I am about to retire from teaching so I thought I would give myself something to do by starting a poetry blog. I write poetry and I enjoy reading poetry but reading poetry properly is hard work. I have always found that to engage fully with a poet’s work I have needed to write about it. I enjoy writing and I want to keep my brain in working order so I will be posting reviews of poetry I have enjoyed and reflections on poetry of the present and past. I don’t anticipate doing much until I have actually retired at the end of the summer, but getting to grips with the mechanics of blogging is a necessary start. If you should stumble across this site, apologies for the amateurish nature of it and the likely blunders.
It is fifty years since I lived in the North of Ireland and I still don’t know what to call it. I am sensitive to my status as no more than an interested outsider when I come to write about poetry and literary issues in the Six Counties. My attention was caught by the apparent cancellation of the novelist, Rosemary Jenkinson, following publication in Fortnight magazine of an article where she argued that young writers should stop writing about the Troubles and that to do so was a form of regressive cashing in. The article met with a degree of outrage in some quarters and was followed by the cancellation of the writer’s publication contract with Doire Press which the publishers denied was a consequence of the article. Nevertheless, this was a deplorable occurrence and while I disagree with Jenkinson’s views, I see no reason why she should not express them. At the same time as I heard about this controversy, I was reading the recent poetry collections of Padraig Regan and Gail McConnell, two young Belfast poets. Then came the war in Ukraine and the pronouncements of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, justifying the Russia invasion as a defence of ‘Holy Russia’ and Orthodox Christianity against liberalism and LGBTQ+ values, suggesting that in the West there was organised genocide of those who refused to allow Gay Pride Parades. Such opinions are equally familiar from the far right evangelical Christians of the United States whose influence has become global and has, indeed, long been part of the ideological fabric in Northern Ireland.
Padraig Regan and Gail McConnell were both nurtured in the Seamus Heaney Centre of Queen’s University, Belfast. Both would claim Ciaran Carson as a guiding influence and mentor. Yet both are generationally different from either Heaney or Carson. Both belong to the LGBTQ+ community but one has a Protestant heritage, the other a Catholic. These are two contemporary poets writing in an idiom which is 21st century and yet both are steeped in the experience of the Troubles. How could this be otherwise when the truth of what happened is still suppressed and, if the British Government has its way, will continue be suppressed, and, as a result, peace and reconciliation seem as far off as ever?
Padraig Regan’s first full collection, Some Integrity, (Carcanet ,2022) contains at its centre a prose essay ‘Glitch City’ which ponders queerness and violence and the uncertainty of boundaries, taking in the mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the vagaries of Pokémon computer gaming and finally the fractured weirdness of the city of Belfast. The three conditions of queerness, the nowhere land of the computer game’s Glitch city, and a Nationalist Catholic identity in a divided community, overlay each other so that the poet can write:
I thought to myself I’m used to this. I am as much at home in a fractured maze of visible & invisible walls as anywhere. I’ve learned what every little queer must learn: to be alert, to be aware of where you are & are not safe.
The consciousness of being ‘not safe’, which recent events have made ever more prevalent, permeates this collection of guarded, aesthetic and ambiguous poems in which boundaries are never certain and shapes are constantly changing. The opening poem, ‘50ml of India Ink’ is a manifesto as it describes how the lac-bug discovers a new existence and significance as ink which makes meaning on paper:
It performs its tiny fractal
creep through the paper’s
& finds itself astounded
with significance. It means
I am not yet dead.
So far, so good, one might think, but then the writer backs away from statement or assertion, with the classic ‘not un-‘ formation of the cautious:
I was not untempted
To leave this blank.
