Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Wild Geese

Sometimes I hear them, honking through the dusk.  A look outside my window reveals a long line in the sky, a hooting, tooting caravan of black-and-white, slanting upwards over the canal, above the grey-blue twilight mists clinging to the spindly rags of winter trees, or through the calm, honey-coloured sunsets of a summer evening, spearing forwards, upwards, pilgrims aiming for the light.

By day, I watch the Canada Geese gliding over the Calder, or spooling over water like swans. I watch their streetwise cousins, the white geese, waddle over the stony riverbank, or colonize the verges and pavements of Sowerby Bridge. Geese are in my life daily, and have been an increasingly visible yet gentle presence in recent weeks and months, drifting into the poetry I read, sewing a snow-white, feathery hem of inter-species kinship as they appear at every corner, float into my daydreams and flaunt their signs of life outside my window.

The Sowery Bridge Geese are famous, treat the town like its their own, have become a landmark.  Established here as long as anyone can remember, they set up camp down by the river under the viaduct, beneath the bridges straddling the Calder and the Ryburn, in the overgrowth fringing the canal.


 But they are most well known for their incursions into human territory.  Gangs of them front the entrance to the leisure centre, or amass in the yard of the taxi rank; in wobbling bunches threes and fours they stroll the pavements, they will even wander through an open doors.


In her debut collection Light After Light (Valley Press 2018) Ryburn Valley poet Victoria Gatehouse describes the geese patrolling the High Street and:
ganging up on the corner by The Long Chimney, 
intimidating passers-by with a show 
of downy muscle, a half-lift of wings, 
causing tail backs when they choose 
to cross the road, a twenty-strong gaggle 
impervious to hoots

These Northern European, Emden geese are part of the furniture, an expected presence in the town.  Interesting and often amusing in the day, by night they represent a reassuring familiarity.  Disembarking the train on returning late, I have wandered down the lonely hill beside the station, flanked by the cavernous dungeons of the old coal drops, the scrapyards and the battered arches, and the railway bridge that was the scene of murder in Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley, to see them gathered, yapping, like a gossipy, gaggly night watch, at the foot of the street as the town begins, and felt at home.

In the small hours, the town is theirs, and I wonder at the secrets spiraling in their Anserinae brains; how they view the town that lends them their colloquial name; how they view us, as bigger birds, as ominous presences, as strangers, friends, a grounded, landlubbing, collective anomaly?

 In the winter, the waterways of Calderdale are quieter, and the geese seem more prevalent in the post-migratory exodus.  Padding through the frost, they jerk their heads quizzically through the depleted larders of the fruitless canalsides,  descend like icy mermaids into the river's silent freeze.  At a distance, the Emdens almost merge into sleety mists, bobble like pearly ghosts through the half light in the early morning snow.

 In spring, the geese are joined by goslings, as they guide their babies over the chilly quilt of the river to find food in the tangled shallows. It is always a familiar and yet strangely unexpected moment, to see these eager, nervous, unsteady babies scrabbling through the ripples, hungry for life. 

The Emdens and the Canada geese coexist, and weave a watery ballet along the green, wet edges of Sowerby Bridge, are my neighbours (too cautious to be "friends", they sidestep close proximity and regroup into a tribal safety- in-numbers if approached by foodless human hands) as I walk through the town.  

As I write this, my thoughts are diverted by that well known exclamation, somewhere between the whistle of a steam train and a wild bird's cry.  What awaits beyond the window on this spring day - a single filed platoon of geese bulleting through the hazy afternoon air; a lone goose lifting himself above the hazel trees and blossoms to seek out the bounty of the wharf; or floating forlornly as she slowly climbs the skies in an aimless stray over the chimney tops and antique factory stacks?

I'm not sure what I read in the sad songs of the geese, in their glassy mysterious eyes, their moonlit wanderings, their essence of unhindered calm - the reassurance of evolution, reminders of our own, aquatic lineage, the promise of rebirth, the energy and atoms of the recently deceased?  I only now that they have played, are playing, their own quiet part in my efforts to regain some sort of footing,  some better knowledge of myself, some kind of understanding of the world.  

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Black Combe, Cumbria, in the Poetry of Branwell Bronte and Norman Nicholson

Coming across Norman Nicholson's Sea To The West (Faber 1981) at Hebden Bridge Library, I was reminded that it is just over a year since I was in the district to which most of the book's poems pay homage.  In late April 2017 I was with Ayelet Mckenzie, launching her collection Small Bear (Caterpillar Poetry 2017) at Barrow Library.

The day before the launch I was given a tour around the town and its vicinity, including a trip to Walney Island and a walk along the edges of the Walney Channel.

Splayed beyond the entrance of Barrow Museum, the Walney Chanel its self begins lethargically, a threadbare fray of patchy puddles blotching a shore of dark, wet sand and chunky pebbles.  The plateau stretches out into a desert of bumpy, rocky ridges; further across the bay there are modern vessels, pleasure boats, and a sense of calm somewhere between seaside jollity and some picture-postcard riverside.  The channel is defined by crossings and the remnants of crossings, from the thin bridge with its rickety railings, to the bridge which spans its northern edges, built in 1908 for the benefit of shipyard workers crossing to and from the yards and factories, now dotted by traffic and stretching almost incongruously against a backdrop of sand and water like the body of some huge amphibious predator. As you stroll along the pier, turn your head towards the slate-blue waters, and you notice a dark, damp, sloping sandscape of abandonment: the hulls of long-forgotten ships, wrecked boats, a bicycle slowly sinking into earth.

