Review of Denise Riley in Eborakon

Eborakon is a poetry magazine based at the University of York and the latest issue, Vol 1, eboIssue 3, is just out, featuring, among many good things, my review of Say Something Back, by Denise Riley. Here’s a brief sample, you’ll need to buy the mag to read more:

Throughout the collection, the formal restraints of song, with or without rhyme, provide a sense of emotional restraint, a pattern of emotion expressed, and then drawn back, an exploration of the language to enact this pattern in, that is deeply moving.

Collected Poems 1964 – 2016 by Barry Tebb: A Review

barry-tebbCollected Poems 1964 – 2016, Barry Tebb, Sixties Press, 978-1-905554-31-7, £10.00

Barry Tebb is something of an outlier when it comes to the history of British poetry over the last 50 years. His career began apparently riding the wave of 1960s counter culture enthusiasm, only to collapse into a quarter century of silence, followed by 20 years of intense writing and publishing activity on the margins of both the mainstream and alternative poetry ‘scenes’. It’s a trajectory that can be mapped now thanks to this welcome Collected Poems, published, as most of his mature writings have been, by his own Sixties Press imprint.

Tebb is an interesting figure for a number of reasons, not least of which is his position in, but not of, the Northern working class milieu of 1950s Leeds, a world which was to become the ground on which his poetry rests. This ground is apparent in the first poem in his 1966 collection, The Quarrel With Ourselves, ‘School Smell’, a poem which, presciently, Michael Horovitz was to include in his seminal 1969 anthology The Children of Albion. This poem, a memory of the poet’s Leeds childhood sense of ‘outsiderness’ prefigures his later work, but is absolutely untypical of the three volumes he published up to 1970.

Much of this early verse is apprentice work, a young poet’s idea of what poetry should be, with many of the poems being about artists and musicians, and the poet’s sensitive reactions to them. The importance of ‘significance’ is over-emphasised:

Lodged in some deep recess of the soul
Poems are waiting for me to write them
(from ‘Expectancy’)

It is interesting to see they young Tebb absorb the modified Surrealism of the 1940s so-called New Romantic poets in poems like ‘Everything in its Place’:

The blackboard is cleaning itself behind me,
Making my neck prick as it scattered dust

There are also a number of short, haiku-like Imagistic poems, along with echoes of Eliot, Yeats and, more surprisingly, Browning:

But my father called, I left my people
With a sot who embarrassed the Bishop.
I was not long in my see, two Popes died quickly
And my father’s whispers never ceased, Rome called
And I was Cardinal at last.
(from ‘The Cardinal Looks Back’)

And through all these influences, the patient reader can detect traces of Tebb’s original voice emerging:

Slumped in action
A matrix of motion
Blurs direction;
Left and right
Gathers them in, sucking
Gently round blind corners.
(from ‘Absent Enemies’)

And then, 25 years of writer’s block intervened, years in which Tebb says he was ‘unable to write’, a silence which was brought to an end by a dream of his first love, Margaret, who called him back in space and time to the Leeds of his childhood. The work which followed his return to writing is at times uneven, but almost always interesting, the ear which was latent in the earlier work blossoming into a unique voice full of assonance and alliteration:

As soon as we entered Yorkshire
Hughes’ voice assailed me, unmistakeable
Gravel and honey, a raw celebration of rain
like a tattered lacework window;
(from ‘Hughes’ Voice in my Head’)

There is a greater emphasis on the personal, and even those later poems that deal with art and artists feel earned in a way the earlier work doesn’t. There are a number of poems, probably too many, on the state of contemporary poetry politics, a not unnatural result of Tebb’s sense of being excluded, but these are more than outweighed by the honesty of the personal poems, especially in those dealing with his troubled marriage to poet and mental health activist Brenda Williams, most notably ‘The Road to Haworth Moor’:

We were wrong from the beginning, you always said, wrong
To be together, wrong to go away or perhaps, as Hobsbaum said,
‘It was the place’s fault. If we’d made it to Haworth as we
Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears,
The wind sighing its threnody, crying its cradle-song, whispering
Promises of its care to come, its breath caressing the very stones
We sat on, lost beyond the ken of any guide, beyond the signatures
Of time and place, beyond, beyond…

This passage might be seen as typical of Tebb’s method, with the preponderance of trisyllabic feet and concomitant preponderance of unstressed syllables contrasting with the intrusion of occasional adjacent stresses acting as counterpoint to the patterns of vowel and consonant sounds; ‘Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears’. It’s a distinctive and fascinating voice, adaptable to a wide range of tones and styles.

At the heart of Tebb’s achievement is the long autobiographical poem that is the direct outcome of his dream, Bridge over the Aire. Despite internal nods to a number of 1940s poets, this poem seems to me to owe a great deal to Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. As with Bunting, Tebb’s return to poetry is also a return to a lost childhood love and to its associated state of prelapsarian simplicity.

