In The Modern Poetic Sequence, M.L. Rosenthall and Sally M Gall identify the sequence as being the form most able to go ‘many-sidedly into who and where we are subjectively’. In their view, the sequence springs from the same pressures on sensibility that provoked poetic experiments with shorter forms – a response to possibilities of language opened up by the pressures of cultural and psychological crisis. ‘More successfully than individual short lyrics, however, [the sequence] fulfils the need for encompassment of disparate and powerfully opposed tonalities and energies…’
I’ve read this book as a way of developing my understanding of the possible structural dynamics of the poetic sequence. My sense of the text is that it has illuminated the great 20th Century modernist sequences more than it has those that follow – especially those falling under the wide umbrella of post-modernism. Published in 1983, it’s unable to address the oeuvre of a poet like Peter Reading – whose practice seems to absorb techniques learned from both traditions, whilst not fitting neatly into either. For me, Reading is a benchmark poet, offering a trinity of classical line, modernist juxtaposition and a post-modern flair for ventriloquism and pastiche. His intertextual sequences Last Poems and Chinoiserie are part of the inspiration for ‘Chinese Lanterns’ in my collection West North East. The other chief influence has been the Ezra Pound of ‘Cathay’, ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, and the Chinese cantos. It strikes me that both Reading and Pound developed a finer range of tones through their versions of classical Chinese verse.
I view ‘Chinese Lanterns’ as a post-crisis sequence. Though it aims to encompass disparate and opposed tones and energies, it does so in a playful way. Nevertheless, I’ve taken great care arranging modulations of tone and voice. Similar principles to those applied in ‘Fugue’ (the first of West North East‘s three sections) were explored. A difficulty was that of mapping and visualisation. How could I hold all the tonal streams and nodes of such a large sequence in my head at once? One solution was the construction of various tables. I’d map a potential order using a table, and then construct a makeshift pamphlet that would help me assess the sequence as a reading experience.
The first and last poems of the sequence always seemed clear to me: ‘Li Po’s Note to Self’ introduces the main speaker and the concept of the sequence; ‘Marcel Theroux stops me…’ provides an exit and a form of Afterword. I felt convinced that the two walking poems, ‘Moving with Thought’ and ‘A Trance-Walk with Musõ Soseki’ (each a sequence within the larger sequence), should be situated fairly centrally. They combine the calm of trance with physical movement, and hence provide a stable hub or axis.
Through reading and re-reading mock-ups, it also occurred to me that some groupings worked well together, whilst others didn’t. The Hillsborough street poems feel more substantial when read consecutively, whilst the verse-letters offer tangents that need to be dispersed more equably throughout the sequence – mimicking, perhaps, the intermittent correspondence in an individual life.
Care was taken in managing the various disparities. None should be allowed to congeal and clot the flow. Scatty jumps and juxtapositions maintain variation. Displacement must be balanced with readjustment: readjustment challenged by new displacements. The sequence must fidget between drunken intoxication and clear-eyed sobriety; between Taoist and Confucian; between the local and the exotic.
Serious and pastiche reference to various other sages and poets (Tu Fu, Rumi, Socrates, Wallace Stevens, Issa and Musõ Soseki) develops the sequence’s intertextual dimension: its reference to other eras and cultures, hopefully layering and deepening the sequence’s imaginative and self-critical scope. Li Po is displaced in time, as well as space. The ordering has been constructed to reflect a strengthening of confidence in this mode, ‘Honeysuckle Blooming in the Wildwood Air’ and ‘Li Po’s Letter to Rumi’ being more demanding of the reader’s credulity than the observational poems that open the sequence. Having said all this, I still feel an impulse to throw the whole thing down the stairs and let chance surprise me into seeing new possibilities. Were the sequence a slide show, I’d programme subtle and random variations into each loop – something not afforded by the spine binding of a book.
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book (and to order copies). Clegg discusses tone, idiom and displacement in ‘Chinese Lanterns’ in his recent interview with Elaine Aldred; click here to read the full interview. Audio recordings of Peter Reading’s collected works, including the sequences Last Poems and Chinoiserie, are now available to hear on the Lannan Foundation site: click here for the full index.
