A Holocaust poem – my Dad’s desert war and one of the Magi

Last week, the 27 January 2015 marked the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. I have only once tried to address the subject – in a poem dedicated to my father who served in WW2 in the RAF, mostly in the deserts of Egypt (he was with 80 Squadron: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._80_Squadron_RAF).

He was an engineer by trade and – as far as I know – saw no hand to hand combat. His brief was to maintain the Hawker Hurricanes that were a major component of Allied air power in North Africa. The poem records his only war injury: badly burned legs from jumping too quickly onto the nose of an aircraft after it had landed, straddling its still blisteringly hot twin exhausts. In the 1960s, he’d tell us about this while we sat at the dining table gluing together Airfix models of Hurries (as he calls them), Spits and Lancs.

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The poem was finally published in 1994 in On Whistler Mountain (see https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/on-whistler-mountain/) It opens with a less than complimentary picture of my father’s unreconstructed political and racial views which I wanted to link to the birth of Christ and the Holocaust. Ironically, given his attitude to people of colour, my father dreams in the poem that he is one of the Magi, Caspar, often depicted as a King from the Indian sub-continent. The poem’s narrative folds over to encompass both the first stirrings of Caspar’s dream about the birth of Christ as well as his last days which I imagine him spending in northern Europe.

Being a King of sorts, my-father-as-Caspar imagines the birth of a conventional king, one of conventional powers, but the child’s family turns out to be of no “consequence”. The child he finds in Bethlehem (I was thinking of course of T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’) seems little more than a “futile gesture”. More dreams – which the poem takes as shorthand/short-cuts to the life of the imagination – then drive Caspar north to settle in northern Europe, himself facing racist attitudes among the native peoples there.

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My father’s imagined bafflement before this strange dream in which he plays the role of a non-white king is – I’m sure now – partly his son’s liberal conscience obliquely criticizing his politics. My poem leaves Caspar to die in the northern forests, himself bewildered by what his own dreams have driven him to. The Christ child he dismissed years earlier, continues to visit him in dreams where he goes weeping over that “precise, god-forsaken ground”. The visionary child sees into the future, is a prescient witness to his own Jewish people rounded up by the Nazis’ similarly repellent attitudes to power and racial difference, finally entering “incinerators smoking in the German forest”. Of course, Auschwitz itself and many other camps were not built on German soil, but it was important to use the ‘G’ word at the end of the poem. In the strict pursuit of truth, I was imagining Caspar’s long-house on German soil in the locality of Dachau or Buchenwald, the name of the latter translating as ‘beech forest’.

A Long-House in the Forest

for my father

1.

His war happened in the blazing Middle East.

When he was young, far from the mud of Europe

and the wired camps, his thighs were burned

by too much bravado, sitting astride

the exhausts of a Hurricane that hadn’t cooled.

He picked up the language. Never liked Arabs.

Any dark skin’s still a nigger to this day.

So he votes for the Right, though he’s careless

of politics and takes it as read: we all

long for power and we all need to be led.

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2.

In his dream, he is Caspar. He has chosen

to wait in the draughty long-house, watching

the yard collect its ragged slush of leaves.

He knows the corn-bins are flooded and rotten.

He knows this month is the anniversary

of nights when Caspar rolled in distress, youth,

dream illumination – an excited showing

of power’s open hearth, its air-gulping fire –

his sleep filled with the birth of a king

whose strong arm would invigorate the world.

At once, Caspar instructed a journey. His gift

for this new king, of course, was gold.

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3.

A wretched child asleep on that year’s straw.

Neither mother nor father people of consequence,

but simple Jews – trouble-making, deluded.

This was nothing worth his understanding.

(He knows Caspar is a man of wisdom and books).

What could be the need for this powerless figure?

Why this pot-bellied brat? This futile gesture?

Shepherds stood with doting faces for the boy.

He turned his back, dropped the derisory gift.

4.

Without wishing, Caspar gleaned what became

of the lad from travellers’ unlikely tales.

How he saw no reason to cloak humility.