Aire is 80-odd pages long and divided into six named books, each consisting of shorter numbered sections. The whole progress in a kind of spiral, with themes, scenes and emotions recurring, but at a different slant on each occurrence. The tone ranges from dense sound patterning to child-like simplicity:

I began this prayer of poetry in poverty
And this never-ending song started in silence
After the bells quietened and Sunday was in
Church or still in bed as I watched the tusky
Growing in the fecund darkness. The shed was
Holy, warm and in wonder I felt it move and
On my scooter I flew over the holy stones of
Jerusalem the Golden.
(from Book One)
 
“Rag-bone rag-bone
White donkey stone”
Auntie Nellie scoured
Her door step, polished
The brass knocker
Till I saw my face
Bunched like a fist
Complete with goggles
Grinning like a monkey
In a mile of mirrors.
(from Book Three)

Book One, Against the Grain, which is the longest of the six, maps Tebb’s reconciliation with his past, with Leeds, with remembered first love, and with poetry. At the core of this deciding for poetry and for love is a thirst for simplicity:

It’s been a problem ever since
With everyone, no-one else was
So simple, always wanting more or
Less than I could give, when all
There was to follow was more of
The same

The reconciliation with childhood involves an invocation of his pre-pubescent love of Margaret, and the book ends with a physical encounter (whether real or imagined is not entirely clear) between her and the narrator, their love finally consummated.

Standing In Eden, the second book, opens with twin images of the young Tebb claimed by poetry and of Homer singing the nostos of Odysseus, before moving to a fragmented delineation of the Edenic Leeds of 1950s working class community, as seen through the eyes of children. Tebb is aware that things were not so ideal for all his neighbours:

For fish and chips
We went past ‘The Mansions’
Half a dozen enormous
Victorian houses abandoned
To the poorest of the poor
With front steps missing
Holes in the halls so big
You had to jump and
Rats the size of cats.
 
The children who lived there
Pushed coal in broken prams
Their jerseys had more
Holes than wool
They had impetigo
We passed them quickly
On the other side.

The tone soon turns to lament; slum clearance meant that homes, shops and trades, an entire way of life, have been eradicated in the space between the now and then of the poem. This is Eden demolished, if not entirely eradicated, to be rediscovered only in the smallest of things:

In the May dawn silence
I walk the cobbled road,
The houses gone for sixty years.
A single wallflower grows
On the ravaged bank.

This clearance also meant the movement of people. and the separation of the young lovers of the poem. Tebb moving to the suburbs, grammar school, teacher training college, outwards and upwards, Margaret to who knows where.

Book Three, The Kingdom of my Heart, moves from the mythic and communal to the personal and historical. The kingdom in question is both the emotional terrain of first love and the Anglian realm of Deira. It’s an urban landscape transformed by the twin powers of love and poetry:

The park itself will blossom
And grow in chiaroscuro
The Victorian postcard’s view
Of avenue upon avenue
With palms and pagodas
Lakes and waterfalls and
A fountain from Versailles.

And these powers are inextricably entwined:

Margaret, now we’ll see
What truth there is
In dreams and poetry!
I am at one with everyone
There is poetry
Falling from the air
And you have put it there.

The fourth book, Land of my Childhood, brings the reader back to the poem’s present, and at its core is Tebb’s recognition of his ‘outsider’ position: ‘My trouble was I’m not/Really working class’. This sense of difference extended to his preference for playing with girls rather than boys, a distaste for football, and, now, for the sanitised new Leeds of the planners’ dreams:

This is no land for me
I who have seen Excalibur
Pulled from the living tree
I who have drunk the wine
Of Margaret’s memory.

The Mooring Posts of Book Five are the landmarks of the gone world, ranging from the bridge of the poem’s title to local shops. Death, clearance and the brave new world of 1950s suburbia, with its shiny Formica and bright interior décor are folded into each other to signal the Fall, the end of innocence and the loss of love.

The closing book, The Walk to the Paradise Gardens, which circles around Bonfire Night 1954, is both coda and a closing of the poem’s spiral. The poet finds himself returned to an Eden he never really left, thanks to the power of art. It’s an ending of quiet hope, based on the premise that what is made well and with love endures:

The Hollows stretched into darkness
The fire burned in the frost, sparks
Crackled and jumped and floated
Stars into the invisible night and
The log glowed red and the fire we
Fed has never died.

*

Bridge over the Aire is a singular achievement in the same way that Briggflatts is; a poem unlike anything that Tebb’s fellow Children of Albion have, or could have, produced. As with most long poems, there are some flat moments, but overall it is a poem of great accomplishment as well as being a remarkable document of a world that has melted away before our very eyes. There is much to admire in this Collected Poems, but this poem makes it a book to treasure, a book to return to. Tebb is, above all else, a survivor of a gone world, a world of hope based on a firm sense of community and of social democracy in all its messy glory. Read it.

Recent Reading Three: More Short Reviews

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.

riley-no-white

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

Difficult

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:

….the question

about poverty and exploitation, shining in the darkness.

Will anyone ever answer? Each year I walk slower

on stubborn ground and hear more.

Or again

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.

padgett_novak_howtobeperfect_rgb-375x500-1

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.

And again:

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.

stacks-image-ae7830b

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.

[‘Regeneration’]

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.

clay-ph

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.

harvest

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:

The morning

was

struggling out of mist

 

and heat

trying

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

to sun.

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

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:

shattered obsidian

 

scattered into black elms.

[O’Hanlon]

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!

[Devlin]

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’:

bealtaine

 

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.