Steps, by Mark Goodwin, Longbarrow Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-1906175245, £12:99 (UK).
In his masterly book Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, Tim Robinson talks of ‘the good step’, a concept whose definition he circles around, mainly in terms of what it isn’t, until near the end of the book he posits that ‘[t]he step, so mobile, so labile, so nimbly coupling place and person, mood and matter, place and purpose, begins to emerge as a metaphor for a certain way of living on this earth.’ I was reminded of this tentative position as I read Mark Goodwin’s Steps, a book that in its own very different way echoes many of Robinson’s preoccupations.
As befits its title, Steps is a book of walking, climbing, moving on foot over the earth’s many and varied surfaces. Goodwin records steps taken in Wales, Scotland, Spain, Ethiopia, and, above all, Cornwall. At the core of the book is the long poem ‘From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny’, which, at seventy-odd pages, makes up about half of the book’s contents.
As I wrote when reviewing the anthology The Footing, which contained a long extract from this poem, it is a sequence that maps a walk in the north of Cornwall. The mapping is almost literal, given that Goodwin provides OS map references for each of the nine sections of the poem, each one marking a kilometre of the walk itself in the margins of the text, which also contain potted summaries of the text. St Juliot is the parish where Thomas Hardy met Emma Lavinia Gifford, his future wife, in 1870 and I sense something of this in the background of what is as much a love poem; the walk is shared by Goodwin’s partner whose photograph of a moment in the poem is the cover image on the book.
In this poem, Goodwin uses a short, one, two or occasionally three stress line which gives a sense of a walk that is more pushed than leisurely:
and we pass on
towards a mass
of metallic glints
& jangling colours
we can see
a Bosc Astle’s
a Minister Woods
ends to relinquish
a world of leaf
-crisp wild & leaf
a flat dead shrew
& pale green
on bare earth-dust
feet have scuffed
There is a sense of an Anglo-Saxon metric at work here, with Goodwin’s short lines echoing the half line of Old English verse. This is, as I mentioned in that earlier review, reminiscent of some of the work of Bill Griffiths; reading the full poem I am also reminded of Chris Torrance, especially his Magic Door sequence. Goodwin shares Torrance’s sharp eye for the small particulars of a place as experienced by a mind open to such nuance and, to a degree at least, an interest in placing such detail in a greater context of what, for want of a better term, one might think of as a sacred landscape.
The extract above also illustrates Goodwin’s idiosyncratic use of the indefinite article before proper nouns and personal pronouns, together with a penchant for reconfiguring place names (Bocastle => Bosc Astle). These techniques can serve to interestingly defamiliarise the ordinary places and people that feature in the poem, reminding us that there is no one definitive view of what a place, a poet or even a reader might be, but rather a multiplicity of provisional, context bound readings. The indefinite article usage is discussed in a note at the end of the book, where the poet notes that it ‘can jar for some reader-listeners’. If I’m to be honest, I feel it is over-used in the St. Juliot sequence to the point where it becomes a minor irritant in an otherwise interesting and achieved long poem.
In many of the shorter poems in the book, Goodwin uses a longer, more reflective line:
Irresistible. Sweat erodes my face, shines
on my mask. I climb. I’m gleefully frightened –
night is not far off, and without light
the molars & fangs I clamber round will be closed
in a dark mouth. And I will have to curl
up cold amongst a god’s teeth. In my fortieth
year – stay with stone; my delicate lime frame,
I hang my meat on, dried amongst compressed
& eroded remains of ancient tiny beasts. I struggle.
(from ‘Forced Moment at El Torcal, Andalucía’)
The twists and turns of rhythm and syntax here formally enact one of Goodwin’s recurrent themes; the conflict between a temptation to lose oneself in the natural world, to integrate with the landscape, and the need to resist, to remain human and so a little apart, observing, a poet.
As you might expect from Longbarrow Press, Steps is a handsomely produced hardback, nice to hold in the hand and pleasing to the eye. Of particular interest is the use of ‘faded’ grey ink for some of the marginal materials and, most effectively, in the poem ‘Particular Winter, Trossachs, January 2010’, where the text slowly fades into the dim winter light. It’s a pleasing instance of poem and book working in quiet, effective harmony.