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Sheenagh Pugh
To begin with the feature most likely to deter the reader: this novel is written in a form of simplified Old English and yes, it takes a few pages to get into, but you get used to it (it is soon clear, for instance, that "sc" is our "sh", so that scip is ship). It's a bit of a wasted opportunity, in that he mostly doesn't use the tension between this dialect and our own to create a shimmering layer of puns and allusions, as Russell Hoban did in Riddley Walker. But if you can read Riddley Walker, you can read this.

Ignore the title, the back-cover blurb and the quotes from reviewers, at least two of whom must have been reading with their eyes shut. They could have you thinking this is a book "about", as opposed to merely set in, the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and that it's a Kingsleyesque tale of Noble Saxons and Nasty Normans. Thanks be, it is far more complicated, mainly because it is in fact the tale of our Saxon protagonist-narrator Buccmaster, who is far nastier than any Norman on the premises.

I must tread carefully to avoid spoilers here, because Buccmaster is not only an unreliable narrator but an unaware one. He has buried parts of his past deep in his mind, and re-invented others, so that the self-image he projects and believes in is nothing like his real personality, which emerges gradually. If you happen to have read Maria McCann's fine English Civil War novel, As Meat Loves Salt, you will recall her protagonist-narrator Jacob Cullen; Buccmaster is not unlike him.

His political credo, while intimately connected with his personal hang-ups, is less complicated. He is an extreme individualist, a libertarian who resents interference in his affairs by any king or civic authority; had he lived in our own time he would certainly have agreed with Thatcher that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and families. He may hate William, but he had no more time for Harold Godwinson; to this Lincolnshire fenman, "Harold of Wessex" was nearly as much of a foreigner as William of Normandy. He refuses Harold's call to arms, on the ground that he would fight only to protect his own house and family. In fact he can't accept any authority whatever, and the buried reason for that is much as you would expect. He also lives in the past, almost literally; he hankers for the return of a set of gods who by then had been distant memories in Saxon England for some centuries, and again this is connected with his damaged family relationships.

A couple of flaws to note: the pace, generally excellent, flags midway, admittedly when the characters are at a stand, wondering what to do next, but novelists can convey that without actually boring the reader. And there is a totally irrelevant minor character, Aelfgifu, whose thread is heart-sinkingly predictable, in no way adds to our knowledge of the protagonist and I suspect was included for all the wrong reasons.

Kingsnorth has written the story of a deeply troubled man, played out against the background of the Conquest. This is why his following historical note baffles me. It stresses the background: the Norman atrocities, the heroic resistance, the way the invasion changed society for centuries (and, by implication, entirely for the worse; at least he mentions no benefits). But why, then, has he chosen as his Saxon protagonist a man not just dislikeable and damaged but more of a danger to anyone in his vicinity than even the invaders? Duke William was certainly a bastard, in every sense of the word, but at least he was a sane bastard. By the end of this novel, one is inclining to the view that anyone who is Buccmaster's enemy must have something to be said for them. Also, since we know his word cannot be trusted, we may wonder how much to believe about the evil the Normans have done. Nor was his condition caused by the invasion; he was destroying his own life long before the fleet hove in sight. A bad man can fight for a good cause, but novelists don't usually choose him as the cause's spokesman. One would think the author was perhaps trying to convey that there is no wrong and right side in war, but that is not what the historical note implies.

The author's intention is thus a puzzle, but this has no bearing on the novel's artistic and narrative merits. It is in fact a gripping tale; its narration is fascinating and skilfully handled, and its physical background vividly brought alive. In this extract Buccmaster recalls being on a mere in the fens with his grandfather:

under the boat under the water and not so deop was the stocc of a great blaec treow torn to its root lic a tooth in the mouth of an eald wif. a great treow it was wid and blaec as the fyrs aesc blaec as the deorcness beyond the hall on a niht when the mona sleeps and as i was locan I seen another and another and I colde see that under this mere was a great holt a great eald holt of treows bigger than any I had seen efer….

It can also be very moving, as any account of a way of life coming to an end can be. Even when we know what kind of man Buccmaster is, his memory of the last happy day in his life, in a village celebrating May, cannot help but strike a chord:

oh I can sae these words and try to tell what it was lic there but naht can gif to thu what was in my heorte as I seen all of this cuman in to place […] oh it was the last daeg of the world.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Declaration of interest: I have a poem in this, but it's just the one and it seems a bit OTT not to review a whole anthology on that account.

Poems about pictures are ekphrasis, but according to its definition, this can't be used for poems about music; in fact I don't know that there is a name for them. Nevertheless, they clearly have a lot in common with ekphrastic poems, in that they try to express in one art form the effect produced by another. At least, some do. As the interesting introduction points out, some engage with the music, others with the composer's life, others still with the relevance of the music to the writer's own life (poets do have a tendency to look at the world and make it all about them).

I listened to a lot of classical music when younger, then drifted away from it and haven't really listened to any for decades, which means that the more recent composers who serve as inspiration here, I have neither heard, nor, in some cases, heard of. I don't think this disqualifies me from reviewing the book, because a poem must work as a poem, not merely as a homage, and something should still come through to a non-expert. It does mean that those poems which engage with some aspect of the composer's life are liable to make a more immediate impact on me. "Buxtehude's Daughter" (Alistair Elliot), patiently waiting for one of her organist father's assistants to secure the reversion of his job by marrying her, was an old friend from biographies of Handel; he didn't marry her, but another organist did. This poem, narrated in the lady's voice, is not really about music, but about someone on its fringes who might have become bitter but was actually rather good at making the best of things. Elliot brings her alive by catching a very down-to-earth, unremarkable but engaging voice:

When Handel came, he found me elderly.
He was eighteen and I was twenty-eight -
The sad arithmetic of too soon, too late…
I wonder if he ever thinks of me
At night, in London. He liked my soup that day.
Strange to know someone famous far away.

Since I've a passion for biography and history, it may be inevitable that the narrative and anecdotal poems, which don't really need to be about composers as such, appeal to me most. There is a danger, of course, that such poems become too purely narrative, too "this happened and then that", as, for me, is the case with Mick Imlah's "Scottish Play" (which is more about Kathleen Ferrier than Gluck). But many find the universal in the particular. John Greening's own wry little poem "Field", about a composer who apparently had the ill-luck to invent the nocturne only to be eclipsed in the form by Chopin, is something any artist, in any field, could relate to. With those poems that are less about the composer than about his effect on, or parallel with, the poet's own life, success depends, again, on how far they transcend the personal. Lotte Kramer's "Fugue", with a killer ending I won't spoil by quoting, is "personal" yet also universal, a grim and brilliant reminder that being able to appreciate Great Music does not necessarily make one a better person.

Indeed one danger of this kind of poem, and it happens also in ekphrastic poems, is that of undue reverence toward the subject. I hear it in Ronald Duncan's "Lament for Ben" and occasionally elsewhere. Alistair Elliot and Oliver Reynolds are particularly welcome for their avoidance of it, as is the knockabout humour of Heath-Stubbs's Audenesque ballad on Salieri. And James Reeves's "Knew the Master", alone in the anthology, articulates the way reverence for "the classics", in any art form, can stifle new work by denying it an audience.

It's impossible to do full justice, in a review, to an anthology with 180-odd pages of poems. One observation: quoting numbers in a poem does not often make for memorable lines, even if they do have the letter K in front of them – better to put it in an epigraph, as Anne Stevenson does. Stand-out poems for me included Andrew Motion's "Rhapsody"; I'd never heard of Butterworth but who could resist the idea of a man filmed morris-dancing in 1913, a recording still accessible on YouTube though the man himself died three years later on the Somme?

One very interesting thing Greening notes in his introduction: there were very few poems about composers written before the twentieth century. I would guess it's the same with ekphrastic poems, and would love to know why, suddenly, artists started writing about other artists in this way. It goes further than figuring the poet as composer, too. For Douglas Dunn, the music of Bach "restates the rhythms of a loch" and becomes itself a landscape ("Loch Music"). Charles Tomlinson reinvents Bach as a bee-keeper "topping up the cells/with the honey of C major" ("If Bach had been a Beekeeper"), while Tony Roberts, in "Barkbröd", has his narrator seeing Sibelius through the medium of cheese… Jo Shapcott, in her poem about a Schoenberg orchestration of a Bach piece, pertinently asks "Where does it come from, this passion/for layers?" Where indeed, and why now: why is the present day so obsessed with "seeing" one thing through the medium of another? It's a fascinating question, raised by an unexpectedly eclectic anthology; it may be on one subject but the poems couldn't be more varied.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
19 August 2015 @ 08:51 am
"Maybe a poet could come along who could solve all our problems, but I haven't seen him yet."

Excellent interview with James Dickey in the Paris Review, which specialises in doing good interviews with writers. Dickey was at that point talking about writers being urged to make public pronouncements, and pointing out that if they were experts on politics, economics or anything else, they probably wouldn't be sitting around writing poems very much. But his words reminded me of something slightly different, a tendency in criticism best represented by some poet-critic years back, who frequently complained that the poetry he was reviewing raised questions and then refused to suggest answers - in his phrase, it "threw its hands up".

I've never understood this notion that (a) there must be an answer to every question, whether practical or existential, and (b) that if there is, it's any part of a poet's or fiction writer's job to find it. If there's one thing I loathe, it's the kind of writing that wants to tie things up with the pretty bow of an "answer". To practical questions of politics or economics there may be answers, and it's for politicians and economists to find them. If there are any such convenient answers to questions of life, the universe and everything, one would rather expect philosophers to have found them by now, and if they haven't, it seems mighty unlikely that a 40-line poem can do it. If it tries, as often as not it achieves the kind of superficial glibness you expect rather of a Facebook post.

What, for instance, is the "answer" to the agonising fact that has been the theme of so many poems: that we're all going to die and be forgotten? There isn't one, at least not unless you accept "we're all going to a better place" and it is notable that even Parson Herrick, who in his day job should have believed that implicitly, doesn't really seem to have been satisfied with it, at least if we judge by "To the Virgins, to make much of Time". That doesn't mean poets shouldn't write about it.

In fact, it seems to me that one purpose of poetry is precisely to raise questions, not in order to answer them but in order to make others think about them. Another reason I dislike the idea of poems trying to provide answers is that it reduces the reader to the status of a spectator, whereas I think writing should be a participant sport. The likelihood is, in fact, that when it comes to ways of dealing with the world, there are as many partial or possible "answers" as there are individuals. It is not the poet's business to point the reader toward one or another; it is enough to be aware, and make others aware, of the existence of questions.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This unmissable book is a murder mystery, in which the detectives happen to be a flock of Irish sheep (I knew I was going to like it from the moment I read the list of "Dramatis Oves"). And no, it isn't aimed at children or young adults, nor, though it has richly comic elements, is it purely comedy. We are very much in the sheep viewpoint, in that there is no scene at which sheep are not present, though, being humans, we sometimes see what we are watching differently from them. Not better, just differently. It is because we see through their eyes that we know, long before any of the humans, that two characters are related – the sheep can at once tell that they have the same smell. And though, obviously, these aren't your average sheep, they don't think like woolly humans either:

"If it's a hole in his memory we ought to stop it up with more memories," said Cordelia. "You stop up a hole in the earth with more earth."
"But you don't stop up a rat-hole with more rats," said Cloud.
"You could," Cordelia insisted, "if they were very fat rats."

They use their own experience of the world, and of humans (and some, like the Hebridean ram Othello, have more than others) to try to make sense of the sudden death of their shepherd George and the peculiar behaviour of the surviving inhabitants of Glennkill (the macaronic pun on kill and cil, the Gaelic for church, is no accident). They also pool their varying talents. Chief detective Miss Maple, who didn't get her name for the reason you think, is intensely curious and intelligent; Othello knows more about people than most; Mopple, a merino with an insatiable appetite, also has a good memory. And then there's the enigmatic Melmoth….