Listen to Matthew Clegg reading an extract from ‘Chinese Lanterns’ below:
The banal might be described in two distinct ways. Firstly, as the ordinary magnified to an extreme degree, the ordinary as an extra-mundanity. Secondly, banality might be described as the ordinary without adornment, a sneak preview of the passivity all objects possess at their core. I want to describe and discuss how photography often battles between this contra weight of the banal and the impact this has had on my own practices as a photographer.
In 2011 I began photographing a series of walls. I conceived of these initially as places where history had happened, walls with divots from crisis, event walls, trauma walls. However, as I began to invest more deeply into the series, these first thoughts about the photographs I had taken and their meaning began to lose weight. Somehow I just couldn’t get the pictures to mean in a faithful way. The more the photographs sought the site of their historical trauma, the more unstable (or, rather, unconvincing) they became. Perhaps, I thought during those early trysts, a ‘blue plaque’ system might be needed for each site, an extra-descriptive system to baluster this representational lack. Eventually it dawned on me that in order to represent the emotive condition of things now, it would be necessary to go back to their original source, I mean back beyond the point of trauma. Of course, we can’t do that.
It was only some time later, having virtually abandoned the series, that the problem became more acute. There was nothing to see, history had either been cleared up or pushed away somewhere much more clinical, into the plethora of museums or classrooms. As I began to take theory and practice as a simultaneous and contradictory will to photograph, I returned again to the images of walls with a renewed sense of purpose. Foucault describes this shift in thinking a little more succinctly: “It would be false to say, as the Maoist implied, that in moving to this practice, you were applying your theories.” No, I didn’t follow history into the museum (a different kind of banality) nor take its practices back into the world, but remained to photograph its lack, the traces of its loss. I knew this would cause other, separate problems. Perhaps the viewer would have to work harder to find meaning, that perhaps without ‘siting’ or signposting an event the photographs might simply be dull or – worse – meaningless. Either way, it had become impossible for me to search for ‘content’ in the subject through a perceived academic methodology. I wanted to stay where I was and photograph what I knew.
The resulting set of twelve images, photographed over one weekend, seemed to move closer to this ‘lack’. If photography is supposed to ‘mean’ by capturing the decisive moment, then these photographs seemed to do the opposite. I attached a generic title to the images – ‘Up Against a Brick Wall’ – to describe both the literal and the terminal extent of this morass. After publishing the photographs in a public forum, the lack of interest seemed only to confirm what I had suspected. Where these remained in a cultural backwater, unloved, other photographs I was publishing simultaneously seemed to gather support. This only added to my feeling that there is a prejudice against photography as a fully functioning representational tool, that history is rarely recognised through banality.
If every photograph has to ‘mean’, if that is the very essence of the photograph, then are these ‘unsited’ walls simply an anomaly, an exception to the rule? Was the lack of interest because they hadn’t enough meaning attached to them or that their meaning had not been fully realised? As I began to think a little more deeply I realised no, these photographs weren’t simply an aberration, an exercise in futility. Rather that throughout the history of photography itself, the struggle against representation and the manifestation of its loss has been continuously fought over.
An early precursor of this struggle might be Roger Fenton’s photograph of the Crimean war. The cannonballs almost blend into the rock and boulder landscape. Not so much a witness to the world, but a struggle against its banality. Or, shifting to the contemporary canon, a recent example might be Paul Graham’s Ceasefire, a series of photographs based around the troubles in Northern Ireland. What we see at first is a cloudscape, then, as the eye adjusts to meaning, at the bottom left of the photograph appears a different kind of cloud. We’re left to surmise from there. The point being that both Fenton and Graham disrupt the coda of representation; landscapes become marred, but almost imperceptibly, too much meaning versus too little.
Perhaps another way to describe banality in relationship to photography would be to see it as exposing the artifice of the new. What I mean by this is that photography often ‘means’ more after it has been culturally processed as meaning. For example, in Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, the images are re-photographed, re-posited to the point where the cowboy myth becomes simultaneously banal and (in)credible again as myth. William Eggleston is a master of refocusing the viewer on the already banal. He puts his camera into a showroom-clean oven to show use as useless. The banal as sublime and its counter-weight, the sublime as banal, seem here to go hand in hand. The first is easier to imagine, showing something in a new light, exposing it beyond the advertisers’ remit. But to show the sublime as banal? A much harder trick to pull off.
