#WADOD – Day 19: March 19th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Tuesday 19.03.2019

‘as a crow in the sticks of a winter tree’

after Basavanna

 

as a crow in the sticks of a winter tree

it hops

from branch to branch

 

my heart is not to be trusted

 

this smouldering coal-black feathered thing

goes hop-hop

at one thing then at another at my desk

then into the noisy street

 

it flaps and flies off

to land again in the bare branches of a second tree

ruffling its feathers

as if perhaps beginning to catch fire

 

hop-hop

all the bridges are down

 

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In Memory of Tony Hoagland

The sad news of American poet Tony Hoagland’s death yesterday (23.10.2018), prompts me to post this brief review of one of his more recent books, Application for Release from the Dream (Bloodaxe Books, 2015). My review was originally written to appear in Poetry London a couple of years ago. Hoagland’s work punctures personal, poetical and political pretensions and I would highly recommend it to anybody who has yet to discover its great pleasures and profundities. His most recent collection – likely to be his last – will appear in the UK next year and be called Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (Bloodaxe Books, 2019).

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The metaphorical dream Tony Hoagland’s book titles is applying for release from is the alchemical one: the search for gold from lead. Though Hoagland’s world is definitely leaden, quotidian, often spoiled, there are compensatory moments when the disappointed prospective alchemist recalls “the lute hidden in his closet”. And though Hoagland is always keen to ask big questions (this collection opens with “What is a human being? What does it mean?” (‘The Edge of the Frame’)), his poems travel through thickets of irony because language interferes and shit happens and our harking after absurd, abstract, definitive answers is wholly mistaken.

Many of these poems are laugh-out-loud funny and there are occasions when Hoagland reminds me of the Ted Hughes of Crow with its gallows humour spliced with admiration for a sometimes thuggish survival against the odds: “Underneath the smile is bitterness, and underneath the bitterness is grief, / and underneath the grief the desire to survive” (‘Airport’).

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But, Antaeus-like, Hoagland always keeps his feet firmly on the ground. His language is accordingly direct, chatty, engaging, man to man (not afraid to be masculine), eschewing the hyper-economy of certain poetries. His verse forms are very free. He’s good company (and will remind you of Billy Collins); he’s drawn to the common man (and will remind you of Philip Levine). In ‘The Hero’s Journey’ the sight of a marble floor in a hotel lobby impresses on him that “someone had waxed and polished it all”. This, he characteristically tells us, “tempered my enthusiasm for The Collected Letters of Henry James, Volume II”.

The fact is, Hoagland’s heroes are cleaners, bakers, prisoners and the nurse “wiping off the soft heroic buttocks of Odysseus”. His ‘Little Champion’ is a butterfly that lives on the urine of a particular animal, its lifetime spent in slavish pursuit of it. Likewise, “Human beings are tough” declares a poem set in a hospital, “with their obesity, their chemo and their scars” (‘December, with Antlers’).

st_manholeNevertheless, some uncertain light can be cast on the human condition by ‘The Neglected Art of Description’. A man descending into a man-hole can remind us of “the world // right underneath this one” though Hoagland treats this idea with three doses of ironic distancing. He’s even more confident that the pleasures of perceptual surprise can “help me on my way” (even this, an equivocal sort of progress and destination; no golden goal).

This book’s title poem is as definitive and epigrammatic as it gets: “If you aren’t learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed”. But the disturbing truth, according to ‘Crazy Motherfucker Weather’, is that our precious selves are no more than “a burning coal // one carries around in one’s mouth for sixty years, / for delivery / to whom, exactly; to where?” Another poem suggests there is a place balanced “between irony and hope” where we might live (‘Western’).

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The humour of Hoagland’s poems punctures both personal and political pretension, targets the poet himself as much as others, makes for very enjoyable poems and ensures those few moments of pleasure or beauty that do emerge are all the more convincing. In ‘Because It Is Houston’, for example, there is no one “better qualified around”, so the narrator derives surprise and pleasure from the “little ivory trumpets” knocked from a honeysuckle bush by a brief shower of rain.

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What better way to spend 20 minutes than to listen to this recent reading given by Tony Hoagland at Ledbury Poetry Festival:

 

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3: Ruby Robinson

This is the third in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press for providing a copy of Ruby Robinson’s book for review purposes.

