Just before the Christmas break, I was pleased to be asked by Kathleen McPhilemy to contribute to the January 2023 edition of her on-going series of podcasts, Poetry Worth Hearing.
Kathleen’s own introductory remarks about what the podcast includes are as follows:
Jessica Mookherjee reading from two recent collections, Tigress and Notes from a Shipwreck (both published by Nine Arches Press), and Martyn Crucefix talking about the poetry he thinks worth reading. We also have new poems from Beth Davyson, Stephen Paul Wren, Pat Winslow, Suzannah Houston and Chris Beckett. To learn more about the poets and the publications mentioned as well as to see the texts of new poems, go to https://www.poetryworthhearing.biz.
I was especially pleased to hear Pat Winslow’s poem ‘As for the owl’ which carries a dedication to the late, much-missed Helen Kidd. By a strange coincidence, Helen was one of the members of the Old Fire Station Poetry Workshop (led by Tom Rawling by in the 1980s) ) about which I talk in my piece.
I also talk about growing up in rural Wiltshire in a house with few books. My years spent pursuing science – beginning to study medicine at Guys Hospital in London – then my drastic shift to studying Philosophy and English at Lancaster University, where I worked with the Scottish poet, David Craig, on one of the first Creative Writing courses in the UK. At Worcester College, Oxford, in the 1980s I was writing a DPhil thesis on the poet Shelley while also attending poetry workshops with WN Herbert, Peter Forbes, Pauline Stainer, Keith Jebb, Anne Born (and Tom and Helen).
Kathleen also asked me to say something about the poets I go back to and I talk a little (and read from) Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and WS Merwin. Trying to pick contemporary poets to highlight is an impossible task but, on this occasion at least, I speak about Marvin Thompson, Nancy Campbell and John McCullough.
As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was on ‘Writing and Technology’ which I posted (as text and audio file) on this blog a few weeks ago. Another commision was to respond to the intriguing invitation to write a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’. The recording of that piece is still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these short pieces has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this newly published piece is ‘How I Write’ – not an easy subject on which to be clear and succinct but with a little help from WH Auden and Louise Gluck I hope I have said something here that might be of help to all kinds of writers – poets, novelists and (the target audience of the RLF project) those writing at the varied levels of academe.
Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.
How I Write
Always I have to commit something to paper as soon as possible after the initial inkling of a poem. Most writers use notebooks. Some use audio recorders, others their phones. Though first drafts are always terrible, what I’m doing is laying a path back towards the first emotional impulse, a way for myself to return there. You’ll often find me re-reading notebooks to pick up such trails among barely readable, fragmentary scribbles.
These scraps are what may develop into poems. I like W. H. Auden’s view of the poem as a “verbal contraption”. It reminds me a poem (actually, any piece of writing you are doing) is a purposeful device. It needs to be an effective device and poems look to impact a reader’s feelings. This view downplays one of the commonest stumbling blocks about creative writing, which is that what poets try to do is express their own inner moods. If that’s all I focus on, I’ll pay too little attention to the writing’s receiver, my reader.
Anyway, what I want ‘to express’ is seldom fixed at this stage. It’s important I’m willing to add on – simply write more connected material – even beyond the point at which I might think the job done. That tempting voice claiming early completion may be a lazy demon or a censoring one. It’s my practice at this stage to draft loosely, with as much energy and freedom as possible. If I watch children playing, I see them enjoying an excess of energy, movement, voice, and it’s out of this that real creativity arises – new moves, ideas, developments, reformed, revised, played again, played better. So in writing, spinning off new phrases or metaphors leads not only to decorative grace-notes but often to the still-hidden, true heart of the poem. This is why poets often talk of writing as a process of discovery.
For me, most of these stages still take place using pen and paper. The shift to a screen, a keyboard remains a critical transition. On screen, or on a phone, typed lines acquire an inertial resistance to being changed. On screen, I find my eye starts to narrow down to look at the poem’s physical shape and appearance on a would-be page. Such aspects are important in the long run, but they can prematurely cool the fluidity of the molten drafting process if they dominate too early. Beware the linearity of the screen!
But once it’s there, now I’m thinking ‘economy’. A linguistic cosmetic surgeon, I cut off verbal flab, repetition, redundancy. Crossing out is my most familiar activity. The American poet, Louise Gluck, says that a writer’s only real exercise of will “is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto”. One of the keys to this is reading aloud. I go the whole hog: standing as if to deliver to an audience. Loud. And. Clear. This helps me listen to rhythm and line breaks. Actually, for any writer of poetry, prose, essays for your course, reading aloud highlights stumbling blocks of all kinds. My sense of the ebb and flow of a poem is always clarified because I distract myself in the physical act of standing and speaking. I experience my words more objectively, more as my potential reader would. Try it. It’s a revelation!
This is the second of Ricky Ray’s chapbooks to be published in the UK this year (2020) – the other is appearing with Broken Sleep Books under the title, Quiet, Grit, Glory. A full collection, Fealty, also appeared in the UK through Eyewear Publishing in 2018 and it is now republished in the US by Diode Editions. The biographical note from Fly on the Wall Press refers to Ray as “a disabled poet, critic, essayist and founding editor of Rascal: a Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art” – all this suggesting that Ray has several highly ‘categorizable’ aspects to his work, but from the evidence in The Sound of the Earth Singing to Herself, he manages, to the benefit of us all, to elude being pigeon-holed in any neat way. See Ricky Ray reading poetry on the completion of his MFA degree – featuring poems about “dogs, disability, waywardness, childhood, childlessness, ecological consciousness, despair, and the search for hope”.
If poems can withstand the pressure of readers drawing biographical conclusions, Ray’s upbringing was difficult. ‘Sometimes Vision Withers on the Vine’ portrays a chaotic, poverty-stricken household with erratic running water and power supply because “crack was more alluring than the bills”. The boy’s drug-using father’s drug-using friend burns candles on the palm of his hand, apparently feeling no pain. The vision seen in the light seems to be nothing more than a death’s head, a version of the future in which “nothing happens”. Another poem remembers the putting down of a pet dog: “the news // had blown out all moisture and made of my body / Oklahoma”. This is an amazing image of a sudden expansiveness of the self, or its wiping out, in a state of grief at the loss of a creature the boy regarded as closer to a brother. The father had the dog destroyed, as we say, out of kindness, and the boy/poet comments: “a kindness I never wanted, still don’t”, thereby broaching the subject of his own ‘viability’.
Ray’s physical disabilities give him relentless pain, the prospect of comfort realistically being merely “pain / that relents / from a knife-twist / to a dog gnawing / an old / bone” (‘What’s Left’). ‘Toward What’ records a good day in which he falls only once and “take[s] three / minutes to ascend six stairs”. Yet there are some days, “my body is so beautiful / I can’t believe I get to live here” (‘(Dis)ability’). It’s somewhere along this existential line, between the confines of a body in pain and the expansive, close to out of body experience, signalled by that Oklahoma image, that Ray’s poems really come into their own. He can celebrate an incarnated, ‘being in the world’, with both a sense of its pleasures and a sense of what it costs to remain here.
Such a celebration is ‘So Long as There is Light, There is Song’. The narrator and his dog, Addie, are in a field, the dog’s pleasurable ease in the world engendering similar feelings in the poet. There’s a Whitmanesque quality to the loafing in the grass, the blessing of ants, of the grass itself, the dawning sense of a life larger than any of the individuals present:
You could call it continuity.
