Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Travelling Light: Remembering Leonard Cohen


Shortly after eight on a raw November morning, I arrive in the West Yorkshire town of Morley, trudge the frost-veiled park, along a roadside quilted in the crinkled ochre of fallen leaves, joined as usual by my friend Mario, a Romanian barber who commutes on the same train and who cuts hair, sometimes mine, in a salon behind my workplace. He shows me photos of his family on his mobile.  We laugh about our mutual need for hot strong coffee on this bone-chillingly cold autumnal morning, and when we part at the cross-roads, it is to the welcoming confines of the Oxford Coffee Club that I am bound. 
The walls are brightened by art, including one painting of multi-coloured splodges entitled "Hebden Bridge."  Hebden being not far from where I live, it is easy to feel quite at home.  The owner, also called Simon, greets me with his usual friendliness.  As I sit awaiting my coffee, we banter about football - he relaying facts and figures, me pretending to comprehend, when in reality, my footballing knowledge extends little further than who won and who lost.  Naturally, this does not matter. The point of friendly conversation of this kind is never to initiate complex discussion or debate - only to jog each other along, to have a laugh, to each play our part in helping the other to commence this Friday morning as harmlessly as possible.  After a few mouthfuls of piping coffee, I am ready for the day, feeling that whatever may be happening globally, the word is still turning and I am okay, wishing only as I glance up at the clock that a few extra minutes might remain before I need to head back out into the cold.  Focused on his mobile, a frowning Simon has gone unusually quiet, and the scrolling motion of his thumb makes clear that he is logged into Twitter or some other website of its kind.  He looks up and asks, almost apologetically, "Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?"

It is the past tense of his question that hits me, and my expression must convey the answer, because his in response conveys sympathy.  And so another guest has joined the Sergeant Pepper pageant of Absent Friends which has swelled beyond the realms of decency throughout 2016, and this one is too much to take.  The fact that he has died at the not-young age of 82 is of course irrelevant to the instinctive pangs of grief which accompany the news of any loss.  For Cohen to die at this bitter end of a difficult and rather tragic year, seems the final straw.   Simon apologizes for being the bearer of bad news, and I feel like a part of me has also died, as we sit there in the café with the traffic pootling past the window and my coffee slowly going cold.

How does one answer such a question as "Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?" How to condense the decades of esteem, respect, affection, love, with a simple affirmation?  Shall I plunge into the balm of treasured memories, wax lyrical and pour out tributes to the magic of the lyrics, the understated beauty of the voice, the majestic looks and impossible-to-fake sophistication?  Should I talk of my ecstasy at seeing him in concert?  Ought I to try and appear clever by speaking of his novels? 
Perhaps I should talk about my introduction to the work of Leonard Cohen - a slow, staggered, gradual path that began in the days before youtube, when you simply had to save up and buy one or two records every few months, ask for them for Christmas or strike on them in charity shops.

I first read about Leonard Cohen in 1994, in a magazine interview with his ex-partner Rebecca de Mornay.  The photograph of Cohen, immaculate in an almost-silver suit, immediately entranced me, although it was a full three years before I got round to listening to his music.  What can I say?  We were more patient in those days.  My eventual discovery of a worn and dusty Songs of Leonard Cohen LP, upstairs in a junk shop overflowing with oak furniture and kitchen utensils, was like stumbling on a diamond in the desert, only far more valuable.



It has often seemed to me that my fascination with Cohen lies fundamentally in his enigmatic persona, and the way in which everything about him, despite his Jewishness, has always seemed far removed from anything I have experienced, seen or known.  As a nervous and naïve teenager, I would gaze at his world-weary image, like that of a veteran of Decadence, and wonder precisely what kind of a life such a person must have had.  I would look into his eyes on the cover of Death of a Lady's Man and know he embodied a Byronic heroism to which I could never aspire; I would read of his periodic retreats from the blitz and glitz of cocaine-coloured hedonism to the sanctuary of Greek islands, or mountain monasticism above Los Angeles, and know that all of these things were emblematic of a lifestyle utterly different to my own. Of course, like all great songwriters, Cohen does sometimes make the listener feel that he is singing about them. When, in the summer between art college and University, I listened to him retell how Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk, in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free, I felt - as millions of others have - that he was simultaneously soliloquizing my own inner yearnings and articulating an exoticism far beyond my reach.  And I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose, crooned Cohen in 1968,
Yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.  He is a poet whose visions defy classification, whose words gleam a delicate hairsbreadth between tragedy and beauty.



Maybe I should answer this impossible but wonderfully inviting question with a nod to the nights of that long summer spent in the purple attic room of an artist friend called Anna, where anything from two or three to a dozen of us would converge on Indian rugs amid a swirling haze of tobacco, dope and incense, and where the older, rumbling voice of the middle-aged Cohen - live in concert - would tumble from the speakers like that of a stoned Barry White.   Or to another group of friends with whom I sat, drowsy in the bliss of wine, at the close of summer, deep in the green lilac park, Cohen's melodies blooming in my mind, all of us - English, Italian, Israeli, German - watching a dreamy August twilight slowly fade into the ebony of night, somehow knowing that these days of innocence would never come again.  The end of the Twentieth Century - what a time to be almost young.

Perhaps, as I reflect on the bittersweet, and sometimes sweetly bitter, influence of Leonard Cohen's presence in my life, I should dwell on the drizzled days of the fading Twentieth Century, when, struggling with the pressures of University life, I would traipse the terraced streets of Huddersfield in the autumn of 1999, going to the station to meet every train and repairing to a room which could almost have been Cohen's in Tonight Will Be Fine, were it not for the fact that not even a solitary prayer adorned my cell-like walls, listening to his sorrowful yet soul-warming psalms of Calvary and Cadillacs, gypsy thieves and thin green candles, Eskimos, saints and jealousy.

I was wandering wet and depressed through Huddersfield - a town I now love but which in 1999 I had only just met and had yet to get to know - and, taking shelter from a particularly torrential downpour, locked myself on a library shelf and was happy to hibernate within its sanctuary of books.  The town's 1930's library became my refuge from the noisy vulgarity of University, where I devoured books of almost every kind: taking myself there when I should have been at lectures, my illicit afternoon binge-reading was a fine education.  The music section overflowed with treasures, and I well remember returning for a visit home in Leeds with a clutch of Leonard Cohen albums, only to be discouraged from listening to them by my father.  Having through the years acknowledged my enthusiasm with detached lukewarmth, he had by now grown wary.  Fearing the music would push me deeper into a depression whose persistence and heaviness was becoming cause for considerable concern, my father urged me, almost pleaded with me, virtually forbade me, from indulging this obsession.  "He's extremely dark - he sings about graves and death," my father would insist.  "Its the last thing you need."  And yet it would be my father, nearly fifteen years later and after several failed attempts at embracing Cohen's music, who would present me with a ticket to see the great man live - on a warm September night in 2013.

In a crumpled suit, tipping his hat and beaming a boyish smile, the 79-year old had looked somehow fragile, and vulnerable, and a feeling of total love welled in me as he launched into the opening song: Dance Me To The End of Love.  The lyrics - Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn - could recall a love song from the time of the Exodus, and are actually inspired - for want of a better word - by the Holocaust.   When Cohen sings, Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin, his lines describe a real historical scenario -  musicians forced to play in the shadows of the crematoria: "(they were) pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those  people whose fate was this horror also. (The music became) the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation.

It is at this point, having seen how Cohen's lyrics have at times been drawn from Jewish history, that I should like to turn to the confluence of his lyrics with the heritage of Jewish poetry - the most obvious example being the 1974 song Who By Fire.

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?


