A bird I can’t name
trills like a rag on soapy glass –
a squeak with a chime in it.
Thin paths. Flat fields. No buildings, no machinery, no cover. The line of the river, yarning between thick green hems, two bridges, two crossings, the rain clipping our ears. We fix on the next step, and the next, puddles, ditches, stiles, lifting to a wooded embankment, a damp, porous corridor, the surface noise building up, cutting out, scratches and rips in the sound, minor roads to the north, a stepped slope ahead, the track recedes without us, falling out of the corridor, to a threshold, a shelter, an open-sided box on water.
We’ve come to this wetland, two miles east of Mexborough, to record poems from The Navigators, Matthew Clegg’s new collection. The poems that Matt has chosen for this expedition are drawn from the ‘contemporary’ movement of the book’s title sequence, which traces the recovery of the South Yorkshire waterways after decades of post-industrial decline, and their rehabilitation as places of leisure. It’s interesting, then, to discover that the shallow lakes of Denaby Ings nature reserve were formed as a result of mining subsidence, and that the wooded embankment that gives access and protection to the reserve is the line of the former Dearne Valley Railway, which used to bear coal from the local mines. Denaby Halt was the first stop on the Edlington-Wakefield passenger service, until the station closed in 1949; the site of the halt is only a few metres from our shelter, a simple, three-sided viewing hide, the eyeline drawing level with open water. Uncoupled from networks and schedules, this is still a place of waiting, of watching, of transport.
It’s also a place of listening. I’d anticipated a sound-bed of coots and terns, a lake-wide span on which Matt’s poems and commentaries might rest; perhaps some of the ‘honks’ and ‘trills’ caught by the narrator of ‘Brigand’, which takes this den as its setting, might also find their way into our recording. Today, however, the most prominent feature in the mix is rain, steadily building for the last hour or so, tracking our journey from house to hide, striking the roof above us. With no sign of it easing off, it’s clear that we’ll have to work with its rhythms, and maybe this is as it should be. Water is the element that moves through The Navigators, in all its fall and flow, linking the Cumbrian lakes to the rivers and canals of Yorkshire, sweeping on to the tide-pools and cave mouths of Flamborough and the open sea beyond. As we sit and listen to it beating on the metal frame of the hide, it takes on an industrial echo, a ghost of work. We’re only picking up a few discrete sounds from the environment that surrounds the shelter, which has the effect of making the space more intimate; oppressive, even. Without realising it, we’ve raised our voices, the downpour closing in; I reset the recording levels, taking them down, and down again, still peaking here and there. The rain has formed a second skin around the hide, audibly and visibly thick, a temporary curtain for the unwalled side of the structure, a blind at our backs.
Most of the podcasts that I’ve produced with Matt have been recorded on the move. The three audio works that we developed in response to his first collection, West North East, were structured and focused by the act of moving from place to place, ranging from a short, intensive walk through North Sheffield to episodic and exploratory forays in East Leeds and Flamborough. As well as enacting a sense of journey, the process and the recordings (under the collective title ‘Fugue’) invited interruption and juxtaposition, a miscellany of unplanned, unexpected episodes that either tested the recording (heavy traffic, heavy weather) or helped to shape it (the crunch of snow under boots in late spring). Making a recording in an ostensibly static environment, as we are doing today, presents different challenges. Dynamism and movement can only be captured in a ‘fixed frame’; we can’t stray from this place, can’t move towards the source of any sounds that might tempt us out of our makeshift studio. Given the prevailing conditions, of course, we’re unlikely to be tempted. We try to recall if we’ve attempted anything along similar lines to this; we draw a blank, then remember a morning spent in a sea cave at Flamborough Head, some three years ago, recording the twelve-poem sequence ‘Cave Time and Sea Changes’ which closes The Navigators. We reflect on the contrasts and parallels between the cave and the hide. In one, a vertical rift in the rock, revealing sea and sky, is also the means by which the tide creeps in, breaching one threshold after another, raising the horizon and limiting our access. In the other, a view of calm, inland water is framed by four regular, rectangular gaps in metal, arranged horizontally; the water that moves is vertical, and holds us in the enclosure, rather than driving us out of it. Each space has its own distinct acoustic, too, the natural echo of the cave seemingly a world apart from the artificial compression of the hide. As Matt observes, however, the hide has conductivity; the rain’s rhythms are transmitted from without to within, the metal roof sharpening the pitch. We lean into the swell.
The four poems Matt has chosen to read this afternoon are ‘Brigand’, ‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, ‘ANGLERS REQUIRE PERMITS’ and ‘When They Next Make You Redundant’. We haven’t discussed the selection – the rationale, the relationship between poems and setting – which opens up a space for me to pursue threads and correspondences. In the glassy suspension of the hide, it seems that each poem enacts, or addresses, a surrender to drift. The narrator of ‘Brigand’, a member of the eponymous South Yorkshire motorcycle gang, seeks the trance-like detachment offered by the Denaby shelter, perhaps as a counterpoint to the noise and speed of the road. This is established in an act of attention – to the chafings and chants that rise from the Ings – sustained until the lake’s ‘lush trawl of sound’ subsides, and a bubble of quiet floats into the hut. The ‘drift’ in ‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’ spreads through sound, sense and form, as the marketed ‘properties’ of the poem’s found title (taken from a developer’s canalside hoarding, advertising new houses and apartments on the town’s eastern edge) are exchanged for the abstract properties of light, solidity and weight. The poem idles on the threshold of the concrete and the permeable, from which the rippled reflections of scaffolding are no more or less substantial than the ‘anchored / new-builds’. Organic and inorganic matter collects on the surface of the water; twigs and polystyrene converge, clot and scatter, the transitions preserved only by the passing eye. The spirit of haiku hovers over these lines, in their juxtaposition of images and contemplation of impermanence; Clegg takes this a step further, fragmenting the form, unmooring the words from orthodox lineation, setting them adrift in open space. We see the froth, the rippling wake, and it slows the pace of the poem. ‘ANGLERS REQUIRE PERMITS’ shifts the focus from water to land, and considers the unauthorised uses to which the land is put. It is unclear whether the ‘dumpsite’ of the poem occupies private or public space: the status of the site, the permissions that govern its use, and the materials accumulating there are in flux. We leave sofas and fridges ‘shedding form / and function’, becoming ash, becoming light. The fourth poem, ‘When They Next Make You Redundant’, hinges on the moment when the canal enters the river, drift yielding to current, gripping and directing ‘the steer of [the] barge’ as it moves through and beyond the last lock. The poem is a double sonnet, literally hinged, the first line of the second sonnet mirroring the last line of the first, the remaining thirteen lines wrinkling and refracting their counterparts (‘where canal steps down to the Don’ / ‘and the Don sweeps on from canal‘). The ‘current’ gives the poem its flow, and its charge; the river’s circuit is the ‘mains’ into which the barge is ‘plugged’, and the source of ‘the trip in [the] blood’. This is one of the central themes of The Navigators, modulated and developed throughout the book: water as a conductor of energy, energy as a conductor of change.