Further on, you are met by the imposing mass of Black Combe, rising over the Duddon Estuary nearly two thousand feet and formed four hundred and sixty million years ago.  Like a glacial goddess of black ice, the Combe looms above the Irish sea, and is visible across the entire district, the views from its summit stretching from the Irish coast, to as far as Wales and Scotland.  Wordsworth wrote that, from the Combe, the amplest range of unobstructed prospect may be seen that British ground commands, while his enthusiastic celebrant Branwell Bronte, who lived and worked as a tutor at nearby Broughton-in-Furness, was moved to write a sonnet in honour of the fell.

 The relationship between Branwell Bronte and the Combe has significance for me, as I have made a film about Branwell's Calder Valley Years, which were preceded by his ill-fated time at Broughton, cut short due to the early signs of an alcoholism which would lead him towards ruin. I can see why the formidable entity, almost Volcanic - Norman Nicholson called it the dynamited Combe - held such magnetism for the romantic Branwell. I want to look at both Branwell's poem, and the Black Combe poems of Norman Nicholson, to see how both poets were influenced, directly but differently, by this unforgettable natural landmark.

Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light, begins Branwell Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; before comparing the stoicism of the Combe to the vulnerability of humanity:

...he smiles,
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise,
As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight
Again rejoices in his stormy skies,
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.

Undoubtedly influenced by the Lakeland poets and Romantics, Branwell nonetheless injects a strain of pessimism into his sonnet, which, while awed by the huge and heath clad Combe, owes perhaps more to Keats' notion of Negative Capability than to Wordsworth's lyrical grandeur.  In fact, it reminds me of Houseman to a point, though rather than disappointed love it is perhaps the "unstable joy" of debauch that sees the poem's human subjects irredeemably defeated.  Branwell uses the phrase "pleasure's wiles" in another poem, and this repetition is revealing, perhaps illustrating the subconscious way in which he regarded his own descent into instability as  a snare that he was lured into by circumstance as much as a temptation to which he chose to yield.  Ultimately, it is the rock-solid invincibility of Black Combe, simultaneously omniscient and non-interventionist, that prevails , with menacing triumph, and seals the externally descriptive poem's status as an internalized, brooding prophecy against the black clouds of the Combe.

Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light
 Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; he smiles, his mighty form
Scarce bending in to peace; - more formed to fight
A thousand years of struggles with a storm
Than bask one hour, subdued by sunshine warm
To bright and breezeless rest; yet even his height
Towers not o'er this world's sympathies - he smiles,
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise,
As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight
Again rejoices in his stormy skies,
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.
Thus tempests find Blackcomb invincible,
While we are lost, who should know life so well!

 There is a sense in Branwell's poem of the Combe's presence as an anchored constant, not unlike his earliest poem to the Pole Star, contrasting with the vagaries of human experience, and the poet's own troubled life.  Unlike the Pole Star poem, Blackcombe (Branwell conflates the two words) expresses this fixity with unhappy irony.  It could almost, in its colouring of sable black, be a metaphor for the Haworth Parsonage, the childhood home to which Branwell increasingly found himself returning in the shade of adult misadventures, a place perhaps of reproach and repentance.  Perhaps more than this, it could be a foreboding image of the God-fearing faith of his Parson father, which the pleasure-seeking Branwell would abjure.  We know that this diversion from his father's path caused disturbance in his family. Branwell's own use of religion in his poems is so often blasphemous or Hellish.  Did Black Combe represent for him a sort of subconscious fear of Providence, a shadow of his formative beliefs, a kind of Hell?
Whatever its connotations, the Combe, for Branwell, was a constant in a life of change.  But Branwell was only in the area for a few months, and will have seen the Combe only through one winter and spring, so his analysis is inevitably borne of brief association.  For an in depth poetic study of this 460-million year old feature of the Cumbrian landscape, we need to turn to a more recent poet, who, unlike the itinerant Branwell, lived within sight of it for most of his life.

Born in Millom in January 1914, Norman Nicholson enjoyed a considerable reputation as a poet in his lifetime, and his work continues to gain acclaim both for its sensitive evocations of everyday working class life in his iron-mining town, and its sense of the natural and primeval - a poetry which delves deep into the long history of the earth and is rooted in the dunes of the Cumbrian coast.  Black Combe features prominently. Indeed, it is a key element in the natural heritage and folk history of his area.  In The Shadow of Black Combe, he explains how:

In wise, proverbial days they used to say
That everybody born
Under the shadow of Black Combe
Will comeback there to die

and movingly delivers a sing-song like refrain, urging the spirits of the deceased:

Back Arthur, come back Andy, come back Will.
Come home, 
While there's still time.

And all you who were shot in France,
Drowned in the Great Lakes,
All exiles and dole-day migrants,
Who swallowed influenza, took T.B. like snuff-
Get ready to come back. 

