Ecology and Poetry: Review of Michael McKimm’s ‘Fossil Sunshine’

I met Michael McKimm earlier this year – at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in September 2014. His chapbook, Fossil Sunshine (Worple Press, 2013) interested me because much has been said in the last few years about how poetry has embraced science. This is one plank of the argument that also declares poetry has embraced popular culture, or the world and language of IT, the law, or maybe banking. Yes, poetry is keen to annex what it can. And I would happily sign up to the general principle that poetry’s health can feasibly be measured by the range of experience it can encompass. In times of feebleness poems are stuntedly concerned with poetic subjects, poetic diction; in periods of strength, there is a great sense of traction and encompassment, that anything will give itself to the poet.

Perhaps we are on the cusp of one of these latter moments; reading Nathan Hamilton’s 2013 Bloodaxe anthology (note the wide embrace of the title) Dear World & Everyone In It you might get that feeling. And guess what: Michael McKimm appears on page 90 and Fossil Sunshine really is differently-angled to most of the collections you’ll have read recently. These poems are the result of a year-long collaboration with earth scientists, in a project funded by Arts Council England. Drawing on fieldwork with geologists, the poems explore the relationships between geology, the oil industry and climate change, and (Worple’s blurb says) they ask what the evidence held in the geological record can teach us. The blurb goes on: “From ice ages to landslides, oil spills to geo-engineering, Fossil Sunshine captures the language of geology, as well as the energy and drive of exploration and discovery”.

Fossil_Sunshine96

Given its subject, the book inevitably has an admonitory tone. But one of the problems with poetry’s annexing more and still more was noted by Keats and his response was to loathe anything poetic that has a palpable, didactic design upon us. Indeed, the poetic and didactic are mutually exclusive for him. Poetry is a realm (perhaps unique) where life’s genuine truth and beauty (simply that it is full of shades and ambiguity) can be expressed and relished without any irritable reaching after clarity and fact. What I like so much about McKimm’s poems is that they would also have pleased Keats on this count. They are vigorous, ambiguous and even visionary. In them we see mankind’s power as much as our malign influence, the frailty of nature as much as its resilience. They want us to think about these issues, but will not do the thinking for us.

‘Tertiary Basalts’ describes its igneous subject as “Crow black, slick as onions, or walk-on-nails / tough”. It’s in part a child’s eye view (“A thick burnt red / running through like a layer of jam”) and the narrator admits that rock like this would give his earlier self “more pictures than the clouds”. But McKimm does not ironise the child’s vision but combines it with an adult understanding of the rock’s creation to make a more rounded celebration of the natural world. ‘Holderness Boulder Clay’ does something similar as it vigorously describes the sea’s biting away at the friable coastal reaches till “a fencepost hang[s] from a whip / of wire, and plastic drainage pipes / [are] like pillarbox guns”. Whatever warnings are here they are buried in the figurative language – the whip, the gun. The poem is a tour de force of minute particulars; I’ve never felt so close to the ebb and flow, the nibbling of erosion, the swirl of “gobstoppers of granite, sandstone, / Norwegian porphyry, carnelian”. Elsewhere (in prose this time), someone called Stuart takes a little hammer to a chunk of Yorkshire chalk and skilfully unearths a fossil sea sponge: “Laosciadia Planus. I weighed it in my hand.” And like a time machine, suddenly Bridlington with its Pitch and Putt course vanishes to be replaced by a vision of the past: “Sea conifers, angiosperms. The whole place electric with reptiles”.