Part of the appeal of this book is that the sheep, though their individual characters are every bit as well-defined and engaging as any human's, never quite stop being sheep. The landscape of smells in the barn:

The heat had hunted old smells out of all the corners. A young mouse who had died under the wooden planks last summer. George sweating as he forked hay through the hatch in the roof and down on them, a fragrant shower. A screw that had fallen out of his radio and still smelled the way it used to, of metal and music.

And at the same time they are more than sheep, or maybe sheep's mental processes just are more than we know anyway; who can say for sure that this mental soliloquy isn't going on inside Melmoth's head as he returns from who knows where?

On the other side of the dolmen youth grazed, his own youth, with strong limbs and a sense of joy in its belly, but stupid, so stupid you could almost feel sorry for it in its happiness. On the other side of the dolmen was the meadow that couldn't exist, the Way Back. He had looked for it all over the world, under smooth stones, on the far side of the wind, in the eyes of night-birds, in pools of quiet water. […] Now the Way Back had curled up, like a woodlouse, into a single step to be taken.

These characters become very real to us, so that, watching the humans along with Melmoth, we share George's puzzlement (and contempt) when he and butcher Ham stumble upon a dead man's body which the butcher cannot bring himself to touch:

"That's different. Completely different. My God, George, this is a body."
George shrugged. "Did you think you worked with some kind of fruit in your job?"

Reviews of murder mysteries ought not to contain spoilers, so I'll add only that this isn't much like any other novel I have read recently and that I would be very sorry not to have been pointed in its direction. It's a re-reader for sure.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
04 August 2015 @ 05:40 pm
Steve Ely's first collection, Oswald's Book of Hours (Smokestack Books 2013) was shortlisted for the Forward first collection prize and I reviewed it on this blog. His second, Englaland, came out from Smokestack in 2015 – also reviewed here.

Matins: Annunciation

Force eight from Lundy and the Irish Sea
in the dark moon of the solstice.
Alarmed awake at midnight, sleet slashing
across the window glass, blurring the street-lit world.
Packing the van in drenched Jack Pyke:
Lazerlight lamp-kit, slip-leads, dogs.
The long drive east to the ditch-cut flatlands.
Sleet strafing down. Wind howling in the hawthorns.
Shivering long-dogs, ears erect. The thousand foot
halogen beam. Green eyes in hedge-bottoms.
Transfixed conies. Dogs running down the beam.
Conies dangling in the Deben double V.
Back to the van. Bag the necked and bladdered conies.
Towel and box the dogs. Peel off the drenched Jack Pyke.
The cold drive home in the dark moon of the solstice,
sleet slurring the view through the wiping-windscreen,
blurring the headlamped world.

(From Oswald's Book of Hours)


SHEENAGH: Your work is clearly very rooted in a particular landscape, and every point in that landscape's history seems equally present to you – there aren't many ways in which you remind me of Cavafy, but one resemblance I do see is how people like Oswald of Northumbria and Nevison the highwayman are still alive in your mental and emotional territory, just as Cavafy evidently wouldn't have been surprised to turn a corner in Alexandria and bump into Mark Antony or a priest from the Serapeion. How long has this sense of past-in-present been with you, and informing your work?

STEVE: The sense of past-in-present, as you put it, has been with me for as long as I can remember. As a kid I’d attempt to imagine the layerings of the past that had shaped the various aspects of the landscapes I roamed in — how the fields and woods became, the backstories of footpaths, copses, ponds and valleys. This tendency became more intense and urgent in my teens as reading began to inform and transform my experiences of place — and as my experiences of place began to similarly inform and transform my reading. That dialectic enabled the development of an imagined historical perspective that contextualised and sacralised that which had hitherto been quotidian — particular trees, meadows, views — or whole topographies. As this tendency developed, I came to see landscape as something akin to a living organism embodying a transgenerational integrity in which the past was inexorably alive in the present.
Two books were particularly important in this development. The first was Aaron Wilkinson’s A History of South Kirkby. (South Kirkby is the place I was brought up in. I’ve spend most of my life in the area.) I first read the book aged around fifteen and it sent me rambling around my local area (and into my local libraries as I followed up Wilkinson’s bibliography) with fresh eyes, triangulating landscape with past people and events and enabling me to connect my parish with a larger history (the Danelaw, the Norman Conquest, the Peasant’s Revolt, the Wars of the Roses, enclosure and the English & Industrial Revolutions).
Arthur Ruston & Denis Witney’s Hooton Pagnell: The Evolution of a Yorkshire Village (1934), also became important to my sense of the present in the past. The Hooton Pagnell estate was the main poaching/bird-nesting territories territory of my youth. I knew every hawthorn bush and rat-hole of that estate. I didn’t encounter Ruston and Witney until I was well into my twenties, but the millennial scope of the book provided an account of the landscape that allowed me to see my personal experiences in and around the village (and the neighbouring Frickley Estate) as part of a continuous parade of human activity from the Yorkshire Danes Swein and Arketil, to the planting of Frickley pit. I discovered, for example, that ‘Badger Balk’, (the widest of the three footpaths that joined Hooton’s Back Lane with the Iron Age route of Lound Lane) was so-called not simply because it was the haunt of meles meles, but because it was the only place within the parish where itinerant pedlars (‘Badgers’) had rights to graze their horses. But Badger Balk was much more than that. It was also part of a luminous and numinous personal landscape. Where it terminated at Four-Lane-Ends, the ivied elders were clotted with the ragged nests of spuggies, and foxes earthed under field stone dumped in the broad hedge-bottoms. Immediately beyond was Deep Dale, until recently an isolated valley too steep too plough, an oasis of orchids and harebells in an agrochemical waste. Richard Rolle, the hermit of nearby Hampole and confessor to the nuns at its Cistercian Priory, had his ‘shack in the fields’ very near here — the place where lazerlight lamps strafe the midnight stubbles in search of loping Puss and where Robert Aske’s forty thousand marched past bannered under Wounds, en-route to their great camp at Scawsby.
All my landscapes are transformed into quasi-sacred landscapes by a mythopoeic coalescence of experience, reading and imagination. The sacred landscape of Brierley Common, between South Kirkby, Brierley, Hemsworth, Grimethorpe and Great Houghton informs much of Englaland. Richard Rolle’s Hampole underpins my current work-in-progress, Incendium Amoris. Almost every day I walk my dogs down ‘the lines’ (the disused railway lines) near where I live in Upton. But I’m not just walking ‘the lines’. Almost every stride is resonant with historical, personal or other significance. The place where I cross the road to join the path is where, in 1973, nine-year-old Colin Bryant was killed by a car whilst playing ‘chicken’ on the highway. Across the road, behind the old station master’s house, a tawny owl nests in a magpie’s abandoned drey. A looted brick platform is all that remains of the station, formerly a halt on the Hull to Barnsley line which fell to Beeching’s axe in the railway-killing sixties.
Walking on, I pass the scrubby, sparrowhawk-patrolled woodland from which jays and little owls call and where, for one unbelievable weekend last May, a nightingale hymned in the dusk. It was in that wood, in 1981, that I stumbled across a turtle dove’s nest — the last nest I ever found of that species, now extinct in the North. A hundred yards further and the path spurs off to North Elmsall, where in the seventies a seal of Pope Honorius III was turned from the tilth and where the highwayman John Nevison would hold court in the White Hart, a now-vanished coaching inn on the Wakefield-London road. Past a patch of wild raspberry is the site of the short-lived Upton Colliery, opened in the thirties and closed by the sixties, now re-shaped into Upton Country Park, where cuckoos chase and call each spring. The fishing pond, margined in loosestrife, phragmites and flag, is fed by the spring known as Thunder Hole, which roars from the scrub below Luke Farmer’s memorial garden. Luke was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, aged 19. I used to go out with his Dad’s cousin. Along the cutting, where lads in Jack Pyke send ferrets into setts that travel deep into the fissured limestone, is the hamlet of Wrangbrook, until the sixties the site of an important railway junction where three now defunct rail-lines met. There kids converge to shake down conkers, last year I gathered a stone of blackberries, and sometime in the late fourteenth century, a paralytic got up and walked after praying to Saint Richard. Beyond is Skelbrooke, where John Little is graved interred in the Archangel’s graveyard, a few hundred yards below Robin Hood’s Well. This land lives and its dead cannot die. It’s as wrong to build a bypass or a Tesco on this land as it is to kill a tiger to grind into Chinese Viagra.

SHEENAGH: I can see why you say that, but could it not be said that while tigers are finite, land goes on for ever, and what you're proposing there is to freeze its ongoing history, of which you're so conscious in the poems, at one arbitrary point? Saxons recycled Roman walls, mediaeval farmers re-used once-sacred stones as barn floors. The sacredness and history of this particular land is obvious to you because you know it, but in all probability there's hardly a square yard of the country of which the same couldn't be said by someone who knew it well, and we can hardly ban building everywhere.... Since I spend much of my life regretting that I didn't become an archaeologist, my own inclination is to preserve everything, but doesn't that, in itself, go against the concept of landscape as a living organism, which is never done changing and developing?

STEVE: What I’m against is total or careless destruction for no good reason. As far as I can see there is never a good reason to build a Tesco or a bypass. My local authority put a new bypass (‘link- road’) near Upton a few years ago, using European money. The same local authority had rejected spending its own money on the same road twenty years previously because the cost of the road ‘was not justified by the usual standards of highway economics’. That is, it wasn’t necessary. The avowed reason for the road was to complete the A1-M1 link road (to open up land for development) and more specifically open up the former pit site of South Kirkby Colliery for development (even though it already had excellent road access). I protested against the plans and proposals both times. The road has bisected the largest swathe of open, undeveloped farmland in the local area, soaked the countryside in traffic roar, taken out some woodland, cut across the route of several footpaths and has brought anti-social behaviour into the countryside (joy-riding, destruction of paths, fields and hedges by off-roaders). On the plus side, HGVs can get from the A1 to the M1 three minutes faster than hitherto and the Colliery site now has a back door as well as a front door. As long as our political leaders are committed to growth (economic and population; the two come together, by definition), development never stops and the land is continually subject to creeping industrialisation and suburbanisation. (I recently saw a photograph of the land between South Elmsall and Upton (where I live) dating from about 1955. There was about a mile and a half of clear space — woodland, pasture, arable. Sixty years later, the gap is about three hundred yards). It’s not about opposing change and development, but learning to value what we have, becoming conscious of landscape, nature, and ‘heritage’, and subjecting development to local, democratic control. Ultimately, we need to reduce the population, end sprawl and restore the land.

SHEENAGH: You're very unafraid of words. That sounds an odd thing to say of a poet, but I've read so many reviewers, in particular, who seem downright terrified of any vocabulary vaguely out of the ordinary. Use an esoteric or archaic word and they'll complain of elitism; use modern slang and it's condemned as unsuitable or a "duff note", as if modern argot and poetry were somehow incompatible. One of the things I like best about your work is how you cheerfully expect your readers to cope with liturgical language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, umpteen bird and plant names, lovely obscure words like xanthic for yellow, and you mix that in with army slang, business jargon, politician's soundbites….

