Martyn Crucefix is our headline reader. His recent publications include Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019), These Numbered Days, translations of the poems of Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019), which won the Schlegel-Tieck Translation prize 2020, and The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017). O. at the Edge of the Gorge was also published by Guillemot Press in 2017. Martyn has translated the Duino Elegies – shortlisted for the 2007 Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation – and Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke and the Daodejing – a new version in English (Enitharmon, 2016). He is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at The British Library and blogs regularly on poetry, translation and teaching at http://www.martyncrucefix.com
Main Reader – Martyn will read both original poems and from his Schlegel-Tieck Translation prizewinning book of Peter Huchel’s work.
Romalyn Ante was born in Lipa Batangas, in the Philippines, in 1989. For much of her childhood her parents were absent as migrant workers and the family moved to the UK in the mid-2000s where her mother was a nurse in the NHS. Ante herself now also works as a registered nurse and psychotherapist. As a result, this debut collection has multiple perspectives running through it: the child grappling with the parents’ absence, the mother’s exile, the daughter’s later emigration and a broader, political sense of the plight of migrant workers. The economic driving force behind such movements of people is recorded in ‘Mateo’, responding to the Gospel of Matthew’s observation about birds neither sowing nor reaping with this downright response: “But birds have no bills”. So, in poem after poem, the need for money, for a roof, livestock, fruit trees, medical treatment, even for grave plots back home is made evident.
Antiemetic for Homesickness also consequently has two prime locations: the UK appears as snow-bound streets, red buses, the day to day labour of nursing grateful (and often less than grateful) patients, casual racism. But it is the home country that predominates in vivid images of its landscape, people, culture, folk tales, food and frequent fragments of its Tagalog language (there is a glossary of sorts, but I found many phrases not included). So the promise implied by the title poem – a cure for homesickness – is willed, even a delusion, but a necessary one adopted for self-preservation. It’s a great poem. Opening with “A day will come when you won’t miss / the country na nagluwal sa ‘yo” (lit. who gave birth to you), it also closes in the same mood: “You will learn to heal the wounds / of [patients’] lives and the wounds of yours”. But the central stanzas are densely populated by memories of home, the airport goodbyes, the tapes recorded by left-behind children, the recalled intimacies of the left-behind husband, the gatherings and food of the distant place. The antiemetic is proving less than effective.
This is the material for all Ante’s poems here. ‘The Making of a Smuggler’ opens with “Wherever we travel, we carry / the whole country with us” – lines that recall Moniza Alvi’s, ‘The country at my shoulder’ from 1993. Despite Ante’s personal experiences, these poems often speak in this plural pronoun (a sense of solidarity in experiences shared plus a pained awareness of the plight of unnumbered, unknown migrant workers). The ‘smuggling’ image also suggests an illicit action, a coming under suspicion in the destination country. What is being smuggled across borders under the insensitive noses of its guardians are memories, places: “He can’t cup his ear // with my palm and hear the surfs / of Siargao beach”. If these are thoughts on arrival then ‘Notes inside a Balikbayan Box’ evoke the on-going sense of loss, distance, almost bereavement accumulating through years of working abroad. Such boxes – Ante’s notes explain – are used by Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) and filled with small gifts to be eventually sent back home, a kind of ‘repatriate box’.
Accordingly, the poem takes the form of a note – “Dear son” – partly accompanying objects such as shoes, video tapes, E45 cream, incontinence pads, perfume but, just as important, offering life-advice and apologies:
I owe you for every Simbang Gabi and PTA meeting
I could not attend. I promise I’ll be there for Christmas.
I know I’ve been saying this for a decade now.
Scattered throughout the collection are short extracts intended to reflect cassette tape recordings – sent in the reverse direction to the Balikbayan Box – by a child to her distant mother. The risks of attempting such a child’s perspective are many and Ante keeps these little more than fragmentary utterances, not authentically child-like. These were some of the less successful moments in the collection, many others of which also arose from such formal experiments. Ante tries out the forms of a drug protocol, a questionnaire, a concrete poem, centred, right or left justified verse, prose passages, assemblages of fragments, typographical variants. Such moments presumably constitute the “dazzling formal dexterity” alluded to in the jacket blurb, but you’d not read Ante for this but for the poems’ “emotional resonance”, also referred to in the blurb.
The plurality of her subjects also gives rise to poems in several voices. ‘Tagay!’ portrays the migrant workers’ embattled situation and their making the best of it through the communal drinking of Lambanog (distilled palm liquor) – the title is something akin to ‘Cheers!’ Each speaker toasts the others present, going on to imagine their personal homecoming: welcoming smiles at Arrivals, the bringing home of Cadbury’s chocolate, the heat of Manila, home-cooked food at last, story-telling, marital sex. Many of the speakers cannot keep their work out of the moment: “Tomorrow we’ll be changing bed covers, / soaking dentures, creaming cracked heels”… but for the moment, “Tagay!” Something similar is attempted in ‘Group Portrait at the Stopover’, in which migrant workers are briefly thrown together at an airport, in 5 short sections swapping gifts and stories of their labours and abuse, preferring not to think “of the next generation that will meet at this gate, / the same old stories that will hum out of younger mouths”.