media

Only someone much concerned with the environment could bring the natural world – both present and past – so vividly into poetry. Someone like that could not fail to express concern at our interventions in the world. A scattered sequence of poems, each called ‘Abstract from a Conference’, expresses this concern. The first explains that coal, oil, gas are anciently stored sunshine that we have since “sought with our intelligence / and drive”. Our brilliance has long been to our benefit but . . . “Is it possible, a soft // landing for civilisation? We were smart. / How smart do we now want to be?” The ‘Abstract’ in the title to these poems perhaps permits more didacticism than elsewhere: abstract as summary, abstract as form of language. Yet even here there is an awed sense of ourselves: “Survivalists, stewards of the biosphere, / from nothing we grew”. Where did we go wrong? We “thought of ourselves”. Perhaps little else. And for a while, “where was the harm in that? – / as the mighty river’s arteries flowed past.” ‘Pipeline’ is another sustained performance, a description of the route of a North American oil pipeline. Detail is put to use to suggest both the varieties of landscape it passes through as well as the ingenuity of its builders: “without even a pit stop it’s pierced Manitoba, / steady trajectory, knows where it’s going”.

So McKimm’s images are often carefully laid down, alive, at the borders of ambiguity. Yet the descriptive drive of the book pulls no punches when it comes to the mess we have made of things. Here are “the basics: deforestation, fallow lands, / tilling, terracing, irrigation systems, subsurface // water extraction, mining, transportation systems, / waterway re-plumbing, reservoir interception, // groynes, jetties, seawalls, breakwaters, harbours, / warfare”. Even a small scale ‘Oil Field’, apparently landscaped into a natural environment, is regarded, or rather listened to, with suspicion: “the beam pump’s / gentle purr, like an antique Singer threaded / through with jet, working with a rhythm / you would never think so peaceful or so clean”. At the living room table, my mother would propel an old Singer like this, an image perhaps of technology taken so far, only to be wrenched further still (the thread through this machine not homely cotton, but the more sinister thread of an oil jet).

imgres

Andrew McCulloch’s review in the TLS concluded: “Read these poems!” Penelope Shuttle has written: “The language employed by this poet is powerfully tactile.  These are strong and in every sense grounded poems”. ‘Grounded’ is a worthy pun, of course, as much about McKimm’s language and tone as about his rocky, muddy, sandy subject matter. I’d recommend these poems, for their grit and grain as much as their environmental concerns, for their humble belief in human ingenuity as much as their clear-eyed warning about where it seems to be taking us.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – and Poetry

Something on early morning Radio Four this week sent me hurrying to the files of autobiographical notes I’ve been writing sporadically over the last few years. It was a discussion of an experience I have never heard spoken of, but felt often enough. It has a name these days: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30412358. I’ll put down my memories as I recall them but also with some of the surrounding context too as that may be relevant to the phenomenon itself:

trowbridge_picF0010

In the 1960s, in my second year at Parochial Junior School (I’m about 9 years old), we crocodile out the front door and occasionally turn right along Church Street towards St James’ Parish Church, Trowbridge (George Crabbe’s last posting). We cross the road for religious services like Easter, Harvest Festival and Christmas. We wheel and snake into the churchyard and follow the tilting, worn flagstone path, passing Thomas Helliker’s casket tomb to the church porch.

3975485172_bc361c22dc

But more usually we turn left along Church Street, passing Shanley’s the barbers and a low butcher’s window where our regimented pairings are disturbed by squeals and extraneous movement, by our fascination with red and pink slabs and cuts of meat, with creamy fat like curds laid out on plastic white trays. Most fascinating and least attractive are the lolling ox tongues, cut at the root, purple, stilled, obscene.

Then we turn left into Duke Street and left again through an almost hidden door that, even then, I would associate with those obscured entrances and exits in children’s stories. Through this door, we traipse down a passage into what we call Emmanuel, a kind of annex with a couple of extra classrooms. I don’t remember any separate play area. It’s in these classrooms that I remember adjusting to new spectacles from Carter and Harding after I had been diagnosed with short sight. I was straining to read the teacher’s scrawl on the blackboard.

Here too I remember the first incidents (though surely these could not have been the first) of a very peculiar sensation. It’s a prickling that runs up my back and shoulders, a sort of shiver moving upwards across my neck into my scalp when a teacher (not my usual one) writes on the blackboard. It’s a ripple of pleasure out of unfamiliarity (or the familiar defamiliarised), a kind of low level erotic shiver I still occasionally feel now when the college cleaner comes into my room – moving books, touching the table and chairs, my familiar items touched by another’s hand. I’ve never heard this described before . . .