Nor saw the need to make a show of strength.

No surprise the authorities destroyed him.

And on that day, Caspar, his dream-self,

was driven by dreams again, north this time,

to the Black Sea, fighting the Danube inland,

to this blond-haired, beer-drunk, long-limbed place,

whose people mistake him for a piece of Hell

with his blackened face and barbarian tongue.

5.

Sitting by the squadron’s crest, a photograph

of the kids, he sees no reason to dream himself

black and ignorant, plagued by dreams. But he is

Caspar, has chosen the long-house and struggles

at night – not with dreams of the hot south,

of home, courtyards, frescoes and fountains-

but with a dream that has no place yet, though

he searches for it, now that same, futile boy

in the straw has grown his only dream-guide

and weeps over this precise, god-forsaken ground.

He finds it ruled by those whose failure is to see

no need for an icon of the weak, the needful.

Here, the boy’s deluded people prove no trouble at all,

filing from wooden huts ranged like inland galleys,

to incinerators smoking in the German forest.

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Old Stokes’ Garden Nursery 1970 – 2014

An interruption to blog-casting over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been away from the desk, here and there, partly in Wiltshire visiting my 90-year old parents.

I’ve long understood that one of my triggers as a writer is the simple disparity between ‘then’ and ‘now’. I have grown convinced that an individual’s mental health is partly dependent on the free flow of thoughts and feelings between personal present and past, the integration of personality, a sense of coherence, or organic change, over time. There has been a good deal of research recently on the idea of nostalgia as a healing force (hence some of these dips into autobiographical mode) and I’d like to talk more about that sometime. But for today, while staying in Wiltshire, I came face to face with a pretty powerful example of this disparity between past and present. Here it is:

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OK – it’s not much to look at, but this is the final route of the Hilperton Relief Road, designed to take traffic away from the village where I grew up in Wiltshire. My father has been praying for this to happen for years, convinced the thundering, articulated transports that pass the house originate solely from ‘the Continent’. It’s true they do have to manoeuvre through the village itself, but the route cuts across green fields just a stone’s throw from the little village church of St Michael and All Angels, fields where I’d mooch about as a kid with friends from the self-build estate of Marshmead.

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So a personal wound to my memory – but also an ecological blow to the rural area. Within a few years – though the local authority currently denies this – the meadows surrounding this new road will be filled in with houses and the ghastly sprawl of Trowbridge town will engulf another village. More lucrative land for developers is the prime motivation for building the road after all these years. More personally, on the bulldozed soil in the first photograph once stood a few ramshackle buildings, little more than large garden sheds and fogged, filthy-windowed greenhouses. This was the site of Stokes’ Garden Nursery where I worked a few hours a week at the start of the 1970s.

Stokes’ Nursery is on the left at the far end of Horse Road as you head into town. I cycle along there one Sunday and find Old Stokes out in the open, moving up and down the sunlit rows of chrysanthemums, lifting the still-tight flower heads to examine them, pinching off a browned leaf here and there. It appeals to me – the money and the work.

The following Sunday, on my first morning, he musters a smile of sorts in greeting. He is bent with age, rather hump-backed and moves with a limp. His head is small and round, a few wisps of grey hair, and he purses his lips so that in speaking there is a faint lisp. But he doesn’t often speak and I like that.

I begin reliably turning up and taking his cash, at first just Sundays then Saturday mornings as well. I find myself beginning to identify with him in little ways. His wife is invisible. Their detached house is set off to one side of the grounds where he has several glass houses and outdoor growing areas. The house always appears deserted, with the curtains closed for the most part. Nothing moves or changes. No-one sees her. Old Stokes never talks about her. I never ask. She suffers from agoraphobia, or so my Mum tells me.