The rain fastens on the hide. As Matt brings each poem to its close, we pause in the gap that it leaves. The weather is nudging us inward; our exchanges are hesitant, brief and brittle, the downpour pushes us back. It doesn’t feel right to be talking in here. It’s hard to think. The trance folds around us. In some respects, the metal shelter feels more remote than the Flamborough sea cave. The cave was a contingent space, a brief portal in which it wasn’t possible to settle; the knowledge that it would be breached by other visitors to the coast, and the returning tide, demanded that we work quickly. Since settling into the hide, we haven’t seen another soul, or felt the ‘outside’ world’s pressure, clamour or pull. Matt reaches for his copy of The Navigators, thumb skimming past the book’s central section, from which today’s selection has been made, coming to rest on a page in the first section. The poem he’s picked out is ‘The Tang’, a short, single-sentence lyric, written for another time, another place. In its summoning of ‘electrons / ferried / by rain’, however, it speaks to this time, this place. As Matt reminds himself in an extemporised introduction to the recording that we make a few minutes later, it also speaks of the desire to lose one’s cover, one’s protection; to step out of the frame and into the storm, to be charged by its current. This exposed, unscripted moment finds a place in the resulting podcast, sparking with urgency. It’s echoed in Matt’s closing remarks, in which he expresses a hope ‘that the language [of poetry] might be able to conduct an energy from the world’. We gather up our papers and equipment and step over the threshold, out of the frame, losing the hide’s rhythm, other sounds edging into earshot, the leaves, the track, the nick and tear of distant traffic.
The Navigators is out now from Longbarrow Press; click here for more information. Listen to the Denaby Ings podcast below (poems in order of appearance: ‘Brigand’, ‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, ‘ANGLERS REQUIRE PERMITS’, ‘The Tang’, ‘When They Next Make You Redundant’)
Matthew Clegg discusses the development of ‘Cave Time and Sea Changes’ in this 2012 blog post. Listen to the ‘Cave Time and Sea Changes’ podcast below (recorded in a sea cave at Flamborough Head in September 2012)
One of the poems featured in the podcast, ‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, is also the subject of a new short film (based on footage of Pastures Road Bridge, Mexborough). Watch the film below:
I’m watching The Goldbergs, a sort of Wonder Years for the eighties, and who doesn’t yearn for leg warmers, cassette tapes and Cyndi Lauper? Girls do just want to have fun. But if you never stood as a family watching your new microwave and/or soda stream, as though it were a TV, you won’t like it. If you’re too young or too old, you’ll turn over … put Hollyoaks or Take the High Road on … I will forever associate watching eggs inflate inside a magic/radioactive box with Billy Joel, though neither I nor Billy could’ve seen that coming; the memories and connections we carry with us are unforeseen. I saw a friend last week. We were student nurses together, and we spent most of that time listening to music (and studying). But when we spoke recently, he said he always thinks of me when he listens to Space … Except that we watched Shooting Fish together (which uses “Me and You Versus The World” on its soundtrack), I can’t imagine why. But I probably have associations about you that you won’t recognize yourself in. The marks we leave on people are always only versions of ourselves.
“A mark that remains after that which made it has passed by – a footprint for example.” Rebecca Solnit quotes this explanation of the Tibetan word shul in A Field Guide To Getting Lost. “In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night.” That last description connected. Ages ago, someone lent me a book of Jane Kenyon’s. I held onto it for years, and this is one of the images that has stayed with me: “Heavy Summer Rain”:
The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day
turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
I wonder why the impression of an absent animal should move me, so that I’ve been carrying the look of it, more than the words, with me the last few years – but that absence made present through the toppled grass, the shul, makes the other absence tangible. I feel the I missing you. I feel the weight of it in my chest. That it is painful.
There are poems you wish you’d written. I wished to write this poem, but it would be like covering “Town Called Malice” (there are a couple of covers that start like they might be interesting … but then, they’re not). You cannot improve this song. Put the microphone down and step away from the record button. But the poem left its impression, so that however long after returning the Kenyon, when I read Solnit, a couple of months ago, shul sounded more loudly, and I did write a poem – “Marginalia”. It’s in seven parts. This is the first:
It’s a litany of shul. From the stretchmarks, cologne and etymology to the lack of fruit. I carry that MacNeice poem with me, so when the bay window entered the poem, so did the line about snow and tangerines. I guess most people carry “Snow” around, but what about Catholicism? That too? Ok, Prokofiev? Lose Hill? Some impressions are deeper than others. We accumulate them from the people, places, books, etc we encounter, and it’s these marks that influence how we read the world. Viktor Shklovsky said of influence: ”Is it like filling an empty vessel, or is it the rotation of a dynamo rotor in an electric field that, as a result, creates a new kind of electricity?” I’m a one off not because I’m brand spanking new, but because I am the only person with my exact combination of experiences, perceptions, and so what filters through me is made new as a consequence. I am The Avalanches sampling Madonna’s bass line. I’m Dean Stockwell lip-syncing Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet – “In Dreams”, a lovely, melancholic, innocuous song made creepy as hell by a film I definitely didn’t see in the eighties because I was 13 and it’s way too scary.
Shul translates to “track”: “A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by the regular tread of feet”. In Wanderlust, Solnit says “to write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route”. Perhaps sampling and found poetry are like walking an existing path to identify new features or establish new significance. I noticed that “Holiday” bass line because it’s a familiar feature in my head (I also danced to “Vogue” on the City Hall stage, though maybe that’s less relevant …). But The Avalanches do make something new of it. They sample from The Main Attraction to Rose Royce, yet the overall sound is distinctly their own.
Parts III and VII of “Marginalia” use excerpts from Zelda Sayre’s letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald. These letters are brilliant and bright and insistent. They’re looking towards the promise of something that’s still there, if at a distance. “Marginalia” is all about what’s gone and the impression it made, and I wanted to use the energy she gets onto the page for this purpose, to ramp it up until meaning begins to break down, to be so urgent the words burn up with it.
The impression left after whatever made it has passed by – a bit like that Barthes thing of using a text as a container or reflection to make sense of your own experience, I read this at the right time. So much depends. If I’d read the Solnit earlier or later, if whoever hadn’t lent me the Kenyon, I don’t remember how I came by Zelda Sayre’s letters, but if I hadn’t. The rag and bone of the imagination, the shul, connects in unforeseen ways. Is a poem really a path? That suggests you could trace my steps. I might leave an impression on you, but I can’t be sure what that impression will be. You have your own damage to bring on the journey.
Listen to Angelina D’Roza reading ‘Marginalia’:
Several poems by Angelina D’Roza appear in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing; her debut collection will appear from Longbarrow Press in 2016. She is among the poets taking part in the Longbarrow Press residency at the Pop-Up Ruskin Museum at 381 South Road, Walkley, Sheffield, S6 3TD, from 2 – 30 September 2015, culminating in a collective reading at the Museum at 7pm on Wednesday 30 September, featuring D’Roza and poets Matthew Clegg, Pete Green, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite. See the Longbarrow Press Events page for more information.
‘Heavy Summer Rain’ by Jane Kenyon appears in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press 1997). You can read the poem here.
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way… To see clearly is poetry, prophesy and religion, all in one.
John Ruskin, Modern Painters III
Nature, art and work define the prism through which John Ruskin examined man’s place in the world, and he combined them with mathematical elegance. Art and work require nature as raw material, and through study and further engagement, art and nature will ask of the mind what work takes from the body, while nature and work, for Ruskin, provide the perfect subjects for art.
