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).
“All the leaves are brown” is impossible to say without lilting into the melody of “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas. It’s a song about being homesick for L.A., where it’s “safe and warm” compared to the New York winter. There are sounds my brain can’t work out; I can’t reduce this song to the sum of its parts, but I think their sadness is in its harmonies, the accidental A minor chords, and the alto flute, breathy, flightily slipping between notes, but subverting our flute-ful expectations with its low register melancholy; it sounds like nights drawing in and stew on the stove.
I can hear the cusp of autumn and winter – I recognize the minor chords, but I don’t experience them as sadness, sad as they are. Much of my childhood narrative is knee-deep in knitwear and all shades of bronze (the leaves are not all brown). Summer memories have merged into one long blond day, with everything on hold, too hot for movement; I hear change in those autumnal harmonies, and as I walk along the river this month, I can’t help singing along, mostly in my head, though some bits slip out. I do this every year, as is the way with the Earth’s seasonal tilt.
To affect any real sorrow through the seasons we have to lose sight of the cyclical patterns of renewal, and superimpose the linear passage of human time. Emily Bronte’s “Fall, Leaves, Fall” does this through its ambivalence:
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
There’s tension between the surface, the smile and the bliss, and the undercurrent of “wreath”, “decay”, the normative “rose should grow”. It’d be ok to give the rose the winter off; seasons allow for this, but Bronte doesn’t. The rose “should” grow. Summer has been usurped, rather than merely giving way to autumn, and “the drearier day” ushered in through the lengthening night is an ending, it’s permanent. So why is she looking forward to it? I think that’s in her body of work, rather than in the poem – the question is more important than the answer.
So how do we negotiate our single, linear life against a backdrop of revolution? November 2012, I walk past a bench overlooking the river. It’s inscribed: One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. It’s gone a sort of mud-moss-green, rain-soft and rickety. Something black and wet is growing, filling-out the gouged-wood lettering. I sit and watch the water. The bench is in memory of a man who died in 1995, but I know him from this view, the stream high and mighty today, the weekend’s storm carving its way through the earth to low ground and the stone weirs stepping it down towards town; from the trees towering behind me, the pair of blue tits dipping between branches. And all these leaves. As I walk deeper into the woods, I see they’re everywhere different, and realize I don’t know an oak leaf from a sycamore. I start collecting the less sodden shapes, tracing their various outlines against my palm, take five-point-stars and teardrops home, so I can learn their names. I did this, and am better (though not great) at recognizing trees by their leaf because of this stranger, who must have known them all… Actually, when I passed the bench again, I noticed the man was born in 1962; he was much younger than I’d imagined, and it then seemed likely the man in my head was there already.
I’d like to say that when I’d written the first draft of “The Bench”, I took the dead bronze slop of leaves back to the woods, so it could fuel the next generation. But I won’t lie. I am thinking of starting a compost heap, however.
‘The Bench’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems by Angelina Ayers, James Caruth, Mark Goodwin, Rob Hindle, Andrew Hirst, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite published by Longbarrow Press on 30 October. Visit The Footing microsite for more information about the anthology. Listen to Angelina Ayers reading ‘The Bench’ on location below:
Monday 19 August, 6.45am. I wake, dress, go downstairs, switch the kettle on, put the recycling bin out, switch the kettle on, retrieve the empty recycling bin, switch the kettle on again. After a few seconds, I realise that nothing is happening in the wires. I notice that the cooker’s digital display is blank, the fridge silent, the lights unresponsive. Upstairs is no better. I make for the cellar with its fuses and meters. None of the switches have tripped; none of the circuits have been broken. I spend a further 20 minutes resetting the trip switches and checking the appliances. Then I go outside. Some of the shops and businesses on the north side of my street are trying to open up, but can’t raise their electric shutters. The car park of the medical centre remains closed; two members of staff are posted at the entrance, gesturing at the traffic that slows and piles at the stuck barrier. As far as I can tell, the south side of the street is unaffected, strips of light showing through curtains and grilles, the morning pulling itself together. Soon, the road is thick with cars, vans, trams and buses, waiting to fill the city; the lane widening to the east, its north and south broken apart.
