Pennine Tales, by Peter Riley, Calder Valley Poetry, ISBN 9780993497322, £4.50
How to Be Perfect: An Illustrated Guide, Words by Ron Padgett, pictures by Jason Novak, Coffee House Press, 5.25 x 7, 112 Pages, Hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-56689-455-5, $14.95.
The Space Between, by Kate Dempsey, Doire Press, ISBN: 9781907682414, €12.
Clay Phoenix: A Biography of Jack Clemo, by Luke Thompson, Ally, ISBN 9780993473494, £15.00.
Harvest, by Sister Mary Agnes, illus. Garry Fabian Miller, Guillemot Press, £8.00.
And Now They Range by Karl O’Hanlon, Guillemot Press, £8.00.
Peter Riley is, at heart, a poet not so much of place as of people in place, and this recent pamphlet of poems celebrates, if that’s not too strong a word for Riley’s quite assurance, his new place, the West Yorkshire hills around Hebden Bridge. The booklet consists of a series of twenty-four twelve-line poems, reading somewhat like a sonnet sequence. The ‘poetic’ behind the writing can be summarised by quoting the first sentence of the sixth poem, ‘Words are not magic crystals.’ Riley is scrupulous in his avoidance of grandiose claims either for poetry or for the poet; his work records the world as he perceives it, but claims no quasi-supernatural power to transform it. It is this very rejection of the grand Romantic gesture that give his work its force.
In its place, Riley offers careful observation cast in equally carefully modulated language. Assonance, alliteration and a fluid rhythm that sits on a metrical base of mixed iambs, spondees and anapests create a flexible but recognisably melodic verbal music:
Fresh and gentle hilltop wind blowing damp
as I stand outside the Hare & Hounds waiting for a bus
by a stone wall. Me and the thistle and the willow-herb.
It is, in these poems at least, a place woven together by public transport, especially busses (trains, canal boats and a jet plane also make appearances). These vehicles represent the social contract in operation, a well-ordered society providing the services needed by its citizens to maintain a proper set of relationships and interactions, so that when two poets stand outside a pub in ‘a dark nowhere’, it is
to believe that a small bus will come and
pick us up.
Riley is aware of the privilege and fragility of such a social order, noting just a few lines later that:
in this vast nowhere
the refugees at Calais cover their heads in dark tents
the township people murmur under iron roofs
contented for the moment, worried for the future
and along the road a lighted vehicle appears in
Old Town where old trust survives and needs us.
Poetry may make nothing happen, but it can record that which happens so that we do not forget, and that we may, perhaps, be there where and when we are needed.
Woven through the political concerns of the poems are meditations on mortality, both in passages about another poet of this landscape, Ted Hughes, and in more personal passages:
about poverty and exploitation, shining in the darkness.
Will anyone ever answer? Each year I walk slower
on stubborn ground and hear more.
To arrive, to stay, to become old, to learn
the details, the stone paths strung over the hills,
the football fields below.
These poems are firmly based on stubborn ground, a stubborn resistance to the easy gesture, to finality, to baseless certainty. They are the latest stage in Riley’s long-term exploration of Englishness, a modest, inclusive vision that is, now more than ever, a necessary corrective. The chapbook is appropriately handsome in its simplicity, and just the right size to slip in a pocket, ready to be read on a bus. Highly recommended.
Ron Padgett’s prose poem ‘How to Be Perfect’ was first published in 2007. Now Coffee House Press have reissued it with drawings by Jason Novak in a pleasing, also pocket-sized, edition subtitled ‘Human perfection, attainable in 99 easy steps’. On one level, a kind of parody of self-help books, Padgett’s poem is whimsically serious, and Novak’s quirky drawings complement the text perfectly.
Padgett’s advice ranges from the practical (“Look after your teeth and gums”) to the somewhat surreal (“Answer letters promptly. Use attractive stamps, like the one with a tornado on it.”)
The writing is determinedly unpoetic, which is its great strength, but under the matter-of-fact surface and light-hearted tone there is a quiet anger, combined with a firm determination to be, if not perfect, at least better:
Expect society to be defective. Then weep when you find that it is far
more defective than you imagined.
Followed immediately by:
When you borrow something, return it in an even better condition.
At the core of the poem is an invitation to keep your inner child alive; Padgett’s view of perfection clearly involves retaining a sense of wonder in the face of the world and all its absurdities:
Appreciate simple pleasures, such as the pleasure of chewing, the
pleasure of warm water running down your back, the pleasure of a
cool breeze, the pleasure of falling asleep.
Make eye contact with a tree.
The didactic impetus of the poem is deliberately undercut by the injunction ‘Don’t give advice.’ Perfection, Padgett tells us, may be desirable but it remains practically unattainable, the pleasure is in the trying.
