#WADOD – Day 28: March 28th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

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

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Thursday 28.03.2019

‘you are not looking’

‘There has to be / A sort of killing’ – Tom Rawling

 

you are not looking for a golden meadow

though here’s a place you might hope to find it

yet the locals point you to Silver Bay

 

to a curving shingled beach where once

I crouched as if breathless as if I’d followed

a trail of scuffs and disappointments

 

and the wind swept in as it usually does

and the lake water brimmed and I felt a sense

of its mongrel plenitude as colours

 

of thousands of pebbles like bright cobblestones

slid uneasily beneath my feet—

imagine it’s here I want you to leave me

 

these millions of us aspiring to the condition

of ubiquitous dust on the fiery water

one moment—then dust in the water the next

 

then there’s barely a handful of dust

compounding with the brightness of the water

then near-as-dammit gone—

 

you might say this aloud—by way of ritual—

there goes one who would consider life

who found joy in return for gratitude

 

before its frugal bowls of iron and bronze

set out—then gone—then however you try

to look me up—whatever device you click

 

or tap or swipe—I’m neither here nor there

though you might imagine one particle

in some hidden stiff hybrid blade of grass

 

or some vigorous weed arched to the sun

though here is as good a place as any

you look for me in vain—the bridges all down—

 

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Here There Now Then – A Touch on the Remote

There are occasions when events from the past seem to become so fully present in the moment as we live it that it’s as if a gulf has been bridged between them. It’s a sort of redemption – though the events themselves may need no redeeming. What is salved is the permanent vanishing of the earlier through the intensity of attention accorded it by the later, perhaps especially so if our attention is manifested in language, a poem. There is an aspect here of Seamus Heaney’s idea of the redress of poetry which I ought to figure out more clearly.

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But I was left with thoughts such as these last week, having read for Dawn Gorman’s Words and Ears series of poetry readings in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. We’d set it up many months ago and I had been looking forward to it especially as this is close to my home town, Trowbridge, and my mother’s childhood and adolescence were spent in Bradford. I was also delighted to be reading with Linda Saunders who has just published a new collection with Worple Press, A Touch on the Remote. I’d had a few meetings with Linda many years ago (in the 1980s) when she would go up to Oxford to visit my old friend and mentor, Tom Rawling. There were several workshops at his house, I think, in that peculiarly intense summer sunshine of the past, full of hope and literary expectation. Like much of Rawling’s work, the opening sequence of Saunder’s new collection is composed of poems concerned with acutely observed landscape – in several cases observed with an almost visionary sense of history . . .

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Linda Saunders

My mother was christened Bernice, first child of Graham and Elsie Hale in 1922. Her sister, Gwen, quickly followed. There was no immediate prospect of their leaving the White Hill house which was a one-up, one-down with attic. The two girls had to share the middle room with ‘Gran’ (as they called Elsie’s mother, Rhoda). They walked up White Hill to school at Christ Church. They skipped down to the sweet shop, to the ‘bake house’, to the centre of town. On Sundays they climbed Coppice Hill to the Methodist church and Sunday School.  In good weather, the two girls hooked their arms over the iron railings outside the house with Elsie in the doorway warning them not to stray far. They jumped up and down the high kerb stones, played whips and tops on the steep, quiet street. On wet days, they stared through the front window, across the roofs of the town below to the spire of Holy Trinity. Bernice was badly ill with scarlet fever when she was eight years old and for a long while afterwards was so weakened that she had to be helped everywhere in an old pushchair.

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Saunders’ own strong sense of history can be seen in ‘Washing the Horses’ where the narrator watches people who “sleek soap-lather” on their horses’ wet hides. A bit later, the horses dry off on the bankside, “bays, pintos, strawberry roans, a shetland / with a foal no taller than an Eohippus. // This has been happening forever”. In ‘The Bridge at Iford’, a couple kneel as if in a ritual act, “like pilgrims” to watch the water flow under the bridge, themselves being watched by statues of “Greco-Roman deities”. Then the arrival of a newly-betrothed couple for photographs at the picturesque scene leads to thoughts of the future too – “Live happily. I think to them in passing, / ever after – the wish as ultrasonic as / the pipistrelle’s twitter”.