You could call it the field itself. I like to call it what calls.
And I like to live in her song.
For want of a better label, what is sensed is the Earth, “singing her duet with the sun”, the natural world for sure, but Ray’s language implies a close to sentient being, sensed in the co-habiting of the multitude of separate living things. In considering the ravaging of ‘My Favourite Sweater’ by moths, Ray shows how the human heart might respond to such a sense of “continuity”, in the generosity of his wishing “the moths no ill”:
[I] say to myself it’s all down to pattern, a shifting
pattern, a thread of wool raveling into a thread of moth,
the moth’s wings the stitchwork of the hand that knits us all,
the hand itself a stitch along a seam my mind unravels
It’s Whitman’s long lines and levelling up of all phenomena that comes to mind as the poem goes on to “thank until I run out of things to thank”. Even in the midst of natural danger – in this case a hurricane – the poet/narrator seems to revel in the ominous signals of the storm’s approach, promising to protect his dog. Like the Oklahoma image earlier, this poem (‘On Hurricanes’) ends in mid-flight, the storm raging, the individual consciousness being smashed and scattered, “like fusion, like retribution—/ bang bang bang”. Yet the final image of peril in the face of nature is also an image of becoming one with it, of realising a kind of incarnation: “the roar of it so loud / I can hear the lion’s mouth around my head”.
If ‘On Hurricanes’ reaches apocalyptic levels, the final poem in this chapbook is calmer, more meditative. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ opens with nature and Ray’s ever-present dog, Addie, being company enough for an individual who, for a variety of alienating reasons, has never felt humanity was “a species I was given to understand”. He identifies more with trees, “which may be a function of how poorly my legs work”. The presence of trees consoles, inspires, as Ray again approaches the trailing hem of the divine: “I see a mind at work. Whose, though?” The questioning is not pursued by the rational mind; rather the experiential pleasure – a drifting in an “amniotic ocean” – is allowed to be all. Instead, of an individual walking through a wood, the poem offers us a sensation not of “one walking” but rather of “one being walked”, a moment we might think of as disembodied from the physical world but is as much incarnated within it and is perhaps the most heightened state of environmental consciousness.
Lots of hits in the last 24 hours on my earlier blog post about Louise Gluck. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature tends to have that effect… She’s a fascinating writer, always experimenting, but Anne Carson or Claudia Rankine would have come before her on my list. But given the obvious interest in her work, I’m posting here the text of the review I wrote for Poetry London in 2014 of Gluck’s last (ie. latest, though 6 years old now) book, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet). The review was paired with Michael Longley’s The Stairwell (Cape, 2014).
Louise Gluck’s comments on George Oppen remain one of the best ways into her own poetry. In praising Oppen, she declares her own hand: “I love white space, love the telling omission [. . .] find oddly depressing that which seems to have left out nothing. Such poetry seems to love completion too much, and like a thoroughly cleaned room, it paralyses activity” (Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1994). The homely metaphor here is also characteristic. She shares with Oppen (and surprisingly with Longley) a preference for what is singular, common, small, for “solid nouns”, a language restored “to natural health [. . .] for common use”, rather than a Stevensian “hermetic patois” (‘On George Oppen’ ). So her style has been variously called spare, stripped down, deflated, thinned (especially so since Ararat (1990)). Yet the miraculous paradox her poems evoke is suggested by a further observation from 1994, that “precision is not the opposite of mystery”. Gluck’s dreamlike, enigmatic narratives are all the more powerful – convincing one might say – precisely because of the directness, plainness of her language.
It’s appropriate then that in her new book one of the protagonists paints canvases which are “immense and entirely white” (‘The White Series’). There is mystery enough in this new collection which (as often with Gluck) gestures towards a narrative but whose narrators switch gender, are much concerned with parents (who have perhaps died in a car crash), a caring aunt, a brother (perhaps a sister). These are scenes from (at least one) life. The dominant voice is that of a male artist who, after a career interruption, begins to paint white on a visit to America. He takes on a nephew as a companion as he approaches death. In ‘A Summer Garden’, he discovers a photo of his mother slipped into a translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and a studied, fin de siècle fastidiousness over language surfaces in many poems. Gluck’s novelistic skills in drawing a world in a few strokes and character in even fewer are evident, though once again action is missing; Gluck’s characters, whether male or female, are passive.
Like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, Gluck’s figures contemplate mortality while turning over their past. Though less obviously personal and less contented, as with Longley, the term nunc dimittis seems appropriate. The loss of parental figures is a recurrent trope and in ‘An Adventure’ love too is stripped away in a vain hope of “profound discoveries”. Poetry is lost too, again anticipating “the vast territory / opening to us with each valediction”. In A Village Life (2009), such a via negativa was doubted as “illumination / of the kind [that] destroys / creatures who depend on things” (‘Bats’) and here too it seems ineffectual. The quasi-Victorian cosiness evoked by the book’s title is exposed as false as remembered days “become unstable”, time leaps to and fro, seemingly at random and, if the soul travels at all, the puzzle remains that it always returns “empty-handed”:
[. . .] there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings.
‘Faithful and Virtuous Night’
This is a bleak world not unfamiliar to readers of Gluck. In 1985 she asked, “Why love what you will lose?” only to answer, “There is nothing else to love” (From the Japanese’). Here, her real subject is the way we create our own meanings. ‘Afterword’ reflects on an earlier poem in the collection, suspicious of the “instinct / [to] discern a shape, the artist in me / intervening to stop traffic, as it were”. A meeting with an old woman yields the anticipation “that some important secret / was about to be entrusted” but on reflection her words are “pointless” (‘A Sharply Worded Silence’). Gluck (again like Longley) has used Homeric and Greek mythic material to ironise her more contemporary subjects. Faithful and Virtuous Night instead makes reference to T H White’s The Sword in the Stone to evoke the same kind of focused, watershed moment, indubitably saturated with meaning that the events of her narrator’s lives lack. Even the analyst’s couch offers nothing more than “my ingenuity versus / his evasiveness: our little game” (’The Sword in the Stone’).
In recent years, the Italian settings of Averno (2006) and A Village Life have seemed to warm Gluck’s empathy, developing a more dramatic quality to her work in portraits less obviously autobiographical. This new collection perhaps reverts, but still she engages and moves her readers and there do seem to be eventual gains along this apparently bleak road. These lie in the poems’ openness, the way they seem capable of encompassing such varieties of experience, of saying ‘yes’. Of Oppen, she wrote that his work had the power to seem “simultaneously, whole and not final, the power to generate, not annul, energy”. As in sitting before a Samuel Beckett drama, the paradox is we are not drained of energy by the apparently fruitless search for meaning, but are thrown back onto the road all the more attuned to the clues, to the activity demanded of us. In his last days, Gluck’s artist has his nephew sing Jacques Brel’s ‘The Old Folks’ (“The little cat is dead and no more do they sing“) as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Hills are Alive’. The insight is that “we do not, in the main, need to choose between them” (‘The White Series’).
To end at the beginning, Faithful and Virtuous Night opens with ‘Parable’ in which, “as St. Francis teaches”, a group of people divest themselves of worldly goods, better to focus on their goals, better to move unencumbered towards them. But the direction of travel is unclear, as is their purpose. Much debate ensues; time passes. In the background, perhaps we hear Brel’s “old silver clock” ticking. The group grows old in debate and their ageing (some believe) is their true purpose, while others believe the passage of time is the truth they hoped to be revealed. Both seem satisfied and perhaps we need not choose between them, only admire Gluck’s precise evocation of the mystery.