Karl Hurst‘s Flickr photosets can be viewed here. This essay first appeared on his blog in October 2012. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).
From the corner you could go anywhere, Leveson Street,
Warren Street, under the arches of Norfolk Bridge, over the river…
This is a place in Attercliffe, Sheffield – an intersection, where the narrator of one of my poems in The Footing, and the historical subjects he is tracking, raise their eyes to the possibilities of the urban horizon. It’s a point on a map; it is also a moment: a place reached, a pause in which the narrator’s present (which was mine, sometime in 2010) collides with the present of a gang of men, in the spring of 1925, walking away from a crime – a fatal attack on an Attercliffe man, for which two of them, a few weeks later, were to hang.
The title of my sequence is ‘Flights and Traverses’, chosen because I wanted to indicate how the poems describe movement away from a point (the ‘flight’) and also the phenomenon of that movement (the ‘traverse’ or crossing). But the sequence also has a subheading: 5 Itineraries; and it had an earlier, working title: ‘A Cartography’. Both suggest the original motive: I wanted to follow footsteps – but I was also interested in the imaginative possibilities of mapping and the itinerary.
‘Itinerary’ has its roots in the Latin for ‘travelling’ and is usually understood to mean either a plan or a record of a journey: it can therefore refer to an experience anticipated or recollected. There is also something of the professional: it traditionally refers to a day’s travel especially for the purpose of judging, or preaching, or lecturing. In many senses, it is a ‘setting out’.
When we consider the word ‘itinerant’, however, the intention is less about professing, more about exchange. We think of salesmen or peddlers: tinkers: wanderers: tramps. A story or song from the road for a fag or a sup. There is something, perhaps, about a bargain or a contract. This is implicit in the flights and traverses I’ve chosen to map out. A man pays his way out of his homeland at the toll house on Grindleford Bridge:
Where are you going?
Far as I can.
When will you get there?
Where have you come from?
Over the moor.
Will you return?
He accepts the deal; and intrigued, taken in, I follow. Here is a story: a narrative: a passage from something known to something unknown.
I have a memory of childhood: a halt on a moorland track, my dad ‘getting the map out’, taking bearings, making judgements. We are at the moment between getting lost and finding a way forward – between the original itinerary and a new route, made at that moment and not until then. I find this moment entirely creative, and settling, and inspiring. We might be on a track thousands of years deep, but in passing along it, we are itinerant: we are at a point between the journey recorded and the journey anticipated. And when we stop and take bearings and judge our surroundings, we acknowledge this. I now stop with my family and ‘get the map out’.
There’s a milepost on the old turnpike road over Houndkirk Moor. What you can’t see, obviously, is the other side – which, due to the weather, is a pitted surface, entirely illegible.
On the north face just runes and weather.
My ancestor Richard Marsden, traversing the Moor and at this point, in sight neither of the valley he grew up in, or of the town to which he was headed, is at this point itinerant. He must make a new map.
On midsummer’s day in 1842, an Attercliffe woman walked out of her house, set herself behind the coffin of her son and started the slow walk through Sheffield to the General Cemetery. The cortege passed 50 thousand people, come to observe the procession of the Chartist Samuel Holberry, broken by hard labour in Northallerton Gaol and dead at 27.
When I set out on this journey, the maps I consulted were relics: the Blitz of 1940 and the go-getting 1960s had done for the medieval town. Had I found a record of the route taken – most likely along Norfolk Street, Union Street and South Street, then up Cemetery Road – I would have felt compelled to follow it: The Crucible, Café Rouge, The drills and hoardings on The Moor. Fortunately, I found only the barest details: a connection between two points, and an understanding that the route must have crossed the river at Lady’s Bridge, where there had been a travellers’ chapel,
a plate by the chancel where you’d drop a coin for safe journey,
the water light through the glass
pattering the walls
I had the opportunity, then, to make my own path: to drift: to become itinerant. I could go off-grid, turn corners into quiet, slower route-ways, peer through smashed windows.