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One morning, he leads me through the rickety door of the main glasshouse into its humid, stuffy other world, reeking of compost, plant rot, fertilizer, cell division. “Pricking out”, he murmurs and I wonder if I have heard him right. At an earthy metal bench, backed with a window so filthy nothing can be seen but a fuzz of sunlight, we stand side by side and he shows me what to do. The seedlings are new-grown in their first trays and each has to be gently teased out of the loose soil and away from its clinging companions. Then each spindly seedling, green leafed, pale-stemmed, white-rooted, is tucked into a new hole (drilled by the ‘dibber’) in a newly prepared tray. Pricking out is boring and brainless. It’s not something I am unhappy doing, bearing in mind I am getting paid a few shillings – after February 1971, thirty or forty pence – to do so.

But I prefer watering; lugging the python-like, yellow hoses up and down the glass house aisles, pulling the trigger on the hose attachment and spraying water everywhere, dampening the already humid atmosphere. Soon I am promoted to patrolling the rows of vigorous chrysanthemums, lifting the heavy weights of the flower heads, picking out ear-wigs where I find them, dispatching them with a curt rolling of my thumb and finger. Crouching down between the rows, I disappear completely from the view of anybody passing along Horse Road. Crouched there, I am in a manageable jungle, happy to be alone, often bringing my family’s old blue transistor radio with me, listening to Noel Edmonds (from October 1971), his Sunday morning slot from 10-12. His kind of drippy folk-rock is (I’m afraid) what I like to listen to and David Gate’s songs like ‘Diary’ and ‘Baby I’m-a want you’. McCartney’s first solo album is being played. Cat Stevens has released ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ the year before and ‘Teazer and the Firecat’ in the autumn.

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Twenty years later, in my first book from Enitharmon Press, Beneath Tremendous Rain, I published a triptych of poems about Old Stokes, his wife and the boy working for them. Here are the two best ones:

The Nurseryman

See how my wife hasn’t bothered to open

the curtains. It’s three o’clock. She must be bad.

She thinks I don’t know what it costs her

to steal a glance at me outside, to brave

these fifty feet of open space, her weak legs

trembling with terror, sick in her belly,

knotting ever closer round her poor heart . . .

I’ll cut some chrysanthemums to please her.

My flowers always please her.

Years ago she’d tell me how it felt.

She’d say a bulb will sometimes come up blind

no matter how carefully you’ve set it down.

It’s the way of plants. There’s no cure at all.

But it’s not only her. Still poor as Adam,

there’s just one thing I have that’s in demand

and it’s not right that a man who’s spent life

tending soil into flower should gain nothing

but a touch for dressing death in glad rags

with some careful blooms on a wire frame . . .

I’ve found a natural talent for wreathes.

My one extravagance:  that I can charge

higher prices than most and though Christmas

is a boon (when my great medals hang on

many bolted doors), yet it’s the year-round trade

in bereavement that keeps this place afloat.

I’d plans once. A shop, new green-houses, a son.

Now I’m forced to take on a series of young lads

who help me out. They’re all more or less sullen.

This one’s so quiet, although he chats to girls

across the hedge, as they all have done –

all playing the working-man, hands dirtied,

with the jangle of my money in their pockets.

This one trails his radio around all day long

as if he can’t stand the sound of himself.

Doesn’t work hard. See where he goes now,

slipping down beside the sheds. No radio today.

Well, he’s happy enough on one-fifty an hour . . .

I must cut some chrysanthemums to please her.

The Wife

I sit beside my beautiful maidenhair fern.

It likes my darkness, is dank, spreads slowly.

I count my books, silent on their long shelves.

I’m dying of pure old age, not experience.

I was not always so understanding – accusations

and resentment shouted him into the garden.

We have not given each other all we’d hoped.

I name children, true pleasure, company . . .

I’ve felt such horror at what lies beyond

the window, where even clothes on the line,

blown by an uncontrollable wind, cardigans

undone and swept open, slacks kicked wide

are too much to bear. He has devoted himself

too much to the fertility of row upon row

of plants and had less and less for me.

But we’re past the allotment of blame.

For years, he’d bring chrysanthemums

to me and watch like a child while I shook

earwigs in the sink, flushed them out of sight.

