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29 September 2010 @ 04:46 pm
Review of Flatlands by Victor Tapner, Salt Publishing 2010  
Find me in your own time
find me in your own face

- "Thames Idol"


If you're going to set a long cycle of poems, which is what this collection consists of, in the East Anglia of the two thousand years from the late Stone Age to the Roman invasion, then it is clearly important above all that you do it in a way modern readers can relate to: we must indeed be able to find these people and their concerns still present in ourselves, while still seeing them in their context, not ours. Tapner himself says he wants the poems to be able to "stand as metaphors of ourselves expressed through universal themes – things like bereavement, love and infidelity, political oppression and violence" and in this he surely succeeds. Take "Villagers", whose ageing speaker has a touch of rheumatism. The nettle balm which gives relief might come from a bottle nowadays, but the "mutton fingers" and "thick knuckles" that will no longer obey their owner stir a sympathetic and instantly recognisable frustration in us, and the speaker's summing-up of his/her situation

I squat in the sun
outside the hut

by the river path
where I used to run


is too universal not to resonate in any age. Superficially their surroundings, knowledge and experiences differ from ours; in essentials we are alike. The "Arrow Maker" practises an arcane craft, but his pride in it is familiar to any contemporary craftsman; the hunters in "Aurochs" are stalking a prey that we can only ever imagine, but their contained fear and excitement are visceral and unchanging. Sometimes, indeed, they remind us that we still live in the same landscape: in a time when flooding and coastal erosion become more of a possibility each year, the East Anglian "Tidal Dwellers" are not a million miles away:

High tides
salt
the hay pens

slowly
our houses
drown


Being able to create this empathy for his protagonists and intimate sense of their landscape is of course dependent on words, and in this poem he uses one-word lines to unusually good effect, always a difficult thing to do; the one-word lines are mainly verbal, as can be seen above with "salt" and "drown", the other, earlier, is still more menacing:

the sea
sips
our fields.


Here the verb is so gentle as to make the sea's action far more sinister. Tapner is good at delicate verbal effects like this, which do not make a pyrotechnic display but do their job insidiously and unnoticed. Look again at that quote from "Thames Idol":

Find me in your own time
find me in your own face


Do our mind and eye, coming to the end of that second line, not subconsciously expect the word "place", the usual match of "time", until he surprises us with its rhyme-word "face"? And having been surprised, we read the phrase more carefully; if a mirror were handy we might well be glancing into it, looking for some trace of our ancestors.

There are notes to the cycle, at the back where they don't impinge on reading. Indeed it is perfectly possible to understand the poems without ever looking at them, but it is the nature of a cycle like this, if well done, to make one want to know more of its background and I think many readers will derive pleasure from a closer knowledge of the people who have come alive for us in these poems.

Flatlands is available from Salt