They turn into Eyre Lane,
its workshops full of shades.
These were his neighbours;
they have stilled their wheels
and files for him.
I could stop and notice things growing – now in the middle of the city, then at its edge, the sounds of its industry still proximate to the rush of the Porter Brook:
In an alley near South Lane
someone has planted flowers
in drums and pails:
poppies, daisies, nasturtiums;
sweet peas, pink and lilac
against the black brick.
Over the Brook – now, over the Ring Road – I should have climbed the hill to the old gate on Cemetery Road, with its worm and leaf mould all ruin and renewal. But, honouring Holberry, I wanted to make a way to the grander entrance on Cemetery Avenue: to cross the Porter Brook once more, formally this time, paying my dues of passage into the underworld, from where I could look back, take stock:
Now they can see where they came,
the line of people all the way back
to the town. Still they come.
There are other ways of map-making. In 1932, my great-uncle Harold died in the South Yorkshire Asylum – later called the Middlewood Hospital, and now a housing development which, with its tidiness and discreet cameras, aspires to gated status.
I never knew I had a great-uncle Harold. He spent most of his life in institutions – his learning difficulties presumably too much for the wider world to handle – and died in this one aged 27.
This was the first journey I took – a short, harrowing walk from his parents’ house off Hillsborough Corner up to Middlewood. It is the most personal section of ‘Flights and Traverses’: not only because of Harold, but because I recognise these terraced streets:
Now there is the click of a back door,
the chitter of a budgerigar.
Then you are hurrying from one of these houses,
hair brushed, tangled feet booted,
your undone laces tripping behind you.
There is something inevitable, too, about the journey which, though in terms of its topography is a gentle climb, is emotionally and psychologically a descent. I follow Harold towards his end, beyond the tram terminus; and I walk back – and down – through a bit of my own past:
This was once my territory, that hill with the GR
post box at the bottom, school at the top,
the park where I rushed along one day, my mind,
gleeful and vicious, running after me. Middlewood,
childhood cant, that thing in all our cellars,
I shouldn’t have dared. I pay out my breaths
like twine, each step shortening.
I expected ghosts at the Asylum, in the bottle-green shade of the Cemetery, by the milepost on Houndkirk Moor. I got glimpses: stilled vices through workshop windows, arches upturned on the skin of the river, the ghost of myself in the glass of Saville House. Walking through an urban landscape, particularly, enables you to accrue perspective: there is a traversing of time as well as space. You lose yourself, take note, adjust your bearings, set out again. Cutting away from current thoroughfares, you pass into other ways, older, narrower, quieter. You uncover or discover gennels, doorways, rat runs: even when you are tracing itineraries which are irrevocable, you are making new paths, unfurling the twine of a narrative by which to mark your way back.
Where I finish in ‘Flights and Traverses’ is a picture of chaos:
Stained glass exploding into Campo Lane,
corn from a slashed sack.
The map shows where, in December 1940, the bombs fell, which was everywhere, just about; but even this catastrophe can be narrated. The bombers came from a point in space, departed for another; the bombs fell thinly on the leafy places, thickly on the old centre; they fell crashing into the silence of the school
but spared the church,
its praying faithful, its sinners.
When I get off the bus on the Hathersage Road, it is a winter afternoon, the sun near to setting. The shires range southwards, hills, woods, fields. North, across the boundary stream, the road begins its descent into Sheffield. My long shadow stretching out in front of me,
I start down.
Rob Hindle’s Flights and Traverses appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. ‘Cartography, Flights and Traverses’ is the text (and accompanying images) of a presentation by Hindle that opened the launch of The Footing at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, 25 November 2013. Click here to visit Rob Hindle’s website.
