Contraflow by Fay Musselwhite, Longbarrow Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1906175306, £12.99
The Navigators by Matthew Clegg, Longbarrow Press, 2015, ISBN 9781906175269, £12.99
Scaplings by Michael Haslam, Calder Valley Poetry, ISBN 9780993497384, £7.00
Contraflow is Fay Musselwhite’s first collection, a substantial book of over 100 pages in Longbarrow’s typically handsome, pleasingly designed hardback series. It’s a book full of people doing things and the writing is suitably muscular and physical to reflect this. Often the activity is heavy with a sense of necessity, things done to ensure survival, be it foraging for firewood:
Alone or in pairs by dark we go,
every day or so, for armfuls that warm us
twice at least – as we handle it home,
cleave it apart for the hearth brought to light
by peeling back years of emulsion, paper, tin
and a squatting of soot.
or visiting a friend in a block of council flats:
I spiral up the concrete stairwell,
and my footsteps reverb – I can hear them
gaining on me half a floor below.
At the landing I push on through the wired glass
to carpet that clings to my soles,
a grin for Min’s spy-hole and I’m in.
[From ‘Tales from Min’s and Other Storeys’]
There’s a heft to the writing that enacts the action here, a pleasure in sound patterning that is absent in so much contemporary poetry. Musselwhite’s use of assonance, internal rhyme and alliteration lends a musicality to her verse, and it’s not in any sense fey music, this is full-blown orchestration and it makes for invigorating reading. There is, I think, more than a trace of the influence of Dylan Thomas, but Musselwhite’s voice is all her own.
And despite her interests in walking and rivers, the landscape of these poems is essentially urban, or more correctly fringe urban. Musselwhite is drawn to marginal places: deprived estates; disused industrial sites; hidden rivers; abandoned mill races. There is a sense of people and nature surviving, but not thriving, everything just getting by, an open, questioning narrative pulse that lifts the ‘I’ centred poems to a level way above the curse of the closed, self-satisfied anecdote that infects so much contemporary verse. Another strand in the book is the decline and death of British post-war liberal optimism: planned Modernist ‘rational’ housing intended to usher in a Utopian equality of opportunity becomes so-called sink estates; the Welfare State, designed to act as a safety-net against poverty becomes a poverty trap; the 60s drug culture dream of opening the doors of perception actually opens a trapdoor to despondency and addiction.
At the heart of the book there are two rivers, the Rivelin and Loxley, especially in to sequences, the long ‘Memoir of a Working River’, in thirteen sections, and the shorter ‘Flood Tryptic: The Loxley’. In the former, the course of the river is tracked from source to its confluence with the Loxley. Musselwhite draws on the historical record of the Rivelin’s industrial past as power source for corn and steel mills, as well as her apparent personal familiarity with the valley as source material. She chooses to exemplify the river as an old man, a device that can be a bit clunky at points, but the poem contains some of her best verbal music, as in this evocation of water tumbling over a weir and into a mill race:
while the risen elite, fleet
silver-lick shifting, race keen
is chicaned to a side lane
to slip along thinly, spit gravel, he’s shallow
arrives in a vast mud-lined vessel – pent
seething, he swells
And, in the eleventh section, there is a glimpse of that accidental rewilding that happens when we abandon places we can no longer derive economic benefit from. It’s perhaps the most optimistic, Edenic even, passages in the whole book:
Trees steal back to comfort healing land –
banished for centuries by grind’s fear of flame
– as wheel-gates close he’s dappled again.
The Flood sequence also draws on documentary sources and personal knowledge, this time to focus on a flood that caused havoc and death in 1864 when the river burst its banks. The writing is so immediate and vivid that on initial reading without reference to the notes, I thought it was a more recent flood that the poet had been immediately involved in. In these poems, Musselwhite is a particularly vivid archaeologist, drawing on such shards of evidence that are available to her to evoke an entire world with an admirable economy of language.
Contraflow is a formidable first book, carefully constructed, generally very well written, and very nicely produced. It leaves me looking forward in anticipation to what comes next from Musselwhite’s pen.
The Navigators is Matthew Clegg’s second full-length book, both again from Longbarrow, and again it’s a handsome piece of bookmaking. The book circles around the North of England, and as with Musselwhite, rivers flow through it, as it were. Carrying on from the poems in the final section of his previous collection, West North East, Clegg uses more open, freer forms for many of the poems in this newer book, a fact that he recognises in a note at the end. His original poems are bookended by versions of short passages from Greek epic, opening with Odysseus in Hades from Book 11 of the Odyssey and closing with the effect of Orpheus’ song on Jason’s crew from near the beginning of the Argonautika.
It is impossible to preface a book of poems with that particular passage from Homer without inviting comparison with Pound’s Cantos However, Clegg’s choice of epilogue makes it clear that he does not share Pound’s epic pretentions. Apollonius was the first Greek epic poet to place an almost clinical dissection of love at the centre of his work, and it is a different Pound quote, again from Clegg’s note, that reveals what is at the core of this book; the line quoted is from ‘Exile’s Letter’: ‘there is no end of things of the heart’. The Navigators takes us on a trip around Clegg’s love of particular places and people: his grandfather, the boat he built in retirement, and the canals they sailed it on; the Lake District, the waterways of South Yorkshire; a handful of women who shared some of these experiences with him.
