Editor’s Choice 10

Paul Mills’ pamphlet ‘Out of Deep Time’ is an imaginative and ambitious selection of poems about human evolution. Such a daunting all-encompassing theme might deter the faint-hearted, but Paul Mills has years of experience as a writer and both the confidence and skill to take it on. What he accomplishes works for me on a number of levels, the imaginative, the thought-provoking and the emotionally affecting. As he tackles this theme from its various aspects, he often employs a particular image or notion with which to explore the evolutionary process. There is ‘The story of hands’, ‘The story of glass’, ‘A wriggle’, ‘The story of a line’. But the one I focus on here is ‘The fix’.

The fix

 is to shape stones that bite   sharp as incisors
under a carob’s shade   among wild rubble
seeing the wide plain   the herds of bison

is not to scavenge but become hunters
is to make death happen where you want it
is to make the clouds of vultures wait

a world shaped by fix   the power of fix
not this of uninterrupted heat
not wind   ice   but shelter and fire

is to invent needles   invent furrows
join strong hands to flexible minds
is to make them restless for completion

on my hearth a poker shaped to a point
iron-handled shovel   iron tongs
sawn logs   at my back a radiator     hot

in my freezer a package of lamb   ice
salmon   broccoli   bread   it’s everywhere
we live by the fix   will die from it probably

yet I also notice what’s not the fix
on the mantelpiece a peculiar jug
decorated Navaho sphere-thing from Nevada

and here’s a guitar     paintings   patterns   games
saying to me the fix isn’t all   never was
there is the fix held back   the fix in reverse

coins and swords flung to the waters   other rhythms
saying however far you reach you hear it
hear them both   the fix and not the fix

 

 

What initially attracts me is the title, the use of a simple single syllable word to denote the process of human endeavour, the birth and continuing process of technology. It seems to sum up and take everything down to basics, giving us a perspective that’s unpretentious and irrefutable.

In just a few stanzas it moves me from early stone tools to the contents of a modern freezer, via the ‘carob’s shade   among wild rubble’, until we’re considering the simple everyday tools of today, ‘iron-handled shovel    iron tongs’. On the way I’m offered some deftly evoked images including making ‘death happen where you want it’. There’s nothing sentimental or romanticised about the intent of this poem. It looks at the stark and practical reality of survival, right up to the modern day where ‘we live by the fix   will die from it probably’. And yet…

there’s the turn – ‘what’s not the fix’ – and we’re considering the artful, the decorative, the playful, the rejection of violence and functional commerce, ‘coins and swords flung to the waters’, all that gives life grace and a meaning beyond mere survival and relentless technological advance.

And all this done in 9 three line stanzas, using well-chosen, spare yet evocative imagery to cover the enormous ground from then to now and beyond, so we can ‘hear them both     the fix and not the fix’.

 

 

Editor’s Choice 9

 

Martyn Halsall has been described as having ‘a great gift for language that is both allusive and elegant’. The poems in Coronach are distinctive and atmospheric, largely focusing on the landscape of the north west, both of Scotland and England. However, a poem I’ve always been particularly taken by is about Iceland, or at least about a painting of Iceland.

Migrating Birds
(from a painting by Eirikur Smith)

Imagine you are the woman pictured at the end
of the lava track, at the aftermath of Iceland,
her gaze hardened with glacier lines, her outlook
shingle, back-lit by an open wound of sunset.

Last light catches the ribbing down her hut,
cream corrugated iron, sanded rust;
something of a splintering in the concrete cast,
steps leading up beyond sand’s overlap;
the beach spread to the emptiness of ocean.

Suppose you had just returned there, and you shared
realisations in the night map of her face,
her vision of year ending; deepening sky overcast
spreading its blue dyes further through calm tide;
a shaken pepper pot flock moving away,
south, into migration.
Consider the painter’s hand
leaving her to winter, having prepared the storm
by layering thunder through eclipsing oils.

He might glance back, regret abandoning her there,
turning from the sea, that last flock now far out.
Imagine, instead, he stayed; stood waiting with her.