‘Group Portrait..’ is one of Ante’s poems that explicitly addresses the long-standing global reality of migrant labour and ‘Invisible Women’ does the same. These are the women, world over, who are seldom given credit or even attention, yet are “goddesses of caring and tending”. Ante’s mother is one of them, a woman who “walks to work when the sky is black / and comes out from work when the sky is black” (the studied repetitions here more effective than many other formal innovations). The deification of such women is part of Ante’s point. The costs of such migration are repeatedly made clear in this book, but the admiration for those who leave home to earn money for the benefit of those left at home is also clear. These invisible women (and as often men) are heroic in their determination, their sacrifices and their hard work.
A poem that returns the reader to the individual is ‘Ode to a Pot Noodle’. Owing something to Neruda’s Odas elementales (1954), the narrator is taking a short break from “fast-paced” hospital duties – a Pot Noodle is all there is time for. In the daze of night and fatigue, images arise (of course) of her distant home, her grandfather, of Philippine food and conversations that, in the time it takes to boil a kettle, vanish as quickly. She addresses those distant people: “this should have been an ode to you. / Forgive me, forgive me”. But the Ode has already been written in the course of Antiemetic for Homesickness. The collection is a testament to the presence of the absent, the persistence of memory, the heroism and suffering of those who we hold at arms’ length, invisible but without whom our modern society – our NHS – would fail to function. In the time of Covid – and after it too – Romalyn Ante’s book is reminding us of debts and inequalities too long unacknowledged.
Miriam Nash’s new, 180 line poem is fascinating in the transformation of its sources in Norse myth, its quiet yet firm challenging of racial and gender hierarchies and in its exquisite presentation by Hercules Editions, accompanied as it is by an essay from Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir and textiles imagery created by Christina Edlund-Plater (in fact, Nash’s mother).
Friðriksdóttir gives those of us not up to speed with the Norse sagas some explanation. It seems the gods were actually not primary but descended from the race of giants. Yet since gaining supremacy, the gods have excluded and denigrated the giants. Generated from a hegemonic point of view (the top people in medieval Icelandic society), these Norse myths (as do most) tend to “justify and naturalise the status quo”, as Friðriksdóttir puts it, and what is being naturalised is a particular view of history, ancestry and masculinity. The anxiety of the Norse myths is a familiar one, tied up with patriarchy and the male control of women. There is a scene of ‘original sin’ in these stories in which the gods, Odin and his brothers, kill Ymir, the first and oldest giant. Out of Ymir’s dismembered body parts, the gods create the earth. This is a Fall from a primordial unitary state; Friðriksdóttir again: “at this juncture, one group becomes two” and conflict becomes the condition of life on earth.
So much for the birth of conflict and violence. The sagas are also notable for the relative absence of the feminine. An exception can be found in obscure references to the god Heimdallr who was born from nine giant mothers (possibly sisters) and it is through ‘writing on’ from these few suggestions that Miriam Nash’s poem develops a richly female addition to the Norse sagas. She challenges the old tales’ defensiveness about race (giant and gods) and gender and offers the modern reader a narrative of nurture, warmth and closeness in contrast to violence and conflict. The battle lines as they are drawn up are pretty obvious and will surprise no-one but Nash’s use of balladic form, of spoken voices and her re-scripting of details from the traditional stories conveys something vital and moving, a new myth for the age of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement with its original purpose of empowering women through empathy.
Nash’s poem opens at the heart of an unorthodox family with one of Heimdallr’s mothers speaking tenderly. The whole family have gathered round a campfire, a hearth, in various states of sleep and wakefulness, cooking, sword-sharpening, comforting and acting as a seer. She tells Heimdallr the story of his remote origins in the primordial time when division was not known: “a tale of giants, a tale of gods / in early time, in frost-fire time”. A time of community and peace: “we lived snore-close, heart-close”. Also a time before language (or at least, language as we now have it) and Nash makes Ymir – the representative figure of this lost age – a “mother-father”, represented by the possessive determiner “their”. As in the traditional stories, Ymir creates/finds Buri in a glacier and Odin is Buri’s grandson. It is Odin who first declares division:
Odin said he was a God
Odin said the Gods were old
older than Ymir or giants
older than the ice-fire world.
This is an example of Nash’s form – loose quatrains of usually 4-beat lines, often part-rhymed at lines 2 and 4. And Odin’s declaration – his myth creation, his propaganda, his re-writing of history, his self-aggrandisement – is at the heart of the world’s troubles. Heimdallr asks who made the gods and the answer is that “They made themselves / with stories”. The poem goes on to recount Odin’s slaying of Ymir and the word “blood” recurs over and over again in the following quatrains.
But it is a blood ocean across which the nine mothers of Heimdallr have protectively carried their child. The child instinctively sees the roots of division and does not want to be “a half”, does not want to be merely “a god”. The comforting mother’s voice offers a startling solution (if we live in the fallen world); “Ymir was mother-father, child / Both might be your path”. The possibility is raised of a mode of living in which opposites may be once again reconciled, male/female, god/giant, fire/ice and the passage towards such a life is evidently through the tenderness and supportiveness of the mothers who advise Heimdallr to: “dream of ice-lands and of flame / sleep, snore-close, heart-close to me”.
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.