In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby talks about listening to a song over and again, the need to solve it, to listen until it’s given up its mysteries. And then what? It gets old, worn out? This doesn’t seem to worry Paul McCartney, who still turns up every Queen’s birthday to close the proceedings with an extended “Hey Jude”. If you’re going to say you like The Beatles, and I do, you should maybe talk about “Revolution Number 9” more than “A Hard Day’s Night”, if you want to seem culturally engaged, rather than out for easy (and so, meaningless?) monophonic gratification. For certain, some songs give up their mysteries less readily than others, and “Revolution Number 9” remains unresolved for me. But “A Hard Day’s Night” – that perfect polished nugget of pure pop in two-and-a-half minutes – retains some mystery, doesn’t it? The opening chord, its twangy dissonance, has generated decades of debate, from 12-string conspiracy theories to mathematical analysis. It’s one of the most recognizable sounds in pop history, and although I’ve heard other songs open similarly, I don’t remember what they’re called or who they’re by (Pixies aside). They’re only memorable for not being “A Hard Day’s Night”.
“Glory be to God for dappled things” has always struck me as one of the most memorable opening lines around. I think it’s to do with the pomp and glee of “Glory be to God”, against the earthiness of “dappled things”. It’s almost funny, isn’t it? Except Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line doesn’t make me laugh; it makes me happy. I’d say the line loudly, whenever I was out running on Rivelin Valley Road and starting to feel my legs getting tired. It perked me right up. Or when I’m worrying about life, the universe and everything, it works then, too. Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and as with anything en trend, has had a whole money-making industry grow up around it. But mindfulness is free, and this seems as good an approach as any. It takes my mind out of myself and throws it at the dappled stuff in front of me. Sometimes there are skies of couple-colour. There’s rarely a brinded cow, however.
That contrast within the opening line embodies the whole idea of “dappled”. It sets the poem up as an example of its subject, and is an ode to the nature of beauty, as much as to God. These two themes are inseparable for Hopkins, but praising God gives me the willies, in case the lapsed Catholic in me bursts into hymn. You can insert whatever does it for you, if God isn’t your thing, and still get the thrill of it. Beauty is for everyone, and Hopkins is pretty good on the topic. In his On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue, an Oxford professor talks about a sycamore leaf; that the beauty of it isn’t in the symmetry of its shape (so when you fold it lengthways, one side answers the other), or the asymmetry of the diametrically opposed leaves (big leaves diametrically opposite small leaves), but in the relation of one aspect to the other. I had some trouble picturing this, and, to my shame, had to Google “sycamore leaf”. But the next day, I went for a run round Endcliffe Park, and guess what I noticed all over the path, not to mention “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”.
Those compounds of his are special, like he wants you to experience everything about a thing all at once. The compounds and the rhymes woven through the poem create this tight, coherent whole in ten and a bit lines – or two-and-a-half minutes in pop terms. Perhaps its own coherence and memorability, its relative accessibility, undermines itself. Perhaps there’s more mystery to solve in “Wreck of the Deutschland”? But “Pied Beauty” still retains mystery for me. Reading it now, I notice that I’ve never thought about “fathers-forth”, but I’ve an image of God shimmying to the front of stage (looking like Ted Neeley from Jesus Christ Superstar), as he presents all of creation with a ta-da!
And then those brackets in the eighth line: “Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)”. I’m generally suspicious of brackets in a poem; they seem to lack conviction by their own parenthetic nature. For a long time, I wanted to ignore the aside, like when you go to a reading and the poet interrupts themselves to qualify the bit they just read with a shrug or anecdote. Maybe it jars because the “I” is barely present elsewhere – but I’m starting to think that’s the point. Self-effacement is in keeping with Hopkins’s Jesuit doctrine, but I think he’s so fired up about his subject, he’s (accidentally?) bubbled over onto the page. I might love him for this, and even though I’ve been ignoring him, in effect, that human intervention is probably why I keep going back to the poem. It stops it being just a psalm to God or nature, and makes it about the man, how he negotiates his relationship with them, which is such an abiding experience: how can it get old?
Angelina Ayers’ sequence The Strait appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. You can read ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins here. Ayers discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’ (an earlier post in this series). Click here to access Angelina Ayers’ website.