I did wonder if Regan, with this very emphatically black ink, was obliquely alluding to or challenging the notion of ‘white ink’ found in theories of écriture féminine developed by Hélène Cixous. Be that as it may, many of the poems in the book take up this theme of shifting identity, something particularly evident in the food poems, where transformation is necessarily key. In ‘A Machine for Harvesting Olives,’ the anthropomorphised olive tree laments for its denatured children, once so securely the signs of themselves: ‘You think I do not know/what happens in the press? There my children weep & die;/ their oily souls are wrung/from the pulp that once/they called their selves.’ There is violence and terror here, but it is subverted by the final Mandy Rice Davies allusion, ‘Well,/ it would say that, wouldn’t it?’ Well no, it wouldn’t, because it’s an olive tree and olive trees don’t talk. ‘Risotto’ sets out to disgust us with ourselves, our own bodies and how we transform or subject others to metamorphosis. This must be a chicken risotto, although I think I have read that Regan does not eat meat; certainly, this is enough to convert the faint-hearted to vegetarianism: ‘I try to stop my thoughts from turning/ to the bird whose bones I’ve commandeered & put to use in a way quite unintended.’ Regan recognises the process of cooking as the destruction of identity: ‘Everything I do, I do to rob them of their nature.’ Form, shape and identity are presented as fragile and impermanent; this could be, and is elsewhere, a recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender. In this poem, the poet/cook/human is greedy, tyrannous and full of self-disgust: ‘I add the fat I’ve stolen from some calf I’ll never meet.’…”I eat it & I think about the moment that it will become// not it but I. & not without regret, I feel this process taking place.’ This is literally visceral and feels like too much information. The poem ends: ‘I hate/ my commitment to making more self to hate. It is not without regret.’ At one level, this sounds like the declaration of an anorexic; at another, we notice how these destructive and self-destructive lines are elegantly styled in a form of chiasmus, which perhaps reflects the contradictions inherent in haute cuisine and fine dining.
The poet is writing about bodies, bodies of mushrooms, squid, chicken and even rice grains making us aware how vulnerable they, and by extension we, are to degradation and change. ‘A Roast’ is an extraordinary reflection on the crucifixion, where Christ becomes identified with a spatchcocked chicken in a way which manages to be both ironic and sacramental. The poet weaves two narratives, the cooking and eating of the chicken with work on ‘a study of ‘The Christ of the Foundations’: /the crucifix Saint Teresa carried /from Avila to Arévalo’. The medium is charcoal, itself a denatured material and it is ‘on my fingers & on everything now’. I connect the charcoal to the ‘smudge of shadow where His ribs/meet His abdomen’ so that boundaries once again are blurred; the smudging of charcoal makes everything unclear. The pervasiveness of the charcoal also suggests guilt, or even sin, the shame which accompanies the eating of the chicken, presented through juxtaposition:
There is a scraping of forks on plates,
a clicking of knives.
I’ve been having trouble with His face.
The poem reminds me of ‘The Feast’ by Robert Duncan (Passages 34) in Ground Work (New Directions, 1968).
–but the true measure is hidden in the fingers’ feel for the taste of it—
rosemary ground in the mortar
salt, pepper, and drops of oil workt into the emulsion…
We have come to the Festivities!
In both poems we are made to recognise that at the back of celebration, ritual and festivity is the eating of the sacrifice: in Duncan’s poem it is a lamb (possibly the Paschal lamb) ; in Regan’s, it is downgraded to a chicken. At the end of the poem, there is a typical pulling back as we find ourselves outside, in what should be the real world:
The buddleia creaks over the back wall
& the moon, for the occasion,
has dressed as the moon.
However, the literalness of the scene is subverted by the linking of the moon to the light which has preoccupied the previous stanza, and by the suggestion that the moon is not so much itself but has ‘dressed’ as itself, which takes us back not only to the various symbolic significances of the moon but to the notion that all identities are forms of posing, or passing or dressing up.