Nina Mingya Powles’ collection, Magnolia 木蘭, is an uneven book of great energy, of striking originality, but also of a great deal of borrowing. This is what good debut collections used to be like! I’m reminded of Glyn Maxwell’s disarming observation in On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012) that he “had absolutely nothing to say till [he] was about thirty-four”. The originality of Magnolia 木蘭 is largely derived from Powles’ background and brief biographical journey. She is of mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage, born and raised in New Zealand, spending a couple of years as a student in Shanghai and now living in the UK. Her subjects are language/s, exile and displacement, cultural loss/assimilation and identity. Shanghai is the setting for most of the poems here and behind them all loiter the shadows and models of Ocean Vuong, Sarah Howe and, especially, Anne Carson. Powles refers to the impact of reading Carson’s Sappho versions but a much earlier book like Plainwater (1995) with its extraordinary inventiveness of form, gives an idea of what Magnolia 木蘭 contains. (See also Carson’s lecture, ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’ (2008), revised for Poetry Review (2013)).
Powles has said that the opening poem is the oldest. Called ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’, it is written sections of prose (though divided by / every so often as if to suggest line breaks). The Disney animation – about a young Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to fight and prove herself – turns out to be an important reference point for the whole collection. The Mulan figure is recognised as idealised (disneyfied) compared to the narrator who laments her “thick legs / and too much hair that doesn’t stay”. Mulan cuts her hair short; the narrator’s mother trims hers. The issue of the subtitles raises the language question (“I understand only some of the words” of the spoken Chinese). There are suggestions of early encounters with boys, her mother dressing her up as Mulan and (later, presumably) what sounds like a writing workshop comment: “Why don’t you ever write about yourself”. All this works well as a cryptic, cut up sort of a bildungsroman, though the ending fades away less effectively and the earlier hair-cutting episode ends with a disproportionately hyperbolic image of the trimmed hair falling out of place, “ungracefully caught / in the wind of some perpetual / hurricane”.
I don’t think the intriguing glimpses of an individual young woman in this first poem are much developed in later ones. The Mulan figure makes a couple of other appearances in the book and is reprised in the concluding poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’. This consists of even shorter prose observations. In Chinese, ‘mulan’ means magnolia so the fragments here cover the plant family Magnoliaceae, the film again, the Chinese characters for mulan, Shanghai moments, school days back in New Zealand and Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella. It’s hard not to think you are reading much the same poem, using similar techniques, though this one ends more strongly: “My mouth a river in full bloom”.
Unlike Carson’s use of fragmentary texts, Powles is less convincing and often gives the impression of casting around for links. This is intended to reflect a sense of rootlessness (cultural, racial, personal) but there is a willed quality to the composition. One of the things Powles does have to say (thinking again of Maxwell’s observation) is the doubting of what is dream and what is real. The prose piece, ‘Miyazaki bloom’, opens with this idea and the narrator’s sense of belonging “nowhere” is repeated. This is undoubtedly heartfelt – though students living in strange cities have often felt the same way. Powles also casts around for role models (beyond Mulan) and writes about the New Zealand poet, Robin Hyde and the great Chinese author Eileen Chang, both of whom resided in Shanghai for a time. ‘Falling City’ is a rather exhausting 32 section prose exploration of Chang’s residence, mixing academic observations, personal reminiscence and moments of fantasy to end (bathetically) with inspiration for Powles: “I sit down at one of the café tables and begin to write. It is the first day of spring”.
But there’s no doubting the range of reference in Magnolia 木蘭 is refreshing and bringing something new to UK poetry. Poems allude to writers like Hyde and Chang, filmmakers like Miyazaki, the actor Maggie Cheung, Princess Mononoke (a Japanese spirit figure) as well as images from her New Zealand home. Powles’ enthusiasm is also infectious when it comes to formal experimentation. There is little conventional ‘verse’ to be found here. Prose in various guises is frequent, lists and fragments predominate. There are instructional texts, quiz and QandA forms, text and footnote, quoting and re-purposing of other texts, two-column poems (read two ways) and (very frequently) a jotting or journalistic form. This latter gives rise to the best sequence in the collection, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Its 8 short sections return to the question of what is real, expressing a fear of things/words slipping away: “There are so many things I am trying to hold together”. Powles’ time studying Mandarin is contributory here as each section explores the homophonic/polysemic nature of Chinese characters. The first character of her mother’s name, for example, also suggests rain, language, warm, lips and lines/veins. Such moments are fascinating and often poetically suggestive. Another character, ‘zong’, encompasses assemble, trace and the uneven flight of a bird; all aspects of Powles’ technique as a writer. The sequence ends with a sense of language having been lost, though the image of a dropped jar of honey perhaps suggests something holds, something remains: “The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing softly”.
Indeed, another of the pleasures of Powles’ poems is her vivid writing about food. She has said the book is a love poem to Shanghai and it certainly does justice to its culinary offerings. There are four options for ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’, egg noodles crisping in a wok, dumplings, white cabbage and pork and a whole dishful of pink-hearted pomelo fruit. She also has a heightened sense of colour (reflected in Nine Arches’ cover perhaps) and there are ekphrastic responses to Agnes Martin, Lisa Reihana and Werner’s ‘Nomenclature of Colours’ (1814).
Mark Rothko’s ‘Saffron’ (1957) makes an appearance in ‘Colour fragments’ and, after a vivid evocation of the original image, Powles’ response is too unremarkable in that she imagines climbing into the painting, “and you are floating or drowning or both at the same time”. This is not original (or originally expressed) and has something of an undergraduate feel to it. That’s harsh – but what Powles has to say at the moment does not live up to the impressive technical and referential aspects of her writing. I don’t think listing ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’ (none of them very striking, all dealt with in other poems) or ‘Faraway Love’, a re-purposing of Tate gallery notes on a piece by Agnes Martin, should have made the cut to this first book. The book Nine Arches Press presents here is quite a feast – unselfconsciously delighting in colour, taste and a strong sense of place – but it’s also too self-conscious about its nature as poetry and hence I’m left with the less pleasing taste of a poet in hiding or at least one often arrayed in other writers’ clothes.
Last week I attended the launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new collection, published by Seren Books. Tammy and I have known each other for a long while, are both published by Seren and, in her role at Hercules Editions, she has just published my own recent chapbook, Cargo of Limbs. So – in the small world of British poetry – I’m hardly an unconnected critic, but I have the benefit of having followed her work over the years, reviewing her most recent New and Selected, A Formula for Night (2015) here.
In an earlier blog post, I spoke – in rather tabloid-y terms – of the tension in Yoseloff’s poems between the “sassy and the sepulchral”. In 2007’s Fetch (Salt), there were “racy, blunt narratives” which in their exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo made for vivid, exciting reading. The other side of her gift inclines to an “apocalyptic darkness”, a preoccupation with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. In A Formula for Night, the poem ‘Ruin’ invented a form in which a text was gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, were gradually edited out, displaying the very process of ruination. Interestingly, The Black Place develops this technique in 3 ‘redaction’ poems in which most of a text has been blacked out (cut out – see Yoko Ono later), leaving only a few telling words. A note indicates the source text in all three cases was the booklet Understanding Kidney Cancer and the author’s recent experience of illness is an important element in this new collection.