It wasn’t until his second book that Don Paterson was inviting his reader into the “little church” of the poem. Ruby Robinson’s first book’s opening poem ushers us in through “the trap / door of a modern barn conversion” and though full of apparent comforts (paintings, chairs for guests, soup, bread, socks, duvet) it’s really a decidedly unnerving place. The walls are explicitly said not to have eyes, but the narrative voice surely knows too much about us: our loneliness, right down to our “deepest thread, like a baked-in hair”. And even if the walls do not watch, they are full of the “shadows of stags [. . .] cast like stalking giants”. There’s a lot in Robinson’s book which reminds me of another debut collection from way back in 1983 where the lovers describe themselves as “fascinated by our own anaesthesia, / our inability to function”, the TV buzzes half-watched in a corner, emotions grow ever more dysfunctional, “shorter and faster now”, and there is talk of separation in halting, heavily punctuated non sequiturs.

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That was Michael Hofmann’s Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983) and Robinson’s book shares an interest in disconnected scientific facts to express the troubling gulf between thought and feeling. One of Hofmann’s characters moves “the fifty-seven muscles it takes to smile” and Robinson’s ‘Time’ sets out from the knowledge that with a stethoscope a rodent’s heart murmur can be divided into “constituent beats”, spurring the lovers to analyse themselves as closely, as if that might reveal something important about their emotional lives. Stethoscope and heart-beats recur in ‘Love’ where again the biological processes of nerve impulse and ventricles are searched for something resembling meaning. ‘Breathe Deep’ does the same with the stomata on the undersides of leaves and this close observation (of a certain type) lies behind the collection’s title. The process of ‘internal gain’ occurs when we are under threat and is an increase in our perception (of sound especially) so that we hear Every Little Sound. As with Hofmann, Robinson’s attention to detail – a sort of hyper-perception – is really a symptom of a soul in trouble. Reading these poems is often like watching a fragment of material caught on a barbed fence, trembling and thrilling hopelessly in the wind.

The world of Every Little Sound is a thoroughly deracinated one – most everything has been torn up by the roots. Amongst snow, bluebottles, the word ‘thanks’, the remains of a kebab, ‘Hope’ notes “one IKEA bag like a dead bird whose wings won’t die”. All these items, hardly more than listed, seem to be thrown “overboard” into uprooted, meaningless chaos yet the human mind still despatches its uncertain “search party”. The emotional impact of many poems in the book lies in this: the continuing desire to make some sense in the face of chaos. In the midst of a discussion of romantic feelings, a narrator reflects, “I am // in touch with my feelings” but the line-break subverts the truth of the statement and the poem ends in disconnects of feeling, a brusqueness of tone, the brutal chopping of punctuation: “I could tell he felt like crying / and I didn’t mind. We finished our beer, shook hands, went home”.

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Another poem’s narrator talks of her “nerve endings in exile (‘Love II’) and in ‘This Night’ (which might be a distant parody of Lorenzo and Jessica’s “In such a night” speeches from Act 5 of The Merchant of Venice) the narrator confesses she is “more in love tonight, with ideas / and arbitrary things, / than I am with you”. Even in the throes of sexual ecstasy, there remain “two glazed eyes, observing it” (‘Orgasm’). ‘Winter’ uses both right and left justified lines to create an unnaturally evenly-spaced robot-toned prose passage about keeping a tortoise in the fridge through winter. This is where the real originality of these poems is to be found alongside several pieces which evoke the inevitable consequence of such deracinated perception – the fragmentation of the sense of self. Robinson has named Ted Hughes as one of her influences and, in one of the best poems here, ‘Unlocatable’, we hear him in the representation of psychic fragmentation through the physical. The narrator records her dismemberment at her own hands; at one point “a crow on a hard shoulder / delicately inspect[s] the entrails”. Her head is sawn off until the self lies in fragments, “half-witted, unpicked, flaked / out, half a leg, a spewing mouth, brittle hair, / scooped-out heart”.

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There are moments in the book when this sort of Hughesian shrillness and hyperbole-ramped-past-10 is reached for too easily. But ‘Unlocatable’ also  hints at the real life grounding for the edge-of-panic, urgent, deadly serious nature of Robinson’s shattered vision. In the poem’s penultimate stanza we are told:

 

My mother, somewhere,

like a drowned fish on the very end of some

fucker’s very long line

smashing herself against the floor

to an unnatural beat

 

To her great credit Robinson does not use past dislocations in her childhood and family relationships to pursue poetic confessionalism or misery memoir. This potentially gossipy backdrop is aptly sketched only in a fragmentary manner across several poems (the reader left to piece things together as must the family).

