The Chal­lenge of the Past

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Suzi Feay

Wait­ing for the Nightin­gales, Miles Bur­rows, Car­canet, 2017, pp.112, £9.99 (Pa­per­back)

Zool­ogy, Gil­lian Clarke, Car­canet, 2017, pp.120, £9.99 (Pa­per­back) On Mag­netism, Steven Matthews, Two Rivers Press, 2017, pp.60, £9.99 (Pa­per­back)

Diary of the Last Man, Robert Min­hin­nick, Car­canet, 2017, pp.88, £9.99 (Pa­per­back)

Some­times it’s all in the ti­tle. Who wouldn’t want to turn im­me­di­ately to po­ems called ‘Should Cat­ul­lus be Read by Old Peo­ple’, ‘Eros and Asbo’, ‘Tosca Un­der the Du­vet’ or ‘Rumpel­stil­st­skin Re­flects’? Turns out Miles Bur­rows also has a way with zingy first lines. ‘The po­ets are out watch­ing hawks again.’ ‘Chidswell is gone. De­spite his pow­er­ful serve and knowl­edge of Swedish.’ ‘Ev­ery­one in our street is do­ing Feldenkreis.’

One poem, ‘The Flight from Mean­ing’ de­serves in­stant an­thol­ogy sta­tus. It opens, mem­o­rably: ‘Doreen looked back at me, her face like a Tac­i­tus un­seen.’ The poet pon­ders the ben­e­fits and draw­backs of un­fath­omable women – ‘Who wants a Del­phic or­a­cle who says what she means?’ – moves on to more spir­i­tual mys­ter­ies, and con­cludes: ‘Ev­ery­thing is fine now. I can’t un­der­stand a word.’

Women, opaque or oth­er­wise, drift through his lat­est col­lec­tion, Wait­ing for the Nightin­gales (‘“You’re not in love with me,” said Me­lanie Buck­mas­ter… Moira Hard­cas­tle had said the same’’’). There’s Perse­phone Finch, Beryl and Mau­reen, Deirdre, Made­line who has ‘gone into moon ther­apy’, Fiona, seen ‘com­ing out of Tesco’s / The hair re­call­ing an­cient fres­coes’, and

frigid Shirley who ‘never re­ally let me have a proper go… / The higher you got the colder it was. / You couldn’t help think­ing of Shack­le­ton and his ponies.’ Mun­dan­ity and ur­ban­ity con­stantly col­lide, as with that neat Tesco’s/fres­coes rhyme. Other rhymes are even more au­da­cious: in ‘Will She Come?’ Bur­rows matches jan­gle/jun­gle/rec­tan­gle/quan­gle-wan­gle (!) and an­kle, and pairs Oax­aca with eczema.

Deirdre and Mau­reen and their ilk might not be talk­ing of Michelangelo, but they ap­pear among el­e­vated com­pany: not just Tac­i­tus but Pico della Mi­ran­dola, Kierkegaard, Mal­larmé and Max Ernst. El­e­gant al­lu­sions mount up in lit­er­ary brico­lage. Feel­ing ‘like Vir­gil’, the poet in­vokes Daphne, Dilys and Phyl­lis as mod­ern-day wood nymphs and gets the news from Haworth in a imag­i­nary phone con­ver­sa­tion with Emily Bronte: ‘The win­dow in the spare bed­room / Needs re­pair­ing. I’m go­ing through a lot of stuff / I wrote as a child in the at­tic. It’s em­bar­rass­ing / But I can’t bring my­self to throw it away’. This is eru­di­tion played for laughs.

Bur­rows has been around long enough to garner a jacket quote from Anthony Pow­ell; ac­cord­ingly Wait­ing For the Nightin­gales is an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion, demon­strat­ing a long per­spec­tive with po­ems of wily, witty senes­cence. ‘I’m slowly chang­ing / into a croc­o­dile. Like some­thing out of Ovid,’ the poet ob­serves. Else­where he’s ‘in the run up to my end of life plan’, but not yet ready to go gen­tle: ‘I over­took a hearse the other day. / I was in a hurry. It was in my way.’

Art­fully po­si­tioned next to the un­forth­com­ing ‘Shirley’ is ‘Sea Wrack’: ‘I wake with a hand on the in­sane root. / The usual stalky tuberose slack poly­poid mass / Like some­thing you might find on a beach at low tide. / You could imag­ine Os­bert Sitwell pok­ing it cau­tiously with his stick’. And: ‘At this age it would surely be bet­ter / (Rather than wak­ing at 2am hold­ing the pe­nis) / To be writ­ing a Chi­nese poem / Of the T’ang pe­riod / About be­ing a civil ser­vant…’

Bur­rows doesn’t sound like any­one else, but af­ter a while he be­gins to sound too much like him­self, if that’s possible. He’s gen­er­ally sure-footed

enough to make his in­tel­lec­tual whimsy stick; the dan­ger comes when re­con­dite al­lu­sion piles so high the reader stum­bles on them. Inevitably some po­ems in this man­ner come off bet­ter than oth­ers, but his strike rate is good and even when baf­fling, the lines amuse as well as con­found.