My half of the street lost its power shortly after midnight, and will not recover until 3am the following day. I spend the morning fussing and tidying, occasionally visiting the street to see if any news might be had from it. Nobody seems to have much information about what has happened, or what is being done to fix it – someone suggests that a repair has gone awry, someone else hints that the engineering work on the tram lines is to blame – but the people I speak to are handling it well, and doing what they can for themselves and others. I make myself lunch, fuss some more, then fish half-a-dozen empty margarine tubs from the back of a kitchen cupboard, stuff them into a rucksack and leave the house. I follow the traffic east to where four roads meet, most of the cars taking a right turn for the city centre, walk north-east from the intersection along a link road, then reach the trunk road, a two-mile split along the seam of north-west Sheffield.
I’d crossed from Hillsborough to Owlerton, or the remains of Owlerton. When Penistone Road was rebuilt as a dual carriageway in the 1980s, many of the pubs and terraces on the Owlerton side were demolished; some businesses have survived (notably, the Bassett’s sweet factory and Hillfoot Steel), some have become established (a new leisure centre, and a self-storage facility modelled on similar lines), while others have been revived (Owlerton Stadium, built in 1929, refurbished in the 1990s, and now home to speedway, greyhound racing and stock car racing). While the carriageway imposed (or exacerbated) a sense of division, of separateness, the cut wasn’t clean; Owlerton Evangelical Church is on the Hillsborough side, while the new Hillsborough College lies firmly within the district of Owlerton. Of course, how a territory is identified (and delineated) often affects how we identify with that territory. Many people travel to Owlerton for work, study and recreation; however, in the year or so that I’ve been living in the Hillsborough area, I’ve yet to hear anyone declare themselves (or anyone else) to be from Owlerton.
Crossing the trunk road from west to east, from Bradfield Road to Livesey Street, I feel the closeness of Hillsborough – its familiarity, its density – slipping away, and step into a landscape that is both uncluttered and impenetrable. The eye is drawn, at first, to the distant pulse of a casino’s signage, then to the distance itself, occupied by a 500ft square ground-level car park filling the space between Penistone Road and the greyhound track; unmarked, flat, empty. I cut across the distance and onto the road, the gates and raised girdle of Owlerton Stadium to my left, Hillsborough Fencing and Hillsborough College to my right. Even with a high wall on one side and a four-storey institute dominating the other, the sense of spareness and scale is acute, uncommon. I move on, beyond Hillsborough College and its slow, thinning trails of people and cars, towards the substation that holds the ground – and most of the sky – between the college and the River Don.
The college and the substation meet on a corner. There is a weak join, a torn fence, through which blackberry bushes are growing. By the locked gates of the substation I stop, uncouple my rucksack from my back, and take out a margarine tub. I lean into one of the bushes and start on the easy pickings. This was something I used to do with my father and my brothers, late August, a boy among the clumps; then years passed, seasons without fruit; then the allotment, kept by my father since the 1970s, to which I was recalled in his last weeks, the two of us working there, that afternoon, his strength rationed, his breath shortened. We left with twelve kilos of blackberries, their taste beyond him. All that is miles south.
East of the substation, east of the river, the light goes, the level ground runs out; a bridge yields to a climb, the murk and tangle of Wardsend cemetery, its broken, sloping stones repeating in the shade, the higher ground parted by the tracks of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, weekly freight still passing over the sunken line. Another bridge, another climb, a second tier of wire and steel rising to meet the path, pylons stringing out beyond the viaduct, birds threading between them, the gradient easing, the trail breaking up, the ridge opening out. Here is the plain, pausing the land before the slant into Scraith Wood and Shirecliffe, pulling me back towards a Sheffield that crams to the horizon. I retrace my steps and the city loses its layers, its spread, cropping to Owlerton, the wires running out of the frame.
The flood of 2007 broke the link between Wardsend and Owlerton; Wardsend Bridge, an 18th century stone crossing providing access to the cemetery, was wrecked and then washed away by the Don on 25 June. I walk over its replacement, bearing left as the bridge levels to road, the pavement canopied with blackberry branches, their fruit suspended half a metre above eye level. I am thinking of how this landscape opened up to me in the months after the flood and in the weeks after my father’s death. Matthew Clegg had started work on his Edgelands sequence earlier in the summer: a series of fifty-six short poems (adapted from the classical Japanese tanka form) based on the daily walks that he was taking through Hillsborough and its neighbouring districts. Every week or so, a draft of this work would reach me in my office in Swindon. I would print the draft and take it with me on my lunch break, savouring its precision and surprise, the unexpected and frequently apposite connections between the world of the poem and the world through which I was moving. At this time, I’d had little direct contact with North Sheffield: what I knew of Loxley, Wadsley and Birley Edge was what Clegg had carried from those places, five-line ruminations that would, as they accrued, distil the personal, the local and the universal to remarkable effect. A walk along the ridge gives us this vision of Owlerton:
The stink of drains, burning tar.