Who By Fire is an adaptation of the 8th Century Unataneh Tokef prayer, recited in Ashkenazi synagogues at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in an essay for Mosaic magazine, Hebden Bridge-based poet Atar Hadari ascribes to it a touch of English Silver Age poetry with the allusion to Thomas Dekker’s “merry month of May,” and, at least when Cohen sings it, I find that words like “barbiturate” and “something blunt” and oppositions like “greed” and “hunger” have a biblical force to them. And it does also capture a sense of him as a boy in a synagogue in Montreal, listening to that prayer being recited.  That early autumn night, the songwriter stood downstage-left, hands cupped around the microphone in a penitent, imploring way, as this thousand-year-old song crept, then swept, upon us, it felt as though he were asking the questions for the very first time - yet asking on behalf of every generation past and future, posing the unanswerable to the unfathomable.



If Leonard Cohen's songwriting has been influenced by the poetry of antiquity, his actual poetry has also often drawn from historical example, and from the Classical and Biblical world.  As if to suggest this thematic territory, his debut publication is entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies, and begins with The Song of the Hellenist:

O Cities of the Decapolis across the Jordan,
you are too great; our young men love you,
and men in high places have caused gymnasiums
to be built in Jerusalem.
         I tell you, my people, the statues are too tall.
        Beside them we are small and ugly,
        blemishes on the pedestal.




The story of my love affair with the work of Leonard Cohen could well revolve as much around his poetry - and this chapter of my story begins in the early days of 2003 when I returned North from the oblivion of London - where I would walk the moonlit, tangled tapestries of East End streets and spend my evenings among the drunk and dispossessed, returning to my frostbitten flat to listen to his records while I overlooked the overcrowded sink estates and rotting blocks of flats.  Back in Yorkshire, picking up the pieces of my life, I dragged myself one doomy dark-skied evening up the sleety cobbles of a Bradford street, stumbling into the inviting clutter of a charity shop, crammed with cardboard boxes.  I picked my way through the hundreds of books, and among them found the slim back and white volume which lies open before me as I write: Leonard Cohen: Poems 1956 - 1968.  Over the years I would pore through it, consult it, read it backwards, reveling in the reverence, irreverence, the sex and violence, the Zepellins and insect suicides, horses' manes and waterfalls.  Sometimes I understood what I was reading, often not - and like some labyrinthine kaleidoscope of contrasted but interconnected images, the whole body of Cohen's poetry, with its provocative blend of the poignant and the picaresque, its cast of eccentric characters from Galileo to Nijinsky, has woven its self in and out of focus in my life, bewildering and delighting with equal emotional power.




The poems seem to strike surrealist poses which mask avalanches of anger or of pain:

The Flowers that I left in the ground,
that I did not gather for you,
today I bring them all back,
to let them grow forever,
not in poems or marble,
but where they fell and rotted.

 Yet elsewhere:

The reason I write
is to make something 
as beautiful as you are. 

The poetry of Leonard Cohen trembles with love, but it is so often a love built on fragility and insecurity:

May soft birds
soft as a story to her eyes
protect her face
from my enemies
and vicious birds
whose sharp wings
were forged in metal oceans
guard her room
from my assassins 
("Song")

You do not have to love me
just because
you are all the women
I have ever wanted
I was born to follow you
every night
while I am still
the many men who love you
 ("You Do Not Have to Love Me")

And in poems like Saint Catherine Street, Poem and Warning, the nightmare visions of lost love form a fittingly grim backdrop for Cohen's wry brand of Jewish humour.  In Ballad (1956), an atmosphere of film-noirish Hollywood is conjured up in the grotesque parody of a murder investigation - the victim being the narrator's own beloved:

They promised me an early conviction.
We will eavesdrop on the adolescents
examining pocket-book covers in drugstores.
We will note the broadest smiles at torture scenes in movie houses.
We will watch the old men in Dominion Square follow with their eyes
the secretaries from the Sun Life at five-thirty...



Love its self is often underpinned by uncertainty and violence - in The Genius, we find the poet traversing every known Jewish stereotype in his bid to satisfy; in The Lovers, the eponymous couple consummate their relations in a death-camp.  And yet, as poet rather than politician, Cohen is able to tell us - more reassuringly than any ideologue: Whatever cities are brought down, I will always bring you poems.  And indeed he did.  The poems of Leonard Cohen, although coloured greatly by blood and war, are also at times deeply beautiful, nowhere more so than when he writes about women:

Like ages of weightless snow
on tiny oceans filled with light
her eyelids enclose deeply
a shade tree of birthday candles
one for every morning
until the now of sleeping 

Titles such as Disguises depict the world-as-stage predicament of the wandering bard ("wandering Jew"?) while poems with names like My Teacher is Dying, One of the Nights I Didn't Kill Myself ,The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward and even All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann certainly do nothing to negate the "depressing" reputation of "The Godfather of Gloom", but also emphasize the tirelessly exploratory life which gave rise to these unusual, deeply moving works.  His is a poetry borne of uncertainties and questions of identity and purpose, of self-reflection steeped in history:

Claim me, blood, if you have a story
to tell with my Jewish face,
you are strong and holy still, only
speak, like a Zohar, of a carved-out place
into which I must pour myself like wine

 
It is a poetry which defies, at times even ridicules, the political:

Each man has a way
to betray 
the revolution.
This is mine 

And it is at times deliciously self-deprecating: in a recent poem, Cohen actually delivers a raft of quasi-heretical denials reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan's Am I Alone, and Unobserved?

I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries
and discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights
who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell;
I have not parted the grasses
or purposefully left them thatched.

I have not held my breath
so that I might hear the breathing of God
or tamed my heartbeat with an exercise,
or starved for visions.
Although I have watched him often
I have not become the heron,
leaving my body on the shore,
and I have not become the luminous trout,
leaving my body in the air.

I have not worshipped wounds and relics,
or combs of iron,
or bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls.

I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.

 



It is a poetry which travels from Montreal to New York, Jerusalem to Ancient Greece, from the hordes of Mongolia to Miami Beach, reflecting the same internationalism as his music which would, long before the genre of "World Music" had been invented by journalists and HMV, bring together performers (and fans) from every corner of the globe, and continues to do so.  For all of its supposed cult value, there is something for everyone among the multi-layered totality of Leonard Cohen's work: when, in 2009, his arguably most famous song Hallelujah was covered on The X-Factor by Alexandra Burke, I refused then and refuse now to be cowed by the choruses of sanctimonious cynics who despaired at this "commercialization". I feel that she spectacularly captured its Gospel-inspired essence more beautifully than any of the Cohen copyists of the preceding twenty years.

Cohen's own latest offerings have again encompassed diverse styes and settings, and many have suggested that his final album, You Want it Darker was a conscious valediction.  I believe it is too early to make an assessment of this kind, and my personal interpretations of so much of Leonard's output have often taken years to assume concretion.  What seems to be indisputable, though, is the impact of our current global turbulence on the themes and lyrics.  From the telling title, to the faux nonchalance of Traveling Light, the sense of a pared-down sparsity is both bleak and elegaic:

I'm traveling light
Its au revoir
My once so bright
My fallen star.

While Leaving The Table may evince a sort of Learian liberation from the rigors of the system, the overwhelming sense is one of  honest realism. Some of the lyrics make painful listening, rueful laments which might be echoed by many of us who have this year made decisions - personal, professional, political - we severely regret:

It seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak 
But now its much too late
To turn the other cheek

Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way 
Sounded like the truth 
But its not the truth today 

The late writing of Leonard Cohen may embody an enormity of worldly disorder and despair, as amid bloody hills and devils, They whisper still, the Ancient stones / The blunted mountains weep, but there is, in language framed uncannily in the terms of both current international politics and Biblical Universality, a definite and unshakeable search for unity: 

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
Its over now, the water and the wine

I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine. 


During times of upheaval, the poetry, prose and music of Leonard Cohen have been constants in my life,  as I know they have for millions of others.  So rich and multi-faceted is his galaxy of words that my love of his work will only increase as every song or poem reveals further wonder and beauty on each revisiting. 