The last of these equations is demonstrated by the critical interest Ruskin took in the Pre-Raphaelites, and in J M W Turner. Born and raised at the poor end of the Thames fishing trade, Turner’s close observations of ‘black barges, patched sails’ and ‘weedy roadside vegetation’ were highly praised by Ruskin, who saw no other painter able to depict ‘the natural way things have of lying about.’  This sensitivity, and the rallying cry of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to paint from nature and to reject classical and artificial notions of composition and beauty, chime with Ruskin’s revelation, aged twenty one, which overturned much of the nine years’ schooling he’d had in ‘the mannerisms and tricks’ of making a painting. One afternoon, ‘with no prospect whatever but a small aspen tree against the blue sky’, he saw the charm of ‘composition’ in the existing world, and the holistic learning journey of capturing it. ‘At last the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.’ 
The poets and visual artists featured and discussed in this essay embrace this clarity of sight in their spark and rigour. Seamus Heaney’s sonnet “The Forge”  begins: ‘All I know is a door into the dark.’ Through the doorway, all we see and hear, such as ‘The unpredictable fantail of sparks / Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water’, make the nearby ‘traffic flashing in rows’ sound tinny and ineffectual; while the juxtaposition of the modern road, where the blacksmith ‘recalls a clatter / Of hoofs’, provides a surface under which we seem to peer, as if through time, or perhaps not through time at all, but through our own surface layers, into what we are still made of.
“Coming Close”  by Philip Levine invites more direct contact, with a woman working the night shift at a buffer wheel. The work is dirty, hard and heavy, and has taken its toll on her body. She’s three hours, and many years in, her work is steady and conscientious, yet she’d resist it in a moment, should the chance come. Just before the end of the poem, we’re asked to imagine this:
… if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle …
Then she laughs and touches ‘the arm of your white shirt to mark / you for your own, now and forever.’
Philip Levine was born to a middle class family in Detroit in 1928.  When his father died, twelve years later, the insurance company found an excuse to deny the major part of the claim, and Levine saw his mother worn out by the effort of keeping the family fed, clothed and sheltered. When they were fourteen, he and his twin brother vowed never to ‘participate in the corporate business of this country, a business that appalled us by the brutality of its exploitation of the people we most loved.’  Poetry had taken hold of Levine a year or so earlier, when his burgeoning lust for words fused with feelings of deep resonance that arose from delving into backyard soil to make things grow, and nights spent in woodland. So nature and work were implicated from the start, and “Innocence”, a poem from his 1991 collection What Work Is, sets them in bitter opposition to each other. A team of workers have prepared an oak wood for a road to come through it, foliage and branches have been removed, then:
earthmovers gripped the chained and stripped trunks,
hunched down and roared their engines, the earth
held and trembled before it gave, and the stumps
howled as they turned their black, prized groins
skyward for the first times in their lives
Soon after the vow with his twin, Levine began working part-time in a soap factory, and for many years supported his higher education by road building, factory and delivery work, until writing and teaching at last provided a living. His poetry remains fascinated by the streets and people of Detroit. In What Work Is, we journey with ‘the faces on the bus … each sealed in its hunger / for … a lost life’ , to places where someone must put on ‘wide rubber hip boots, / gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet / like a knight’s but with a little glass window’ , or yearn to ‘climb the shaking ladder to the roof / of the Nitro plant and tear off / my respirator and breathe the yellow air’ , then to school, where the monoculture sets in:
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened 
In his youth, Levine believed that manual labour would leave his ‘mind and imagination free for writing’.  This mirrors Ruskin’s desire for St George’s Museum in Sheffield to inspire tired workers with ‘what is lovely in the life of Nature, and heroic in the life of Men.’ Situated on Walkley’s north facing hillside, where the furthest view looks northwest over the Peak District, ‘the mountain home of the museum’, as Ruskin described it, was chosen to draw local grinders up from the toxic air of Rivelin, Loxley and Neepsend valleys.  However, some knew a more sustained escape was needed.
By his mid-twenties, Levine had his share of residual minor injury, was disgusted by the divisive practises that drove industry, and the prospect of a life there, unassuaged by his dream to make poetry pay, would have been intolerable. Instead, for many decades until he died in February this year, writing and teaching gave him:
… some work
to do, something useful
and hard, and that they might please
their own need to be doing. 
A hundred years before Levine worked in factories, Sheffield grinders suffered severe damage to their respiration, digestion and posture; many were physical wrecks with terminal illnesses by the age of nineteen.  Rivelin knife grinder Benjamin Creswick was impeded by the symptoms of his trade while his family grew.  When St George’s Museum opened, in 1875, he was twenty-two, and its exhibits spurred him to try his hand; he discovered a talent for sculpture and invested in lessons. Before long he drew the attention of John Ruskin, who tutored him, helped find commissions, and paid him, weekly, for as long as necessary. Creswick became a sculptor of great national renown. He played a leading role in the Arts and Crafts movement, and held a senior position in Birmingham Art School for decades. Completing many public and private commissions, he made art from terracotta, marble and bronze, often portraying characters at tasks he’d performed and observed during his early working life.
It’s a credit to the zeal for authenticity Ruskin passed on in his training, that, with at least six children to support, Creswick initially turned down a major commission to illustrate the manufacture of hats, saying he knew nothing of the process. He was persuaded, after being allowed several weeks of study in the hat factory; and the friezes he made for the high street shop front, and factory entrance behind, have been called ‘a magnificent piece of Socialist realism, modelled without sentimentality but with great dignity.’  The hatters’ building no longer exists, but the scenes depicted on the Cutler’s Hall Frieze in London show the same strength and dignity. Creswick’s great granddaughter, visual artist Annie Creswick-Dawson, has said that the visual impact of the men’s stances, within sections and from one frame to another, remind her of the flow of the Rivelin.
I find this comparison thrilling for the way it taps into the parallels between man and nature that I strive to illuminate in poetry. From the realisations voiced by the teenage couple in “Star”, to the potency of how Sheffield’s fast rivers brought its famous industry to town, the connections flow. Poems of mine such as “Here I spill” and “River Memoir” imagine a river’s life in terms of a person’s, tracking attitudes and behaviour as they mature, suggesting also the harnessed power of a workforce. In poems like “Impasse” and “Contra Flow” the river stands in for the mind’s ability to break through and move on. “Flood Triptych: The Loxley” brings these notions together: as the harness breaks, human ingenuity turns against human, and devastation wrought by the river echoes a body’s internal struggle.
John Clare’s poetry pulls you into the midst of nature, where the work of flora, fauna and river seems never to be done. People are often peripheral: a cowboy on a gate, a distant seed-man sowing grain, or where ‘the cottage roof’s-thatch brown / Did add its beauty to the budding green’.  Clare observes from pathless land, inside a thicket, or by ‘little brooks that hum a simple lay / In green unnoticed spots’.  Removed from human lore, his poetry reveals the long rhythms of nature, while melding the immediacy of life, for its creatures and vegetation, with the breathless joy of the recorder. In “Sudden Shower”, a bee is one of the ‘little things around, like you and I’, who hurry for shelter, and his allegiance is palpable in this stanza from “Autumn”.