Later, back in the main school building, moving to other rooms downstairs aware of girls talking, manoeuvring to walk alongside me, giggles, but I have no recognition of what this means, certainly no idea that it might be exploited. In fact, I don’t recall much sense of my own position in this little closed society at all. It is as if I moved through a mist of my own creating, barely self-aware. But I imagine myself proceeding quietly, studiously mostly, probably a pleasure to teach, though reports are already lamenting how deeply I live in myself. Already teachers are reaching for the old metaphor of the shell, the frustrating creature living within.

Wikipedia describes ASMR as a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial, with strong anecdotal evidence to support the phenomenon but little or no scientific explanation or verified data. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_sensory_meridian_response

It has become a recent internet phenomenon. Online discussion groups such as the Society of Sensationalists formed in 2008 on Yahoo! and The Unnamed Feeling blog created in 2010 by Andrew MacMuiris aim to provide a community for learning more about the sensation by sharing ideas and personal experiences. Some earlier names for ASMR in these discussion groups included attention induced head orgasmattention induced euphoria, and attention induced observant euphoria.

Quotation-Emily-Dickinson-poetry-Meetville-Quotes-87875

Inevitably my own thoughts about it revolve around poetry and its effects: the familiar defamiliarised, the frisson of the uncanny, Emily Dickinson talking about poems taking the top of your head off. ASMR seems linked to a particular quality of attention-giving which yields a rippling of pleasure, close to the erotic, but not the same as that. It is powerful yet undramatic; it is most common in quiet moments of observation. It is also in a neutral sense ‘bestial’, an animal shiver, like hackles rising, but not out of anger. It’s surely something reaching far back into our ancient past, linking body and mind, yielding pleasure, rooted in a mode of being predating language and conceptualisation. That interests me. Poetry is language deployed to circumvent the limits of language; these days I take that as a given. Yves Bonnefoy says: “poetry was not made to mean but to restore words to their full intensity, their integral capacity to designate fundamental things in our relationships with ourselves and others, here and now, amid those chances that one should never, as Mallarmé did, dream of abolishing” (2012 PN Review interview with Chris Miller: http://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=8484). Even if just considered as metaphor, perhaps ASMR is what poetry taps into, invokes, rehearses, re-discovers.

Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ and new poems

I sometimes think poets are of two kinds: those drawn to dramatic subjects which explicitly dramatise the writer’s concerns and those drawn to more everyday topics which come to reflect the writer’s concerns in the course of the poem. I think of Hardy and Edward Thomas in the latter camp, alongside Heaney’s reference to Katherine Mansfield in North (1975): “I will tell / How the laundry basket squeaked”. In the former camp, for sure, stands the American writer, Dan O’Brien, who is everywhere at the moment.

O’Brien sees himself as “a playwright who moonlights as a poet” and he has just won the Troubadour International Poetry prize and been shortlisted for the Evening Standard theatre awards (for his play The Body of an American). He also has poems included in the recent Magma issue discussed in my last blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/12/01/the-launch-of-magma-60-at-lrb-bookshop/). O’Brien’s first book of poems, War Reporter, was published by Charles Boyle’s excellent CB Editions just a year ago and I reviewed it for Poetry London. The book went on to be shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and to win the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize (http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2013-winner-announced/)