When I saw Leonard Cohen in 2013, the performance was theatrical and joyful: a band comprised of musicians and instruments from all over the world, The Webb Sisters backing him, and a glow of life-affirming vitality beaming from the stage.  Leaving the venue, as I threaded through the Saturday night streets of Leeds, I passed battalions of men and women amid their nights on the town, waving bottles in the air or yelling at each other from club doorways, noticing just how angry, aggressive and unhappy almost everybody seemed.  What a contrast to the buoyant euphoria I had left behind, but on whose wave I would ride all the journey home.  In these dark times of division and despair, it is to Cohen I so often turn, not to affirm my belief in any ideology or dogma, but to escape the chaos of a world I sometimes fear I no longer recognize.  It is to his words and familiar voice I have so often listened "through the nights of wild despair," and I know that as the terrain of an uncertain future unfolds, he will continue to be with me, like a friend, as I wait for the light to get in.

So yes is my answer, naturally. Yes I was - and forever shall be - a fan of Leonard Cohen. 











Monday, 31 October 2016

Tonight's poetry launch at The Blue Teapot: The Calder Valley Codex, by Steve Nash


Join us at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, for poetry by Steve Nash, whose new collection The Calder Valley Codex I am proud to be publishing.  Sadly Helen Mort cannot appear as advertised, but we have a stellar line up comprising Steve, Genevieve Walsh (also hosting) and Alan Wrigley - with a few poems from me as well, including from the Codex. With beautiful art work by York-based artist Nicole Sky, The Calder Valley Codex is a kaleidoscope of myth and folklore, crafted into poetry by the expert hand of 2014 Saboteur Award Winner for Best Spoken Word Performer, Steve Nash.7-9PM, The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, HX7 5LL.



Saturday, 1 October 2016

In Defence of Libraries


The following is the full version of my letter published in the Morley Observer, in reply to a correspondent who wrote in support of threatened library closures.  He claimed that we should waste no time trying to keep libraries open since "we have the internet now," and that if we relied on libraries our society will fall behind.  "I have not set foot in a library for over twenty years," he revealed, and explained that whenever he wants to read a book he simply buys it on Amazon.  I am pleased to say that the paper then published a whole host of letters arguing the opposing case - demonstrating the strong public feeling in defence of libraries.

THE EXTENDED VERSION OF MY LETTER:

How disappointing to read Mr Nick Keer's letter (21/09/16) calling for library closures because he has not used a library in over twenty years and can buy books on Amazon. For me, this letter typifies the reductive, self-centred cynicism that has come to define our ignorant, click-bait age where "Get me what I want now!" and "If I don't like it, ban it," are the prevailing mentalities. I take issue with Mr Keer's argument, and would like to explain to him precisely why.





First of all, Mr Keer, if you have not been inside a library for two decades (which you proclaim as if it were something to be proud of), how can you have any idea of the service you are missing, and of which you would happily deprive countless others?  Moreover, just because you have chosen to avoid them, why should others be robbed of the chance of visiting? I have not made it to Blackpool for over twenty years, do you suggest we cordon that off as well?
To implement your wish of closure, existing libraries would have to be emptied, to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of waste - and assuming your wish to see them closed extends to every library in the world (and your letter gives no suggestion it does not) would be nothing short of an international Futurist Revolution as reckless as the destruction of all schools. Your suggestion that, as you can find all you need on Amazon, we should dispense with a millennia-old practice of storing books in libraries, beggars belief, but is typical of the black-and-white, either-or, binary thinking increasingly taking hold of our society. All too often - in culture, in politics, in major decisions and in everyday life - we are expected or forced to choose between two stark alternatives, when so often the key to making good choices, and to embracing the multiplicity of a full and diverse world, is knowing when and how to bring together the positive aspects of different things, not to throw all our eggs in one basket and consign the rest to oblivion. Why force a choice between the internet and libraries?  Why not use both?  And what about those who cannot afford to buy books?  As the American writer and environmentalist Anne Herbert memorably puts it, "Libraries will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries."  What's more, the public library system actually offers far more flexibility and choice than online buying - many's the time I have been unable to find rare or out-of-print books online - and when I have they have often been unaffordable - only to discover that they can be ordered (often free of charge) at the library. 




 Something else you will not find on Amazon is the friendly advice of knowledgeable staff - I would far rather a recommendation or a helping hand with research from a dedicated, experienced library staff member than a whole stack of badly written, often biased Amazon "reviews". 




While we are on the subject of staff, I might point out that libraries remain a means of employment for many people - and places where innumerable others can and do go for help in gaining work, via the many jobseekers' advice and IT courses and sessions offered, but considering your "Its no use to me so scrap it" attitude I expect this will cut little ice.

There are a great many benefits to be found from library use, which one cannot gain on Amazon.  When, Mr Keer, was the last time you saw an exhibition by local artists on Amazon?  When was the last time Amazon provided space for up-and-coming writers to talk about, discuss, and even sell their work in front of live audiences?  Did you ever go to a coffee morning to raise funds for cancer charities or elderly care "on Amazon"?  Libraries provide all of these things - and a whole lot more. I have attended, facilitated and hosted dozens of literary and performance based events, children's activities, talks and readings - not on Amazon, but in the welcoming environment of public libraries. I have sat and listened to expert speakers from the worlds of science, history and art, watched films and visual presentations, seen live drama, listened to live music, attended craft workshops, eaten new kinds of food and met fascinating people whose paths would never have crossed mine if not for libraries, as well as discovering many writers and having the honour seeing my own work appear on library shelves.






Many famous authors (including those whose books you buy on Amazon) have found libraries to be sources of inspiration - some would never have become writers at all if they had not used libraries as children. 




As readers, we are likely to encounter a wider range of books than if we depended purely on our own purchasing preferences.  With a dazzlingly wide range of free borrowing (or even the chance to just leaf through for a few minutes here and there), I have found myself delving into ideas, philosophies and visions totally contrary to my own - sometimes reaffirming my initial viewpoint and simply providing interesting insights into ways of life or schools of thought, at other times enabling me to change or adapt my thinking in enlightened ways, or just giving me a bit of a laugh or a smile at otherwise difficult times.  What price can be put on this?  



Libraries bring disparate people together.  They provide locations for community festival events, are important centres for regular children's activities (what could be more important than assisting the development and imaginations of the next generation?), trusted locations for community groups and meetings of senior citizens, and play a vital role in helping the vulnerable - I have worked in Mental Health and Social care, and have personally witnessed the ways in which some of the most marginalized people have gained in confidence, language and communication skills, thanks to regular library visits.  I have seen how youngsters have enjoyed craft groups, lego clubs, singing sessions and the chance to explore a multitude of books transporting them from everyday reality. I have known children from disturbed or underprivileged backgrounds learn new skills and find unexpected fun and creativity, adults with learning disabilities learn to read and write, the blind and visually impaired make use of books on cd, braille and specially-tailored IT facilities. 





Libraries are fun, emancipating places, and are also of great value educationally.  School classes use libraries, and in this way introduce many youngsters to the service who would, due to unstable or neglectful upbringings, never venture within if reliant only on their parents.



 I have met people studying for degrees for whom the library was invaluable - living in crowded shared accommodation or dysfunctional families, it was the only place they could find sufficient peace and quiet to sit and study. To recount the experience of the great American author Ray Bradbury: "When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years." 
I have seen charities and local businesses boost their chances of success thanks to library advertising and promotion, collaborative projects with local schools, academics making use of priceless local history materials (audiovisual resources, archive publications, 500 year old documents and maps) and more.  I have seen the absolute wealth of archived documents such as Hansard (every volume) , Government White Papers, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of published newspapers and magazines, professional journals, and literature of interest to people with disabilities, financial problems and complex needs, as well as using local libraries for research in many of my own pursuits - from locating obscure poetry to discovering facts about my own family history. You just can't do all that on Amazon, Mr Keer.
Even assuming that you have all your current needs met on the internet, can you be sure that you will never find yourself in need of IT facilities you do not possess?  What will you do if your printer runs out of ink and you need to print an urgent document? To scan or fax important legal information at short notice? All of this can be done in libraries, which offer a profusion of other computer-based services, such as IT learning from the most basic level, to free use of brilliant resources such as international newspapers, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary Online, Naxos Music, Ancestry.com and many other websites, as well as a wide range of official procedures such as registering to vote.  But I suspect you, Mr Keer, can get all of this on Amazon?