For Nicholson, who was of course born in the year the First World War broke out, the legacy of those shot in France, this epitaph casting them as murdered martyrs, victims, must have been a kind of primal permanence, not unlike the Combe its self, which - just like Branwell's Pole Star or Nicholson's Rock-pie of volcanic lava that is Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain - is a continual presence on the poet's horizon.  In the poem Black Combe White, he describes how:

From each rise in the road, each break in the hill's barrier,
Comes glimpse after glimpse of the nearing Combe, first white,
Then patchy, and then streaked white on black,
Darkening and sharpening every minute and every mile.
(Black Combe White)

and this image of the colouring of the Combe betrays a deeper understanding of its features, based on many years of observation. Its lower reaches heavy in Ordovician black, the Combe lightens near its peak to a heathy green or brownish tinge, depending on cloud cover or the angle of the light, like a polar bear whose fur glistens white only by means of reflecting the sun:

Slick fingers of wind
Tease and fidget at wool-end and wisp,
Picking the mist to bits.
Strings and whiskers
Fray off from the cleft hill's
Bilberried brow, disintegrate, dissolve
Into blue liquidity-
Only a matter of time
Before the white is wholly worried away
and Black Combe starts to earn its name again.
(Cloud on Black Combe)

There is, in contrast to Branwell Bronte's powerful image of immovable solidity, a delicious sense of fluent movement in Nicholson's hymns to the hill, a feeling of the evolving cycles of time. I also feel there is an acknowledgement of the inter-connectedness of things - like a sweeping, symbiotic ballet,the elements, the atmosphere, the flora of Black Combe and its environs are woven in a misty tapestry of changing seasons. The poet once remarked in a radio interview:

The universe is not just a huge mechanical coffee‐grinder, ticking over and over without aim or purpose. It works to a pattern; it works to a plan. And part of the sheer enjoyment of being among mountains comes from our sometimes feeling swept up in the plan, where every end is a new beginning and every death a new birth.

With its strings and whiskers, its mist pulled to bits, its personified rain "clocking off" for the day, reminiscent of mill workers and his region's declining industrial life, Cloud on Black Combe is the work of a poet deeply connected with both his natural environment, and the human history surrounding him.  


 The air clarifies.  Rain
Has clocked off for the day.

The wind scolds in from Sligo
Ripping the calico-grey from a pale sky.
Black Combe holds tight
To its tuft of cloud, but over the three-legged island
All the west is shining.

An hour goes by,
And now the starched collars of the eastern pikes
Streak up into a rinse of blue.  Every
Inand fell is glinting;
Black Combe alone lies still hides
Its bald, bleak forehead, balaclava'd out of sight.

Slick fingers of wind
Tease and fidget at wool-end and wisp,
Picking the mist to bits.
Strings and whiskers
Fray off from the cleft hill's
Bilberried brow, disintegrate, dissolve
Into blue liquidity-
Only a matter of time
Before the white is wholly worried away
and Black Combe starts to earn its name again.

But where, in the west, a tide
Of moist and clear-as-a-vacuum air is piling
High on the corried slopes,a light
Fret and haar of hazy whiteness
Sweats off the cold rock; in a cloudless sky
A cloud emulsifies,
Junkets on sill and dyke.
Wool-end and wisp materialize
Like ectoplasm, are twined
And crocheted to an off-white,
Over-the-lughole hug-me-tight;
And over Black Combe's ram's-head, butting at the bright
Turfed and brackeny brine,
Gathers its own wool, tucks shadow out of shine.

What the wind blows away
The wind blows back again.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Raising a Smile - Keith Hutson's "Troupers"

Some of my fondest memories of my dad are of the stories he would tell about old-time comic and Music Hall turns who, back in the days of Vaudeville and variety, would "tread the boards" up and down the country, from the West End to the theatres of provincial seaside towns.  One-line gag specialists, oddball virtuosos, contortionists, clowns, some of them famously terrible, others who would go on to become household names.  Some he had seen, some he had met, many he had simply heard about, as the routines of these heroes and heroines of the stage became the stuff of legend. A galaxy of stars like Jimmy Clitheroe, Frankie Howerd, Hylda Baker - all three of whom are celebrated in Keith Hutson's latest collection Troupers (Smith/Doorstep 2018), his second foray into the wonderful world of Music Hall and more.

Like the funniest of men, he had that look: begins the opening poem, Revival, chosen as a Poem of the Week by Yorkshire Times, bad health crossed with indestructibility. Right away, then, we know that we are in the reading presence of somebody who has seen it all - observed the best in the business and knows by instinct who and what to watch out for.  Indeed, Keith Hutson has a rich and varied background in the world of performance and comedy, having worked not only as a script writer for Coronation Street,  but also as a joke writer for many famous comics, including Les Dawson.  The book is actually prefaced with a joke from Dawson:

We were so poor, my dad couldn't afford homing pigeons
- he had a budgie on elastic. 

The poet's professional history is brought to the fore in the poem Street Cred, in memory of Coronation Street creator Tony Warren, who died in 2016.  We read of how the scriptwriter's first ventures into television met with little acclaim:

Future? Fallow at first. Children's Hour, a script
for Biggles and, expelled from acting class,
a spot of choreography in strip
cubs - hardly Moulin Rouge, but ready cash.   

but of how, Later, sleeping on a slow train home from / Thanks, but no in London, you awoke - and how!  I'll write about Florizel Street!

And so, the street's name inspired by a painting featuring the mythical Prince Florizel, reflecting on his own youth in the Salford town of Pendelbury, the lippy, witty, out-and-proud before / it was allowed Warren drew on his past to create character chiselled from the wartime tough backstreets in which he had grown up:

Mams, aunties, grans, the famin' neighbours - 
warriors with nowt, who'd never ration
what they were: gossip, stoic, glamour puss;

grafter, scrubber, put-upon.