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‘Truth’ seems to be an ars poetica of sorts and it is the finding of the mother’s voice “behind the sofa”, the gathering up of this “small voice” and handing it round (as poems?) that spurs the writer on. In particular, the mother’s experiences seem to find echoes in other people, in the media, in the family. A reference to the “death of a violinist” seems obscure but is surely to Frances Andrade whose history of sexual abuse by a music teacher led to her suicide. As I’ve said, the exact events of the mother’s life are left unclear but there is no doubt that men have played a destructive role. One of the more explicit poems, ‘My Mother’, records tragically self-destructive attitudes in her belief that men “cannot be blamed” and that a woman must “know her place, should wait”. Robinson is more clear elsewhere that comments made by her mother have yielded material for poems (including the book title). The images of men are seldom appealing or sympathetic: both ‘Undress’ and ‘Ire’ suggest manipulative and coercive figures, more often than not treating women as sex objects: “He peeled the duvet away // slowly, dragging heat from the flesh / just as you’d freeze-dry meat or fresh fruit”. Robinson mostly treats these issues on a personal level though in ‘Flashback’ the wider context of sexual abuse and domestic violence comes into view with allusions to Radio 1 DJs, another woman’s suicide, courtroom scenes and the earlier image of the fisherman reappears: “He keeps her on a line like a fish / against a rip current”.

All these elements feed into the major poem in this book, ‘Apology’. This seems more explicit about the relationship between mother and daughter and is a howl of survivor guilt, regret, anger, apologising to her mother that things in their lives have turned out as they have. The book’s jacket blurb talks about the poems’ expressions of connectedness and a capacity to love but it has to be said there is precious little of these themes and most of what there is comes in ‘Apology’. Written in spilling, rolling 3/4 line sections (like Ginsberg’s Howl perhaps) the narrator obsessively apologises (mostly for things beyond her control, of course): “I’m sorry you’ve had to withstand such torrents of knowledgeless advice and legal toxification”. More than anywhere else in this painful book, this poem manages to ask, “Is it too ambitious to hope?” The answer given is not reassuring or confident: “We learn to accept the clouds for what they are and wait, patiently”. For the end of a major poem this is undramatic and anticlimactic but Robinson’s aim throughout is more concerned with telling the truths as she and her family have experienced them than with crafting something more consolatory. The final poem is addressed ‘To My Family’ and enacts an interesting withdrawal from such painfully personal material. Robinson retains/regains an artistic distance that augurs well for future collections which will have to draw inspiration from other materials. There is a quiet, deserved, hard-won confidence here: “I’m just words. And you have not the tenacity / to smother me, so I’ll wait here, written, biding my time”.

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2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2: Nancy Campbell

This is the second in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press)
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Enitharmon Press for providing a copy of Nancy Campbell’s book for review purposes.

The concluding poem of Nancy Campbell’s collection Disko Bay is, I think, a good place to begin. In ‘Giving Up on Capitalism’, an unnamed boy makes kayaks and sells them for one, then two kroner (these poems are mostly set in Greenland). He hands his earnings to his mother who buys basics like coffee, sugar, needles, cotton and, more ominously, whisky. If this is the nirvana of capitalist enterprise it hardly gets beyond subsistence level and then only to poisonous effect. On the third occasion he instead decides to construct a kayak for himself: taking the few remaining skins, he “pegged them down deftly / and paddled away”. The point of rejection is simply made, but the simplicity has a mythic, typological impact. The poem’s form is simple, repetitive, like a piece of folklore, an oral transmission perhaps, and – characteristic of the whole collection – the vocabulary is plain to such a degree that the reader is impressed by a paucity or poverty or essentialism (depending on how successful you think it is). Certainly this is a book unlike any other you’ll read this year, drawing on myths and landscapes of the far north (the opening section of the book has poem titles in Greenlandic first, then English). Its impact is often impersonal but Campbell’s knowledge derives from her several residencies in the region and she deploys it in a skilful and poetically knowing fashion.

