2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Stephen Sexton’s ‘If All the World and Love Were Young’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus) – reviewed here.

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

This year’s Forward First Collection shortlist is astonishingly good but, for its cleverness, its ambition and coherence, its technical mastery and above all for its vulnerability in dealing with the eternal themes of childhood, love and loss, death, time and memory, I hope Stephen Sexton’s book wins the award in October. It’s a curious read in some ways – superficially fast and easy, its technical brilliance well hidden, its narrative quite buried though not really hard to trace, its emotional heft at times blunt and utterly naked, at others complex and many-layered.

Halfway through the book, in ‘Forest of Illusion 2’, Sexton recalls fishing for rainbow trout with some success. The bait is taken and “with a flick / of the wrist [he] hoisted the fish from one world and into the next”. It’s this kind of transition that is the subject of the whole book though the direction of travel is clearer in the recurrent images of young Icarus. The boy who thought he could fly near the sun (filtered through Breughel and then through Auden) is aptly evoked in this poetic bildungsroman of a boy struggling with the traumatic transition from innocence to experience.

The book’s title is the opening line of Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ in which the Nymph rejects her suitor’s optimistically seductive blandishments:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

But Sexton’s particular withering is not one of romantic love but the loss of a mother to cancer and by the end of the book, the wriggle room implied by Ralegh’s opening word, ‘If’, is significantly altered to the much more brutal ‘when’. This is no hypothetical idyll but an actual, remembered one and the loss of it is unavoidable. The post-conclusion, coda-poem, ‘Yoshi’s House’, turns upon the reader with a compassionate yet clear warning: “some day dear friend [you will find] my sad head upon on your shoulders” (sic).

Sexton has written a genuine, contemporary long poem (not a long assemblage of lyrics). His lines are 16 syllables in length throughout, yielding a prosy, chatty, fluid sort of voice which avoids the risk of drag by keeping the reader on our toes by a relative absence of punctuation and a penchant for eliding two thoughts or images together in one single line. This generates occasional moments of misreading, but it is also the technical reflection of Sexton’s focus on the translation of innocence into the darkening of experience. The heard voice is quick, erudite and briskly allusive; despite being mostly in the present tense, it is not wholly the naïve voice of the child. The other aspect of the whole poem this fluid transitioning relates to is the exploration of the child’s obsession with the fantasy world of his computer games and the way he must slide from one world (on a screen) to the one we call ‘real’.

The computer games are specifically the Nintendo games of the 1990s which give the sections their odd names – Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, Vanilla Dome, Valley of Bowser – and account for individual poems’ titles, some of which I have already referred to. The games may be out of date but Sexton’s evident knowledge of them (love of them) means part of the originality of this book is they are fully integrated into the composition of the poems and raise questions about how absorbing such fantasy worlds can be and how the facts of reality are to be negotiated and reconciled successfully (perhaps, particularly by boys who seem so drawn to the former and so easily in denial about the latter).

Sexton’s own story is given in a Note and the poem called ‘Yoshi’s Island 1’. In the summer of 1998, his mother took a photograph of him, back to the camera, squatting before a TV, the family garden just glimpsed out of a window to the left. Here already, the screen world and the outside world through the window are juxtaposed. The boy is keener on the former:

Here spotted mountain and cirrus here sloping plateaux drawn down

carnivorous plants and no sun gold by the cherish underground

fly agaric throbs everywhere with fire plants and dinosaurs.

The vivid, colourful, playful and safe fantasy worlds of Nintendo – its caricatures, its rules – is one of escape:

On Kappa Mountain past the great lake circumscribed with goldenrod

the abandoned palace is full of treasure glowing underground

in granaries and arsenals and economy of losses

and gains the beloved is gone but there is always the story.