We could say that Regan’s poetry dresses up as the work of an aesthete, relishing the finer things of civilisation, art, literature, the pleasures of the table while it explores violence, sexuality, what it is to live in a body, disgust and fear. A very large proportion of the poems relate to food and many others are to some extent ekphrastic, connecting in some way to works of art. The poem which ends Section II of the book and precedes the prose essay is ‘The Barberini Faun: A Partial Reconstruction’. Reconstruction is a particularly apt title because the classical sculpture has been patched and reconstructed by a number of artists since its rediscovery in the 17th century. Perhaps what draws Regan to this image, apart, obviously, from its erotic beauty, is the inauthenticity or lack of integrity of the body which is presented. It is a body which can be what its audience, owners, exploiters want it to be, from the time when, reputedly, it was used as a weapon and hurled at the beseiging Ostrogoths because ‘stone//was stone & useful/ for its own hard quiddity’. Regan moves from a summary of the various repairs done to the statue to a meditation on what they can read into it: the hair is ‘calligraphic’, demanding to be read, the ‘nubbed horns’ are there if you are looking for the satyr, as is ‘the twisted cord/ of his diminutive tail’, if you can actually see it; the ‘one //remodelled foot’ is indeed human not cloven. We can see the poet approaching and withdrawing from meanings: ‘I’d rather not believe//that he would spend/ his waking hours/knee-deep in rape, /despite the evidence.’ What evidence? Is this a reflection on war, on sexual violence as represented in art through satyrs or fauns? Is it a wistful hope that this powerfully physical image of male sexuality can be other than cruel or rapacious, despite the physical ‘aleatory’ mutilation of the phallus. In the last section, the poet invests the statue with their own desires.
Confronted with this
taking the shape
of my desires
the poet considers their own reactions and interpretation, the possibility of ‘one more revision// on the disputed/ & brutal text/that is his anatomy –‘. The words ‘disputed’ and ‘brutal’ are almost antithetical; ‘disputed’ recognises the ambiguities of the figure while ‘text’ acknowledges that it no more than the uncompleted sum of different readings, but then ‘brutal’ takes us back to perhaps inescapable realities about physicality, sexuality and power. In the final lines of the poem, the poet concedes an intractable otherness:
…if he woke & saw
the way I gazed at him
he would break my neck
as soon as look at me.
Section IV has more fruit and vegetables, much of it fairly squishy, although there is a ‘meat-shaped stone’ which might seem more resistant to deconstruction, except, of course, it is already something masquerading as something else. ‘A Pumpkin’, at the end of this section, is an extended sexual metaphor where violence and bad faith are again toyed with. This pumpkin is raped with a knife, but it ‘wants to split’ (my emphasis); it was asking for it: ‘It exposes its creamy interior.’ The poet enacts a violence on the pumpkin which is made more horrifying by its sensuality:
& because I want a violence
more intimate, I do this with my hands
& feel its wet potential turn to pulp
beneath my nails.
They then declare ‘a vicious sympathy’ with their victim, confessing a ‘want’ to ‘hold a space/ at the centre oneself, & have it filled;’ there is an unfulfilled wish for sexual union, ‘to bend the self around the presence / of something not-quite-other, not -quite-I’. The eviscerated pumpkin is further mutilated, ‘I cut the pumpkin’s two bright domes/to crescent moons’ and this is done:
…in the hope
that when the resurrection comes,
everything I have subjected thus
will be returned inviolate
& I’ll be nothing & forgiven.
This sounds like a wish to be unfallen, or possibly never to have existed in the fallen world of mutability, eating or being eaten.
‘Ireland’ a two page poem in the final section is at once a train journey and something like a dream or nightmare sequence where nothing is as it is expected to be and nothing holds its shape. Again, there are a lot of vegetables, here behaving grotesquely, though I’m not sure why. There are phallic carrots and macho ‘steroid-bulked marrows’ as well as pretty lettuces ‘graceful in their long dresses’ and pregnant turnips with ‘rippling bellies’ – although they might just be overweight. Regan seems pursued by human bodies but not at all comfortable with them. I take this train journey to be from Belfast to Dublin or perhaps the other way around and the city which features in the poem with its references to ‘North Street’s burnt arcade’ and the ‘itinerant rivers’ I take to be Belfast, which for the poet is possibly as problematic and inescapable as the body. ‘Ireland’ is a powerful poem where the use of fog and phantasmagoria convey the sense of uncertain and shifting identities at the proprioceptive and political levels.