A library is a vital part of any community and helps to give a place its heart.  When I move to or even visit a new town or city, one of the first places I look for is the library. It is part of the fundamental identity of any area, a place where safety and security are guaranteed and, for some, one of the only - in some cases the only - outlet for meeting and talking to other people. It is also part of the fabric of our country's history - public libraries were once memorably described to me by a Sudanese friend as the single best invention of the Western World.



The Public Libraries Act of 1850 (which I am sure you know all about, being an expert on libraries) was a pioneering piece of legislation that served to educate future generations, but was vehemently opposed by regressive voices whose negativity I am afraid to say you echo.  The provisions of the Act were a force for empowerment and the enlargement of learning, so it is hardly surprising that many in the "old guard" of our legislative institutions tried to fight it.  Such attitudes persist, and have found an assumed legitimacy in our own uncertain times. Vital public services are under threat, with library closures a sign of the shrinking value placed by our political authorities on culture, heritage and learning. Some areas have been left all the poorer for the closures of their  libraries, with children and the infirm left unable to visit alternative branches due to busy roads or dangerous streets. It is a wonder that any libraries at all have survived the last six years of Tory cuts, and as the Labour Party's leadership election result has effectively condemned it to remain in Opposition for at least the next ten years, then in the absence of a sustained resurgence from the Liberal Democrats or any other progressive party, the dangers for libraries look set to continue.  It is undeniable that providing libraries does cost money - but as the US journalist Walter Cronkite once observed, "Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation."
These dark days of "if it doesn't make a profit, cut it" are exactly when we should be focused most on protecting libraries for the good of one another, whether you use them personally or not.  Otherwise, given the negative, narrow outlook of the times, we may well wake up one day and find that people like you, Mr Keer, have got your wish - and where will the cultural destruction end, and at what cost to the social, cultural and intellectual future of our country? "First they came for the libraries, but I got all I wanted on Amazon and didn't use libraries, so I did nothing..."

I must admit, when I began writing this reply, my mood was combative, and I little expected it would win you round to any sort of common ground.  However, focusing on all the many wonderful things libraries have brought into our communities has, in fact, moved me to realize what a sadly lacking life you and others, in your self-imposed library exile, must have led these twenty years. I therefore throw down the gauntlet to you, Nick Keer, and instead of ending impolitely, or trying to score any further points, I invite you - I urge you - to swallow your pride, overcome your fear of these valuable, open, free, liberating places, and take the plunge - step over the threshold after twenty years of tragic absence, and walk into your local library, or any library, and find out what you have been missing.  You never know, Nick, with an open mind and a will to try new things, you may even enjoy it.

Indeed, you might just find that it could change your life.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Memories of Light - Poems for a Liminal Age

Last August,  Poems for a Liminal Age, an anthology of poetry in support of the charity Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), was published by SPM Publications, edited by Mandy Pannett. The book remains available, and it is one I heartily recommend. Along with fellow Calder Valley poet Anthony Costello, I was privileged to attend and read at the book's Northern launch in Huddersfield, and as we approach the anniversary of that event, I am drawn to reflect on both the quality of the anthology, and of how its themes (and the conflicts and politics which necessitate the work of charities like MSF) tragically persist.



Described as offering a view of the way a certain group of people at a certain time in their planet's history see their lives and the world they live in, the anthology traverses a spectrum of experience and observation and includes poetry from Roselle Angwin, David Caddy, Wendy Klein, Alison Lock, Helen Moore, Miles Salter, Marc Woodward, and many more.

In the preface, the editor explains I think I am speaking for everyone involved ... when I say how pleased and proud I am that part of the proceeds from sales of the book will be going to support Medicines sans Frontieres in its generous and courageous efforts to relieve and prevent suffering across the world.  

Addressing the book's title, Mandy examines the meaning of the word "liminal" and its poetic connotations:

'Liminal' is an ambiguous term with several shades of meaning, lending its self to many subtle interpretations, as shown in this book.  For myself, I suppose I see it as a word suggesting thresholds, transition, a midpoint, a space between possibilities, but throughout the editing I have been concerned to let contributors select their own spiritual, social, political, cultural or philosophical approaches to the theme.
This editorial liberality provides for a wide-ranging canvas of interpretations on the theme, from the danger, destruction and death of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, where

Whole towns collapsed. Planks
strewn like yarrow stalks swirled,
sub-divided into driftwood piles.
Bodies like drowned stoats stink along the shore
(Diana Mitchener)


to the soulful hope of Rose Flint's Prayer for Always Peace, in which the poet asks all the animals to open their mouths / to howl this prayer for peace, and

...the moon and the sun pause in the sky
as night and day, as right and left, as east and west
as all that is opposite yet may still come into balance
in harmony with this world, and in time

There is a peaceful element at work throughout much of this thought-provoking anthology, as in Catherine Ayres' poem Return to Coniston Water:

If I choose to forget
I would sit by the lake
stretched like a lapse
in this memory of light.

If I choose to forget
I would skim its pale stone
let my arms drift like snow
fold their white into white.

and the melancholy beauty of S.M. Beckett's Winter in Caroni, where

Amethyst clouds push darkness
over the hills where a man walks his life
through umber shadows.

This idea of moving and travelling through life is further emphasized by a glorious trio of poems by Northumbria's Oonah Joslin, beginning with the photographic quality of Toronto Journey, in which

The girl on the train sips at her drink; gazes with longing
through the beaded rain...

imagining alternate destinations

and continuing through Toronto Girl, who lives a life of gadgets and twenty four carat bank finger-sampling sushi mall bites, to the far away cultures and beautiful horizons of Haiku, which ends portentously with an unexpected segue into violence. 



The suffering hinted at or even graphically written of in Poems for a Liminal Age tends to be depicted by its effects.  In this way, the book avoids a judgmental or sensationalist tone, aiming to fix its readers' focus on the devastation MSF aims to ameliorate.  Thus, in the poem Phalin by Neil Howell, the eponymous cyclone - though described without pulling punches (punching west, / southpaw storm-surge hammering the coast) somehow seems more menacing in the desolation of its aftermath:

scurrying children cling frantic to your hands...

Return, distraught at the apocalyptic scene,
scour the flotsam, the scattered debris where you supposed
your hut, your house, your life, your home had once been.

But the elements - even when wild and stormy - are not restricted to roles of destruction, as evidenced by a rather splendid double page spread of poems extolling the majesty of coastal scenery and folklore.  Coming roughly half way through this moving, provocative, energizing anthology, Kate Firth's Crackington Haven on New Years' Eve, begins

At the twist of the year, watching the whirl
of the world on the cliffs

and gorgeously weaves the liminal theme of a precipice of change throughout its glimmering three stanzas, as This storm / is skirring your ragged December.




The poem is faced on the adjacent page by Outliers, by Rachel J Fenton, who immediately injects a note of fairytale magic into the Shakespearean-sounding ophiolite rock of a Shetland landscape:

Bathed in Burra Firth's foamy mouth,
Flugga's mermaid coifs
her hair aloft...

mafic glass crackles like static in magic
light at her feet.

My own offering to Poems for a Liminal Age stemmed very much from this same kind of pastoral and yet transitional place, a desire to embrace the impenetrable and break through the limits of everyday realities and escape into something which brings together both the natural and the mystical:


JUNIPER

I want to see Juniper.