STEVE: Words are my business, and as such, every word, in every language — past, present and future — belongs to me. I’ll use them as I see fit. Relatively early in my poetic second-coming I was expressly warned-off from using the word ‘cerulean’ by a well-meaning would-be mentor. My response was to write a poem (‘fancy THAT’, from my unpublished book, the compleat eater) that deliberately and provocatively deployed the word. Since I began to write again in 2003, I’ve used a range of registers, vocabularies and languages — Yorkshire dialect, the cant of U.S. prison gangs, Calo (the Hispanic ‘creole’ of East Los Angeles) , and many more, including the examples you cite. In ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’ (Englaland) I also use two Romani words, ‘sunakai’ and ‘salno’, which both connote ‘yellow’. In the stanza of the same poem in which I use the word ‘xanthic’ there are five other evocations of ‘yellow’. I’m trying to make it golden.

SHEENAGH: Indeed yes. It felt to me as if what you were doing in Song of the Yellowhammer was trying to wrap the landscape in a sort of golden haze. In metaphorical terms that isn't a million miles from a sepia wash, and I did wonder if you ever worried about attracting the criticism George Mackay Brown sometimes encountered, namely that he over-idealised the past of his chosen landscape? Especially since, near the end, in the verse beginning "Cut the vines", you seem to hint, albeit less apocalyptically, at something akin to what he says in his essay on Rackwick: "I do not think Rackwick will remain empty for ever. It could happen that the atom-and-planet horror at the heart of our civilisation will scatter people again to the quiet beautiful fertile places of the world". Which alarmed me at the time, because he sounded as if he thought a nuclear holocaust would be a small price to pay for such an outcome... In your poem, the lines
To each man his allotment.
With plough-turned fieldstone
gentled hands will build
once more, and lift the lintels of long-tumbled halls
sounded more elegiac, like a dream of what had once been but you knew could never actually happen again (certainly not if the average digging and building skills of the population are anything like mine). Leastways, that was how I read that poem; was I right to, or were you seeing not just a desired but a possible future?

STEVE: The gold is the gold of the yellowhammer, a symbol for ‘the people in the land’, the real treasure, not the lucre zealously guarded by Fafnir or sought by Sigurdr. Also in my use of ‘goldenness imagery’ I intended to give luminosity to the landscape itself, which is the other treasure — and perhaps to knowingly evoke an imagined, past-and-perhaps-once-again, ‘golden age’. I think the juxtapositions with violent and quotidian elements and the poem’s engagement, argument and tension guards against any simpering to sepia. My own, more cowardly version of Mackay Brown’s sentiment is summarised later in the poem. ‘Too much blood, I can’t commit.’ I’m intuiting and assuming that the wrenching away from capitalism necessary for sustainable living, conservation, the full development of human potential and social justice will lead to upheaval and slaughter as the rich and powerful choose to scorch the Earth and immolate its peoples rather than concede their dominance. That fact that I ‘can’t commit’ makes my anarcho-yeoman utopianism a prophetic, not political vision. However, I do think yeoman-anarchism is a possible future (perhaps the only sustainable one). Those with the means to downsize, go off-grid and opt-out are approximating to a fragile, individualised and ultimately unsustainable version of it right now. On a wider, societal level, some form of revolution would be necessary. What kind and where it might come from I have no idea. But the alternative is the totalitarianism of plutocracy and the commoditisation of everything: death for the sake of profit.

SHEENAGH: How did your language become so rich and multi-layered, and have you ever had trouble getting it past editors?

STEVE: At one level, the reason why I deploy such a wide range of registers and lexicons is because I have a wide range of interests and obsessions — football, birding, hunting, nature, history, England, the Bible, religion, Catholicism, the occult, crime, the Fen, radical and revolutionary politics and so on — and the content, vocabulary and mode of expression characteristic to each area all find their way into my work. However, behind both Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland is a vision of England in which fifteen hundred years of history, culture and language exist simultaneously as an irreducible synoptic unity; my ‘interests and obsessions’ are filtered through this vision, producing the diversity of language, forms and range of reference that characterises both books. Ultimately, the heteroglossic mode of Oswald & Englaland is as much a product of ideology as accident or aesthetics.
I’ve often suspected that the relative unorthodoxy of my work has alienated the more provincial (Kavanagh’s usage) editors but I don’t really know this for sure. My editor at Smokestack Books, Andy Croft, has said that ‘only Smokestack’ would have published Oswald’s Book of Hours, and he might be right.

SHEENAGH: "Since I began to write again in 2003" – yes, I gathered from your website that you'd taken a break from writing and then come back to it. What made that happen, and if you actually stopped writing altogether, how else did you express the thoughts and concerns that feel so urgent in your recent work?

STEVE: I stopped writing when I went to University in 1988. I’d been writing poetry for five or six years and had reached a decent standard and had begun to think of myself as a ‘good’ poet. I think the energy I’d hitherto been putting into writing simply went into my studies. I also became very active in the Green Party about that time, so that might also have played a role in sucking up my time. In 1992 I left the Greens, joined the Socialist Workers Party — and became a secondary school teacher. My creativity was channelled into pedagogy and selling papers on the street. In the mid-1990s I began to read a lot of true crime and crime fiction. I made two abortive attempts to write thrillers. But in the period 1988-2003 I didn’t write any poetry at all — and barely read any. I left the SWP in 1996 and became politically quiescent. I’ve remained so to this day. (I don’t count simply ‘having opinions’, even on social media (or in poems), as being politically engaged — you’ve got to join, campaign, organise, commit, sacrifice.) I don’t think I expressed myself at all creatively during that period. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so prolific since starting up again. I’ve got years of stored-up unconscious to download.

SHEENAGH: Glad to hear it! Your poems don't shy away from politics or indeed polemic. I know you feel the past is always in the present anyway, but do you use historical parallels to get some distance from the subject, to approach it from an angle rather than head-on?

STEVE: Not consciously, although I do affirm the past to critique the present. I’ve just written a Corpus Christi play, The Coronation of the Virgin. The play addresses modern themes: it’s an affirmation and exploration of the irrational in the context of the ‘New Atheism’s’ scorched earth kulturkampf against ‘religion’. However, it’s set in first century A.D. Palestine and written in an approximation to an early sixteenth century style — alliterative blank verse — which I suppose is a political choice in itself.
Having said that, I rarely set out to write a ‘political poem’; however, because my poetry is engaged (that is it proceeds from vision and position) there is often a political (or at least public) dimension to it. My poem ‘Spearhafoc’, for example, began as an attempt to evoke the spirit of the sparrowhawk (in response to a particularly striking photograph of the bird), but as it stands is largely a defiant affirmation of a specific kind of working-class outlawry; I didn’t intend that. It’s just that the network of associations sparked off by ‘sparrowhawk’ include the Book of St. Albans, A Kestrel for a Knave, Kes, trespass, poaching, egg collecting, eyass ‘scrumping’ and the violence and confrontations which are inevitably associated with and follow from those things. In some sections of Englaland’s ‘Mongrel Blood Imperium’, I consciously adopted a less ‘poetic’, more direct and contemporary voice in order to present arguments, expose the faltering in my process and to convey uncertainty and bewilderment (and also to give some relief from the intensity and pace that otherwise characterised that 200 page poem. Overall, I think the decision was the right one. However, the shift to a more direct register, motivated by political as much as aesthetic considerations, came at the cost of music and a dilution of the linguistic resource. A more oblique approach gives greater space in which the imagination can roam and provides a greater range of resources to appropriate.

SHEENAGH: You use a lot of different forms – offhand I can think of ballads, unrhymed sonnets, alliterative verse, prose-poems in various formats. How does a poem, or a sequence of poems, find its ideal form, the one that feels right to you?

STEVE: I generally plan what I’m going to do, taking into account theme, content, language, intention, etc. Oswald’s Book of Hours was modelled on the structure of a mediaeval Book of Hours, which generally open with a Calendar (of Holy Days, etc), proceed via a formalised sequence of prayers and Psalms and conclude with ‘Memorials to the Saints’. Having settled on this general structure, I then proceeded on a utilitarian, practical basis (one of my major aims was simply to prevent the book becoming too long), hence the large number of short, sonnet-like poems — deciding to write a sonnet is my way of telling myself to keep it brief. My unpublished collection, the compleat eater was conceived of partially as a provocative comment on form — it’s written in unpunctuated and justified columns of lower case text and defines itself as poetry via rhythm, compression and lexis. ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’ is an improvised form, its nine line stanzas, with the last line being much longer than the rest, is being a stylisation of the traditional rendering of the nine-syllable song of the yellowhammer — ‘a little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese’.
However, although I am and will always be a planner, I’m increasingly giving myself flexibility within the broad outline of any given plan. My work-in-progress Incendium Amoris is planned and structured and has movement and direction. However, within the broad intention, I’m giving myself considerable heuristic freedom in executing the various poems. I haven’t always done this; I haven’t always thought it necessary to. Oswald’s Book of Hours for example, was planned poem-by-poem, in great detail. I stuck to the plan throughout, with very few departures. ‘Werewolf’, my just-completed pamphlet-length sequence, was similarly very tightly planned and has a quite intricate organisational structure. However, the general trend in my work is for looser planning and greater spontaneity. Having said that, I’m increasingly interested in identifying forms that might complement my ‘English idiom’ and to that end I’ve begun to explore and experiment. I’m becoming particularly interested in ballad forms, odes, sprung rhythm, the Arabic qasida (I’ve just written an alliterative poem based on an Old English charm in a qasida-derived form) and in techniques (parallelism, repetition, lexical economy) used in the various English Bibles.

SHEENAGH: Yes, while Oswald's Book of Hours actually was laid out like a mediaeval book of devotions, Englaland was far looser and longer, and I know its published form wasn't, for space reasons, quite what you had planned, but what sort of a shape did you see it as being?

STEVE: Englaland was conceived of (in 2009, when I started writing it) as the thing it became, a wide-ranging epic that affirms, uncovers, critiques and transforms ideas of England and Englishness. The intention was to create a number of pamphlet-length sequences or long poems that could stand alone, but that would also be in thematic and other relation to each other, mutually commenting on, reinforcing and illuminating and thus creating a unity in which the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts. Englaland was planned and structured quite carefully from the beginning, although it did develop. Oswald’s Book of Hours, for example was originally planned to be a section of Englaland, but it grew too long for the piece. ‘Big Billy’ was originally the centre-piece of a five poem alliterative sequence (‘Feast’) about the Good Friday fair at Brierley Common, but it grew to dominate the other poems (in terms of length) so much that I discarded the others. ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’ was a relatively late addition to the plan and ‘The Ballad of Scouse McLaughlin’ had to be sacrificed at the proof stage due to reasons of space — which grieved me no end, because all the component parts of the book are integral. If there is ever a reprint, I’d like to reincorporate ‘Scouse’, although that will probably add another fifteen or twenty pages to the book.

SHEENAGH: Both your collections have been very male worlds. In Oswald's Book of Hours, the only females I recall being spoken of with affection or respect were the Virgin Mary and various lurchers, and in fact there were several references to women that could be seen as casually misogynist, which was fair enough since they were in the voice of Nevison, who could hardly speak like a New Man. There was one in Englaland that bothered me a bit more, because though it was in a ballad about Nevison, it was in a narrator's voice: "he robbed the rich, man and bitch". If that had been, say, "cur and bitch", it'd be just the natural resentment of the poor against the rich. But it uses a neutral word for the male victim and a loaded, pejorative one for the female. What's the rationale there? And do you see your poetry continuing to be so male-dominated?

