Saturday, 29 October 2011
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
At Burscough, Lancashire by Helen Tookey
Lancashire’s Martin Mere was the largest lake in England when it was first drained, to reclaim the land for farming, in 1697.
Out on the ghost lake, what's lost
is everywhere: murmuring in names
on the map, tasted in salt winds
that scour the topsoil, westerlies
that wrenched out oaks and pines, buried now
in choked black ranks, heads towards the east.
Cloudshadows ripple the grasses as the seines
rippled over the mere by night, fishervoices
calling across dark water. Underfoot, the flatlands'
black coffers lie rich with the drowned.
from New Poetries V © Helen Tookey
I’ve been reading Helen Tookey’s work with growing admiration. Her quiet, precise poems have a genuine eeriness – a spooky quality that I've met with nowhere else in recent poetry. I think it comes from the fact that she has interests in both archaeology and psychology, but knows intuitively that they aren't separate – that when we dig up the past it’s our own roots we are looking at; and when we explore the dark corners of our personal psyche, we’re also daring to open up the hidden aspects of our culture and society.
'At Burscough, Lancashire' is a case in point. The poem is about a lake that's no longer there. Helen Tookey uses its absence to evoke the landscape (a strange, nondescript no-man's-land) in vivid, sensuous detail but also with semantic depth, so that the placenames on the map recalling the lost mere merge into the sound of the wind, and the trees which still turn up now as fossilised bog oak and the like become disturbingly evocative of mass human graves. Ruminating on the loss of the mere, she writes, by implication, an elegy for the communities that lived and worked there and have now, like the lake, gone with hardly a trace. She also hints at the other cultural obliterations which have stained past centuries. The 'choked black ranks' recall ethnic cleansing, forced migration, mass starvation. And the simple fact that, over the centuries, many people, fishers and other, must have drowned in the lake and been forgotten. Even money is there, faintly, with the substitution of 'coffers' for the expected 'coffins'.
But it’s all held together by a consciousness which sees in a context of myth. The ‘fisher voices calling/across dark water’ are voices from the other side of the river – Styx or Lethe – that separates the dead from the living. These are the souls of the dead that might call to us in sleep. Could it even be that they are fishing for us? The choice choice of ‘flatlands’ is deft also – and again a neat substitution, because we would expect ‘wetlands’ (indeed, the remnants of Martin Mere are now a bird sanctuary run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust). Not just a neat label for the nondescript alluvial west-Lancashire landscape, it suggests a flat earth that might tilt up one day and show worrying things underneath. For the mathematically aware it also recalls Edwin Abbott’s 1884 Flatland, a brilliant Lewis-Carroll style fantasy which enables even the simplest person to understand the amazing nature of spatial dimensions.
Helen’s poem shows us just how many dimensions an absent lake and a depopulated landscape can have. And she tells us about it in such deceptively gentle and musical tones, hovering on the edge of blank verse, but always staying flexible, floating between four stresses and five – 'rippling' and 'murmuring' as the poem says. It's like listening to a lullaby that soothes and seduces with its beauty; but just might give you nightmares.
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
Marianne Moore disliking it.
Welcome to 'Our readers write', where we throw out a question related to poetry and ask readers to jump up and catch it. Got a question you'd like answered? Drop it in the comments section for use in the near future.
Reading over the introduction to New Poetries V and thinking about canons and contributions, who for you is an important poet with a small oeuvre?
Dan Burt: I take your question [w]ho for you is an important poet with a small oeuvre to mean, a dead poet to whom I return regularly. They are: Ransom and Snodgrass (Americans); Housman and Eliot (English).
Julith Jedamus: I would choose Bishop and Larkin: both perfectionists, both intensely private and self-censoring. Bishop published, if I recall correctly, seventy-eight poems in her lifetime; Larkin’s output, during the ten-year gestation of High Windows, was reckoned to be two-and-a-half poems per year. It is hard, in both cases, not to wish for more—and yet we have their prose (her travels, his jazz), their letters, and, controversially, their notebooks. How glad I am for his crossed-out cul-de-sacs, and tracks gone cold or stale; and her snatches of description (‘begonias ghostly in a galvanized bucket’) and rejected titles, her lists of possible rhymes (imposture/imposter) and musings on her art. In the unfinished essay ‘Writing Poetry Is an Unnatural Act’ she wrote that the qualities she admired most in the poems she liked best were ‘Accuracy, Spontaneity, and Mystery.’ Ah, yes....
Evan Jones: The question strikes me as very Modernist: Eliot published sixty-six poems, Marianne Moore seventy-one. But it brings to mind immediately a little-known Canadian-America poet, Joan Murray (1917-1942), whose work was published posthumously in one slim book, selected by Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Competition in 1947. For John Ashbery, she is 'one of the poets of the forties I most enjoy rereading'.
Rory Waterman: Well, there are many obvious choices, for all sorts of reasons: Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, A. E. Housman. But where would we be without the remarkable and tiny oeuvre of Ian Hamilton? No poet has squeezed so much out of so little. And whilst I'm on the subject, our perpetually back-patting generation (of poets, critics, magazines) would benefit equally from taking note of his editorship and his incisive criticism, as well as his catholic tastes.
