his linen shroud

flames in the up-draught of his resurrection.

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I observe where I am, and paint: the leering faces,

green skin, festering lesions, how the sinful

imagine their souls.  For the Last Supper,

I sit the ungainly tired apostles round

an oval table, in twos and threes, arguing,

and Christ the least of them, or the least human,

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already half disincarnate.  At the far end,

fingertips pressed together in explanation,

is my namesake, Mathis, Matthew the tax collector,

a clever man, used to working out the cost,

already glimpsing the next afternoon

when the sky will darken and the saints’ graves open. 

It’s a poem that stopped me in my tracks, in much the same way as UAFanthorpe’s ‘Tyndale in Darkness’, because of its easy familiarity with the world of the drainage engineer/visionary painter, and also with his imagined dreams in what feels like a wholly authentic voice. Stunning.

You can read an earlier post about Ruth from 2017 via this link

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https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/10/01/a-grenfell-alphabet-and-and-a-polished-gem-ruth-valentine/

Or you can jump straight in with this introduction:

Ruth Valentine has worked as an undertaker and as a celebrant at secular funerals. In Downpour she draws on her experiences to compose an extended meditation on dying and death, its emotional grammar and its painful but necessary rituals. Bleak and brave, serious and sad, Downpour is an unflinching study of the physical realities of dying

Ruth  grew up in Sussex, but has lived most of her adult life in London. She has been a teacher, advice worker, voluntary sector manager and consultant. Currently, as well as writing, she conducts secular funerals. She began writing seriously at the age of forty. ……. In 2000, looking for a new direction in her writing, she enrolled on the MA Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her novel, The Jeweller’s Skin, was the somewhat unexpected result.

In her website (http://ruthvalentine.co.uk/index.php/about/) she writes. “I write poetry, novels and short stories, and non-fiction. You can find details here of my published work, and sample poems and extracts.  Go to the poetry page for details of my latest books, Downpour and Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars. 

To this we can add A Grenfell Alphabet [2017]., and now If you want thunder [Smokestack 2021]

And it’s this latest collection that I’ll be celebrating today.

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The Smokestack publisher’s blurb will you that:

“Ruth Valentine’s tenth collection encompasses the tragedies of the public world – civil-wars in Syria and Sudan, knife crime in North London, the Iraq-Iran war – and our private griefs. At the heart of the book is an extraordinary alphabetical sequence about the Grenfell Tower dead and the society that allowed them to die. It’s a book about the morality of politics and the mortality of us all, a study in remembrance and forgetting, about the indifferent sea with its soft lullabies and cold temptations, time spreading its blankness over everything, and ‘busy humanity with its suitcases and phones, its sudden weeping…”

I enthused about and shared several of the Grenfell poems in my 2017 post, as well as a wonderful poem about Tolstoy and railway stations (which reappears in the latest collection). I want to concentrate, though, on the business of mortality which is never far away in this collection.

You’ll search Google in vain for detailed reviews of Ruth’s work….a fact which is both astonishing and inexplicable…..but I picked up a couple of  comments that resonated in this portmanteau review via Happenstance. Here’s the link

https://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/index.php/sphinx-2009/220-the-announced-ruth-valentine

and here, the comments which I wish I’d thought of first:

“Valentine is a very gifted poet. She has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on, and there are further hints, subtle, understated, but always pulling you towards an exploration of something you realise has universal importance—but by being brought there as a travelling companion of the poet, you discover it in parallel with the poem. It’s almost as if you’re walking around in the poem itself, seeing the whole landscape of it.”

and

“Ruth Valentine is able to reach across from the living to the dead, bridging that great divide in tender ordinary words.” 

It’s the business of the living and the dead, and also of the divide between them which, in this new collection, seems to me to be symbolised by the transition from land to sea, and the sea in all its multifarious and drowning shapes. 

In August I wrote in a post:

“I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case. 

I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told, the whole business being managed and sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Director’s nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly. “

Which is why, I suppose, I’m so grateful for poets like  Ruth Valentine, who can write about ‘these moments’, about living with the dying and considering the business of setting out to die. And who, I should add, can do it via utterly memorable/unfogettable moments that draw you in, like these

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a poem, slipping in mildly off the broad

inarticulate river

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cobalt:   goes into the furnace a black powder

and comes out radiant, butterfly, dragon, dolphin

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The goddess of forgetting

is pale and very old, with long stained teeth

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     and, of course the constant reminders of the the sea and its mutability

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What use to the world is water that thinks it’s stone

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…sun covers the sea in silver-leaf

and the Icarus wind falls into the water

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…sea…snatching a child of a cliff, and twirling him

in swaddling clothes of spindrift

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As I said, I’ve chosen to concentrate on poems that place themselves where the sky is enormous and isolating and where the landscape inevitably ends in a shadow line like the numinous dividing ‘lines’ in Rothkos great canvasses.The collection is in six sections, or chapters, and each one contains a tidal river, or a sea shore, or saltings or estuaries reedbed and marsh and the dangerous unstable effulgent light off such places. As though you find yourself in a Turner that’s suddenly become live and cold and dangerous. This first poem is the opening poem of the first section, and and contains whole millennia of refugees

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Jettisoned

on the passage between the islands the boat was clutched

in the hands of drowned farmers, who pulled it down

into the wave’s ploughed furrows, bellowing

my carrots fresh from the earth? where are my oxen?

in the hands of drowned merchants with topaz rings,

fingers of fishermen clawing through the traps

of their lobster-pots  

                                                the wild boat shook them off

and headed out to the plain of cormorants

folding themselves like paper, plunging down

to the wrecks and the jetsam, all the jettisoned,

whoever steps awkwardly away from land,

unborn children venturing on an ocean

though grandmothers weep and the soldiers shrug and yawn

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I found it next to impossible to clear my mind of the appalling image of the fleeing being dragged down by all that had gone before, drowned by the clawing hands of history. Who can tell if they escaped in that wild boat, or who may plunge down with the cormorants ‘folding themselves like paper‘ into the detritus of the jettisoned and abandoned and wrecked.