What I enjoy so much about this is the atmospheric description. It’s based on a painting, but actually creates its own separate sense of a particular place by describing elements in the flat plane of the picture so as to evoke in my mind somewhere three dimensional and emotionally vibrant.

The first stanza, which invites the reader to imagine being the figure in the picture, has ‘the aftermath of Iceland’ and ‘an open wound of sunset’ which sets a certain ominous tone. This is followed in the next stanza by more vivid description, doing with words what an artist does with paint before, in the third stanza, placing ‘you’ the reader more firmly there in ‘her vision of year ending’.

When I’m asked to ‘Consider the painter’s hand’, this takes me out of the picture and into the person of the artist and the paradox of creativity, being immersed in the created object yet separate from it. All summed up in that beautiful last stanza in which loneliness, separation and regret intermingle.

This seems to me to be a poem with many layers of meaning, itself a metaphor I can enter and explore both emotionally and cerebrally.

 

 

Editor’s Choice 8

Lynda Plater’s pamphlet ‘Three Seasons for Burning’ contains many poems which give me a catch in my throat. This is one of them.

He lost his life thinking of Eunice

She was a long low town
on the Louisiana plain
as he drove down.
The woman at his side
was lovely (though
he could not now
even think of her name)
and her dress
had a shimmer
as the Chevrolet rolled
its peppermint green
between the fields,
soothing heat down.
And she said something
small, shy from her place
at his side
as if she knew
he would think of this,
this slight, light moment
at his dying, remembering
this long, slow time
with heat moving off fields.
It was a hot light:
even at the evening
with sun red and hot
(hot, he said,
as a red Cajun chilli)
as a pain in the chest
burning him to ground.
Yet even then
there were some lights
strung low in the line
to Eunice town
in whose deep arms
pale stars came out
over the flat fields
where corn and cane
ripened with the fall.
Then finally,
even stars went out.

To begin with there’s something songlike in the way it opens, which is sustained right the way through the poem. The narrow, long form is one which I think of as speeding up the pace, but in this case seems to help the story move along more gently, revealing a little more of its intricacies piece by piece ‘remembering/ this long, slow time’.
The female personification of the town, and its name being a woman’s name, gives the poem a suggestive ambiguity. While the conflation of ‘the woman at his side’ and the town is there, the reader always knows which is which. And there’s a touching irony in the fact he remembers the name of the town but not the name of the woman at his side, made more poignant when ‘she said something/small, shy from her place’. Which is followed by what I feel is a dimension-shifting revelation ‘as if she knew/ he would think of this,/ this slight, light moment/ at his dying’. Premonition, hindsight, the mutability of memory all suddenly leap into the frame here and I’m held in a present that, while containing this particular past, also changes it.
And it is a hard present, ‘a pain in the chest/ burning him to ground’ while he relives this brief loaded memory. And the poem ends with that atmospheric conflation of the arms of the town, the memory and the woman whose name he can’t recall but whose premonition is somehow at the core of it all. A poem full of the shifting ground between past and present before ‘even stars went out’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice 7

Rebecca Bilkau’s pamphlet “Choosing New Omens” deals with the experience of moving to a new country, Germany, with her German husband and the struggles of identity, language and sense of belonging that entails. Throughout the pamphlet there’s an awareness of history, both personal and cultural and nowhere is this more boldly confronted than in this, the first poem of the pamphlet.

It’s a poem which demonstrates many of the qualities apparent throughout the pamphlet and indeed throughout her writing generally. There’s a colloquial flow in which serious emotions and ideas are addressed with directness and passion. When she reads there’s a strong sense of engagement in her delivery which remains present on the page.

 On Not Going to Bergen-Belsen

Sunday evening and bluegrass music drives us

through an everywhere and nowhere till we hit

a babel of welcome signs.

Slowly the name

translates itself into sense. An eternity of mourners

must find open doors, open language here

where fact shatters speech.