To mark the shortlisting – for the Society of Authors’ Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize 2020 – of my Peter Huchel translations, published by Shearsman Books, I’m posting here a piece I wrote about Huchel’s poetry which first appeared in Acumen 98 (September 2020). Peter Huchel’s work has its place in the tradition of the greats of twentieth-century German poetry – Rilke, Trakl, Brecht, Benn and Celan – but he is also, as Karen Leeder has argued, a “one off”.[i] Iain Galbraith also lists Huchel among a “handful of essential post-war poets” in German, but his poetry is far less well known than it deserves to be. His presence in English at all is thanks to Michael Hamburger’s 1983 translations published by Anvil[ii]. I came across isolated examples of his work a few years ago and was immediately drawn to his startling observations of the natural world which function often as “metaphors [to] take us deep into the social and historical landscape” of his era (Galbraith again). I believe he is a poet with important things to say to us in our own conflicted times and my translation of Huchel’s best collection, These Numbered Days (1972), was published last year by Shearsman Books. Here, I put Huchel’s work into the context of the great events in Europe in the twentieth century.
Huchel’s description of Pe-Lo-Thien, the poet, social critic and sometime exile from the Tang Dynasty, is intended also as a portrait of the poet himself – a dissident figure, an “outlaw, / who lives beyond the wall / with his cranes and cats” (‘Pe-Lo-Thien’). It’s no surprise that the spare, impersonal, often lapidary quality of the poems in These Numbered Days was remarked on by Karl Alfred Wolken as offering the reader something of a Chinese book in German.[iii] The poet himself, carefully scrutinising the natural world – the perception of which constitutes the substance of so many of his poems – tries to descry “Signs, / written by the hand / of a Mandarin” (‘No Answer’). If such allusions suggest a minimalist and tight-lipped quality to Huchel’s poems, this is precisely what might be expected from an artist forced to play, as he did for so many years, the role of inner émigré.
For readers of British and Irish poetry, the term ‘inner émigré’ will be familiar from Seamus Heaney’s use of it in his 1975 poem ‘Exposure’. Discussing the idea, Heaney acknowledged the term’s specific meaning in the 1920/30s in Soviet Russia as referring to a dissident who had not actually gone into exile but remained at home, disaffected from and under the surveillance of the authorities. Heaney saw himself in this light in relation to Northern Ireland. He also associated the idea with the position of George Seferis, concluding that “poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster”.[iv] This same sense of confinement, wrestling with conscience and the frequent resort to codification which results from such a compromised position is the best way into Huchel’s work as a writer whose life and historical circumstances astonishingly led him to play the role of inner émigré twice over.
He was born Hellmut Huchel in 1903 in Alt-Lichterfelde, now part of Berlin. Due to his mother’s chronic illness, the boy was taken from the city to be raised on his grandfather’s farm at Alt-Langewisch, in the Brandenburg countryside near Potsdam. As an adult, Huchel was fond of quoting St. Augustine on the importance of memory as a “great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds”.[v] Huchel argued that it is “the experiences of childhood, roughly between the ages of five and ten, that exercise a decisive influence in later years”.[vi] But if this period seems to have had something of the idyll about it for the 11 year old boy, it was dramatically shattered by the death of his beloved grandfather and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.
After his country’s defeat, the 17 year old Huchel took part in the conservative Kapp-Putsch against the Weimar Republic in 1920 which was fuelled by a resentment of the German government’s agreeing to the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. Huchel was wounded in the fighting associated with this failed coup but it was during his recovery in hospital that his sympathies for socialism and Marxism fully developed. His very early poems can be linked to the sort of art fostered by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. He has said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”.[vii]
By 1932 he was working as an editorial assistant for Die Literarische Welt. His first collection of poems was accepted for publication under the title Der Knabenteich (‘The Boy’s Pond’). But with the rise of Hitler, Die Literarische Welt had to cease publication and it is at this moment that Huchel developed the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’. He published very little, eventually deciding to withhold Der Knabenteich. He was deeply troubled that the Nazis liked his work, reading into it as they did a version of the blood and soil nationalism they hoped to foster. So, by 1936 he was refusing permission for any publication and he did not publish any new poems during the rest of Hitler’s rule. Rather, he withdrew to the Brandenburg countryside. His response to tyranny was silence and non-cooperation, though he was eventually drafted in 1941 and ended the war in a Russian prisoner of war camp.
With the fall of the Third Reich, Huchel enthusiastically shared the democratic and socialist optimism of many of his compatriots for the reconstruction of East Germany. His short-lived faith in land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years is consistent with his earlier social concerns. He now began working for East German radio and in 1948 at last published his first collection, Gedichte (‘Poems’). In 1949 he became editor of the influential literary magazine Sinn und Form (‘Sense and Form’). Though Huchel’s poems were applauded both for their craft and socialist undercurrents, they did not satisfy those who were soon demanding much more explicit support for the German Democratic experiment. Huchel’s dark rural landscapes offered equivocal support at best for the governing regime and his instinctively conservative harking back to childhood and the natural world (rather than a modern revolutionary transformation of human society) were judged to fall short of the expected unquestioning celebration of the GDR’s project.
With the poet’s increasing sense of disaffection from the direction of GDR society, Huchel was once more forced to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’. The tone of his work becomes increasingly sombre and melancholy, his poetic diction grows more clipped and cryptic, his palette narrowing. In his work at the journal Sinn und Form, he was determined to maintain editorial freedom and the publication flaunted an international outlook with contributions from Aragon, Bloch, Brecht (two special issues), Camus, Eluard, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Neruda, Sartre, Yevtushenko and Zweig. Increasingly, he came into conflict with the authorities and was put under immense pressure to conform. He resisted for 13 years – in large part because of the determined support of Brecht. Brecht’s death in 1956 left Huchel exposed and he was asked to resign his editorship. He refused and so compelled the East German government publicly to force his resignation.