We learn how Warren was dissuaded by a a tv tea lady from his original choice of name, and so Florizel (Sounds like a disinfectant, son) became Coronation Street, and history was made.


There is room, in this vividly biographical poem, for some mentions of actual Corrie characters, as Warren begins to take / those matriarchs and make them Elsie, Ena, / Annie ...

and also:

Ken?  Wrong gender, kid, but maybe
he was you: bright boy, back-alley dreamer.
Light of Manchester.

But another strength in this collection stems, as with its author's debut effort on the same subject, Routines (Poetry Salzburg 2017), from more than a professional interest or insider observation. It stems from the love of a genuine fan of comedy and its performers, from the wide-eyed joy of Beyond Belief (i.m. Sid Field 1904-50):

He talked a goood trapeze act - in his tights,
hands white with chalk - the best we never saw:
I might even change my mind, mid-air!
Sid had us gazing at those dizzy heights,
and he was there, all swing and sweep, above us,
never mind he hadn't even climbed
the pole, set foot inside a circus
or off terra-firma, ever.

- to the wide-eared innocence of The Call of the Wild, which commemorates animal impersonator Percy Edwards, and the radio shows, films and records in which he carried off the voices of dogs, pigs and lions - or the gentler example of this lovely memory:

I recall his coos, plump as a dove's,
on David Nixon's Magic Box; and um's LP
played as she helped me shepherd plastic sheep
across the rug.

Elsewhere, the human voice and the powers of impersonation are again revered, as the talents of Ephraim Barraclough (1853-1906) are described:

Tell him three traits, and he'd impersonate 
your dad.  This chip off everyone's old block
possessed, let's say, a patriarchal knack
to take a parent's essence, flesh it out
- the full Monty, Tom, Albert, Harry, Dick.

The emotional power of this act is hinted at, as:

offspring whose hurt returned took flight in tears;
beloveds got a flash of hero back.
 ...and in the bizarre The Man With The Xylophone Skull, we are presented with a prematurely bald headmaster who, in the early 20th Century, could play music by hitting his head with a brass handle.  This improbable routine is not recommended - for as the poem recounts, the unfortunate musician went on tour, / six years - concussion, mild first, getting worse, till / memory went with his pension

But perhaps it is mainly, then, in the area of sound, of artistes as famous for their vocal skills and words as their physical stage presences, that Troupers most differs from its predecessor.  Certainly, this book follows on from Routines in the generality of its subject matter, and the quality of the writing is on a par with that fantastic tribute to the stars of yesteryear, but Troupers is a noisier affair - from the the mournful music of radio show Sing Something Simple:

Sunday afternoons gave up the ghost
to this: a lone accordion
held little comfort as the theme tune
faded into half an hour of shadow

and Songs of Praise:

the tender preface could have been
Why not lie back
and ponder ways to end
it all without alarming others.

to the beauty of brass bands - Seconds into Sailing I'm in tears.  This poem, one of Hutson's finest, is simply entitled Brass Band, and I remember him delivering it at readings to an almost reverential atmosphere:

Two bars, as a rule, before
the waters break and all my sorrows
drown into church hall, 
assembly room.  

I don't care, he explains, if you hit me with The Stripper or Hey Jude / who else takes air to make compassion / hospitals have targets for?

The poem, for one defined by its championing of sound, has a wonderfully visual quality, as the author recalls the many places he has watched brass bands:

I've seen you seated, standing, on the march:
in junior schools fresh and lamentable;
as engineers all male and overweight; Welsh Asians
adding spice to Bread of Heaven - and always
I'm delivered back, a boy of four, found on the prom
in Bridlington

Elsewhere, it is not so much sound as its opposite that is greeted with awe.  In The World's Greatest Whistler (i.m. Ronnie Ronalde 1923-2015) we read of how:

this man sent shivers down 
Sinatra's spine. Marilyn Monroe
spoke of a state of grace.

while the majestic Here's Looking At You pays homage to an artist I had never heard of, Alice Wolfenden (1861-1913) who, in her silent stage routines, could: 

distil a lifetime's liveliness - 
the ducks and dives, embraces, feints; compress
every advance, retreat, escape,into
one concentrated stare directed through
the theatre's gloom

Completely still, she'd throw
her gaze across the footlights. Those who 
held it were transported - felt again
all that had lifted, stirred or broken them.

Similarly, the story of Hylda Baker (1905-86) is recorded, in Hylda, where the fortunes of this Lancashire lass are compared and contrasted with those of many of her mill-working contemporaries:

Nine was the age when the likes of her learnt
how to lip-read at the mill;
to flap their silent mouths in turn. 

But Hylda found her voice inside this act,
talent that kept her in pink gins for years

We read of her troubled personal life, her struggles with drink, and her lonely death, in a poem woven with wordplay and associations, a fitting tribute to a complex, brilliant, sad figure.