And all I can see

is a crumbling ridge of hips, not here in the car,

not on the road, but in all my pictures of this land

till I married into it.

Around the cleats

of intimately tangled dead, righteously articulate

through seven decades of doomed atonement

in this quiet country, my new shock.

I pull my hand

back from Michael’s attempted squeeze. Please

but his sentence has nowhere to go. No more

German than ten minutes ago

he’s not my husband

now, not my sweet old leftie, he’s a Roman salute

in camouflage, an explanation machine whose words

beggar vocabulary. All vocabulary.

There’s a museum

at the death camp. We should go. He should go.

My first love was a Jew. Michael owes it to him

and, suddenly, me.

My husband rests

his head on the steering wheel. He’s been guilty

as sin since before he was conceived. Has never

known inculpability

since he could read.

Like the wife whose own post-colonial guilt is the cringe

of history under the bloody carpet.

I put my hand in reach,

and twined in the relief of grief we search for grace

together; inarticulately grateful for the blessed irony

of winter opening times.

From the very outset the title sets the scene with the ambiguity of ‘not going there’ when how can you not once the name of the place is mentioned. Then the innocuous bluegrass music carries us towards ‘a babel of welcome signs’ (clever use of that word ‘babel’), the translation of the name of the place into ‘sense’ or its reality – the ‘cleats/ of intimately tangled dead’.

But there’s a new shock, too, the poet’s withdrawal from her husband who’s ‘been guilty/as sin since before he was conceived’. As a reader I’m totally caught up in this, the unavoidable conflict, the way the poet is plunged into heady emotions, the sudden need to generalise, apportion collective guilt, and her husband’s ‘Please’ and his helplessness before the enormity of a history he’s not responsible for but is nonetheless associated with. And as we’re being taken through this scene, there’s a return to reason and compassion which culminates in self-realisation with ‘the wife whose own post-colonial guilt…’ at which point I let out my held breath, relieved to find hands twined again.

The last stanza carries in its irony the truth that you don’t have to go all the way to arrive. Perhaps the best way of dealing with these powerful emotions is to acknowledge them, as this poem does, and move on.

For me the articulate honesty of this poem is added to by the form which reflects the see-saw of emotions and thoughts, cleverly moving this way and that through a series of linked stanzas.

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice 6

Cherangani by Mark Carson

Experience may be Mark Carson’s raw material – Ireland, life as an ocean engineer, Africa – but the essence of his writing is an intelligence and optimism which offers an easy-going eloquence and sensitivity. The relaxed readability of his poems can, though, be deceptive. At ease in their narratives you may be, but at the same time aware something rich, fresh and unexpected is happening or about to happen. His language and imagery is always rewarding, ‘serving up portmanteaus and unexpected conjunctions aplenty’              ( Simon Zonenblick, Sabotage). For example, here’s the poem ‘Cherangani’ :

Cherangani

They were there when we wakened
in the first light as we thought it
as the bell birds called in the thorn scrub
and the mists dissipated
and the handsome black and yellow ticks
shouldered their way up the grass stems
to the very tip
shoving each other
for the most advantageous station
and the drybush kingfisher
killed its first early chafer
crunchingly by our bare heels
and the strange hybrid cornflakes
rustled in milk from the coolbox
and the orange juice, ah the orange juice
gurgled in the grateful throat
and they were getting closer
and the first soufria of water
boiled on the little blue stove
decanted onto the roasted coffee
bringing a rush of optimism
and the crusty rolls and marmalade
and now they were really quite close
shy but forward and we could see
the dull gleam of her neckrings
and the colour gash of her beads
and her little ones giggled
at the fair voluminous curls of our little ones
and shy still she wanted
wanted something, she couldn’t say what
she wanted, she couldn’t say in English or Swahili
or anything
it wasn’t food or drink she intimated but
yes it was the empty del Monte can
the top cut out she could see
she could tell it was empty
empty, an empty can for putting things in
for putting water in
and I took the light ballpeen hammer I always carried
and skilfully hammered the edge smooth and dimpled
and fixed a piece of bullwire as a handle.
And the sun rose in the Kerio Valley
and warmed our backs kindly
as we set off homeward
to the urbane pleasures of the city.