This is a delightful, amusing and thought-provoking book, and Novak’s drawings both reflect the tone of the text and expand its range by bringing Padgett’s precepts to quirky, individual life. As you might expect from Coffee House, the production is excellent, with nice quality paper and a robust binding. Presenting the poem one prescription (and drawing) per page, along with the inclusion of a sewn-in ribbon bookmark, encourage a slower reading than in the original printing, which is a very good thing. A delight.
Kate Dempsey writes spoken work poetry, a genre I don’t read very often and feel somewhat unqualified to judge. However, poetry is, and must be, a broad church and it is good to see work emerging in Ireland that doesn’t conform to the established norms of ‘Irish poetry’. There are strong echoes of the Mersey Sound poets and those who have followed in their ample wake; writing that looks at life at a slant, deriving humour from the everyday, and that is deigned to immediately engage an audience/reader. And this it does very well, the poems are generally instantly engaging and it is easy to imagine them working very well in performance. The tone is conversational, with non-standard grammar in spots, and anaphoric repetition used as an organisational device:
There’s fresh oranges on Mary Street,
fresh words, fresh sprayed on concrete walls.
Port containers sigh out in a diesel cloud;
sea-salty air sloshes a swill of spills in gutters.
The dangers inherent in the need to engage the listener are sometimes evident, sometimes in the placement of a single word, such as the unfortunate ‘lovely’ in the otherwise fine David is Dancing:
Weeds throw up their lovely heads and howl
Other times in a wordiness resulting from the impulse to over-explain:
The reason why
there’s so much dust in this hoover bag
is that we renew each cell in our bodies
every seven years –
skin and bone, fat and muscle,
heart and mind, you name it, is shed.
There are also some satirical poems that deal in broad brushstrokes: a Celtic Tiger property developer, ‘Blue Toyota Woman’, ‘Dirty Jeep Man’ and so on. Which is not to say that the Tiger nonsense doesn’t richly deserve satire, but the limitations of the genre mean that Dempsey tends to skate over the surface of her subject a little to smoothly.
It is in the quieter moments that this book works best, such as some tender love poems addressed, apparently, to Dempsey’s husband and the fine ‘Grange Castle Haiku’ sequence:
Here are no seasons
we wear the same clothes year round
watch weather through glass
Doire Press is based in the West of Ireland and specialises in new and emerging Irish writers of poetry and short fiction. On the basis of this volume, they produce good, clean, readable paperbacks with unfussy design and strong covers.
Jack Clemo is one of those half-forgotten English poets who emerged in the years after WWII and whose work has fallen out of favour at least in part because it didn’t fit in to the literary norms of either the Movement or the Children of Albion, much like his friend and fellow outsider, Charles Causley. Like Causley, Clemo is undergoing something of a revival, and it seems appropriate that this year, the centenary of his birth, should see a comprehensive biograph appear.
And Luke Thompson has certainly written a comprehensive biography, based on an unprecedented study of Clemo’s, diaries, letters and persona; papers, Clay Phoenix blends chronological and thematic approaches to the life and work. The defining fact in his life was the syphilis he inherited from his father, a condition that caused him a great deal of ill health, and ultimately deafness and blindness. Almost as important was the influence of his deeply religious mother, who was his constant companion for most of his life.
Thompson focuses on two aspects of Clemo’s writing, an ecopoetic reading and the impact of the poet’s mysticism on the work. Ultimately, they overlap to a very great degree; as a Nonconformist Christian with a strong, if unfocused, Calvinist bent, especially in his early years, Clemo considered Nature (perhaps as opposed to nature) as fundamentally evil, the sphere of Satan (in whose literal existence he appears to have believed) as opposed to the Divine sphere. As such, he viewed the desecration of his native Cornish environment as a necessary harrowing, as expressed in these lines from ‘The Clay-Tip Worker:
I love to see the sand I tip
Muzzle the grass and burst the daisy heads.
I watch the hard waves lapping out to still
The soil’s rhythm for ever, and I thrill
With solitary song upon my lip,
Exulting as the refuse spreads:
“Praise god, the earth is maimed,
And there will be no daisies in that field
Next spring; it will not yield
A single bloom or grass blade: I shall see
In symbol potently
Christ’s Kingdom there restored:
One patch of Poetry reclaimed
By Dogma: one more triumph for our Lord.
This attitude, part of his anti-rational, anti-scientific view of the world, makes Clemo a deeply problematic poet for an ecopoetic reading, a writer whose view of the world is more or less diametrically opposed to any true sense of ecological awareness is hard to fit into a positive ecopoetic model.