 Troupers certainly addresses the darker, bleaker side of the performing life. The hardships, the knock-backs, the failures. Romantic only in its unabashed adulation for the stalwarts of the stage, it paints a picture of survival rather than glamour, of trials more than thrills and spills.  Even the well loved, if unlikely, Macauley's Leaping Infants, who graced the stage between 1856 and 1866, are depicted as a troupe who struggled to make ends meet.  Devised by Lance Corporal Macauley - Alive, but both legs left at Balaclava - this acrobatic company were recruited by virtue of infirmity:

His plan 
was martial: muster local urchins lame
from twisted, short or withered limb, club foot,

as the battle-scarred Lance Corporal, determined to avoid starvation or the penury of begging, took his infant retinue, like Fagin with his squadron of street kids, on the road:

The Times claimed it could never last,
yet England's Most Unlikely Acrobats
toured ten years without praise: laughter, instead,
kept both Macauley and his army fed.

Less successful is the pantomime dame depicted in Widow Twankey a profoundly funny, painful poem, perfectly evoking an image of the down-at-heel has-been, hungover mornings on the promenades of decaying coastal towns, and of pathetic, faded glory:

Daybreak kills the lights along the pier.
Mist at the deep end lifts
and there the Playhouse hangs - that wreck
where last night was the deadest yet: a dozen
plus a seagull on the follow-spot
that took a dislike to his wig,
drawing blood for a finale.

The poem reads almost like a story, as Hutson brings into focus the inward despair of the defeated performer, the blunt brutality of matter-of-fact authority, and the harsh reality of thwarted ambition:

Sea weeps into the dame-shaped crater
made when he lost consciousness,
sometimes after they'd paid him off
and said they'll not be wanting him next winter
'cos you're shit, love.  Had he thought it might be time
to hang his frock up? B&Q take people on
who haven't got a pension.


As a counterweight, consider the example of JD Plummer (1846-1901), whose one-man success story came about entirely by accident, and serves as a triumphant riposte to misfortune, and an inspirational example to any of us - within or without performance and the Arts - what can be done / by one who stands, delivers, falls, alone.

The poem's explosive opening asks

Do your colleagues call you a control freak?
Fuck 'em.  

and proceeds to detail how:
Abandoned on the first night
by his cast, JD played every character
himself: Dick Turpin, victims, inkeeper
and black-eyed daughter Bess Dick's worn-out horse
also called Bess, and black (this did cause 
confusion), Tom the Ostler who betrayed them,
weeping Widow Shelley, Tyburn hangman.

 It is a fabulous, stirring story, told in the rhythmic musicality of Hutson's typically tight-packed stanzas, which reminds me of one of the first shows I ever saw, taken by my father at the age of six to watch not a one-man but a one-woman performance of Jack and the Beanstalk, delivered in a church hall in suburban Leeds, but magical in it transportation to another reality.  The dogged persistence of Plummer, his absolute refusal to admit defeat, is a perfect testament to that tenacity and fortitude that typifies so much of the theatrical spirit.  It is a spirit evoked beautifully in the poem I quoted from at the start of this piece, Revival, whose heroic protagonist, having weathered several heart attacks, assures us that Treading boards is my best exercise! , a personification of "the show must go on."  The poem is a loving, respectful, unsentimental ode, to a particular time in British cultural history, a class of person, and a way of life:

And people like him, whose fathers

died in harness, whose mothers bore silent,
determined lives, they never bow out barely used.
One way or another they sweat buckets,
under stress, and make that state hilarious.

That's why we wet ourselves when they collapse
at the Palladium.  And why its only right
to raise another smile, to bring them back.

And this is exactly what Keith Hutson has done with this memorable book. He has brought back to life a cast of characters whose unusual, crazy ways of making a living have seen them play a part, however minor or major, in the tapestry of theatre, comedy and music, brightened up dark wartime years, and cheered up a nation.  And with his wry, tenderly comedic, acutely human poetry, Keith has pulled off the same kind of effect. I came across his book when I badly needed a lift in spirits. And I'm very glad I did so.  Because it raised a smile.

By Troupers:

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Light After Light, the debut poetry collection by Victoria Gatehouse (Valley Press 2018)

Victoria Gatehouse is a Ripponden based poet who I first had the pleasure of meeting at the Sowerby Bridge Library poetry group, and whose poetry has, over the last five or so years, been a continual source of inspiration and joy.  Light After Light (Valley Press 2018) is her debut publication, containing a wealth of enticing, subtly enlightening poems, including the winners of the 2011 Ilkley Literature Festival Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Poetry News Members' competition:

You strike the first match - 
the room lurches 
from black to indistinct

before colour reasserts itself
in ambers and golds.

(From Power Cut, winner of the 2015 Poetry News Members' competition)

With a day job as a clinical researcher, the author has skillfully interwoven the scientific and the personal, the visual and the emotional, and the book's blurb describes how Victoria Gatehouse explores science and art in her debut poetry publication, seeking out the similarities and tensions that attract and repel them in equal measure...she collects, tests, measures and records her thoughts on the materials from which we each build our lives both practical and spiritual.