STEVE: Quite a few people have commented on the male world of these two books and gently implied that there may be misogyny at work. I’ve just had a quick trawl through Oswald’s Book of Hours and noted (in addition to Our Lady and the various female lurchers and long dogs) ‘affectionate or respectful’ references to Mary Tudor & Elizabeth Barton (‘Obsecro te’ & ‘O intemerata’), the un-named Flemish girl in ‘Beati, quorum remissae’, my daughter in the first poem of ‘Hours of the Dead’, Mary Magdalen in the poem of that name in ‘Memorials of the Saints’ and Margaret of Kirkeby in ‘Richard Rolle’. A similar trawl through Englaland reveals ‘affectionate or respectful’ references to ‘a girl’ in poem ‘X’ of ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’; ‘domestics and milkmaids’ in poem ‘XXI’; there are ‘affectionate’ if not ‘respectful’ references to women (and men) in ‘Eight Miles Out’; Lady Julia Warde-Aldam turns up in ‘Reverend John Harnett Jennings'; there are incidental but ‘respectful’ references to women in ‘The Field Church, Frickley’; ‘the booze-loosened lasses’ of ‘Big Billy’ are portrayed ‘affectionately’ and, I think ‘respectfully’; ‘Krakumal’ is Ragnar’s death-bed paean to his wife, Aslaug (Kraka); several women are mentioned in ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ and ‘Mrs Duffy’ gets a poem to herself. So maybe there are more ‘positive’ or at least ‘neutral’ references to women than you think.
The specific reference you make to possible casual misogyny (in ‘A Lytle Gest of John Nevison’), in which the narrator uses the term ‘bitch’ in lieu of ‘woman’, may actually be compounded by his subsequent reference to the innkeeper’s adulterous wife as a ‘whore’. However, the narrator of ‘A Lytle Gest of John Nevison’ is a working-class raconteur of a certain type, an outlaw and provocateur himself , hymning his hero’s deviance in a deliberately scandalous way, variously praising his hero’s fecklessness, his penchant for armed robbery and running protection rackets, his contempt for the rich, his treachery, womanising and reckless cunning. The poem ends with the narrator himself threatening the audience. The narrator’s possible misogyny is part of a range of disreputable attitudes he owns.
Of course, at a more basic level, I needed a rhyme for ‘rich’ and ‘bitch’ fitted the bill. I’m not sure my narrator would’ve used ‘cur’, though; ‘cur’ is not really in the vernacular as a synonym for ‘man’ the same way that ‘bitch’ (however much you might deplore it) is for ‘woman’. A few years ago I got into a similar minor controversy with some fellow writers over the use of racist terms by one of my narrators and some of my characters in my unpublished (the various poems were published in magazines and journals) book, JerUSAlem. One of the major themes of JerUSAlem is race and racism in the context of the ‘American Dream’ and concepts of the USA as ‘promised land’. Some of my characters and narrators were racists of various stripes and this was reflected in their language. I don’t see that giving scandalous utterances to scandalous voices is a problem.
However, to return to your fundamental point, both collections are undoubtedly very male worlds. Why is my world a male world? I suppose the content and themes of Oswald and Englaland — warfare, fighting, hunting, poaching, outlawry, revolution and so on — are bound to import a male bias. Plus, I am a man. I suppose I write about manly things. Looking at my most recent work: Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God is ‘very male’; given that its subject is violence, war, terrorism and genocide, it was always likely to be. Incendium Amoris is essentially ‘about love’, and as such is more balanced, genderwise. Enganche is about football. Ten poems in, it’s a very male world indeed. It’s just the way it is. I would never consciously attempt to compensate. I don’t write to be representative. I write because I’m obsessive-compulsive.

SHEENAGH: "I don’t see that giving scandalous utterances to scandalous voices is a problem." No indeed, and I wish to heaven that more readers would see the difference between narrative and character voice. As Chaucer says,

whoso will tell a tale after a man,
he moot reherce, as ny as ever he can,
everich word, if it be in his charge,
al speak he never so rudeliche and at large

Having said that, of course the sly old soul knew very well that it was he, the author, who chose his narrators and their tones and attitudes. I suppose it's the tone of some of your narrators' comments on women, rather than what they actually say, that sticks in the mind. Admittedly there's room for different interpretations: for instance "big-bosomed" could be glossed as "maternal" or "nurturing" rather than "belongs on Page 3", while "booze-loosened lasses" maybe sounds affectionate in a male ear but contemptuous in a female one? But what I'm really getting at is the clear, unconditional love that shows in the voices of your male narrators when they talk of their dogs, and which I don't hear elsewhere. It reminds me of when R S Thomas, in his autobiography, speaks of goldcrests: "I dote on them, the pretty little things". This comes as a terrific surprise, because he never says anything half so affectionate about his own wife and son (whose conception is explained in the sentence "The vicar's wife had expressed a desire for a child"). I don't suppose that means he didn't have feelings for them but he seems to have saved all his own expressiveness for the goldcrests. Hey, maybe I've been coming at this from the wrong angle; is it that your male narrators, too, feel less embarrassed expressing sentiments for animals?

STEVE: ‘Big-bosomed’ alludes to the comment Richard Rolle made to Margaret of Kirkeby during one of their conversations — that she had ‘gret papys’. She was a nun, he her spiritual advisor and confessor, which set certain boundaries. However, within that context, their relationship was loving and passionate and reading-between-the-lines, charged with sexual tension. ‘Booze-loosened lasses’ needs to be understood in the context of the drunken, tongue-in-cheek, sexual banter envisaged. Think hen party-meets-stag do at the races. ‘Lads laughing and lathered, lurching and leering’ at the ‘flirty, fresh faced fillies’ who ‘bar-barge’ Big Billy, ‘pouting promises for paid on porter’ — which may or may not be honoured. Maybe it’s a class thing; or maybe I’m a sly old soul myself. I think is easier for many people (not just men) to profess unconditional love to those utterly dependent and inarticulate (animals, babies) because those objects can’t muddy the emotional waters by articulating a reciprocal love (or rejection, even) — which is by definition a demand, a contract, a constraint. I suppose loving animals is in some respects an expression of solipsism or narcissism. Loving animals could also be an expression of alienation — maybe my working class narrators love their dogs because they come alive when working them in a way they simply can’t in their constrained quotidian — work, responsibility, debt, domesticity. The running dog is an emblem of freedom and escape — and a means of catharsis. Alternatively, perhaps I’m just sick of poems about ‘feelings’.

SHEENAGH: And while we're on the subject, do you have any theories as to why so many male poets are also birders? I can think of half a dozen male poets I know or know of, who are keen birdwatchers, and not a single female poet. If it weren't for that gender difference, one could formulate some high-flown (ha!) theory about flying being the ultimate escapism and poetry being another form of it, but it won't work for one sex only.

STEVE: It’s true — David Morley, Gregory Leadbetter, and Gerry Cambridge come to mind straight away. Pat explanation of why many men are birdwatchers and many male birdwatchers are poets: the alleged male hunting instinct sublimated to ‘capturing’ and ‘possession’ via the technical skills of identification, knowledge of habitat, etc fieldcraft, identification and classification. Birding poets effect a secondary sublimation: as opposed to being twitched, listed or sketched in the Alwych, the birds are written about, or otherwise incorporated in poems. I don’t list (except on my annual spring trip to Uist), but I frequently boast that 46 species of bird are named in Oswald’s Book of Hours. It’s the Hughes thing from Poetry in the Making — writing a poem is like ‘capturing animals’. Having said all that, I cheerfully concede that it might well be trite rubbish. Bird-watching and writing poetry is what you do when you escape for the world, even to engage with it. They’re both expressions of alienation and exile, a prophetic separation; Elijah in the wilderness being fed by ravens, in refuge from persecution, earthquake and fire, finding his still, small voice.

SHEENAGH: What do you plan to do next? There was a playlet in Englaland, plus a sort of mini-epic in alliterative verse; are you drawn to do more in those genres?

STEVE: I’ve just about finished two books of poetry. Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God explores the human capacity for extremism and violence. The aforementioned ‘Werewolf’ and The Ballad of Scouse McLaughlin’ have found homes in this book, along with my narrative sonnet-sequence ‘True Crime’ and my Poetry Society commission ‘How Dear is Life’. I've mentioned Incendium Amoris is a collection of poems arising from the life, writings and landscapes of the fourteenth century mystic Richard Rolle, my Corpus Christi play, The Coronation of the Virgin explores issues of rationality/irrationality and is a subtle and insightful contribution to the otherwise crass sloganeering of the ‘Religion vs Science’ debate. I’ve started work on a collection (see above) ‘about football’, provisionally entitled Enganche. I’ve got ideas for tracts, pamphlets and plays set in the revolutionary tumults of the seventeenth and fourteenth centuries and I have two abandoned novels I’d like to revive.

SHEENAGH: I utterly love the idea of tracts and pamphlets! If I could have lived in a former age (not that I would want to, and nor would George Mackay Brown if he'd had to cook on an open fire instead of grumbling about the decadence of stoves) I would choose the Commonwealth times when there was such an explosion of printed material, when the Welsh tailor Arise Evans could become a noted author of religious books and women could preach. What era do you think would have suited you best, and what would have been your fate in it?

STEVE: I love the ferment of the English revolution and its literary expression — Winstanley, Coppe, Tyranipocrit Uncovered, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the Levellers, Ranters and Diggers, although my favourite poem of that period is the fierce music of the fifty-nine signatures listed on Charles Stewart’s death warrant. Me and Alice Oswald. It’s a pity literacy in our language wasn’t sufficiently developed in 1381 to leave more evidence about the Peasant’s Revolt, although, ‘whan Adam delved and Eve spanne, who then was the gentilman?’, is fine poetry and as clear a piece of class analysis as you could wish for. Some of John Ball’s communications have survived, including the following, which I incorporated in my poem ‘John Ball’, (from Oswald’s Book of Hours):

Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal.
The Kynges sone of hevene schal pay for al.
Be war or ye be wo; Knoweth your freend
fro your foo. Haveth ynow, and seith ‘Hoo!’

There were no Lords in Eden’s commune. But if I had to choose a period to transport myself to it would have been the period immediately post 1066. I’d have joined what the historian Peter Rex has called ‘The English Resistance’ against Guillaume the Bastard’s genocidal asset-stripping of England and the North in particular. I would have chopped a few Frenchmen before being disembowelled and hung from a gibbet by my thumbs. Stoves aren’t decadent. They’re necessary. Stove PLC is the problem. It denies stoves at all to those who can’t pay and puts the Amazon through a wood chipper to build super-deluxe diamond-encrusted platinum stoves for Bill Gates and Roman Abramovich.


More poems and links

Objective One

Through the mists of an April dawn
a crowd flowed along Manvers Way, so many,
I had not thought the dole had undone so many,
sending them herded from the fuming valleys
of Dearne and Dove and Don and Rother,
into the bus bays and car parks of Ventura,
ASOS and Next PC, where they pour
from Nissans, Vauxhalls and private hire minicabs,
lighting cigarettes, adjusting iPhones,
pressing mobiles to their ears, striding out
in polished patent, pinstripes breaking
on the buckled instep, tailored skirts
and long coats flaring on the breeze.

Sixty thousand work here, in logistics,
call-centres, light industry and retail,
along the roundabouted blacktop
from Birdwell to Barnsdale, the EU funded
M1 to A1 link road. Objective One,
bringing light to parochial darkness,
access, investment, enterprise, jobs;
until sterling collapses, Kolkata undercuts
and the market-zeitgeist lurches,
retrenching capital in gold and gilts
and the provincia flips once more
to wrecking-ball brownfield-bombsite,
the full monty of dole and dereliction,
where brassed-off, hand-to-mouth yokels
are abandoned to dearth and absurdity,
their eh-ba-gum tutu dreams.

