River Wolton's Leap
is a collection of contradictions: accessible yet difficult; softly-spoken
yet also dark, exploring the narratives of those who have suffered under war,
religious division and political oppression. It's concerned with travel,
either by choice and whim, or by brute force and circumstance. The crux of
its paradoxical message is found in 'The Road': 'In spite of all I know / I
want to praise the road.'
In the first poem, 'You Are Here', a woman addresses her partner. They've
embarked on a journey both literal ('Hathersage B6001' and 'the Bakewell
road' are mentioned) and metaphorical: a relationship or a marriage? It's
deliberately mysterious, but the tone and detail is both domestic ('the
primary school about to spill across the lane like sheep') and ominous:
'Warning. You are not where you seem.' The poem finishes in a place of
intimacy and unsettlement:
I'm down to
leeks chopped fine, half-hearted DIY;
slip round me as I wash the pots.
wherever that may be
and here is
moving with us where we go.
'Sierra Nevada' begins with the joy of night swimming: 'We stripped, /
dawdled in a lake, / ignored the sun's decent.' But the threat of night
looms. Disagreement and the need for desperate measures set in:
You loved it
from the start.
predicted frost -
Spain's highest peak.
unleashed our common sense:
and an orange from the pack.
The book's exploration into religious oppression and exile can be seen in the
spare tercets of 'Sorry', where a nameless woman is burdened with an unnamed
guilt: 'When the first Sorry / took shape / and left her mouth, / it hardly
made a mark.' Then, 'The second Sorry was larger. / She'd seen how Sorry
worked.' Eventually, 'She cut a sliver of herself / to offer with the word /
and buy her peace.' The word 'cut' subconsciously transforms 'word' into sword here, and the word 'Sliver' recalls 'silver' -
currency (with all its nuances of meaning). The girl represents what happens
when subjective religion subjugates women by holding their thoughts and words
up to the objective candle of Lady Wisdom: ('She openeth her mouth with
wisdom; And the law of kindness is on her tongue' - Proverbs 31:26). The
power of the word for good or evil is a major motif in all Abrahamic
scriptures, right from 'Let there be light.' Just replace 'light' with 'freedom': the woman
sells 'a sliver of herself' to buy deliverance from this unnamed accusation.
(Is this cut literal? It's possible.) 'But Sorry whittled her away / until
she was a hollow girl / with an out-of-date coin / on her tongue.' The
startling final image (slightly weakened by the familiar-sounding 'hollow
girl') calls to mind the obsolete coins you find rattling around in your back
pocket months after a trip abroad. The image is familiar, yet resounds with
feelings of uselessness. These themes are carried through into other poems,
including two simply titled 'Blame' and 'Guilt'. The latter's speaker, in a
childlike voice so plain as to be anti-poetic, remembers 'the life I'd have
lived on the peace line / if only I'd caught the right bus.'
Wolton is persistently interested in double-edged swords: paradoxes, ironies,
juxtapositions, even the placing of poems next to one another to highlight
thematic comparisons ('Sierra Nevada' and 'Reconciliation' resonate strongly
as a pair, as do 'The Road' and 'Well Dressing'). Compassion for her
characters (indeed, the word 'characters' undermines them; they're not
literary constructs as much as authentic people) jostles with conflict in
'Everything I Know about War'. The quietly-titled 'Etiquette' ends in a
snapshot of undeniable shock and surprising tenderness: 'One night she spent
an hour edging towards / a silent jeep, tapping, then banging on the hood /
while the boy inside lay by his gun, asleep.' The collection's unflinching
gaze on immigration is no more intense than in 'Departures 4.30 A.M.', in
which an onslaught of interrogative questions and instructions - addressed to
the reader, so that we might now be in that 'Sorry' woman's shoes - becomes
increasingly disturbing, until we reach the final line, a generic and
friendly au revoir: 'Here is your passport. Have a good flight.'
Prose-plain, unaffected language is largely characteristic of Leap, and on one hand, I'd have liked slightly more
linguistic risk-taking. Some poems seem less remarkable on their own than in
context where they're allowed to converse with others, amounting to a whole
which is infinitely more complex and thought-provoking. Ultimately though, I
think, that's the entire point. Wolton's knows that heavy subjects are best
delivered in the lightest language. Her first collection is a single bullet,
and its poems are shrapnel. I look forward to reading more.
The first thing I'll admit about Ian Pople's third
collection, Saving Spaces, is that its
blurb - in typical, no less spectacular fashion - waxes lyrical about these
poems' abstract qualities without telling us anything concrete about them.