Then I dipped
the nichrome loop while his inky fingers

flicked air valves closed,
turned the Bunsen blue. He gave me

goggles and the briefest of glances
through reinforced plastic

before I edged the loop
to the hottest place 
(Flame Test) 

Light After Light is a wonderful collection of sublime, finely crafted poetry - a tender, reflective, sometimes very funny, suite of poems which manage to be somehow earthy and ethereal at the same time. From the fragile intimacy prompted by a power cut - your face, as you reach / for the corkscrew, is like it was / before the lines crept in, / all the rough edges blurring. / We're adrift, you and I / in aureoles of light - to the unexpected beauty of pylons and the wonders of fungi - saffron milkcaps, chantrelles, / destroying angels, slippery jacks. / Theirs, a poetry that fruits on decay - the collection segues between the lyrically descriptive, and the poignancy of understatement. The titles are often deceptive - Blackpool offers a poignant vision of that seaside town quite at odds with its frolicksome reputation, while Recording the Phlebotomist conjures up an enticing flight of fancy inspired by a hospital notice prohibiting patients from videoing the phlebotomy process:

I suppose I could, at this point,
take out my phone to record
his newly-disinfected hands twist
the tourniquet light, delicate fingers
flicking the inside of my elbow
in exactly the right place to summon
the blue.

From the micro to the macro, the book takes in such unlikely subjects as dental braces, burning mouth syndrome, wind turbines, and pylons:

Sometimes I think of the pylons,
so ubiquitous we tune out

their dark glower over moorland
motorway and housing estate,

move unseeing beneath
massive steel shoulders

that never sag
from the weight of the Grid.

These are lonely Stoics,
their fate to hold

the power, yet never to feel
electrons leap

through the wires that hang
from wrist to twisted wrist.

 Elsewhere, we are treated to a lovely appearance by The Sowerby Bridge Geese:

patrolling the High Street - 
ganging up on the corner by The Long Chimney, 
intimidating passers-by with a show 
of downy muscle, a half-lift of wings, 
causing tail backs when they choose 
to cross the road, a twenty-strong gaggle 
impervious to hoots.

Knowing the geese as I do, I can vouch for the anecdotes in this splendid poem - its absolutely spot-on, and captures the character of these eccentric, much-loved local treasures perfectly!


The poems embody a certain consciousness of place, and Vicky enchants the reader with her skill of bringing her local West Yorkshire landscape to life:
And after the snow ploughs and gritters
have passed, the moors' hunched backs

retain seams of white. You come to know
the shapes of them, these snow-fossils -

the gleam of a rib, the splintered ridge

of a clavicle, the shrinking plates of a spine

 In a poetry rooted firmly in the natural environment she describes - in poems like Hymn for the Ash, for example, when we are told of that green-flame tug / curl into heartwood, / limbs sap-sticky, skin / like lichen plaques, we feel a tangible sense of the tree's existence borne of empathy rather than mere observation. The poet, without a single self-reference, is "in" the scene, and the reader is lulled into a folkloric dream of a newly budding resurgence of life:

Spring brings leaf-light
to the woodland floor,
explosions of flowers-
dog violets, garlic,

fruit clusters on twigs;

This is a hopeful, quietly optimistic, beautiful book, in which light is suffused often unexpectedly - a bulb alluring the affections of a moonlit moth - and acts as a bridge between people. Lives are illuminated briefly by closeness or companionship, in the shallows of the sea, under a tent, and every interaction is underpinned by close attention to detail - the striking of a match, rolled up cigarettes, the operation of scientific equipment, the holding of a camera to record the phosphorescence of the sea, all are little ignitions which momentarily shed light onto the world.

A Solitary Song - Wordsworth's Lucy Gray

Edited from original publication in November 2013 on my Ryburn Ramblings website. 
From my window, I look over the canal to where North Dean Wood merges into the Copley Valley, and a hilly expanse once surveyed by an 18th Century wireworks. This corner of the Calder Valley once played a role in the work of William Wordsworth.

When Anne Wordsworth, mother of Dorothy and William, died in 1778, her daughter was sent to Halifax, to live with her Anne’s cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld, who owned a draper’s shop. Dorothy remained in Halifax for nine years, and often revisited in adult life, later staying with the Threlkeld family in the village of Triangle, where they had moved to live, several times for long sojourns. 

Triangle is some miles west of Halifax, on the way to Ripponden, and in February 1794, William Wordsworth joined his sister at the Threlkeld’s for the first time.
They often walked around the Ryburn Valley, and it was here that Wordsworth heard the sad story of a local girl who went missing near Sterne bridge, Copley: “...a circumstance told me by my Sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax in Yorkshire, was bewildered in a snow-storm. Her footsteps were traced by her parents to the middle of the lock of a canal, and no other vestige of her, backward or forward, could be traced. The body however was found in the canal.”
Not before five years had passed, with the poet now staying at Goslar, Germany, would the poem describing these events be written, but with it Wordsworth immortalized the solitary child in what his biographer Mary Moorman called the most haunting of all his ballads of childhood
The local girl was entreated by her father to set out with a lantern, in advance of a forecast snowstorm, to light your mother through the snow from wherever she was, doing whatever a rural housewife would be doing on a winter’s afternoon. Perhaps the mother had been to market, or visiting friends, or labouring at some occupation too poorly paid to provide the fare for a vehicular return, yet for whatever reason the daughter was only too happy to oblige: 
That, Father! will I gladly do;
'Tis scarcely afternoon—
The Minster-clock has just struck two,
And yonder is the Moon.
The storm came on before its time,
She wander'd up and down,
And many a hill did Lucy climb
But never reach'd the Town.

The wretched Parents all that night
Went shouting far and wide;
But there was neither sound nor sight
To serve them for a guide.