But unlike, for example, Lieke Marsman’s recent The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry, 2019 – discussed here), Yoseloff’s book is not dominated by the experience of illness (and one feels this is a deliberated choice). The book opens with ‘The C Word’ which considers the phonetic parts of the word ‘cancer’, as well as its appearance: “looks like carer but isn’t”. But – within its 12 lines – Yoseloff also considers the other C word, “detonated in hate / murmured in love”. The poem is really about how an individual can contain such divergent elements, “sites of birth / and death”. So unanticipated personal experience is here being filtered through the matrix of this writer’s naturally ambivalent gift.
Illness re-emerges explicitly later in the collection, but for much of it there is a business as usual quality and I, for one, am inclined to admire this:
I refuse the confessional splurge,
the Facebook post, the hospital selfie.
I’m just another body, a statistic,
nothing special. Everyone dies –
get over yourself.
So Yoseloff gives us a marvellous send-up of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ in ‘Sheeple’, a central place on the darker side of Yoseloff-country: “The heartland. Lower Slaughter”. There is urbanite humour in ‘Holiday Cottage’ with its “stygian kitchen”, bad weather, boredom and kitsch:
We stare at the knock-off Hay Wain
hung crooked over the hearth
and dream of England: the shire bells,
the box set, the M&S biscuit tin
‘The Wayfarer’ is one of many ekphrastic poems here – this one based on a Bosch painting – but the “sunless land” is patently an England on which “God looked down / and spat”. These are poems written in the last 3 years or so and, inevitably, Brexit impinges, most obviously in ‘Islanders’ (“We put seas between ourselves, / we won’t be rescued”) but the cityscape equally offers little in the way of hope. There is a caricaturing quality to the life lived there: everything “pixilates, disneyfies” (‘Emoji’) and gender relationships seem warped by inequitable power, by self-destructive urges and illness: “I’d super-shrink my dimensions, / wasting is a form of perfection” (‘Walk All Over Me’).
Perhaps ‘Girl’ shows us the figure of a survivor in such a hostile environment, her energy reflecting those female figures in Fetch – “a slip, a trick, a single polka dot” – but the darkness seems thicker now, the lack of lyricism, the impossibility of a happy ending more resolved:
She’s good for nothing because nothing’s
good: sirens drown out violins
and crows swoop to carnage in the street.
As the blurb says, the book boldly eschews the sentimental sop, the capitalist hype, for truths that are hard, not to say brutal. ‘Little Black Dress’ takes both the archetypal ‘girl’ and the author herself from teen years to widowhood in a dizzyingly rapid sonnet-length poem:
drunk and disorderly, dropping off bar stools one
by one, until the time arrives for widow’s weeds
and weeping veils, Ray-Bans darkening the sun.
And it is – unsurprisingly – mortality (the sepulchral) that eventually comes to the fore. A notable absence is the author’s mother, who has often been a powerful presence in previous books. Here she re-appears briefly in ‘Jade’. The stone is reputed to be efficacious in curing ailments of the kidneys and a jade necklace inherited from Yoseloff’s mother leads her to wonder about the inheritance of disease too: “a slow / release in her body, passed down, // down”. Both parents put in a fleeting appearance in the powerful sequence ‘Darklight’, the third part of which opens with the narrator standing in a pool of streetlight, “holding the dark / at bay”. She supposes, rather hopelessly, that “this must be what it’s like to have a god”. Not an option available to her; the dark holds monsters both within and without and not just for the child:
my parents would sing me to sleep;
now they’re ash and bone. Our lives are brief
like the banks of candles in cathedrals,
each a flame for someone loved;
It’s these thoughts that further the careful structuring of this collection and return it to the experience of a life-threatening illness. ‘Nephritic Sonnet’ is an interrupted or cut off – 13 line – sonnet that takes us to the hospital ward, the I.V. tubes and – as she once said of the city – the poet finds “no poetry in the hospital gown”. Except, of course, that’s exactly what we get. The determination or need to write about even the bleakest of experiences is the defiant light being held up. Yoseloff does not rage; her style is quieter and involves a steady, undeceived gaze and also – in the sequence ‘Cuts’ – the powerful sense that (as quoted above) “I’m just another body, a statistic, / nothing special. Everyone dies”.
It’s this sense of being “nothing special” that enables ‘Cuts’ dispassionately to record very personal experiences of hospital procedures alongside the contemporaneous facts of the Grenfell Tower fire and (another ekphrastic element) a 1960s performance piece by Yoko Ono called ‘Cut Piece’. These elements are ‘leaned’ against each other in a series of 13 dismembered sonnets, each broken up into sections of 6/3/4/1 lines. The fragmentary, diaristic style works well though there are risks in equating personal illness with the catastrophic accident and vital political questions surrounding Grenfell. Ono’s performance piece offers a further example of victimhood, one more chosen and controllable perhaps. What’s impressive is how Yoseloff avoids the magnetic pull of the ego, displaying – if anything – a salutary empathy for others in the midst of her own fears.
The book is titled after a Georgia O’Keefe picture, reproduced on the cover. O’Keefe’s steady gaze into the darkness created by the jagged relief of the Navajo country is something to which Yoseloff aspires, though it “chills me / just to think it into being”. It is the ultimate reality – a nothing, le néant – though like the ultimate presence of other writers (Yves Bonnefoy’s le presence, for example), can at best only be gestured towards:
We’ll never find it; as soon as we arrive,
the distance shifts to somewhere else,
we remain in foreground, everything moving
around us, even when we’re still.
Along such a difficult path, Yoseloff insists, O’Keefe’s art found “the bellow in a skull, / the swagger in a flower”. And, even in the most frightening brush with her own mortality, the poet will follow and does so in a way that is consistent with her own nature and work over many years.
A few weeks back, I was asked to contribute to an afternoon event in Palmers Green Library, north London, with the title – from Robert Frost’s poem – ‘The Road Not Taken’. It was introduced by Maggie Butt, with readings of their own poetry around the theme by Mark Holihan and Denise Saul. I was also asked to deliver a few thoughts on the work of Robert Frost. What follows is an edited transcript of what I said then and I think of it as a basic introduction for the general reader to Frost’s work and some of the ideas which I see recurring in it. As previous posts have mentioned, I’ve been teaching Frost for a few years recently – thanks to all those students who made me go back and read the poems again!
Despite the apparent simplicity of many of his poems, the real identity of Robert Frost (1874-1963) is hard to pin down. Though raised in late 19th century America, his first book was published in England. Though on the brink of the Modern, a year before the First World War, these poems used plain language and traditional forms. He loved Europe, befriending Edward Thomas – stirring him from prose into poetry – yet Frost sailed back to the US, to farming, north of Boston. By all accounts he was never a very successful farmer, though he often presented himself as talking downright farmer-like common sense. Some find his work consolatory; but he was famously called a ‘terrifying’ poet, a bleak Modernist.
If all this sounds slippery, then Frost took it into his poetics too. He said that, while writing a poem, he was conscious of saying two things at once. But he always wanted to say the first thing so well that any reader who liked that part of the poem might feel able to rest there. Yet, he implies, for those interested in going further, beyond the particular, overt or explicit meaning – say, two farmers re-building a wall between their properties, a man stopping to watch snow fall in a wood, a mower and a butterfly – there is always an ulterior meaning (at least one) that might also be opened up.
At all levels, such defining walls, barriers and boundaries – physical, mental, spiritual – proliferate in Frost’s work. But his view of them is complex. These walls are often porous. But sometimes they can seem impenetrable. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his biological knowledge, but here is something else Frost repeatedly jotted down in his Notebooks: “All life is cellular. No living particle of matter however small has yet been found without a skin – without a wall.”