What I love about this poem is the apparently leisurely way it unfolds itself, engaging me totally all the way. I’m immediately hooked in to the narrative with that first line, but then taken elsewhere with detailed and delicious descriptions of the morning, its insects and birds, the breakfast rituals, before once again ‘they’ appear ‘getting closer’ as if the poem’s reassuring me as a reader we will get there in the end but meanwhile there’s no rush; just like the morning itself, it’s there to be enjoyed. And so we continue and ‘they’ get ‘quite close’ and we are finally introduced and follow the understated mime of this cross-cultural interaction, with the surprise of the empty can being refashioned.

I also enjoy the way punctuation is dispensed with and the line lengths and breaks do all the work so eloquently. And throughout, the open-hearted writing sticks to the focus of our common humanity with only the slightly ambiguous irony of ‘the urbane pleasures of the city’ making a nod, perhaps, towards any social/political perspective. No more is needed. It’s in the can.

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice 5

Crazy Days 1 by Carole Coates

All the poems in Carole’s pamphlet Crazy Days deal with the episode when her husband suffered from auto-immune encephalitis, with its resulting loss of memory and disorientation. The poems are movingly written and capture with candour, compassion and wit these difficult and frightening events and their effect on the lives of them both.

The poem I’ve chosen is in fact the first poem in the pamphlet, ‘Crazy Days 1’. As a poem about recovery coming at the beginning of the sequence, it hints at what the protagonists have been through and what the reader has yet to encounter, but makes it clear at the outset that they survive, the crazy days are in the past.

Crazy Days 1

How many beds you say
how many beds have we slept in?

 now that you remember I sleep elsewhere
and like redbush tea in the morning
but you can’t remember why I left the big bed
in the crazy days
when you cried out about the hole, the great pit
in the bed, scrambling out of the way for fear of falling.
You could feel the sharp edge of it
smell the cold airs drifting up
so we changed places but you worried that I would fall
down the chasm you’d discovered so I went away
to the attic room

and thought about, though you could not, our first bed –
under the window that looked to the orchard
and I knelt on the bed and watched you walking
among apple trees in an autumn so still that the leaves
hung quiet as fruit and you cupped your hand
round a small brown russet but did not pick it
because you’ve always kept all the rules
as if it would help, as if it would do you good.

Now the chasm is closing and you come upstairs
with a tray of tea and creep into bed with me
and we prop ourselves on elbows and look at each other
and sometimes we talk about love.

 

What strikes me initially about this poem is the combination of honesty and restraint, a restraint which carries an emotional charge, as in the matter-of-fact quality of the last line.

I enjoy the way the opening question, engaging and intimate, leads in to the description of fears and illusions which resulted in separate beds, which in turn moves on to the touching recollections of the first bed. The image of the dark pit is vivid and disturbing, but the reader is rescued by the recollection of the orchard in the next stanza. Its last two lines: ‘because you’ve always kept all the rules/ as if it would help, as if it would do you good’ arrive as an oblique comment on the arbitrary nature of illness.

It is a poem full of the particular and believable, totally grounded. As with all the poems in this pamphlet, the subject matter is difficult and distressing, but the poem itself moving and easy to read, the lines clearly following units of sense and the pauses of natural speech. To me this is an example of how an accomplished piece of writing can take personal difficulty and make it art.

Elizabeth Burns, some appreciations

Wayleave Press has been very pleased to be able to publish Elizabeth’s last two pamphlets, A Scarlet Thread and Clay. Here are some comments on her poetry from other Wayleave poets.

Elizabeth
from Jane Routh

Elizabeth would have been in her late thirties when she wrote she was interested in finding ‘an identity for women’s writing in what has been the mainly male domain of Scottish poetry’, specifically ‘women’s ways of seeing and writing’. She wanted to write about ‘the unseen… making the invisible through words – and things.’ This is a life-long theme in her work: she said something very similar as the featured poet in The Compass magazine in the summer of 2015.

