The Crows of Gravity by Malcolm Ritchie, Longhouse, 2016.
small lines on the great earth by Malcolm Ritchie, Longhouse, 2016.
Envies the Birds by Angelina D’Roza, Longbarrow Press, 2016
Malcolm Ritchie is a Scottish-born poet and teacher who, after much wandering, now lives on Arran. In the course of that wandering, he suffered abuse at boarding school, dropped out of art college in Falmouth, hung out with Heathcote Williams, John Layard and various future luminaries of the British folk scene, lived with Jean Shrimpton, indulged in drink and drugs, lived in a temple in a small Japanese village and practiced as a traditional Seike healer.
In one level, The Crows of Gravity can be read as a memoir of a 60’s survivor; it does contain its fair share of tales of excess, and Ritchie’s early life had all the elements: dropping out of art college, drinking too much, casual sex, and failed attempts at casual sex, brief involvement with the Cornish separatism movement, an on-off friendship with Dr. John Layard, hanging out with future luminaries of the British folk music scene, living among the tail end of California Hippiedom and, the icing on the cake, a long period of living with Jean Shrimpton, one of the faces of the decade.
However, there’s something more going on here; what Ritchie documents is, in an unusually full sense, a search for a sense of self. Estranged from his deeply unsympathetic parents and subjected to abuse by a female teacher at his boarding school, the young Ritchie seems to have had no real sense of who he was or could be and very little ability to form relationships, especially with women. As the book unfolds, we see this search take multiple forms, as Ritchie seeks himself in art, Jungian analysis, spiritualism of various kinds, Buddhism and Shintoism, and, ultimately, Shamanistic exorcism in the Peruvian jungle.
Along the way, he becomes suspicious of post-Enlightenment Western culture, which he sees as having created conditions in which ‘we developed an overly dualistic and objectifying consciousness or cultural mind-set, and incrementally lost our relationship with the planet and our natural home on it.’ I can understand this in the context of Ritchie’s voyage of self-discovery. Western ‘science’ in the form of mental health care let him down because of its narrow focus on the symptom, not the person, as it has so many others in his circumstances. This reductionist tendency in post-Enlightenment mechanistic science is undoubtedly problematic.
This anti-rationalist position is, I think, a fair point to make about the existential crisis in which we find ourselves, but as a philosophical position it is not without its risks. Prime amongst these is the danger of falling into a parallel dualism in which science is seen as the problem. While an overly materialist dependency on science can be problematic, it needs to be remembered that science is just a tool and that our problems are created by us, not by our tools. Indeed, if we are to survive the crisis we will depend on the sensible use of scientific knowledge to ensure that survival. This requires educating ourselves in what science really looks like, a provisional, constantly questioning search for knowledge.
Although he was writing and publishing for much of the period covered in The Crows of Gravity, the book contains remarkably little material on his literary beliefs and approaches. We do learn something about his involvement in the Falmouth Poetry Group and his close relationships with Peter Redgove and Heathcote Williams, whose magazine The Transatlantic Review published Ritchie’s early experimental poetry. In the Japan section of the book there is an interesting longish discussion of the haiku, which he views as a form in which the ‘I’ of the poet is subsumed into the revelation of ‘unadorned existence’ so that ‘out of this egoless state, the poet retrieves a treasure he or she can share.’
These words could be applied to the poems in small lines on the great earth, Ritchie’s 2014 collection of deft short poems that illuminate his life in Japan and on Arran. Formally, these poems are, perhaps, closer to tanka than haiku, as they consist of short paired sections one at the top of each page and one at the bottom, the connection between the parts being non-linear, each page also bears a pen and ink drawing by the poet. Like their Japanese antecedents, they contain much humour, considerable insight and a deftness of touch that brings the most everyday words to vivid life. These poems are of the process.
a seed smells the rain
in a sleeping cloud
where do they come from
these white blossoms
this tree remembers so perfectly
These are two typically handsome paperbacks from Bob and Susan Arnold’s Longhouse imprint, although Crows could have done with a more careful bit of editing in places. However, as Ritchie is a writer whose work was not previously known to me, despite this minor cavil I’m delighted to see such a fine double introduction to his work in print.
Longbarrow Press also produce handsome volumes, and it is interesting to compare their output with their American cousin’s. Both use a serif font, with Longhouse favouring a larger point size. Their books reflect a folkier vein of hand printing that owes something to the tradition of local newspapers and an almost brash self-confidence. Longbarrow’s house style is more restrained, elegant and understated in an English manner. Both presses produce fine, attractive books that are a pleasure to hold and read.
Envies the Birds is Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection, although Longbarrow included some of the poems here in their excellent The Footing anthology. Avian references aside, there are some parallels between the first half of this book and Ritchie’s memoir, inasmuch as it consists of poems that are, or appear to be, concerned with the poet’s childhood and time as a student nurse. The poem as personal anecdote is a popular genre, it seems, but I confess the reasons for this popularity are lost on me. Anecdote poems represent the world as a closed system, a box in which event X can be parsed as having outcome Y with no regard to the world at large. It’s as if Joyce had only ever written his epiphanies. In fact, Joyce is probably a forebear for the genre, but he knew that these moments of revelation were not sufficient onto themselves but needed to be woven into a wider fabric in order to make art. D’Roza’s anecdotal poems are very well written, but ultimately the feel somewhat inconsequential.
Happily, there comes a moment a little over half way through this book when D’Roza makes the move from anecdote to narrative; interestingly the pivotal moment is a pair of haiku under the title ‘Dawn Chorus’ (the first of two such pairs with this title in the collection). There follows a run of poems that deal with walking around Sheffield. The writing is freer, more concerned with the here and now and less with significance, a mind moving through the world not trapped in it, questioning and enacting rather than explaining.
Past the cutlers, halfway over the Don
I stop to watch the river’s dull pewter
slow-shimmy the strait, grinding stone,
(Ball Street Bridge)
The influence of Rebecca Solnit is evident in here, but despite that there is a clear sense of D’Roza entering into her own voice, her own stride in these poems, to the extent that when personal anecdote resurfaces later, the handling is evidently different. The freeness of the walking poems, the reduced concern with significance, means that a poem like ‘Brutal Music’ escapes the narrow confines of the earlier poems. One can but hope that D’Roza has worked the urge to anecdote out of her system and that her future work will be in this more open vein. If it is, she will clearly be a poet to watch.