Not driveways or dual carriageways
but Juniper,
to open the door to its green greeting,
just a single stem, one tree
to guard against the plague.

I am open to all species -
Chinese, common, the cedarish lace columns
of softwooded Juniperus virginiana,
pencil cedar, whose long-needled juvenility
bears lime-like ovals of dehiscent green,
aromatic, heartwood of rose-red, inward bleeding,
sistering Hibernica, communis of the purpling fruits, savin,
hybrids with their bluish berries ripening roundly like the
glimmering gems of delicate necklaces.

And if I cannot see it, I’ll imagine Juniper.
My thoughts and angers, my anxieties, 
those last thoughts
passing through the brain as I drift to sleep
like the revs of cars half-heard deep in the night,
all will be sharpened in the shape of Junipers,
their stoicism, spindling twigs and petioles,
their daggered leaves, love-bladed, 
hanging like manicured fingers.

I will imagine Juniper,
dream their gin-sting and their brown dye gifts,
their ancient acid foliage, their voluptuous,
medicinal fruits

Just as I imagine you, 
perennial and spicily defensive, hardy 
but becoming more elusive

I was honoured to read this poem at the Huddersfield launch, and when I did so I commented on the strong political messages that had been conveyed in some of the preceding readings.  I noted how although this had been done with admirable verve and power by the poets concerned, it was generally not my tendency to express these themes in poetry, owing to my own general bafflement at world affairs and the inability I feel to arrive at any kind of concrete conclusions as to the causes of current conflicts, much less to pronounce my own opinions on how they might be solved.  Rightly or wrongly, it is my belief that the human race is in the grip of unfathomable, relentless and in some cases irreversible hate and discord.  Indeed, we might be said to very much inhabit a Liminal Age - a time when the old boundaries and battle-lines have shattered, when the problems of international cohabitation appear to defy logic or answers. Much of the planet seems in the grip of revolutionary ferment, and in the absence of straightforward, comprehensible narratives, human beings find ourselves pondering the insoluble, and yet aware of fear and changes in the air.  David Caddy brilliantly evokes this sense of impending change in For A Week In May 1968, when

Chub were visible late afternoon.
Early crabapples appeared in profusion.
The cart horse was mysteriously led away
amid cries of malo-lactic fermentation.

This somewhat bucolic scene, recalling for me scenes from Constable's paintings, until the mysterious departure of the horse conveys a more foreboding feeling, carries a prophetic quality when considered in the context of the poem's title.  Without the slightest indication of these events within his poem, David Caddy's title has evoked for me the imagery of French uprisings and strikes, street battles and the fleeing of De Gaulle:

Onion men sat on their bicycles
schoolboys wrestled in bed with transistors,
gypsies took their pegs and luck to town,
the milling conveyed to famish and dwindle

When I consider the turbulence of previous decades, it seems that little, internationally, has changed, and instead of pretending to offer magic solutions, Poems for a Liminal Age positions its self, in the spirit of its title, firmly on the side of the sufferers, those caught in the cross-fire of insoluble conflicts or the blameless victims of  catastrophes of climate and environmental degradation.  Patricia Ace's searing Refuge delivers just this kind of non-judgemental, compassionate portrait, with its painfully straightforward image of a refugee:

Louis has taken sanctuary at the airport.
In Terminal 4 he loses himself in thronging crowds
jostling trolleys across acres of high-gloss flooring,
luggage tagged with details of fixed abodes.

It is precisely in response to the horrific persistence of these problems that Medicines sans Frontieres exist, and I salute Mandy Pannett in her production of this anthology in support of them. 


Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Moonlight and Magic: Alison Lock's debut novel Maysun and the Wingfish





Readers of this site will know I am a huge fan of Alison Lock - whose poetry I celebrated in the opening post of 2016:

http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/2016_01_01_archive.html

and whose work I have profiled on the Caterpillar Poetry youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rglPI8qsgnM

so it will come as little surprise that when Alison's first novel Maysun and the Wingfish was published this July, I read it eagerly. 

Maysun and the Wingfish is such a wonderful novel for all ages - beautifully crafted dreamscape of tribal legends, supernatural forests and magical realities.  It follows the story of Maysun, a young girl who sets out on a dangerous journey to restore harmony in the wake of an environmental crisis.  The story begins in Maysun's homeland, "the world of Watterishi, a place where grey skies and green-brown land merge into a camouflage", and with an overview of the community, its way of life, agricultural practises and buildings, and the world where all this happens, together with descriptions of its plants and the Wingfish which populate its waters - and whose presence, in a ominous conjunction with the recent appearance of the planet Ares in the skies, embodies a cautionary pre-telling of the story:

It has been three score years since Ares came within a whisker of the planet, sending shudders through to the core.  No-one knows why it happens, when it will happen, or why it appears to chase the full moon, or why the moon changes colour becoming red and looming large. But when Ares comes close every creature cowers in fear of its destructive force. The older Watterishi are fearful of the full moon and bide their time until it has passed. The elders no longer speak of the planet they fear as if doing so might evoke an evil omen. To minify the bad forces, the Elders rarely eat the Wingfish although at times they are driven by hunger to sacrifice a few. But by way of compensation, they give back one tenth of the Gringrows they collect, always leaving enough for the Wingfish. They believe that as long as the Wingfish are happy, the moon chaser will never strike.

The significance of the Wingfish are underlined in the earliest paragraphs, when Maysun herself declares: "Wingfish are so beautiful!" and the first chapter concludes in peace and beauty:

As the moonlight steals through the reedy walls of their abode, it catches only the oily glisten of their skin as they entwine and perform their love-making.  By dawn, their gleaming bodies are as slippery as the fish in the lake.



But the environmental scales are tipping in the world of Watterishi, since:

This season the Watterishi have gone too far; they have plucked at the roots of the Gringrow that once held firm the sides of the lakes.  Maysun can hear oozing and bubbling as the Wingfish writhe in the shallows.  They are agitated.

Maysun's planet is attacked by the destructive power of a "Soomoon" storm, Maysun's world is thrown into chaos:

There is a flash from above.  The ground below is rumbling, the waters quiver.  Bolts of firelight cross and cross before the eyes of the Watterishi. Shards of lightning flare, pluming out across the valley.  A terrible noise fills the air as the darkness in all its shades of grey and black and red explodes.

Maysun's father is initially optimistic of his planet's chances.  "It'll soon abate," he says of the rain.  It doesn't. We are then sucked into a post-Apocalyptic aftermath of rising waters, desolated villages, and a struggle to survive. 

The Watterishi are clinging to the poles with the water rushing around them, the Wingfish catch at them with their quill-like tails, their mouths biting.  Many of the Watterishi can no longer hold on and are swept away into the surging waters.  Some are submerged for a short time but rise again. Some are drawn into the muddy swamps where they come face to face with the grotesque creatures that lurk in the silt.  Disturbed now, the carrion feeders have risen to the surface for the first time, stretching wide ther throats and yowling their displeasure at the heavens.  The surviving Watterishi are left clinging to pieces of driftwood, clumps of tiles, the remains of rafts until they are dragged further and further from their homes with each rising wave.



I do not wish to spoil the plot by revealing much more of what happens to the Watterishi, or indeed to Maysun, as she embarks on her dangerous journey across her Soomoon-savaged world, where:

The dwellings of the Watterishi are gone: the only trace are the stumps of their posts in the mud ... All around her is mud, slipping and sliding and oozing.  Everything has been suffocated by the slimy earth.  Even the Ruba trees at the edge of the forest, in the distance, have lost their footholds and their white roots are exposed, flapping in the running waterways.