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Above all, these poems convey the harshness of scraping a human existence in the Arctic Circle, perhaps most obviously in the section called ‘Ruin Island’. An epigraph quotes the Eskimo, Osarqaq: “Our tales are narratives of human experience, and therefore do not always tell of beautiful things”. Several poems follow the exploits of Qujaavaarssuk, a heroic figure and general strong man, who is reduced to singing a dirge at the troubled fishing grounds and is advised by “a man who is not his father” (a break in traditional forms of transmission here?) that the one thing to be relied upon is that “hunger will come of its own accord”. ‘Hospitality’ in such circumstances may consist of feeding guests “the kidneys of a black seal / as the ice harden[s]”. Qujaavaarssuk’s immediate difficulty is the presence of too much ice (a deliberately ironic comment on the shrinking ice caps of our day): he sees the shadows of seals moving beneath it and sets out “to the ice edge to follow them” but what Campbell is interested in (these are contemporary poems, not slavish myth-reproductions) is the failure of the hunter. In ‘Danger of Snow Blindness’, Qujaavaarssuk returns for the first time “his sled empty, his kamiks [boots] clean”. ‘The Last Seal’ opens:

There was nothing left to feed the dogs.

Qujaavaarssuk shot them, one by one

and fed them to each other.

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To the contemporary reader, what lies largely unspoken beneath these chilly, often curt, unsentimental chips off a mythic block is, of course, our own awareness the adverse effects of climate change. ‘Ruin Island’ becomes apocalyptic in tone so that the words spoken by a hunter that conclude the sequence, words spoken by Jorsias Ammonsen in a real interview conducted in 2006, are presented as the reply of a hunter “who can no longer hear the question”. In this way, Campbell tragically ironises Ammonsen’s proud, nostalgic, heroic, perhaps hopeless comments:

When we were young

no place seemed too far away for hunting.

 

We travelled a long way,

too far to come back the same day.

We slept in stone caves

and were cold in winter.

 

Nothing is too harsh

when you are accustomed to it.

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Campbell tries to remain true to the plain directness and dignity of such a voice in most of these poems. The figure of the poet seldom intrudes. When it does she is trying to learn the “soft uvulars” of a new language which seem like “dark flocks of sound I’ll never net, or say”. Difficulties of expression in one language are compounded by problems of communicating across distance to her own homeland: “Since I can’t post a letter this far north, / I’m sending you an Arctic snowstorm”. ‘The Night Hunter’ is typical in its use of a simple lexis – snow, door, harbour, boat, blood, sled, knife – and a repeating form of verse as if the polar climate has sheared away more baroque elaborations of language and form. At first this feels cramping, but as Campbell persists and insists this really is what she intends, the simplicity seems more likely to put us in touch with the elements, the elemental, the bottom line of harsh Arctic existence.

With figures like the hunter Qujaavaarssuk so prominent you might anticipate a macho sort of world but the harsh conditions seem to teach an underlying humility (even to men) and Campbell has a number of female narrators who are clearly no push over. In ‘The Seal People’ a seal hunter’s wife watches the vindictive spirits of killed seals approach by boat and though threatened by them her voice does not falter through three steady quatrains, the verse’s repetitions here expressive of her firm courage. ‘The Hunter’s Wife Becomes the Sun’ is a major poem (its form is a sestina with its obsessive recurrences). Here, a hunter’s wife gives him a tinny Christian memento for protection. The hunter is more concerned with the reality of death and an apocalyptic sense of the world’s end (Campbell’s chosen rhyme words are tin, angel, window, box, candle, darkness). But his wife insists on the need for “light”, transforming herself into a “vast white wake / of stars” which might be considered angels, though the man himself finds it hard to shrug off his pessimism: “At the world’s last window, I light another candle”. The shamanic implications of their exchange are more explicitly played out in three translations of crude Greenlandic Qavak songs, originally collected in the 1950s. They are spoken by a “terrible mother” a “female shaman” and an omniscient “wicked woman”, the latter advising the only way to tackle an enemy is to bite off and employ her clitoris as an arrowhead. Neither the blunt obscenity or implied moral judgement can hide the suggestion that this remote culture clearly understands the importance of the female in ultimate survival.