An absurd ritual I long for, absurdly,

since it ended these past four or five years

before the hedge was removed to make beds

of carnation. And we’ve no boys now –

as if a supply-line had suddenly gone dry.

Don’t parents have children nowadays?

They all blur into one – that particular one

who left quickly. Why do I think of him?

He’s forgotten me. Does he have a wife?

And a child? I remember descending the stairs,

past the grave-quiet telephone, with a jug

of water in my hand. I thought I heard

one of the cats, opened a sliver of curtain.

I would do this all over again . . .

See the boy slumped against the shed

legs crooked and splayed, one hand flickering

on his belly as if dealing a deck of cards –

but with such unrestrained violence.

He saw me. Gave the look of one who has been

interrupted – annoyance, much more than

the guilt I’d expect. I dropped the curtain,

then wanted to open it again – and it’s that

which fills me now when I think of ‘life’

and then I see myself – the dry, pressed flower

I found once in a borrowed library book,

squeezed out now, frightened of the light.

The Launch of ‘Magma’ 60 at LRB bookshop

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

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

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

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

Talking in bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.

Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest

Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

Distance

Distance is always reduced at night

The drive from Kingston to Montego Bay is not so far

Nor the distance between ourselves and the stars

And at night there is almost nothing between

The things we say, and the things we mean.

Writing poems to the tune of Sibelius (circa 1990)

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

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

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

Listen to it here: 

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

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

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

Barkbrod

1.

It is the rawness

of my own throat

that forebodes.

So little else has

been altered, yet

everything’s realigned

as if from without.

My peasant-thoughts

mix bitter bark

with dull flour

to eke life out.

They recognise

the violent-sudden

clarification

of their strength,

its cropped boundary.

Breath shortens.

Sweet Betjeman,

black-eyed Larkin:

these two dead men

alive on a screen

to discuss poetry,

the intimacies

of panic and pain.

And a malignancy

in the songbird’s

weak throat severs

the transference

from hand to hand.

The grandparents

of my young bride

pass along these

pallid, frost-blue

roses on bone-china.

Whether shelved or

to hand, they chill me:

their stark reaction

to our modish

wisdom, our shallow

unquestionable

optimism . . .

Take up the bitterness

of this bread,

brush every crumb

towards the sink

and douse your plate.

Baptise and scour

each blue-ice rose.

2.

The first peculiarities of this year’s

snowlight break up the bedroom glass.

There’s a crackle of news in the kitchen.

All is well. Yet the difficulty is this:

to convey information which is true,

while avoiding fear which is unnecessary,

yet maintain hope which is essential.

In a mess of sensual pleasure and death

it rose obediently to hand as I soaped

my breasts, in my left, quite low down.

Unmistakable. How long have I nursed

this featureless clod over my heart?

Water gems and drains from my feet.

The radio chuckles at my trembling.

3.

What remains to be done

but retire into some

Ainola of the mind,

glimpsed down a track

of snow, pine, a refuge

still as a blown flute.

I wake at night thirsty

and from the window,

across tangled gardens,

a yellow light burns,

sketching the grid

of dull-bricked walls.

But I sink to sleep

still unresolved

whether this midnight’s

oil is some illness,

vocation, compassion,

or the absentmindedness

we fearfully deny.

Your thinned hair now

combed neatly back

behind fleshy ears.

And how is the throat?

Nervy artist’s hands

flutter about the chin.

Those pale eyes of yours

gaze hard at my room,

at this ceiling’s rose

across my shoulders.

I guess you’re slow to be

moved, yet once begun

a relentless nature

like time or weather.

It’s a gaze to outlast

any physique: this slip

of a thing, your strength.

4.

This clod in my breast

wears a tight

black neckerchief.

 

It must be evil

that I think of it

as a child . . .

 

Dark nights running

I dream of him

rapping gently

 

against the door

 – our bedroom door –

till I answer.

So she speaks

as we journey south

out of London,

through the suburbs’

assembled brambled

tussocky plots,

bright washing

collecting the sun

as it drops

long shadows

to meet us both

on the allotments.