Once there were woods and open fields,
fens in the flatland, villages on the hill.
Bullheads in the millstream, polecats
in the warren; red kite, raven, white-tailed eagle,
over the wolf-prowled heath. Danelaw sokeland,
assarted from wildwood, torp in the langthwaite clays;
the Anglecynn muster at Ringstone Hill,
where three wapentakes meet; Oswald's grange
by the holy well – belltower, gatehouse,
carucates for geld. Here, beyond Whitwell
and the five boroughs, beyond Mercia's
clement mid-lands, we will beat the bounds
at rogationtide from Bamburgh, Danum,
Durham and York; the dragon-prowed river,
the waycross on the roman road, hoar apple tree,
whit's gospel thorn, the tumulus at Askern Hill;
these are the roots that clutch, these the sprouting corpses,
these are the fragments I shore against my ruins.

(From Englaland)

John Ball

Wycliffe's words and Langland's gave the Englisc
back their tongue. Manor french and church latin
cut-off in the throat, battening behind
the buttresses of keeps and cathedrals,
parsing and declining. Johon Schepe
proclaims his hedgerow gospel, singing
from the furze like a yellowhammer:
Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal.
The Kynges sone of hevene schal pay for al.
Be war or ye be wo; Knoweth your freend
fro your foo. Haveth ynow, and seith ‘Hoo!’

There were no lords in Eden's commune
Scythes sharpened on whetstones, gente non sancta.
War will follow the Word.

(From Oswald's Book of Hours)


The Song of the Yellowhammer from Englaland can be found here.

Smokestack Books, Steve Ely's publisher

Steve Ely's website
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
13 July 2015 @ 10:31 am
" Some of his verses provoked resentment in Conservative circles" (Wikipedia on Francis Lauderdale Adams): well, you couldn't wish for a better epitaph than that, really. Adams (1862-93), brought up in England but emigrated to Australia, was one of those turn-of-the-century Christian Socialists for whom religion and politics more or less merged. There is, inevitably, quite a lot of fin-de-siècle high-flown over-poetic style about some of his work, but then every so often he comes up with a brief gem like "To the Christians", insisting on Christ as son of a carpenter rather than of a god:

TAKE, then, your paltry Christ,
Your gentleman God.
We want the carpenter's son,
With his saw and hod.
We want the man who loved
The poor and the oppressed,
Who hated the Rich man and King
And the Scribe and the Priest.
We want the Galilean
Who knew cross and rod.
It's your 'good taste' that prefers
A bastard 'God!'

or "Hagar", in which the trials of Abraham's handmaid are updated but the hoped-for divine intervention never materializes:

SHE went along the road,
Her baby in her arms,
The night and its alarms
Made deadlier her load.

Her shrunken breasts were dry;
She felt the hunger bite.
She lay down in the night,
She and the child, to die.

But it would wail, and wail,
And wail. She crept away.
She had no word to say,
Yet still she heard it wail.

She took a jagged stone;
She wished it to be dead.
She beat it on the head;
It only gave one moan.

She has no word to say;
She sits there in the night.
The east sky glints with light,
And it is Christmas Day!


Poor chap shot himself aged 30, during a TB-caused haemorrhage which would probably have killed him anyway. I have a soft spot for him, as you can probably tell.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Sometimes a collection has an unusually apt title, and so it is here. The actual man at the corner table is a very minor character in the first poem, "You all have lied"; he just happens to remind the narrator of someone else and she begins to interpret him in that light ("Or that's the way I see it"). We have, then, an observational narrator, the focus of whose sharp observation is often something on the periphery, that might otherwise go unnoticed, and who then creates stories, sometimes extremely fanciful ones, out of what she sees. When I interviewed Rosie Shepperd for this blog, I suggested the Victorian slang word "slantendicular" as a description for her way of seeing and writing, and I'd stick by that as a description of this collection.

The keenness of her eye and ear shows through both in her use of telling detail, like the "sweet circular soap" at the hotel of assignation in "A seedy narrative or moments of lyrical stillness?" and in her use of voice, in poems like "What I need, Bernard, is a bit of notice…" where the harassed wife, talking to her dying husband and trying to finalise funeral arrangements, is both faintly comical and utterly credible:

Are you headlong on Berlioz?
               I'm not trying to split hairs
                                         in your last hours but I have to tell you,
                         for most of us, March to the Scaffold is tricky and
                                         we'll need a pick-me-up
                         with Stuart and Audrey
                                                            bringing Marion from Stevenage.

Her sense of the humorous and indeed ludicrous in human behaviour and relationships, together with her willingness to follow Corporal Jones into the realms of fantasy, make these poems very entertaining to read – it isn't so often that "serious", thought-provoking, moving poems are also downright funny. But the humour never morphs into cruelty or condescension; she has great sympathy for her cast of often oddball characters. The end of Bernard's wife's one-sided conversation with him is tender, if still obsessed with funeral catering:

Your hands were always fresh and cool,
                                                rather like ham, Bernard, rather like
                                                            a nice tinned ham.

In "A seedy narrative or moments of lyrical stillness?" the question mark makes it clear that what could be read as a quick, meaningless sexual encounter might also be seen as something more tender and significant. And in "Syzygy", the storm phenomenon where sun, moon and earth align with devastating consequences becomes a striking image for a couple whose marriage seems not to have been as close as it might, before they were whirled into the air:

When the storm spins them tight like a bobbin, their mouths spring open
in a double O and I am almost sure I hear a gasp at right angles to the rain.

It skids down the roof as Mr Jarvis follows Mrs Jarvis along the gutter,
their faces drained of colour, her all-weather mac blown out in a parade.

He wears tan driving gloves and puts one hand on his wife’s left arm.
She holds his finger in one of her mittens, the one with a lime green run.

With some shyness, they peep just inside the second floor of our house.

The unity they finally achieve is genuinely moving:

Mr Jarvis nods, looks at his wife, then over her shoulder at the clouds that

line the unexpected sky and, at a distance, I see surprise in their eyes.
They laugh at the same time as their arms struggle, then join in a circle,

their shoulders suddenly sure how to bend towards each other, to be together,
at once aligned, even if this is not really, quite the end.

Unsurprisingly in such a poet, she is very aware of tastes, colours, textures, smells, "the silver inside rosemary needles" ("I must lie down where all ladders start") and the "green mist of tea that shapes/the air at Lock Cha" ("You are here"). There are poems here that take a keen delight in the sensual pleasure of food, but they are not "foodie" poems, because behind the food we sense always the relationships it implies and for which it so often becomes a metaphor, as in "I know I've gone too far when I think of papardelle with broccoli":

It doesn't matter and would not matter to you that you didn't
               like this dish, but even as I warm

your favourite bowl, I smile at my final stab, add purple sprouting
               broccoli, diagonally cut.

You might like the colours, the way the steam holds the flavour
               of Alpine milk and the bitter

black pepper that falls in so many places like sand or gravel or ash.


As you can see, one of the many things by which this poet does not feel limited is conventional layout. Some poems are completely left-hand justified; many are not, and spread themselves exuberantly over the whole space available on the page. If I thought this needed any excuse, I would suggest that it can be a good way of controlling pace, goes with the headlong, tumbling sentences she often likes to use (and which are such a change from the tidy, clipped lyricism of many collections) and just generally adds a sense of freedom to the whole concern. But actually it annoys me that anyone feels there has to be an excuse for unusual lineation: why is left-hand justification the default for which there needs to be no reason other than the convenience of editors and printers anyway?

I have known Rosie Shepperd's work for some time, and this collection excites me not just because of what's in it – a skilled, urbane, humorous, totally individual voice that simply doesn't sound like any other – but for what is not. I was flicking through looking for poems I'd liked and remembered, just as good as those that made the collection, and they weren't there, which means not just that this poet had strength in depth to choose from, but that she has the nucleus of another collection. I do hope it comes soon, and that many will realise, as Seren had the wit to do, what an unusual, energetic, sparkling voice this is. Any publisher who failed to see the potential of this collection should now be quietly kicking himself.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


This little pamphlet is an assemblage of 15 short poems, plus essays and images from and about silent film. Crowther was intrigued by an art form deprived of speech, that had to rely on other means of expression like body language and captions, and also in exploring parallels and connections between this form and her own.

The poems are, then, meant to be read in conjunction with the images, essays and notes at the back rather than to stand alone. Actually some of them do work perfectly well on their own, notably "Jehanne d'Arc and the Angels of Battle" and "The Inflammatory Properties of Celluloid", which doesn't really need its explanatory note at the back of the book. It's also a good example of Crowther's tight, economical way of making words work hard:

Yes, film's made of light

and the director uses stars to silence race slurs
in intertitles.

If you should come across old film, a star on the edge
warns you that it burns.

The relationship between this poem and the image on the facing page has to do with the polarity of light and dark, positive and negative. But I'm not entirely sure it is a relationship, in that they both, in their own way, illustrate that theme but don't, as far as I can see, illustrate anything about each other; I don't feel I understand the poem better for seeing the image or vice versa. Sometimes that does happen, as when the shadow-show in "Shamakky Joe", innocuous in itself, is lent added menace by the image of a still from "The Cat and the Canary" next to it. But not every poem has an accompanying image, nor needs one, and I'm not entirely happy about the few times where the relationship between poem and image is spelled out in the explanatory notes. In "Song of the Stretching Tree" it simply doesn't need to be; it's clear enough from the poem what is going on.

I did sometimes feel the images, in particular, would have meant more to me if I knew even half as much about silent film as Crowther clearly does (rather than never, as far as I recall, having seen one). The images are interesting (and in the case of the stills often memorably sinister), but I found myself reacting more to the poems. One or two do feel slight (the one about Germaine Dulac didn't really work for me, though the Buster Keaton "silent sonnet" is best seen as a light-hearted quip), but in most, the odd power and menace of silence as a medium comes over memorably:

While I don't know what device will trigger
me, or why,

while I don't know
why one device rather than another will make me

yet while I know, words are triggered by shades
and why not gods

wanting to be triggered into worlds by these
devices of word and human.

("Homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer")

The two essays at the start of the pamphlet, one by Crowther, one by Kevin Jackson, have some fascinating things to say, particularly about the relationships between film and poetry. But it's only fair to warn the reader of a practical difficulty here. I can see why, in a work about an art form that was not only silent but monochrome, this pamphlet is also black and white, sometimes black text on white and sometimes white on black. It looks very well, as a piece of design. But white text on black is actually a swine to read, especially in a small font, for anyone without 20/20 eyesight – it blurs and swims on the page. I could not read the first essay (white on black) without a strong lamp and a magnifying glass, and even then not all in one go, and I had the same problem with the notes at the back.

That is a pity, because in every other way this unusual project is accessible and readable. In fairness it may not matter to the large number of people with better eyesight than mine. And it's beautifully produced, as have been all the Hercules books I have seen.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
06 June 2015 @ 04:20 pm
Here's a thing. Poetry expresses ideas and feelings through words; that's how it works. It tries to do so as memorably, as unexpectedly, as possible. So how do you write a poem about being unable to do that – how do you assume the voice of someone who is so overcome with emotion as to be, almost, "struck dumb", while still managing to express in the poem what the voice you are using cannot do?

Well, it's possible and I have linked to the proof of it below, but it means making words work very hard indeed. The voice needs to say as little as possible, and for the most part as simply as possible, if it is to convince, because its owner isn't in a state to construct fancy phrases. But what it says must somehow be loaded with what it does not say; both words and the spaces between them must resonate.

Shetland Arts has a noble project called Bards in the Bog, whereby poems are put up in public toilets to attract the world's most truly captive audience. In 2010 a rather special batch went up. This was the year of "hamefarin", during which emigrants and the descendants of emigrants were encouraged to return and visit the islands they or their ancestors came from. Like Ireland and mainland Scotland, Shetland saw a great deal of emigration in the 19th century especially, and many emigrants, with the aid of assisted passages, went a very long way, to Australia, Canada and New Zealand among other destinations. And of course, since assisted passages only went one way, very few ever managed to return to see again the friends and relatives they had left behind.