The clarity and the ambition of her vision is striking, as is the consistency of her subject matter over the years. How does she achieve what she does?

I’m interested that Elizabeth writes two types of poem: one long and discursive; the other, short and condensed. On the face of it these may sound very different, yet to work, both demand an immaculate command of syntax. Discursive poems, often with long lines and many clauses, need a syntax that never trips or confuses a reader. Condensed poems need a syntax that can support a few words in perfect balance to hold them in a reader’s mind.

Yet it’s the way she plays her syntax within her forms that interests me. (She rarely uses given forms.) I’ll look at a couple of line breaks from her Wayleave pamphlets: ‘The Common Stair’ in The Scarlet Thread is a two-sentence poem; the first sentence extends over three stanzas. What strikes me is the complex use she makes of the first stanza break

I used to climb the same common stair as she did,
when I lived above her old flat in the New Town: our flat

its twin, so I know…

which doesn’t fall where you’d expect, with ‘our flat’ opening the second stanza. ‘Our flat’ is part of the ‘her flat’ stanza, emphasising what they have in common, and giving full force to the same-but-different idea with ‘its twin’ starting a new stanza.

‘Beginnings’ in Clay is one of Elizabeth’s highly condensed poems. It speaks of a woman making a pot and then cooking in it:

look, she can cook in it, meat and plant
and water. She is discovering soup.

Breaking up the list of things which can be cooked, the phrase ‘and water’ has dropped down to the line with soup, which has the effect of making the reader ‘discover’ water as the essential ingredient of soup, just as ‘she is discovering soup’.

All Elizabeth’s poems are finely-tuned like this; as well as the pleasure I take in re-reading her poems, there’s still much I can learn from them.

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Grandfather in the Kitchen

from Bill Gilson

GRANDFATHER IN THE KITCHEN

The memory of this has been distilled
until all that’s left is whiteness –
the bleached wood of the stool
with the fingerhole to lift it,
the enamel surface of the table,
his cotton vest as he stands by the sink,
face in the mirror bearded with shaving soap,
the warm milk keeping on the stove.

This poem has been one of my favorites since I first read the Lantern Bearers. It embodies some of Elizabeth’s best qualities, as poet and friend: quiet, understated love of the physical world as she saw it and how deeply she could be moved to describe it; and the gentle humorous affection she manifested toward people close to her.

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Notes on Elizabeth’s The Lantern Bearers
from Carole Coates

 The title poem of The Lantern Bearers is an important one in the body of Elizabeth’s work as it contains two of the central tropes of her poetry: light and what can be called a loving containment, a holding. These look back to A Gift of Light and forward to Held. In this poem children are carrying light into the winter darkness. The binary opposition of light and dark could be an over-familiar one but Elizabeth avoids cliché by a careful verbal structuring, and a delicate counterpointing of opposites. There is both fragility and vulnerability (“stumbling”, “wavering”, “small voices”, “quivering flames”) and also a strength and resilience in the recurrence of “each November”, (“hats down over ears”, “stout in boots”, “marching”). There is a practical strain of domesticity throughout (“Tom, Maisie, Jess, Amy”, “home-made lanterns”, “buttons, laces, stuck zips,” “treacle cake” and “curled on laps”.) Even the night is humanised as “the darkness which enfolds us all” which suggests a holding and keeping safe as well as the darkness at the end of life. This hint of the numinous is present throughout the poem and is a feature of Elizabeth’s later poetry.

The end of their pilgrimage through the dark is the light of home and the poem finishes with “the story of a lantern bearer” on a journey in the “icy dark” who is guided by one candle to “the place at last / its doorway glowing with light and fire”. Home but more than home. Again that glimpse of transcendence. This is borne out by the central image of the poem which combines the tropes of light and containment – “a quivering flame / carried in the still-translucent lantern / of a new-made body”. Elizabeth has moved effortlessly from the home-made lanterns to the children’s inner light. They are “tiny bright stars” both literally and spiritually. This is not easy to write about and could easily be sentimental but it is accomplished tactfully and with a natural expressive rhythm, slightly more relaxed than the rhythms of the earlier work. It is close to the rhythm of speech and this is augmented by some direct address “Look at them” and conversational turns “And then again / they are ordinary children”.   Children are a subject that Elizabeth returns to regularly in this collection and the next.