The writing is clear and understated:
The thought of sleeping on my granddad’s boat
would tie a little reef knot in my gut
in case it might be true what my cousin said
about the earwigs squeezed in every nook
that scaled your neck and face when you dozed off
and crawled into your ears and eyes and mouth.
[from ‘The Passage’]
There is a tendency at times for the poems to veer off into somewhat inconsequential anecdotal chatter, but in the best poems, such as the haiku-like ‘Trig Points’ sequence and the very strong final ‘Cave Time and Sea Change’ set, there’s a pleasing supple strength:
you’re a mollusc
your shell down
[from ‘Counting Stones’]
Greens and ochres and cobalts ink the walls,
but offer no windows of light, no icon.
Your mania was stilled here in these pools.
You’d almost forgotten your slow approaches
to the sloshing cave mouth. Those seagull flocks
were grace notes rising from new-scored horizon.
[from ‘Cave Time and Sea Change’]
Overall, despite some unevenness that you would expect from a collection of poetry that runs to over 123 pages, this is an interesting book and a clear advance in range and technique from West North East. The ‘Trig Points’ sequence, written when Clegg was poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, is one of the most accomplished new haiku sequences in English that I’ve come across for some time. The sequence, or renku, maps the inner and outer worlds with a musicality that is all too uncommon in the form:
Lit coals crack and fly.
Later, dim, they’ll give nothing
To their next of kin.
There’s a half line in the 36th and final numbered section in Michael Haslam’s Scaplings that could almost serve as a stand-alone review of the book: ‘With where I live I do love to be friends.’ The sequence is a declaration of love for the country around Haslam’s home in Hebden Bridge and the words and phrases used to name its features in the local dialect. Haslam’s first book, Continual Song, is one of the key texts of the later stages of the British Poetry Revival and announced the arrival of a significant new voice in British verse.
That book was, in part, an investigation into the nature of soul, and this is a direct link with Scaplings. In ‘A brief glossography’ appended to the end of the book, Haslam remarks that ‘Soul is that classic oxymoron. An immaterial substance’. As I read these poems I found myself reflecting that if soul is a function of the mind and mind is, for a poet at least, achieved through language, then the soul of this poetry is to be found in Haslam’s exuberant, joyous wordplay that opens up the spaces between words to let the world in:
The sweet tea tastes eternally ephemeral as fairy cake,
a light confection, as to play is like to laik, as plea is pleased
to plead for pleasure, prayer for the revenue, unmeasured praise
in reverie, a sheer lake glade, a risen rose, a misted
[from ‘7’, and once you start quoting, it’s almost impossible to stop]
Like both Musselwhite and Clegg, Haslam shares a fascination with the particularities of the landscape of the North of England, and as with Musselwhite, it is possible to suspect the influence of Thomas (and British surrealist/apocalyptic poetry of the 1930s/40s):
The invisible worms in the visible words may squirm within
an invalid homology between the workaday world
and the demonic cobblers tampering with pins
the blethered soles.
As I said above, Scaplings is a love poem, and a poem to spring, with its own aisling figure in ‘april in a flowered apron’ (in the glossography, Haslam is at pains to point out that he uses lower-case initials or proper nouns to create fruitful ambiguities). The flowered apron will, depending on your tastes and reading, summon up images of La Primavera by Botticelli, the Welsh flower goddess Blodeuwedd, or even Samuel Ferguson’s ‘The Apron of Flowers’, a poem that owes much to the old song ‘Do You Love an Apple’. Haslam’s Calder Valley is known intimately through both immediate experience and his understanding of how it is named, and his relationship is priapic, its fecundity issuing in the language of his poem.
Wick quickens, growth regrows; thickets thicken; birkenshaws explode
their nodes in filamental delicates from root to leaf in blue cerulean
along lines of genetic codes. A thunder showers from high heaven
to the green lungs sprung from earth beneath the flowers of the heath
all under powers gathering their lower lower glowers o’er the hearth,
the heart of hillfog heathen hovel home, to puddle in the peaty loam
in muddy muddle.
Haslam also invokes the twin shades of Blake and Newton, poles of opposing views of the world, and despite the visionary nature of his language, Newton is not really rejected; how, after all, could a dedicated glossator reject science? Indeed, there is a fine irony, a kind of double bluff, in lines like these:
Apology. I graduated from a college with small knowledge of what
frequency and wave meant, And I haven’t even heard of hymenopteran
vespology. The oakleaves fall and my imagination of the real has failed.
A scattering of spangle galls lay patterning a shining causey pavement.
with their fine observation of a crucial stage in the life cycle of the cynipid wasp. And this in a section that earlier alludes to the fate of Blodeuwedd’s husband Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who can only be killed in the most peculiar of circumstance by a spear that had been ‘a year in the forming’. Haslam associates the spear with an abandoned mill, ‘depressive-manic’, in an echo of Blake. Clearly, he is as aware as anyone of the eco-political dimension of our relationship with the earth, something that he specifically calls out in ‘16’:
… When water passed
to private hands the heart deflated and evaporated from the state.’
The reality is that each reading opens up new ways of engaging with Haslam’s marvellous, engaging, infuriating, baroque lyric. What holds it all together is an innate musicality, as, for instance, the perfect balance of long-short-short-long vowel sounds on the alliterating stresses of this half line from ‘18’: ‘Flayed by fangs how her fur flies.’ Thirty-odd years of listening to the sounds of the world lie behind a phrase like that. We must be grateful to Haslam for sharing the results of his investigations and to Calder Valley Poetry for publishing them with an unfussy elegance. Read this book.