On one side, these secure boundaries seem necessary for a successful life – like the wall round all cellular organisms. He would say: “I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person”. But the dangers are obvious. The cellular wall of identity becomes more than a means of self-definition and grows to become an exclusion zone, a solitary place, a state of solipsism. Many of Frost’s figures and narrators are found to be struggling with this state. Yet Frost’s comments about identity, wanting to be a person, wanting you to be a person, in fact continue: “then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other’s noses – do all sorts of things”.
So the presence of these cellular walls do not necessarily hold us back. They are as often porous or permeable. Yet they seem also to offer a firm foundation from which we may reach out, we can humanly interact. We can pull each other’s noses. And there is indeed much pulling of noses in Frost’s poems. In particular, he liked to pull the nose of the person he chose to narrate many of his poems. There is very often an irony at work against the speaker. His poems are often more dramatic than lyric.
We might ask why is Frost so concerned about being a person, about the relative security of identity? Because, in other moods, he knows the dangers posed by the absence of any functioning cellular membrane: the leaking out of personality into the surrounding world, of identity dissipating to become nothing, the risk – as it were – of personal extinction.
There is a little poem called ‘The Cow in Apple Time’ which (on the face of it) is about a cow who is driven by an unspecified desire to disregard the walls about her pasture. The wall is no more than an open gate to her. She charges through and greedily eats fallen apples, growing intoxicated, her face splattered with apple juice. But in this kind of gluttonous state she grows sick, in pain:
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.
It’s a perfectly satisfying poem about a rural incident – perhaps Farmer Frost, had once witnessed it himself. But there is Frost’s ulteriority too. The cow is consistently described using terms which anthropomorphise her. The wall breaker is perhaps on one level really human, a rebel, a sinner – written in 1914, some have even suggested the cow is an invasive force. However we see her, she is punished for her disregard of, her undervaluing of, those walls and boundaries which perhaps ought to serve to define her life.
Remember this is the same Robert Frost who disparaged the writing of free verse, by many of his more obviously Modernist contemporaries, as trying to play tennis with the net down. The same Robert Frost who disparaged the, then fashionable, interest in Surrealism with its wild leaps over convention, its dislocation of the senses, the shock value of the illogical. For Frost such practices could lead only “to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”.
The cow with the aching stomach is paralleled by a dying peach tree in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. The narrator has moved “far north” and has transplanted a peach tree and now the northern winter is threatening it. He sits indoors and frets about it, trying to blame the weather rather than himself. But self-criticism arises all the same and it is human “ambition” that gets the blame, that “limitless trait in the hearts of men”. More precisely:
[. . .] though there is no fixed line between right and wrong,
There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.
I love the messy pragmatism implied by “roughly zones”. One of his recurring concerns, Frost said, was with “the impossibility of drawing sharp lines and making exact distinctions” – no red lines, lines in the sand, defined boundaries, but zones of negotiation, places calling for compromise, no fundamental clarity, rather a feeling-out, a region requiring a dialogue.
As in a poem like ‘The Tuft of Flowers’. A man comes to a mown field to turn the cut grass, the hay, to help its drying. He looks about for the man who had earlier mowed the grass:
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been, – alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart
The hermetically cellular, or as we would now say, atomised nature of society seems to be assumed by the narrator. It looks like there is going to be no breaking of boundaries here. But a “[be]wildered” butterfly passes him, looking for flowers that grew there yesterday, now cut down. The butterfly leads him to a “leaping tongue of bloom” left deliberately, out of “sheer morning gladness” by the mower. The narrator hears the message from this “tongue of bloom” which speaks of each man as a “spirit kindred” to the other. It’s as if they now enter into a dialogue, revising the earlier solipsistic observation. Now:
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
There is a rosy-edged hint of sentimentality here perhaps. But the fanciful dialogue between the two men (who actually never meet) represents a successful negotiation into that rough zone between individuals, the cellular membrane is actually permeable, and the result here is consolatory.
In ‘Mending Wall’, two farmers meet to patrol on either side of a dry-stone wall marking the boundary between their farms. Parts of it are always falling down. They build it back up. But the paradox is that the action of building up what separates them, brings them together each year to perform the task. The wall does not prevent or act as a brake on their relationship – rather it facilitates it – it perhaps is their relationship, what links them. From their respective sides – from their respective identities or persons – they are free to become ‘interpersonal’. But the mischievous, sceptical, modern-minded narrator expresses doubts about the importance of walls, particularly when “He is all pine and I am apple orchard”. His neighbour is a more traditional, unquestioning man, who likes to repeat his father’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The narrator mocks him (though in silence, in his head) as “an old-stone savage”, lost in actual and intellectual “darkness”. But it is significant that the wall-believer has the last word. For me, it is the moderniser is the one being ironised. If he was a versifier, he’d be trying to write poems with the net down.
Why Frost’s concern with the importance of walls? Because – in still other moods – he has looked into the abyss of experience without them. One example is given in the 16 terrifying lines of ‘Desert Places’. The narrator here seems to have taken the more modern, sceptical wall-mender’s view to heart. It seems there are no bounds here – all have vanished under “Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast”. That note of fear there adds to the nightmare feeling and when the outward-looking eye turns to look within – to find himself – he finds nothing: “I am too absent-spirited to count”. That phrase is an echo of ‘absent-minded’. There is a vacancy within and without – no mind, spirit, self, identity. There is only the concluding, devastating rhymes of “empty spaces . . . where no human race is . . . my own desert places”.
And if ‘Desert Places’ evokes the desolation of a world viewed in the absence of a relatively secure cell-walled self, then ‘The Most of It’ shows us the horrifying effects of being walled in. In this poem, the narrator “thought he kept the universe alone”. There seems nothing else but him, only a “mocking echo of his own [voice]”. Yet he does remotely feel a desire for dialogue – perhaps just in being human – and does express a desire not for “copy speech. / But counter-love, original response”. But when the universe does eventually break into his consciousness, it arrives not in the form of dialogue or a negotiated relationship but as an utterly alien thing.
It emerges only as a strange, vague “embodiment” that “crashed” and “splashed” towards him and is recognised only by means of a simile. Perhaps it is an elk.
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.
There, Frost captures the egoist’s struggle to comprehend what is other than him; followed by the arrogance of his dismissal of it. And perhaps this is a particularly masculine thing. Yet there is no need to attribute these feelings to Frost himself. The speaker is best read as a dramatic representation of one extreme of Frost’s concern for borders and boundaries that are vital for our own selfhood yet must be porous enough to allow for knowledge and experience.
So in ‘Birches’ the narrator remembers – as a boy – climbing slender birch trees, to the top, only to leap out and bend them down with his weight. This swinging of birches can be seen – ulteriorly – as representing Frost’s belief in those negotiated rough zones of a life. We climb up, out of our element, but not too far:
It’s when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig’s having lashed across it open. I’d like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate wilfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
And if we find this frustratingly ambivalent – Frost sitting carefully on the fence – then he often rubs our noses in it. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ famously concludes with two lines which are identical. For me, the repetition introduces greater ambiguity into the moment. Does the narrator stop, perhaps to die, entranced by the snowfall? Or does he shake himself up, turn back to his life in the village, his roles and responsibilities?