While from the rustling scythe the haunted hare
Scampers circuitous with startled ears
Pricked up, then squat, as by
She brushes to the woods
Where seeded grass breast-high and undisturbed
Form pleasant clumps through which the suthering winds
Softens her rigid fears
And lulls to calm repose.
Born in 1793, to a peasant family in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, Clare grew up in similar poverty to Turner, with the same kind of exposure to his future material.  He went to school until he was eleven or twelve, after which money and location left no possibility for further education; yet Clare was a voracious scholar. He borrowed, or saved to buy, books on history, music, botany, maths; everything, that is, except Latin and grammar which he disdained. Already in the thrall of reading, writing and story, when he read The Seasons by James Thompson in his early teens, he was seized by the urgent desire to record his world as poetry, and did so obsessively from then on. His early inner life also has parallels with Levine’s, and the poetry of both are underpinned by deep-rooted threads of human equality and nature’s supremacy. They also share the endearing strategy of telling you their tale as though you were stood beside them. Here are some lines from Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest” :
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs
The fields and gardens where Clare worked weren’t the factories of Creswick or Levine, yet in “The Lament of Swordy Well” he bears witness to the appetites of the revolution already underway in cities:
And me, they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And picked my very bones.
In poems like this, dedicated to the horror of land ownership which Enclosure ushered in, Clare rails at length against its fences, stop signs, ‘Grubbed up trees, banks and bushes’.  The packaging of land came to Helpston in 1806, Clare’s thirteenth year, and in “The Moors” there’s the sense of him having caught the last moments of ‘one eternal green / That never felt the rage of blundering plough’, whose ‘only bondage was the circling sky’, where boys picked mulberries, and shepherds found lost sheep. Intact forever, until ‘Enclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave’. This and a similar line in “The Village Minstrel”, where he ‘Marks the stopped brook and mourns oppression’s power’ – a line that could have been written somewhere in the world any year since – typifies his fluidity between a lost detail and the irrevocable hijacking of resources. His way of speaking for and as the landscape and its creatures makes his politics always personal, yet he is usually shedding light on an ugly facet of his nemesis. When “The Fallen Elm”, which always grew comfortingly close to his home, and ‘murmured in our chimney top / The sweetest anthem autumn ever made’, was felled without any warning, he notes the dangerous rhetoric of those who ‘Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free’. He goes on:
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm
Like Levine, Clare grew up at the brunt of great national hardship and severe class division. In Helpston, he struggled to make a living, nearly enlisted, even put up fences for the local squire – which always made him drink more and hardly write at all; then at twenty four, his family almost destitute, he travelled a few miles for work burning lime, which went to make mortar and fertiliser. It was during this employment that he resolved to change course: he approached a local bookseller and his twelve year journey to publication began.
This is no rags-to-riches tale. Clare held out for the best deal, and after his first collection was published in 1820, he enjoyed several years of acclaim as the Peasant Poet. During visits to London, though noticeably gauche, he made friends, some generous and loyal, of writers, artists, etc. There were more collections of his work, but inexperience and bad advice lost him money, and it’s likely that his wit and politics eluded much of his contemporary readership. When delays and charlatans had squandered his most accessible assets, his popularity waned. Meanwhile, the severity of his mental frailty, and homesickness when away, went unrecognised or misunderstood for too long. Conversely, he missed London friends and city life when he only connected with them by letter.
Three years after the publication of his first collection, Clare suffered his first bout of depression. This coincided with the death of a rural labouring class poet from Suffolk, a few decades his senior. Robert Bloomfield’s work had been immensely popular for a while, but the man had died penniless and losing his sanity. Fourteen years later, aged forty-four, John Clare was first certified insane. Failing mental health, manifesting in depression and erratic behaviour, had for a long time prevented him from making the best of his earnings, and made home life difficult. Now, it seems, his wife was concerned he would become violent. In his last few years at home, he could often only be calmed by one of his children talking gently with him about the countryside. He remained in mental health care and continued to write until his death in 1864. Here’s his sonnet, published in 1835, “To the Memory of Bloomfield”:
Sweet unassuming minstrel, not to thee
The dazzling fashions of the day belong:
Nature’s wild pictures, field and cloud and tree
And quiet brooks far distant from the throng
In murmurs tender as the toiling bee
Make the sweet music of thy gentle song.
Well, nature owns thee: let the crowd pass by,
The tide of fashion is a stream too strong
For pastoral brooks that gently flow and sing,
But nature is their source, and earth and sky
Their annual offering to her current bring.
Thy gentle muse and memory need no sigh,
For thine shall murmur on to many a spring
When their proud streams are summer-burnt and dry.
As is so often the case, in the 1870s much concern was expressed in Britain about the national debt. This didn’t, however, refer to the debt owed to the working urban and rural poor by the individuals making a fortune from the sweat on their thickening backs. Ruskin’s response was to call for a National Store, and St George’s Museum in Walkley was conceived to exhibit this collection of artefacts.  He deplored mass production and its attendant poverty of the human mind and body, and founded the Guild of St George to explore alternatives to industrial capitalism, encourage art and craft, and work toward greater class equality throughout the country. The museum in Walkley was one of its earliest projects. Unfortunately, several episodes of serious mental illness left John Ruskin unable to fully realise his hopes.
Currently, the Guild is funding a nine year programme at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, due to culminate later this year. Ceramicist Emilie Taylor was commissioned to produce work for Force of Nature; Picturing Ruskin’s Landscape, its 2012 exhibition.
Taylor has led a number of projects that encourage members of a community to make art from what binds them.  Several years ago, for instance, in Brown & White, recovering heroin and cocaine users employed a nostalgic framing to juxtapose their own images of addiction and safety. For Force of Nature, she drew on childhood memories of her father’s involvement in pigeon racing around their Rivelin Valley home, and the piece she made, “So High I Almost Touched the Sky”, is a pair of metre tall vases decorated with tender images of Skye Edge pigeon fanciers, their birds and surroundings. She fired them in an outdoor smokeless wood-fuelled kiln, built by the artists’ community at Manor Top, while pigeons flew high above. The impressive stature of these items, along with their capacity and fragility, are perfect for the men they depict. Indeed, for the whole workforce who keep everyone fed and sheltered without anyone’s name being known – because none of them are called Tesco or Adidas – and for the poets and artists spoken of here, who have seen something and wished to tell it.
A few years ago, Taylor was guest visual artist on a poetry walk led by Mark Doyle, and I was lucky enough to be on it. We left Upperthorpe Library to stand where Kelvin flats had been, and look out over Pitsmoor and Parkwood Springs. She gave out materials, talked to us about looking, not looking, and negative space, showed us methods to capture our version of the view. Then I was amazed to be led along Neepsend Valley to where derelict pigeon lofts are barely hidden by a thin stand of trees beside Penistone Road. “Flight from Cuthbert Bank” is the poem I wrote about the walk; here are its last two stanzas:
Ten years since the last
kept pigeon homed to here. Back five more decades
to before they razed Parkwood Spring and sucked
Neepsend dry: the valley not this fleck of factory,
a filament between car galleries
and abandoned hillside,
but like a Lowry vision: a flock
of men released by work clocks, to rise above
day’s end, the valley’s din, legacies of grind,
to hold the small bulk, feel its heat
pulse through feathers in cupped hands,
and send those tiny hearts and lungs
to claim their reach of sky.