Such is the tragic tale of Lucy Gray, whose identity assumes, via the poet’s preoccupation with the ethereal, a kind of spiritual association with the lonesome wild: local superstition held that the surrounding moorland was haunted by the child’s ghost.
Lucy Gray appeared in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, in the year 1800, and at that time the bridge upon which the poor girl’s footsteps were imprinted on the snow was, according to Calderdale Council’s local history department, a rather slender wooden bridge - Wordsworth’s Bridge of Wood. As their website goes on to explain, the original bridge was dismantled in 1914, and sturdily rebuilt. 
No Mate, no comrade Lucy knew; writes William Wordsworth in Lucy Gray,
She dwelt on a wild Moor,
The sweetest Thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!
It is worth reflecting that Wordsworth’s subtitle for the poem was Solitude. In Lucy Gray, as in the Ruth and (unconnected) Lucy poems, we find the distillation of a quintessentially Wordsworthian theme, a Pantheistic vision of mortality and the Human condition rendered incorporeal through the prism of a solitary spirit.  The story of this child’s disappearance remained potent in the poet's memory for five long years, encompassing travels throughout Europe and the turbulent struggles of his personal relationships, so that as he wrote to quell homesickness in Goslar, during the coldest German winter of the Eighteenth Century, he would remember how:
 some maintain that to this day
She is a living Child,
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome Wild.

O'er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.

Irish Poetry, and the Good Friday Agreement

I vividly remember the announcement of the Good Friday Agreement, which recently saw its twentieth anniversary.  Its hard to imagine such an achievement amid today's squalid politics, but perhaps harder to overstate the optimism which pervaded much of British public life in the closing years of the Twentieth Century, the backdrop to this historic agreement, an agreement borne of painful compromises and difficult decisions. 
 Although I have family in Ireland and have thoroughly enjoyed visiting, my own life has been mercifully untouched by the situation there, which persisted through the 70's, 80's and early 90's under the somewhat understated byword of the "Troubles".  Like the conflict in the Balkans, it raged by varying degrees across the anesthetic distance of a television screen.  I remember a bomb scare disrupting access to the city centre, a television news item about a playground in Belfast being opened for infants in response to childhoods blighted by violence, and the deep sense of injustice in comparison with my own peaceful, and thus comparatively idyllic, young life. It was a world away, but seemed, even to my eight or nine year old eyes, a conflict apparently intractable. I have vague memories of schoolyard squabbles between those of Catholic or Protestant backgrounds, and loyalist and nationalist graffiti in areas of significant sectarian demographics, but this also seemed somehow second-hand, daubed by those safely away from the line of fire. Contrast this with the recollections of the great poet Seamus Heaney:

He was blown to bits   
Out drinking in a curfew   
Others obeyed, three nights   
After they shot dead   
The thirteen men in Derry.   
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,   
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday   
Everyone held   
His breath and trembled.

The lines breathe fear, and resignation to an inescapable reality. Born to a Catholic family in Derry in 1939, Heaney was certainly far from averse to establishing his own place in the context of Irish political affairs:

Be advised, my passport's green 
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen

and yet was sometimes criticized for the lack of overt focus on the Troubles in his work, or perhaps more accurately the lack of concrete side-taking.  To quote from the BBC's obituary to Heaney, from 2013:

He came under pressure to take sides during the 25 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and faced criticism for his perceived ambivalence to republican violence, but he never allowed himself to be co-opted as a spokesman for violent extremism.

His writing addressed the conflict, however, often seeking to put it in a wider historical context. The poet also penned elegies to friends and acquaintances who died in the violence.

Describing his reticence to become a "spokesman" for the Troubles, Heaney once said he had "an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head".(1)

Indeed, to overlook this is to ignore the degree to which Heaney's distinctly personal or intimate poetry is weighted by the burden of history.  For me, Heaney's poetry distills the tragedy and tension of his people's past in a way which is both more "telling" than many more militant streams of didactic or one-dimensional political poetry.  As Professor Michael Valdez Moses of Duke University, North Carolina, told an audience in October 2013, two months after Heaney's death, at an event entitled Expressing Humanity During The Troubles"He is one of the few poets able to combine political and personal poetry in very striking and unique ways. He literally allows us to see the world differently."

To many readers, far from neglecting the important subjects of Irish politics and their attendant pains, Heaney's work was central to a broader cultural understanding of them.  His poems, interviews and essays articulate the territory with acute sensitivity and detail, and according to Duke's Professor Richard Brodhead, "Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and had the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence."

The disruption of these sudden intrusions seem to hammer beneath the surface of the work of Collette Bryce, who tells us in her poem The Whole-Domed Universe how, I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside, / To the sounds of crowds and smashing glass… and whose work has sometimes recalled the intimidation wrought by soldiers on the streets of her home town.  Such recollections echo the terrible stories of my old colleague Mary Kelly, a former pub landlady who, as we propped up the counter during shifts at Oakwood Library in Leeds, would describe her experiences of growing up in Derry, which involved being shot at and threatened during walks to and from school.
Elsewhere, though, Bryce has reminisced in a way not dissimilar to those who recall playing on the rubble of bombsites during World War Two: was also quite exciting to be raided. I was very young at the time so I didn’t really understand what was going on. We were raided at a particular period of the Troubles when they wanted to pick up every young man in the area. So the bin-lids would go, the women banging them to warn you that the Saracens were coming. It was a common enough occurrence in our neighbourhood. (2)

When I published Nuala Fagan's Not All Birdsong in 2015, one poem which stuck out for me during the editing process was Nuala's subtle History House.  The poem is distinct from others in the book both for its length, and the departure from personal observation, but its inclusion was fundamental to the shape and spirit of the collection, for it places its author deeply in the context of the country of her birth.  I told Nuala at the time that I felt History House somehow articulates the whole of Irish history in its three thematically opaque, yet highly visual, stanzas. For me it i s a poem which speaks of loss and time, of rituals, traditions, questions, and of pain. 