All the Bards in the Bog poems for that period had to do with emigration or return. In "Come Ben Trow" by Mary Blance, we hear the voice of a person who has just opened the door and seen someone totally unexpected; someone they may never have thought to see again. In fact their first words are a stunned exclamation – "Na, my mercy".

We know this person is either a relative or a very close friend, because the householder uses the form of address "dee", which is the equivalent of French tu or German du; it is a familiar form only used to someone close. But the query "Dis is no dee, is it?" suggests uncertainty, either because the visit was so unlikely or because the visitor has been gone long enough for their features to have become unfamiliar – perhaps both. If you're only going to be able to use few words, the more meanings they can hold the better. All the host can manage at that moment is a conventional phrase of welcome: "We ir da blyde du’s come." – "we're happy to see you" – which resonates because we know that for once, it is not being used as a polite cliché; every word is meant.

From now on, the host sets in motion a strategy, which may or may not be conscious: this visit which may never be repeated must be prolonged by all possible means and to that end the visitor must be lured with every comfort, discouraged from rejoining the world outside. The title means, more or less, "come right in", not just through the door but into the inner room, where the fire is. The coat must be removed (one wonders how easily it will be found again); the visitor must come to the fire, be protected from the cold, ensconced in the best chair. The phrase "Dis is da comfy chair" is another that says an awful lot more than appears on the surface. In the first place, this person, who was once either a member of the household or very close to it, is now an honoured guest, rare enough to get offered the best seat, rather than someone who drops in and sits where they can find space. Secondly, if he/she has to be told which is the comfy chair, it is a long time since they have been there, maybe even long enough for furniture to have been replaced. Indeed the host's first demand is for "news" (and if we hadn't guessed already, we know now that this is all happening long before Skype was invented). These people have lost touch with each other and have to get back up to date. The strategy, however, continues: now the visitor must be offered the hospitality of food and drink. Then with the guest temporarily secured as far as may be, the feelings of the host finally find voice, albeit in a very limited way, still semi-stunned by what he/she had thought would never happen again:

Ta see dee –
Ta hae dee here aside wis.

The tone makes it clear that for the host, this is little short of a miracle. Throughout this one-sided conversation, in fact, the tone is a mixture of affection and anxious deference; this person who was once so close has been gone long enough to have become something of a stranger, hence the bustling hospitality. The voice of the poem actually says very little, and all in short, conventional phrases. Yet these convey the anxiety to please, the hunger to keep the guest there, the uncertainty as to what footing they are now on, above all the stunned surprise at the visit ever having been achieved. There is power behind the words, precisely because nobody is trying to explain the enormous back-story; the reader must, and can, deduce that from the little that is actually said.

Bards in the Bog lives here.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

This is a YA book (Barrington Stoke Teen) with a difference: this series, which has attracted some fine writers, including Michael Morpurgo and Fisher herself in the past, was designed specifically for teenage readers who have difficulties like dyslexia but who want to be reading something suited to their age, not pitched way below it. There are some physical differences, like specially chosen fonts and thick paper to stop text or illustration showing through and confusing the eye. The editing process has been developed with speech and language experts, but if it involves much interference with the writer's normal process, this is not obvious in the product. It is very pacy, but then Fisher's dystopian fantasies, of which this is one, seldom hang about doing nothing. Its characters develop through action rather than being explained to us; that too is normal for her, as is the fact that she does not go in for lengthy exposition but plunges straight into the story at the point where something exciting is about to happen. Fisher's keen sense of place is there as usual in the icebound city and the deserted tunnels of the Underground:

She looked around at walls that had once been white. Huge adverts hung in ragged strips. They showed a woman's smiling face, a sleek black car, scraps of what looked like a beach in the sun. Things people had worked and longed for. Things that didn't exist any more. Caz looked along to where the tunnel curved out of sight, and thought of all that world, all those people, gone and forgotten. A world that could never be rebuilt.

The one point where I did wonder if she would normally have written otherwise was when the story moves beyond the frozen city and there is a change in the natural world which must have become obvious to the young protagonists more gradually than it does here. I did think that in a series like Chronoptika, for instance, she would have spent more time and physical description on this, and probably to great effect – even as it is, the moment of the swans is stunning. In fact the ending comes quite quickly and feels provisional, not in a bad sense but in the sense that it feels like a natural place to stop for a while, rather than a permanent ending – like the first instalment of something longer. We leave Will and Caz "staring out at their future", and though for the moment they do seem to have found refuge, the more we think about it, the more we can see that there may be quite other problems ahead. I am sure this is deliberate, and that the story will be continued by its author, but it may also have the beneficial effect of leaving the young readers in a mood to do that for themselves, because we now know enough about Will and Caz to mind what happens to them, yet there are still questions we'd very much like the answers to.

I want to avoid spoilers, with such a book as this above all, so will only say that it strikes me as admirably suited to its intended purpose. Its format is a journey, and one with such attendant dangers and surprises that I can't imagine it being easily put down, especially since there is, as usual with Fisher, not only a male protagonist but a particularly stroppy, resourceful female one as well, who is actually the POV chracter. Its concerns, too, are essentially adult: there is grief, injustice, the sudden assumption of responsibility, the facing down of old fears, some completely non-gratuitous violence, and if there's very little hint of sex, that is because everyone is far too busy staying alive. If you have a young relative or friend who is a reluctant or easily discouraged reader, this book, and indeed this whole Barrington Stoke series, might be just what they need.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Steve Ely's previous collection, Oswald's Book of Hours, which I reviewed here, was by some way the most memorable and unusual collection I read in 2013. It felt like quite a short, tight collection, not in the sense of inhibited but economical, every word working like mad. Englaland is much longer, looser and baggier, more sprawling, but there is a good reason for that; it is trying to portray a whole culture, and over a period of a millennium and more. The back cover suggests this culture is that of "the English" but that doesn't seem to me to be quite so: it is pretty specifically Northern. And as in Oswald's Book of Hours, the past continually collides with the present, is in the present – the epigraph to the collection's first section is William Faulkner's "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

There are seven sections, and in the first, he cuts cinematically between stragglers from the 10th-century battle of Brunanburh, fleeing and pursuing each other, and twentieth-century lads in the same landscape, trespassing, bird-nesting, looking for a fight. Those seeking refuge in the stream, aware of "waterline, rat tunnels, hand-holds for drowners" could be from either time, and the victors of Brunanburh who "ride garlanded in ears" are reminiscent, purposely no doubt, of the Falklands War soldier from Oswald's Book of Hours who did the same.

Indeed, though I said the book was looser and more expansive than its predecessor, it is full of linking chains of images, words, places – the landscapes of the Ryknild ridge and Frickley Park, which first appear here, will crop up in other sections, and the question in the first section "Whose is this land?" is the theme of the third section, "Common", which is all about ownership, particularly of land (trespass and poaching figure throughout the book, but most here). In the fifth section, "The Harrowing of the North", past and present are again linked indissolubly by one of these chains. Here, the effect on the north (and elsewhere, but the "elsewhere" isn't exactly stressed) of the miners' strikes and pit closures of the 1980s is compared with the punitive action waged in the north of England in 1069 by William of Normandy (generally known in this book as William the Bastard, which is pleasantly familiar to one used to his Welsh name of Gwilym Bastert). The narrator of "Ballad of the Scabs" mocks the UDM for their optimistic belief that co-operating with the government would save their pits:

And Foulstone, Butcher, Taylor,
how's your job for life?

The next poem, "1069", shows William conquering by dividing his enemies: "he bought off Osbjorn and bribed Malcolm of Scots". This poem ends with the words of the Domesday Book recording the names of villages laid waste in this conflict: "Warter, wasta, Wetwang, wasta, Wichum, wasta…" And the next poem, which returns to the present to show a dying, demoralised ex-pit village, is titled "Wasta"... There could scarcely be a simpler or more effective way to link past and present, to assert, as the earl of Newcastle once said without result to his unsatisfactory pupil the young Charles I, "what you read, I would have it history that so you might compare the dead with the living; for the same humours is now as was then, there is no alteration but in names." Nor does it end here: poem titles like "Search and Destroy", a litany of the names of dead pits, and the image, (when a disused pit is demolished in "A sin and a shame") of a crew dynamiting "the twin towers/of the winding gear" leave no way to see the proceedings except in terms of war.

There is considerable variety of form in this collection. Quite apart from the fact that one section is a short play and another an extended narrative in alliterative verse, there are ballads, prose-poems and the same creative use of white space and shaping familiar from his earlier collection. The alliterative piece, "Big Billy", in fact puzzles me slightly, because I'm not sure what role it plays in the pattern. Everywhere else in the book, the battles are about something: access to land, identity, holding on to what one has. Billy, a prizefighter, seems to fight for no better cause than to prove who's the best at punching and gouging (there is money involved but that clearly is not why it is happening). My best guess is that Billy represents fighting spirit in its purest form, but if he is being seen as a hero, which I think he is, then his name is a conundrum, because Norman William is no hero in the rest of this book. I suppose it could be mere coincidence, but it is a measure of the craft of this collection that I find it hard to credit that anything here is done for no reason. Though I'm unsure what this section is trying to do, what works brilliantly in it is the exuberance of the language, particularly for flyting purposes. I hadn't realised what a great medium alliterative verse can be for insulting people: "valourless-vagrant, vile vardo-vagabond".

The least poetically successful section seemed to me to be the sixth, "Mongrel Blood Imperium" which considers the various cultures and ethnicities that inhabit the landscape. I don't know if it's an overwhelming desire to convince, but at times in this section (eg "Acts of Union") the verbal music seemed to go missing, to be replaced by flatter, prosier statements than he normally deals in. I think something similar happens when he assumes Peter Mandelson's voice in "Scum of the Earth", the playlet. Not to be ungrateful, because any play in which Mandelson and Wellington fight each other and both get killed is an enchanting thought, but Mandelson's voice would be funnier and more biting satire if he were saying things he might actually say, as Burns makes "Holy Willie" do, rather than things an opponent might put unconvincingly into his mouth.

The last section, "The Song of the Yellowhammer", harks back to Brunanburh and its victor Athelstan, described by his contemporary the poet Egil as a "golden-haired Aetheling". This long, mesmerising poem is literally flooded with the colour yellow – corn, cheese, gold, ragwort, dandelions, gorse, sand, pears, a yellow moon:

The white-tailed eagle's
sunlit eye
tracks Humber's gullet
along Ouse, Don and Ea
to the slow blonde stones
and saffron clays of Hampole.
An orchard
of yellow pears.
Aureate moon, soft light of xanthic tallow.

It's a landscape with a golden haze on it. There seems to be a tentative hope such as George Mackay Brown sometimes expressed, that landscape will survive what people do to it and that they may eventually return to the land with a keener appreciation of it.

For most of this collection, and there's a lot of it, 200 pages no less, one is in the presence of the same linguistic exuberance, intellectual vigour and keen sense of living history as in Oswald's Book of Hours, and that's reason enough to buy any book. It's also very ambitious, far more so than most of the neat, controlled 64 or 72-pagers you'll read this year. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the title: what's that about, then? On one level, "Englaland" obviously carries an echo of "la la land". But modern words, place-names especially, tend to be worn-down versions of older ones, and just as Bolton, in this book, is occasionally Bodelton, depending on who is speaking and when, so this was, and still is, Angle-land, and there's your third syllable. The past is not past: it is in the present and intrinsic to it; it is how the present came to be.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

This is a debut collection, uneven but with plenty of vim and interest in its language and concerns. The mid-section is the one most obviously themed, concerning a violent and abusive relationship; the other two sections are more disparate, though the third contains several poems either "after" named people or titled for them.