Several poems by Fay Musselwhite appear in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing; her debut collection will appear from Longbarrow Press in 2016. She is among the poets taking part in the Longbarrow Press residency at the Pop-Up Ruskin Museum at 381 South Road, Walkley, Sheffield, S6 3TD, from 2 – 30 September 2015. Join us for the salons (every Wednesday and Thursday between 1pm – 3pm in the Museum), in which the poets will lead discussion of several Ruskin-themed topics with reference to their own and others’ poetry; these are free to attend, and no booking is required. The residency will culminate in a collective reading at the Museum at 7pm on Wednesday 30 September, featuring Musselwhite and poets Matthew Clegg, Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green. See the Longbarrow Press Events page for more information.
 Ruskin, The Two Boyhoods, in Wilmer p146
 Ruskin quoted in Dearden, pp17-8
 from Door into the Dark, 1969
 Levine, What Work Is
 details of Philip Levine’s life are from Levine, The Bread of Time
 Levine, Bread, p113
 “Every Blessed Day”, Work
 “Fear and Fame”, Work
 “Burned”, Work
 “Among Children”, Work
 Levine, Bread, p114
 Price, p71
 “Possession”, Not This Pig
 details of Benjamin Creswick’s life are from Creswick-Dawson
 Creswick and Ruskin scholar Simon Ogden, quoted by Creswick-Dawson
 “The Village Minstrel”
 “The Eternity of Nature”
 details of John Clare’s life are from Bate, Biography
 “The Lament of Swordy Well”
 Notes about the Guild and the Museum are from the Guild’s website
 details of Emilie Taylor’s work are from her website
Sources and further reading (click on bold text for website links)
Bate, Jonathan, John Clare: A Biography. London: Picador 2003
Bate, Jonathan (ed.), John Clare: Selected Poems. London: Faber & Faber 2004
Dearden, James, An Illustrated Life of John Ruskin. Princes Risborough: Shire 2004
Engels, Friedrich, The Condition of the Working Class 1844
Guild of St George
Heaney, Seamus, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96. London: Faber & Faber 1998
Levine, Philip, Not This Pig. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press 1963
Levine, Philip, The Bread of Time: Towards an Autobiography. New York: Alfred A Knopf 1993
Levine, Philip, What Work Is. New York: Alfred A Knopf 2012
Price, David, Sheffield Troublemakers. Stroud: Phillimore & Co 2008
Wilmer, Clive (ed). Unto This Last (collection of Ruskin’s essays). London: Penguin 1997
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
– Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (trans. Walter Lowrie)
Over the last year, I have spent most of my creative life walking in and photographing certain aspects of landscape. I have also begun to discuss how and why I came to certain decisions during and after the project. It is the opening out of these landscapes into the wider cultural field that I wish to discuss in further detail here. I approach this piece of writing very tentatively. It finds me writing further away from any hub or centre than I might ever have previously imagined or desired. It finds me feeling hemmed in, cornered, startled out of my solitary journeying by the surprise of others. It meets me discouraged by my own nervousness and precarious position. However, I want to share the emotional and critical range of my working practices or else the photographs will just be pictures without context and as such would remain an ostensibly private record.
The photographs in Booths are a document in themselves, and therefore need no further qualification. However, on returning and attempting to put them into a larger meaningful framework, many of the fissures and fault lines I began the series with have again come to dominate my thinking. It ought to have been obvious to me from the outset that many of those wishing to discuss or engage in ideas around spatiality would only do so within an ulterior framework. For example, the growing emphasis on ‘landscape’ or psychogeography as an academic module needs to fill certain criteria by its very nature. These images can’t fulfil those criteria. So they become easier to disparage or conveniently ignore or subtly mock as unsophisticated. It is only really dawning on me now, slowly but starkly, how out of step this way of thinking about space is with my own.
I have discussed elsewhere and at length the aim of Booths as a larger metaphor for the idea of temporary shelter and as a place of safety. The need to find home and its concomitant community, as I have argued previously, is hotwired into us even at the outer limits of an environment. However, I often found this was, in reality, at odds with my need to wander, my desire to disappear and my instinctual disposition for getting lost. Perhaps those who are ostracised, displaced or exiled might better understand a deep hurt transferred as need for silence and space.
The realisation that a landscape is only qualitatively ‘there’ through the projection of those wishing to impose meaning onto it has latterly informed much of my thinking around Booths. It is difficult to marry theorising about spatiality with the physicality of being somewhere for reasons other than those prescribed by an exterior framework. The nature of trespass becomes more than a physical act; it is seemingly also about accessing (or being denied) critical legitimacy. I felt a similar discomfort when I began photographing in areas that, whilst legally accessible, the casual walker was actively discouraged from seeking out. Ostracism or trespass is akin to being lost in the sense that all the reassurances and validity of community are destabilised. It is as if from that point on your insurance or warranty is no long valid; you are stripped of social ranking or status, like John Clare or Van Gogh. For academia, any status that necessitates being permanently lost, unknown or invalidated would be an impossible impasse. Without notebooks, sketches and poems, what can really be said about this ‘dead zone’ of seemingly aimless, untraceable wandering?
From the outset of Booths I always meant to try and undo some errors in previous steps, not to re-trace but to erase, setting out not find myself but to strip back any remaining attachment to the urbane and polite milieu I had spent several years jettisoning. Spending such an amount of time being isolated from human interaction makes it very difficult to be candid on returning. Explaining, justifying, extrapolating: all point away from the purpose of turning towards landscape as internal exile. It seems all the more important to jot down the particulars because this microclimate of thought and sensation is what would disappear.
One bone cold afternoon I sat behind a half wall sheltering as best as possible from a screaming wind. Suddenly, right next to me, a huge winter hare stood on its hind legs, startled by my presence. Usually hares dart away as soon as they sense anything close to human contact. But this one was different somehow. It went down onto all fours, like a cub, and sat by me, watching, unafraid, curious even, as if it could sense my benignity. It seemed somehow inappropriate to try to photograph the moment, so I tried to just stay as still as could, enthralled by its presence. Anyway it soon tired of me and went on its way with an inbuilt urgency that wasn’t fear. I too went on my way. Revived by this intimate encounter, the wind seemed to drop a little and visibility lifted just long enough for one or two more pictures. I’m thinking of this now as I remember how I have encountered the human sphere since. I am recounting it as it highlights how many conceptual frameworks can quickly become no more than a convenient attempt to unify disparate experiences or perspectives. Perhaps the hare’s behaviour on that afternoon was unique; simply a reaction to a set of circumstances bound toward each and so specific as to be both unrepeatable and unquantifiable. It might well fit into a larger paradigm of animal/human relationships, but without seeking to document it, the moment provides only a lost desire toward a descriptive absence. These coincidences, this fleetingness, are among the things from Booths that resonate the deepest with me.