imgres

In discussion at Aldeburgh, O’Brien said War Reporter had been described as “docu-poetry” and that “sounds fair.” The war reporter in the book’s title is Canadian journalist, Paul Watson, and for seven years O’Brien has been in communication with him, “obsessively” recording and working on email conversations, as well as Watson’s recordings from conflict zones around the world. The two poems in Magma are part of new work in progress. ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Has the Time’ is a good example of the complex webs of guilt and complicity that O’Brien poems weave at their best. The narrator has helped an “interpreter” escape from Kandahar and vengeance is taken against the interpreter’s extended family through an IED: “A bump in the road and / the usual denouement”. The poems never flinch from explicitness about physical harm (“his father, leg like broken / bricks in a bag”) or psychological damage (“a pistol for protection, against all / sense and provocation, only to suck it in his mouth and – blackout”). ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Knows’ returns in part to the moral quandaries surrounding Watson’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk and through the streets of Mogadishu. It also alludes to Watson’s more recent eyewitness accounts from the conflict in Syria: “The West engaged / in self-soothing debates while mercenaries / penetrate the borders, tilting the board / in Assad’s favour”.

The Troubadour winning poem likewise derives from the Syrian conflict. Co-judging with Seren’s Amy Wack, Neil Astley said O’Brien submitted three poems, any one of which could have won first prize: “All three were so compelling that I found myself measuring all the other poems I read against them . . . I had no hesitation in putting forward one of them for first prize.” The eventual winner was ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’: “basically pieces-of-shit / IEDs of TNT, nitrogen / -rich fertilizer, diesel, anything / likely to kindle after exploding”. This is a more brutal, less multi-dimensional poem than some of O’Brien’s but it possesses an undeniable power to shock: “A foot in a sock / sticks out of the mountain. They tickle her / to see if they should dig”.

O’Brien has just published a second collection of more personal poems with CB Editions: http://www.cbeditions.com/obrien2.html

And here is my review of War Reporter from last year:

Dan O’Brien’s book is big, brave, important and challenging even in its imperfections. It is an act of ventriloquism, hitching a desperate and often horrifying ride on the work and experiences of Canadian war reporter, Paul Watson. Watson took the 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk through the streets of Mogadishu. Without doubt, his work tapped something important for America; as well as Watson’s original book, Where War Lives, and these poems, there is also a play and an opera in preparation.

imgres

The poems abound in speaking voices, dominated by Watson himself, but including the “Poet”. Each piece comes at the reader as a slab of blank, largely decasyllabic verse. Voices bleed into one another, partly under the pressure of war zone experiences but also because of an explicit similitude between author and reporter: “You’re like the writer / I’ve always wished I were [. . . ] your constant / returning to an underworld we can’t / look at” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Describes the Ghost’). Both men admit to the allure of war and death. Watson’s voice, telling of his Mogadishu photo, confesses “When / you take a picture the camera covers / your face, you shut the rest of the world out” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice’). The quieter, more reflective stretches of the sequence explore this idea and allude to Camus’ claim to have solved the mystery of where war lives; the answer is in each of us, in our loneliness and humiliation. Watson’s book pursues this and O’Brien does the same here, taking the idea to justify excursions into both men’s personal and family backgrounds. I’m not sure how effective this is (OK, both are drawn to war’s horror, but neither are warriors) and these episodes do sap the quite astonishing power of the more direct reportage.

The book has Watson recalling scenes from Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it is art’s ability to contemplate such horrors that makes the book an important one. Tony Harrison (who always refers to himself as the man who reads the metre) insists that his formal artistry is vital to bring the poet through the fire he is intent on penetrating. O’Brien chooses to speak of man’s brutality by telling it slant, through another’s voice. Watson witnesses the stoning of a married rapist, but the initial possessive modifier ensures we cannot push the scene into the distance: “our audience cheers an elderly man / lifting a perfect cinder block above / his head, then smashing it down where a gash / jack knifes the rapist’s neck” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning’). War lives in all of us and the collection is a hard read partly because of our reluctance to face this. The rigid consistency of form perhaps also adds some monotony, but I’d agree with Jay Parini, that O’Brien’s success is in finding words “sufficient” for our time, a form of speech adequate to the evil that persists.