These Ruba trees are themselves an integral part of the story - seemingly semi-creature, semi-plant, with the capacity to entwine around their victims and suck them into the earth - reminding me of the voracious desert-dwelling reptilian Salek of the Star Wars trilogy.  And the author's ability to conjure up a world of grotesque danger does not end there - in passages almost like something out of Milton's Paradise Lost, we find ourselves enfolded in a forest whose zoology, to maintain my Star Wars comparison, is occasionally reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt:

...the old footpaths and byways have grown over becoming an impenetrable force of undergrowth and tightly packed foliage, and with the added danger of the Ruba's sticky droppings ... Few animals survive in the darkest shadows of the forest.  The grand slimers remain, the largest of the gastropods, who, unlike the other slow moving creatures have not died out.   With their vile secretions, they dissolve the rubbery textures, gaining purchase on a sheath of bark, stretching and shimmying along the far branches of a tree until they reach the sweetest leaves,

You might easily imagine the appeal such a depiction might hold for a mollusc-doting poet like myself!  These forest creatures are depicted peacefully above, but the rough-and-tumble of forest life (and death) is sharply accentuated in the descriptions of the activities of Stonebears, who dwell in caves and engage in territorial battles:

The loser is forced to leave the cave and in the ensuing battle they can be heard slipping down the scree, bellowing their invocations in a violent remonstrations ... sometimes the loser is left clinging to a tree in a final hg of desperation as the ribbons of sticky Ruba wrap themselves around him in an inescapable trap.

If the natural history of Alison Lock's fantastical planet appears defined by struggle and violence, this is even more dominant in the lives of its humanoid inhabitants - beset by a tribal antagonism, whose protagonists - the Watterishi and Peakerfolk people - are divided by a long-time segregation and animosity, whose borders are traversed when the paths of Maysun and her male Peakerfolk counterpart, Borro - not to mention his faithful dog Worro - unexpectedly cross.  The futility of division is emphasized when we learn that the very devestation encountered by the Watterishi has also befallen the territories of their tribal rivals:

... the Peakerfolk had watched the Soomoon from the mouths of their caves, high in the mountains. They saw the full moon and then they saw the grey planet of Ares. And then the storms began and the mountains seemed to creak and rock as the winds and the rains blasted against their homeland.  When th shuddering of the rocks finally relented, and the last boulders had slipped down the scree the Peakerfolk, who had crept deeper into their caves, were shivering under their blankets ... They had seen how the Soomoon was wrecking the valleys below and they were knew that the river beds would be filling and swelling.  Many dreamed of cursed waters, oozing and luring them to their deaths.  In their sleep, they fought through suckers and winding roots that hung in long fibrous tentacles along cave walls, all the while clutching at their sleep-heavy limbs.



What follows is a classic tale of poignant heroism, peppered with a largely dark and intriguing supporting cast, including a thuggish tyrant, a shadowy talismanic figure, and a duo whose comic clumsiness somewhat endears them to the reader, and might do even more so if not for the acutely skilful manner in which they are depicted as genuinely menacing and hostage to deep-seated prejudices.  Driven by fear and a narrow worldview hammered into them from birth,  Goss and Hind take their place in the classic tradition of blundering villainous double-acts, and stand out for me as both a triumph of characterization and a wonderful mirror in which to offset the maturity and hope of the two central characters.

Maysun and the Wingfish, then, might justly be described as a reflection of many of our own world's conflicts and divisions, and as a plea for understanding and alliance across apparent barriers of difference. Yet the novel can also be taken as a purely imaginative excursion into a world of dreams, danger and magic: indeed, I read it very much in a mood of escapism - struggling with depression and the pressures of "the real world", I wished to take cover in an alternative reality, which, thanks to this engaging and hypnotic novel, I found.  Resplendent in hints of CS Lewis or the more adventurous novels of HG Wells, Maysun and the Wingfish is nonetheless a unique book, and throughout its shimmeringly lyrical and page-turningly enticing text, Alison Lock's victorious debut treads a fine balance between fairytale and parable, as its emotive narrative of rivals, superstitions, morality and, perhaps above all, the plight of the environment, has the capacity to both transport the reader into another world, and to bring home to them the urgent realities of our own.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

"Knowing My Place" - Bob Horne's Debut Poetry Collection




Bob Horne's debut collection, Knowing My Place (Caterpillar Poetry 2016) was published this month, and launched in the magnificent setting of the Smith Art Gallery, within Brighouse Library, West Yorkshire.




Containing 41 poems within a beautifully designed, dreamy yellow cover - which features the author's own photograph of his trademark bicycle resting against a road sign in the Scottish Highlands - Knowing My Place is a sparkling suite of poems, whose geographical reach stretches from a post-war childhood in the Industrial North, to the tumbling crofts of the Hebrides, from the a frosty Lake District where The water is almost still. / Burnt umbers of autumn's fading fronds / will blur on its surface. / Boulders flock like sheep over falling screes, to the streets of New York in a sweltering summer - and to the reassuring simplicity of English village cricket.  All of these situations and locations, and many more, are observed through the prism of the poet's mindful, compassionate, acutely analytical perspective.  In 2016, proving itself to have been among the most difficult of this country's recent years in so many ways, it is a pleasure, indeed a greatly needed relief, to turn to this insightful and reflective collection.

A retired teacher of English, Bob Horne has also worked in such diverse occupations as that of a stone-dresser and a milkman, and has played an active role in the local poetry scene: one of the hosts of Sowerby Bridge's Puzzle Poets Live, his publishing venture Calder Valley Poetry, has struck an innovative note in a valley emerging from the recent misery of the Boxing Day Floods, bringing to light new collections by Peter Riley, John Foggin, Mark Hinchcliffe and many more. 


His own poetry traverses a thematic spectrum which takes in memories of childhood explorations of rock pools, underground streams and the grey-green emptiness of sea -

That summer I was strong enough
to swim out, haul myself from the water
on to the black wooden boards
as the tide smacked at its sided.

From harbour to headland
chalk cliff to shore line
summer colour covered the sands, 
spilled into the fringes of the sea

- but also plausible and engaging portrayals and descriptions of characters as diverse as the British mountain photographer WA Poucher, World War One soldiers, and Anne Frank, movingly imagined cycling  

... beneath 
Carrock Fell's volcanic crags, 
tyre-rasp on dry tarmac, 
gripping the camber round the road's curves,
spinning past low farms, limestone walls, 
the Glenderamackin as it gallops 
down to Wordsworth's Derwent
and onto the Irish sea.
 
Perhaps the most startling of the poems concerns the memory of a local chip shop owner's daughter, while others manage to be simultaneously nostalgic and witty, such as the lovely Great Leap Forward and the bittersweet Friends Reunited, in which a teenage relationship is fondly recalled, defined by afternoons of listening to Glenn Miller with the approval of your mother, and depicted in the clumsy romance of adolescence:

I remember one town-centre Saturday
in drizzle-dark December:
you in your yellow PVC raincoat
fashionably, I supposed, tied
at the waist, making your way
from the 41 bus
to where I lolled, combat-jacketed,
by the Gents in George Square.

Bob writes very strongly about people - often with the sense of a story, and I am greatly taken with his ability to draw out the most vital and memorable aspects of a person's life, and so present a kind of condensed autobiography which is under-emphasized, subtle, linguistically economical and yet teeming with the essence of that person - it is a style surely rooted in the very kind of traditional Northern culture (a culture characterised by its understatements, shyness of the limelight, and no-nonsense, matter-of-factness) that he brings so elegantly to life.
Sometimes this skill is highlighted by his ability to draw out observations of individuals, as in Busker: an elegiac, melancholy narrative which is at once dreamlike and life-like. I feel I can see the busker and his love, and both have a realistic sense of character. On other occasions, the lens is fixed on a more general metaphor for a wider range of people, such as Navvy.  Here, we find a whole trajectory of historical exploitation, and achievement, represented by a monologue-like exposition of hard facts:

You've seen my embankments, cuttings,
tunnels where I blasted and hacked
through granite, Kentish coastal chalk,
millstone grit of northern dales.