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The Bridge at Iford Manor

The narrator’s image of the pipistrelle bat’s piercing signal could serve as one of the key images in Saunders’ work. Elsewhere she jokes about the onset of deafness: “Something I say, something she said / flies past us into the wood” (‘Hidden Valley’). It’s these forms of strained/successful communications across time and across distance (with a son living in the USA) that also provide material for a later sequence of poems: “I see him stepping over the door sill / across a crack of time” (‘Into the Blue’).

We would squeeze into the Standard 10 to visit my grandparents on Winsley Road, Bradford. It was a dark, terraced house which had an immense front garden with a pleasingly straight path from the front gate to the door in the centre of the facade. This path was lined with planted borders, the earth heaping up from the lower level of the path and there were roses and vegetables elsewhere and I am sure an allotment somewhere. At the back of the house was a tiny yard containing the outdoor toilet, a fascinatingly musty dark cramped garden shed, a sweltering little green house which seemed always full of tomato plants. There was also a raised piece of grass – you could not call it a lawn – where we tried to play football or cricket but the risk of the low walls was really too great. Instead, we often played on that long front path; Corgi cars pushed to and fro as we breathed in the acrid-sweet smell of lush cushions of blooming white alyssum.

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Saunders’ background is in History of Art as well as literature. You can see this in ‘Reserve’ where she describes the processes of a painter preparing the ground for an object on the canvas, in this case an apple. The poet is interested in the absence, the vast potentiality before the object appears: “There are moments I sense // the inter-touch of me with everything – / this unselving reach”. During the Words and Ears evening, I read a number of poems from my Daodejing versions which also suggest that such an “unselving” might prove a happier and more fulfilling line to take in life. With our own “unselving”, the more aware we become of our surroundings, our context in both space and time.

It is Saturday tea – laid out on the living room table. There is a second front room hardly ever used which, if you open the door and peer in, feels chilled, dark, a little musty and formal and a baffling waste of space. We sit round the table and eat sandwiches, perhaps crumpets, malt loaf, Victoria sponge or the pink and yellow check of Battenberg cake which I loathe because of the marzipan covering. Nan or Mum often slice the rounded ribbed milk loaf that I have never seen anywhere else, turning it on its end and slicing horizontally, perilously.

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In ‘Love Portrait’, Saunders describes a window on another canvas as yet “unpainted”. She wonders “could this be the light that slips / past time”. Because the artist has yet to define it, perhaps this is also the light that communicates between times.

We wore short trousers, of course, and I still can feel the way the thick dark tablecloth with its tasselled edges brushed my thighs making me want to scratch them. Elsie’s husband, Graham, was a quiet mild man, always limping because of a shrapnel wound in the leg from the battle of the Somme. He sang in a local choir, had worked all his life at Nestle in Staverton, gardened keenly and seemed a loving husband and father though to us he was a rather remote, taciturn grandfather. Just once he exploded at us for something I have now forgotten – perhaps just making too much noise or not clearing the table of toys or drawing books quickly enough when he wanted to swing the heavy cloth across it in readiness for the meal. Given his generally gentle demeanour, his blazing, brutal anger astonished and appalled us.

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The final poem of Saunders collection is ‘Stepping Stones’. Another artist, a sculptor this time, makes “foot-shapes of stone”: “The child found them one at a time, / spotting the next from where she stood on the last / up to her thighs in seedheads and buttercups. / Where will they go? she asked the sculptor”. They lead onwards inevitably into the next moment, then the next – but to live wholly in the present, only in a language composed of present participles, is a form of dementia, a quite different and destructive form of “unselving”. Our making sense of things requires our awareness and exploration of the temporal.

The Poetry of Tom Rawling

In the early 1980s I arrived in Oxford as a self-absorbed post-graduate and promptly sought out student poets wherever I could find them. The group I joined was then (I think) meeting in rooms in Hertford College, opposite the Bodleian Library (and happily very close to the Kings Arms). Bill (W N) Herbert was there, as was Keith Jebb and Paul Mountain. The group, with changing personnel – I remember Elise Paschen was a member for a while – continued to meet throughout my 4 year stint among the dribbling spires, but we would supplement it by decamping to the Old Fire Station on George Street where Tom Rawling was running a public workshop. Tom had taken over when Anne Stevenson moved north. As a retired headmaster, Tom ran us all as a well organised and disciplined class. Elizabeth Garret joined later and I think Peter Forbes was already a member, as was Helen Kidd. Jeremy Round, who was soon to achieve short-lived fame for his cookery writing, was also a regular. My poem ‘In Memory of Jeremy Round’ (eventually published in Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990) https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/beneath-tremendous-rain-1990/) is a lament for his tragic early death, but also tries to paint a vivid picture of the workshop and its members:

We’d wrangle inconclusively

between the beers and crossfire from Tom,

elder statesman who’d slip quietly glittering

poems from his tackle bag like fish; from Helen,

whose pages always seemed typed under earthquake

conditions, whose baggy poems had more passion

than most of us could muster; from Peter’s

exactitude, schooled on a diet of science, he held

each piece like a prism till it shed eloquent

rainbows; from Bill and Keith, the ferocious

tyros, the university wits, who minced nothing

but their language into strange sweet things;

from Paul whose poems were amazed not to find

themselves loosed into a more graceful age

than the one we live in.

There were others writers, of course, to whom I apologise for not recalling them clearly. Bill has also written about these few years with great eloquence and insight: http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/poets/herbert/dec_2.htm.

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But rather than his aspiring students, it’s Tom Rawling’s own poetry that I want to highlight. A pamphlet called A Sort of Killing appeared in 1978 (an historical event now as this was one of the first publications by a young Neil Astley). OUP published Ghosts at My Back (1982). Two other books followed: The Old Showfield (Taxus, 1984) and The Names of the Sea-Trout (Littlewood Arc, 1993).

Grevel Lindop has long been a fan of Tom’s work (http://grevel.co.uk/poetry/tom-rawling-rediscovering-ennerdales-poet/). There is an audio recording of Tom reading many of his best poems (you can listen to one of them here: http://listenupnorth.typepad.com/listenupnorth/tom-rawling-poet.html). Listening to him again, what what comes over is his modesty, his sharp intelligence, his confidence in his own work and the vivid recall he had of his formative years, growing up in Ennerdale, Cumbria. Tom’s poems, in their accessibility, boldness with language, natural and ecological themes are (as my review concludes) ideal for the classroom and it is still a cherished hope of mine that they might be taken up by a mainstream publisher and presented to a new generation (a Rosemary Tonks of the western valleys of Cumbria, wielding his fly-fishing rod). Perhaps the best way to sing my praise of Tom’s work is to post up a review I wrote of his posthumous collection How Hall (2009).

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I recommend you search out more of his work (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Rawling). Here is my review:

Tom Rawling, How Hall: Poems and Memories, a passion for Ennerdale (Lamplugh and District Heritage Society, 2009), £7.50, ISBN 978-0-9547482-1-0

Tom Rawling, How Hall: selected poems of Ennerdale poet Tom Rawling, read by the author (Lamplugh and District Heritage Society, 2009), £5, CD audio recording

As a child in the 1920s, Tom Rawling grew up in the Ennerdale valley in what was then called Cumberland. It was not until his retirement in the shallow decades of the 1970s and ‘80s that he began to write poetry as a man “haunted . . . even bullied by his memories” as Anne Stevenson’s insightful introduction to this new selection explains. A marvellous collection was published by OUP in 1982 and two further publications from smaller presses resulted, but at his death in 1996 Rawling had not attracted the kind of attention he had hoped for and certainly deserved.

How Hall is a new edition of more than 70 poems, three pieces of autobiographical prose and some wonderfully evocative photographs. The accompanying CD is an audio recording of an extended reading given in 1983 and the passion and precision of his voice and his humble and insightful comments add further invaluable dimensions to any appreciation of his work. Rawling shares with Heaney the kind of vivid recall of childhood that yielded the title of his first book, Ghosts at My Back. An early poem has the young Rawling playing “squire” to the village blacksmith who also introduced him to his life-long passion, fishing – both are described as “tying knots / That didn’t slip” (‘Johnny’). Yet home life was not always so easy and there are poems that bitterly lament the repressed and repressive life of his mother (‘Hands’), his father’s drinking (‘Honour thy Father and thy Mother’) and the son’s rebellious, divisive “radical words” (‘Clipping Day’).

