One of the things that I came to appreciate as I started to read poetry in my early teens was how much poems were in conversation with other poems, and as a kind of variation of this theme, it dawned on me that poets were going about their business by ‘talking’ to each other. Never mind that the poet being responded to had been dead for three years or three centuries: this reflection on and negotiation with previous practice – whether it be through assimilating long-established poetic forms (e.g. the sonnet) or mining a well-used trope through the echo of allusion, or perhaps even through adopting creative plagiarisms – this was all part of a grand tradition of writing. It’s one of the fundamental, underpinning (and unwritten) tenets of poetry that makes it so difficult for students and casual readers coming to the genre to make sense of the sometimes rarefied, often codified language placed in front of them. It’s still one of the main stumbling blocks that makes it difficult for me to read, absorb and unravel poems.
To show how this long-standing ‘dialogue’ develops and mutates over time, I’ll use my own poem ‘An Invitation’ as a starting point for discussion. The piece is a fictionalised response to a meeting I had with the poet Thom Gunn back in the mid-1990s in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. It was my rather clumsy attempt to interview a very fine and inspirational writer about his career (he was in his mid-60s at the time of my calling). I had just written a thesis on Gunn and wanted to put a full stop at the end of the project by meeting my subject, the great man, himself. I decided, eventually, to write the poem that reflected on our afternoon together (after a sixteen year gap or so) in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets. One of the reasons why I wanted to write in rhyming couplets (which could be viewed as quite an anachronistic form of address) was that this poetic form gave a strong nod in the direction of one of Gunn’s own formally idiosyncratic pieces: ‘An Invitation: from San Francisco to my brother‘. Whereas I use the term ‘invitation’ in a more generalised sense of already being invited somewhere, turning up, and going away again, Gunn is channelling a more classical sense of the term and seeing his own poem as a kind of epistolary call to his brother halfway across the world: it’s proleptic in its concerns – brother, if you come to visit we can do this, and this, and this. Gunn’s own rhyming couplets (he mixes up pentameter and tetrameter lines throughout) are themselves floating on a pool of allusions: he has based the structure and tone of his work on Ben Jonson’s poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’. Because Gunn was so widely read, a catholic consumer of poetry, he realised one ‘template’ he could use when writing his own piece of bidding was to imitate (this being a favourite theme of Gunn’s) and adapt a previous model fashioned by this Elizabethan/Jacobean poet. Jonson’s form de jour here is the heroic couplet (rhyming iambic pentameter lines): he is sending out a ‘formal’ invitation to his patron, William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, to come to a seemingly elaborate feast in the private space of the poet’s house.
We can go even further back than this. Jonson wrote ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ as part of a series of epigrams: concise, witty, often satirical pieces that commented on (and often mocked) social airs and conventions. Jonson was schooled in the languages of Latin and Greek. He would have written this piece knowing that a good number of his audience could pick up on the Classical antecedents that the work is drawing on. In particular, Jonson is echoing some of thematic strategies of the Roman poet Martial. See, for instance, Martial’s poem that begins: ‘You will dine nicely, Julius Cerialis, at my house’ (11.52) or poem 5.78: ‘If you are troubled by the prospect of a cheerless dinner at home, Toranius, you may fare modestly with me.’
We need not necessarily go this far back as time-travellers to trace a ‘family tree’ of models, connections, allusions. Indeed, we could put to one side this notion of poets responding to each other and adopt a much more standard (and prevalent) critical paradigm where a reader focuses on analysing how a poet’s own oeuvre develops from book to book, in essence testing how his or her work matures by charting the central arguments, tensions, debates that the poet has engaged in over the span of a career. This approach is particularly illuminating when we examine the interconnected schemata/motifs prevalent in the work of the Irish poet Michael Longley. His poems are so much in conversation with themselves that I regard these (often) short, discrete pieces like the fractals that contribute to a larger patterned picture, or like petals that make up a huge vibrant flowerhead. Something of this idea of movement/progression and recapitulation can be found in Longley’s own maxim: ‘If prose is a river, poetry is a fountain.’
I can show how this self-sustaining debate has evolved in Longley’s work by quoting from a recent poem, ‘Marigolds, 1960’, published in The Stairwell (2014). Here Longley is remembering one of his last meetings with his father. The poet is about to return to university in Dublin to continue his studies after the summer break. He has just had his first poem published which his father thinks is ‘[n]ot worth the paper it’s printed on.’ This rather pat critique is followed by a little contextualising statement and fragment of speech:
You are dying. ‘They’ve cut out my
Wheest – I have to sit down
To wheest – like a woman.’
Longtime readers of Longley’s work will know that his father reappears as a key witness of historical trauma, having fought in the First World War with the Ulster Division. The father is both a central character in Longley’s focus on autobiography, contingency and personal tragedy and also a kind of Everyman soldier, a put-upon Tommy who could equally be pictured outside the gates of Troy with Odysseus as he might be charging across the blasted fields of the Somme. The emasculating consequences of war that come to literal effect in ‘Marigolds, 1960’ have already been foregrounded in Longley’s earlier work. In a poem from Longley’s first collection (No Continuing City, 1969) we first learn of his father’s debilitating wounds:
Between the corpses and the soup canteens
You swooned away, watching your future spill.
But, as it was, your proper funeral urn
Had mercifully smashed into smithereens,
To shrapnel shards that sliced your testicle.
That instant, I your most unlikely son,
In No Man’s Land was surely left for dead,
Blotted out from your far horizon.
You can see that Longley is still working toward a mature voice here. He has a rather mannered way of phrasing his lines. ‘[Y]our proper funeral urn / Had mercifully smashed into smithereens’ seems to focus on rather ornate poeticisms for the fragments of the shell that went off in the vicinity of his father. He will go on to refine this balancing act so that his full-blown style is based on making poems out of rather poised and elegant long sentences. He jettisons the full end-rhymes we see here soon after publishing his first collection, cultivating a robust and supple free verse style. But it is this image of the shrapnel shards slicing the testicle, the enervation of the soldier’s strength from that palpable sense of castration, that he returns to in his poetry. Here’s a later poem, ‘The Choughs’, from the collection The Weather in Japan (2000) that shows how his stylistic approach has changed:
The choughs’ red claws recall my father
Telling me how the raw recruits would clutch
Their ‘courting tackle’ under heavy fire:
Choughs at play are the souls of young soldiers
Lifting their testicles into the sky.
Longley is making surreal connections between watching birds ‘rolling and soaring’ about the cliffs on the West Coast of Ireland and this mediated memory of his father’s that returns to focusing on the male sexual organs as a signifier of vulnerability and mortality. His father’s delicate euphemism (‘courting tackle’) seems at odds with the apparent violence of the situation he found himself in, but is in keeping with his own sense of decorum elsewhere (see his use of the word ‘wheest’ in ‘Marigolds, 1960’, for instance). Longley is almost trying to reclaim the shocking earthiness of his father’s plight by pushing this defamiliarising metaphor of the dead soldiers ‘lifting their testicles into the sky.’
It’s worth noting that in the poem ‘The Butchers’ (from Gorse Fires, 1991), one of Longley’s many translations of Homer that he uses as a way to reflect on contemporary violence (in this case sectarian killings), one of the acts that Odysseus perpetrates on his rival Melanthios’s ‘corpse’ is to ‘cut off his nose and ears and cock and balls.’
In ‘Marigolds, 1960’, Longley is coming full circle when he writes after his own father’s cock and balls. You feel that Longley is making that connection between potency and writing here. After all, the father is denied his penis just as the son begins to find success publishing his work. Perhaps more tellingly, Longley is offering us one way of reading this ongoing dialogue he has cultivated across his books with his dead father. Rather than dwelling on his father’s opprobrium (with poems that are ‘Not worth the paper [they are] printed on’), he writes, and continues to write because he wants his shade-of-a-father’s respect and understanding. Here’s another poem printed in The Weather in Japan:
12 January, 1996
He would have been a hundred today, my father,
So I write to him in the trenches and describe
How he lifts with tongs from the brazier an ember
And in its glow reads my words and sets them aside.
Sometimes, once in a while, I read a poem that makes me see another piece in a whole new light. It’s as if the succeeding poem works as a skeleton key that can open a secret compartment in the other text’s structure, revealing a whole new layer of meaning. Usually, this involves the poet creatively re-interpreting another poet’s work through his or her own understanding of the text. They usually do this through allusion or reconfiguring a particular word or phrase found in the original poem. When I read Michael Longley’s collection The Stairwell, I noticed that Longley uses as his epigraph for the first part of the book a quotation from the poet W S Graham: ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower.’ I knew I had read this extract before in a Graham poem and flicked through my copy of the Scot’s Selected Poems (1996) to see if I could find where this petitioning couplet had been taken from. My homing instincts were right – pretty soon I had found the late Graham poem ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ as the source for this perhaps emboldening, perhaps plaintive request. This piece rounds off the Selected Poems – it is a rather fragile, beautiful sequence that contemplates love, companionship and old age as Graham and his wife (Nessie) prepare to ‘say goodnight… / sleeping alone together.’
