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.
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 . . .
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.