The Launch of ‘Magma’ 60 at LRB bookshop

Last Friday night I read briefly (partly from my Worple Press book: https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/a-hatfield-mass/) at the LRB bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL (in fact just doors along from Enitharmon Press’ new offices). It was the launch of Magma magazine’s new issue (http://magmapoetry.com/). Magma really has become one of the must-read magazines in UK poetry and the event was one of two national launches (the other is on Thursday 11 December at 7pm at the Lit & Phil, 23 Westgate Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SE, with guest reader Sean O’Brien). The LRB is a spectacularly good bookshop but you feel acutely the vanishing of bookshops elsewhere – to be surrounded by shelves of ‘proper’ books is a real pleasure, distressingly beginning to take on the quality of a sepia-tinted memory. Yet, as one of the readers commented, this is a dangerous place to visit if you’re not prepared to part with hard cash: so many temptations. It’s also a good place for a reading: chairs from front to back on the ground floor, seating well over 50, and on Friday it was packed.

images

Magma 60 is edited by Rob A. Mackenzie and Tony Williams (one of the good and distinctive things about the magazine is its rolling editorship) and 19 poets were asked to read a couple of poems each, with Kei Miller putting in a longer shift at the end as guest poet. Among others, Peter Daniels’ poems evoked a quiet, desperate sense of things not holding, of wider societal failing (‘you might discover you’re painting the house / while the other side’s on fire’). Jacqueline Saphra remembered being seventeen and then dealing with her own seventeen-year olds, boys and girls, the latter crying from their rooms, ‘Come in, I won’t let you in, Come in’. Michael Henry recalled Finals exams and wanting to write about Brecht, which he does in his poem ‘Agent provocateur’: ‘The Brechtian grape is a dry white grape / and it tastes like the white corpuscles in blood’. Martha Sprackland and Jasmine Simms found common ground and a source of poetry in drifting off in science classes at school (I remember it well).

imgres

John Greening read about visiting the archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo and an intriguing poem about ‘The Battle of Maldon’ which knowingly fails to offer ‘an explanation // of what happens in the end [. . .] about how     whatever it is     was broken’. DA Prince also evoked an earlier age with ‘The bell-makers’ reminding me of sequences from Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev (1966): ‘the brilliant blistering light, / that cataract of blazing air, the stream / of liquid pain’. Karen Leeder presented new translations of German poet, Volker Braun. Braun was writing in part through the upheavals of 1989, exploring the triumph of capitalism: ‘EVERYTHING AND NOTHING / Was it ever really yours? Fuck you, fantasist. / The encore: all that you could never need!’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rubble-Flora-Selected-Seagull-German/dp/0857422189/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417365225&sr=1-1&keywords=volker+braun).

At the end of the first half, Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who works in secure hospitals, talked about her work and love of Philip Larkin’s poetry and read ‘Talking in Bed’ (one of my own Larkin favourites; see below). Kei Miller’s live delivery illuminates and energises his own words on the page. I’ve written more about his prize-winning The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet) on this blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/10/22/kei-millers-cartographer-and-friels-translations/). He read several of the Place Name pieces, the poem where the Cartographer asks for directions and gets indirections instead (‘all true’ Kei said), the ‘Hymn to the Birds’ and the 28,000 rubber ducks poem which moves (almost imperceptibly) from children’s bath toys to captives lost overboard on trans-Atlantic passages years ago. Miller finished with his short poem ‘Distance’ which seemed to be something of an answer to Larkin’s poem chosen by Gwen Adshead; here are the two of them. . .

Talking in bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.

Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest

Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

Distance

Distance is always reduced at night

The drive from Kingston to Montego Bay is not so far

Nor the distance between ourselves and the stars

And at night there is almost nothing between

The things we say, and the things we mean.

Writing poems to the tune of Sibelius (circa 1990)

This has been a very busy week and blogging time has been hard to find. At work we are gathering and discussing plans for the 3000-word A2 essays on T S Eliot, West and Fitzgerald – don’t let anyone give you any nonsense about how easy A levels are! But the other evening was spent at Holy Trinity in Sloane Square (not a usual haunt of mine) at my daughter’s school concert. The final piece they played was Sibelius’ Karelia Suite and it set me thinking about a poetic project I embarked on in the 1980s.