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One of the impressive things about Disko Bay is that it is eco-poetry without shed loads of landscape description. Those vindictive seal spirits carry a powerful ecological message in their “round, black eyes” – less for the Greenland hunter and his wife (whose place and role within a traditional, sustainable Arctic ecosystem is be unlikely to unbalance things) but to us with our petrol engines, plastics and carbon complacencies. Another success of the book is its use of myths redolent of Nordic and North American materials without distracting echoes of Ted Hughes’ trickster figure Crow. In ‘Fragment’ a severed raven’s wing in the snow is enough to imply the global problem: “Never to breed, never to scavenge / on scarlet seal hearts by the ice edge”. It is brave of Campbell to delay the more eco-explicit poems to later sections of the book. Part three sets off from the premonition that “the future is full of riddles” and ‘Conversations’ conveys both the mystery and the certainty of climate change: “I don’t think it is one thing / I think it is a combination of things / a combination of everything”. The riddle-subjects appropriately include a tsunami and an iceberg but not the dirty complexities of the ever-hungry, seldom-satisfying capitalism rejected by the boy who constructs a kayak not to be sold but for his own setting out in this fine, unusual book’s concluding poem.

Read more on Nancy Campbell – in discussion with Forward Arts Foundation.

 

The Month of the Drowned Dog: Ted Hughes’ ‘November’

Though November has just transformed itself into December here, still Ted Hughes’ sodden, rain-soaked poem from Lupercal (1960) comes to mind as I watch the TV footage of floods in the North-West of England. I’ve never thought enough attention has been given to the role of the narrator in this poem. It’s one of the selected poems studied on the Cambridge International Examinations’ A-level. Students are asked to discuss one specific poem in detail or two poems from a more thematic perspective. What follows is a loose version of the first type of question (apologies for some loss of formatting in the poem itself). NB. For another close discussion of an early Ted Hughes poem – ‘Meeting’ – click here.

The month of the drowned dog. After long rain the land
Was sodden as the bed of an ancient lake,
Treed with iron and bird less. In the sunk lane
The ditch – a seep silent all summer –

Made brown foam with a big voice: that, and my boots
On the lane’s scrubbed stones, in the gulleyed leaves
Against the hill’s hanging silence;

Hughes opens the poem with a bewildering mix of images of motion and stasis. Flooding must account for the “drowned dog” (more literal than figurative or colloquial here) and the absence of a verb emphasizes the stillness of death, the burden of the month, the real entrance way to winter. The land is so sodden as to have suffered inversion to become “the bed of an ancient lake”. It’s an alien landscape – trees (as so often in Hughes) are now composed of industrial “iron” and inevitably “birdless”. Yet in contrast to such stillness, the ditch water (which in summer is a soothing sibilant “seep silent”) is now possessed of a “big voice” composed of brown foam and beside it, the narrator’s boots scrape along the lane. These two sounds are all that can be arrayed against “the hill’s hanging silence” and the contrasts of movement and stillness, noise and silence compose the greater world of this poem.

Mist silvering the droplets on the bare thorns

Slower than the change of daylight.
In a let of the ditch a tramp was bundled asleep;
Face tucked down into beard, drawn in
Under his hair like a hedgehog’s. I took him for dead,

But his stillness separated from the death
From the rotting grass and the ground. The wind chilled,
And a fresh comfort tightened through him,
Each hand stuffed deeper into the other sleeve.

His ankles, bound with sacking and hairy band,
Rubbed each other, resettling.

It’s this greater world that the narrator fears and the tramp entrusts himself to. To the narrator, the tramp sleeping in a let of the ditch, is comparable to an animal, a “hedgehog”. In the narrator’s world view, this is no compliment and indeed in the next phrase (line 12), he considers the tramp “dead”. To give the narrator credit he perceives his mistake and next sees the tramp’s vitality, though (in a reversal of our preconceptions) it is his “stillness” rather than animation that “separate[s him] from the death” all around. The animation of the “wind” evokes a corresponding movement in the tramp: “a fresh comfort tightened through him, / Each hand stuffed deeper into the other sleeve”. There is paradox here too in that the tramp’s movements are intended both to shield him from the elements yet also settle him more comfortably among them.

The wind hardened;
A puff shook a glittering from the thorns,
And again the rains’ dragging grey columns

Smudged the farms. In a moment
The fields were jumping and smoking; the thorns
Quivered, riddled with the glassy verticals.