 

The man looking back at his younger self passes judgement: “one of the worlds I live in is as shallow as a pane of glass”. But this shallowness is immediately challenged when the child is told of his mother’s illness, of “cells which split and glitch”. The following poem has thoughts of his (real) father interrupting (if only for one line) in his screen time:

. . . for the first time in some time I thought of our father at home

the Sirocco in from the south turtle doves in the huge wheat fields

‘#1 Iggy’s Castle’ suggests the same thing: in the midst of oceans of lava, fantastical islands and cartoonish incinerations, the boy hears his mother moving about the house, a woman in real pain, “whose feet whose toes / whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire”.

Within 20 pages or so, a poem appears which resides wholly in the ‘real’ world of a family visit to the Ulster Hospital and a visit to McDonald’s since his mother “has lost her sense of taste”. The narrative suggests there follows a period of respite. The doctors – in the boy’s mind they come and go as wizard-like Merlins “in blue scrubs” – remove the cancer. Though back at home his mother remains weak and unsteady so the boy concocts a “mess in a tray” for the school bake sale. In awkward self-defence, he acknowledges, “No one is going to like this [. . .] but I have done my best”. His observation obviously has a far wider application in the circumstances, and one of Sexton’s great achievements in the poem – in amongst the allusiveness and technical skill – is to be as open and vulnerable as this. In ‘#5 Roy’s Castle’ he recalls his mother working “her old-fashioned Singer”. Roy Orbison is on the radio. She is making curtains for the room “she’ll in future return to” when she has become ill. The way time collapses in on itself in such a Wordsworthian ‘spot of time’, the way in which “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future”, is expressed with devastating simplicity: “the sewing machine ticks so fast these small years go by in minutes”.

But the cancer has returned. ‘Choco-Ghost House’ is unique in that we hear Sexton’s mother’s voice, nervously complaining of a “pain in my side like a bird in a holly tree”. Her son, still half inhabiting his fantasy world of wizards and exotic settings, is perhaps now starting to use that experience to get a handle on what is really happening. The doctor – now a “Hippocrates” figure – is described as going about “the magic task / of grinding down a rhino’s horn to infuse with ground down rubies”. Even these sorts of quasi-defensive imaginings are eventually dropped and the bald reportage of a last hospital bedside conversation between mother and child is almost too painful to read. The long syllabic lines here have room for the hesitations and repetitions of such emotionally-charged moments without any ironic distancing:

It’s me I’m here is what I say but I am not since she is not.

Then she says I want to go home once more for one once more one night

and I say you can’t go home now she says I know not now after.

The sequence ends with the longest poem in the book – still barely the length of a page – which recounts the mother’s return home in her coffin. Even here the young boy blurs the arrival of the “wood panelled box” with the arrival of the “sharp-cornered TV” before which he has so often squatted to play his Nintendo games. Penguin’s blurb talks of the poem ultimately suggesting “the necessity of the unreal” but actually we see the child fighting his way free of it. Halfway through this final poem, the revelation comes in a fluid, unpunctuated instant: “I felt my head turn into stone no it wasn’t the old TV”. It’s in this poem that Sexton alludes to the title of his book. Hedged around with the necessary qualifications imposed by the passage of years, by the unreliability of human memory, the cloaking device of powerful emotion, he recalls a childhood safe and secure in the light of his mother’s presence, the flashlight of her camera behind him, before him the vibrant, simple colours of Nintendo:

[. . .] her voice moves around the edge of the world and now I think I

remember what I mean to say which is only to say that once

when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing

once in the corner of the room once I was sitting in its light.

‘Sis, you gotta let go’: on Mona Arshi’s ‘Dear Big Gods’

9781786942159In a recent launch reading for her second collection, Dear Big Gods (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019), Mona Arshi suggested it was a book she wrote only reluctantly. Her first book, Small Hands (2015), had at its centre a number of poems in memory of her brother, Deepak, who died unexpectedly in 2012. On her own admission, these new poems continue to be imbued with this grief and – though poets surely always write the book that needs to be written – there is a sense that the development of the new work has been stalled by such powerful feelings. My 2015 review of Small Hands saw Arshi as “an intriguing writer, potentially a unique voice if she can achieve the right distance between herself and her powerful formative influences”. The influences I had in mind then were literary rather than personal, but I find the lack of distance travelled between the earlier and this more recent work rather disappointing.