Gail McConnell’s book, The Sun is Open (Penned in the Margins, 2021) is at first glance, much more avant garde at least in terms of form. However, it does not tolerate the nebulous ambiguities of Regan’s collection; rather, it battles against them in a mode which is as much that of investigative journalism as of poetry. McConnell’s collection is really a long poem where she explores, not for the first time, her father’s murder. William McConnell was a deputy prison governor at the Maze prison, where many IRA prisoners were held. He was shot dead by the IRA in 1984 outside the family home, in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter, Gail. The full story has never been made clear, any more than have the details of his role inside the prison. An earlier long poem, ‘Typeface’, describes the poet’s compulsive trawling through the internet trying to find answers more satisfactory than those provided by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report. The quest for truth beyond the endless official fudges and whitewashes is what drives this book-length poem. It is only with truth, however uncomfortable, that the individual can find peace and reconciliation, but in the six counties, as for this poet, the truth remains elusive.
The difficulty in working out what the truth is from the fragments available to her is evident from the very first page and reflected in the forms the poet chooses. Here she uses a mixture of grey and bold text to describe her own method, which is outlined in the bolded words: ‘easier to/take what I have found and break/it up…glue it back/ the wrong way…’ (p.11). The book becomes the DAD BOX (p.23) where she keeps old documents relating to her father and memories of childhood all of which appear fragmentary and lacking in coherence; the poems do not so much achieve order and coherence as present the experience of incoherence in an ordered way. Various typographical and formatting devices emphasize how hard it is to get at the truth: there is what appears to be part of an incomplete witness statement from the poet’s mother, but a combination of erasure and vertical lines suggest that this statement has been suppressed. (p.60-64) Erasure is also used to undermine existing texts, such as the 23rd psalm which loses its quality of reassurance to become threatening. I have photographed page 48 to convey the effect.
Elsewhere, pp.78-79, the pages are made up almost entirely of vertical lines, to give the effect of massive redactions or prison bars, again suggesting the difficulty of reaching the truth.
McConnell looks back at a childhood where the huge stain of her father’s death taints everything she experienced; on page 18, she writes about Brian, ‘our neighbour six doors down’ who may also have been her own alter ego, ‘there was a time when I was/ Brian’. The poem explains how ‘we knew not to say [Brian’s dad] was in the police’ and continues
that day he must have been dead
scared hearing the shots they’re
coming now for him for me
Again and again, the poet returns to the murder which she cannot actually remember. Images of terror and violence permeate everything from computer games to dreams, as memories are interspersed with newspaper fragments, legal documents and papers belonging to her father. The book conveys very successfully the experience of growing up in the Protestant community of Belfast. The family was apparently devoutly evangelical, Baptist in allegiance, so that Gail grew up in an atmosphere of Bible classes and summer holiday seaside missions. The writing is steeped in scripture references, and memories of church going. On p.106 there is a description of baptism through total immersion, while earlier there is a visit to a friend, Katherine’s church, presumably Church of Ireland ‘mum says it’s higher’; it has angels and ‘men in white dresses’ but it is still within the Protestant fold. The curious thing about this book, as also of Regan’s, is that there is almost no reference to the other community, except in vague and general terms. Regan’s essay referred to ‘Sandy Row, one of those gaps in my mental cartography of the city, where I rarely go and if I were to venture to I would affect a name less revealing of my background…’. What the poet does not say is that Sandy Row is a notoriously Protestant Loyalist working class street. Similarly, McConnell refers several times to her father’s murderers, but always anonymously; she never mentions the words IRA or Catholic.
Around noon, the men sent out
for fish and chips and as they sat
eating they watched the lunchtime
news to find out if they had
killed their target
It is as if, like in The City and the City, the novelby China Miéville, the circumstance of two different communities living in the same place had become so existential as not to merit mention.