While I was reading through the Graham poem again it dawned on me that Longley was echoing and subtly playing with the Scottish poet’s trove of language, teasing apart and ‘redressing’ a particular word that is shared in both books. Here’s the final section of ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ in full:
Nessie Dunsmuir, I say
Wheest, wheest to myself
To help me now to go
Under into somewhere
In the redcoat rain.
Buckle me for the war.
Are you to say goodnight
And kiss me and fasten
My drowsy armour tight?
My dear camp-follower,
Hap the blanket round me
And tuck in a flower.
Maybe from my sleep
In the stoure at Culloden
I’ll see you here asleep
In your lonely place.
I always thought the narrator of this poem is talking to himself for solace, a spell to calm his unsettled mind down. If we read the notes at the back of Graham’s New Collected Poems (edited by Matthew Francis and published in 2004), we find that ‘wheest’ is a Scots dialect word for ‘hush’. There are various examples of the use of this dialect word in poems that explore the Scots vernacular. Given the tone and direction of the poem – towards sleep and separation – this self-administration of comfort seems like the obvious route to take through the sequence. However, if we read the text through the prism of Longley’s ‘Marigolds, 1960′, we find another poem floating just beneath the surface. Certainly, if we take on board Graham’s own sense of artistic contingency – as he articulates in his manifesto-driven ‘Proem’ (‘It is now left just as an object by me / to be encountered by somebody else’) – we might go back to the beginning of the poem and take a different path through its architectural planes.
So, rather than the narrator in ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ saying ‘hush, hush’ to himself, perhaps, like Longley’s father, he understands that the word ‘wheest’ carries another load within it. Graham perhaps is saying ‘cock, cock’ to himself, to ‘help [himself] now to go / Under into somewhere / in the redcoat rain.’ Actually, thinking about this emphasis more and more I don’t see it as a great leap of the imagination to read the culmination of the piece to be addressing obliquely the intimacies of sex. After all, the poem begins: ‘Are you to say goodnight / And turn away under / The blanket of your delight?’ The alternative to that ‘turn[ing] away’ is surely the act of love. There are wide open spaces between the lines of this poem for physical union to take place.
I’m sure Longley is aware of this alternative reading he’s providing room for through nailing on the quotation from ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ at the beginning of The Stairwell and then echoing Graham’s usage of ‘wheest’ in his poem ‘Marigolds, 1960’. Perhaps too there is a double bind in this quoted epigraph, ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower’ – that of attentive, love-worn survivors, old man and wife (Longley was celebrating his marriage of fifty years in his last poetry collection, Angel Hill) – while also evoking the old soldier who has survived the war, who has returned, and who Longley wants to give flowers, marigolds perhaps, and hopes they are not rejected this time around.
Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press, and includes the poem ‘An Invitation’. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:
I walk forward turning round, like the pilgrim
who carries a mask on his back.
Tokaido Road, Nancy Gaffield
The Greek polymath Eratosthenes (276 – c.194 BC) was nicknamed ‘Beta’ by his peers: for all his erudition and accomplishment in mathematics, astronomy, geography, poetry and philosophy, he never ranked first in any one field. Despite this, he became the first person to calculate the earth’s circumference. He also devised a 365-day calendar, and invented the leap day; estimated the distance from the earth to the sun; and created the first map of the known world based on parallels and meridians. This imaginary grid of intersecting lines, dividing the earth’s surface into climate zones and political regions, was a breakthrough in the field of cartography, and is now regarded as the cornerstone of geography. It introduced the concepts of latitude and longitude that would be refined over the next two millennia, via chronometers, telegraphy, radio, and GPS: a global system for measuring and organising distance, direction, and time itself. Many of these refinements took place in the 19th century, a period of unprecedented – and rapid – technological change, in which the pace of life accelerated with each discovery or invention. In Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, Rebecca Solnit highlights two innovations that, in very different ways, altered our perception of landscape through their grasp of speed, and laid the foundations for the century to come. One of these was the passenger railroad; the other was photography.
Eadweard Muybridge was born Edward Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames on 9 April 1830, several months before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway conveyed its first passengers, and several years before the first daguerrotypes appeared. Solnit’s book opens in a different time and place: four decades later, four thousand miles west, the scene of a photographic experiment with a galloping horse. The horse, named Occident, belonged to Leland Stanford, president of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies (and, in his last years, co-founder of Stanford University). Stanford had commissioned Muybridge to make a series of photographic studies that would settle the question of whether all four hooves of a running horse left the ground at the same time – a question that could not be answered by the human eye. Whereas earlier, slower exposures preserved only the blur of motion, Muybridge’s new technique, combining faster shutter speeds with quicker emulsions, captured movement as a sequence of still images. These ‘motion studies’, launched in California in 1872, would preoccupy him for the rest of his working life, and lead to the development of cinematography. In the closing stages of a century-long campaign to ‘annihilate time and space’ (as the technological imperative was dubbed by the first railroad passengers), Muybridge emerges as ‘the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom’. As Solnit notes, however, the impulse behind the industrialisation of images and the acceleration of transport, splitting moments and shrinking distances, did not remove humanity as fast or as far from the past as we might think.
Before Muybridge embarked on his motion studies, he was an accomplished landscape photographer, documenting the American West, and Yosemite Valley in particular (after the mid-century gold rush, and before the completion of the transcontinental railroad). His stereoscopic prints of the Yosemite wilderness, which responded and contributed to an increase in tourism in the area, enact a physical distillation of time, in both process and subject: the long exposures on glass plates, and the ‘deep time’ of the park’s geology. Geology was a relatively new science, its discoveries partly stimulated by the rail and mining industries on both sides of the Atlantic, with cuttings and tunnels exposing sections of rock and fossils. The scale and remoteness of Yosemite, and other hitherto ‘inaccessible’ terrain, was now intimate and attainable, via the portals opened by shutter and steel. Muybridge and the railroad companies were manufacturing ‘new’ yet ‘timeless’ landscapes for a European American audience. The railroads, and the privileged views they offered, had been achieved at the expense of the Native Americans who lived and worked in the lands that the rails sliced and reordered. Their time, and its traces, would be purged from the mainstream accounts of this Edenic West and its pioneers (Muybridge, however, was almost unique among his contemporaries in depicting Yosemite as an inhabited place, and the figures in his landscapes are often Native Americans). Amid the turmoil and haste at the technological and territorial frontiers, the standardisation of time that swept east and west with the railroads (radiating from the UK, where Greenwich Mean Time was adopted as ‘railway time’ in 1847, with American and Canadian railroads embracing a meridian-based system in 1883, and Europe thereafter), and the irregular physical and temporal fractures that convulsed this newly joined-up world, the Victorians were stealing backward glances at an ‘ideal landscape … formed of a wholeness that was no longer theirs’. These landscapes were not so much encountered as contemplated; glimpsed from a train carriage, or revisited as framed images. The glass in the frame is both window and mirror.
Between the dawn of the passenger railway and the drying of the first daguerrotypes, the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Andō Hiroshige was printing The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido. Ukiyo-e (or ‘pictures of the Floating World’) was a genre in which portraits and urban scenes (popular with the nouveau riche merchant class) had predominated since the 17th century. Towards the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), the focus had shifted to landscape, and Hiroshige’s work in this field (along with that of Hokusai) is one of the reasons why Japanese art engaged and influenced Western critics and artists later in the 19th century. The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido is a series of woodcut prints made by Hiroshige after travelling on the Tokaido road in 1832. Established at the beginning of the Edo period, the Tokaido (or ‘Eastern Sea Road’) was a coastal route linking Edo (now Tokyo) in the east with the imperial capital of Kyoto in the west. Most of the journeys along its 319 miles were made on foot; women were not permitted to travel alone. Among those who walked the Tokaido was the poet Basho, whose experiences on the road led him to develop the new form of haibun, combining haiku with prose in a series of reflective accounts (starting with Nozarashi Kikō, or Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, in 1684, and culminating ten years later in Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Interior). While Hiroshige’s landscape prints are similarly faithful to the slow time of the Tokaido, they also highlight some recent cultural changes: the influence of Western perspective, notably the horizontal picture plane, and the popularity of meisho (‘named places’, or ‘famous views’), linked to a steady growth in domestic tourism. Each of the 55 prints in the Hōeidō edition (1833-34) is named for one of 53 government post stations (the ‘stations’ of the title) and the road’s eastern and western terminals; the post stations, arranged along the length of the Tokaido, offered respite to officials and travellers. We encounter these figures in Hiroshige’s prints, and in Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (2011), a sequence of poems that both inhabit and depart from the ‘floating world’ mapped out by the artist.