He climbs above it, surveys
His city – the flooded dog track
And casino, out of bounds, now,
Like her house, bed, scented pillow.
A few years after completing work on Edgelands, Clegg revisited some of its terrain in his sequence Chinese Lanterns, an exploration of the contemporary Hillsborough landscape through the resurrected personae of the 8th century Chinese poets Li Po and Tu Fu. Whether alone or in implied dialogue, their voices (and those of Confucius and Lao Tzu) are the focal pull of the sequence, as it shifts from reflective trance to trance-walk, dole office to dew-soaked hammock; abruptly relocated from other places, other times, they close in on and alert us to the dislocations of present-day Sheffield. Often, the dislocations of the street are the means by which we see the landscape anew, the sudden jumps and starts that lift our eyes to the ‘liquorice clouds / steaming above the Bassett’s factory’.
At the end of 2012, Clegg presented me with a manuscript comprising Edgelands, Chinese Lanterns, and a further sequence, Fugue, parts of which also reached into North Sheffield. West North East would be his first full-length collection, and the first hardback book that I would publish through Longbarrow Press. We’d taken our time to get to this point. An earlier book-length manuscript, The Power-line, had been painstakingly refined over a five-year period, the two of us slowly nudging it towards publication. It was Clegg who took the courageous – and inspired – decision to withdraw the older book and commit to West North East, which retained only nine of the poems intended for The Power-line. Neither of us had any contractual obligations to the other. It wasn’t duty, or loyalty, that set the new book on its course. It was conviction: his, and mine. Over the following months, I sometimes questioned whether my skills were equal to the task of making the book (I’d spent several years creating limited runs of pamphlets and other hand-made publications, but had never prepared industry-standard files for external printers, nor entrusted them with producing books); yet the necessity of the book was never in question. I was determined to bring the poems into the world. They are, I think, poems forged in and of the world, exposed to its pressures and conflicts; they also offer us a hard-won beauty, a delight in the evanescent, and discovery at every turn.
We’re heading for the spot where the road cuts
over the river. We can wait a long time
and often go unrewarded, but it’s
worth it for the off-chance of seeing him
slow-step the ebb and flow with such grace.
My kid is going to know what a heron is.
I recross Penistone Road and find Hillsborough caught in the last shift of dusk, streaks of orange and pink in the sky above Cash Converters, my half of the street still unlit and silent. I count four large holes in the pavements along Bradfield Road and Holme Lane, two more than the previous afternoon; one is fenced with red and white plastic barriers, another is being filled in, and a further two have workmen in them. I step into my house and stack the six kilos of blackberries on the kitchen worktop, telling myself to put them in the freezer when the power returns. I go to bed. I am woken at 3am by the lights in the attic. I go through the house switching off things that have switched themselves on and switching on things that have switched themselves off. I shower and, at 5am, go out into the street. The workmen who were digging the first of the holes sixteen hours earlier are now securing the last of them. I can’t tell, from their faces, whether this is the start of a new shift, or the end of the old shift. Without a word, they rig the last barrier and climb into the van, the exhaust stuttering, clouding, then gone.
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here to listen to audio podcasts, read extracts and essays, and to order the book. Listen to Matthew Clegg reading the West North East poem ‘A Letter from Tu Fu’ (set in and above Owlerton) below:
The first section of my first full-length collection of poems, West North East, was initially in two parts: a sequence of sonnets, followed by a selection of miscellaneous poems. The new ordering is an experiment with the idea of syncopation and fugue: a means of integrating the sonnets and the miscellany. An exposition is provided by the first two sonnets (‘Because I Was Nobody’ and ‘Fishing by the Trunk Road’).
Here a subject is introduced: a complex involving ideas of crisis, journey and imaginative crossing. This complex is modulated and developed through a sequence that alternates sonnets and longer poems, before some kind of recapitulation in the two longer poems that close the first section.