In fact, Deepak’s death is the explicit subject on only a few occasions. The poem ‘When your Brother Steps into your Piccadilly, West Bound Train Carriage’ isn’t much longer than its own title but it evokes that familiar sense of (mis-)seeing our dead in a public place. The emotions remain raw, from the accusatory “how-the-fuck-could-you?” to the final “I am sorry, I’m so sorry”. A dream or daydream meeting is also the basis for ‘A Pear from the Afterlife’ in which the brother’s affectionate tone advises, “Sis, you gotta let go / of this idea of definitive knowledge”. ‘Five Year Update’ is by far the most extended of these reflections on the brother’s passing, written in very long raking lines (rotated 45 degrees to stretch vertically on the page). “I hope it’s fine to contact you”, it opens and goes on to recall the moment the news of his death was received (see also ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’ from Small Hands), remembers their childhood together and the sister’s continuing life: “I’ve gone down one lump not two, I still don’t swim and yes I still can’t / take a photograph”.

how-to-grow-arum-lilyAs the blurb suggests, these poems are indeed “lyrical and exact exploration[s] of the aftershocks of grief”. But ‘Everywhere’ adopts a little more distance and develops the kind of floating and delicate lyricism that Arshi does so well. The absent brother/uncle is still alluded to: “We tell the children, we should not / look for him. He is everywhere”. As that final phrase suggests, the rawness of the grief is being transmuted into a sense of otherness, beyond the quotidian and material. It’s when Arshi takes her brother’s advice and lets go of “definitive knowledge” that her poems promise so much. ‘Little Prayer’ might be spoken by the dead or the living, left abandoned, but either way it argues a stoical resistance: “I am still here // hunkered down”. In a more conventional mode, ‘The Lilies’ develops the objective correlative of the flowers suffering from blight as an image of a spoliation that hurts and reminds, yet is allowed to persist: “I let them live on / beauty-drained / in their altar beds”.

Like so many first books, Small Hands experimented with various poetical forms. This book also – a bit wilfully – tries out tanka, poems in two columns, right justification, centre justification, ghazals, inter-cut texts, prose poems, a sestina, an Emily Dickinson parody and responses to Lorca and The Mahabharata. They don’t all work equally well and Arshi perhaps senses this in lines like these:

 

My little bastard verses

tiny polyglot faces

how light you are

how virtually weightless

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The irony may be that this sort of form and reach actually does show Arshi at her best. The sequence of tiny poems modelled on Lorca’s ‘Mirror Suite’ (1921-1923) is fascinating. Jerome Rothenburg, discussing Lorca’s poems, describes them as possessing “a coolness & (sometimes) quirkiness, a playfulness of mind & music that I found instantly attractive”. These same qualities – as with Lorca, a version of surrealism, a firm but gentle turning aside from “definitive knowledge” – I enjoy in Arshi’s work as she explores states of the heart and realms of knowledge not ordinarily encountered or encompassed. Dear Big Gods contains other such Lorca-esque sequences such as ‘Autumn Epistles’, ‘Grief Holds a Cup of Tea’ and ‘Let the Parts of the Flower Speak’ and these are far more interesting than the poems drawn from The Mahabharata or the experiments in prose.

31BzXZVhekL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Arshi’s continuing love affair with ghazals also seems to me to be an aspect of this same search for a form that holds both the connected and the stand-alone in a creative tension. ‘Ghazal: Darkness’ is very successful with the second line of each couplet returning to the refrain word, “darkness”, while the connective tissue of the poem allows a roaming through woods, soil, mushrooms and a mother’s praise of her daughters. Poems based on – or at least with the qualities of – dreams also stand out. The doctor in ‘Delivery Room’ asks the mother in the midst of her contractions, “Do you prefer the geometric or lyrical approach?” In ‘The Sisters’ the narrator dreams of “all the sisters I never had” and within 10 lines Arshi has expressed complex yearnings about loneliness and protectiveness in relation to siblings and self.