Robert Min­hin­nick also has a pe­nis poem, but his man­ner is dryly suc­cinct; no ‘stalky tuberose slack poly­poid mass’ for him. Run­ning in to­tal­ity, ‘Eye to the earth / I’m in dis­grace / but point me at the stars / you’ll count a con­stel­la­tion in my jaws’, it’s part of a longer piece, ‘The Body’, which opens with the poet eaves­drop­ping on the ‘7pm af­ter work con­ver­sa­tion’ of a bunch of body-piercers. De­spite be­ing ‘the ringed and the chained… the stud­ded and the spiked’, it turns out this out­wardly grue­some crew have griev­ances sim­i­lar to ev­ery other worker: ‘that the job was thank­less; / that the pub­lic was a con­spir­acy of fools; / that they were paid much, much too lit­tle’.

Gen­er­ally though, it’s the other kind of earth­i­ness that ab­sorbs Min­hin­nick. The longest se­quence here, the 27-page ‘Mouth to Mouth: A recita­tion be­tween two rivers’ con­cerns an ar­chaic land­scape in south Wales, the rivers be­ing the Og­more and the Cynf­fig. The se­quence al­ter­nates prose pas­sages which form a con­tin­u­ous nar­ra­tive, al­ter­nat­ing with po­ems pick­ing up and ex­pand­ing images, the whole link­ing vast stretches of time from the pre­his­toric peo­ples who left foot­prints in the mud to the poet trudg­ing af­ter them across ‘the rocks and the slacks, the bracken and the sand’. Per­haps the po­ems were com­posed, or at least re­hearsed, on foot: ‘recit­ing my lines re­sus­ci­tates my soul’.

The poet quickly re­alises that among these arid, ex­is­ten­tial dunes: ‘I am not vi­tal to this world. No, I am not im­por­tant here. I am nei­ther in­te­gral nor na­tive.’ Later: ‘The hu­man con­di­tion is one of sin­gu­lar­ity. The hu­man fate is lone­li­ness.’ Fi­nally, with an ex­pan­sion of con­scious­ness cou­pled with res­ig­na­tion, ‘Only when I ac­cept alien­ation… this stranger­dom, can I be­come free.’

Por­ten­tous, maybe, but there’s also space in Min­hin­nick’s grand vi­sion for

a lit­tle light­ness and hu­mour. The poet de­lights in the sight of choughs, ‘their flight un­spool­ing like video­tape… these glossy tum­blers, gueril­las of anti-/ grav­ity.’ This sec­tion ends on a glee­ful as­ser­tion: ‘... there come days when we can choose. / And I chose choughs.’ Some­times the voice is so airy and ex­pan­sive it’s in dan­ger of float­ing away into un­fath­oma­bil­ity; then a crunchy phrase or sparkling im­age will ground it again. Al­to­gether it’s a fresh ad­di­tion to the poet-as-hiker genre.

The ti­tle se­quence fields a speaker even more rad­i­cally lonely, the ‘Last Man’ alive af­ter some kind of apoc­a­lypse, lead­ing a ‘castaway’s life’ as he makes his way to London. He walks down a de­serted Re­gent Street and wan­ders into the des­o­late Trav­ellers’ Club, ‘room af­ter room of maps / and por­traits, empty leather chairs’. He takes a suite at the Ritz and, even more trans­gres­sive, dis­cov­ers that ‘The door to 10, Down­ing Street / is open. In I walk.’ The rev­e­la­tion of ex­pected Gov­ern­ment se­crets and swin­dles brings only sad­ness: ‘Those were the great days, the last of our lives.’

More em­phat­i­cally Welsh is Gil­lian Clarke’s Zool­ogy, stud­ded with Welsh vo­cab­u­lary and sub­ject mat­ter. ‘Sy­charth’ ex­plic­itly evokes bardic Wales: ‘House of hearth and of heart, of gen­er­ous board, / great halls flame-lit for feast­ing,harp and bard, / un­der crucks and cross­beams cut from for­est oak…’ end­ing at ‘some anony­mous grave, a prince­dom bro­ken, / and a coun­try taken.’ Her gen­er­ous ninth col­lec­tion is made up of six het­eroge­nous sec­tions, the first, ‘Miss­ing’, con­jur­ing van­ished fam­ily mem­bers in ten­der lines: ‘My Ga whose hands spun lace from Pem­brokeshire tides; / my aunt who gave me po­etry, word and world; / my father who con­jured Welsh, a fox cub, a rab­bit / from his sleeve’. The poet is small, hold­ing her father’s hand or lis­ten­ing to him ‘in his base­ment work­shop, / sanding, saw­ing, singing’ and al­ways late for his tea: ‘Don’t wait for your father. / Don’t let it get cold.’ There’s a tiny hint of fa­mil­ial dis­cord there, fil­tered through a child’s fuzzy com­pre­hen­sion.

