Trains, Higher Planes and Exile

Leap, River Wolton (64 pp, £9.95, Smith/Doorstop)
Saving Spaces, Ian Pople (61 pp, £7.19, Arc)
November, Sean O'Brien (82 pp, £8.99, Picador)

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;
     your arms slip round me as I wash the pots.
     Despite my well-worn maps
     we're here, 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.
     I sobbed, predicted frost -
     Autumn, near Spain's highest peak.

     Dark unleashed our common sense:
     we stockpiled kindling,
     dug matches 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, 'Kissing Gate':

     A couple stand without kissing:
     one folded in a dark duffle coat,
     beside the gate, inside the drawn-
    to collar; the other sees the sun
     braid trees, 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:

     We quickly passed through
     Berkhamstead 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 complaining.

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,
     Believers in crime whose churches are stations.
     See, they urge the engines on to justice
     Down the slow branches of Sunday...

     Bring them 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 strain.
     This song's in praise of strong neglect

     In the 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 for free.'

'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.
     We husband 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.
     - And meanwhile you have disappeared
     Like smoke 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
     Who are not present to protest,
     That one for instance, and
her, and God help us, him...

              © Mark Burnhope 2011