A year after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Huchel was banished at the age of 59 to effective house arrest in Wilhelmshorst. It was at this moment that his second collection of poems, Chausseen, Chausseen (‘Roads, Roads’), appeared. He published it – in bold defiance of the GDR authorities – in the West. It was much praised in the author’s absence. Henry Beissel describes the leanness and density of these new free verse poems: “images are more insistent on turning concreteness into a code; sadness emanates from a sense of the inevitability of loss and from a world bent on self-destruction”.[viii] Huchel’s images from nature are left to speak for themselves; his is often an impersonal poetry of a particularly haunted and pessimistic kind. Yet there is stoical survival too; the poems remain marvellous acts of observation.
The poem ‘Hubertusweg’ vividly portrays this period of his life, from 1962 to 1971, living in isolation, under Stasi surveillance. Gezählte Tage (‘These Numbered Days’) appeared in 1972, the title suggesting the counted days of Huchel’s time under house arrest, his poems recording them, marking them, but also a residual sense of them actually counting towards something, his legacy as a poet, his hoped-for release. Huchel repeatedly applied for an exit visa for himself, his wife and son and in this he was supported by PEN in an internationally orchestrated campaign.
Eventually, in 1971, the Ulbricht government granted his release and he lived first in Rome, then in a borrowed house near Freiburg in West Germany. But like many GDR artists who moved to the West, Huchel was equivocal – to put it mildly – about what he found here. Because the GDR had failed to bring about a truly democratic and socialist society did not mean that he had given up his ideals and the West’s materialism, egotism and faithless profiteering were repellent to him. There is a spiritual emptiness everywhere as in ‘Subiaco’, set in Italy, where Pilate’s bowl stands emptied of water so the taint of guilt cannot be washed away. Huchel’s gloom is partly determined by his own nature, partly by his background, by political persecution and by his divorce from his Brandenburg homeland. The poet bears witness to the inadequate present.
In Huchel’s few remaining years he was lauded in the West but perhaps this was just another form of exile, though one in which he was able to speak and publish. Even so, his final collection, Die Neunte Stunde (‘The Ninth Hour’) which appeared in 1979, is a book almost exclusively of elegy and lament. The ninth hour is the hour of despair, the hour in which Christ died on the Cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Huchel himself died in 1981, aged 78. Contemporary readers can hear something of his more personal voice – so finely attuned to the natural world, but gifted only a tragically powerless place in history, yet driven to labour and bear witness against the odds – in the words of the unnamed peasant who narrates ‘Middleham Castle’, one of Huchel’s more explicit and terrifying portraits of tyranny:
Familiar with the ways of great forests –
the year streaked with the jays’ colours,
painful brightness of frosted boughs,
the winter hair of deer stuck to bark,
fawns huddled together at evening,
warming themselves in the cloud of their breathing –
up the gorse-clad hill with rope and horses
I haul tree trunks to Middleham Castle.
London July 2020
[i] Karen Leeder, Introduction to These Numbered Days, Peter Huchel, tr. Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman, 2019).
[ii]The Garden of Theophrastus and other poems, tr. Michael Hamburger (Anvil Press, 2004).
(Apologies for any formatting errors in what follows – this poem’s many indents make it hard to represent accurately in WordPress – this link has the full layout)
This poem demonstrates, in obvious ways, what Louis MacNeice called the “dramatic” nature of lyric poetry. In ‘Experiences with Images’ (1949), he says that “all lyric poems . . . in varying degrees, are dramatic”. Firstly, he argues this in relation to a poem’s voice and mood: “though they may pretend to be spontaneous, [they] are in even the most ‘personal’ of poets . . . a chosen voice and mood”. He also says “even in what is said (apart from the important things unsaid) all poems . . . contain an internal conflict, cross-talk, backwash, comeback, pay off . . . often conveyed by sleight of hand – the slightest change of tone, a heightening or lowering of diction, a rhythmical shift or a jump in ideas. Hence all poems … are ironic”.
In ‘Prayer before Birth’, (hear the poem read) the chosen, dramatic situation is obvious as the poem is spoken by an unborn foetus in the womb. And one of the ironies here is to what or whom this ‘prayer’ is directed: “O hear me”. Besides the increasingly desperate tone of the repeated statements which open each stanza, except the last (“I am not yet born”), MacNeice’s foetus cries out, pleading, hear me, console me, provide me, forgive me, rehearse me, hear me (again), fill me, kill me. Though there may be religious allusions in the poem, the evidence does not suggest this is a plea for any divine intervention. In fact, though the “human race” features largely as what is feared by the unborn child, the poem contains the kind of “cross-talk, backwash” that MacNeice finds in much lyric poetry, in that it is also to “humanity” that the poem appeals for protection and rescue. We are therefore present in the poem as both aggressor towards and potential saviour of the unborn child. MacNeice is dramatising the idea of ‘choice’.