Tokaido Road’s 55 poems are titled and arranged in parallel with the itinerary of ‘named places’ that we trace through the woodcuts. The engagement with Hiroshige’s work is maintained and developed, print by print, from embarkation to arrival; on one level, the book is an ekphrastic expedition, the poems guiding us through a Tokaido of the mind, the landscapes composing themselves anew. Gaffield’s achievement, however, is to absorb and distil the spirit of each print, and the spirit of each place, rather than simply recreating the series in a different medium. This act of distillation makes space for other perspectives, tones and voices, but leaves the coordinates intact. The first poem (‘Nihonbashi’) invites us to consider our bearings: ‘All places exist in relation to Nihonbashi. Everything / begins here.’ We are on the middle of Tokyo’s central bridge, or ‘kilometre zero’: the start of the Tokaido, and the point from which all distances in Japan are traditionally measured. It is a bridge of meetings and partings; birds fly south, rats descend to the river, and ‘sandaled carriers’ reluctantly lead the journey to the west. Although our course is set, we become aware, in these first few poems, of the role of chance (signalled by a hand of cards), and of that other companion, change:
Change comes. First the earthquake,
then B29s. These hills
lopped for landfill. He tips the boatman
and wishes he’d stayed home.
We are moving through scenes from Hiroshige’s ‘floating world’, the use of the simple present tense (in almost every ‘frame’) endowing each prospect with clarity, freshness and continuity. One way in which our encounters with the landscapes of the poems differ from our experience of the prints is in the layering of space: it is simultaneous (or non-linear) in the picture plane, and sequential (and consequential) on the printed page, each line expanding into the space opened by its antecedent. To speak of the layering of time, however – in both the poems and the prints – is to acknowledge uncertainty and complication. We might consider Hiroshige’s woodcut of Kawasaki, for example, and ponder the width of the river crossing in the lower third of the print, before contemplating Fuji to the east, a white peak on the far horizon. The thought of distance (how far is it to Fuji?), the thought of duration (how long before Fuji passes from view?). In the poems of Tokaido Road, we are, ostensibly, passing through Hiroshige’s time, the days before photography, before railroads, before ‘standard time’. Yet we are also – in the same moment, the same stride – passing through the time of ‘the earthquake’ (undated, but possibly the Ansei-Tokai quake of 1854), ‘B29s’ (the ‘Superfortress’ that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of World War II), and the postwar proliferation of ‘landfill’ around Tokyo Bay, levelling hills, erasing views. We do not accelerate through these moments of ‘change’, do not apprehend them with anticipatory or retrospective detachment: the time, and pace, of the poem is that of Hiro’s slow river crossing, with which it closes. These moments are not anachronistic; they are simply part of the composition. Elsewhere in the collection, we find occasional references to bus stops, railways, photographs and telephone numbers; brief, subtle, but unmistakeable. The effect is not so much a shift in linear time as a shift in perspective, which softens the distinction between time and space, and, in turn, suggests that the passage from east to west is not merely a one-way journey:
Travellers on the Tokaido
centuries. Fuji doesn’t change.
Perspectives shift throughout the book in other ways. Whereas Hiroshige’s visions of the Tokaido are restricted to a fixed landscape orientation (in the Hōeidō edition), Gaffield employs a range of forms, including sonnets, haibun, and prose poems (and, frequently, unrhymed tercets and couplets that are, to varying degrees, kin to haiku, Imagism and lyric poetry). This approach, allied to an equally varied cast of personae, constantly refreshes our contact with the road, setting up discrete ‘views’ at each station that keep the hills, lakes, trees and rivers in sight; the crossings that mark the stages of the Tokaido. It also permits us to accompany the travellers, albeit briefly, on their interior journeys, to share the contemplative moments that are forged in, yet distinct from, the time through which they pass:
I am almost never here
in these old prints, but look harder,
closer, and I’m everywhere.
Gaffield’s ‘reframing’ of each scene enacts a peculiarly immersive intertemporality (itself a form of intertextuality): we are part of the moment (we are present), and part of its layering (amongst other moments). A significant factor in this immersion and layering is that the images are apprehended by touch, taste, smell and hearing as much as they are by sight. The picture frame dissolves as we enter a ‘summer evening / succulent with crickets and the peonies’ / perfume.’ Our passage through these sensory fields is periodically attended by an unnamed ‘I’: sometimes the voice of the river, sometimes, perhaps, that of the artist, and, walking the faintest, thinnest line ‘between memory and imagination’, the poet, or a version of the poet. It is the latter who appears, at times, to invite us to step out of Hiroshige’s picture, to consider how it ‘divides neatly in two’, to see the pine trunk as a compositional detail, ‘draw[ing] a line / down the middle of the print, / halfway mark between Edo and Kyoto.’ In ‘Totsuka’, we step back further still, to witness the stages of the woodcut: the drawing, the cutting, the inking, and the pressure that delivers ‘a mirror image’. The prints journey through time – as souvenirs of travel, as worthless postwar ‘wadding’, as recovered artefacts – and we journey through them, and into another time. The time of the Tokaido is intact, even if its landscapes are not: obscured, broken or diminished by development (with most of the old road lost to railways, expressways and other infrastructure), haunted by events outside the frame:
I lie back and try not to think
of August 6, 1945,
rather observe the pine plumes,
the blue hills of Kyoto.
Gaffield’s second full-length collection, Continental Drift (2014), is, in part, a meditation on these events, and their consequences for ‘place’ (as habitat, resource, homeland, spirit). Outwardly, the book is a different kind of project (and object) to Tokaido Road, one that employs different methods and structures. It’s arranged in four sections, three of which comprise discrete (but related) poems, with a greater openness of form than its predecessor. In each section, themes of migration and displacement (voluntary and involuntary, human and nonhuman) and our vulnerability to ruin (quiet and slow, sudden and terrible) occur and recur. There is a concern with the processes of ‘landscaping’ (particularly in the American West) and, more obliquely, with the ‘wear’ of time. ‘Vor Langen Jahren’, placed in the middle of the first section (Crossing the Water), hints at the geocultural shifts taking place:
Crossings and starting over.
to cheap and fertile
Here, and elsewhere in the collection, the movement is westward. ‘Vor Langen Jahren’ is one of several poems that allude to the European colonisation of the Americas (and its legacy), the erasure and re-inscription of ‘someone else’s’ landscape through language: ‘When they got to the new world / they called each place by the old names.’ There is a deepening sense of ancestral loss, of site and speech undone by persistent, unpredictable change, of larger forces outpacing the human heart. In ‘Adam Laments’, we glimpse the wastage and its wake:
Tableaux of ravage continuing
past hope and tearing
train from the track,
sphere slips from its axis.
The poem’s title suggests a double image: a vision of the Edenic West, and the loss of this vision. A partial recovery is effected with the simple iteration of the body’s measures (‘The palm is the width of…’), but the tone is unmistakeably elegiac. The lament is taken up in Crossing the Water’s final poem, ‘Stabat’, where it is offered to ‘those who go down / into the sea.’ Even here, the borders are shifting or effaced, as the water ‘covers the earth’, and the unnamed, unnumbered dead are displaced in its ‘vortex’. The poem draws much of its power from a withholding of particulars: we might think of the losses borne by low-lying coastal communities, the recent casualties of storm surges and tsunamis, but recall, too, the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, the dead and dying dragged from below deck and thrown overboard.
The sea is also a central presence in the first few poems of Inclusions, the second section of Continental Drift. It is itself (‘The sea is self-sufficient’) and an index of distance, passage, inheritance, its light ‘silver’ by day and ‘flashing’ by night, signalling comfort and warning, continuity and instability. This duality is reflected in the poems that follow, which hinge on images of mirrors, portals and thresholds (‘a foot / inside the door’, ‘an aperture to the exterior / world’). Even on ‘solid’ ground, ‘objects, persons, places’ are brought to the edge of ‘quagmire’, of disappearance and forgetting. Among the few constants in these landscapes of ‘trauma’ and flux is the shadow (of language, of self, of history), which, as we draw inland, to known and named locations, seems to darken and lengthen. The last five poems of Inclusions make a sweep of the American interior, with ‘Things the mind already knows’ and ‘Mappa Mundi’ navigating by the stars (and stripes) of two notable 1950s artworks (respectively, ‘White Flag’ by Jasper Johns, and The Americans by Robert Frank). A thick, portentious ‘storm cloud’ billows at the edge of Johns’ ‘open field’, before dissolving into ‘a plume / of smoke’; in the second poem, the speaker contemplates the simple geometric lines of a ‘T and O map’ (into which the three continents of the known world were divided in medieval times), before tracing its curves and angles through the postwar highways and cityscapes of New Mexico and New Jersey, a journey that ends with time and space slipping out of joint, and a wish to ‘get back to 1959, / get our bearings.’