The linear rendering of an idealised landscape shows a true lack of engagement. Similarly a faux memory of a family day out and an easy journey back to café or car, a prescriptive route followed as activity, leisure or sport. None of these touch on what the desire to disappear feels like. Cultural tourism is such a hugely prevalent force that it now informs critical thinking at many levels. The idea that you can travel freely with both the fiscal and moral right to do so, ought, at the very least, to start to raise serious questions about how this might not be either possible or desirable for everyone. In 2012 I stopped a certain aspect of photographing in the urban environment for similar reasons. The graffiti, torn posters and peeling paint that I had used as a larger metaphor for other things had just become the new ‘hotspot’ for those seeking a simplified safe lexicon for the urban ‘experience’. One afternoon I encountered a group of photographers on a creative tour of the places I’d been previously photographing without consent to access. I knew then it was time to move on. I don’t mean this as a form of inverted snobbery but rather as an innate fear of cultural redundancy, laziness or overfamiliarity. Hegemony doesn’t strengthen cultural ties but strangles them through excessive production, weakens them by gaining capital through their experiences.
On July 9th 1975 the Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader set out in a tiny craft to singlehandedly cross the Atlantic. He set a cine camera on a tripod on the beach to watch him disappear into the horizon line, the white triangle of the sail a vanishing perspective. On the night prior to the voyage he had a choir singing sea shanties on the coastline. He was never found or heard from again. He left no clues nor writing as to his intentions but critical momentum and speculation has gathered around the event ever since. I don’t want to expand on the ‘meaning’ of this act here, but have highlighted it as it exemplifies to an extreme degree a part of my thinking about spatiality. I did not seek to understand landscape but to immerse myself so deeply in it as to be absent from anything else but the landscape. To be absorbed, saturated, consumed by a force other than your own, to deplete self-interest to a point where your fear of mortality empties away. Its force is why I went as far into it as I did and choose the harshest of seasons. Now, months later, unlike Ader, I’m back on solid ground and yet the feeling of being lost remains more acute than ever. No critical framework can dispel it from me; no amount of walking can shake it off.
This is the third of three new essays on photography by Karl Hurst (under the series title ‘On Liminal Spaces’); the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here, and the second essay (‘Meditation on Carl Wark’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series Booths from which all five photographs featured in this piece are drawn. Boxed editions of prints are available from his Etsy site. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed poetry anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).
A few months ago, I went into a corner of the southwestern English town where I used to live to see if it looked any different. The depots and forecourts hadn’t moved; some of the road junctions had been redesigned; a bit more of the horizon was gone. I wanted to know if the wire and concrete fence I’d photographed ten years ago was still there. The fence was still there, and the gate in the fence was still there, and I walked through it and stopped where I had stood. The scene was much as I’d left it, bare branches climbing the gate, its axis extended, the yard emptying out: yet it wasn’t what I’d flattened to a frame. It didn’t fit. The parts hadn’t changed; the relationship between them had.
In 2004, the poet Andrew Hirst invited me to work with him on a sequence of poems and photographs that we titled The Frome Primer. Andy was based in Sheffield; I was living and working in Swindon. Neither of us had access to email, text messaging, or digital cameras. We would meet to discuss the collaboration every month or so, but most of the work was developed through the Royal Mail, with me posting half-a-dozen prints per week, without commentary or description, and Andy’s poems arriving almost by return. None of the poems referenced the photographs; few of the photographs seemed to inhabit the territory of the poems. The motifs, tones and rhythms that developed over the three years of collaboration were, I think, a result of the texts and images indirectly working on each other, the ‘common ground’ of the sequence belonging to neither.
In the early stages of the project, Andy referred to The Frome Primer as ‘a view of the south from the north’. The view was obscured, not just by the dearth of situational or geographical clues in the photographs, but by what had happened to the photographs. The images I was sending north, the images used in the published and exhibited versions of The Frome Primer, were black-and-white photocopies of colour prints, desaturated and degraded. This process stripped the prints of pigment and lustre and depth. It also had the effect of detemporalising them: between the bleached skies and the blotted shadows, it was hard to fix a time of day or time of year. What remained were tight lines and empty vaults. These few particulars, the land pared to its levels, linked the low counties of Essex and Kent (where many of the photographs were taken) to the low-rise, self-contained parks and estates that proliferated in the shallow bed of west Swindon. The prints may have been taken out of time, but they had not lost their place.
As the photographs sank into the crisp folds and outskirts of the southern English townscape, its flat-stacked horizons, the poems became increasingly, and explicitly, concerned with the fate of the northern English city. The Frome Primer is caught between the new space on the edges of our settlements, and the old spaces at their heart; between erasure and exile, drift and displacement. In one poem, we find the speaker contemplating ‘cavities where the old city / walls have collapsed’; in another, the ‘surrendered’ city’s solace is a stand of ponderosa pine, another ‘displaced’ species, ‘swaying in monumental agonies / of light and shade, light and dust’. The erosion of civic space in The Frome Primer is insidious and inexorable, obliquely marked in the passing of ‘an older world’; the new space offers little purchase, seems less than solid, and our sight of it is fragmentary, fleeting. Both the poems and the photographs draw their energies from these states of contradiction and change. The city expands outward while contracting inward. The walls collapse and are rebuilt. The distance fractures and is filled in.
Versions of The Frome Primer were exhibited in Sheffield and north-east Lincolnshire in 2008 and 2009. These earlier displays pushed the linear and literal aspects or tendencies of the work to the fore; each coupling of poem and photograph was intentional (the decisions made some months after the parts had settled) and the sequence was first arranged as a grid (two double rows of poems and photographs) and then as a continuous line. The order of poems and photographs was unchanged between displays. When the opportunity came to remake the work for Bank Street Arts, my initial expectation was that the patterning and sequencing would change a little, but not greatly. The order of the poems – not titled, but numbered, I-XXIV – couldn’t be disturbed, and many of the photographs had settled around these fixed points. I arrived at Gallery 2 for the installation and unpacked the work. I made a start on the walls, lining and spacing the first few pieces, the same pairs falling into place. It wasn’t working. I’d remembered the last display as a chain of taut horizons; this was a weakened line, jerking and sagging. The parts hadn’t changed, but the fit was gone, the movement was gone. I took a few steps back and looked around the room, its fixtures and joins, fractures and fillings. Then I returned to the photographs and arranged them in new groups of two, three and four, led by tone, contrast and rhythm. I didn’t look at the poems as I did this. Slowly, each wall took its clusters and fragments of Frome, texts following images into the gaps; slowly, the surprise of the work came back to me.
I’d edited and published two selections of poems from The Frome Primer in 2007 and 2008, two pamphlets in dark brown covers, the poems printed in the order I was now repeating. The poems aren’t new; the walls renewed them. Their multiple personae are more defeated and more defiant. The rhetoric is somehow plainer and more oblique. The pain of familial and municipal estrangement, the bruise in each lament and parable, is sharper and darker. Threads that seemed peripheral in earlier readings have now shifted into focus: the speakers’ preoccupation with grain, roots and yields (seemingly at odds with the urban terrain they are speaking of and from) prepares us for one of the few instances of a named landscape in The Frome Primer, that of a field near Boston, to which the ‘rootless’ have been displaced, ‘the itinerant labour gang, in transit, dispersed.’ The means by which the city is sustained and rebuilt – low-paid agricultural work, low-paid industrial work – are distanced or concealed from us, as are the workers’ conditions. The effects of displacement and dispersal are, perhaps, more evident in the city itself, a centre become a margin, its inhabitants clinging to temporary islands, the residual, diminished spaces of ‘an older world’ cut off by walled estates, gated flats, fenced wastelands.