This poet’s early work can be read as journalistic, reports on ‘chunks of life’, as suggested by titles such as ‘Belfast’, ‘Birmingham’, ‘Train to Dublin’ and ‘Carrickfergus’. This conception of poetry, consciously contrasted to the Ivory Towers of etiolated Romanticism and fin de siècle Aestheticism, is firmly rooted in MacNeice’s vital political concerns. It produced his (now fatally compromised) description of the ideal poet: “I would have a poet able-bodied [sic], fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women [sic], involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions”. The epitome of this approach in MacNeice’s work is the great achievement of Autumn Journal, published in 1939 (read here by Colin Morgan for the BBC). But the poems published in Plant and Phantom (1941) are already asking to be read more as ‘parables’ in that they combine more nakedly emblematic and moral elements and, as Edna Longley argues, they mark the beginnings of MacNeice’s dissatisfaction with his journalistic verse, with societal panoramas, with ‘chunks of life’. ‘Prayer before Birth’ (published in Springboard in 1944) is also to be read as parabolic, its liturgical use of anaphora/repetition one obvious sign of this shift in style:
I am not yet born; O hear me. Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
xxxxxxclub-footed ghoul come near me.
The ‘this is’ of MacNeice’s earlier poetry has here been replaced by the parabolic, ‘as if’: in this case the imaginative conceit of a conscious, passionate, forward-looking, articulate foetus. MacNeice always liked to exploit the sounds of words and the clattering of the consonants in these opening lines, the internal rhymes and half rhymes, evoke the voice’s fear of brutal treatment.
I am not yet born, console me. I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
xxxxxwith strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
xxxxon black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
In contrast to the soft sounds of “born” and “console”, internal rhyming and alliteration work in the same ‘brutalist’ way in this next stanza. The thumping, thickly clotted monosyllables (tall wall wall / strong drugs dope / black racks rack / blood-baths roll) also achieve an impressive level of evoked threat and consequent fear.
I am not yet born; provide me With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.
The tone here changes as this stanza provides indications of the kinds of consolation mentioned in stanza 2. Comforts are largely pastoral in nature – water, grass, trees, sky, birds – which, given MacNeice’s previous achievements in portraying the realities of mid-20th century life in Britain and Ireland, is rather disappointing. The choice of ‘dandle’ pushes irony to the point of sarcasm. He reaches for an easy option of traditional, Classical imagery here. The vague “white light” is also not altogether convincing or clear. Is this a religious image? Or a more humanistic one – the guiding light of rationality? Or of innate morality? Compassion?
I am not yet born; forgive me For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me, my treason engendered by traitors beyond me, my life when they murder by means of my hands, my death when they live me.
Stanza 4 complicates the moral position of the foetus’ future life because it recognises that s/he will not only suffer but commit sins. The lines suggest a compulsion to commit such acts, a compulsion originating in “the world”, interestingly operating via language and thought control, beyond these standing shadowy “traitors” and other figures unnamed. Probably such figures are developed more precisely in the following lines:
I am not yet born; rehearse me In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom and the beggar refuses my gift and my children curse me.
A compulsion again is prominent (I must play / I must take), here derived from “old men” and “bureaucrats”. This rings more true to the left-leaning, politically radical MacNeice, though the sense of a parable unfolding reasserts itself in the anthropomorphising of the mountains, waves and desert. The beggar’s refusal and the children’s curses are harder to interpret but seem also to derive from actions performed in bad faith – under compulsion.
I am not yet born; O hear me, Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.
My favourite line from the poem appears here in the way MacNeice identifies the roots of evil at opposing ends of a spectrum: men who are bestial, men who believe they are God-like. I’d argue it’s particularly the latter who are the focus of the final lines of the poem , “those” who deny or denigrate the individual’s humanity, turn her/him into an automaton/cog/thing, whose disregard for the individual human life results in (a very effective return of the water image from stanza 3) the spilling of the individual’s worth.
I am not yet born; O fill me With strength against those who would freeze my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton, would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with one face, a thing, and against all those who would dissipate my entirety, would blow me like thistledown hither and thither or hither and thither like water held in the hands would spill me.
Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me. Otherwise kill me.
The last phrase is dramatic but perhaps over-dependent on its rhyme and savage brevity for effect. The foetus’ call for abortion is full of complex issues but perhaps less so if we keep reading the poem as parable (stepping away from more literal interpretation). The parable suggests the dangers, compromises and complicities that any individual coming into the world has to face. A natural response to the poem would be to hope – indeed take action – to alleviate such fears. There is a choice implied. In this, MacNeice is remaining consistent with his earlier political activism and associated journalistic style of poetry. In a 1941 essay, he argued that “the ‘message’ of a work of art may appear to be defeatist, negative, nihilist; the work of art itself is always positive. A poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life”. This is how we ought to try to read the poem’s final dramatic utterance.