As we near the end of Inclusions, the settings are pared back, the tone becoming more urgent: prairie, sand, and dust disturbed by talk of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘MAD’ (the ‘mutually assured destruction’ theory of nuclear deterrence). The wind picks up. We attune to its ‘vortices’, its ‘directional forces’, to the sound it makes, to all that it carries, unseen. At the heart of it all, nuclei, orbited by electrons. Motes and rain. The image of ‘a stable structure’ flashes up, then the outlook dims:
nothing stays in its proper place
unsettled landscape nuclear
if you don’t
want to know
look away now
The arc of Inclusions has brought us to a critical point, the last words of its last poem (‘Dust’) preparing the ground for the third (and longest) section, Po-wa-ha. A single, 24-page poem, Po-wa-ha (the flow of ‘wind-water-breath’ in Pueblo cosmology) opens in the arid plains of New Mexico, during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 (a war that would test the limits of ‘manifest destiny’), in the traces of a journey made by Susan Magoffin, a diarist and trader’s wife who took to the Sante Fe trail in the wake of the invading U.S. army. After witnessing the postnatal cleansing ritual of a Native American woman, she gradually fades from the desert landscape, which remains the poem’s epicentre: we see the Navajo passing through, the ‘overlanders’ following, hefting firearms, spreading tuberculosis, depleting the resources of ‘the High Plains’. Increasingly, we are aware of the layering of time in this ‘peripheral, / incandescent’ place, and the hastening of events, as Whitman’s credo (‘For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’) cedes to the prayers offered to ‘an atomic god’. The U.S. military has cleared the European settlers from ‘the Valley of the Shadow’, absorbed its shifting, unstable ground into the sprawling White Sands Missile Range, and designated it the Trinity Site, where the first nuclear weapon is detonated on 16 July 1945. A ‘new form of energy’, a new technological frontier, unveiled against the backdrop of ‘the Rio Grande rift, geologically young and dynamic’. The deep time of this depositional terrain is being used up by the heat and ‘searing light’ of the Manhattan Project (‘sand thereabouts turns to glass earth trembles’). Local time is brought to a standstill:
Later no one sniffing the trace of air
. who you were only
the thud of the stopped
The naming of Trinity is attributed to the project’s chief architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, on being asked about its origins by General Leslie Groves some years later, cited a few lines from ‘Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness’ by John Donne: ‘As west and east / In all flatt maps - and I am one - are one, / So death doth touch the resurrection.’ In Donne’s sonnet, the oneness of ‘west’ and ‘east’ is explained by the fact that the world is round, and that its extremes touch the same longitude: his final, westward journey (‘by these straits to die’) will terminate in the east. Gaffield’s poem makes use of another Holy Sonnet by Donne (‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’), also in Oppenheimer’s mind when naming the test site, in which the speaker beseeches his God ‘to break, blow, burn, and make me new.’
After the clock stalls at Trinity, we are shown not so much a sequence of discrete events as a dark continuum, intermittently lit by infernos, in which we glimpse the ‘piston-driven locomotion / cavorting with historical residue’. The poem ramifies like a cloud, drifting east of the test site, ‘going back / to connect the dots’, to China, to the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-1938, its cold suspension, where ‘time stands still’, then further back, to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, east and west, the frontier shifting, to August 1945, a ‘kindly breeze’ propelling it to the ‘kindled’ cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ‘burning / like autumn leaves’, the cloud become ‘tornado’, a vortex of wind and flame. At ground level, in the cities of ‘paper’, we see human shadows, burned into pavements and walls, the images exposed in a moment of radiation. Printed ghosts. Heat, ‘travelling at the speed of light’, has stopped time for these cities. Slowly, Po-wa-ha drifts back to the New Mexico plains, its ‘old river’, its ‘old trails’, its dead, the ‘red rain’ mingling with ‘red dirt’: ‘you are in the desert / and it is in you’.
The fourth and final section of Continental Drift comprises six short poems that ruminate on the work of ‘place-making’, recovery, and repair. The Lay of the Land begins with ‘Unconsolidated debris’, a ‘dream’ of a moraine landscape that could be North American, but which, in its vision of ‘a land destroyed / by water’, also evokes the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima in early 2011; the section, and the book, ends with ‘[Es]cape’, a prose poem reflecting on the loaned and recollected ‘landscape[s] of childhood’, in and from which language is learned, and to which a ‘farewell’ is now offered. Between these terminals, we pass through the stages of shakkei, or ‘borrowed scenery’, a Japanese garden design concept with four categories: ‘distant borrowing’ (which, in the poem ‘Disharmonic folds’, ‘takes in / the mountains / the foothills’), ‘adjacent borrowing’ (‘the woods and the fields’ nearby), ‘upward borrowing’ (of skies, which bear the ‘occluded front’ of ‘Grey zone’, a poem in which we also glimpse the Tokaido or ‘Eastern Sea Road’, and the ‘weather’ of surface-to-air missiles), and ‘downward borrowing’ (‘of mosses and lichens, fallen masonry’). ‘Place-making’ draws on this borrowing: it is expressed through ‘multiple acts of remembering’, near and far, above and below, always working with ‘the lay of the land’. In a ‘palimpsest’ of damaged, disappearing or endangered landscapes, ‘there is never a complete return’; yet it is to the memory of these places that we must ‘return borrowed things’. In its crossing of borders, its leave-taking and letting-go, ‘[Es]cape’ recalls the closing poem of Tokaido Road:
There is no clear boundary
between memory and imagination,
memory carries a trace
of place, giving us presence
in absence. Imagination
mends the holes.
I let you go, my blue
familiars, cross the bridge
Gaffield’s most recent publication, Meridian (2016), also pursues the theme of departure and return, and is itself a departure. Like the earlier Zyxt (2015), which uses the Fibonacci mathematical sequence as a syllabic constraint (with interesting, and varied, consequences for the sound, shape and pace of the poems), it showcases the pamphlet’s potential as a space for experiment, a working-out of new paths. Both pamphlets take south-east England as their starting point, their respective openings also framed by similar ideas of direction or place: ‘Blown / in this / far north’ (Zyzt), ‘Everywhere there are signs / of the North’ (Meridian). While Zyxt is reconciled to its Canterbury setting (albeit released into a sense of historical excursion and circular pilgrimage in its ‘journey of a thousand years’), Meridian sets (and declares) an outbound course: it charts the Greenwich Meridian Trail from East Sussex to the reference line’s historic origin at the Royal Observatory (while this journey ends in Greenwich, the pamphlet appears to be the first instalment of a larger work-in-progress, which will regain the trail at the Thames, and follow it to the Humber).
We start from an unidentified square of ‘Ordnance Survey Map 122’, on the outskirts of Peacehaven, where the meridian enters the English Channel, and where the trail itself begins. We are ‘walking in/walking out’, every ‘turn’ a step towards, and a step away, ‘looking / for the gap / in the hedge’, attentive to ‘thresholds’ and ‘apertures’, the changeable porosity of land:
in the season of absolute light
. before harvest
. prefaces the closing down
While the line of longitude is straight, the trail, like any footpath, is not. Meridian is in constant motion, and much of its vigour and surprise is traceable to an ongoing negotiation between the grid and the ground, the ‘mental map’ and ‘physical topography’, the abstract and the particular, the past and the future. Presence and absence. This is apparent in the design of the poem, which unfolds, page by page, like a scale map of perception, the events and thoughts coterminous (and lateral), testing the sheet’s dimensions:
What is a line
. the trace of
. a moving point
. a procedure
. framed in astragals
. beaded glass
The expanded ‘field’ of the long poem (arguably, Meridian lies somewhere between a long poem and a sequence, but seems closer to the former, in tone and structure) allows the work its heterogeneous sweep: it takes in fragments of song, the poetry of Niedecker, Whitman and Pasternak, snatches of TV dialogue, film flashbacks, the public texts of memorial, monument and museum, ‘the roll call of the dead’, all of it gathered or recovered through the act of walking, the continuous present. There is always a voice within earshot, a familiar refrain, a new prospect; and there is always, in this northward ‘thinking forward’, a keen awareness of elsewhere, of distance, of separation and convergence:
I imagine the lines of longitude as
twin ropes of a swing
in the left hand is Sussex
in the right the 105th Meridian West
UTC-07:00 Mountain Time North
Two meridians, ‘Two Continents’. We hold the ‘ropes’ of both for a little while, the 105th passing through New Mexico and Colorado, before ‘cut[ting] free’, the ‘night terrors’ close behind:
don’t look back through black glass
. or you will plunge
. into terrae incognitae
Unlike the Tokaido, the Greenwich Meridian Trail is a new path (albeit one that is animated by an ancient concept), and one that, in part, makes use of recent technology to enable an older, slower way of travelling. The secular pilgrimage of Meridian closes with a handful of scenes from the Royal Observatory, its historic chambers, its antique clocks and telescopes, the tourists ‘with one foot in the east / another in the west’, the ‘walnut-panelled’ Star Room and its ‘ever expanding universe’, and questions, urgent, unanswerable questions:
and if I’m not at sea
. what is this
And the meridian, now 102 metres east of its marking strip, the universe still expanding.
Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (CB Editions) is available here; Continental Drift (Shearsman) is available here. Click here to read three poems from Continental Drift. Gaffield’s Oystercatcher Press pamphlets (Zyxt and Meridian) are available here and here.
Click here to view a gallery of Hiroshige’s prints for The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.
You can read a selection of extracts from Rebecca Solnit’s Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge (2003, published in the U.S. as River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West) here.
an introduction to a received transmission categorised as Quarry Some
As a child I was fascinated by paintings of alien landscapes containing wrecked spacecraft. One particular sci-fi coffee-table book, called Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space, still stays embedded in the canyon remnants of my child brain. Such huge hulks of corroding technology, each dropped to ground like some giant letter from some lost god’s alphabet. These still moulder in my mind, cold with distance and yet hot with some kind of strange glad angst …
And I now know that such projected ghostly derelicts of super-technologies have played an important part in setting my mind towards the present pull of dereliction. Tarkovsky’s Stalker has also pulled me from one dimension into another and back out again. And so I have always been drawn to The Zone, by the forbidden fenced elsewhere, by the contained broken analogues of our breaking worlds …
A few years back I had the honour of actually travelling to some other world with a team of Quarrynauts. Together we rode over an abandoned civilisation’s traces … we held our craft fast, hitched a ride … or we passed our craft from one to the other … a baton of co(s)mic trajectories … its imagination-impetus, its creating-eye, pulled us through …
My son, a one-time technician of useful-deceptions, and a forever-improviser, had empowered a telescopic-pole with a photon-coagulator. Or to use today’s Earth language: my son had, using a strap of tractor-tyre inner-tube, mounted a digital eye to the end of an extendable aluminium pole. This pole saw the way, and its vibrant visions danced our hands as we carried it and ran … puppets we were of vision’s touch … all of us … a team of fathers & sons on the run … the run to … as well as the run from …
How we dreamed … the aluminium pole had an intelligence – aluminium intelligence – crystalline, light and strong …
But our dream also boiled with poetry fragmented into comedic fibres & jostling alien components & the frail muffled tragedies of objects’ disintegrating messages. There is no clearly discernible speech recorded in our document of our voyage, but perhaps I remember how at one point in space we discussed a mysterious murder on the far-off & ancient Benny Hill of Old Earth. We wrestled with the legal rights & moral wrongs of that murder, and the reincarnation of granite, and the filling in and filling up of outer & inner space with mineral density. Forever some corner of a universe is a corner of Earth, for a quarry is a corner of ground, and the stone dreams dug from it remain spaceless but fluid and awake eternally … and thus, to disagree ever so slightly with Gaston Bachelard, and to be much inspired by child Alice’s bold mischief, our team’s odyssey motto was: How we take flight, through a corner of a universe …
What you are about to see and hear should not be tried at home … it is only for those who wish their dwelling to be a corridor of motion, a tube of going towards gone, a carrying of nowhere from nowhere to nowhere, an event of bearing an horizon of aluminium rod … through the active radio of space … space … where no one can hear … your poetry cry …
This text introduces Quarry Some, a one-take collaborative film by Louis Goodwin, Mark Goodwin, and others:
Mark Goodwin’s fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
I was brought up on a farm in South Leicestershire, and since my childhood, some of the outbuildings have always ‘housed’, each summer, a certain kind of dweller, or rather I suppose, a certain kind of traveller. These beings made the dustbin shed a dangerous place to enter, or at least it seemed dangerous … because, more often than not as you opened the bottom half of the stable-door, the top half of which was always kept open, suddenly you would need to duck as a blurred
dark wing-edged missile
skimming your crown …
It is just like that now – the swallows are still there at Lodge Farm, in the summer. And I, like many others, have come to know swallows as being the chirrups-&-clicks and flitting flow-visions of a particular summer place …
An intimacy of sorts. Swallows zooming the corners of the cobbled yard and then banking up into the wide summer blues above. You could never get near them – all speed & agility – and yet that fast distance they carry or project … that was, and still is, a kind of unique nearness, a bringing in of the far …
And as a child I could only vaguely imagine far-off South Africa, and how it might feel to fly and weather the long sky-hours crossing continents to that unknown ‘there’ … and then again to fly the vast space back … up Africa … across the deadly Sahara … Morocco … Spain … the high Pyrenees … France … across The Channel to England … and then up to Leicestershire again, and again to a particular rafter, in a farm’s outbuilding. And as an adult, I think I can imagine this no better. And yet, the swallows – settled in the dustbin shed – each year they bring this intercontinental distance close. Even though, swallows, flyers that they are, can never be touched …
Yes, swallows in my life, so far, have been near, but utterly impossible to touch. That cup of mud tucked into the rafters? Well … even as a small child I knew and felt just how forbidden it is to put a hand into that nest of peek-a-booing chicks. And in all the years of my growing up at Lodge Farm, and since, not one swallow chick has fallen from the nest. Or at least, I believe it to be that way …
Swallows. The impossible to touch. So, it is such a beautiful but strange surprise to me then, that my growing-up children, who are both now moving out and into the far world, should one day bring a touchable swallow to the place where I grew up …
My daughter, Tess, is a vet student, and she was recently doing some work experience at a stud farm in Shropshire. One of the other students had found a fallen swallow nestling, but was unable to carry on hand-rearing the bird, because her time at the stud farm had come to an end. She managed to persuade Tess to carry on with the rearing … and then Tess, as her work-experience came to an end, brought the swallow back home with her …
And so, that is what she, and my son, Louis, are now doing – they are hand-rearing a swallow. Or at least trying to …
Swallows grow fast, very fast. The grip of tiny claws on your finger. The strength of the grip. The fanning of wings, and the swish of air on your skin as flight is felt by the bird, but … flight not yet made, at least for now. The sudden little crinkled squawk-&-wide-open-yellow-maw as a tweezered wriggling mealy worm is offered … then gulped down. The sharp frightening hunter gaze and already skilled precise rotating head-movements as a passing fly is scanned avidly. This little creature is a terror! A hawk of a kind – a gnat harrier. So fast its ancient instincts are making its form & drive come into the world. This little creature is immensely beautiful …
Tess is trying very hard, as a vet student, as a scientist no less, NOT to get attached to this little being. She is failing, of course, but not enough to try at all to keep the creature. I’m sure part of her does not want this bird to fly, yet I know she mostly wants the creature to go, and to be free … yes! that is certainly what she wants most …
And as we talked about this, with the swallow on her hand, in the garden at my parents’ farm … suddenly the fledgling took flight … was up … and instantly bigger versions of itself boomeranged out of thin air and swooped close through the confines of the garden … and then the little swallow and the bigger ones that had joined it were beyond the beech hedge and in the big sky … Were they friendly, these big blade-shapes cavorting with the fledgling? …
The concern on my daughter’s face was as clear as the streak
of a swallow’s cry …
And then the wee bird landed on her hand again.
And my daughter, the scientist, knew, so very well, that the bird had returned only because of hunger & thirst, and nothing else. And yet, human that she is, my daughter declared her ‘love’ for the beauty of this driven beast …
Last night, Tess took the fledgling back to Lodge Farm, which is abundant with swallows, skimming flies off the farm’s lake …
Before last night, the little bird had already made a flight with the wild adult birds, of about twenty minutes or so. I was there, at Lodge Farm, and saw how the bigger swallows curved close and jostled the fledgling. Were the ‘wiser’ birds teaching? Or were the wild creatures bullying a stranger? We couldn’t really tell. We suspect they were actually helping, but we don’t have enough knowledge of swallows to be certain of what we were looking at, other than a smaller bird circling and swooping … and being … pursued by larger beings of its kind. And when the nestless fledgling returned to my daughter’s hand, its beak was ajar: the fledgling was panting, and obviously very tired. The sudden open sky and the action of flight had taken a lot of energy …
Late last night, Louis told me that the little swallow had been flying again at Lodge Farm, and this time for over two hours … and that Tess was about to leave, suspecting she would see no more of the bird, when suddenly it landed on her head …
… I texted Tess this morning: ‘I hear, on the wing 4 over 2hrs yester eve! Lv d’ Her reply: ‘Yes but he’s not in a good way 😦 he came back absolutely exhausted and hasn’t tweeted since, and this morning I noticed a slight bloody patch on his under belly so he’s going 2 the vet today. Lv T.’