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Held
from Ron Scowcroft

 The title poem of Elizabeth’s 2010 collection, opens with a seemingly mundane observation: a one year old boy ‘discovering the river’ is dropping stones into the water. What follows is a remarkable exploration of birth, the materiality of existence and our place in world. The river, itself ‘a stony vessel’, contains ‘springwater, meltwater, rainwater’; the details are precise and particular. Other containers are listed – an eggshell, the atmosphere enfolding the planet, the earth that contains us, the womb. For me, the most intriguing image comes in the latter part of the poem ‘everything is like a basket says the basket weaver . . . We are baskets and the makers of baskets’. The shift from the physical to the spiritual is subtle and profound. There is a sense of enfolding – the matrix and chora – and the ‘boy-child’s’ discovery of ‘how things are held’ becomes our discovery at the core of the poem itself. And there is that perfect last line ‘a stone in water, water in a nest of stone’. The poem returns to its beginning, folds in on itself and becomes richer, deeper, more challenging and satisfying – the way the best of poetry should be.

There is a Blakean quality here, ‘a song, holding words, a tune’, innocence, experience, (‘The Clod and the Pebble’ comes to mind) but there is no loss of wonder, no counterbalance from the world weary, no anger or cynicism. Elizabeth’s voice is entirely her own: embracing, open, celebratory – a voice I shall always miss and find again when I read this poem.

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Early work
from Mike Barlow

One effect of Elizabeth’s death was to propel me back to her two earlier collections, Ophelia and other poems and The Gift of Light. From the outset (Ophelia was published in 1991 when she was 34) her voice was particular and confident. She already knew what she was doing and what she was about. Her characteristic descriptive power and mastery of syntax runs through everything, sensuous and clear. As also does a focus on and celebration of womens’ sensibilities and creativity. At times in these earlier books she places this in opposition to the prevailing dominance of men: ‘Is Acropolis more marvellous/ than silk embroidered sheets’ (‘Work and Art/ We are Building a Civilization’ – Ophelia and other poems), but the theme continues in its own right throughout her writing.

Although always affirmative in tone, there is in some of these younger poems a preparedness to confront unflinchingly the dark undercurrents and events in human affairs. But this is always in the context of her clear vision, empathy and a drive towards reconciliation. In The Gift of Light, the section Memorials deals with the holocaust and Anne Frank (a subject she returns to in later collections) and elsewhere she writes heartbreakingly of slavery (‘Canaries’) and desert warfare : ‘so many dead in the desert’s bed’.

Throughout all her collections there is, for me, the sense of a poet travelling both in the physical world and her own inner one, digesting and turning experience into memorable art. In her first book she says:

words are such skimpy   scrawly creatures   such
scant indications   of immensities   and depths
‘Untitled Love Poem’

Yet, as I re-read her, immensities and depths are very much what I have a sense of.

 

Publications

Collections
Ophelia and Other Poems (Polygon 1991) out of print
The Gift of Light (diehard poetry 1999)
The Lantern Bearers (Shoestring Press 2007)
Held (Polygon 2010)

Pamphlets
The Time of Gold (Galdragon Press 2000)
The Alteration (Galdragon Press 2003)
The Blue Flower (Galdragon Press 2005)
The Shortest Days (Galdragon Press 2008)
A Scarlet Thread (Wayleave Press 2014)
Clay (Wayleave Press 2015)

Editor’s Choice 4

Monkey Puzzle by William Gilson

As an American living in Cumbria, Bill Gilson straddles both the world of his own memories and identity and the present one he finds himself living in. Many of his poems manage to conflate the present and past almost seamlessly, so the reader’s in two places at once.