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Frost throws the question back to the reader. What Frost knows is that we do not keep the universe alone. We are parts of a whole – but the borderlands are uncertain – sometimes we cross them and lose touch with ourselves, at other times we too easily accept them and fall into egotistical isolation. There maybe be a happy medium – but Frost’s dynamic poems suggest the truth is we can never find and hold to that; we are always involved in the complicated fraught business of negotiation, of swinging birches, of chasing butterflies, of building walls that will promptly fall down again.
Last night I was at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden for the launch of two new collections from Seren Books. Lynne Hjelmgaard was reading from A Second Whisper and Mary J. Oliver was launching her debut collection, Jim Neat: the Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck. Oliver’s book is a curious, thought-provoking mix of family research and prose/poetic fictions. But I’ve known Hjelmgaard for a few years now as a workshop colleague and as a friend of Dannie Abse and I wanted to gather some thoughts here on her new poems.
her playfully titled poem, ‘Ode to a Danish Lamp’, Lynne Hjelmgaard constructs
a paean to a piece of electrical equipment which ends rhetorically, “Why do you
move me so?” Some clues to the answer are scattered through the poem; they lie
in comparisons. The lamp is an example of “Nordic metallic cool”, beside which
the speaker – “a mere human” – feels humbled. She and the rest of the room, we
are told, arrange themselves about the lamp which hence serves as a focal point
and even a source of “answers”. It’s as if the lamp is wired up to a clearer,
less divided, perhaps purer world:
. . ] the charged interior, a territory,
no country nationality race
religion has any significance.
In contrast, the human figure is more embedded in a world of time, place and quotidian specificity while the lamp emerges with its “fine, oh so thin aluminium rim” as a denizen of a less troubled realm. The speaker is moved because excluded from such a realm and the majority of the poems in A Second Whisper focus precisely on our more compromised, familiar world, particularly the ‘merely human’ experiences of time, memory and loss.
being a particularly philosophical poet, Hjelmgaard writes as someone who is an
“expert at loss”. Another less typical poem describes – in great detail –
Brooklyn Bridge and the area around it (the poet was born in New York City).
She remembers sailing out under the bridge:
is a chain with many links,
are broken, lost and never repair,
others can be retrieved even at a distance.
what can shine so brightly at sea
but a city, once loved, left behind?
focus on links lost or remembered is probably hard-wired into her constitution
(these thematic roots usually are) but it has also been provoked by
biographical influences. Her 2011 book, The Ring (Shearsman Books) was
dedicated to the memory of her Danish husband, Stig – who died in 2006 – and
followed an American woman’s travels around Europe, mourning and negotiating that
loss. Dannie Abse, among others, praised those poems: “Widowhood allows them to
acquire a poignant universality”. Five years later, A Boat Called ‘Annalise’
(Seren Books), was full of more poems of remembrance, evoking the sea
journey the newly married couple made out of New York to Europe, via the
are further poems written to and about her husband in this new book. In ‘As We Silently
Agree’, the husband appears to the widow, “in some kind of afterlife”, and is
seen busying with a boat’s anchor chain, searching the ship’s log and weather
charts. This is perhaps a dream poem:
fingers clasp in recognition
we silently agree:
does it matter now
you don’t keep the course?
And ‘Scorpion Hill’ may be another example of dreamwork, the wife this time revisiting a once-shared house in the Caribbean. Its final image is of many moths clustering round “a single light bulb / left on during the night”. These are fine poems of time and sustaining memory – that bulb still burning – in which the past and those lost within it are shown to revisit the survivor.
Hjelmgaard’s treatment of this traditional theme is neither religious nor consolatory in any facile way. The pain of great loss is heartfelt and yet she manages to persuade the reader – it’s less intellectual than that, maybe she draws her readers in to the actual experience – that what lies in the past still retains is power to evoke pleasure and even that the future’s gifts are to be welcomed, even anticipated. In ‘To a Chestnut Tree’, addressing the tree in its autumnal state, the narrator is sure, “There will always be another one. / And another. // Loss can be moved through like a room”. What a magnificent line that last one is. There is a wisdom in it, however modestly it may be presented.
takes – but time also provides. Another poem of trees has a fir leaning
eventually into a “beloved palm” – though it may take a century or two of slow
growth. A lonely tamarisk on a cliff top also has the capacity to “wait until
it can drink / from the bay eighty feet below”. Hjelmgaard finds her themes in
the smallest incidents. Unpacking a suitcase after a journey, she finds she has
brought two extra items home with her. One is a fossil of a snail which seems
to represent a determined persistence through time (60 million years perhaps,
in this case). The other – a flighty stowaway – is a spider which she finds
“already busy / making yourself at home”. The spider evokes an improvisatory
optimism, an adaptability, even an adventurousness, which I see as some of the
most distinctive elements in the themes of Hjelmgaard’s work.
these qualities to which Gillian Clarke is responding in her comment on A
Second Whisper, where she finds in the book “the story of a special late
love after bereavement”. In recent years, the British poet who has written most
powerfully and movingly about bereavement and the encroachment of the past into
the present is Dannie Abse. This is from his poem ‘The Presence’ about the loss
of his wife, Joan:
when I’m most myself, most alone
all the clamour of my senses dumb,
in the confusion of Time’s deletion
Eternity, I welcome you and you return
improbably close, though of course you cannot come.
The opening 14 poems of A Second Whisper explore the loving relationship that sprung up between Hjelmgaard and Dannie Abse after the deaths of Stig and Joan. Her opening prose piece takes us directly into everyday details. The two bereaved poets meet: “And for a time it was the four of us. Though one day, without ceremony, we noted their absence”. Thus set free, the ones still living proceed, though along no clear path, “wherever poetry and Eros chose to take [them]”
at their first meeting – on a train journey back from the Torbay Poetry
Festival – the presence and absence of time was notable. Minutes were not to be
wasted in the presence of the older poet, says the younger narrator. But
mysteriously – this is in late October – the waitress at the station café is
seen taking away the clock to change the hour. A photograph of the two poets at
a reading shows the younger woman “less sure of herself”, while Abse is more
comfortable with the attention. But at 85 years old, Abse begins appearing in
these poems as more and more in decline. “Aged and dying you grew more tender”,
as ‘A Second Whisper’ puts it. In this poem – as in several others – Hjelmgaard
is visiting Abse at home.
knew just how to open your front door quietly.
lock a whisper, a second whisper to shut.
This image – absolutely precise in its remembrance, yet also powerfully suggestive – is like the earlier line about walking through loss as through a room. The first whisper has a respectfulness, concerned with quietude, with the sensitivity of the artist, the closeness of death. The second whisper is full of ambivalence: protective perhaps from the noisy, nosey world, wanting to secure the intimacy, wanting to defend the loved one from the inevitable, yet a foreshadowing of that very inevitability.