McConnell’s poem worries endlessly at the circumstances of her father’s death, showing how its impact on her has carried through her childhood and into adulthood. There are emotions of anger and loss at the absent father who becomes identifies with or confused with the ‘Father in Heaven’:
my Father in Heaven
who remains in me
However, at the same time the poet is trying to work out who her father was, a man she hardly knew and can barely remember. She needs to know what her father did but the pain in exploring the reasons for his death, his job as assistant governor in the Maze prison, notorious for its brutal regime and repression of Republican prisoners, means that her approach is oblique. The word ‘screw’ appears first on p.22 where it refers first to the screw worm, apparently a flesh-eating fly, but then to a ‘screw eye’ which is a type of metal fastening but which introduces the idea of looking, searching, prying into that which is underneath – the slaters (woodlice) hiding under tiles. The poet recognises that there is or has to be ‘dirt underneath my nails’ and towards the end of the book she attempts to deal with the dirt. On page 73 there is what seems to be a summary of the contradictions in the personality of a prison officer, who might or might not be her father.
an eminent Christian worker
a bad man
a man of high morals, honest, loyal, dedicated
organised and directed beatings in the jail
Then, on page 80, the word ‘screw’ returns, this time with the primary meaning of ‘prison officer’.
for so long it was hard
to mourn thinking from that side
of things bad bastard screw
in the mechanism the
panopticon the architecture
of brutality knowing the theory
the cruel ingenious cage thinking
shit that’s him on the wrong side
of the gaze
The greyed words (bolded here because I can’t do grey)in the text are followed by grey bars or vertical lines which continue to the bottom of the page, again closing off the truth. It is much easier to write about the past from the position of victim, much harder when you think you may have to identify with the oppressor, if that is indeed what your history is. At the heart of O’Connell’s book is the need to know the truth, the whole truth. Only by fully understanding her father’s role in the Maze, can she hope to reconcile her grief with her anger. The book ends by returning to the image of the slaters in a present where violence is still an everyday reality
as the robin sings the
lunchtime news reports another
crash a bomb scare …
The slaters are at home, scurrying across the
greening grouting lining tiles to
what lies underneath it all
comes up and out and in
the window to the bit without
the sun is open
The poem ends with the words of the title, insisting that what lies under must come up however much that entails dirt under the fingernails. Both these poets were born long after the Troubles began, both are adults in a supposedly post Troubles era. For both, however, the Troubles are very much part of their present reality. Regan writes about the condition of precariousness which is reflected in the precarious society in which he lives; McConnell digs up and worries at what cannot be honestly left buried. It would be bad faith for either poet to turn their back on the troubled history of Belfast or Norn Iron.
I have come late to Stephen Sexton’s magnificent book-length poem, If All the World and Love were Young,which won the Forward Prize for the best first collection in 2021. This book astonishes by its range and coherence, even though I don’t understand half of it. The book is an elegy for the poet’s mother but has for its structure the computer game, Super Mario. As my own knowledge of that game is confined to a hazy image of a dumpy, moustachioed Italian plumber occasionally glimpsed on a child’s Gameboy or Nintendo consol (and I’m not even sure I’m using the right terms here), most of the specific references to the game are lost on me, and I have no inclination to remedy that deficit.
The poem may make me feel old, but I welcome the way the poet has successfully and unobtrusively used strict form in a novel and exciting way. His long lines despite their appearance and frequent absences of punctuation and elliptical transitions are all 16 syllables in length and if Joyce can use the Odyssey as the structure for a novel, why shouldn’t a poet use the levels of the Mario games as the framework for his poem?
You can open this book anywhere and be rewarded with a frame/stanza/ section which on its own stimulates the imagination with its multi-layered language and levels of reference> Take this, for example:
Chocolate Island 2
As Dürer sees it under the hides of carburised iron thick
as armour plating fixed in place with rivets pinned along the seams
a polished gorget at the throat the rhino is mainly passive.
What he got wrong hardly matters since he’d never seen one himself
having just a poem a sketch imagination to go on
making magic of the mundane. And so the sun sets in the west
which is to be expected there over the marshes and deltas
I should like to describe to you having never seen them myself.