It is likely that the juvenile driven flyer, un-guided by parent swallows, simply flew and flew in circles until exhaustion … and then made a bad crash landing causing injury …
Such an immensely beautiful & driven little beast. And yet so fragile and dependent on a particular pattern of existence, a particular unfurling of events, a set of steps in a deep old precise process … that cannot be easily interrupted …
The attrition rate for juvenile swallows whilst making their first migration is so very high – only the strongest flyers stand any chance of making the journey their instincts demand of them …
It is sad, this loss. But only for us people. The swallow cares not …
Photographs by Nikki Clayton. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press this autumn). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
One of the most common metaphors poets and novelists use to describe their own art draws on the idea of performing magic: writers are magicians, they weave spells (see Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘Spelling’), they have extrasensory powers: Stephen King, for example, tells us that writing is ‘telepathy’. It’s not an altogether original idea they are espousing: Shakespeare was making this connection between books and sorcery in The Tempest, after all. But if we are looking for a dominant narrative in contemporary poetics that looks to explain the process of writing, of mesmerising the reader, we should look no further than this parallel that authors like to draw between themselves and illusionists. Here’s an extract from a recent article by the novelist Toby Litt that typifies what I’m talking about:
At worst, on a creative writing course, the tutor will be able to show you how to do some magic tricks; at best, they will teach you how to be a good magician; beyond that, though, is doing magic – and that you will have to learn for yourself. For what a tutor can’t show you is how to do things you shouldn’t be able to do.
‘What Makes Bad Writing Bad?’ The Guardian, 20 May 2016
Let’s start again from the top. Writers compare themselves to magicians. Magicians are tricksters, manipulators, deceivers, con artists. They are sworn to secrecy when it comes to the possibility of illuminating their craft: a mentalist who divulges his or her own strategies won’t last long as a member of the Magic Circle. A performer might argue that showing how the trick is executed ruins the spectacle inherent in such a performance: conjurers rely on the fact we, the audience, want to be left wondering. We actively choose to suspend our disbelief.
One writer who played up to this allure of secrecy was the poet Michael Donaghy. I used a quotation of his in a previous blog piece (‘The Lure’) where he offhandedly remarks that there’s no gain in explaining your own work: ‘You come across as either an awestruck fan of your own genius or a tedious explainer of jokes.’ Donaghy was being asked to write an introduction to his collection Conjure for the Poetry Book Society which – not to labour the title of the collection – flags up his own fascination with the craft and magic of materialising poems from thin air. ‘The poetry readings I attend are sometimes like in-house performances at the Magic Circle,’ he writes: ‘An audience of fellow professionals sits back taking notes or wondering where the performer bought his rabbit.’ Rather than ‘explain’ his poetry, what Donaghy does in the few words given to him is to unpack all the etymologies of the word ‘conjure’. ‘Conjuring’ is incantation – reading/writing poems for an attentive audience; ‘conjure derives from the Latin conjurare, to swear together’; it also means to ‘raise a spirit’; and finally he reflects on the ‘master conjurer’, his four year old son. It is a rather brilliant rhetorical trick in itself, distracting the reader’s focus away from the fact he doesn’t want to reveal any of his hard-won secrets, doesn’t really want to discuss his poems in print.
I don’t know whether Donaghy ever read Vicki Feaver’s attempts to speak to the abiding spirits that inhabit her own poetry in her reflective commentary ‘The Handless Maiden’. Where Donaghy is all sleight-of-hand, Feaver shows us something of the bare anatomy of her technique. Feaver published the piece in How Poets Work, a now out-of-print Seren compendium of essays. An abridged version of the work was reprinted in Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings (ed. Linda Anderson) so it’s still available to a wide audience. Feaver’s is one of the most illuminating, in-depth commentaries exploring the process of making poems I have read. Her approach is open, scrupulous, sincere. She writes of the pressures on women to conform to certain societal models of behaviour and, by extension, how it affects poets who want to write directly of their own experience. ‘I was also worried about the idea that art should come easily,’ she writes. ‘Keats said it, too, even more categorically: “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Because I’ve always had such a battle with poems, his words have struck in my mind, internalised as a rebuke that on the one hand makes me want to give up writing, and on the other to rage against them. After all, giving birth is natural – and how many babies are born easily?’ In one section of the essay, Feaver prints the initial rough jottings/list from her notebook for the poem ‘Ironing’ and explains, line by line, why the phrases (and their sentiments) aren’t the right ‘fit’ for the piece, falling by the wayside in subsequent drafts. Feaver reveals how her stagecraft is created through this focus on stripping away unnecessary or ill-defined details.
As much as I admire Donaghy’s schtick of smoke and mirrors, it’s Feaver’s example of explaining how she does the trick that I value more. This is partly due to her reflections on the difficulty, the ‘struggle’ of writing well, something I am all too aware of. In that strange, deja vu moment of reviewing old drafts (usually collated in an individual document for each poem), I’m still gently surprised by the variations, the re-writes I’ve gone through to nail down a line, a stanza, an entire piece of work. Perhaps I shouldn’t find this such an eye-opener: retrospection allows for the most far-seeing views of the landscapes we traverse, populate. In the most quotidian, un-magical terms I can think of, what usually ends up on display in the final draft of a poem is about 5% of the words I’ve sifted through during the process of composition. So on average a 200 word poem, the best room of the house, will abut a grand (but slightly derelict) pile of about 4000 more. Sure, there’s an element of repetition, of reiteration, that bumps the number count up, but this blueprint seems to hold true for me: 10000 words in = 500 words out.
I think one of the ways I’ve come to terms with these slow deliberations is not so much to see the process as a struggle but actually consider it as the fundamental action of being a writer. Put it one way: writing involves necessary failure. Put it another: writing involves experimentation – that propensity to play, have fun. I’ve also learnt to be more patient as I’ve gotten older: I know I draft more now than I did twenty years ago. It’s not a sign of increasing cack-handedness on my part but reveals, I think, an opposite bent: I take the trick apart, studying its mechanisms, its weight and shine, from multiple angles, learning fifteen variant ways of doing the puzzle as opposed to two or three.
If anyone is interested in writing about the act of writing I would direct them toward Feaver’s Ars Poetica. Apart from it being necessary reading for anyone interested in poetics, if we believe in taking the job of reflection seriously, her self-critique flags up a clear-headed approach we can utilise as writers. Indeed, it is my contention that this ability to self-analyse, to be able to ‘unpack’ the trick, to show ourselves as much as the audience how the pieces fit together, means that the next trick we attempt will be more negotiable, adaptable, comprehended. If we eliminate some of the enigmas surrounding composition (even to ourselves), we can learn the complexities of the performance and attempt to improve on it the next time around. If that makes the role of the writer sound a bit like the work of a mechanic dismantling and reassembling a car engine, I’m okay with that, up to a point. Better this than believing in the notion of the sorcerer poets who attach to their practice all manner of bullshit mysteries. That is just an act, after all.
This is the third in a series of essays by Chris Jones reflecting on the craft of writing; click here to read the first in the series. Further essays will be posted on the Longbarrow Blog throughout 2017.
Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:
In the act of falling forward, we instinctively recover: the tilting mass vaults the grounded limb, the head holds itself level, one foot corrects the other. In walking, we find equilibrium, a rhythm that keeps the mind in step with the body, the same rhythm that, at times, enables the ‘trance-like suspension of [the] normal habits of thought’ (Robert Graves). The centuries-old path that it prepares for poetry, trodden by ‘walking poets’ such as Bashõ and Wordsworth, is accessed by a kind of meditative movement, detached and immersed, rarefied and regular. One of the peculiarities of the contemporary urban environment, with its perceived obstacles to reflective states and untrammelled passage, is its capacity for making (and remaking) the conditions in which ‘moving with thought’ can occur. That these conditions exist in our towns and cities is largely accidental, and incidental to the decisions of urban planners and developers. They arise from the street’s flux and spate, its variable frequencies of jumble and drift, the unexpected visual, auditory and other stimuli that sustain and renew the ‘trance’ of ambulant reverie. With each step, the body rights itself, the mind adjusts its balance, there is contrast, the near and the peripheral, the familiar and the unfamiliar, there is juxtaposition and flow.
For nearly 10 years, I’ve been exploring these ideas with the poets of Longbarrow Press, through a series of public walks in predominantly urban landscapes. The first of these was devised by Matthew Clegg, who, seeking a creative alternative to the conventional ‘pub launch’, invited a small audience to accompany him on a four-hour meander through north Sheffield to mark the publication of his sequence Edgelands (2008). It was midsummer, yet the light levels were set to late autumn, the heat close to zero. Damp ground, dismal skies, soaking us from Owlerton to Oughtibridge. By the time we reached the Birley Stone, a medieval marker on an inland cliff, the Edgelands script had reverted to pulp. None of this mattered. The weather was an atmospheric filter for the poems, the acoustic changing at each reading stop, Clegg’s images and rhythms nuanced by dense air and dripping leaves. It also seemed to draw our small group closer together, moved by a sense of common endeavour, some of us sharing ideas and observations, others walking in companionable silence. We parted with new understandings, of the poems, the landscapes, and ourselves: as participants and contributors, crafting an experience through a collective act of heightened attention.