Here is the house,
opened at last
to the public.
On the drive
a blue car and a van
Whose car?
The parents'.
Of no consequence,
they were not there.
The van?
We need to go outside.
An arrow on the stair,
the bed.
Here I lay me down to sleep...

The October orchard
swells beneath the window
with its rowan reds,
yellow pears,
its wares
of fallen apples,
purple plums,
and the sweet smell
of dogwood on the wind.
There is the bicycle
I give my soul to God to keep...

We must go down.
here is the freezer.
Slices of green?
The jacket.
Mixes of red and white?
A swathe of silk?
Spread on the road
And so many rubies?
Scattered everywhere.

My closest connections to the Irish political situation came not during the years of violence, but in the years following the Agreement, when, living in east London, I would visit a Leytonstone bar called The Croppy Acre.  The owner, and most of the clientele, were Irish - from the North and the South, both Catholic and Protestant - and were more than happy to share with me how the previous thirty years had shaped their own lives and worldviews.  The pub's name was, of course, a reference to the burial grounds of the Irishmen killed during and after the 1798 Rising, when those with close-cropped hair were assumed to be in sympathy with the Society of United Irishmen, a republican group.  On the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Easter Rising, Seamus Heaney published Requiem for the Croppies. In the 1960's, he had read this poem to a Protestant audience, and in 2009 told Sameer Rahim in an interview for the Daily Telegraph, To read ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ wasn’t to say ‘up the IRA’ or anything. It was silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing. If the work of Seamus Heaney might be said, then, to target the trauma of the Troubles in an historical context, it was the poetry of Belfast born Padraic Fiacc which, to my mind, most humanly expresses it in a Universal sense.  The effects of the period on the Irish people have, rightly, been mostly the subject of most poetry of the Troubles.  In much of this, the British soldiers on the streets of Irish towns and cities seem to figure only as abstract, background presences. This is not so in Fiacc's poem Enemy Encounter, which I first heard in a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast eight years ago, in which the human tragedy of the conflict is brought brutally, unexpectedly, to the foreThe poet describes how, dumping dead leaves near a culvert, he encounters a British Army Soldier /
with a rifle and a radio / Perched hiding.
There is an avuncular note in the narrator's assessment:

He is young enough to be my weenie
-bopper daughter’s boyfriend.

...and the sense of unlikely kinship is furthered when the soldier becomes aware of Fiac's presence:

We are that close to each other, I
Can nearly hear his heart beating.

The delicate balance of the poem's tense lines - reminding me a little of Wilfred Owen's Strange Meeting - is bluntly broken by the poem's denouement, which demonstrates both human empathy, and the bleak futility of the conflict:

I am an Irishman
and he is afraid
That I have come to kill him.

Few poets, says Fiacc's fellow Irish poet Brian Patten, have faced up to contemporary Irish history like Fiacc. Without wishing to denigrate other poets, for me it is the torn soul of Padriac Fiacc that has mirrored the modern history of Belfast and its troubles like no other writer. He is the shadow falling across the conscience of so many poets, the elephant at the literary tea party. It would seem at first that he is a political poet, but that would not do him justice. It is empathy for the frightened and maimed individuals, for all on either side of the great divide, that shines through his work. (3)

As I began by saying, I find it almost impossible to imagine such an achievement as the Belfast Agreement taking place today.  Against a backdrop of insecurity, extremism and economic instability, our quests for answers seem to have led to the rise of divisive figures and an ideological impasse, an atmosphere of cynicism and fear for which the spirit and optimism of two decades ago would serve as a deeply needed balm.  When former US President Bill Clinton addressed in his remarks to the community the Irish public in Londonderry in November 1995, neither they nor he could have known that within three years the Belfast Agreement would have been signed, ushering in a cautious cessation to a conflict that had lasted three decades, nor the manifold ways in which the world would change during the years to follow. But in his address, Clinton quoted from Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles' play Philoctetes, from 1991.  In the opening chorus, Heaney's translation celebrates the role of poetry as the voice of reality and justice:

 History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme

1. BBC News, 30/8/13
2. Dundee University Review of the Arts
3. BBC News, 02/05/10

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Winter Poems, 2018


You glide and you slide
down eddies of air,
you drift and you sift
through thin wisps of trees,
veneering valleys
in a chalky visage.

You whisper in white,
sonatas of snow,
silent reminders,
gentle spirits,
soft stars sailing
through oceans of space.


Pin-balls scuzzing
in haphazard zig-zags,
disrupting the flow

these erratic flakes
         melting mistakes
into fences, chimneys,
each a scrap of chromosome

damaged diamonds
oddball organelles
flapping about like snowballs in Hell.


Many miles from sea,
you circle the valley,
swooping ringlets
of ten or twenty birds,
a long white chain


        weaving inwards,
                 swaying over birches
           and Norwegian spruce
like the soft tread of ghosts,

 the spindrift of a dream.