His rebellion took him away from home, but ironically it is for the authenticity of Rawling’s responses to the farm life and countryside of the Ennerdale of his youth that we should continue to read him. Perhaps it has taken us 25 years to understand what he felt intuitively, the importance of our relationships with the natural world and the kind of folklore that once bound man and nature together. Even in the 1920s, it was only Rawling’s grandmother who “glimpsed beyond the byre” to the atavistic fertility beliefs that lay behind “ritual no longer understood” (‘Grandmother’); it was she who knew the spell to complete a whistle carved from hedgerow sycamore (‘Sap-Whistle’). ‘The Barn’ vividly evokes the thrill of the hay harvest: “Bright prongs pierced and unpicked, ash handles / bent, they launched the bundles we embraced” and as the barn filled it was only when “heads bumped the slates / we came down the ladder in triumph”.

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Anne Stevenson – who met Rawling in Oxford in the late 1970s – rightly directs us not to dismiss his work as “romantic retrospection” because he really “wrote poems to tell the truth and in them rehearsed the daily rituals of life and death”. ‘Rumbutter’ characteristically revels in that recipe’s “sweet beginning” as well as, “not quite hidden, the cinnamon / of the coming funeral feast”.  There is certainly no room for sentimentality in Rawling’s view of nature: a pig is to be cared for only till the “pole-axe fell” (‘Hooks in the Ceiling’) and chickens are nurtured carefully, but in their “due season, each neck pulled / . . . the admired knack of killing” (‘Feathers’). Rawling also shares with Heaney a fascination with the insights embedded in idiom and dialect. ‘Hearthwords’ addresses the younger Irish poet with their shared belief that “the naming spell / gives the thing itself / into our hands” And then, as his own poetry began to flow, he swiftly developed a precise, lean, direct form of free verse, capable of moving from the joyous observations of “cloud and sun pursu[ing] / Their steeplechase across the land (‘I Am What I Was’) to the shockingly frank recording of the realities of the cow shed: “ a column of piss / cascades to the cobbles . . . a face gurning, whistling and whispering soft farts” (‘Privy’).

But Rawling’s reach is not confined to the material. Perhaps his most distinctive poems are those that deal with angling, especially fly-fishing for salmon and sea-trout which his poems transform into an almost religious questing and testing of the individual’s devotion, skill and subterfuge. His own first encounter with the power of the sea-trout he recalled as a moment when he had “waded / into mystery, tampered with Leviathan” (‘Leviathan’). One function of any poem is to offer us profound if vicarious experiences and these poems succeed so well in this evocation, taking us to the riverside at night, “to the dub / where sea-trout rest” where we might “hear an old ewe’s husky cough, / the water slopping, slapping” (‘Night Fisherman’).

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Poem after poem makes it clear that to fish in this way is to engage differently, intimately with the world and to embark on the difficult process of laying aside our humanity’s hobbling self-consciousness, to cast off the accretions of civilisation until we allow “the body [to] flow into the rod” (‘Torridge Salmon’), achieving a different form of consciousness as we “wade in deeper, / Share with the fish / Its lateral line / The current’s push” (‘Only the Body’). It’s easy to understand why Ted Hughes came to admire these poems as Rawling triumphantly celebrates the efforts and occasions when we encounter the Other in what becomes a frankly spiritual communion. So in ‘A Shared Rod’, a kingfisher perches on the “bamboo rod-tip” as the angler waits in the reed bed:

His great eye turns, a moment’s stare,

then, blue-green whirr,

the arrow skims downstream,

leaving an emptied space,

a shared rod quivering.

It is really this kind of encounter – with all that is not bounded by ourselves – that Rawling is conjuring in ‘The Names of the Sea-Trout’, a spell for fishermen that revises and revivifies his grandmother’s superstitious connections with the natural world:

Bender of steel, the breaker, the smasher,

The strong wench, the cartwheeler,

The curve of the world,

She who doesn’t want to surrender,

The desired, the sweet one.

Profound, vivid, honest, accessible – these are poems that at once connect us to a lost past and prepare us for a world in which the environment must again become our close companion. Rawling’s work would be wonderful to teach in schools if it were more easily available and a mainstream publisher would do well to bring him nearer centre stage. For the time being we must thank Michael Baron, Stan Buck and the Lamplugh and District Heritage Society for the very many pleasures of this marvellous book.

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