In the same essay (‘Broken Windows or Thinking Aloud’), MacNeice looked around in 1941 and observed “we are all being dragooned by outside conditions, we look like shuttlecocks of War”. Yet he also concludes, “it is therefore all the more necessary to think of ourselves as free agents”. This is the path of resilience taken by the pragmatic empiricist as MacNeice sees her/him: “someone who follows an ideal that is always developing, implicit rather than explicit” – no room here for God-like, fundamentalist convictions. Freedom, justice and the happiness of the individual may be under threat – as ‘Prayer Before Birth’ makes all too clear – but the poet’s belief remains in line yet with the optimistic, pragmatic, humanistic credo he expressed so elegantly towards the end of section II of Autumn Journal:
I must go out tomorrow as the others do
xxxxxxAnd build the falling castle;
Which never has fallen, thanks
xxxxxxNot to any formula, red tape or institution,
(Thanks to Bloodaxe Books for a review copy of this collection)
The return alluded to in Heidi Williamson’s Return by Minor Road (Bloodaxe Books, 2020) is partly physical, but predominantly one of memory and yet, the book argues, it is an almost redundant journey in that we carry important events with us anyway. In confronting a particular tragic event from the past, these poems strike me as offering routes through our current experiences – of pandemic, grief, lockdown – in particular an appreciation of the ‘minor roads’ along which we might recover a sense and shapeliness in what now strikes us as chaotic and closer to a deletion of meaning.
The event at the centre of this collection occurred at Dunblane Primary School, north of Stirling, Scotland, on 13 March 1996, when Thomas Hamilton shot 16 children and one teacher dead, injuring 15 others, before killing himself. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history. What Williamson is not doing here is exploring the nature of evil, the damaged personality of the perpetrator, or the wider political/social fallout of such terrible events. She was living in the area at the time (I think as a student) and this retrospective collection is divided into three parts: the haunting of memories (but Williamson has more powerful ways of articulating this than the ‘ghostly’ metaphor), the re-examining of the actual event, and a physical re-visiting of the location.
The personal nature of the response offered by these poems is flagged in an epigraph from Jane Hirshfield: “our fleeting lives do not simply ‘happen’ and vanish – they take place”. She means that events do not slip away into the past, but take or carve out a place in our historical and present selves and it is this geographical/topographical idea that Williamson pursues so effectively in many of the poems. The particular, the creaturely and the personal predominate. A mother settles her child back to sleep at night – the troubled sleep patterns of the innocent in this context have immediate resonance – and returning to her own bed she finds how awkwardly the bedspread rucks up, “how hard it is to settle”. Uneasiness at night recurs in ‘Thrawn’, images of Allan Water (the river running through Dunblane) surfacing years after the event. ‘Loch Occasional’ again uses a local geographical reference to suggest the sudden flooding of memories, when “the silt of what happened rises” and – echoing Hirshfield’s comment – the “occasional”, which one might expect to have its moment and vanish, is said to “endure”. The rise and fall of Allan Water is the primary image for the persistence of memory in so many of these poems. Rain falling, “insistently / with its own unnameable scent”, is an image chosen elsewhere and (rather more conventionally, à la Henry James) ‘Fugitive dust’ is literally haunted by the figure of a child.
What such resurfacings mean in personal, day-to-day terms is clear in the prose poem, ‘It’s twenty-two years ago and it’s today’. Besides the form, this is a different style of writing: shorthand, a journalese of plain statement, brief jottings of a day spent with husband and child. The ordinary is tilted out of true by unwanted remembrance, manifesting as unusual quietude, the papers left unread, the phone disconnected: “Neither of us says why”. Halfway through this poem, the narrator manages to write, she says, “[s]mall hard coughs on the page”. Perhaps this alludes to the (again) quite different style of verse in ‘Cold Spring #1’ which is the key section recounting the events of the 13 March 1996, though the massacre itself is reduced to a single word, “incident”. Covering 4 pages in total, we are given dislocated fragments only – speech, visual images – as an ordinary day turns into an historical event. This works really well and, without pause, the poems move off again to explore the aftermath: phone calls from worried relatives and friends, hesitant visits to the local pub, encounters with news journalists, memorial flowers already beginning to fade.
What the book offers as healing counterweight to the massacre – and there’s no doubt that Williamson wants to offer something despite the troubled days and nights, despite quoting from Hopkins’ ‘terrible sonnet’, ‘No worst there is none, pitched past pitch of grief’, despite allusions to the “uncontrollable heart” – what the poems offer is the natural world’s existence and persistence and the innocence of the child. Williamson’s response to nature is always powerful and detailed, carrying a lode of emotional implications. As has become a commonplace idea in these ‘lockdown’ times, the loss or expansion of our narrow selves in the world of nature is redemptive. ‘Dumyat’ opens:
Some days we cried ourselves out,
packed our coats and climbed
the soggy rock to its small summit.
There was something about stepping
one by one, beside each other
without speaking, without the need.
Elsewhere, striding up into the nearby Ochil Hills was a way to “clear us of ourselves”. Another poem celebrates the “Reliability of rain. / Durability of rain” and in another the (relative) unchanging nature of the nearby Trossachs offers a consolation of sorts; I guess a longer perspective in which even such human-scale horrors must be found to shrink.