Given the traumatic disruption of her own, it’s no surprise that Arshi’s most frequently visited subject area is family relationships. I’ve referred to several of these poems already and ‘Gloaming’ floats freely through the fears of losing a child, the care of an ageing father, a mother “entering/leaving through a narrow lintel” and the recall of the “thick soup of our childhood”. The soup works well both as literal food stuff and as metaphor for the nourishing, warming milieu of an up-bringing, though the girl who looks up at the end of the poem is already exploring questions of identity. She asks, “where are you from, what country are we in?” Given Arshi’s own background – born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London – such questions have obvious autobiographical and political relevance, though I sense Arshi herself is also asking questions of a more spiritual nature.

220px-Shiva_Musée_Guimet_22971So, in ‘My Third Eye’, the narrator is “more perplexed than annoyed” that her own third eye – the mystical and esoteric belief in a speculative, spiritual perception – has not yet “opened”. The poem’s mode and tone is comic for the most part; there is a childish impatience in the voice, asking “Am I not as worthy as the buffalo, the ferryman, / the cook and the Dalit?”. But in the final lines, the holy man she visits is given more gravitas. He touches the narrator’s head “and with that my eyes suddenly watered, widened and / he sent me on my way as I was forever open open open”. The book also closes with the title poem, ‘Dear Big Gods’, which takes the form of a prayer: “all you have to do / is show yourself”, it pleads. The delicate probing of Arshi’s best poems, their stretching of perception and openness to unusual states of emotion are driven by this sort of spiritual quest. Personal tragedy has no doubt fed this creative drive but – as the poet seems to be aware – such grief is only an aspect of her vision and not the whole of it.
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#WADOD – Day 20: March 20th 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.1960s Graham and Elsie Hale - Winsley Rd

Wednesday 20.03.2019

‘now my bones take on the white of alyssum’

 

now my bones take on the white of alyssum

my bones

those mossy cushions in a grandfather’s front garden

 

my bones

though he’s long been in his grave

his daughter revives him without knowing how

 

his bones

time and again his bones where she sits in the morning sun

in the sun room

where the giant Scrabble board is stowed

 

his bones beside the giant ivory-coloured letter tiles

she will score twelve with the name of a flower

 

his bones a white perfume

her bones

 

my bones

trying to become an unobtrusive white bedding annual

an accident in the stonework of a bridge

 

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

My work here is almost done . . .  This is the fifth and last in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) –  reviewed below

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry) – reviewed here

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Do poets owe their readers explanatory notes? The pro-accessibility reply is ‘On principle, no!’ The googlers reply is ‘Not necessary – let your fingers do the walking’. Others might concede, ‘On occasions, maybe, for clarity’s sake or to take the piss out of critics and academe (see T.S. Eliot). But reading Eric Langley’s debut collection – if it’s proving hard to hang on to his erudite coat-tails – perhaps you cry ‘Yes, yes, for goodness sake!’ In fact, such pleas have already been answered by a curious, anonymous website that has sprung up to explicate many of these poems. Talk about poetry moving from the writer’s desk to the academic lecture hall without passing through an ordinary reader’s hands! It’s because Langley scrupulously offers us no help at all in positioning ourselves to read about the Chinese tradition of walnut gambling, Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, Picasso’s father, Stephen Grosson’s 1579 book Schoole of Abuse, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Derrida on postcards, Argus, Eurydice, Zeno, Edgar Allen Poe and (twice) the art historical term pentimenti. And that’s mostly from the opening 50 pages of this 128 page book (I think it’s about 40 pages too long).