Monday, 17 October 2011
Jericho by Alex Wylie
Funnily enough there's only airbetween us, no wallof monumental moment and renownto storm at, blow up or bulldoze down,nor lock to twist off with the minor key of song;
though for some reason – as you mark well –I've brought alongmy own wall-flattering trumpet to blowwith one desire, to enter Jericho.
from New Poetries V © Alex Wylie
I didn't notice for weeks. Perhaps my own upbringing, permeated by Bible stories, left me over-familiar, too complacent for close reading: the story of the Israelites marching around the walls of the besieged city of Jericho every day for a week until the sound of their trumpets (and Jehovah’s wrath) brought the walls to the ground. Or perhaps it was that off-hand opening: 'Funnily enough...' The letters are even deceptively simple in shape. For whatever reason, I had been reading the second-to-last line, as one might expect it, as a wall-flattening trumpet. But wall-flattering? What to make of that?
So, let’s go round it again. The poem is addressed to someone, thus there's some kind of relationship in play – but the speaker is disconcerted by the fact is that 'there's only air / between us, no wall'. It feels like there should be a barrier between them; the feeling is so strong that it is itself a barrier. In the tradition genre of carpe diem poems – exemplified, in English, by Marvell's 'To his Coy Mistress' – the poet employs his eloquence to persuade an unwilling woman into accepting his advances. The story of Jericho might seem like a perfect conceit to deploy in this situation. But the declared permeability disarms the usual demolition strategies; and the superbly Augustan metaphor (not forcing a new trope, but finding it in the language itself) of the 'lock to twist off with the minor key of song' implies, through the metonymic connection of song and poetry, that poetry isn't going to guarantee access, either.
But the speaker – the poem's Joshua – has brought along his 'wall-flattering trumpet', one that will not bring down but actually build up the wall, however insincerely. In fact it already has: the wall 'of monumental moment and renown', with its play of sounds, has been raised by the poem’s diction to a rather grandiose stature. Distracted by the wordplay in the penultimate line, one might not notice the in-built idiom, to blow one's own trumpet. So the trumpet – a variation on the poet's lyre or lute – is to flatter the wall, but also the poet himself. His stated desire, 'to enter Jericho', seems more and more like a pretext for this self-aggrandisement.
But this is what happens in the classic carpe diem poems: the poet cannot just assume the girl's objection or the other obstacles; describing these provides opportunities for the poet to display his virtuosity, just as much as he uses it to overcome them. 'Jericho' extends the carpe diem tradition by commenting on it, sending up the masculine hubris of the genre. Most telling is the aside '– as you mark well –' in which the poet acknowledges that his listener is not naïve; she's heard this one before, and if she's going to accept the poet it won't be because she's left defenceless by his rhetorical prowess. But if this poem isn't intended to do exactly that, still, it finally got through to me.
Friday, 14 October 2011
Balance by James Womack
It didn't want to let the morning
Come, as if the globe were rocking back,
Back and forwards, twisting gently like
A fair-day weathervane, and turning
Towards the sun, turning us away.
Calm but firm, the world like a mother
Did not allow it to be either
One thing or the other, night or day.
The sky was gritty with darkness, with
The light and the dark mixed, for the air
Was full of masonry-dust, plaster,
Powder, snowflakes, soot. I thought that if
I tore the page off the calendar
The next page would have the same number.
It didn't want to let morning come.
Fine by us. But the mechanism
Slips suddenly out of gear—we are
Jerked forward, lose balance once more.
This is the last station in autumn—
The sun is up, the scales have fallen.
from New Poetries V © James Womack
I copied and pasted this poem into a document so I could read it and write about it at the same time. The computer grasped the words but dropped them without punctuation and line structure onto the blank sheet. As an exercise, in a kind of poetic curiosity, I began to put back in the line breaks and when I had reassembled 'Balance' I checked it against the original. The poem had reassembled itself easily and entirely, like a well-made travel cot, snapping rigid back into place, the rhymes and internal rhythms bolting down, despite the weathervanity, the apparently undecided cusp of a moment it describes.
I like this balance between day and night, and between seasons, like a gently rocking cradle, I like this observation because I know it to be generally true. But the gentleness, the lunar holding pattern, belies a ruthless diurnal drive forward. In James Womack's poem the move forward is a jolt, a jerk, the loss of balance. But this is odd: his machine has slipped out of gear. In his version of time the rocking motion is the constant, the drive onwards is the mechanical failure: a surprising and thought-provoking reversal for the reader, who knows all about the inevitability of time and the seasons. The morning is dissonance and decision and revelation: 'the scales have fallen' is a beautiful rendering of balance lost and eyes opened, some cradle-innocence shorn away.
