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’.
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’.