Vitality sickens me

with fierce envy

and the why? why?

Across the carriage

a brash student

absently rearranges

his big thighs.

Two powerful hands

murder the fruit

he cleanly eats.

I let him in

over the threshold.

These backs of houses

so ordinary

that reassurance

ought to flow

from them. Yet

we both move here

as an illustration,

a shadow,

quite regardless:

of how a charming boy

will come to the door

from without,

how you bend to him

just as he’s hulking

through transformation

into a killer

in our bedroom

who bolts you upright,

over and over,

screaming unrestrained

beside me.

Myra Schneider’s ‘Circling the Core’ (2008)

Myra Schneider is an old friend from the North London circuit, a tireless worker for poetry and a poet of significance who has also proselytised for the therapeutic impact of creativity in relation to both physical and mental illness. She has a new book out and I saw her read from it recently. I have yet to commit my thoughts on her new work to the keyboard and screen but I thought – by way of an appetiser – this might be an opportune moment to post the review I wrote of her previous collection Circling the Core (Enitharmon Press, 2008)

Also, here is a recent interview with Myra conducted by Maitreyabandhu at Poetry East:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WfI7Bx_7Uo

The interview begins with Maitreyabandhu asking why she selected ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins and ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath, as two poems which had influenced her. He then asks about her life and the different areas of her poetry and writing.

Reading Myra Schneider’s Circling the Core, there are many things that remind me of Edward Thomas’ review of Frost’s North of Boston (1914). Thomas praises his American friend’s poems because they lack “the exaggeration of rhetoric”. He applauds his language as “free from the poetical words and forms” that harmed so much poetry in the early twentieth century. Frost avoids both “old fashioned pomp and sweetness” as well as its opposite – “discord and fuss”. The revolution that Thomas and Frost were pursuing is the recurring one of poetry’s return to common speech and this has long been one of the chief pleasures of Schneider’s work too. Since the mid-1980s, she also has pursued a voice that refuses to flaunt gratuitous formal innovation, nor does she play fast and loose with syntax, lexicon or typography. It might appear that Schneider prioritises a truth to things more than words and her conclusion is an admirable and observant humility before the world, its creatures, domestic objects, weather and places – though her attentiveness to detail is not the whole story.

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Schneider herself also refers directly to Thomas’ example in taking the epigraph to this collection from his poem ‘The Glory’. Thomas hopes to find this glory in the “beauty of the morning”, the natural world, the acutely observed details of the “pale dust pitted with small dark drops”. Yet what draws him remains elusive and he concludes that he may have to remain “content with discontent” since he “cannot bite the day to the core”. Schneider’s poems echo many of these concerns but – despite the tentativeness of this collection’s title – she tends to be more optimistic about the search for the “core”. The book opens with a marvellous response to a Barbara Hepworth sculpture which, after tracing the curves and lines of the material reality, worms its way to a centre, a still point, “jewel, kernel, womb, unshielded self, / a promise of continuance. / We lay hands on profound silence.”

In Schneider’s work the kernel usually is that “unshielded self”, the authenticity of lived experience rather than the accumulations that can obscure and denature it. In ‘The Mnajdra Temples’, the narrator is interested in and even impressed by information associated with these Maltese Neolithic ruins, but it is “what the humans who worshipped here thought” that is the real goal: “how the human brain began making / complex plans, conceiving deities, temples”. Elsewhere, a viaduct cannot be encompassed by its dictionary definitions; it is always more than its “bare facts” (‘Images’). Similarly, personal identity is more than the sum of its material parts: a bowl created by the poet’s mother-in-law “goes deep but not deep enough to hold everything / she lost” (‘Larder’) and on a return visit to childhood landscapes in search of self, it is ironically “when I leave / the present peels away” (‘Going Back’). A poem like ‘Goulash’ is so good just because it manages to capture this core of subjectivity, the thinking mind in process as it moves from the details of cookery, to love, to landscape, to a contemplation of “darkness” which lies ambivalently at the heart of things, triumphantly ending with a celebration of friendship which is not overwhelmed by placing it beside the longer historical perspectives of the jewellery of the Sutton Hoo burial ship.