The poem pulls no punches.  We are told both of the calling curlew, and the brutal realities of life - and death - imposed on those labouring generations packed in shanty towns, who were

Killed by winter, disease and drink,
killed by landslips,killed by the wind;
killed by capital's careless pace.

But it is perhaps in relation to his own family and ancestors that Bob's poetry is most naturally focused.  Ancestry forms a kind of centre-piece to the collection, divided equally between portraits of the poet's mother and father, and contrasting the tranquility of bike rides around 

... Langstrothdale, over Fleet Moss
and Buttertubs, down Swaledale, West Tanfield

and the dangers, and oddly banal routine, of war:

First house at The Albert that Saturday
was Robert Newton in 'Hell's Cargoes.'
The siren must have gone during the film,
but by then nobody paid much attention.

If planes were flying along the valley,
people used to say, from the engine sound,
"That's a German bomber," or, "One of ours,"
reckoning they could tell the difference. 

In Christmas Morning, we find ourselves shivering in wintry weather:

Cold rain in an east wind
on grandad's allotment
where I wasn't allowed-
He likes to be on his own 
when he's back from work-
except this once a year.

Icicle fingers ripping sprouts
from their stalks for dinner
then into the frowsty shed
for his tale of the Territorials. 

My Father's Father is so lovingly recollected and yet simple, an uncomplicated recording of a life. Its like a biography in poetry, a whole life's story condensed into these clear, deceptively straightforward examples, all of which have a filmic clarity, and which again distills the spirit of an older generation, the "keep myself to myself" Yorkshiremen of yesteryear, and the sense of lives pushed to the margins by the impact of war.  




But the natural world is also evoked with much beauty and detail:

Like a sheet of white shadow 
close enough to disconcert
it climbs from the cottongrass,
iolaire suil na greine- 
eagle of the sunlit eye-
smoulders for a moment
still as a Stone Age carving,
until it rises, in its own time,
above this wilderness, the bay, the ocean, 
leaves me at best 
a fleck of a far-off star.

(White Tailed Eagle)

In Red Deer, Bob encounters the animals where snow drifts deep, at the closing of a December day, feeling himself to be "trespassing" along the arrogant track of human interference in the wild environment.



At times these qualities of the natural and the personal are intertwined - as in the memories of childhood exploring - and perhaps most effectively in the understatedly beautiful Wanderer:

He dreams of an early morning,
dew dancing like stars
in sun's low-angled light
along the beech wood,
blackbird song in the thorn hedge,
beck hurdling over granite rocks.

She stands on the hill,
hair the colour of elderflower,
dress of wild pink thyme 

The poem has a lovely lyrical quality, and reminds me both of certain pastoral English poems but also of some of the songs of Bob Dylan - a favourite of Bob's, and honoured with a titular reference in the poem No Direction Home -  especially from the Blood on the Tracks period. In Wanderer's sublime three stanzas, we find poetry as sweet, loving, dream-laden and majestic as early Keats, the simple beauty of the Lyrical Ballads, the reflective sublimity of Hopkins, Heaney or the meditative magical of haiku and nature-laden Oriental verse:

She is Queen Anne's Lace,
Sweet Cicely, blackthorn blossom
lighting an April meadow 

It is tempting to imagine that the dreaming "He" of the poem, the wistful Wanderer delighting to the blackbird's song, is the poet himself, finding and finally knowing his place.  Like Endymion venturing through the forest brake, his reverie is demystified, or enhanced, and given form by the appearance of love.












  

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Fox Thoughts


 Since becoming Poet in Residence at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, my thoughts have naturally turned increasingly to the poetry of Ted Hughes.  One important element of this residency that I intend to focus on is my wavering relationship with Hughes' work, and my ongoing quest to explore and embrace the aspects of his poetry which delight, move or inspire me.  I have often struggled with the great body of poetry which comprises Hughes' published work, of which I have, at best, a pedestrian knowledge.  And yet, somewhat ironically, though not untypically for poets of my generation, Hughes was one of the poets whose work I grappled with, and loved, as a teenager. I refer in fact to one poem in particular - The Thought Fox.

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Hughes' first line reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Windhover; his second is positively chilling.  I think of The Traveller by Walter de la Mare, yet in a more brooding atmosphere, as the coldness of the clock and the poet's blank page seem to shiver in a halo of frost.  The next stanza maintains a feeling of uncertainty, with Hughes now casting a glance into the night outside:

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

The colon intensifies our sense of the approach.  As the "Something" from the forest begins to emerge, the poem unravels into a kind of metaphorical double bluff: just as Hughes begins to lift the veil, we find that the fox's nose which Cold, delicately as the dark snow ... touches a twig is not representative of a real, living creature - but the foot prints padding into the snow of the poets mind.  Hughes, with his shadowy thought-fox lagging across the clearings of his imagination, has transposed a poet's muse, his consciousness, the inner workings of his brain, into the animal Brilliantly, concentratedly, / Coming about its own business and entering the dark hole of the head until finally

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed. 




Published in 1957, The Thought Fox first appeared in Hughes' debut collection, was often his opening poem at readings, and one which he would sometimes describe as "my first animal poem."  Hughes also chose to start the selections in his Selected Poems and New Selected Poems with the piece - suggesting, as surmised by the poet and literary critic Keith Sagar, that the Edenic invocation of its opening words - I imagine - implies that he thought of it as an overture announcing the central theme of all his subsequent poems.  It would seem fitting, then, that like many other readers I had my first introduction to Hughes through this poem, with its quiet, delicate and yet very solid imageryAround twenty years ago now, I encountered the poem while studying English, in an inner-city comprehensive, surely a world away from Hughes' midnight forests and deepening greenness, yet immediately felt grounded in the senses of the cold, starless and lonely scene described - and visualizing the imaginary fox with a tangible sense of physical reality.

I first saw a fox in the early hours of a London morning, its fiery body weaving in and out of the alley-like warrens of east-end streets which jutted off the High Road in Leytonstone, stopping momentarily to fix me in a cautious, inquisitive, considered stare, before swooping back into the snickets and leaving me in the lamplight, impressed and somehow changed.  That part of London, with its endless takeaways and overflowing litter bins, was a magnet for the urban fox, while its greener stretches, where the town tapered into open fields and the wide green space of Wanstead Flats, no doubt provided an environment conducive for its untroubled domesticity - save that is, for the constant threat of traffic from the M11, winding round the greenbelt like a skeleton - or a noose.

In the early days of 2005, in a car on the outskirts of Leeds, I saw a fox in very different circumstances.  The so-called "ban" on Hunting with Dogs had come into effect days earlier, and was the stuff of much controversy.  It ought to have been fitting to have glimpsed such a creature, on a winter evening.  But sadly this fox was dead, a road casualty laid by some kind soul for its own posthumous dignity on the central reservation, its drying blood staining the snowy grass in a deep dark residue.
It would be some years before I saw a fox once more in the prime of life - but when I finally did, it seemed like the cork had been popped on a bottleneck of foxes.  Over the years I would watch them, diving and plummeting into undergrowth in urban woods, drifting through the long grass in the roadside copse of the suburb where I lived, or prowling like Hughes' thought-fox, by stump and in hollow.  



I like to see foxes in the country, but I have seen far more in cities and towns:

URBAN FOX

Bullet
of russet muscularity
knee high
and up to your eyes
in dandelions,
most feline
of your kind,
the always searching canid,
sinewy and taut,
prodigal child
of the copse:
no sooner had you
brushed against a fence
emerging from sedge
as if to prove, “I still exist,”
than the glimpse of you was gone—
a second’s shred
in which to see
that tail, ash-
white copper-coalesced
trailing like a newly lit
cigar. 