Each time I read this poem I see more in it, make more connections as it brings together diverse worlds, inhabiting and holding them quite naturally with eloquent emotional restraint, describing through this diversity a moment of integration.

 Slow blues

Great-Nanna, she’s dead.
Her shiny-box’d remains made
slow movement, mechanised
into the oven, and the curtains drew closed.
Then,
tea for us yet-alives
in Cartmel.
Her coffin, being English, seemed to me
old-fashioned: a bevelled shape,
wider at the shoulders.

Now
in morning’s living room
the central heating kicks on.
Out there’s the yet-dark,
September, the moon
rounding –

Now from the CD player’s speakers
comes the sound of a piano’s
little hammers
hitting taut and tuned strings.
A man’s hands and fingers
set them going forty years ago.

I imagine myself joining him,
taking a chorus.
I imagine I am able to play the piano.
It is a jazz blues with chord changes
every two beats,
here it comes round again –

I hear myself laying down a line.
As I play,
bending low over the keys,
I’m thinking of Great-Nanna, who I
did not know well at all, I’m remembering
what her son – Alison’s dad – said
as he stood up from his folding chair
next the mechanical catafalque,
how he improvised –

I surprise myself with the beauty of the line.

I float it at first just lightly atop,
letting it sink of itself into the stream’s flow.

 

With pared-down language in a distinctly American voice the scene of the funeral is set and the motif of the poem appears with ‘slow movement’. We then proceed almost casually, but with careful scene-setting, to the very different world of the pianist and the ‘piano’s/little hammers… set…going forty years ago’, followed by closely focused attention to the music where his mental re-enactment describes how the mood of the music and the listener coincide.

The slow movement of the poem is reinforced by the irregular and sometimes hesitant lineation echoing the improvised fluency of the blues. I particularly enjoy the parallel between playing a blues and writing the poem when he hears himself ‘laying down a line’ . This then takes him and us back to the source of the poem, the earlier funeral, in such a way that I, as reader, remain both with the music and the funeral.

That crucial word ‘improvised’ linking the blues player with the father-in-law’s eulogy leads on to an exquisite single line with which the poet surprises both himself and the reader. And the last two lines are precise and simple, almost delicate, in their evocation. A slow blues executed with an ease that belies the skill and experience behind it.

Editor’s Choice 3

Jane Routh’s pamphlet ‘The White Silence’ focuses on the C19th explorer Sir John Franklin’s failed attempt to find a north west passage through Arctic ice. Her poems dwell more on what’s not known than what is and feel to have grown out of a strong interest in the subject, an empathetic imagination and a sense of how history evolves.

The poem I’ve chosen is one of the longer pieces in the pamphlet. I particularly like this one because of its ability to sympathetically re-create the practicalities and emotions of being ice-bound.

Franklin, ice-bound

Imagine ice.
Imagine cold.
Imagine a ship held fast all winter long.

Start again: you have to remember
it’s an Arctic winter: no daylight.
How to picture such darkness?

You have to imagine the body.
Hammocks below decks, close quarters,
feet, sweat, farts: a sort of warmth.

The grip of ice knocking on the hull.
Creaking – not as of timbers riding seas:
as of strangulation.

No one ever seems to mention
sanitary arrangements.
(Only Lowenstein, a century later, reports

the Inupiak’s 50-gallon drums of slops
rolled out – frozen, remember, odourless –
for summer’s melt to swallow whole.)

You have to imagine the tedium.
(Collingwood carved a table for his crew
from polished ice

and taught them billiards:
they would not miss, he said, the baize,
never having known it.)

Months, dark and cold. Waiting for moons.
It might even have been relief to be on watch.
Suppose Francis Pocock has not yet died

and, staring south, thinks he makes out a flare.
He’s heard talk of mirage, shuts his eyes,
opens. Then he’s sure: a bright curve

– imagine the shout that goes up.
Warmth, and more tomorrow. And then full sun.
Relief at the return even of short days.