Walls, gates, fences: frontiers that rise and fall throughout The Frome Primer, and which seem even more prominent in this sparse new arrangement. If these long, low barriers are the horizontal axis of the photographs, then perhaps trees are its vertical axis, sometimes interrupting a boundary line, sometimes marking it. In the poems, they often hint at pasts and futures beyond the speaker’s reach (bare willows, dark asters, the rowan trees ‘we’ll all come back as’). And sometimes these pasts and futures are collapsed into a single frame, as in the photograph of the wire and concrete fence, bare branches climbing the gate, on which the sequence once closed, and with which it now opens.
The Frome Primer was exhibited at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 19 – 30 May 2015. This is a revised and extended version of a post (‘Frome Revisited’) that appeared on the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival website in May 2015. Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher at Longbarrow Press; other writings appear on his website. Andrew Hirst’s poems for The Frome Primer are available from Longbarrow Press in a limited edition package comprising two pamphlets and two postcards; click here for further details. You can read Marlow Jones’s review of the pamphlets here. Andrew Hirst’s photographic work (as Karl Hurst) is available to view and order here. Listen to Andrew Hirst reading ‘Frome XIX’:
There’s a poem, ‘Street Life’, by Alan Jenkins, that has niggled away at me for the last fifteen years or so. In it the narrator discusses his relationship with a prostitute who lives in the flat above him. The speaker explores various aspects of knowing in his encounters with this unnamed woman. The first meeting of minds revolves around self-recognition: ‘We are alike, we share / the same sad, comical fear of being caught / together on our corner’. Their second understanding is negotiated through care and deception, the way she ‘makes something up when I ask her how she got the bruise / that cascades down her cheek’. The third encounter (a memory) plays on different interpretations of that idea of knowing: put bluntly, the time he ‘paid her twenty quid and pushed it up her, dry and tight’.
You could read this trajectory in the poem as a critique of masculinity, laying bare the fragile binary between protection and exploitation. On a more mechanical level, the poem ‘works’ (is memorable) through that description of perfunctory sex as the final line (the punchline) of the work. In a way, Jenkins is turning a trick here too. Illuminating the subtext of such a technique has the writer whispering to the reader: ‘Yes, my speaker screwed this woman one time but I am screwing with your expectations too, the way in which you expect this poem to progress.’ Whether you admire or not this kind of narratorial gambit is up to you.
Perhaps this poet’s approach might be put in perspective if we compare his poem to another work that dwells on hypocrisy, lust and self-deception: Thom Gunn’s poem ‘Sweet Things’. Like Jenkins, Gunn uses ‘mirroring’ perspectives to draw out his narrator’s concerns. The poem initially focuses on the speaker’s relationship with Don, a young man with Down’s syndrome, who habitually befriends him on the street for money so he can ‘buy sweet things, one after another’. The narrator reflects on why he has never given Don a cent:
I wonder why not, and as I
walk on alone I realise
it’s because his unripened mind
never recognizes me, me
for myself, he only says hi
for what he can get [.]
Someway down the street, our protagonist meets ‘John, no Chuck / …a scrubbed cowboy, Tom Sawyer / grown up.’ They begin talking: ‘“It’s a long time / since we got together,” says John. / Chuck, that is.’ The invitation is immediately taken up: ‘“How about now?” I say / knowing the answer. My boy / I could eat you whole.’ Through juxtaposition, Gunn provides an artful balance between the spurned Don and this narrator’s own desire for ‘sweet things’. Our casual shopper is just the same as Don: self-centred, pleasure-seeking, entirely looking after himself.
I’ve always admired this moral calibration in Gunn’s writing, that he (or his persona) never puts himself above the people he writes about. Those marginalised or troublesome individuals, the street life he encounters, are always treated with respect, understood, listened to. Because he advocates this open door policy, he can directly or by extension assimilate varieties of ‘otherness’ into his worldview. Thus power relationships are never quite straightforward in Gunn’s poetic universe.
I spent most of my early twenties writing about Thom Gunn. I eventually met him in San Francisco, an experience I write about in my new collection, Skin (see my poem ‘An Invitation’). For a writer who professed to like ‘loud music, bars, and boisterous men’, it was quite an eye-opener for a straight, Catholic boy from Quorn, Leicestershire. But I am grateful that I spent such a long time in Gunn’s company. From early on I was preoccupied with the idea of writing about ‘difficult men’, an orbit that eventually led me to work with prisoners as a writer-in-residence in a high security prison. Over the past twenty years I have returned to consider the binds of masculinity through various wider thematic perspectives. Three of the main poems or sequences in this collection hinge on the idea of two men talking, debating, and/or arguing with each other. In ‘Sentences’ my narrator is a teacher working in prison who befriends a drug-dealing poet on the Remand Wing. There are times in the poem where they both need each other, but for very different reasons. The hierarchies embedded in prison culture and its tough moral currency leave both men feeling pressurised by their marginal status. What is the right thing to say and do in such extreme circumstances? In ‘Death and the Gallant’ the two men, Brown and an old man, use the biblical paintings and religious objects that they have set out to destroy to conduct a guarded, then more overt, theological debate. In the final long poem of the collection, ‘Every Time We Met’, Gregory (the writer) and Ed (the academic) joust with each other about success, rivalries, legacy. But underneath the brittle social patter lies a more insidious version of oneupmanship.
As a corrective to, or as a means of arguing against these particular models of controlling masculinity, I also wanted to consider nurturing, loving behaviour in Skin. In two of the main sequences of poems, ‘Miniatures’ and ‘Jigs and Reels’, I reflect on family connections and my own experiences of becoming a father. Philip Larkin says that one of the reasons that he wrote was to ‘preserve’ experiences so that his readership could ‘feel what [he] felt.’ There is certainly a sense of capturing significant moments in the pieces that engage with my young children. In one poem I wrote about how my oldest son’s ears came to ‘unfold’ (a kink in the cartilage of each ear straightened out when he was about six months old): I’m sure I would have forgotten this detail if I hadn’t written it down. I have in my hands, when I read Skin, a trove of memories, tangible, potent, ever-present, that are also moving away from me at the speed of light.
‘Jigs and Reels’, by the way it couples poems, and in its emphasis on a storytelling and lyric drive, sends a strong nod in the direction of folk songs that get twinned together to form ‘sets’ of tunes. That’s something I think writers can miss out on – the collaborative nature of making art. Musicians sitting in a circle improvising and/or playing learnt melodies doesn’t have its own corresponding experience in bookish culture. I have been fortunate over the past ten years to work with a number of writers and artists on public art, commissions and projects in galleries. Some of my most ambitious work has come from cooperative practice and I wanted to give a flavour of this in the collection. Thus I have included haiku, tanka and a couple of longer works that emerged directly from creative relationships.
