Steps, by Mark Goodwin: A Review

steps-coverSteps, 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

car-park where

a Minister Woods

ends to relinquish

a world of leaf

-crisp wild & leaf

-blurred histories

myths

 

now

she photographs

a flat dead shrew

& pale green

sycamore key

framed together

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.

 

 

 

 

Charlotte Grace O’Brien: Irish Woman Poet

Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909) was born in Cahirmoyle, County Limerick, the daughter of MP and Fenian William Smith O’Brien. She wrote novels and a verse play, A Tale of Venice. This was published with a selection of her lyric poems, in 1880. The poem ‘France was included in this volume.

FRANCE
(13th December, 1877.)
 
The French crisis— when the Marshal and the Republican party were standing face to face, their hands on their swords. The next day the Marshal surrendered — a noble surrender.
 
Again thou comest to thine hour ! Again,
Oh fairest France! thou strugglest in thy pain.
We stand, and watch, and ask if this, too, be in vain?
 
In vain the labour of these weary years?
In vain the blood, the treasure, and the tears?
In vain thy travail sore — thy sacrifice — thy fears?
 
Fair country, though within thy bounds apart
I stand a stranger, yet with thee this heart
Pulses in love and griefs knowing thee as thou art.
 
Thy sunny, scented hills, thy vineyards dight
With crimson webs and gold, springs of delight.
Thine olives stretching far, in clouded silvery light.
 
I see them all — the toilers of thy leas.
Beating with reedy staves the burdened trees.
Young maids and children bending in groups about their knees.
 
Brave, kindly people! Bright of ready cheer.
The sun looks down on you in love, yet here
Ye stand with lifted brows, the shadows sweeping near.
 
War! Is it war? Nay; can it be that those
Whose banners bear her name, can be her foes?
Oh crime! oh grief! oh shame! what worse could death disclose ?
 
Peace! Is it peace? Nay; we surrender not.
The birth of time, by agony begot,
Unshaped till extreme woe the great deliverance wrought.
 
“Oh, countrymen! oh, patriots! oh, friends!”
Ye cry to one another. Echo lends
Her voice — but answering time as yet no answer sends.

m.emoire by Augustus Young: A Review

m.emoireCoverm.emoire, by Augustus Young, The Duras Press 2014, ISBN 9780956837936, €15.00

The publication in 1972 of On Loaning Hill, Augustus Young’s first full-length collection, marked the appearance of a serious new voice in Irish poetry. The ninety plus poems in the book show an acute sensibility and an interest in formal experimentation that was not untypical of the younger poets published by the New Writers’ Press (NWP) who eschewed what Young has referred to as the ‘reach for the shovel’ tendency. In some ways, Young’s work was more fully formed, more sure of itself, than that of many of his peers.

These early poems show an interest in the Modernism of Pound and Eliot that linked his work with those earlier Irish Modernists, including Denis Devlin and Brian Coffey, that NWP championed. By the time the book was published, Young was living the Bohemian life in London, where he became close, personally and artistically, to Coffey. At this point, Young seemed marked out to be a certain kind of outsider with respect to Irish poetry: urban, experimental, ‘difficult’.

Young’s next two books pointed in a somewhat different direction, however. The first, Dánta Grádha. Love Poems from the Irish (AD 1350-1750) saw him become more engaged with syllabic verse structures, while Rosemaries. A Verse Sequence, published by Coffey’s Advent Books, combined autobiographical themes with an increasing facility for rhyme. These strands came together in The Credit. A Comedy of Empeiria, published in 1980, a fictional bildungsroman in syllabic ottava rima.

When The Credit. Book Two / Book Three appeared six years later it consisted of a mix of that same verse structure and a type of rhymed open field composition in the form of a kind of Brechtian epic drama. It was now clear that Young was doubly outside, associated with the Irish avant garde but unwilling to conform to narrow notions of the experimental. Young is very much a one-off writer and The Credit remains an unrecognised landmark text.

Young has continued to write poetry, to translate, especially Brecht and Mayakovsky and cordels in his combined study/translation/original verse work Lampion and His Bandits. Literature of the Cordel in Brazil. He has also produced a series of entertaining prose memoirs which relate his adventures in the world of 1970s literary London and his fraught relationship with his native country.

*

Around the time that On Loaning Hill was published, Young met Margaret McKinnon Morrison, AKA m. They married and eventually moved to the South of France early in this century. In 2012, m died after what seems to have been a prolonged illness. In m.emoire, Young depicts their life together, m’s illness and death, and his reaction to it, in both verse and prose.

The book is in two parts, the first consists of three sets of poems, thirty one in total, the second of eighteen prose passages, in English with French translations. These texts are wrapped in one of the most handsomely produced books from an Irish publisher for quite some time. The 17 x 20 cm page size together with a neat san serif typeface in a smallish font size means that the text is set off against a pleasing amount of white space, consisting of heavy, good quality paper. The colour reproductions of two paintings, one on the cover by Belgian artist Huib Fens and another just before the poems begin by David Caldwell, a Scottish painter, are of art-book quality and relate interestingly to the writing.

The poems follow a rough narrative arc, with the first set of ten being memories of life with m before her illness took hold. The landscape is of the French Mediterranean, and against this ground Young creates a dynamic portrait of a strong, though self-effacing woman. Tellingly, these poems are predominantly written in the past tense; the poet is remembering the living m, but from her present absence:

You had a perfume with no smell

not to be traced. But I could tell

where you had been from its absence

for I’ve acquired a seventh sense

for cloaked fragrances.