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On the other hand, Langley often writes with a vigour and robust rhythmical quality to perform (all these poems are very performative) a sort of Elizabethan riffing to scatter-shot effect. He has a slightly annoying, almost reflex habit of sampling bits of Shakespeare mid-poem (especially from Hamlet) but Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s language that it was “an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, [a] weirdly expressive underswell of musical neargibberish” (‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (1971)) and at his very best Langley catches some of this. Literally born into the Cambridge school (Langley’s father, R. F. Langley, with his son, would often holiday with J. H. Prynne), Langley junior invigorates that difficult style with a 1590s fizz and gristle (his day job at UCL is studying the bard and more obscure Elizabethan texts) in poems whose image field is most often ekphrastic, whose emotional stance is often surprisingly sentimental and whose dominant atmosphere is one of loss.

The loss is key. Fundamentally this is about language (Cambridge School again) as the poor relation to ultimate reality. Our every living moment is a catalogue of loss; certainly our every communication is a clumsy moon-shot at a too-fast moving target, a shot also plagued by the drag of our words’ etymologies. But this is also (like the Forward short-listed books by Nick Makoha and Ocean Vuong) a book about lost fathers (Langley talks about this and other things and reads a poem in this interview). In addition, Langley’s sense of loss is elsewhere associated with the recall of a romantic attachment, what he refers to at one point, transmuting Anthony Burgess, as “memory’s ultraviolence”. This stirring of long-buried materials is what the book’s title alludes to. Raking light is used in art historical investigations to reveal the artist’s false starts and abandoned intentions – a sort of alternative historical version of the final painting. In fact, it’s that often over-done, old poetical favourite, the palimpsest, in art historical terms.

So ‘In raking light’ the narrative voice explains “in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up”. Perhaps my ‘explain’ is not the right word here – there is a sort of querulous (lover’s?) complaint going on in the tone as if the voice resents this uncovering of the past.

 

Once, there was life here –

residual and errant –

hushed since, shucked under

the thick skin, the tough slough.

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The vowel music in these few lines illustrates one of the pleasures of Langley’s work, but the “thick skin” is a gift to those who might accuse him of tending to bury hurt and loss under an avalanche of erudition rather than bringing it to the light. Indeed, it’s debatable whether this poem (in 8 sections), as it continues to offer multiples of synonymous formulations of this buried/hidden trope, manages to express a humanly complex emotional state or simply obscure it in a playful, bravura performance. The poem to read alongside this one is ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ which – once it has got past its tacked-on allusions to Orpheus’ lost wife and Proserpina – proceeds much more nakedly and accessibly:

 

Come back up stairs

if you read me

 

up in the subway

missing the tube travel,

 

missing the coach trips,

all the seaside rides,

 

the telephones, the postcards,

telegrams on spun wire;

 

come back up stairs,

and I’m hanging on

 

subjunctives, hanging on

superlatives, hanging on

 

the sound of someone

long gone to static

(apologies for some loss of formatting here – blame WordPress)

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The more linguistic and epistemological losses that preoccupy Langley are clear in the opening line of the opening poem, ‘Glanced’: ‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.” The interruptive full stop is (ahem) the point (Langley’s love of puns can be infectious). The idea is then played out (again in a riffing, repetitive style) via another old favourite, Zeno’s arrow, though this time the target is Zeuxis’ painting of grapes which (in legend) was so realistic that birds swooped down to peck them. Art imagined to be closing on the real – of course, it proves a delusion. The arrow does strike the canvas but penetrates what is really nothing, then slams into a “wall”. The final section of the poem, in fact, does suggest some possible success (see Hughes’ comment on Shakespeare’s ultimate expressive achievement through signals and hints). The concluding lines display Langley’s vigorous use of anaphora, rhyme, punning and Shakespearean allusion:

 

So glancing blown by,

so palpably hit away, so

 

keep so lovely looking still

keep lovely looking till

 

until each hungry bird

has flown and had his fill.