It’s with awed admiration as well as a good deal hilarity that I remember setting out to write a sequence of poems – one each month – based on the 7 symphonies of Sibelius. In my wholly untutored way, what I found in the music was a fluidity of movement – one section seamlessly linked to the next – that I wanted to echo in verse. I failed badly, I think, and perhaps only more recently have I found ways to achieve something like it. I also wanted a diaristic quality to the poems, recording and responding to events as they occurred in my own life through the period set. Perhaps not so sadly, I’m not sure I could now lay my hands on the full typescript. Only one of the ‘symphonies’ survived to be published in my first collection Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990): see https://martyncrucefix.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=68&action=edit

btr-cover

It was the extraordinary Fourth Symphony (1911):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._4_(Sibelius)

Listen to it here: 

And here’s Wikipedia on it: Many commentators have heard in the symphony evidence of struggle or despair. Harold Truscott writes, “This work … is full of a foreboding which is probably the unconscious result of … the sensing of an atmosphere which was to explode in 1914 into a world war.” Sibelius also had recently endured terrors in his personal life: in 1908, in Berlin, he had a cancerous tumour removed from his throat. Timothy Day writes that “the operation was successful, but he lived for many years in constant fear of the tumour recurring, and from 1908 to 1913 the shadow of death lay over his life.” Other critics have heard bleakness in the work: one early Finnish critic, Elmer Diktonius, dubbed the work the Barkbröd symphony, referring to the famine in the previous century during which starving Scandinavians had had to eat bark bread to survive.

2b400e06440de71fa24ce91517d87a561ffb25a6

The seven months were (I think) through the winter; so the fourth was probably linked with December and my partner had had a scare with a breast lump. The music’s dark, stark, exploratory qualities all found correlatives in what was going on around me. References to Betjeman and Larkin in section 1, allude to that BBC Monitor programme (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTdDS05x6d0) which I had been using to teach Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings around the same time. My partner’s grandparents had also recently died. In section 3, the reference to Ainola is to Sibelius’s beloved retreat beside Lake Tuusula in Finland, named after his wife: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ainola

So – in lieu of anything more fresh, here’s the 4 part poem – with all its faults – long, thin and astringent . . .

Barkbrod

1.

It is the rawness

of my own throat

that forebodes.

So little else has

been altered, yet

everything’s realigned

as if from without.

My peasant-thoughts

mix bitter bark

with dull flour

to eke life out.

They recognise

the violent-sudden

clarification

of their strength,

its cropped boundary.

Breath shortens.

Sweet Betjeman,

black-eyed Larkin:

these two dead men

alive on a screen

to discuss poetry,

the intimacies

of panic and pain.

And a malignancy

in the songbird’s

weak throat severs

the transference

from hand to hand.

The grandparents

of my young bride

pass along these

pallid, frost-blue

roses on bone-china.

Whether shelved or

to hand, they chill me:

their stark reaction

to our modish

wisdom, our shallow

unquestionable

optimism . . .

Take up the bitterness

of this bread,

brush every crumb

towards the sink

and douse your plate.

Baptise and scour

each blue-ice rose.

2.

The first peculiarities of this year’s

snowlight break up the bedroom glass.

There’s a crackle of news in the kitchen.

All is well. Yet the difficulty is this:

to convey information which is true,

while avoiding fear which is unnecessary,

yet maintain hope which is essential.

In a mess of sensual pleasure and death

it rose obediently to hand as I soaped

my breasts, in my left, quite low down.

Unmistakable. How long have I nursed

this featureless clod over my heart?

Water gems and drains from my feet.

The radio chuckles at my trembling.

3.

What remains to be done

but retire into some

Ainola of the mind,

glimpsed down a track

of snow, pine, a refuge

still as a blown flute.

I wake at night thirsty

and from the window,

across tangled gardens,

a yellow light burns,

sketching the grid

of dull-bricked walls.