(from ‘A Perfume Called Crime’)

This set of poems ends with a poignant recognition of present mourning in a poem that remembers m’s habit of humming quietly:

I hum now by the ocean.

It’s more breathless than before

(from ‘Hum.M’)

The eleven poems in the second set deal with m’s illness and death and pivot on the fifth of them, ‘Returning Home’, which deals with the night before m’s death, the narrator at home having left her in hospital has a phone call that presages her passing. The poignant ending of this poem captures the everydayness of mourning, of realising that life goes on and not really wanting it to:

‘You’ll get used to it,’ say those who don’t know

I’m still putting on clothes that you ironed.

I don’t want to go to sleep ever again.

The final group of poems are concerned with this life after death, a life of making adjustments that can’t be made. The final poem, ‘The Cartesian Accord’, captures the survivor’s paradox in its closing lines:

‘I am because you think.’ Therefore it’s true

that in the stillness of what is let be,

space has been made to house a time-share.

Which means that I am here when you’re not there.

*

The prose sequence, also called ‘m.emoire’, is more conventionally a narrative of the relationship between m and Young and follows their story from first meeting through marriage, their lives together, the move to France, illness and death. It is a story saturated in love, not through the language of grand passion but rather that of close observation, the telling details we cling to against the darkness:

Five months after your death, every evening I have been heating enough hot water in the boiler for two. Still I like to copy you. You often chided me for drinking bottled water. Now I only drink from the tap.

(From ‘Legs’)

When I met you it was not a coup de foudre. It was as if someone turned on the light. It’s still on.

(from ‘Epitaphs’)

These memories, told tenderly, are not so much Young’s way of holding on to his wife as of holding on to himself. The final prose section reads, in its entirety:

Now

I don’t dream of you ever, except

when I wake up.

That Young has managed to share these waking dreams lovingly, while avoiding sentimentality, is testimony to his artistry and to his humanity.

Elizabeth Ryves: Irish Woman Poet

Elizabeth Ryves (1750-1797) was the daughter of an army officer and when he died she was done out of her inheritance. She moved to London in 1775 to try to recover her fortune and to make her living as a writer. She published plays, novels and journalism as well as poetry and was one of the first English translators of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. ‘Two Elegies’ come from her 1777 book Poems on Several Occasions.

TWO ELEGIES
 
ARGUMENT.

 
In the two following Elegies, Christina Queen of Sweden is represented bewailing the tyranny of Custom, and the restraint she was under with respect to Marriage; and at length determining to sacrifice her interest to love, by abdicating a crown which she was not permitted to share with her lover.

 
ELEGY THE FIRST.

        
I.
 
Thou tyrant Custom! whose relentless laws
Nature and Justice still oppose in vain;
Will no kind angel plead my injur’d cause?
Will no avenging arm destroy thy chain?
 
II.
 
Must Love (that gentle Pow’r, whose soft’ning smiles
The savage fierceness of Revenge can tame,
Or soothe Ambition with persuasive wiles,
And lure him back from the pursuits of fame);
 
III.
 
Must he, low bending to thy stern command,
The rosy garland and the bow resign;
In courts a mean neglected captive stand,
And by thy laws his juster sway confine?
 
IV.
 
No, abject shade! let thy imagin’d hand
O’er coward minds the iron sceptre wield;
A soul superior spurns thy base command,
And bids thy rules to Reason’s dictates yield.
 
V.
 
From regal pomp and regal cares retir’d,
I’ll lose the sov’reign in a softer name;
By fools condemn’d, but by the brave admir’d,
And crown’d at once with happiness and fame.

 
ELEGY THE SECOND.
CHRISTINA to ALEXIS.

 
I.
 
Not great Gustavus his exalted throne,
His fair dominions, or his wealth, I prize;
To bear the toils of royalty alone,
Or see some monarch by my favour rise.
 
II.
 
Tho’ Fortune smiles on my auspicious reign,
Since Fate forbids that thou should’st share the dow’r,
For thee the pomp of empire I’ll disdain,
And all the high-plum’d pageantry of pow’r.
 
III.
 
A soul like mine cou’d well such trappings spare:
But say, wilt thou renounce Ambition’s aim
For me? the withering breath of Censure dare,
And spurn the civic wreath, the hero’s proud acclaim?
 
IV.
 
Wilt thou, like me, for some sequester’d shade,
Some village cot, these stately domes resign,
Where Wealth, where Fame, where Pride must ne’er invade,
But all be sacrific’d at Friendship’s shrine?
 
V.
 
Love shuns the troubled haunts of pomp and noise;
Close in a myrtle grove his temple stands;
There he diffuses all his purest joys,
And binds uniting hearts in flow’ry bands.
 
VI.
 
But Cupid scorns to hold divided sway,
Nor with Ambition deigns to share a throne;
Who owns his sceptre must his will obey,
And bend to him, despotic Pow’r! alone.
 
VII.
 
If then Alexis loves, he’ll lead the way
Thro’ Russian deserts or th’ Atlantic wave,
Rather than here ’midst tasteless splendor stay,
The dupe of Folly, and vain Fortune’s slave.