Lines 18 – 23 seem to represent a moment in which the narrator looks away from the tramp. What he sees is a world he might once have been familiar with dissolving before his very eyes. This is partly a result of optical effects brought on by atmospheric conditions, but Hughes’s language systematically destabilizes the solid and still (the farms, the fields, the thorns) and solidifies the diffuse and shapeless (the wind, the rains). Such a renovation of perception is comparable to the stunned narrator at the end of Hughes’ story ‘The Rain Horse’ (from Wodwo, 1967) who, after the terrifying encounter with the horse, sits “staring at the ground, as if some important part had been cut out of his brain”. The poem’s narrator reports in line 24 that he “stayed on under the welding cold” and the colloquialism of the first two words here implies that any sane person might have retired to shelter; whatever transformative process Hughes is representing in the encounter between narrator and tramp is already under way. The narrator seems to surprise himself by staying as if he were watching the actions of another.

I stayed on under the welding cold

Watching the tramp’s face glisten and the drops on his coat
Flash and darken. I thought what strong trust
Slept in him- as the trickling furrows slept,
And the thorn-roots in their grip on darkness;

And the buried stones taking the weight of winter;
The hill where the hare crouched with clenched teeth.

In fact he stays to continue to watch the tramp becoming part of the landscape: “I thought what strong trust / Slept in him”. All the critics you’ll read agree this is the key idea; but as Keith Sagar asks: in what exactly does “the tramp trust?” The image of sleep links this trust also to the fields’ “furrows”, to “thorn-roots”, to “buried stones” and to the hill itself where the hare is “crouched with clenched teeth”. Is this merely a trust in a viable future? A sort of wishful thinking? A consolation? Perhaps it is if the furrows imply next year’s crop, the roots suggest the new year’s growth, the stones will be unearthed to build new walls, the hare will survive to unclench in the Spring. There is something Romantically attractive about this reading and we might remember Wordsworth’s encounter with the Leech Gatherer who also seems part of the landscape (“as a huge stone”). Wordsworth is equally uncertain of the man’s status: “not all alive nor dead, / Nor all asleep”. As their conversation continues, the Leech Gatherer’s voice becomes indistinguishable from “a stream” and in some low level psychic derangement Wordsworth imagines the Gatherer as “Like one whom I had met with in a dream; / Or like a man from some far region sent, / To give me human strength, by apt admonishment”.

Rain plastered the land till it was shining
Like hammered lead, and I ran, and in the rushing wood

Shuttered by a black oak leaned.
The keeper’s gibbet had owls and hawks
By the neck, weasels, a gang of cats, crows:
Some stiff, weightless, twirled like dry bark bits

In the drilling rain. Some still had their shape,
Had their pride with it; hung, chins on chests,
Patient to outwait these worst days that beat
Their crowns bare and dripped from their feet.

But Hughes’ tramp is far less consoling, far more frightening. In the concluding stanzas, the narrator runs away – on the face of it to shelter from the rain though earlier this had not troubled him. He runs into a wood in something of a panic as the breathless, long-delayed verb here suggests: “in the rushing wood // Shuttered by a black oak leaned”. It’s what the narrator encounters in the wood that provides the final piece of the jigsaw for this poem. He confronts death in the shape of a gamekeeper’s gibbet and it is really death in which the tramp trusts, as much as he trusts himself to life. This is the point of the poem’s many transformational oppositions, of stasis and movement, solid and diffuse, sleep and waking, dead and alive. As the “flash and darken” of raindrops on his coat suggest, the tramp’s instinct is to entrust himself to both life and death without making any clear, rational distinction between the two.

I think the narrator has preserved this distinction and perhaps does so even at the end. Of the bodies on the gibbet, some are fresh, others are like “dry bark bits” being twirled in the rainfall. The narrator seems inclined to focus on those retaining their living “shape”, those who he says retain “their pride”, those who seem (like Wordsworth’s Gatherer) to teach patience, and endurance against “these worst days”. But the incontrovertible fact is they are all dead and death is lesson 101 in Hughes’ work as can be seen in Crow’s ‘Examination at the Womb-Door’ (Crow, 1970). It is the denial of death’s reality that leads to delusion and a false consciousness of our own position in the world. The narrator of ‘November’ still hankers after the human scale of virtues such as patience and Wordsworthian endurance. It is the tramp – ironically rather forgotten by the end of the poem, lying foetal in the let of the ditch, still huddled against the month’s elements – who entrusts himself to the risks of exposure and death, but in doing so may hear (what the sheltered narrator will never hear) the reply that Crow gives to the final question he faces:

But who is stronger than death?

                                         Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow.

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