Of the 280,000 or so foxes here in Britain, around 30,000 are those who have adapted to urban life, 10,000 of which are in London alone.  Their rural cousins were for many centuries subjected to a cycle of abuse, whereby their numbers were boosted to unsustainable levels, beefed up by secret feeding programmes and tricks like "artificial earths, and - once numbers had grown to sufficiently high levels - hunted for sport.  Or foxes were persecuted for a problem they did not create -  blamed for predating on farm animals, despite the wealth of proven alternatives to lethal management.  Today's fox hunting remains as active as ever, but its worst aspects have been subdued by means of various legal loopholes.  Despite my great dissatisfaction with the ban - in reality little more than a rule-change to the sickly "sport" - I would certainly agree that its implementation represented a welcome step forward in the hope of an eventual, complete, end to hunting.  But instead, the rule change looks likely to serve as a time-lock on the practice, with precious little chance of any future government daring to risk igniting the unexpected Parliamentary and media volcano which erupted in the midst of the Hunting Act and its debates - an eruption best (worst?) typified the arrival of a boisterous gang of hunters bursting into the House of Commons, violently abusing those inside, kicking a doorkeeper, shouting and running amok - a display of petulant, threatening yobbery whose thuggish instigators should have been imprisoned.
The brutality of hunting, and the malicious mentality of those who undertake it, are brought into sharp focus by the Rotherham-born poet and factory owner Ebeneezer Elliott (1771-1849) :

What Gods are these? Bright red, or white and green,
Some of them jockey-capp'd and some in hats,
The gods of vermin have their runs, like rats.
Each has six legs, four moving, pendent two,
Like bottled tails, the tilting four between.
Behold Land-Interest's compound Man-and-Horse,
Which so enchants his outraged helot-crew,
Hedge-gapping, with his horn, and view-halloo,
O'er hunter's clover--glorious broom and gorse!


Known as The Corn Law Rhymer for his opposition to that law, it is safe to say that Elliott - whose interest in the welfare of his workers, and the labouring classes generally, earned him a reputation as a fierce opponent of injustice - would not have found himself, like his fellow Yorkshireman Ted Hughes, ever faced with the probability of the Poet Laureateship.  Although its functions and particulars may have changed, the central and defining focus of a Poet Laureateship remains the Monarchy, and it would be hard to imagine any member of the royal family - in Elliott's time or ours - ever appointing such a self-confessed opponent of their favourite bloody pastime to the role.  And it is largely on this point that my feelings towards Hughes are most decidedly cool.

For a lot of years I would not read Hughes - never out of the childish spite of one who shuns the work of those with whom they disagree politically for the sake of doing so (if anything it can be quite interesting to delve into the many different perspectives offered by a wider range of reading, and besides, it is once all is said and done the quality of the poetry, not necessarily its themes or the opinions of its author, which counts) - but because I felt, and feel, that there is always an implied, intrinsic dilution to the spirit of independence so integral to poetry when it is written for (or in celebration of) or funded by, an institution of the State, and especially when that institution is an unmistakable metaphor for the status quo, its historical basis, and the crooked social systems which ensure the existence of a greedy, anti-Democratic Establishment, exemplified by the British Monarchy, with its loot of centuries of plunder, its bloodthirsty ancestors, its current pantheon of parasites, and of course their attachment to the barbarity of hunting.

Many times I have read the argument, posited by the poet William Oxley, that any poet whose literary activities are subsidized by the Arts Council or similar public bodies, immediately becomes dependent on, and therefore an arm of, the State - and any essence of free-mindedness or dissent in what they write is therefore, even if only subconsciously, restrained.  I do not disagree with this argument. But I would extend it to the concept of the Poet Laureateship, and am saddened that Hughes, undoubtedly one of the greatest poets in England's history, whose evocations of the mysterious and majestic fox came in a sense to distill the spirit of his poetry, decided consciously to fasten the flag of his creative freedom to the main and central mast of the Establishment - and to a family for whom killing for enjoyment is a leisure activity.

This weekend, the BBC have imposed upon the nation a nauseating wave of sycophancy, encouraging us to celebrate the vacuous life of a woman none of us know, as "the Queen" enjoys her 90th birthday, with consistent inanity from gushing newsreaders and no suggestion that, for many (including royalists) the use of public funds (and charity money) on such an unworthy cause, at a time when vital services are closing due to cuts, is obscene. 
For me, opposing royalty is not a matter of being left or right wing. In fact, it is not a position I consider "political" at all.  It is those advocating the continuation of this silly system who are, in my view, adhering to a political ideology which serves the interests of a single family and their many hangers-on, at the expense of the taxpayer and of public institutions, as I suggested in my poem Anthem:

ANTHEM

God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
While the peasants count our blessings,
May Her Highness reign supreme.

Blessed be the Princes
Whose bills we toil to pay
While our Nursing Homes and hospitals
Slide into decay.

Who cares if kids get cancer
And die on under-funded wards?
We must not expect our money back
From Princes, Dukes or Lords.


May we subsidize the spongers
Until our dying days,
Funding drawing room refurbishments
And Harry’s holidays.

After all the good they've done us
Ingratitude's obscene -
Which is why we raise our glasses high, and say as one:
"God Save The Queen!"




Certainly, I would consider any piece of writing commissioned by any organization allied to their ilk as a gross betrayal of civilized values.  For others, the idea of royal patronage is an artistic irrelevance or imposition for yet more good reasons.  Robert Graves, who in 1957 turned down a CBE and, in 1984, a CH, hit the nail on the head when he decried the offering of State "honours" to poets as a move by the government to coax writers into The Establishment. 

Was Ted Hughes an Establishment man?  Should it matter if he was?  No doubt Hughes, like many of his generation, would have felt himself, if ever he addressed the subject at all, as a royalist, perhaps nominally (I always sense the presence of an England more rooted in something Blakean and Pagan, than the brashness of everyday political debate, in Hughes' poetry).  But regardless of his personal beliefs, the legacy of Ted Hughes - one of the dominant elements in Calder Valley poetry and heritage - has been allowed to serve the image and cultural purposes of the royal family.  Recently I asked contemporary Calder Valley poet Steve Nash for his thoughts on Hughes' legacy, and particularly the way in which his poetry is publicly received in the context of the Laureateship.
"Something I always find troubling about the BBC’s coverage of Hughes’ work," Steve explained, "is the repeated emphasis of Prince Charles’ appreciation," citing a documentary in which Charles was featured as the prominent closing voice, as if to say, felt Steve,  that for a poet with working class roots, "it’s only possible to be truly validated if they get a nod (or wave) of approval from the royals."

Great poetry requires no validation from any source, and certainly not from State-funded institutions or the members of a narrow, self-congratulating clique.  Yet I feel, sadly, that Hughes himself would have seen this emphasis on royal endorsement as a good thing.   Certainly, he would give short shrift to my complaints against his rubbing shoulders with the fox hunters.  No doubt, again in common with his age, Hughes would have made an unlikely vegetarian, but his relationship with animals was more complex than the typical, if regrettable, field-to-fork attitudes of most meat eaters.  I do not believe that Hughes himself rode to hounds, but I do know that for much of his childhood, and then again in later life, he engaged in hunting and trapping wildlife, was no stranger to shooting, and that many critics have drawn attention to the conflict in his poetry between an alliance with animals, and a lust for violence said by some - perhaps simplistically - to manifest a kind of skewed stereotypical heterosexual masculinity.  This no doubt is fuel for the fire of future essays and discussions, but for my part, as a relative newcomer to Hughes, or one who has returned after a long absence to read the poems in greater numbers and more depth, I must take each poem, and each portion of Ted Hughes' output, individually, sometimes balancing them in the contextual frame of his life and bibliography, at others preferring to isolate the beautiful and timeless images present in poems like The Thought Fox and holding close their power and acutely empathic observations of the natural world.  




 Photographs and Illustrations: 
1. Manfred Danegger
2.Jane Burton
3.Denys Ovenden
4. Jane Burton