Even after googling Chocolate Island 2 and discovering how to find the secret exit, I am none the wiser about how the poem relates to the game. But it doesn’t matter. This is a self-conscious piece of meta-writing where the poem comments on itself. Dürer, like the poet, goes beyond the everyday real world to present something which may not be a rhino but which is an imagined construct based on a rhino as the Mario world characters and obstacles are also imaginary constructs derived from aspects of reality. The poem justifies our right to make things up and to use them to communicate: ‘I should like to describe to you having never seen them myself.’ Conversely, the poet’s use of Super Mario imagery conveys meaning to readers who have never seen it themselves. The language used to describe the rhino also seems to straddle the two worlds of imagination and reality; the rivets and armour plating suggest heavy industry and, without too much of a stretch, may evoke the Belfast shipyards, while the ‘polished gorget’ suggests the armour of knightly romance. Perhaps the sun setting in the west is mundane but the extension of the vista through the imagination ‘over the marshes and deltas’ has rendered it magical.
The necessity and interrelatedness of the two worlds is one of the continuing themes which gives the work its coherence and consistency. However, it is the momentum of the long lines, simultaneously waves of energy and surges of grief, which carry us onward through this extended threnody. The poem is double-faced, celebrating life and imagination while recognising and mourning a death; this is reflected in the second-hand title, If all the World and Love were Young, taken from Sir Walter Raleigh’s response to Christopher Marlowe’s poem ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’. The hypothetical conditional admits the possibility of the two worlds -the fantasy world of pastoral, not unlike the fantasy world of Super Mario, and the real world of everyday life, suffering and death.
Perhaps the Super Mario world is escapism, offering a brightly coloured and safe alternative to reality, where death can be cancelled: ‘once I was falling to my death/once I survived the fall landing in a trench scooped and jigsawed out/of the earth hello earth nice to see you amazed to be alive’. This alternative world is ‘as shallow as a pane of glass’; there is even a touch of nostalgia or self-pity in the way the writer looks back at his boyhood self:
I remember myself being remembered a little lotus
a cross-legged meditant for whom the questions floating in the air
are for a future self to voice decades from now…
The passage refers to a photograph the poet believes to have been taken of him sitting in front of the television screen playing Super Mario; the unreliability of the memory is typical of important moments of childhood which we are often unsure whether we really remember or only think we do because we have been told about them. The Super Mario game is obviously presented as a form of comfort food, or like a brightly coloured familiar teddy, something which allows the protagonist to muffle the pain he is experiencing: ‘the beloved is gone but there is always the story.’ However, this is only one layer of what the game represents; the persisting story is the persisting imagination which is implicated through references to high and popular culture, Dante to Roy Orbison. The affirmative, inclusive nature of the poem, ‘I adore you I adore you world’ makes it very different from other kinds of elegy, such as the unremitting gloom of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Nevertheless, the poem has almost unbearable moments of sadness like the memory of the mother halving a grapefruit:
my mother who cannot sleep halves a bright grapefruit whose feet whose toes
whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire
The brightness of the grapefruit intrudes like a technicolour splash into the dark pain of the night and the mother’s illness. Something about the slightly misplaced relative pronoun makes us linger on the fruit before recognising the extremity of suffering endured by the mother. The final poem seeks but does not quite manage to reconcile the two worlds: the coffin cannot quite become the television and the bright world of fantasy is relegated to the past, as the ‘if’ becomes ‘when’ and hypothesis or memory become equally unreal in the past indicative ‘was’:
And now I think I
remember what I meant to say which is only to say that once
when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing
once in the corner of the room once when I was sitting in its light.
After an achievement on this scale, it is difficult to see where the poet could go next, and it was with some trepidation I approached his second book, Cheryl’s Destinies. Certainly, this collection is a collection rather than a single poem and because it lacks a single driving subject, it is probably more difficult to read. Again, Sexton’s imagination makes links which the reader cannot always follow, or, at least, a reader of pensionable age, living in Oxford. Sometimes I recognise this is a failure of my imagination; sometimes, I feel excluded by a private or coterie frame of reference. For example, ‘O Lavery’s’ which appears to be about the game of pool will, I suspect, mean an awful lot more to its dedicatee, Dane Holt, than to me. The poems I do get, I like; ‘My Second Favourite Locked Room Mystery’ made me laugh. I don’t know about ‘The Burdens’, but I do know the goat in the ‘piebald sweater’; and I can recognise the possibilities of escape to other worlds only just suggested in the last stanza. ‘Café Cependant’ and ‘Romantic’ read like holiday poems. However, I am in danger of being too disparaging. In all these poems, even when they seem most obscure, there are brilliant moments of observation captured through the language: ‘an apprenticeship/of skateboarders chiselling/shivers of concrete from our civic spaces’ (The Impossible).