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The sequence, ‘Albada: Pigeons on pink’, starts (once we’ve done the googling to find out) with Picasso’s painter father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco. He liked to paint pigeons and for a few sections he sounds pleased with the results. But then young Pablo asks for a pencil and his father is astonished at the boy’s skill, or the degree to which his art seems to approach reality: “all these real these / really real pigeons”. Via another allusion to Hamlet, Langley then morphs the poem into an address to his own father (who wrote a poem called ‘Jack’s Pigeon’) though the two sons – Pablo and Eric – are blurred together, avoiding filial arrogance in a burst of filial piety: “it’s all still yours, still yours to say, Jose”. An albada is a Spanish love poem – this one has been re-geared into a piece about the son’s love of a father.

The two poems called ‘Pentimenti’ return to the ideas linked with raking light. The Italian word means ‘regrets’ and in art history it refers to changes an artist makes and covers over in the process of creation. The first of the poems is shorter and mixes images of painting with those of telephoning and it’s the latter that suggests this is really driven by a broken relationship in the modern world: “lost out here – dialling, dialling”. Such loss of contact and communication trips all Langley’s switches. A similar instinctive, welling up, or inundation, of potent material can be seen in the over-long, repetitive sequence in the middle of the book. This springs from a detail recounted by Galen of Pergamon that Ptolomaeus, King of Egypt, in assembling his great library, would take books from any ship that sailed into port, have them copied, then give back the copies, retaining the originals for his own book shelves. So language, knowledge, forgery, copies, signs, semiotics, morse code, the Dewey system of classification, plus Hamlet on the pirate ship and the final Alexandrian conflagration – Langley throws it all into the mix  and gives it a good stir.

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For me, the second ‘Pentimenti’ is a much greater success, presenting itself as a literal palimpsest of the earlier poem – the thoughts, drafts and revisions that might have led to it. The performance here is not the dazzling, often impossible to follow footwork of other poems in the book, but rather one of hesitations, lines of thought taken up, then dropped, crossings out and (literal) fadings out. For me this expresses the difficulties of expression more effectively than many other poems, especially in the revisions we witness which involve a switch of verb tense from present to past. Most of these observations seem (again) to be focused on a romantic relationship so that what is the case (first draft) is being transformed into what was before our very eyes. I think (actually, I’m not sure) the sequence drifts latterly towards the relationship with the father again but even the obscurities here play an affecting role and the collection’s final lines remind me of the tragic, closing moments of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, in which the Gaelic language, culture and memory seems to be fraying and withering to nothing even as we watch and the lights dim.

Langley’s book will infuriate many and please the few. There is an impressive peculiarity here, a performative jouissance concerning language and learning which the Forward short-listing committee must be responding to. But I do wish he’d had a tougher editorial voice to cut the length of the book which – especially in the mid-sections – indulgently outstays its welcome.

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Nostalgia, Spots of Time and Ourselves

My Dad is getting more forgetful. True, he has just made his 95th birthday but like that stain that slowly spreads into “a gigantic ace of hearts” at the murderous climax of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, there is a growing realisation among family members that this is a bit more than a run-of-the-mill absentmindedness.

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Do we vanish with our memories? I’ve been repeatedly reminded, in judging a poetry competition recently, how much poetry depends on remembering, how much any of us depend on memory for a sense of who we are. So perhaps memory is a candidate for what makes us distinctly human – better even than language, the uniqueness of which has been challenged the more we understand of the animal kingdom (See Christine Kenneally’s book, The First Word)? Recalling moments from our own lives – Wordsworth’s “spots of time” that retain, he believes,  a “renovating virtue“ – seems to have something to do with identity, mental health, even our own ethical behaviour: they shall not be forgotten, we have been saying a lot recently.

A few months ago, I read a Guardian piece about nostalgia and have kept a copy of it with me since. Nostalgia as a term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss army physician who traced the fragile mental and physical health of his troops to their longing for home – nostos in Greek means home and algos is the pain they found in such thoughts. So its roots are in mental disorder or depressive illness and for centuries it has been considered unhealthy to dwell in this way on the past, a yearning for something lost, a debilitating rosy-tinted malady.