I find myself teased and made anxious by the masonry-dust and plaster. What has happened in the half-light, as the snow falls mixed with the soot? Womack has not written any particular event into the poem, but we are immediately alert to the possibilities. Too many memories of early Autumn days darkened by grit and horror, when balance has been irrevocably lost. And the placing of horror, once it has been read and registered, changes the poem, works at it uneasily. Are we rocked by the world, because we need numbing and calming? Are we held in this no-time because the wrench forward into a new world is too much? Or is the world merely reverberating, the weathervane swinging aimlessly, the calendar’s torn pages repeating? I cannot honestly say whether this balance is benign or not, whether it is anything to us, or we anything to it.
A last word about the last station. The last station is the burial. Silence and darkness. But in this poem the last station is brightness and vision. No sense of reconciliation though, as we survey the world after its mechanical convulsion. No redemption. The scales have fallen. Judgment has been made.
Sasha Dugdale's most recent collection is Red House (Oxford Poets/Carcanet).
Monday, 10 October 2011
America by Helen Tookey
Broad and smiling as a Sunday
rivermouth, impossible word
between us: america. Wide
and easy speech, argument smooth
and seamless as an egg. Half-tongued
I stumble through the station at
Stephansplatz, past memorials
to lost wars, and to the playground
in the beautiful gardens, where
I watch my children disappear
undisturbed: macht nichts, sie kommen
wieder zurück. America
is where we can never meet, though
we lived there together for years.
from New Poetries V © Helen Tookey
I like Tables of Contents. A lot. Question one of the four Auden asks in his test for a critic is ‘Do you like, and by like I really mean like, not approve of on principle: 1) Long lists of proper names … ?’ It’s like he picked me first for his crab-soccer team in gym class. But I’ll admit it’s not just the names: I’m after the titles. Titles function, it’s true, but they’re a big part of whether I’ll stick with a poem or not. What I’m looking for is specific: I want something that tells what the poem is about and yet has to it a shake – by which I mean that it both sets up and defies expectations, turning function on its head while simultaneously starting to press down on the kick. There was a band awhile back called The Dentists, and they had some great titles (and some great songs to go with them): ‘One of Our Psychedelic Beakers Is Missing’, ‘Strawberries Are Growing In Our Garden (And It’s Wintertime)’, ‘I Had An Excellent Dream’ (this last probably their best). Too few poets pick up on the bracketed title of the pop song.
The ToC in New Poetries V has some real gems: ’You Could Show a Horse’, ‘Aunt Jane and the Scholar’, ‘Kamasutra (the subsidiary arts)’ to list a few. At each title that interests me, I swim into the book and read the poem. You should see me with a new CD, flipping from track to track, following not the play order but the titles that sound interesting. Maybe this isn’t how everybody gets into a book,but maybe too it’s more common than I think. Anyway, when I get to ‘America’, a funny thing happens. I start to hum, even before I get to the page the poem is on, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’, its ‘Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together’ the only line I can fully remember, and then, maybe, some la-la-las, before arriving at ‘Michigan seems like a dream to me now’.
Helen Tookey’s poem has both little and everything to do with that song. Her place is not ‘America’, but instead an alternate universe, a world that never happened and never will. The poem is also a start and another start: there is firstly the point where the reader meets an ‘us’ with a word between (a word we don’t get until the end of the sentence): america. The French and the Germans spell national adjectives lower-case: américain, amerikanische, only proper nouns need capitals. Gertrude Stein tried to pull this into English usage in The Autobiography Alice B. Toklas, but nothing-doing, it seems. Yet this word is a proper noun, so it’s mispelled here, italicised, equal on either side, even as it separates.
Then there is the second start: the poet in Vienna, at the U-Bahn station in Stephansplatz, through which an ‘I’, ‘half-tongued’ (does this refer to the language barrier or that she’s been kissed, awkwardly, partingly?) and stumbling, breaks from the ‘us’ to a public garden where her children are playing – her own and not ‘ours’. Is this a consequence of the first start or its own separate event? There’s an argument, there is impossibility, but none of that tells us that this moment follows the last. This is another beginning, and we begin to sense the alternatives that are taking place. For this is not america, but touristic Vienna, where the Wienfluss flows into the Donaukanal. But ‘nevermind, they’ll return’, those children – who and how many will they be when they do? – real or unreal, whether they too have travelled to america, or simply come here to look for it.
Finally, there it is, ‘America’, bolder and more certain of itself as we reach the end, on a line that begins in German. Can it separate itself further? It can. For the ‘we’ return here twice, and America leads the way: it’s not in-between this time and not at the end, even as the poem comes to its end. ‘All come to look for America’: Paul Simon’s song aimed to capture youthful curiosity about national identity – but does in the end little more than reinforce clichés. At best, that song is about setting-out, beginning. Helen Tookey’s ‘America’ is both an end and a beginning. For Vienna, too, is a dream, and curiosity flourishes, wherein both Americas – in one a lover waits and in another he has never had to wait – exist.
 I also devour acknowledgements like they were written for snacking on during a film. I go looking for the fine print. The Canadian poet, Jay Macpherson, in her Poems Twice Told (1981), composed her ‘Notes & Acknowledgements’ in rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets. With this, she fills in the blanks between the poems and author. She’s more alive.