It is also the presence of – and the need to provide for and protect – her own child that offers a path beyond tragedy. The title poem offers a straightforward account of Williamson’s return to the landscape of Dunblane, but she and her husband visit with their child who carries nothing of what the place means to his parents, hence he is innocent, complaining, distracted, playful … The poem ends with the child playing a horse racing game, taken down from the hotel bookshelf, in a wonderful image of the onward propulsion of youthfulness, its greed for the future, the as-yet unburdened nature of its vitality: “He gallops his horses forwards, forwards”.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Williamson’s book offers anything like an ‘easy’ response to the horrors of Dunblane. The ‘minor roads’ by which people mostly manage to pick up their old lives – here nature and family – remain shadowed and troubled in two late poems. ‘Self’ offers a liturgical series of questions to which the poet can only ever answer “I don’t know” and the concluding poem also makes use of repetition, recording the landscapes around Dunblane once again with the repeats playing variations on the idea that all this was left behind when the poet moved away and yet all this was also carried away too. It’s the paradox of the book as expressed to perfection in the poem ‘Culvert’. More typically in this poem, Williamson observes her “unassuming heart” and the water images recur with the heart becoming a valley collecting waters and debris after a downfall (the traumatising event). But the event does not merely pass through the heart:
it was the heart,
rent in the same way
a clearing is made
by great and incremental
Experiences make the heart what it is, carving our selves, finding a permanent place within them, shaping them for the future, always flowing through them, even if unseen for the most part:
its pulse ebbs in culverts
below neat estates,
a furtive love trickling
deeper and deeper.
Love of the natural world and love of family – especially youth – resonates through this quietly convincing collection which manages to take on its daunting subject matter and emerge, not victorious of course, but having argued on behalf of resilience, on the side of hope.
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.
Bloodaxe poet, editor and tutor, Chrissy Williams, set up and edits PERVERSE poetry. Her site’s strap-line for publication is that she’s looking for “deliberate, obstinate, unreasonable or unacceptable poems, contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice”. A willful outlier, in other words, looking for experiments and/or orphans. Some of you – if you subscribe to her site or keep an eye on social media – may have seen three pieces I’ve written which PERVERSE published last week. These were the opening three poems from a sequence of twelve and the Note published with them by PERVERSE explains a good deal (I’ll put the poems themselves at the end of this post).
Note: these poems are from a sequence in the form of an abecedary, a calendar of 12 pieces. Carolyn Forche’s ‘On Earth’ first interested me in this form. She associates its inclusiveness (from A-Z) with the pleroma, the fullness of God’s creation, the One. The fullness I have aimed at in this case was the difficult last years of my parents’ lives. Drawing on notes I made between 2016 – 2018, the disjointed nature of this particular totality reflects their growing illness and confusion; but I hope the whole exudes what it was written with, love.
On the theme of ‘how poems come to be written’, today I’m posting images of a couple of the pages from my notebook of the time. You’ll see phrases and images which made it through to the final poems. As can perhaps be seen from the scribbles, what I had originally in mind was something close to the form of haiku. I’d been reading and admiring Masaya Saito’s book of haiku called Snow Bones. This had just been published in 2016 by Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press (I think maybe I’d bought the book at the Poetry Book Fair that year). Snow Bones consist of four narrative haiku sequences, spoken by several different voices. Saito writes in both English and Japanese (these poems are all in English). Two of these sequences focus on the death and funerals of parents and what I admired was the way in which the compression of the form allowed the poet to express the powerful emotions of love and grief. Between 2016-18, my mother and father were going through a decline in both mental and physical health, eventually moving into a care home, sadly both dying within 18 months of each other. So I had my own powerful feelings to deal with and one of the ways of coping was to try to write about these experiences.
Here’s a couple of pages from Saito’s book. You’ll see he does not approach the haiku form in the rather rigid syllabic way that we often think of it. Also I liked the way in which – of the 3 lines – he always sets one off, either opening or closing. This creates drama and tension even within such a short space.
So then here’s a page from my notebook of the time – the crossings out indicate that I have used the text going forward. Initially I tried to maintain my hopes of a haiku sequence. I can see here phrases that made it into the final poem (in such a different form): the box of Quality Street chocolates, the days passing as at a level crossing, the introduction of a new care plan while they were still living at home. I remember taking a dozen or so of these haiku pieces to a writing workshop. The response was polite, even some enthusiasm, but I felt this was in part a response to the personal nature of the subject matter as much as to the success of the choices I’d made as a poet. (These are always very difficult moments in a workshop – depth of involvement on the writer’s part often makes more cool, critical observations hard to bring forward).So I wasn’t sure. The texts stayed in another notebook. This is what happens (for me at least). I’d then often be browsing back through the notebook at those bits of text not yet crossed through as having been advanced to the next stage. I’m re-reading to see if there remains any life in these fragments left in limbo. I kept reading these haiku and thinking there was a lot of good writing, but they had certainly not found their right form.
Here’s another image of an original page.
The fourth haiku here I still like:
The phone’s numerals are very big
the size of Scrabble pieces
a language you once knew
In the final poems, the image of a “language” re-emerges rather changed. The sixth haiku poem here has an image of “a shrew its paw caught in a trap” which is itself an echo of a line from the previous page (“The scratching of a mouse trapped”) – the relevance of these recurring images of entrapment is obvious given my parents were pretty well confined to their house by physical weakness and mental uncertainties. Such images surface in the final poems, in the first poem’s opening quatrain, as “a mouse’s paw caught in the trap”.
I don’t remember when the final choice about these poems was made – the one that decided an abecedary form would be appropriate. Those who have followed this blog for a few years will have heard me ruminating on this form before and on my discovery of it via Carolyn Forche. In rational terms, I felt the systematic coherence imposed on phrases by the alphabetical sequence would be effective in an ironic way because most of the fragmented material I had assembled spoke to an incoherence rooted in the way my parents were now living. Is it too much to say that I was hoping to piece things together for Mum and Dad in a way that they were unable to themselves? There are other (more conventional) poems about my parents in my most recent full collection, The Lovely Disciplines.