But I sink to sleep

still unresolved

whether this midnight’s

oil is some illness,

vocation, compassion,

or the absentmindedness

we fearfully deny.

Your thinned hair now

combed neatly back

behind fleshy ears.

And how is the throat?

Nervy artist’s hands

flutter about the chin.

Those pale eyes of yours

gaze hard at my room,

at this ceiling’s rose

across my shoulders.

I guess you’re slow to be

moved, yet once begun

a relentless nature

like time or weather.

It’s a gaze to outlast

any physique: this slip

of a thing, your strength.

4.

This clod in my breast

wears a tight

black neckerchief.

 

It must be evil

that I think of it

as a child . . .

 

Dark nights running

I dream of him

rapping gently

 

against the door

 – our bedroom door –

till I answer.

So she speaks

as we journey south

out of London,

through the suburbs’

assembled brambled

tussocky plots,

bright washing

collecting the sun

as it drops

long shadows

to meet us both

on the allotments.

Vitality sickens me

with fierce envy

and the why? why?

Across the carriage

a brash student

absently rearranges

his big thighs.

Two powerful hands

murder the fruit

he cleanly eats.

I let him in

over the threshold.

These backs of houses

so ordinary

that reassurance

ought to flow

from them. Yet

we both move here

as an illustration,

a shadow,

quite regardless:

of how a charming boy

will come to the door

from without,

how you bend to him

just as he’s hulking

through transformation

into a killer

in our bedroom

who bolts you upright,

over and over,

screaming unrestrained

beside me.

Helen Mort’s ‘Division Street’ wins Aldeburgh First Collection Prize

The winner of the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize 2014 – one of the most long-established poetry awards in the UK – was announced at the opening of the 26th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Friday 7th November. The judges were Imtiaz Dharker, Robert Seatter (Chair) and Anthony Wilson. Here, Anthony Wilson assembles the competitors on his own blog: http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/2014/11/08/the-fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2014/

The prize went to Helen Mort, Division Street (Chatto, 2013): http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2014-ndash-winner-announced/

And here’s the review I did of the book a few months back for Poetry London:

Mort’s first collection has been much anticipated (no-one else has been five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award!) and Chatto have snapped her up but given her a rather ugly cover with its chalk-board script and rotated image of police confronting striking miners in 1984. Michael Symmons Roberts identifies the bedrock of the book as “the north of England” and the semiology of Division Street means the reader anticipates something more politically engaged than the poems deliver: this is not Heaney’s North, a bit more North of Boston. The north is often setting if not subject, but it is a place almost too recognisable where a girl learns “the name / for artificial hills, the bridge / where a man was felled by bricks / in the strike” (‘Twenty-Two Words for Snow’). She might learn to dance, but sniggers at the teacher’s pretentious “parr-durr-shat” (‘Miss Heath’). A man grows old “in the same bungalow for thirty years / and dreams of digging his way out” (‘Fur’). A stage comedian gets a more lively balladic treatment which suggests a more resilient culture amongst the “empty works” and “braziers / that vanished thirty years ago” but the juke box still dates from 1971(‘Stainless Steven’).

division_street_cover

The risk is regional cliché here and I’m not sure this is really Mort’s true subject. The miners’ strike is dealt with via a re-enactment of the battle of Orgreave by conceptual artist, Jeremy Deller, in 2001. Mort’s desire to write about it is important but the sequence of poems is more an exploration of good old class guilt as the narrator leaves the “Calow WMC” to study in Cambridge, a place where she “cannot learn the tune”. The resonating image is of a different “picket line/ . . . crossed” into a “gilded College gate, / a better supermarket” (‘Scab’). This is why Mort’s epigraph is from Stevenson’s doppelganger novel about the “profound duplicity” of life, but both writers are less concerned with political divisions than personal. Much of Division Street is given over to explorations of the self’s development. The finely-tuned sequence, ‘North of Everywhere’, treats location as psychological landscape where the heart can be let “go on ahead of me”, where “silences become the better part of us”. Such questing is transmuted to a mother gazing at a group of deer, “on pound-coin-coloured hooves”. They are something she denies seeing, though the daughter also finds them, “closer / than before [. . .] their eyes, like hers” (‘Deer’). There is a recurring sense that “doors to other worlds exist” (‘Lowedges’). However much a narrator likens herself to her dogs, she is different:

one night I’ll set off past the meadow, down

behind the beck, beyond the blunt profile of Silver Howe

and nobody will call me back.