(How to test the claim that they are 'shaped and tested by a crystalline
sense of silence that makes his words sing out from the page like birdsong'
or that 'Each poem listens to itself unfold, feeling its way through its song
in developments which are at once natural and astonishing'?) I can but try.
The title recalls Sacred Spaces, specific landmarks which, in ancient Celtic
Christianity, is believed to represent micro-heavens where divine presence is
more fully tangible; where the 'film' separating earth and heaven is thinner,
and a gap in the clouds is an open window to heaven's light. A double-edged
sword, it's also a clue about the poems, because as well as being spiritual,
mystical, contemplative, they themselves 'save space': they're tightly
crafted, and even when strung together in sequences, often display taut,
clipped lines. Sometimes this brevity lends them much of their power. Others
seem honed to within an inch of their life. For example, in the first poem,
stand without kissing:
one folded in
a dark duffle coat,
gate, inside the drawn-
to collar; the
other sees the sun
float, show fox prints
at the edge
of the snow...
It's so quiet about its effects that you'd be forgiven for losing interest
(and finding unintentional comedy when the woman 'thinks', in inverted
commas, 'I was a gate once.') This lack affectation is probably the point -
as is the poem's matter-of-factness, its distinct lack of emotion and music
supporting the diminishment of love - but its very predictable 'Beyond
that...', followed by an equally predictable list of metaphorical details,
feels like an exercise; it goes through the right motions, but stops short of
startling. It seems a weak choice to kick off the collection but for the fact
that it features a gate - a closed entrance - an unravelling relationship,
reflection on mortality. A Polaroid of the immediate aftermath of The Fall,
it works to lay a foundation for the book's themes, but is hardly an example
of its best writing.
Other introductory poems seem similarly crafted yet unremarkable.
'Berkhamstead' is a vignette which, for me, recalls Donald Davie's collection
The Shires. Davie had a talent
for wit, character-building (both of people and place, carefully painting
each detail unique to its Shire). In contrast, Pople's details seem less than
illuminating. If this is deliberate, the irony (as they say) is lost on me:
and it was green,
all of it...
In the second quatrain, that 'green' is apparently only useful for coupling
with 'Greene'. Graham Greene was from Berkhamstead, and that's clearly
important to Pople, but the poem holds back any interest. Its 'pond / that
reflected sky' makes Berkhamstead another of these Sacred Spaces, and may be
an oblique reference to Greene's emotional states (Green suffered from
Bipolar disorder). But there's not enough here to convince me it matters.
Perhaps my indifference is due to a lack of other poems like it (The
Shires aren't always as enjoyable in
isolation as in their entirety) but for whatever reason, it feels like a
Donald Davie b-side. In the final image, could Greene's father not have done
something more interesting than 'pause' beside a window? The fact that he
doesn't might allude to depression, but again, is 'flat writing to reflect
flat emotional state' an excuse for less than exciting poetry? I'm torn.
Like Sean O'Brien, Pople often seems a poet of cumulative effect, rather than
the isolated image. His images are normally simply-seen and unembellished,
and when juxtaposed, can have surprising and illuminating effects. Apart from
my favourite of the shorter poems ('Owl', 'Hierophant', 'Loaves and Fishes'
and 'William Blake at the Kardomah Cafˇ') and the often exciting sequence
'Handiwork of Light' - an enjoyable ode-in-sections to everyday landmarks (a
'singing' car park!) sacred and secular - it's the last several pieces which
bring the collection fully to life. Perhaps that makes sense, but that
gradual upward trajectory - from a whisper, rather than a poetic big bang -
is a brave choice. Regardless, 'The Shearer and The Lamb', 'The Aerial
Orchids' and 'Confessions' are beautiful sequences in which images and events
- all parts of the scaffold - are often interesting in themselves as well as
simply useful in context. Line lengths and breaks are precise and excitingly
varied. There's music and lyricism where I felt it was missing in beginning
poems. The shorter poems are often less than exciting, because they're
musically and emotionally flat; or because they haven't taken much time to
'listen to themselves unfold' towards a fully-satisfying close.
So it's these longer sequences to which I keep returning. In these, Pople
makes full use of a trademark theological-eye view: images, juxtapositions,
nature observations and mythical/religious allusions become windows to
something other. For this reader, these poems are often 'at once natural and
startling'. Saving Spaces, like
so much poetry buried deep in England's landscape tradition, envisions 'earth
as it is in heaven'. So maybe it's apt that Pople's work seems less exciting
when it's rooted firmly in earth, and - like Wordsworth's - sings when it has
the backing of the heavenly host behind it. More often than not, it's reliant
on that theological underpinning for its power. For that, I'm not
Sean O'Brien - poet, critic, playwright and novelist - is
a literary heavyweight. He has written six prize-winning collections and
received the Forward Poetry Prize twice in the last decade, once for 2007's The
Drowned Book, which also won The T.S.