‘A Thief Is in the House’ has death portrayed as an invader, breathing heavily, thumping up the stairs to the dying figure whose “eyes [are] prepared // for nothingness”. But these poems are not overwhelmed by grief. As if taking a leaf out of Abse’s own poems of mourning and remembrance, Hjelmgaard’s predominant tone is one of recall and revisiting – even of re-visitation. Walking alone on Hampstead Heath, she hears the lost lover chanting a Lorca poem; because one day they sheltered under an awning on Golders Green Road, every time it rains now, “the rain /stops everything / to think of you”. And in an exquisite lyric, ‘Speak to me Again at Dusk’, Hjelmgaard yearns to resume her conversations with the dead poet, yet her tone – which might have been one of pleading and despair – in fact retains a clear appreciation of the lasting value of what has been and a pleasured openness to the present (hear those noisy roosters in a moment!). Such deep-grained attitudes seem to have been a mutual common ground between these two writers and perhaps was one of the constitutive elements in their late-flowering love:
Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)
Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance has already received a great deal of coverage since being chosen as a Poetry Book Society Choice in September 2018. It is a collection that has achieved the difficult task of transcending the acclamation of the poetry world to a much more widespread appreciation, such as winning the Rathbone’s Folio Prize 2019 (awarded to “the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form”). In many ways it is a conventional book of poems – its voice is colloquial, it successfully employs a range of (now) traditional forms (dramatic monologues, prose poem, sestina, ghazal, pantoum), its forms, syntax and punctuation are nothing out of the ordinary (compared to the work of Danez Smith, for example, a comparison that Antrobus invites). Its subject matter is to a large extent dominated by a son’s relationship with his father, by questions of racial identity and (this is what is especially distinctive) the experience of a young Deaf man. Besides the latter, what really marks the book out as special is that impossible-to-teach, impossible-to-fake, not especially ultra-modern quality of compassion.
I think the portrait of the “complicated man”, Raymond Antrobus’ father, is remarkable. This is a warts and all portrayal as can be seen in the title poem, a sestina, in which the boy’s seemingly endless and repeated waiting for his father to come out of the pub called ‘The Perseverance’ is reflected in the repetitions of the poetic form. The neglect of the child (and of the mother of his child) is made perfectly clear; one of the repeating rhyme words is ‘disappear’. But another is ‘perseverance’ itself which sets up sweetly ironic resonances in relation to the experiences of both father and child. But a third rhyme word is ‘laughter’ which transmutes in significance as the poem develops. At first it is the distant din from the inside of the pub. It grows into a sort of paternal life-view: “There is no such thing as too much laughter”. In the end, after the loss of the father, it is what the son remembers, rather than the neglect: “I am still outside THE PERSEVERANCE, listening for the laughter”.
Antrobus’ epigraph to ‘The Perseverance’ quotes from ‘Where you gonna run’, a lyric by Peter Tosh: “Love is the man overstanding”. The latter word means a form of understanding that emerges after all untruths have been overcome. The poems scattered through this collection make it clear that a full overstanding of his “complicated” father took a while. The disciplining of his child often took the form of “a fist”. When Raymond knocked loose wires from his father’s sound system, the response was a beating. Yet, “every birthday he bought me / a dictionary”. His father could recite “Wordsworth and Coleridge”. He never called his son deaf, but rather “limited”, and he would read with him in the evenings (more of that later). But then he might regale his son with tales of his extensive sexual experiences, “three children with three different women”. In the end, as so often, the child ends nursing the infantilised father who is suffering from dementia. The father’s mind is filled with the past, his own growing up in Jamaica, his first kiss, his later, difficult life in England. ‘Dementia’ deploys a second person address to the condition itself:
you simplified a complicated man,
swallowed his past
until your breath was
warm as Caribbean
In the final poem in the book, Antrobus again uses a traditional form – a pantoum this time – to evoke some of the moments of closeness between father and son as they read together. In ‘Happy Birthday Moon’ the father’s attentive, gentle, encouraging side is memorialised as is the Deaf child’s desire to please his father:
Dad makes the Moon say something new every night
and we hear each other, really hear each other.
As Dad reads aloud, I follow his finger across the page.
Much earlier in the book, Antrobus writes of clearing his father’s flat after his death. On an old cassette tape, stowed away for years, the poet now listens to a recording of his own two-year-old voice, repeating his surname: “Antrob, Antrob, Antrob”. The final syllable is missing because the child could not hear it. At the time of the recording, no-one in the family suspected there was an issue. Years later, Antrobus sits “listening to the space of deafness”. Other sections of this early sequence, ‘Echo’, document the Deaf child’s experiences of slow diagnosis (“since deafness / did not run in the family”) and the tests that finally revealed the truth. These are important poems for the hearing world to read; the lazy inaccuracies and limitations of our imaginations always need re-invigorating with the truth of lived experience. The first section of ‘Echo’ takes us straight into the experience of “ear amps”, of “misty hearing aid tubes”, of doorbells that do not ring but pulsate with light.
Antrobus’ subject is only partly the frustrations of Deafness (capital D refers to those who are born Deaf – hence a state of identity, a cultural difference – as opposed to small d which refers to those who become deaf, having acquired spoken language, whose relationship with deafness is more as disability, as medical condition). One poem uses the repeated refrain “What?” Another, with courageous humour, records every day mis-hearings such as muddling “do you want a pancake” with “you look melancholic”. But it is more often the capability of the d/Deaf that Antrobus wants to proclaim: whether the doorbell is heard or seen, “I am able to answer”.
Inevitably, there is anger to be expressed. We feel the heat of this especially in ‘Dear Hearing World’ which, as Antrobus’ note confirms, contains “riffs and remixes of lines” from ‘dear white america’, a poem by Danez Smith included in Don’t Call Us Dead (Chatto, 2017). Smith’s example – a prose poem full of frustrated anger and a desperate wishfulness for better race relations in the USA – seems to liberate Antrobus’ voice. He wishes – or rather demands – better treatment for the d/Deaf: “I want . . . I want . . . I call you out. . . I am sick of. . .” The hearing world is castigated for its mistreatment of the d/Deaf: “You taught me I was inferior to standard English expression – / I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter”. Antrobus also takes aim at some high profile figures for their attitudes to d/Deafness. I remember being asked (and refusing) to teach Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’ (collected in Moortown (Faber, 1979)). Antrobus here reprints and redacts the whole poem, following it with an excoriating commentary on Hughes’ patronising and presumptuous comments. Elsewhere Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell come in for criticism.
Of course, such blinkered prejudices about d/Deafness and race remain rife as ‘Miami Airport’, a fragmented account of an interrogation at the US border, makes clear. With Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, the British-Jamaican poet, Antrobus, would say, “I am from there, I am from here”. Born to an English mother, his father always tried to keep his Jamaican heritage alive. But even his appearance speaks two stories as in ‘Ode to my Hair’: “do you rise like wild wheat / or a dark field of frightened strings?” And the subtly shifting meanings of repetition in the ghazal form of ‘Jamaican British’ cleverly brings out the liminal spaces imposed on individuals who share Antrobus’ ancestry.
But despite the many issues raised in this book, it is not in the end to be praised for its campaigning zeal. In the wonderfully titled ‘After Being Called a Fucking Foreigner in London Fields’, Antrobus confesses, “I’m all heart, / no technique”. He’s talking about fist fights here, but it’s certainly not true of his poetry. There is plenty of technique and skill on show, but it is put to the service of the “heart”. Not in a sentimental way at all – these poems can tell brutal truths – but in the compassion, the love, that most of the poems exude. There are plenty of essays and definitions of identity around these days and there is rightfully plenty of blame-work, but Antrobus finds it in himself to forgive. Instead of punching his abuser in London Fields, he “write[s] until everything goes / quiet” and in ‘Closure’, addressing someone who knifed him years ago, he finds the strength to say, “There is no knife I want to open you with. Keep all your blood”. This is a first collection that barely puts a foot wrong and thoroughly deserves the praise that has already been heaped upon it.
Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)
Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)
David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books)
Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet)
Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)
David Cain’s first book confronts its readers with questions about how we might witness traumatic events, about truth (and its distortion by the authorities and the media), about the language and forms of poetry. On 15 April 1989, during the opening minutes of the FA Cup semi-final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, 96 men, women and children died in what remains the most serious tragedy in UK sporting history: the Hillsborough Stadium disaster. Thousands more suffered physical injury and long-term psychological harm. For almost thirty years the survivors and the families of the dead had to campaign against the police, government and media who blamed the supporters for the tragedy. Eventually, in 2016 a second inquest ruled that the supporters were unlawfully killed due to failures of the police and ambulance services.
David Cain’s Hillsborough poem is dedicated to the 96 people who died and is wholly composed from testimonies heard at the inquest. Cain has said: “My ambition throughout has been for the work to listen to the resonances held in the collective memory of that fateful day, hear the poetry found in the hearts of the people who lived through this terrible experience, and try to weave these testimonies into a singular voice. Focusing on everyday life and language, grammar uncorrected, every line of the poem is drawn from over two hundred and sixty days of formal evidence.”
Cain also cites the work of Charles Reznikioff and Svetlana Alexievich as models. The former, an Objectivist poet, developed work from court records and explored the experiences of immigrants, black people and the urban and rural poor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Testimony, 1965). He went on to use a similar technique in Holocaust (1975), based on court testimony about Nazi death camps during World War II. Similarly, Svetlana Alexievich’s books trace the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet experience through carefully constructed collages of interviews. Her work owes much to the ideas of Belarusian writer, Ales Adamovich, who felt that the best way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not by creating fiction but through recording the testimonies of witnesses.
The colloquial plainness of the language (for the most part) of the Hillsborough testimonial material is clear from the start as the scene is set:
There was men, women, children.
There was lots of families there.
They were very happy.
Lots of people eating chips, milling around.
Many of the pieces have this same staccato rhythm, often end-stopped and Cain always lays out the lines with double spacing between. This works well. It gives the sometimes bland and cliched language a bit of the white space of poetry, giving the reader extra time and I think what we do with that time is add in our knowledge of the testimonial nature of what we are reading. These are not ‘composed’ words in the usual sense (about which we might quibble) but witness statements. Here are other lines before the tragedy unfolds:
I sat there reading my programme, mooching about.
Watching the world go by.
It was all happy.
It was a nice sunny day.
It’s an established cliché of (Romantic) poetic theory that people tend to reach for/create figurative language under pressure of emotional experience and that such moments make for powerful writing. In Cain’s edited versions this is borne out on some occasions. As the swelling crowd gathers outside the stadium, people are already being crushed against walls:
I ended up face blank stuck against the brick wall
A bit like rubbing yourself against a piece of solid sandpaper.
nothing nice or rounded or polished
In another piece, the crowds now funnelling into the ground through the opened exit gates are described as “like sand into an egg timer”. Moments later, another witness struggled to describe fans now pouring onto the already crowded terrace:
The scene reminded me of pictures on television in the nature programmes.
Molten lava flowing down a hillside from an active volcano.
like a wave.
In this latter case, what is moving is less the image itself but the evident struggle to find a fitting comparison. The testimonies here tend to reach for cliché rather than startling figurative language but it is in the nature of the witnessing act that these are still deeply moving accounts in our awareness of their truth. (How often have we been told as writers that our self-conscious wish for novelty or reaching after effect is damaging to our work).
As the men, women and children are suddenly crushed into the barriers by the press of fans behind, any thoughts we might be having about modes of expression evaporate. Unnamed voices bear witness to events. A son tries to protect his father being crushed against the railings, cradling him against the pressure. But a surge means his arms buckle, he’s twisted to one side, no longer able to shield his father: “That is the last time I had my father alive”. Another voice ends up in the small gym beneath the stadium which is being used as a make-shift sanctuary for the dead and injured. Also there is a young St John’s Ambulance volunteer, “A young lass, 14 or 15, longish blonde hair”. The poor girl, while in shock herself, is trying to help those around her and the narrative voice is equally full of compassion for the girl: “I just put my arm round her and said, // ‘You’re a kid. // You should not be seeing this.’”
As much as the horror of broken bones, suffocation and trampled bodies, it’s these powerful acts of compassion – the wish to protect, to help, to shelter others and, when people are found to be already dead, to show them some respect –which are built through the sequence. They are contrasted with witness accounts of the slow, insensitive, sometimes appalling responses of the authorities. Though there are a few reports of “Police and fans alike” trying to help, these are outweighed by incompetence, lack of training and worse. The fans being crushed in the caged areas ought to have been released, the gates onto the pitch opened, but:
We hadn’t any instructions.
We turned and we tried to find out who’s got a key.
We were saying to the sergeant,
‘Who’s got a key?
Who’s got a key?’
For critical minutes, police regarded the event as a pitch invasion. Fans kicking down pitch-side billboards to use as improvised stretchers were threatened with arrest for vandalism. Later, as families were being asked to identify the dead, they were pulled back from any physical contact with the bodies: “’Sorry, he’s the property of the coroner now. // You can’t touch him’”.
While we probably feel for almost all those thrown into an utterly unprecedented situation – the poorly trained individual’s recourse to rigid protocols – Truth Street squarely blames the media and the higher ranks of police. The role of The Sun newspaper’s subsequent reporting is well known. One witness is haunted by the thought that his actions on the day – taking out a dead man’s wallet to lay it on him so that he can be identified – might have been misconstrued, or photographed, as him “looting the dead”. Later, the press pack burst into a room where relatives “are trying to find out what’s happening to [their] loved ones”. They want their scoop.
Equally shocking are the testimonies which show the police inquiry trying to establish a narrative of drunkenness and disorder amongst the fans. Even as a dead relative is identifying a body, “The very first question asked was what had I had to drink today”. Another statement-taking pursues the same line: “did I have owt to drink? // did I see any fighting? // did I see anybody drunk?” And as we now know, this line of inquiry, this cover-up, was sanctioned from the top. The section ‘Norman Bettison’ is an account given to the inquiry in which the then Chief Inspector admitted to being asked “to pull together the South Yorkshire Police evidence for the inquiry // and we’re going to try and concoct a story that all of the Liverpool fans were drunk”. This internal review group tried to control media coverage, producing a 30 minute film narrated by Bettison himself that was shown to MP’s, which reiterated the claims of drunk, violent and ticketless fans breaking down the turnstiles, causing the disaster.
In fact – as Cain’s sequence shows – what was being covered up was the original decision of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield to open the exit gates at 2.47pm. One of his officers spoke to the inquiry: “I was quite shocked // It was totally unprecedented. // It was something you just didn’t do”. This was what caused the inflow of fans – “like sand into an egg timer”. Only at the second inquiry, did Duckenfield revise his earlier false statements: “I didn’t say, // ‘I have authorised the opening of the gates’”.
Cain’s book ends with a roll call of the dead, giving their names and ages. He titles it, ‘Hold your head up high’ and is a good a way of concluding as any. But, immensely moving though the sequence is, I’m left with the desire for more. Such is the nature of this form of testimonial or witness account – there can be no natural ending point to such traumatic events. This is also why the opening of Truth Street feels very awkward – a scene is being set in the way (fiction) writer’s do. Reznikoff’s Testimony eventually grew to 500 pages over two volumes. Cain’s powerful work has been cut to the standard size of a volume of poetry. But its power is undeniable; in reviving, memorialising and bearing witness to individual Hillsborough voices, this book is a unique contribution to contemporary British poetry.