Schneider’s interest in psychological truth leads inevitably to the use of dream materials as the starting point for a number of these poems. ‘Naming It’ opens dramatically with collapsing buildings but, even after the dust settles, the “panic is all in the rubble”. The possibility of escape from such chaos is intuited when the narrator discovers a blue pool and realises it is “crucial to capture the exact word for its colour”. As well as suggesting the essential nature of her work as a whole, this also confirms that Schneider’s vision encompasses a good deal of darkness. Though there are occasions when grief, pain, injustice are countered by little more than wishful thinking, as in ‘Journey’ with its repeated “What I want . . .”, a poem like ‘Nothing’ confronts it head on in the “vacant cradle /  of delicate bones that was once a bird’s head”, an object that seems to be demanding to know how to “face nothing”. Something of a reply to this is given at the end of the sequence ‘Larder’, with its finely judged observation, defining life itself as “a series of small makings / to stack up in larders against death”.

It is less of a leap than one might imagine from this to Schneider’s re-working of the myth of Orpheus, an ambitious poem that stands up impressively alongside Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Eurydice’. In ‘Eurydice’s Version’, Orpheus is a stunningly beautiful but selfish, spoilt man-child, beside whom his wife is initially no more than an “adjunct”. His music is presented as a compulsion she would like to resist. Her association with the shepherd, Aristaeus, is reinterpreted as a relationship in which her “actual” self is recognised in contrast to Orpheus’ chauvinistic, insistent projection of “bedmaker, breadmaker, whore / babymaker, milk-breast, childminder, nurse, / comforter, slave, mystic maiden, high goddess, // muse”. But Aristaeus’ interest in her true “core” frightens Eurydice away, allowing the snake bite that kills her to be regarded as “punishment” for turning her back on such a moment of possible honesty. Orpheus’s turning is likewise re-interpreted as a relief for Eurydice, who prefers the darkness of the underworld where, she says, “I’ve learnt to listen, to think, / for myself and when I speak I am heard” – in other words, where she lives with the virtue of truth to her inner self which this collection explores.

At one point, Eurydice wishes Nature might resist Orpheus’ melodic pushiness too and Schneider is admirably unapologetic about the importance of the natural world in the process of salving some of the harm she encounters. Those who have read her poetry in the past will recognise features of locality such as Pymmes Brook, the Piccadilly line viaduct to Arnos Grove, Arnos Park itself in north London and Schneider’s south-facing garden overlooking it. She has worked this landscape into almost mythic significance, its details able to reflect and evoke the inner experiences with which she is really concerned as in ‘Seeing the Kingfisher’, the ‘Drought’ sequence and ‘Skywards’. A little more exotically, ‘The Oyster Shell’ explores again this poet’s characteristic movement inward, a movement for which “prayer” offers no help but which, pursued with the kind of vigorous honesty that fills this book, can reach an almost Blakean intensity:

I retreat to the cradle of this shell,

creep in, unclothe my self, tread

on milkwhite and mother-of-pearl,

follow faint pools of sandgold

to the sullen indigo sea lying below

the hinge as its core. Here, I let go.

Myra’s new collection is called The Door to Colour:

http://www.enitharmon.co.uk/pages/store/products/ec_view.asp?PID=645

Schneider_Colour_PRF1 (2)

New pamphlet

New Pamphlet from Shearsman Books
New Pamphlet from Shearsman Books

O Farso

To begin with not clear what the lighthouse does
with its absence of glass lens and bulb
at least to the naked eye—
just a spindly array of instruments up top

above the disappointingly stubby column
on a cliff-top with its padlocked metal doorway
but no sooner has the walking begun
than its subtle powers become obvious

your every step determined by its position
the heather the stony paths the steep incline
each locked in communication with it

and where all might have flowed before you
in a salted windswept wide plenitude
the lighthouse utters its singular word