I don’t get Part II which purports to be ‘composed in collaboration with Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892-1968), who revealed to me the identity of one of her many ‘communicators’ and the influence of The Smashing Pumpkins on the poetry of W.B. Yeats.’ This is a collage of quotations from Yeats, his wife and the lyrics on The Smashing Pumpkins album, Siamese Dream. Perhaps you need to be a Smashing Pumpkins fan, perhaps you need to be more invested in the poetry of Yeats. Each poem in the sequence is titled by the length in minutes and seconds of each of the songs on the album. It is probably very clever and it does take in some by now familiar ideas about imagination dissolving the space-time constraints of reality:
Is this heaven, says W. B. Yeats.
Virtually, says Billy, this is Georgia.
Why are there two poems in the collection with the same title, ‘Orthodox’, one in the first and one in the third part of the book? Are they about the same person, a playground bully in the first poem: ‘with his middle knuckle breaking rank/the boy jabbed me in the thigh’. In the second poem, he, or someone like him, has died: ‘the circuit breaker/faulty.’ The death and the memory of the boy’s physical violence prompt a reflection on the nature of physical identity when considered in relation to the ‘alien body-brain/of the octopus,’ which we are now told is highly intelligent but which experiences consciousness in a completely different way from us.
The third section ‘Mysteries’ is the part I found most rewarding. It includes a number of moving and effective elegies, including the powerful poem for Ciaran Carson, Sexton’s mentor, which concludes the book. ‘Gomez’, another elegy, is in ‘affectionate memory of Raul Julia’, the actor who played the part of Gomez Addams in The Addams Family. The two things to notice are that it is ‘affection’ which makes all these elegies remarkable, even when they swing furthest from reality; and secondly, how strongly the poet is influenced by the fictional worlds of film, tv and videogames, and how he acknowledges the truths they offer.
‘Mysteries’, contains many poems I do not understand but which nevertheless some part of me gets. They tell me stories and show me pictures which take me to places I don’t know but where I am moved and enchanted, without knowing why. Such poems are ‘The Dancers’ with its wonderful last lines, like the closing scenes from a foreign language film:
And you’ll say what a thing to share this flake of time
In their company, what a thing wild lavender
Can still flourish in the grounds of the derelict church.
I don’t know how the first stanza and the second relate to each other and I don’t know why the first word of each line is capitalised, as is customary in pre-20c verse though not usual here, but I don’t care, because the poem has lifted me up into its own world which is derived from the joys, sorrows and injustices of the real world. Similarly, I love ‘Terror’ which tells a tale of persecution and haunting which leads to a family abandoning their home to protect their son: ‘For Albert we left./ The world still has a big soft place for him/so we packed our things and set out for it.’ What convinces about these poems is, as Sexton himself has suggested, following Marianne Moore, these are fictional narratives with real toads in them, although in Sexton’s ‘imaginary garden’ there is an Orca on the lawn. In this poem, a family was driven out by persecution perhaps inflicted by their neighbours, who perhaps experience remorse
some tomorrow morning the people
stand naked in their mirrors
saying I’m sorry, for everything. I’m sorry.
As in Sexton’s first book, the worlds of dream, of fiction, of video games are not, in the end, an evasion of reality, but a method of accommodating and acknowledging truth.