Since then, we’ve led more than a dozen walks in Sheffield (and further afield), including Moving with Thought (2012), a workshop disguised as an open-ended exploration of the varied terrain between Shalesmoor and Parkwood Springs. It was here that Clegg introduced the concept of ‘juxtaposition and flow’, as a means of reading and navigating the city – its cross-currents of sounds and scents, its clash of textual and pictorial signs – and as a compositional method, with many attendees incorporating their ‘found material’ (site safety directives, advertisements, graffiti) into poems asking questions of the built environment. Other walks have traced the lines laid down by water (notably Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow series (2014-2016), in which she narrated the lives of the Rivelin, a former ‘working river’, from birth to post-industrial recovery) and history (the first of these, a six-hour winter hike led by Rob Hindle, reconstructed the route taken by the Luftwaffe on the first night of the Sheffield Blitz, the walk coinciding with its 70th anniversary). The path isn’t always linear, though. When Longbarrow Press was invited to propose an event for the 2017 South Yorkshire Poetry Festival, we saw an opportunity to refresh and refocus our approach, to start with a blank page, to improvise from scratch. For ‘Vanishing Point’, led by Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green, we began with a single physical feature – the Cholera Monument, a hillside memorial just east of Sheffield city centre – the end point of a journey for which we had no route map, no origin. What we did have was a working knowledge of the city’s intersections, its rivers and bridges, tram lines and termini, and their role in reframing our perspective: the sightlines shifting where the axes meet. In the weeks leading up to the walk, we reshuffled poems, sounded the locations where the readings might take place, and settled on a point of departure. In the last few days, we made further cuts to the script, shedding several poems and their stops, sensing a need to create more space for movement, reflection, and, implicitly, chance; the unplanned, unexpected moments that allow these events to breathe, the fleeting counterpoint of the street.
It’s just after 11am on Sunday 28 May. I’m standing on the west side of Lady’s Bridge, looking upstream, checking names and faces against the details on my list. Two people booked on the walk haven’t turned up. Two people who haven’t booked appear in their place. We take a call from someone who has surfaced in Kelham Island, half a mile north-west, and needs directions. ‘Follow the river’, we tell her. I welcome the audience, numbering 20 or so, and introduce Angelina and Pete. I sketch the route we’ll be taking, our gradual ascent of the city, offering a glimpse of our conceptual framework, the plots, planes and parallel lines of public infrastructure, a horizontal and vertical mesh. It’s enough. The audience will join the dots, make their own connections, find their own vanishing points. I close by remarking that we’re on the oldest bridge over the River Don, a survivor of the 1864 and 2007 floods, linking Waingate to the Wicker. As we’re about to set off, we’re joined by our lost companion, who’s raced the water from Kelham Island. We round a corner, file along Nursery Street, and step down to the river. Our venue for the first reading is a pocket park, a tilted ellipsis of grass and concrete that meets the bank in a small, tiered semicircle. Pete descends to the edge, his back to the water, and opens with a discussion of the area’s historical and modern juxtapositions, perhaps traceable to the bridging of the Don (which formerly divided the town’s wealthy and poor districts). Since the demolition of Castle Market, the contrast is even more striking; low-rise budget stores and pawnbrokers dwarfed by the crown court, the magistrates court and the police station, overlooked, in turn, by the glass towers of Irwin Mitchell and other law firms. Against this institutional backdrop – part of which is reflected in the water, red brick facades rippled by passing ducks – Pete reads the first of several extracts from his Sheffield Almanac, in which the layering of social class and the rebranding of the city in its ‘Year of Making’ are absorbed into a multifaceted, MacNeiceian meditation on the personal and political currents that determine where we end up. Angelina responds with three river-themed poems from her collection Envies the Birds, including ‘Ball Street Bridge’, a moonlit, sepia-toned ode to the ‘unshifting’ mallards that ‘perch the weir’, as seen from the vantage of the eponymous span, half a mile upstream. She also reads ‘Fairytale No. 13’, which subtly introduces the motifs of flight and falling that will recur and swell in the closing stages of the walk. After the third poem (a version of Montale’s ‘Cuttlefish Bones’), we rise from the riverbank, and double back to Lady’s Bridge. As we make our second crossing, one of our number talks of how, after two decades of walking the city, she is still discovering it. We thread along a thin, uriniferous corridor, the riverside passage to Blonk Street that lies parallel to Castlegate, terminating in the shadow of a sixteen-storey residential block. I point out the junction of the two roads, and, just below this, the junction of two rivers: the Sheaf, crawling out of a brick culvert, and the Don, swallowing its dark tributary. The confluence used to form part of the boundary of Sheffield Castle; the Sheaf, like the castle, has all but vanished from the landscape (the only other point at which it surfaces in the city centre is at Pond Hill, in a 100-foot gap between rail and road infrastructure).
We switch pavements at Blonk Street, the road bridging the river as it widens and turns, and we turn with it, into a feeder lane for a hotel car park, the Don spreading out below, sweeping north-east. At the halfway point, we halt, and consider the unpavemented road, yellow lines flush to the low stone wall. As Angelina prepares to read, we attempt and abandon a linear formation, then a ragged crescent; divided, after the first stanza of ‘Stone Walls and Snowgates’, by the passage of a silver Mazda. We regroup, sharp as a sickle, and Angelina starts over:
An angler wades in teetering like a goose
slips on loose silt
churned by the Don.
It’s an apposite choice, and not only for its theme and setting (the poem closes with a vision of ‘the ore-brown walls of Tommy Wards’, just around the next bend, the next weir): like ‘The Bench’, which follows it this morning, displacements and gaps are integral to its design, white space and ‘tinny crash’, autumnal and crisp. On this summer’s day, the gaps are tested by cars, bristling and slow, chafing the edge of the group. We don’t budge. The poems absorb the bustle. Not for the first time, I think of brittle readings in hushed rooms, the listeners not enrapt, but twitchy, the thread unpicked by the least interruption: latecomers, coughs, creaking chairs. Out here, the engine noise is part of the texture, and the river’s wash is part of the texture, and the voice focuses our attention: it does not exhaust it. One touch of nature / makes the whole world kin. A week before, I’d stood here with Pete, thinking and talking through the route, numbering the path. We gazed at the Don for a few minutes, remarking on the depthless waters, the flat islands of weed and sediment, and the strange vertical outcrops of brick, around four feet in height, making little breaks in the flow. I wondered if they might be remnants of industry, the last links to some long-gone works, but they seemed too fresh, too idiosyncratic. A few hours later, I returned, alone, and encountered their maker, in knee-high boots, wading out to the middle of the river. This was Dan of the Don, who, it turned out, has been visiting this stretch of water for a year or so, scavenging the shallows to make his free-standing sculptures. I listened as he chatted with passers-by on the north bank. A low-lying stone and brick circle, made in 2016, was reclaimed by the Don over the winter months, sinking back to the riverbed as the waters rose. The new works were part of an ongoing cycle of reclamation, a seasonal remaking. Later that evening, I share my discovery with Pete; a few days later, he sends me a new poem hymning the ‘relic stacks’, which he reads in sight of the sculptures. Dan isn’t here today, but we picture him as he calibrates
the precarious weight
of all we inherit,
expresses the lot in teetering
stanzas of brick.
As the group disperses, my eyes refocus, zooming in to a wall above the water, overlooking the north bank. I recall how, ten years ago, Chris Jones was commissioned to write a sequence of poems for this wall, marking the Don’s cultural renewal, signalling the start of a river path to Meadowhall. The poems were to be etched in sandstone, the commission funded as part of the newbuild development. The financial crises of 2008 halted the project indefinitely: the buildings were completed, but the poems were never installed. Chris read the haiku and tanka there anyway, as part of a city walk in late 2008, framed against blank, buff stone. The wall is now coated with graffiti. For a moment, I entertain a vision of the wall, and the building it supports, crumbling into the Don, to be reassembled by Dan before the current takes it apart. And I think of the intersecting lines of the last ten years’ walks, criss-crossing the long loop of Castlegate, Lady’s Bridge, the Wicker, the needle’s eye to our invisible thread.