It’s the annual Christmas dinner at my old place of work. I’ve eaten a slimy, peppery shellfish stew, plus a gluey portion of Christmas pudding, and I’ve a bad case of acid reflux. The ‘Secret Santa’ ritual has commenced and there are 30 members of staff to get through before we’re free of its sluggish rhythm. I rummage in my jacket pocket for a Gaviscon. This combination of eating in public, of anticipating being suddenly conspicuous, often triggers it. Or the feeling of being captive, but not in sync, not sharing the spirit. The muscles in my chest tighten like overloaded suspension cables. My heartbeat starts to accelerate, and an impossible sensation is shooting down my left arm into my fist. I know this isn’t a heart attack. I’ve been through all that before. It’s panic attack syndrome. Other people’s words, faces and body language are becoming increasingly grotesque. They are all eyes, teeth and sharp elbows. The noise in the room rises and I feel like my head has been sealed inside an amped up woofer playing drum and bass. Without saying a word, I leave my seat, and my colleagues, and walk out into Nottingham. I take random turns, hoping to end up in some quiet nook, or deserted alley. There aren’t any left in the Yuletide crush. I keep walking through the crowds until the first wave has passed. I’m already starting to worry about the 40 minute train journey home. I’ll be boxed in all the way.
Several of the poems in the ‘Fugue’ section of West North East were ‘inspired’ by my experience of panic attacks. I’m uncomfortable about that word ‘inspired’, but have chosen to use it anyway. Having lived through 7 years of attacks, I very much wanted to retrieve something to compensate for the damage they did to my personal and professional life. All the things that happen to sufferers happened to me. I quit my job. My relationships broke down. I went into retreat – allowed my life to shrink as the fear of fear became my bird cage. I can’t count the number of sudden exits I made from social occasions: from pubs, cinemas, readings and dinners. I see myself walking, hard-pressed through the city, my right hand clutched over my heart, and streetlamps burning into my retina. I went through several GPs before I found one that didn’t just offer me pills.
Les Murray refers to the ‘A-bomb’ of adrenaline in his poem ‘Corniche’. I retrieved a strange consolation from reading that. It’s amazing to think that the human body can malfunction and cook up a drug of its own that can leave you in a state as heightened and extreme as any bad skunk or speed trip. It’s not an experience of the mind, but of the whole body. While it’s happening, you wonder that your heart can endure it. It was an experience that I fed into poems like ‘The Death Shift’ and ‘The Python’. Aside from Les Murray, the closest equivalent I’ve encountered in literature is Rimbaud’s ‘rational disordering of the senses’, except that panic attacks burn the rational mind like napalm dropped on forest canopy. I’ve never experienced anything that left me so unable to communicate or to explain my sudden flights.
I read one of these poems at a reading in Sheffield. A few days later I received a postcard at work from someone who heard it. She was a fellow sufferer who’d connected with the sharp pulse of the words. The postcard had an image of a lemur leaping from a high branch. A shiver went through me to have made this connection, and I mounted the card on my work station. It encouraged me to keep trying to channel these traumatic experiences into poems, and it gave me more courage to speak about them openly. This would lead to future connections with a surprisingly large number of fellow sufferers or recovered sufferers. I wrote down many of the stories and anecdotes I heard. It proved easier for me to transform this material into poetry than anything directly from my own life. The care worker in ‘The Death Shift’ and the mother in ‘The Python’ are composites of myself and of people I’ve talked with. The combination method proved the most productive and creative way into voice and character for me. It’s this method that allows the writer to reach into his own psyche in order to make connections with people and predicaments beyond his own birdcage: a way in and out of self at the same time.
All this helped me break free. In a sense, the poetry of panic, of adrenaline, is a poetry of being overly awake. It isn’t emotion recollected in tranquillity, but trauma translated into respite. A sublime experience is said to be that of being in the presence of something that could annihilate you – followed by the relief on finding that you are not dead. The poetry of panic recognises that you carry that potential annihilation in your own body. Each time I’ve managed to channel it through voice, rhythm and image, I’ve felt like I’ve crawled out from under an avalanche and taken my first gulp of air. Now that I’m all but cured of the syndrome, I feel like I’ve actually lost an interesting signal.