I’m attracted to the idea of fugue in both its musical and psychological context, especially with loss (or transformation) of identity and flight from one’s usual environment. In keeping with the unstable, volatile nature of the complex, the development stage has been constructed to avoid too logical or schematic a progression. There are contrasts and contradictions; convincing and unconvincing responses to each crisis. There are relapses and unsustainable crossings; mundane and more sublime pressures. I’ve taken care not to signpost this too crassly. The exposition offers two contrasting positions: youth and adulthood; and an instinctive attraction to heat in one, and cool/calm in the other.
The recapitulation offers further contrasts. Both poems follow an instinct to travel away from the centre (geographically, socially and psychologically). ‘Out Far and In Deep’ pursues a death impulse, whilst ‘The Walking Cure’ offers ambiguous regeneration. I wanted to achieve an opening that captures the urgency and pressure of in medias res, and I hope the development is sufficiently modulated and complex to offer the reader pleasure and challenge – as well as a glimpse of what Roland Barthes calls ‘bliss’. This is effectively summed up by Natasha Saje in Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books and Poems: ‘Experienced readers want poems that make them work harder; the text of bliss is the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts, that unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions and brings to a crisis his relation with language.’ I’ve taken care to end ‘Fugue’ with poems that build to notes of projection and speculation. I hope these offer contrasting tones and ambiguities, and leave enough for further sections of the book to re-examine. Although ‘Fugue’ was not written as a sequence in the proper sense, I wanted this new arrangement to offer some equivalent of its structural dynamics.
West North East is published by Longbarrow Press on Thursday 12 September 2013. Join Matthew Clegg and guest readers (including Angelina Ayers, Helen Mort, Fay Musselwhite and Karl Riordan) for the West North East launch at the Shakespeare, Gibraltar Street, Sheffield, Thursday 19 September 2013 (8pm prompt start). Further publication and launch details appear on the West North East microsite. Click on the orange ‘Play’ button below to listen to Clegg reading several poems from ‘Fugue’ (the first of West North East‘s three sections): ‘This Place is Part of Me’, ‘Fishing by the Trunk Road’, ‘The Convalescent’ and ‘The Vantage’.
I don’t know what I mean, except that meaning is created through things. Even then, I’m not sure I prefer one thing over another. Perhaps it is unique to photography, the desire to single out things in this way, to make quick decisions based on simple criteria. Part of island thinking is to feel isolation at the very core of what you do, to know that each thing remains in a substratum of its own existence, that each thing commits to its own universe by design. The exotic is quickly absorbed into the main, if there is a main.
All a photographer can do is to present a version of these particularities. The opaque nature of the photograph hardly allows for any transparency other than this. One reality should never be dominant over the other. And yet, it often is; the desire to set down something other than the presented truth is insurmountable for the photographer, ever present. Whether it’s Don McCullin or Diane Arbus, the idea of the world being an unobtainable surprise is ever present. For an island thinker it isn’t about how many times you can photograph the disasters of war nor how many gratuities or deformities you can add to the oeuvre, but what the thing feels like when you’re inside the thing. What the sarcophagus feels like from the inside; what being buried alive feels like.
So my bit of the world is no better or worse than anyone else’s. I watched a band play, a child that people tried to raise money for, went to a sad birthday, caught a bush that had been dormant all year then suddenly erupted in a cerise that I barely understood, if such a thing can be understood. I turned my camera on to an isotope of gesture that revealed an open channel to somewhere or something I have no idea how to access but deeply felt and understood.
Today, the camera is everywhere, but for me, when I switch it on and the shutter makes to close its sound on a thing, I know that it is still a precious instrument, one that we as an island nation have not yet seen or taken to our hearts, that can record things that we do not yet understand. The camera itself is an island. I think of it in this way, just now, just for today, as earlier I was watching a thing about the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll. I wasn’t really that interested to be honest and then suddenly Jerry Lee bursts the keys of the piano like it had never deserved to be played before. Like the instrument itself was new born. Just an experiment in the colour and texture of where he’d dragged the instrument from. Whose barn? What barn? My barn. That’s what island thinking is like, not to be innovative or crass but to see the energy and fear in your neighbourhood eyes and then to harness that as if it would run the piano or the camera for a thousand years.
Karl Hurst‘s photoset My Island Home / Island Songs can be viewed here. This essay first appeared on his Ipernity site; click here to view his other essays and photography. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (as Andrew Hirst) are available here.