In her best poems, she assembles objects and events with a sure sense of their significance – in "I'm Thinking of my Father" a man haunted by his brother's impending death feeds a fire obsessively:

             and he doesn't care about splinters
or safety, as long as the fire gets higher.

All the stone lions and grave little gnomes
in their cheerful red breeches are waiting
and the lamp that's addicted to heat
flickers on, flickers off, and the lawn sits

in its shadows and dark and its falsehood
and the ending begins with its terrible face

Another impressive poem is "Red Man's Way", its language apparently uncomplicated but working, with its rhythms, perfectly:
             I feel full,
as if one person can't carry this with them

and be unchanged, as if I could speak seagull
and they would come cursing, articulate,

their wings the colour of sky.


The whole of the second section is powerful, finding some telling images for the relationship - "The World's Smallest Man", in which the speaker imagines the "you" figure smaller and smaller, until the poem ends in a finely achieved ambiguity:

till you are less than a grain of salt
so small, you are living on my skin.
And once I breathe, I breathe you in.

And in "Body, Remember" she takes the Cavafy poem where he urges his body to recall both the pleasures it has known and all those it hasn't, but she uses it inventively by having her speaker, instead, resolve to remember the feel of danger.

I said it was uneven and there are certainly individual poems that fall below par, notably "Tuesday at Wetherspoons", where apparently "all the men have comb-overs,/bellies like cakes just baked" – what, all? That's just lazy stereotyping. But what worries me a little more is a rhetorical technique, which thanks to contact with some recent A-level students, I now know is called anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of every sentence or new proposition. For instance, in "When I Was A Thing With Feathers" the operative word, which defines all the syntax, is "when":

when feathers pierced my skin growing from within,
when I tried to let my head fall to my hands and found
only wings, when I was able to fly

In other poems, words like "and", "this", "by", or phrases like "some people", fulfil the same semantic function. Now there's nothing wrong with this in any individual instance, but by my count about a third of the poems use this device, and then it starts looking less like a rhetorical device and more like a method of composition. Again, we all have ways of coming by a poem, and this one can be as good as any, but when used too often it can start to look like an exercise. It's awfully easy for poets to develop tics, to get into habits of automatically using the same ways of working, and then they need to steer clear of the comfort zone for a while. I don't think any of the poems I most admired in the collection used this technique, but that might be partly because after the third or fourth time it cropped up, it was feeling predictable.

But the main impression the collection left with me was of language used with considerable skill and power, and often also surprise. Those who think the "myth-kitty" outmoded and unusable might care to reflect on how it is renewed in "Translation":

Don't we all have a little Echo in us, our voices stolen,
only able to repeat what has already been said:
you made me do it, he says, and we call back do it, do it.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Why am I reviewing a novel from 2013? Maybe because it's a "genre" novel (historical detective) and I'm tired of people pigeonholing genre novels and not expecting them to raise the sort of questions you'd expect in a litfic novel, when in fact they crop up just as regularly.

For those who aren't already fans, Wishart's detective hero is an upper-class Roman layabout called Marcus Corvinus with not much time for his own class, and a talent for furkling about finding out the truth of things others want to hide. He also happens to talk like the Roman equivalent of a Raymond Chandler hero. He and his slightly anarchic household are the source of a lot of incidental humour in the books.

This one is set in the small town of Bovillae, where the local senate has asked Corvinus to look into the recent murder of the censor-elect, Caesius, an upstanding citizen with a squeaky-clean reputation who was found with his head beaten in near the back door of the local brothel (where the madame cheerfully admits he was a regular customer). The town dignitaries are fearfully embarrassed about this, but as Corvinus soon discovers, they have worse things to be embarrassed about. The town lawyer (Novius, whom we've met in a previous book) has a long and shady past: civic dignitaries Manlius and Canidius are up to their ears in a financial scam, even the local antique dealer does a good line in fakes and almost nobody is telling the truth about where they were, or with whom, on a certain evening…. Solid citizens often have things to hide.

But what of the victim: was he as solid as he seemed? Opinion is divided. Those who knew him as a politician and businessman give him a good name for probity. But his closest relatives, his brother and nephew, do not hide their contempt for him (though they do hide the reason). Granted, the brother is the town drunk and the nephew a ne'er-do-well. But might they, for once, be telling more truth than the solid citizens? And why does Anthus, the loyal major-domo who is never done singing his late master's praises, utter the rather equivocal encomium "He was a decent man, at heart"?

This line is in fact key – as is one from another minor character: "He wasn't a bad man, he did his best for the town". Previous Corvinus books, notably Food for the Fishes, have stressed the difference between what was legal in Rome, and what was socially acceptable. Divorce, for instance, was quite legal, as was killing a slave for no good reason, but neither would do you much good either socially or professionally. The same disconnect comes up here, but this time in relation to a different activity. Another thing I get tired of is the assumption that historical novels are somehow turned away from our own time, indifferent to "contemporary" problems which are the preserve of litfic. The secret Caesius was keeping could hardly be more relevant or "contemporary".

And the odd thing is that at a couple of points, I nearly guessed it; there are clues left, if you listen to them. But I persuaded myself it couldn't be so, because I couldn't equate it with the facts and opinions I was hearing. Now the reason it doesn’t square with certain alleged facts is simple: people are lying through their teeth (as again I might have guessed if I'd been a bit more alert). But the opinions are another matter. In the end, the book asks you to compartmentalise to a degree, to accept that a man might do X and still be, in other respects – even "at heart" – a decent man, not a total fraud whose good side was entirely fake. This may be harder for us to do than even for the Romans – I can't see anyone nowadays daring to make the remark that Anthus made. But it makes for a fascinating, thought-provoking read.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
08 May 2015 @ 09:29 am
This is a VERY old poem; I wrote it in the 80s and it was in my then Selected, but old times come around and around and I just had a yen to post it here. I was a civil servant when I wrote it, and quite enjoyed the challenge of writing a poem in officialese.

OFFICIAL BRIEFING FOR MINISTERS ON THE VIOLENCE IN THE CAPITAL

As Ministers will be aware already,
the recent spring festival was marred
when a brief but violent incident occurred
in the church. The full facts are not easy
to establish, because accounts vary,

but it seems that on the day in question
hard-working persons with a licence to trade
on church premises, duly granted
by the civic authorities, were upon
their lawful business, when a young man

who had some objection to their presence
began vandalising their property
(mainly currency and pigeons), eventually
driving them out with some violence,
(a whip was rumoured to be in evidence).

The man is a disaffected itinerant
whose motives are not entirely clear;
he is said to have called his victims either
"thieves", or, by another account,
"businessmen". In either event,

for the Minister's interview our advice
is to focus on the clear contempt
for law and order, the arrogant attempt
to impose the whims of minorities
and the interference with private enterprise,

which might very likely have put
jobs at risk. A police investigation
should soon result in charges against the man,
who, though a minor youth cult, is not
in himself a serious threat, it is thought.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
07 May 2015 @ 08:28 am
Just a personal thought. A poem, to my mind, is or should be an organic whole. That being so, it doesn't actually exist on the lyric heights for the whole of its length; it has peaks and troughs. Every line does not coruscate at you, jumping up and down shouting "notice me!" There are quiet, unremarkable lines, which swell up like waves under the surface of the sea until they foam over into something brilliant. These are lines which can easily be rubbished by a careless reviewer, who will point out the "boring" or "predictable" language, but in fact they are paving the way for what comes next. Try for yourself quoting brilliant, memorable single lines from a poem. Do they work outside their context? Would you not often feel impelled to quote the few lines before, to show where they emerged from, what they convey: why, in short, they are so brilliant and memorable?
Now there's a type of poem much written and admired, in fact often known informally as a "competition poem", which does try to make every line a peak. It isn't an organic whole; it is a series of flashy, notice-me lines which don't obviously grow from the poem. I don't care for these poems, finding them shouty and ultimately unmemorable because they are trying too hard to be unforgettable. But there's another thing, connected with the fact that these lines don't seem to grow naturally from the poem. They don't seem to come from anywhere, and paradoxically when a line doesn't come from anywhere, it COULD actually come from anywhere, including where it shouldn't. In fact, when marking student work, this kind of poem rings alarm bells. There might be all sorts of reasons for derivative work, but I'll put forward the notion that thinking in terms of fine phrases, knockout lines, moments rather than whole poems, might be one of them.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
25 April 2015 @ 02:28 pm
Have just read a review of a collection by a new young poet, which encapsulates everything I think is wrong with reviewing at the moment. Humourless, pious, under the illusion that certain objects or subjects are "unpoetic" (can you tell me why a bottle of Fanta ought "rightly" not to be in a poem?). When it isn't being completely opaque - what does " The images and language do not smear together in a smooth arc at the steady pace of a walk" even mean? - it is castigating the author for writing the poem she wanted to write, rather than the one the reviewer thinks she should have wanted to write, a cardinal fault in any review:

"She is inconsistent in her sensitivity to the connotations of the objects she allows to feature in her poems; twice she makes mention of Pirates of the Caribbean in a collection which is thirsty for a considered comment on piracy, a pertinent and timely topic."

Considering that this review elsewhere criticises the poet for "confusing flippancy with humour" (well, I'd say flippancy was a type of humour, but there...) this is the most stuffy lack of ANY kind of humour that can well be imagined. It takes me back to when a magazine editor told me he didn't think snooker suitable subject-matter for a poem. But that was decades ago; I thought we'd got past that sort of stuffy snobbery. It's also ironic that the critic has been accusing the poet of being preachy (possibly with reason, possibly not; one can't tell because the assertion is not backed up with quotes, despite the fact that this is an online review that doesn't need a word limit) and then comes up with this insufferably preachy comment about the collection being "thirsty for a considered comment on piracy".

But it is when we get on to our critic's personal dislike of beetroot sandwiches that he/she (the name is ambiguous) goes completely OTT: "There are other graceless flashes. At points she fills your mental palate with claggy images of her quite revolting-sounding lunches; her ‘courgette pie’, the beetroot and ‘dense’ bread of her sandwiches. The delicate, interesting play of olfactory stimulation that is a strength of this collection elsewhere is clouded and blotted out by these dreadful evocations.".

Does our critic not see how completely subjective this is, and how little it belongs in a review of a poetry collection?

Just to make things clear, I have met neither poet nor critic, have no axe to grind and haven't read the collection. The review is not, incidentally, wholly hostile; at the end it offers praise, but in a way so patronising to the reader of the review as to be off-putting: "I must coolly but seriously insist that you read all three of these last mentioned poems during which the whole piece fuses together yet remains definitively divided and neatly, sensitively, wisely, craft-fully concluded. And in order to read them and understand their true pedigree and meaning I must insist that you also read the full collection beforehand." (Must you, indeed? I think I'll be the judge of that.) No lines are quoted in full; indeed hardly a phrase of the poet's is quoted at all, another cardinal fault, so we have no means of knowing whether the critic's taste is any guide for ours and are simply asked - no -ordered - to take it on trust in this sentence that sounds as if it came from a brash sixth-former new to the game. Ach y fi....
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

I leave the hospital in full autumn – fog
and, when you can find it
a yellow blaze that remembers love for
            you

It may sound odd, after quoting lines like those, to say; when you first read this, don't read it as if it were a poem. But though the language and cadences are clearly those of poetry, the narrative structure is that of a noir crime novel. The I in those lines is Ines, short for Inessential, a poet whose political and anti-religious views have attracted the attention both of a state secret agent and a bunch of religious fanatics, and who is recovering after having been shot. Whodunnit is a question that occupies both Ines and the policeman who becomes her friend/admirer, Cop (short for Copernicus) Smith. There are several possible suspects, including Charl (Charlatan), a media mogul, Orphée, an older poet/songwriter who resents her for being the anti-establishment figure he was once thought to be, and CS (Current Sweetheart), a younger, female poet who resents her for being alive and in the way of her own success:

She does
have to die first. 'Cause I'm
the younger poet.