After I’d finished writing ‘The Power-line’ (in West North East), it occurred to me that this was a poem where I’d staged a version of my own death. The man who flies his kite into the power cable is that part of me I’ve lost through recovery and healing. The poem is unconsciously drawn to images of conductivity: nerves, dreams, a kite string, fishing lines, and the terrible power cable that conducts its overload across the landscape. I’ve had my moment of sparking that cable – and certain blue-lit, high-definition poems fed back. Now, I feel like I’m living, and working, in the aftermath of that. It’s as if my voice and sensibility has shifted from the stricken kite-flier, to the woman who surveys the scene and has to watch the ‘gulls and ravens parting ways’. I don’t know what I think about that. It feels like I have to start all over again with something missing. That’s an unnerving way to think about health.
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book (and to order copies). Listen to Angelina Ayers and Matthew Clegg reading the poems ‘The Python’ and ‘The Death Shift’ below:
But the wash of lime blanking out the old world was a thin layer. Scratch away at the surface and the old ways are still visible.
Jonathan Bate, The Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare
No matter how many layers of white paint are applied, the image always finds a way of coming back to haunt the British imagination.
Andrew Graham-Dixon, A History of British Art
One of the questions that pushed me to write the sequence Death and the Gallant was: what would Britain (and specifically England) be like if it had remained loyal to the Catholic Church? The focus behind this question is not political or religious, as such, but cultural: would our view of art be any different if the Reformation, with its inherent mistrust of the image, had not dominated the country’s affairs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
Pre-Reformation communities would have found art available in their everyday lives. Specifically, the act of worship on the Sabbath would have revolved around ‘reading’ pictures: the majority of medieval churchgoers would have known and understood the teachings of the Bible through the wall paintings that decorated in elaborate detail their local church or chapel. The role of the artist, in this respect, would have been central in each parish.
I decided to write a series of poems that looked backwards to the old systems of faith as represented by a wide range of church art, and at the same time presaged a new kind of thinking about the role of creative ‘making’ in civil society.
The titles of the poems in Death and the Gallant themselves refer to particular figures, thematic concepts, or stories from Biblical teaching that would have been familiar narratives to our Pre-Reformation congregation. So in ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, for instance, I pick up on the oldest of the three kings who come to worship the infant Christ in a Bethlehem stable: Casper (or Jasper) brings gold for the child. The kings themselves – the young Melchior, the middle-aged Balthazar, and the elderly Casper would have been seen to symbolize the cycle or journey of life. St. James the Great is the central figure in the fifth poem of the sequence. He was not only a Patron Saint of Pilgrims but also the pin-up boy for the armies of the Crusades. St. James was known, after all, as the ‘Moor slayer’ – or, as I name him in the piece, ‘Matamoros’. One final detail concerning titles: I highlight the Tree of Jesse in a subsequent poem. The tree delineates the generations of royal figures and prophets from Jesse, the father of King David, through to Christ himself at the pinnacle of the tree, showing an unbroken lineage of wisdom and holiness. It would have literally been painted as a tree with incumbent figures on the wall of the church. You can still find versions of the Tree of Jesse on Creationist websites as pictorial evidence of Biblical ‘fact’.
These church paintings, along with other ‘Popish’ artifacts, were destroyed or effaced over a hundred year period of English history. The process began with the dissolution of the Monasteries as ordered by Henry the Eighth. The last surviving English church wall art was obliterated or painted over during the English Civil War. If you read the journal of William Dowsing, who operated his own brand of iconoclasm in the 1640s, for any believers who still carried a light for the old religion, it must have felt like the Taliban had come to town.
The old man, the narrator of the poem, I see as a kind of double agent who is essentially a custodian of the old values. As with any ‘Year Zero’ policy, artifacts, ideas and beliefs would have survived the initial purges. Some of this church art would have been concealed, or ‘superficially’ damaged, or the owners were rich enough to pay off those who were sent round to do the damage. The old man in the act of destroying seeks to catalogue what he finds. He also attempts to do his job badly enough so that some art-objects slip through the iconoclast Brown’s net. For all his work as a conservationist, I think he realizes, as his work moves on, that this is truly the end of the old life, and prepares as best he can for the practices of a Protestant nation: a new England. His treatment of Brown’s body (and soul) under Catholic auspices is a last act of defiance within the bounds of the poem.