In a book that returns to representing different aspects of the arts (through writers, painters, musicians) and often concentrates on homosocial power relationships, it seems appropriate that one of the last voices you hear in the book is that of Leigh in ‘Every Time We Met’, an artist, who contextualises her own work in terms of building and making objects of aesthetic beauty, moving away from the more destructive impulses that dominated the early part of her career. It is important that Leigh is allowed the space and time to give her own point of view here. The counter or contrary voice is something I have always tried to find room for. Increasingly, narrative (through debate and dialogue) holds my attention as a writer. If Skin has taught me anything, it is to think in terms of listening to a variety of voices rather than just voicing a steadfast opinion: that there is much to made from polyphony as a way of exploring the world we inhabit and try to make sense of.
Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for further details of the book, and to read and listen to poems from the collection.
In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘The self is a patchwork of the felt and unfelt, of presences and absences, of navigable channels around the walled-off numbness’. The same might be said of a book of poems. Some years ago my writing journey had run aground on an island of my own making. I was living in a mouldy flat. I’d resigned from a job that had made me ill. A very important relationship had broken down. I was still struggling with my health, fighting a numbness brought on by absences of my own. One Sunday I tuned into a radio programme called ‘Homer’s Landscapes’, written and presented by Adam Nicolson. In it, Nicolson examined the journey Odysseus made to Hades, where he must feed blood, honey and wine to the ghost of Tiresias, in order to restore to him the gift of speech. Only Tiresias can offer Odysseus the directions he needs to complete his homeward journey. According to Nicolson, it is as if the Greeks believed that the body and taste of these things were essential not only to life, but to language too. This is a metaphor for poetry itself – for any attempt to make absences or abstractions concrete. The ghosts need their blood and honey, otherwise they’ll remain silent shadows.
This is why I’ve chosen to start my new collection, The Navigators, with a version of this episode of The Odyssey. It acts as a kind of prologue to a book that is full of reconstructions: crowded with personal, historical and mythical ghosts. Marooned on my own journey, I needed to consult with them in order to restore my sense of direction. Some of the poems in this new book predate poems in West North East (Longbarrow Press, 2013), and some of them were written immediately after. One thing that distinguishes them from the poems in my first volume is a broadening of the canvas of time and place. Another is a greater fascination with the flowing element of water, as it moves through both. The collection starts with rain falling in Cumbria. It flows to the South Yorkshire waterways, before arriving at the sea and another scene in another navigational myth from Ancient Greece.
Section 1: Trig Points
The collection begins with poems born out of a writing residency at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. The first drafts were written some 13 years ago. They’ve been re-drafted many times since – the form just eluding me, until I started experimenting with free and open forms in 2014. I’ve taken a long time to discover what many poets start with. This sequence chiefly maps my relationship with the landscape, with creatures, and with my companion of that time, C. Cumbria was the glue that held C and me together, and our relationship struggled after we left. It was as if we couldn’t agree on a landscape we wanted to share – and so we retreated separately to places closer to our origins. The poems in Trig Points also triangulate mental journeys between past, present and projected future. C and I lacked a shared vison of the future, but this doesn’t stop the heart wanting to look back at a loved person and a loved place, trying to find embers to carry forward. Time is a cold landscape without these embers. The frame of this section of the book is also haunted by myth and history. There is a recent adaptation of passages from Aristophanes’ The Birds, and a sequence that touches on events in Kosovo. Many Kosovan refugees settled in Cumbria, and if I go beyond my right to speak of such subjects, I do so in order to remind myself that no idyll is unvisited by voices from worlds outside it. I thought this each time a military jet passed over the Cumbrian sky.
Section 2: The Navigators
In 2009 I received a commission to write poems about the history of the South Yorkshire waterways. I’m no stranger to canals. My grandfather had built a canal boat after he retired, and many holidays in my childhood were spent on his cabin-cruiser, navigating the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The commission resulted in some historical monologues in the voices of navvies and boatmen, as well as personal reminiscences of time on my grandfather’s boat. In 2013 I moved to Mexborough, in South Yorkshire, and found myself 5 minutes from the canal. There, I navigated the waterways as they are now. On one stretch of the canal, a number of houses back onto the water. From the street, they look like ordinary semis or terraces, but from the canal bank they appear more exotic – the domestic waterfronts decorated with bunting, statues of herons, and with little huts and fishing platforms. Some homes even have boats. There is something exciting, for me, about having a boat at the bottom of the garden. I suppose it is possible to look at the motorcar as Everyman’s Argo, parked in the driveway or the street outside every home. But it doesn’t work for me. There’s something special about a boat – about stepping off land and onto a craft that navigates another element. Any waterway has a mystery that a road can’t achieve. When I think of my time on my grandfather’s boat, I realise my experiences were a growth. It’s more poignant now because I understand how important that new adventure was at the end of my grandparents’ lives. Parts of my coming of age and their retirement coincided on the waterways. The canals will always lead back to my history, and to theirs. And they lead back to history with a capital H (or even a dropped one).
Section 3: Cave Time and Sea Changes
In ‘Reference Back’, Philip Larkin said that ‘though our element is time, / We are not suited to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives.’ All through my life, long perspectives have opened in coastal landscapes. I’ve returned to the sea for reflection and regeneration, and the poems I’ve set there are epiphanies that hatch on literal and metaphorical thresholds. This final section explores key moments in three romantic relationships. I’ve questioned whether there might be something insensitive about placing love poems for three women in such proximity. However, I am interested in the drama of the human heart in time. This is supposed to be one of the things the compass of poetry helps us navigate – look at poems from Gilgamesh to Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 to Hughes’ Birthday Letters. In this final section I try to construct my own compass. The denouement is a sequence that explores Proustian memories of Flamborough Head, where I attempt to fuse mythical, personal and historical threads in one fugue-like movement. It culminates with a glimpse of the Greek god of sea-changes, Proteus. This is channelled through a photo taken by my partner, Ruth. I use it as a talisman to return me to a present that is never-ending, and always in the wind. The marooned sailor uses it to find a way home, if home is the seat of our affections, or the starting point for all new expeditions.
The book doesn’t quite end there. I’ve chosen to exit with another mythical scene. This time it’s a night before Jason and his Argonauts embark on their journey. Jason is losing his nerve. Two of the crew have fallen into bitter dispute. It’s almost come to blows, when Orpheus enchants everyone with a song about our elemental origins. The Argonauts carry the song in their hearts long after the music stops, and even into their sleep and dreams. This seemed like the perfect note upon which to suspend my poetic navigations. It’s often said that time is problematic in the human mind. We displace the present into the past, or project it into the future. DH Lawrence wrote about his desire to pioneer a poetry of the present – something that eluded even Orpheus in the end, perhaps. Events later in his life led Orpheus to regret the backward look. In another version of his myth, after his dismemberment by the Maenads, his decapitated head is left to float on the river Hebrus – still singing – until it reaches the Mediterranean shore. As Ezra Pound says in ‘Exile’s Letter’, ‘there is no end of things in the heart.’ This book places my stones on the cairn of that idea.
The Navigators is published by Longbarrow Press on 13 May. Click here for further details of the book, and to read and listen to poems from the collection. Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne will lead a walk along the Mexborough Canal on Sunday 24 May; click here for more information (and to reserve places). The Navigators launch takes place at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, on Thursday 25 June; further details appear on the Events page of the Longbarrow Press website.
The title of this blog post (‘Feeding the dead is necessary’) is taken from W.S. Graham’s long poem ‘Implements in Their Places’ (available in his New Collected Poems, Faber, 2004).