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But psychologists have started to think of nostalgia as a more profoundly rooting experience, even a stimulant to optimism, to psychic health. At Southampton University, Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut have shown the universality of nostalgia and, among its measurable effects, it is now seen as a driver of empathy and social connectedness, an antidote to loneliness and alienation. Nostalgia, by connecting our past and present, by proving the temporal oneness of being, points optimistically to the future, acts to protect against negative thoughts and situations.

The article quotes Wildschut: “Nostalgia compensates for . . . feelings of meaninglessness or discontinuity between past and present . . . it elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity.” Anecdotal evidence comes from women in concentration camps who “responded to starvation by waxing nostalgic about shared meals with their families and arguing about recipes”. This is a sort of imaginative “as if” loop that writers will readily recognise and evidence suggests it can temporarily affect our body states.  Concentration camp survivors recount: “We used our memories to temporarily alter our perception of the state we were in. It was not a solution, but the temporary change in perception allowed you to persevere.”

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Remembering our past serves to remind us of who we are, what we have been, what intimacy we have achieved, what we are capable of, then and now, in the future. It builds resilience because, though often concerned with trauma and sadness, it is posed in a redemptive sequence: ‘look we have come through’ cries D H Lawrence and even Larkin’s depressed-sounding “first boredom then fear” might be read in this light. As to ethical consequences, apparently, in strongly nostalgic states individuals are more liable to act altruistically; the value of money is weakened; couples and families bond more closely; gratitude and connectedness increase; children grow less selfish.

Meagre comfort when it’s you, or your father, losing the ability to recall; really this makes the loss of memory associated with old age that much more devastating. But at Southampton they are investigating nostalgia-based therapies for illnesses, including clinical depression and perhaps Alzheimer’s. Robert Lowell somewhere talks of the Christian trinity of God, Son and Holy Ghost, being replaced in the 20th century by Dad, Mum and memories of my family. Perhaps now we are gathering scientific evidence (if it was ever needed) that such a shift in focus was as much gain as loss. My poem ‘Four trees fallen’ (from The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014)) recollects the observation of trees fallen, the roots up-turned an image intended to evoke the unearthing of past experience:

this tree up-turned

with its metres-wide plate

of spreading roots tipped fully

ninety degrees from the horizontal

so what lay underground

is now exposed to the air [. . .]

I imagine it must have been

this same wind though perhaps

in the tempestuous pitch

of night that blew with such power

to topple a tree like this

to lever its roots up-turned

from almost immemorial dark

into the temporary dark

of one night’s storm—if it was

at night—left exposed at dawn

to new sunlight to noon and sunset

The final section remembers a pair of those fallen trees you sometimes come across where people have hammered coins into the rotting bark – a form of payment perhaps, but what for? A journey we hope always to be able to make.

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Walking on—and with each step

I remember a third fallen tree

this morning this one skirted

some miles back beside a stream

yet this other trunk bristled

weirdly with half-moons of coins

in its papery folds each hammered

by walkers till the coins were bent

and stressed from blows

of rocks needed to sink them deep

and this tree I also remember

was not the first of its kind—what

year was it what walk beside

what stream of whisky-brown waters

did I stand by a fourth fallen trunk

in that same way gleamingly

scaled with hundreds of coins—

some had planted light-hearted

coppers while others had

invested more heavily with silver

or the thick edges of pounds

and even two-pound coins—

I suppose just taking a breather

or something to amuse the kids

while others thought playfully

to placate the spirits of the place

with its damps and shades

and slippery rocks—perhaps to give

a gift that could never be spent

digging deep in their pockets

as I too hammered and thought

I might pay the fare for a journey

yet to be made to find my way

back to dispense with the need

for daylight tempests or storms

in the pitch of night to retrace

my steps to the original place

whether it might be noon or dusk

or rain or shine a decisive taking

back a preternatural reprise

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