Death and the Gallant appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press. Click here to order the book and to read and listen to essays, poems and recordings. The accompanying image is one of ten paintings by the artist Paul Evans created in response to the poems. Listen to Chris Jones reading the first poem in the sequence below:
The speaker in ‘Sirens’ has a real life counterpart. He was a friend to someone close to me. I’ll call her ‘Rosie’ and him ‘Tim’. Rosie had survived bankruptcy, divorce and eviction and had moved into a tiny bedsit above Remo’s café on Fulwood Road in Sheffield. Cockroaches scuttled under the cooker and Rosie’s insomnia played out to a soundtrack of students pouring in and out of Broomhill pubs. It was the time of Blairite New Labour; of Brit Art and Cool Britannia. It was a boom time for some, but it’s never a boom for everyone.
Tim lived in the flat above Rosie. He was a friendly face during a lonely time. He invited her up to share tea and jokes. He had a bulletproof sense of humour and a refreshing, brazen honesty. Over the years they confided more and more, but didn’t become lovers. If I told you all the things Tim confessed to Rosie, you’d think I was exaggerating. But as Dickens says: ‘What is exaggeration to one class of minds and perceptions, is plain truth to another…’ Peter Reading quotes this in his Ukulele Music, the kind of poem I wish I could write.
Like the speaker in ‘Sirens’, Tim had been an architect. He‘d dropped out of that to pursue painting and photography. And he did take a paternal and seedy interest in very young prostitutes with drug problems and eating disorders. This placed a strain on Rosie and Tim’s friendship – and soon Rosie moved away. Years passed. She tried to get in touch with Tim, but he’d left no trace.
One night some years ago I was making my way to the Kelham Island Tavern to meet a friend. Kelham Island was, as it remains now, a liminal space where gentrification overlapped with industrial decrepitude and a residue of prostitution. On my way I passed the prostitute who features in the poem. In life, she was even more distraught, and my poem doesn’t do enough to capture her coarsened vulnerability.
My friend was nearly an hour late. I’d plenty of time to think about that woman, as well as the tameness of my response to her appeal. I spent a long time thinking about Tim, and tried to imagine when he decided to take the path he chose. Morally dubious he might have been; but he wasn’t tame. If his motives were seedy, they weren’t squeamish. I was developing an ambivalent admiration for him. Here was a man whose vices were close to the surface. I could hear his voice interrogating me for hiding mine behind a safe and rational front.
The speaker in ‘Sirens’ is a composite of Tim and several other men. They include a photographer featured on a documentary film; my mother’s second husband; a predatory college lecturer. There are more. These are the kind of men who are intelligent, flawed and in possession of what the poet-paediatrician William Carlos Williams called ‘ground sense’. I mean the sense that comes up through the feet from walking a terrain – literally, or figuratively. It seemed to me these men could inhabit a world, however extreme, and absorb it until it became a powerful insider knowledge. We might call them ‘outsiders’, but it’s often us who are outsiders when we enter the sphere of their insight. ‘Sirens’ may well fall into the convention of the unreliable narrator. I’m sceptical of its flawed speaker. But I confess to an equally flawed and dubious admiration for his ground sense.
I‘ve heard the phrase ‘dull and worthy social realism’ used within the creative writing enclosure of academe. Is this a postmodern rejection of exhausted realism, or an insulated reluctance to engage with worlds outside the enclosure? If ‘Sirens’ is dull, then I’ve failed to capture Tim’s voice as it interrogated me in The Kelham Island Tavern – a voice that sounded like one out of Dante or Browning. It wasn’t preachy, or polemical; not a worthy appeal to liberal conscience. It belonged to someone who’d been places I hadn’t, seen things I couldn’t, and recognised in me that impulse to know, but only to a point – the impulse of the moral tourist who can’t stomach too much information.
Tim wouldn’t have told me what he told Rosie. The irony is, he wouldn’t have trusted me.
‘Sirens’ appears in Matthew Clegg’s debut full-length collection West North East. Click here for further details about West North East and to order copies of the book (£11 inc UK P&P).