There is an abrupt change of fo­cus in the sec­ond sec­tion, ‘Be­hind Glass’, in which the poet is sud­denly con­tem­plat­ing stuffed and fos­silised an­i­mals in a mu­seum. A quick look at the ac­knowl­edge­ments con­firms that this

is the re­sult of a res­i­dency, in this case at the Mu­seum of Zool­ogy in Cam­bridge. An­other se­quence owes its ex­is­tence to the Na­tional Trust. Tree po­ems pre­sum­ably come cour­tesy of the Wood­land Trust, also in the ac­knowl­edge­ments. There’s noth­ing wrong with this – a poet’s got to earn a liv­ing, af­ter all – it’s just that com­mis­sioned po­ems tend to stick out oddly in a col­lec­tion when set against more per­sonal pieces. At least Clarke is so tech­ni­cally skilled that very many of them sur­vive the ini­tial com­mis­sion to be fresh and vividly free-stand­ing. ‘Ichthyosaur’ achieves this, com­mem­o­rat­ing the fos­silesed still­birth of the tit­u­lar Juras­sic crea­ture: ‘the frozen baby turn­ing its head / to the world at the last mo­ment / as all ba­bies do, choked / as it learned to live.’

The last sec­tion com­prises a pow­er­ful col­lec­tion of ele­gies, to Welsh po­ets R S Thomas, Dan­nie Abse (whom Min­hin­nick also ref­er­ences) and, more dis­tantly, Wil­fred Owen and Hedd Wyn. ‘Madiba’, a trib­ute to Nel­son Man­dela, feels emp­tier, du­ti­ful though dig­ni­fied, but Clarke achieves a small mir­a­cle in her poem for April Jones, mur­dered by a pae­dophile; her grace­ful verse trans­fig­ures the des­e­crated body, never re­cov­ered, into a ‘child of the moun­tain, / mer­maid of the estuary, / ev­ery­one’s daugh­ter.’

Tack­ling a sub­ject such as that risks over­whelm­ing the ac­tual poem with un­earned sen­ti­ment. When even the ti­tles make a naked bid for the heart­strings it’s hard for the reader not to feel ma­nip­u­lated. ‘Look­ing at Late Rem­brandts (af­ter leav­ing Dad at the Nurs­ing Home)’ in Steven Matthews’s col­lec­tion On Mag­netism has to work hard to avoid both pre­ten­sion and sen­ti­men­tal­ity. The poem fol­low­ing im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards be­gins, ‘From the last Christ­mas cracker I pulled ever / with Dad…’ This could eas­ily evoke the faint sense of look­ing at some­one else’s fam­ily al­bum, but in­stead Matthew skil­fully uses the form to ex­pel a se­ries of mem­o­ries, as a cracker ex­pels nov­el­ties: first the gifts, skills and kind­nesses of the par­ent, ‘then, in a ter­ri­ble rush all the things / in the fu­ture he will not ever / set to rights, now he has gone away.’ The over-fa­mil­iar­ity sug­gested by ‘In Dad’s Boots’ sim­i­larly es­capes the purely per­sonal with its poignant im­age of the cast-off ill-fitting footwear that now hob­bles the bereft son.

The ti­tle se­quence of six deft son­nets com­mem­o­rates Tu­dor sci­en­tist Wil­liam Gilbert, who coined the word ‘elec­tri­cus’ (‘like am­ber’), from which elec­tric­ity is de­rived. In­ci­den­tally, Matthews pro­vides gen­uinely in­for­ma­tive notes to his po­ems, un­like Min­hin­nick, whose soli­tary foot­note proves sin­gu­larly un­help­ful. Be­yond an ini­tial prosi­ness: ‘Buried, Holy Trin­ity, Colch­ester, // Cause of death, bubonic plague, Six­teen Three, / Court physi­cian to Queen El­iz­a­beth…’ there’s a touch of the Me­ta­phys­i­cals in the sci­en­tific im­agery of the son­nets: ‘... mag­netism proves the earth lives, stars / move in fixed tracks, and all souls can con­join.’

The short poem ‘In­ner Town Tu­dor Court­yard’, is son­net-like but this time mi­nus a final cou­plet, con­jur­ing the mys­tery of a place vis­i­ble but tan­ta­lis­ingly in­ac­ces­si­ble. The fine se­ries of new words to madri­gals by John Wil­bye, who like Gilbert lived and died in Colch­ester, point to an affin­ity with the wit and com­plex­ity of the Tu­dor imag­i­na­tion, while never feel­ing stuffy or ar­chaic.

All four po­ets are re­spond­ing to the chal­lenge of the past, us­ing and trans­form­ing tra­di­tion to suit their own ends. Some well-trod­den po­etic paths re­veal un­ex­pected vis­tas and fruit­ful by­ways, and old forms be­come use­ful con­tain­ers for con­tem­po­rary con­cerns. I would just re­it­er­ate for po­ets who stray into too far into the hin­ter­land: notes are ex­tremely help­ful as read­ers at­tempt to fol­low the tracks.

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