Eliot Prize. Grounded in the contemporary pastoral - often in Hull, where he
grew up - his work has elegised a changing landscape of industrial sprawl
linked by highways, byways and railways occasionally blessed by something
green (hints of a time when the pastoral religiously glorified a lifestyle we
could, at a push, imagine). It's satirised in these lines from 'The Island' -
which departs from O'Brien's long poem 'The Genre: A Travesty of Justice' -
where stations exist for the surveillance of our moral lives, and the
delivery of dreams to which we'd be better off aspiring:
Our island is
full of detectives,
crime whose churches are stations.
urge the engines on to justice
Down the slow
branches of Sunday...
the gospel, detectives! By rail!
A metaphorical staple of O'Brien's, the railway between towns - or indeed,
between the mythical now and not
yet - has survived since the invention of
the steam engine: from Gospel, Blues and Country music through to Larkin,
Davie, CS. Lewis and now J.K. Rowling. The placement of 'Fireweed' right at
the beginning of November
indicates that O'Brien isn't about to veer off this track just yet:
How the fireweed's taking the
in praise of strong neglect
railway towns, in the silence
After the age
of the train.
Debris of the towns' 'strong neglect', the fireweed stands for nature trying
to remind us of itself, like the hare rushing over the tracks in Turner's
post-impressionistic painting 'Rain, Steam and Speed' (which is all the more
noticeable for its desperate bid to escape the frame). But just as 'Fireweed'
is less interested in the railway than the life drifting over and through its
space, November seems less
interested in its traditional landscapes than its social, human ones. O'Brien
knows that 'after the age of the train' - when all journeying is done - it's
people, not drawing pins, that mark the sites on the railway map; and it's
through our relationships, histories and narratives that we plot a route
through it. These personal and public landscapes are often juxtaposed.
'Josie', the personal tale of a lost childhood sweetheart, is placed next to 'Verite:
Great Junction Street', a poem that seems to address a wider humanity, and
begins: 'One weekday afternoon when we are dead, / We will be readmitted here
'The Citizens' - one of several elegies alongside those for parents, family
and friends - defines O'Brien's mission more generally, and with religious
fervour, reminding us that the invented pastoral is never far removed from
creation myth or lament psalm:
We change the
river's name to make it ours.
We wall the
city off and call it fate.
our estate of ash,
For what we
have we hold, and this
Is what is
meant by history.
We have no
love for one another, only uses
We can make
of the defeated.
meanwhile you have disappeared
across a frozen field.
The above poems (and many others, like the postcard of Dante's Hull in
rhyming couplets, 'Infernal') have an Audenesque eye on metre and form,
especially in their use of a more or less iambic rhythm. This shift in and
out of pentameter to emphasise key lines, for example - a technique also used
by Peter Didsbury - has appeared before in O'Brien's work; and it's here in
'Elegy', where pentameter established in the first three lines becomes
tetrameter in the fourth ('Just so before the tide falls back'), enacting the
line's meaning. Aside from his themes, it's in these formal elements that
O'Brien's link to pastoral tradition is most obvious.
On reading 'Fireweed', you could be forgiven for thinking November will be more of the same (even if the puddles,
drains and waterways of The Drowned Book now carry us over the Channel to Europe, supporting November's metaphorical journey further afield, even to
death). And yes, there's plenty of elegy here. But it's ultimately human:
warm and sometimes very funny. That's why O'Brien seems timely and relevant.
Is November more of the same?
In many ways it seems a slight progression from The Drowned Book, and as in Heaney's Human Chain, some poems build on foundations laid by earlier
ones; but that didn't diminish Heaney's latest, and neither does it here.
Indeed, in a time when poetry all but exists in a vacuum, to lack advocates
for anything other than writing itself - and so soon after Ted Hughes! -
'more of the same' might be what's needed. With recent funding cuts to some
of our most cherished heritage sites, and the scares over our diminishing
forests, our minds are fixed on reclaiming not only our land, but our
humanity, from those who would steal it. By focussing on particular places 'taking
the strain' for their people, November is its own protest march. The wry and conversational 'Dinner at
Archie's' was written in memory of Archie Markham, but we've all expressed
sentiments like these, and probably fairly recently:
This world as
we find it consists
Of two sorts
of people: those here in the room and the rest,
On the one
hand those present and then the great herd
Of the - how
shall you put it - the dim
Who are not
present to protest,
That one for
instance, and her, and God help
© Mark Burnhope 2011