There's also a murder which has already taken place and been recorded on a video: the victim being a young woman called Harvard Washington but known as Harry, and the murderer a man who is for a long time called Hooded, until he becomes Verball.

It should be clear by now, firstly, that there's a lot of grim, wry humour about this book (her coinage for the internet, The Garble, is priceless), secondly, that it has a lot to do with the place of poetry in contemporary society (bear in mind, as you read, that it was written at the time of Hurricane Katrina, which explains some of its apocalyptic mood) and thirdly, that it is very unlike most books of poetry. Indeed if you don't normally like or read poetry, it might be just the book to start with, though if you do already read poetry, it should come as a welcome (or at the very least, bracing) change from what you normally read.

I first came across it when Notley read some of these poems at the STAnza poetry festival. She gave far the most dramatic, energetic reading I'd ever heard. I haven't been able to find any example online of her reading from this book, and the readings I have found, like this one from Disobedience, though they convey some of her energy and humour, don't quite have the force I felt from her stage presence, which was electrifying. I wasn't sure afterwards how much of the effect was down to her and how much to the work itself. I can say now, having read it, that Negativity's Kiss is indeed a powerful piece of writing that works on the printed page, though if you ever get the chance to hear her read from it, I strongly urge you not to miss it. The exchange between "every religion" and Ines had, when she read it, a stunning effect on its audience, but is still memorable here:

you must sign up with an acknowledged

detailed dogmatic form of superstition
rites in a language ancient or
glossolalian, or one of our fanatics may
break free of our benign moral constraints
and shoot you. We are aware that you have
            been shot once before
we would be sorry if you got shot again.

I Ines say: go to hell […]

may your temples of cosmic allegations collapse
may your myths be forgotten
may your prophets and saints and patriarchs
finally die into the unmemorized night
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Normally one of my criteria for reviewing something on this blog is that it might need a bit of publicity, which Glück clearly does not. But I'm making an exception for this, not just because Glück is one of my favourite living poets but because none of the reviews I've seen of this seem to mention what, to me, is quite a major aspect of it.

There are two distinct personae in it, both of whom use the "I" voice. Not all the poems are in these two voices, in particular the prose poems tend not to be, but many are. The first voice is female, a writer; her parents are dead and she has, or had, a younger sister who may also be dead. This "I" voice, or one very like it, has appeared in Glück's work before. The second voice is male, and has a back-story involving the death of his parents in a car accident when he was a young child. He is a painter and has an older brother. For most of the book, it is always clear which persona we are listening to, but the last two poems in the "I" voice, "The Story of a Day" and "A Summer Garden" could, it seems to me, be in either voice, and in the final prose poem, "The Couple in the Park", it is possible that they both appear - it begins "A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone".

It's entirely possible that both these constructs are different facets of one personality; also that they aren't. There are motifs that run through both narratives – a phone ringing, a head-resting-on-hands gesture, a sycamore tree. There is also, in the poem "Afterword", a handy reminder of the role of the word "I" in a poem:

One speaks a word: I.
Out of this stream
the great forms-

I took a deep breath. And it came to me
the person who drew that breath
was not the person in my story, his childish hand
confidently wielding the crayon-

Had I been that person?


One of the best things about this collection is the way the constant persona shifts force the reader to question the word "I" whenever it appears.

In many ways, this is one of her most elusive collections and I'm not at all sure I have a handle on it yet. Though it has all her trademark melancholy, where some of her best-known collections, like The Wild Iris and Averno, have centred on the fear of personal extinction, this seems to me to be more concerned with the loss of loved persons and, perhaps, with the essential isolation of being human. It's also often interested in the difficulty of expressing any of this in art, the art of words included, and often sounds a note of frustration.

Yet of course, being Glück, it succeeds, over and over, in encapsulating a world of loss, nostalgia, regret into a few memorable lines – as in "The Sword in the Stone":

I walked awhile, staring into the windows of the galleries-
my friends had become famous.


or the writer-persona's conversation with her dead mother in "Visitors from Abroad":

My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of  your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister —you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

3

The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
boyrunning

Clocks. Rivers. Skylights. Arches and arcs. Songs. The sea. Henry's poetry is becoming not just more and more musical but more fugue-like, forever picking up themes and motifs from earlier work that deepen and grow more haunting each time he does so. His first collection, decades back, was called Time Pieces, and ever since, the passing of time has sounded in his work; the stone his younger ghost-self kicks through a Sixties housing estate in this book is "four million today"; has been there since the estate was a primeval swamp. He is "kicking a time piece".

The names of former neighbours inhabit this long poem as the names of women inhabited his spellbinding long poem "Penllain" from The Brittle Sea and earlier poems, notably in The Milk Thief. To me, at least, the name-listing in "Kicking the Stone" does not have quite the same resonance as that; I think because these are neighbours and friends, while Catrin Sands, Brown Helen and the rest were family (anyone biographically minded who wants to know more about them may care to look at the interview Henry gave here). In fact the final section of "Kicking the Stone" rises quite suddenly to a new height of impassioned involvement:

O scuff of sunny dust,
preserve this woman's song
only the stone and I can hear
up the unfinished road.

Preserve this woman's song
that finds the sea in a stone
as we pass by, up the road,
up the unfinished song.

And I think this heightened intensity can only be because the "musical house" where this happens, where a soprano is rehearsing, has to be Henry's own childhood home (his mother was a professional singer).

Brown Helen and the others do in fact recur by name in two poems: "Wardrobe Time" and "Brown Helen on Harbour Beach", and both have not just a nostalgic but a slightly elegiac tone, as if he might be saying goodbye to them. I sort of hope not, because they have become familiar and loved ghosts to the reader as well as the poet, but work does move on. Family life has always been important in his poems, but in this collection the protagonist is distanced from his family; in the collection's first poem, "Usk", the eponymous river is both the distance and the link between the speaker, "upstream", and the "you" he addresses, in the "mess of streets" where the river turns to sludge (ie, Newport). And the "boys" whose childhood has featured in earlier collections are distanced not only in space but by time, the adulthood which brings independence and loosens parental ties.  In "Late Kick-Off"  the ghost-boys return in fancy:

They are coming back to me
taller than I imagined
and too old to warm inside my fleece.
It has been too long.
They must be cold by now.
I'll warm up the engine.

Those three short sentences at the end: a reminder that Henry has always been skilled at using the unromantic tools of sentence structure to create pace, tension, emotion.  He must also be one of the most skilled and unobtrusive rhymers currently working; his natural musicality lends itself to form, but it's a different and more verbal skill that makes the rhyme in "Blackrock: the Bedsit Years" read so unforced:

The lost years owned a rent-book
and sometimes fell behind.
Damp, second-hand,
they clung to what they took,
sang between cracked walls,
had plans, murdered mice,
came and went, imprecise
in their choice of doorbells.

"Davy Blackrock", a new character in his work, is a sort of modern avatar of the 18th-century harpist and composer Dafydd Owen, better known as Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), who is remembered today for the tune that bears his name. There is a fair amount of humour in Davy, but also much darkness. The final poem of both this section and the collection is neither up- nor downbeat; it expresses inevitability, the way our past shapes us and the necessity of living with that:

However badly we played our love,
slipped out of key, this song.

It will not forget us, haunts us now,
plays us into the dusk, this song.

It seems appropriate, in such a music-haunted, crafted collection, that this final poem is called "Song" and is a ghazal. But the poem that strikes me as most like a keynote for this collection would probably be "Under the River", both for its musicality, the way it uses refrain and the alternating short and long sentences to drive its rhythms, and for the way he has always had of seeing inside and beyond things:

Under the river a deeper river runs.
It is simply a case of pressing your ear
your heart to the bank, about here,
then of listening to its quieter turns

to the voices of loved ones
you thought would never rise again,
holding you now, with an old refrain.
Under the river a deeper river runs.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
melville

Elizabeth Melville (c1578-1640) was the earliest female Scottish poet to have her work appear in print. It is powerful, accomplished and shows great technical mastery. Yet the Oxford and Penguin Books of Scottish Verse ignore it; only in recent anthologies of women's verse has it appeared. Why so long a wait? A long-standing tendency for academics to underrate women's poetry is certainly part of it; so, perhaps, may be the fact that much of her poetry, until lately, was only available in manuscript form and thus less likely to attract the less thorough anthologist. It is also possible that being written in Scots has told against it; even Dunbar and Henryson are not as highly rated in the wider English-speaking world as they should be.

But when Jamie Reid Baxter, editor of this volume, spoke on Melville at St Andrews recently, he suggested another reason: her uncompromising subject matter. Her one theme is religion: she writes as a Presbyterian, conscious of sin, believing she can be saved not by her own merit, nor by any intermediary like a saint or a priest, but only by her direct relationship with God. It follows that when she does not sense his presence in her life, she experiences deep sensations of loss and grief, while the moments when she does have an intermittent sense of his grace are so intense as to be hard for a modern reader to share, unless indeed one reads them as one would a love-poem to a human being. Most religious poets – Herbert, Donne – sometimes sound like love-poets, but female religious poets like the Welsh hymn-writer Ann Griffiths are particularly apt to do so, and Melville certainly does:

thee alone
my onlie one
the first and eik the last. (Meditation on Psalm 42)

One of the most staggering things about Melville is her metrical virtuosity. In her sacred parody of Marlowe's "Come live with me and be my love", she fashions a corona by picking up words from the last line of one verse in the first of the next:

Come live with me and be my love
And all these pleasurs thou shalt prove
That in my word hath warned thee
O loath this life and live with me

This life is but a blast of breath
Nothing so sure as dreadful death
And since the time no man can know
Sett not thy love on things below

For things below will wear away
And beautie brave will soon decay
Look to that life that lasts for ever
And love the love that failes thee never

I never failed thee in thy need….

and she keeps this up for three more pages, never sounding in the least forced. In sonnets to Andrew Melville, she employs the fiendishly difficult rime batelée, where the end-rhyme of one line is picked up internally in the next:

Do not complain to suffer heir a space
A schour of grace unto thy saull sall raine
This world in vaine sall seik to spoill thy peace

She is adept at anagrams, alliterative constructions, writing words to complicated psalm and song tunes. Technically she is the equal of any poet of her time (or of many other times) and the superior of most. But she is not, ever, your dry-as-dust technician. Her meditations on her relationship with God are thought-provoking and by no means always expected or conventional:

Oh qhuat is man
Lord think I than
that thow began
thy great and wonderous works for him alone
thow did not spair
thy angells fair
but punisch'd sair
thair pride and banisch'd them out of thy throne
and put them clein away
out of thy sicht
preferring dust and clay
to angels bricht.


One would think, too, that even readers who do not share her religious beliefs could share both her sense of loneliness in the world and her exultation at the thought of heavenly justice:

Thou tramps proud tirrants down
under thy feit
and plucks from kings thair crown
quhen thou thinks meit
the humble men
exalts thou then
and lifts the lowlie hairt above the sky
The proud at last
thou dois down cast
and heirs the puir opprest quhen they do cry.

Thanks to Baxter's efforts, there is now an inscribed flagstone commemorating her as one of Scotland's great writers in Makars' Court, Edinburgh, with a quotation from her long poem "Ane Godlie Dreame":

"Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore
Defy them all, and feare not to win out".

It has taken too long for Melville's poetry to "win out" from obscurity, but now that we have it in an accessible volume, it's well worth getting to know.