On the Side of Hope: Heidi Williamson’s ‘Return By Minor Road’

(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.

Teacher, Gwen Mayor, with her class of children.

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.

Allan Water, near Dunblane

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.

View of the Ochil Hills

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

 

incidents.

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.

 

 

Sounds Like What?: a Review of Helen Mort’s ‘The Singing Glacier’

The new book from the innovative and enterprising Hercules Editions – launched at the LRB Bookshop in London’s Bloomsbury last week – contains poetry by Helen Mort, images by Emma Stibbon, a conversation with composer William Carslake and an essay from Manchester Met academic David Cooper. What holds these diverse components together (within 40 pages) is a trip Mort, Carslake and film-maker Richard Jones made to south-eastern Greenland in 2016. You can see the original Kickstarter post here.

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So The Singing Glacier project is truly inter-disciplinary and the Hercules book is making available Mort’s poetic contributions to it. Mort’s conversation with Carslake serves to introduce the origins of the project in 2012 when the composer looked down from a plane to see Greenland’s regressing glaciers “like a hand with fingers”. More evocatively, and much closer, he talks of standing beside crevasses and moulins and listening to the sounds emanating from them, “like hearing a Welsh male voice choir singing from this great big hole in the ice!” The Hercules book has photos of Carslake’s notebook, clusters of notes and a few words jotted on the spot. Mort disarmingly says how she envied this seeming directness of acoustic transcription as her role was to come up with words and inevitably much of what she initially wrote down “was just cliché”. She wonders whether cliché is a reasonable response to the vast and alien landscapes they were moving through, sights before which “linguistic originality can almost seem a little arbitrary”. This is not her final conclusion, but her comment does raise one of the fascinating issues in this beautiful little book – what a poet does with the tensions between speech and silence, more abstractly between sound and its absence.

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In a review of Mort’s first book, Division Street, I thought her “love of landscape [was] profound and, like Wordsworth, her hills and skies remain a locus for, as well as an image of, the process of self-exploration”. On that basis she would be a good poet to send to Greenland but – she confesses – she was sometimes reduced to wanting simply to cry and – this hesitantly expressed – it felt “like being in the presence of a god”. These are unmistakable encounters with the sublime and the urge to anthropomorphise such a vast alien landscape is quick to arise, so any efforts at self-exploration might seem worse than arbitrary, positively disrespectful. But how then to engage? ‘In Defence of Cliché’ takes off from Mort’s honestly expressed concerns about inadequate linguistic responses to this landscape:

 

I write: ice in the fjord as pale as thought

then hear the calving face crash through my language

with a sound (like what?) like cannon fire

 

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Similarly, the moon fails to be adequately captured by images of “petal, snowball, sleeping moth”. She quotes Hopkins on the way observations of nature can correct our “preoccupation” with the world – again walking the fringes of the divine here – becoming a way in which we learn humility. Mort ends the poem cleverly. Our best word for this sort of experience is “awe” but the word baldly used would not possess enough freshness or fire (thank you Gerard Manley) to carry the weight of feeling. So Mort goes for a down-to-earth metaphor followed by a phrase that manages both to say and not-say it simultaneously:

 

… we stand like nothing, shaken

from the pockets of our lives, our mouths

stuck on the silent word for awe.
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The poem, ‘Arctic Fox, August’, is more reminiscent of Mort’s favourite poet, Norman MacCaig. The creature is acutely observed in its colours and hesitant movements around the campsite but the poem ends with a series of rather coercive, descriptive metaphors: “a hunger-striker . . . a gathering memory . . . the habit you thought / you’d kicked”. For me these images circle and knot ever more tightly onto the observing human consciousness, almost doing violence to the creature so well observed at the start. The poem ‘Polynya’ – the word signifies an area of open water surrounded by sea ice – reverses this tendency to humanise the natural by naturalising the human:

 

Surely the heart

must have polynya

places where it’s never

hardened into ice.

 

The image of the partially melted heart turns easily into a love poem. Another method Mort adopts to try to respond to the Greenland landscape is through found language. So ‘And Noah’ arose from a conversation with an inhabitant of Kulusuk (though I think Mort said at the LRB launch that much of the detail came from the little museum in that town). The result manages to suggest something of the way of life in this landscape, a work place – the found nature of the phrases enabling the poet to avoid too strong a sense that neither she nor her work are an “imposition”.

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David Cooper’s essay on acoustic geographies and poetry of place takes a more academic look at the multi-media project, suggesting that it –  like a lot of recent geographical creative writing – sets out to challenge the easy domination of the visual sense by accentuating the acoustic or aural. This is partly because sound “reminds us of our own embodied situatedness and inextricable embeddedness within the world”. The eye puts us at the controlling centre; the ear is more often passively assailed from all sides. The eye easily steps back and away; the ear is within the sensed world (I’ve discussed similar ideas of within/without or within/above in relation to Holderlin’s novel Hyperion in another blog post). Mort’s best work in this little book is done when she listens in to these sounds and silences. ‘The Glacier Speaks’ does succumb to the kind of anthropomorphism Mort says she was wary of. But it works well since the voice of the glacier is such a challenging, even taunting, one: “Go on then / says the glacier – / how are you going to score my silences?” The glacier reminds the poet of its silence through noting the kind of sounds which book-end it or by comparing its absence of sound with more familiar moments of silence such as that between lovers, between a mother and a daughter. Here the comparisons work not through similitude but dissimilitude – my silence, the glacier says, is nothing like these. I thought an odd note was struck at the end of this poem when the humans are described as impressed by such silence (“more like a vigil”) yet the glacier suggests they are each “trying / to get back to me”. This is intended, I presume, to evoke human puniness, a Lawrentian “pettiness”, but it also smacks a little of the glacier’s over-anthropomorphised self-regard.

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But the poem ‘Glacier Song’ is magnificent. Not the right word I’m sure, but it approaches the Greenland landscape – the Knud Rasmussen glacier in particular – with a right sense of decorum. Silent is what the glacier is again – a “library of absences” – and this is conveyed partly by suggesting that the nearby fjord is more talkative, more full of songs. But Mort then cunningly withdraws this idea: even the chatty fjord is really silent – how much more silent then is the glacier! Later, the Arctic light – remember Cooper’s discussion of the predominance of sight – interrogates the glacier like an airport security check, quizzing and questioning because light always knows better, light always wants the last word. But “The glacier carries on / rehearsing privately”. The final section of this longer poem alights on the distant figure of a woman (the poet?) who, herself, wants to be singing. Here, we feature as the little, forked animal, stuffed full of language bursting to get out, trying to communicate something about glacier climbing, about ptarmigans, the Northern Lights, even about the glacier itself. But the ice remains mum to the last:

 

The glacier has not slept

for centuries.

 

The glacier is restless, lithe,

insomniac

 

articulate

 

and doesn’t need

a word for itself.

 

Knud Rasmussen Glacier Greenland

 

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

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