‘The Dogs’

Mort’s love of landscape is profound and, like Wordsworth, her hills and skies remain a locus, as well as image of, the process of self-exploration. She boldly plays on her own name in ‘The French for Death’, fantasising of a “girl / who takes the worst route home, pauses // at the mouths of alleyways, or kisses / strangers”. But this transgressive trouble-maker is not so prominent elsewhere where a more compromised, tentative identity emerges. ‘The Girl Next Door’ becomes a haunting double who seems to co-opt the narrator’s weakening identity. ‘The Year of the Ostrich’ wittily suggests a new astrological sign for those of us with “unlikely grace, / who hide our heads, or bear the weight / of wings that will not lift us”. Mort is always good at animals and while jogging she sees a fox, supple, slinking, sly, always about to vanish: “And what she sees she cannot tell, / but what she knows of distances, / and doesn’t say, I know as well” (‘Fox Miles’).

We find and define ourselves against others and Mort does this through romantic love, mostly its loss. “I turned to ask you something and you’d gone” (‘Fagan’s’) is a recurring sentiment. The title poem itself refers to the place where “You brought me [. . .] to break it off”, though in this case it is the other whose “head-down walk” we see, passing pubs in whose windows can be seen “nothing but your own reflection”. Pessimistically, ‘End’ suggests that “Death is // the shape / beneath romance” but the hauntings a writer sustains through such poems as these, though they do not revive the love, at least reinvigorate the lover and persuade that such deaths may only be “le petit mort”.

mort_helen

Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’ (October 1961)

With the death of Acker Bilk yesterday, the following post suggested itself. A West Country boy like myself (‘Acker’ is Somerset slang for mate) he died in Bath Royal United Hospital, these days an unfortunate, frequent haunt of my parents. Bernard Stanley Bilk was born in Pensford, Somerset, in January, 1929, the son of a Methodist lay preacher. His mother played the organ in the local chapel. After a spell working at the Wills tobacco factory in Bristol, he went off to do his National Service in Egypt where he learned to play the clarinet and formed a band known as the Original Egyptian Stompers.

imgres

He always retained his affection for Pensford and never lost his Somerset accent. At one time he employed a road manager, Alan Cutler, known as Adge, who would go on to find success with scrumpy and western outfit, The Wurzels. 

The brief passage that follows is another section from sketchy autobiographical writings hidden away in my files. My earlier post (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/10/14/telstar-august-1962/)

came from the same source. Perhaps there will be more . . .

Play this as you read:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsKTG30g3mw

On the radio a breathy clarinet with a lilting gentle melody climbing up and then immediately returning to a low sustained note like a human voice, deep, quivering, the melody so pure and simple there should be words. I try to put words to it.

That reedy, woody voice backed by a simple marking of time on string bass. As it rises a second time, thin violins accompany it as the notes leap up an octave to something like a cry set loose in a vast open space and the whole is bathed in the solitary, brooding mood that the title of the record hits with precision.

An unknown figure exactly as we all are unknown figures, this time walking beside the ocean, the flat, undramatic waters rolling in, chilled and colourless but for the warm tones of the artist himself, humble and quiet, even at the last hesitating before a defiant little spirited flurry and only then sidling away, the music diminishing into a flat horizon, no big finish.

It is nothing like you might have expected when you see the player on the grey television screen, the gimmicky bowler hat, silk waistcoat and jazzer’s goatie beard.

Dad explains the idea of a ‘gimmick’ to me: something you might adopt – an object, a voice, a look – in order to draw attention to yourself. Why would you do that?