On the question of Clemo’s mystical philosophy, Thompson patiently teases out the differences between Calvinism, Neo-Calvinism, Post-Calvinism, Methodism and all points between. However, the secularly-minded reader may well find themselves feeling a bit over-informed by the time they have worked their way through it all. The most striking thing is Clemo’s sense of belonging to the Elect; this led him to believe that God owed it to him to cure his illnesses, produce a wife, and make his writing career a roaring success. I’m not sure whether I admire or despair of his endurance in this belief, despite the failure of faith cures, dashed romantic hopes (although he did finally marry in his early 50s), and rejection slips and disappointing sales.
The most disturbing aspect of Clemo’s ‘Election’ is that he used it to justify, to himself at least, the distinctly unhealthy, not to say abusive, interest in young girls that he felt in his teens and early twenties. While this may possibly have fallen short of rape, it makes very difficult reading, and to be fair to Thompson, he makes absolutely no attempt to justify his subject. For this reader, at least, it rounds out an unintentional portrait of Clemo as an egotistical monster, whose best writings exist more despite than because of their author’s intentions.
Thompson is a fine writer, and the book is extremely well constructed. It also raises, both directly and indirectly, some very interesting questions about the possibility of religious poetry in an increasingly secular, scientific culture. However, on the question of whether or not it changes how I read Clemo’s work, the answer has to be yes, but not in a good way.
As well as being a biographer, Thompson is a poet, short story writer and, now, a publisher via his Guillemot Press. Sister Mary Agnes (Pamela Chalkley), who served as a nun in Devon, is one of the minor characters in Clay Phoenix, having corresponded with Clemo for a time. She was a poet who published three volumes in the 1970s, before leaving the convent. She suffered a breakdown and returned to writing, but not, apparently, to publishing. She died in 2014. In Harvest, Thompson publishes a selection of the late, uncollected work in a handsome volume with deeply apt accompanying artwork by Cornish artist Garry Fabian Miller.
Chalkley’s poetry is religious, but unlike Clemo, she is more interested in the presentation of belief than in proselytising. These poems also chart an incomplete emergence from despair back into the fitful light of ‘normality’, whatever that may be:
struggling out of mist
to be born
Present, past were mine
om the cool fire
of water and sky,
in the cloister of day
my heart, open as a flower
This is minor poetry, but there is nothing wrong with minor poetry, and Chalkley is a fine reminder of that poetic culture that persists at all times on the margins of literary culture, more or less impervious to the dictates of fashion, and written not for acclaim or reputation, but out of a direct need to set down ‘all the right words, in the right order’. Guillemot has done readers of poetry a service by recovering this lost poet.
And Now They Range is Karl O’Hanlon’s first collection, and Guillemot have also done him proud with it, with clean typefaces and striking cover and frontispiece by Kate Walters. Although they share a publisher, Chalkley and O’Hanlon could hardly be much different as poets; where her work is simple, direct and almost naive, his is measured and deliberately literary, which is not intended as a criticism of either writer. O’Hanlon has written on the Irish poet Denis Devlin, and may well be the first Irish-born poet to show signs of having been directly influenced by Devlin’s work. There are clear echoes of Devlin’s delicate balance between formal control on the one hand and a kind of proto-surrealist exuberance on the other. O’Hanlon also shares the older poet’s taste for ekphrasis, for historical subject matter, and the metaphysics of colour. It is, for example, interesting to compare the opening of the first poem in this booklet, ‘Hunted Deer’ (after a picture by Rosalie de Meric) with the formally quite different opening to Devlin’s ‘Victory of Samothrace’:
Mystique of keratin
becoming forest’s altarpiece
then blood-whoop of a jay:
scattered into black elms.
Hammers musical around my head, hammers throbbing on the roofs
Wary silence of brutal propellers that have suddenly burst their speed.
All aboard all stations calling all in all in!
Behind the obvious differences of line length and so on, there is a shared sense of language pushing at its own boundaries, an energy defined by the apparent metrical irregularity that tends to resolve on final stresses. This is not to imply that O’Hanlon’s work is imitative, but rather to assert that he has learned well from what must have been a careful study of Devlin’s oeuvre while managing to find and assert his own distinctive voice. This voice can be heard most clearly in the short sequence ‘Sketches: Theories of Colour’:
Eyes shriek: the fatted sweating meat’s
streaked with garlands. Aves. Hullaballoo
of foxish flash, appetites;
horned gods go tanned and stilted,
caped in drum-skin.
There is a crispness to the language, an ability to find the apt, unexpected word, that makes this one of the best first books by a young Irish poet that I’ve read for a while.
As I have said before, small presses are the life blood of poetry, but running one can be a thankless task. Guillemot have taken to it with gusto, publishing interesting work in extremely attractive editions. Long may they prosper.