To be on the move. Busyness, preparation, anticipation.
Imagine days lengthening, days
the sun does not set –

and still the ice does not let go.
Imagine the sun dipping again
below the horizon, and still

the ice has not let go.

From the start I’m drawn in by the slightly imperative but conversational tone. The second stanza with its ‘Start again’ seems to reflect the poet’s own struggle in recreating the scene faithfully before ‘below decks’ reality is evoked. Then, with the sound of ice and that shocking word ‘strangulation’ I’m no longer listening to someone’s imagined account. I’m there, held fast.

And immediately the tone backs off from the dramatic, having made its point, to consider sanitary arrangements and tedium, with references to later explorers, Collingwood’s ice billiard table offering an apparently casual but telling comment on hierarchy and morale in such circumstances.

The device of supposing ‘Francis Pocock has not yet died’ and placing him on watch I find an intriguing comment on the whole business of conjecture in the poem. The subsequent descriptions of the lengthening light and warmth are spare but sufficient to convey the sense of relief on board, but like the sun itself move on with an awful inevitability. At the end of the poem I’m still slightly stunned to have travelled so far and yet remained exactly where I was.

Necessity

I first began to read contemporary poetry in my late teens and early twenties, when the world of poetry seemed an exclusive and rarefied one to a young person doing an ordinary job for a living, far from any hothouse atmosphere a university course might have offered. I’ve no idea if there were such things as workshops and poetry groups then. Had there been and had I taken advantage of one, my own writing might have improved and expanded beyond the private scribbling that produced an occasional sense of achievement. But being young I may have felt there were more urgent demands on my time, for I had a view of poetry as a private process between the poet and the page.

When I think back to the poets I read and was aware of, they all seemed to have jobs in the real world. Edwin Brock was an ex-policeman and advertising executive, Dannie Abse was a doctor, Miroslav Holub was an eminent scientist. And later there was P.D.James’ fictional policeman and poet, Adam Galbraith, to reinforce the non-remunerative role of poetry.

Although the real world still impinges on poets today, there is a difference. The plethora of courses and workshops, on-line and real, mentoring schemes, residencies, MA’s and practice-based PhD’s produce many more talented poets writing more and more poems. And they also provide some sort of an income for those who teach, tutor, facilitate, as well as feeding the idea that there’s a satisfying and all-encompassing ‘life poetic’ to be had.

Inevitably it follows there are more poets seeking recognition and publication. But it’s a truism to say the audience and readership for poetry remain mostly other poets. We’re a population in which the interest in hearing or reading the work of others is accompanied by the desire to promote our own work, which makes for a congested environment. Where at one time you’d come across any number of familiar names in magazines and competition results, I’ve noticed recently how many new names and debut collections there are. However good the work is, and so much of it is, how much, I ask myself, could be classed as ‘necessary’ ­ – to use that favourite ‘blurbonic’ word?

Now that I’ve pulled that word ‘necessary’ out of the bag, it instantly demands definition. Used in the soundbite context of blurbs, it might sound pretentious and suspect. But beyond this there are two aspects of the word that come to mind.

Firstly, as an editor/publisher I realise I look for the quality a poem has that suggests it’s a driven matter, something the poet has been compelled to write via some internal process – emotion, memory, idea. It carries within it, by tone, style or syntax, the individual identity of the poet and a groundedness that comes from experience. I’d contrast such poems with those that, however competent, seem to have been generated for the sake of generating a poem – as in those workshop projects where we play and flex the muscles of our craft but don’t always end up with anything worth taking further.

Secondly, I go back to my original perspective, the private business between poet and the page. Surely, that’s where necessity lies, not in the publication. As with all the fellow poets I know, I do it because it’s part of who I am. And as if to prove this, I think of how out-of-sorts, diminished I feel when nothing seems to work or I’m going through a fallow period, fearing that this may in fact be irreversible climate change. I once heard Alistair Reid joke there were too many poems in the world: we should all be rationed to six a year. Well, I have tried. I really have. But it’s no good, I’m more needy than that.