I’ll stay with the business of water and of drowning in the three poem sequence that ends Section 2. I’ll remind myself of what one reviewer wrote about the way that

Ruth Valentine has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on.

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The Inshore Waters

i

all water inland     silent     do not disturb

the shoremen at their hedging and ditching dreams

you could drown in this stuff     lingeringly     a dancer

past the leap of his youth     your port-de-bras superb

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the staithe then the river     channels across the marsh

basalt    molten but cold     all unmet depth

paralysed motion     weedless     no pulse no splash

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as if it were flowing backward     as if the waves

might thicken and surge between the reeds     upstream

the low pale sun catch a silky flash of green

on the throat of a breaker before it broke     you’ve seen

just such a choker glint at a beach and gone

ii

What use to the world is water that thinks it’s stone?

When you choose to drown

you’ll have to get into a rowing-boat and make

oar-scars on the polished surface.  You’re facing back

to the staithe you left, willows and reeds.  It’s miles

to the sea from here.  You’re flagging.  You pull the sculls

across your thighs, rest, float; but the water wants

to haul you in to the bank.  Far off, in front

(if you turn your head) there’s a bit of sheen in the sky,

a taste of salt to the cloudscape, so you try

again for the open ocean.  A starting swell

rocks your coffin-cradle.  Keep going.  You’ll do well

to reach the sea before sunset, but the dark’s

just as good to drown in.  That isn’t a meadow-lark

or a seagull crying, it’s you as you smell the tide,

as you hear the scrape of the shingle.  Now, decide:

do you sit in your boat till it’s toppled, or pull in

to the riverbank, step out to the sea wind

and the sky, the breakwaters, the flying spindrift – 

if it ever was stone – fire-opal and amethyst.

A breaker rises and roars at you.  Safe at last,

you pour down its throat.

iii

You won’t do it of course, walk into the sea and drown.

More likely a bout of asthma, a derailed train.

Though if one day it comes to it, the cancer back,

some antibiotic-resistant inward muck,

you’d do something to finish, you hope. Not a rowing-boat:

you’ve never learned to row anyway.  No note

to whoever was going to find you in your bed

or more likely, sprawled on the kitchen floor.  So you could

buy a one-way ticket down to some drab resort,

walk into the waves.  Get a tide-table first,

you don’t want to be striding out across the sand,

the water knee-high for miles; you might change your mind,

which isn’t the point.  Or is it?  But are you brave,

could you keep on walking deeper until the waves

felled you and held you under?  You’d hold your breath

as it spun you below the surface.  It seems that death

may not come when you call.  Or you have to yell

again, at the top of your lungs, before they fill.

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What I like so much about this sequence, apart from the unnerving way the three poems address the unthinkable, is their versatility. The first announces itself very frankly as a poem, happily parading its technique in much the same way a a wave breaks over a rock and runs back on itself and reforms. DHLawrence wrote a praise poem for that, didn’t he. But the next two seem so easily conversational, unnervingly, apparently prosaically and rationally discussing (or advising on) the likelihood of attempted suicide by water going right or wrong, that it’s easy to overlook the craft of it all. It’s so easy to not notice that they are both sequences of rhyming couplets. When you do and go back, the music of full and half rhymes seems obvious. I love it.

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I did say that I’d concentrate on the shadow line poems. There’s so much more (not least, the Grenfell Alphabet in full, as well as a remarkable poem sequence Cobalt, about the dying of a friend) but you’ll need to go and buy the book. I really think you should. For a taste of the range you can expect, though, I’ll finish with one that’s darkly, wickedly funny. The Notes at the end explain that for Valentine’s (Who else?) Day 2016 Bic relaunched its pink ballpoint pen ” designed specially to fit the hands of the ladies”.

I’m pretty sure that the last bit is Ruth’s take on it, which is whyI’ve put it in inverted commas.

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Sonnet Written With a Pink Pen

My tiny hand is frozen, having cleaned

mould out of the fridge.  I’ve scoured the loo,

made chicken soup, altered a pair of jeans,

addressed a meeting.  It’s what women do.

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I’ve dressed a dead man in his football shirt

and laid him in his coffin; known the stench

we all may melt to; comforted the hurt

partners and enemies.  I didn’t flinch,

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or not in public.  For thirty years I’ve written

poems of death and exile, sex and grief,

Pinochet, Kosovo, London riots, love.

Now that I’ve got this pen, though, I can prove

my feminine vocation: violets, kittens,

cupcakes and curls.  Imagine my relief.

Thank you, Ruth Valentine for sharing so many of your poems. It was a joy to have you back as a guest.

And now, the rest of you will want details of the book you will surely buy before the day be out. Here you are.

Published by Smokestack Books [2021] £7.99

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