We leave the river, and make the two-minute journey to the canal basin, the start of a four-mile navigation that runs parallel to the Don, before joining it at Tinsley. Five years earlier, Matthew Clegg led a different audience through the locks; the towpath isn’t part of today’s itinerary, but we glimpse its origins as it passes under road and rail. Our readings at Victoria Quays are split by the water, with Pete assigned a position on the north side, halfway between the Straddle Warehouse and the pedestrian swing bridge. The stone arches that frame the basin are a reminder of another lost terminus: Sheffield Victoria, formerly the main railway station, which, like the cargo port, was ideally placed to serve the city’s markets. Both the port and the station closed in the early 1970s. After a period of neglect, the site and many of the buildings were redeveloped for business and leisure, with the latter especially prominent on the broad north quay, a chain hotel’s familiar bulk rising above the arches, open-fronted cafés and bars softening the proposition. The regeneration and ‘repurposing’ of space is addressed in the third part of Sheffield Almanac, which Pete reads at the quayside, acknowledging the clashes and contradictions, the moments of vision and the short-sighted demolitions, the sense
That a growth and reinvention mostly
Built on shabby chic emporia, animation studios,
Coffee shops, won’t ever exorcise the ghostly
Whirr and scrape of lathes that inheres in the joists.
Crossing the swing bridge, we touch down on the south quay, the basin lined with narrowboats, asleep in their moorings. Slowing as we near the Straddle, we take note of the clump of offices to our left, a redoubt of corporate lawyers and tax advisers. It’s midday on a Sunday, but the windows show a handful of workers at their desks. Angelina sets up at the edge of the basin, and introduces ‘About the Human Voice’, a ruminative prose poem that opens a channel between slower, older forms of communication and the technologized present, revisiting themes of distance and memory, words and music, sound and its mediation. Communion, then confession, ‘in the corner of some backstreet cathedral, tealight bidding prayers blowing in the sanctified cross-breeze.’ As Angelina speaks, the air is coloured with struck bells, the sound blowing in from an unseen tower, east or west, hillside or town, none of us can place or name it. As she stops, it stops. We step out of the quays, drifting from cobbles to tarmac, and make our first ascent of the city.
A footbridge winds around the parkway, lifting us over the roundabout, drawing level with the middle storeys of Exchange Place, car parks, offices, hotels, and, further off, an older world, aslant in the gaps. We climb to Park Square, a green island floating above several lanes of traffic, junction and plateau. As we near the centre, the engine noise falls away, filtered by the trees. The path skews to a grass bank, where Angelina stands, a short distance, a slight elevation, the canted decks of Park Hill rising behind her, every panel coloured in, a chequered skyline. She reads ‘Fairytale No. 17’, one of several new poems we’ll hear today, testing the idea that the city is preserved in the act of leaving it, each erasure undone by an internal equilibrium of absence and recall: ‘Because I am no longer there, the market still stands…’ Park Hill is there, ‘the brutalist flats that have been bought and sold with a marriage proposal’, and it is not quite there, the story of it almost lost, an advertisement for itself. We rejoin the path, the incline, and scan a trackbed spanned by lateral wires: Park Square is an overground junction, too, the tramway splitting the island into sectors, west, south and east. As the three lines intersect and divide, so do we, darting between passing trams, blue route, yellow route, half the audience cut off. Once we’ve regathered, south of the tracks, we tune ourselves to Pete, adjusting our focus, trams rattling behind him, and a long, low thread tapering east: the overhead cables to Meadowhall, withering from sight, converging at some distant point. The poem is ‘To a Person Employed to Stand on the University Roundabout at the Evening Rush Hour Holding a Large Advertisement for Domino’s Pizza’, a vision of Sheffield, self-consuming and consumptive, that complements Angelina’s questioning of our ‘bought and sold’ futures and pasts, the elective, the involuntary: ‘We are one with you / and you with us: ingesting the city…’
We leave the island by the southern exit, crossing to a narrow footway at the edge of the tramway, curving as it uncouples from the junction, then, as the footway switches sides, straightening for the quarter-mile walk to the train station, South Street to our east, Sheaf Street to our west, one above, one below, each measuring the other. The unrehabilitated remainder of the Park Hill estate is softened, then screened, by tall trees, an incomplete pattern, the hill broken up. Beneath the footway, a short drop from a graffitied wall, we see the tracks spilling out from the railway bridge, meeting and parting, narrowing, spreading, seeking a platform. We are two abreast, overtaking, falling back, caught in overlapping dialogue. At the station bridge, we turn from the city, and take the metalled steps to South Street Park, an open, rounded green with terraced seating, a viewpoint cut into the hill. Whereas the last few stops were divided by infrastructure, the amphitheatre invites a single, central point of convergence: the audience in a semicircle, the poets at the circle’s origin, Pete, then Angelina, speaking of optimism, youth, shifting horizons. The height shelters the voice, cupped and crisp in the park’s disc, it softens the rail and road noise below. As we listen, we pick out landmarks, the town’s chock and jostle, its towers, cranes and spires, pins on a lateral plane.
Our path rucks, steepens, winding us in to Clay Wood Bank, a last road crossing, our final ascent, the terminal ground. Over 400 victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic are buried near this ancient woodland; a memorial, built in 1835, stands at the edge of the public gardens. We gather at the base of the stone marker, some of us squinting at its neo-Gothic pinnacle, others staring back at the city, drawing breath after the climb. I mention that I’m partly drawn to the monument for what it isn’t: it doesn’t commemorate military conflict, honour the crown or nobility, or elevate the wealthy. Financed by the Board of Health, it is, perhaps, a reminder of municipal failure, arising from poor sanitation in the town’s industrial quarters, close to the River Don. For Angelina, the Cholera Monument and the surrounding woodland are a place of imaginative refuge and flight, and the point from which her last, extended reading departs, taking in ‘Fairytale No. 9’, ‘Winter Beds’ ‘Marginalia’ and ‘Cuttlefish Bones’ (all from Envies the Birds), and three new poems of displacement, transit, borders, three letters home. She delivers these from the steps of the monument, facing west, ‘the city shrunk to a manageable size’, one prospect conjuring another, the distant monolith of the Hallamshire Hospital:
What I saw in this view,
in the off-white, sterile distance
those years I worked here, I don’t know.
At the edge of our hearing, birdsong, sent down from treetops either side of the memorial, feathering each poem. It continues as Pete beckons us for the final reading, which he gives a few feet from an information board, obliging us to turn from the monument, and look out to the city. It’s a suitably panoramic backdrop to the concluding part of Sheffield Almanac, its themes of disaster and renewal, community and hope, a remembered future ‘unfolding / Like a map veined dense with second chances / To find yourself’. As the Almanac nears its end, and the personal, political and topographical threads converge, two people wander into the frame, unseen by Pete, then another two, surveying the board, surveying the town, quietly, respectfully, and we follow their gaze, leaning forward, looking back at where we’ve come from.
Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. Her recent contribution to the Longbarrow Blog, ‘About the Human Voice’, appears here.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is now available from Longbarrow Press; click here to order the pamphlet. A recent essay by Green addresses issues of civic identity and civic pride, and examines Sheffield’s status as a ‘City of Making’. Click here to read ‘Model City’.
Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis lead a walk through RSPB Adwick Washland on Saturday 1 July (National Meadows Day) as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Festival. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
A special thanks to all who attended the ‘Vanishing Point’ walk, and to those who contributed the photographs that accompany this essay.
Spring gathers on (an) England. Onto ground’s wintery etch, onto lettery tree-shapes. Spring’s green fibres flock to this twig island. Or is it a th rust? Does the tracery of Isis – veins & photosynthetic ghost – come from within? Or fall upon all us En glish to grip? Someone long ago … a version of me and a version of you … played Pooh sticks with An(gle)land-shaped twigs set … myths & histories afloat on a … glowing liquid. And watched them disappear beneath a bridge of our ageing, and reappear again in this later light. Old man me, and old woman you, old boy, old girl. That cross hung in our sky, that’s not Horus, that’s … purely a kestrel – he’s not fucking wind, no, he’s being feeling place. Yesterday I peeled off from my face such a faint skin and the whole faint skin of my body came away with it. So quickly May is here again. And. Again. And the nursing home that’s England’s dappled lanes has coagulated as a cloak for un-dwelled selves. Us. Perhaps. And. Look, and listen, as you cross the rumbling roads, to get to the quiet abandoned building in the woods of your life’s end … look and listen as some War-wick-shire poet’s body of words rips-&-mangles … yet the body’s bits cling to A/the blade of change. No. No En gland begins, begins all over again. Again over all be gins, beg ins Engl ands. No change of blade. No !
This prose poem introduces ‘shall’, Mark Goodwin’s collaboration with film-maker Martyn Blundell:
Blundell’s ‘Convalescent Fade’ extends the dialogue with this now-demolished environment. Click here to view the film (with a written introduction by Mark Goodwin).
Mark Goodwin’s fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
Martyn Blundell is an artist and film-maker. Click here to view his other short films.