The re-shaping of the text worked (to my mind). Assembling something like this is a thrilling balance of chance (the sequence of the alphabet) and choice (the poet retains the right to trim and edit phrases). The title I’ve given the sequence comes from the last haiku in the first image above:
A large print calendar
days crossed off behind
ahead no footprints in the snow
I remember buying them a large print calendar so they could follow the days passing more easily. Often – but not always – they’d cross through the days passed. When we cleared the house eventually, the calendar was still hanging up, the crossed off days having stopped at a certain point; the future days left blank and pristine. The walls of the house have not been literally demolished. But it has been sold on to another family and so for me and my brothers the walls might as well have been demolished. The lives lived out there are gone, except for what we can remember (some of which can be written down).
Here are the three poems in the sequence (from A to I) that have so far been published:
from Notes on a calendar (hung on a demolished wall)
Robert Selby’s debut collection is fronted by a wood cut engraving by Clare Leighton, titled ‘Planting Trees’. Two flat-capped workmen labour to bed in a sapling. A wind-bent tree stands nearby; on the gusty skyline, at the top of a hill, a dark copse. It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy poem, or an Edward Thomas one, and it’s well-chosen as these are the forebears The Coming-Down Time often explicitly acknowledges. Launched into a poetry world dominated by so many books addressing environmental, gender, race and identity issues, this collection (depending on your viewpoint) is either timeless or behind the times. Selby’s careful organisation of the poems makes it clear he knows what he’s doing and he will do it his way.
His main subjects are historical time, England and romantic love. The first of three sections, ‘East of Ipswich’, is a tribute to his grandparents, George and Lea Gissing. George “came from a long line of men who worked / now-extinct equine trades”. These are true ‘salt of the earth’ Englishmen. Enquiries as to who they were (questions of identity, we might now say) are answered with confidence, if not belligerence: “We’re Orford men, and that’s enough”. But time passes even on the edges of Suffolk. The concluding lines of ‘The End of the Horse Age’ catch a glimpse of encroaching change in the shape of a tractor:
. . . he sees an unblinkered beast
braying smoke in the top field, light
from its side-lamps shining off makers’ plates
cast from melted down horse brasses.
If this is sounding like a man’s world, well, it was and Selby rolls with that. In marriage, Lea sheds her given, christian name for Doll and her maiden name also, “was gone”. There is no obvious meta-comment; Selby’s poem is more intent on celebrating the marriage of his grandparents than exploring Lea’s thoughts on these matters of gender and nomenclature. Perhaps they were not questioned at the time, but I’m uneasy at the silence surrounding such moments, given the poem is a contemporary one. Selby has perhaps inherited the “Suffolk reserve” of his grandfather, for whom “words are weeds that don’t fall to the hoe”. The wish not to (over-)dramatize seems very strong; the end of the Second World War is marked by the grandfather in terms of the cigarettes, chocolate and tea cakes at the NAAFI more than its global import.
Indeed, like Edward Thomas’ work, these are poems about small things. The evocation of the (seldom used) front room at his grandparents’ house is vivid and (for those of us of a certain vintage) very familiar. The sequence takes us to the funerals of the older generation via the understanding that their children (Selby’s father specifically) have already moved away from traditional lives. The father is “one of the suited men / who’ll step off the evening train”. The tone is mostly one of gentle regret at the passing of a way of life (part of which was a closeness to the environment). “How easily people forget things”, opens ‘The Winter Wood’. That same poem ends as a sort of “testament to the losing habit”. The sycamore at Brig o’Turk, in the Trossachs, which has grown around a bicycle once leant against it, is a good image for Selby’s concerns: the past remains but is inevitably absorbed and changed.
Selby’s use of language and form is likewise pretty traditional. It’s not just a result of the subject matter that the book is frequented by words such as smithy, shire, lambkin, deer-stalker, and lush-toned phrases such as “blossom-moted”. The flip side of this is that details of 2020 UK are often treated with a distaste, an alienated distance. Later in the book, a friend returns from the dust and pollen of the English countryside into London: “its tagged shutters and sick-flecked stops, / its scaffolding like the lies / propping up your peeling hopes”. The friend is female and (I think) Canadian. Another poem’s narrator tries to persuade her that “[t]his is the real England [. . .] It’s a place of trees; of apple, pear, cherry and plum”. There is more to be said here about the meaning of ‘real’ and it’s hard to tell if the narrator’s invitation is meant to have a deathly ring to it. He asks, “Do you want to reset your watch to the toll of here?”
The import of this question forms the emotional and dramatic context of the later poems in the collection which trace an on/off relationship. The narrator is left wondering: “I must wait for the needle / of your heart’s compass to unspin, / and see where it stops”. In reading that I’m reminded of Lea and – what seemed to be – her relative lack of choice in the earlier years of the twentieth century. There is a good deal of unalloyed nostalgia in The Coming-Down Time for an England of the mind, if it was ever part of any actual century. I find the female figures in the book suffer because of this: most of them do not achieve a specific, particular life in the poems. I’d like Selby to go on to explore the irony in two images: the masculine arms in “rolled up sleeves” that may or may not be “strong enough” and the closing lines just quoted, in which the desired woman bides her time, knowingly possessed of strength, of the agency of decision.