This is just to warn people that I have deleted the Poetry Worth Hearing website from WordPress. The site which accompanies the podcast can now be found at poetryworthhearing.biz. The taster episode is now live on https://anchor.fm/kathleen-mcphilemy
I love my smart phone. I love the internet. I even love Zoom! All of these have brought me a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of the world that goes back before the Pandemic. I suppose I am a certain kind of person, a natural social distancer, who finds these virtual relationships safe and empowering. I know, but choose to ignore, that I am being trailed by algorithms so that I am offered new trainers in online advertisements before the thought that the old ones are worn out has surfaced in my conscious brain. I know, but choose to ignore, that the internet can be a bad place, where bad people can do bad things, whether at the level of state, corporation, gang or individual.
I also love cows, especially in the early morning of early summer when their grazing shapes emerge from the haze that precedes sunlight. And I love roast dinners, cheese, woolly jumpers and organic cotton. Blood, sweat, death.
I’m very fond of trees, seeing in them that reassuring recurrence of green celebrated by Philip Larkin:
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
A false reassurance, perhaps; the promise of renewal that Nature has offered for so long seems increasingly less credit worthy. Wanting, like any other entitled, white middle-class senior, to have it all: i.e. trees and the internet, good food and a clear conscience, I was brought up short by reading Lynne Wycherley’s collection, The Testimony of Trees (Shoestring, 2018). In this book, Wycherley is the advocate for trees, speaking often in first person, adopting the tree’s perspective. She believes that trees are damaged by the radiation from mobile phone masts and that wireless radiation, more generally, is a threat to all natural organisms, including ourselves. My immediate reaction is sceptical: 5-G protesters, anti-vaxxers and Q-Anon gather together in the darkness of my prejudices and I seek to dismiss Wycherley as a tree-hugger.
Two things force me to think again: the first is the quality of Lynne Wycherley’s poetry and of the intellect which informs that poetry; the second is the scientific evidence. It is not that the evidence is conclusive either way; rather it is that the jury is still out and we have to ask why the vast increase in different kinds of radiation which we are experiencing would not affect the well-being of animals, plants and ourselves. Moreover, there is much stronger evidence for some of the imputed effects than others. For example, as far as I can see from my superficial and uninformed consultation with Google, the claim that phone masts can cause dieback in trees is much more substantiated than the diagnosis of electro-hypersensitivity, which is a condition that sufferers believe is caused by wireless radiation.
Wycherley has done a lot of homework on this, which is reflected in the sources she mentions in her notes. Some of her poems and her comments sound impressively scientific, but despite the popular slogan, ‘Follow the science’, scientific papers often reflect the bias of their authors or those who cite them. Here is a screenshot of the Google response to the question, ‘Is 5 G harmful’.
References are equally balanced, with the sources reassuring us that 5G is safe often coming from interested parties, e.g. media broadcasters, while the voices of doubt are often singular or associated with ‘alternative’ organisations.
Nevertheless, The Testimony of Trees is passionately, almost polemically opposed, to the phenomena of the digital age. One of her main targets is the phone masts which she says are causing die-back in trees:
We are floss, we are frail, in the ever-wind,
stems, serifs, pared back,
laterals lost to sky-wolves
as if a gale has shorn us from one side…
… In digital storms we are fraying
‘As If A Gale’ p.4
In this poem, as in each of the first four in the sequence, the poet speaks on behalf of the tree, in a first person advocacy. I’m not sure why the poet includes ‘serifs’ a term which is, as far as I know, specific to printing, in the description of the effects of wireless radiation or whether it is anything more than a visual metaphor. Wycherley has a penchant for unusual vocabulary choices, sometimes words which are very specific to a particular field of study, sometimes words which are unfamiliar because they have been displaced from their usual context. The breadth of reference and urgent need to proclaim her cause sometimes, paradoxically, lead to a failure in communication.
What might prompt a poet to speak up so passionately on behalf of trees? Some ecocritics see human exploitation of natural resources as a form of injustice on a level with other forms of social and human injustice:
‘For most ecocritics, human abuse of the natural world is best understood as the corollary of unjust or oppressive systems of government and economics, and forms of social organisation ( hierarchy, plutocracy, patriarchy) that both abuse other human beings and which have no hesitation taking a similar stance towards anything else.’
When we think of ‘hierarchy, plutocracy, patriarchy’, we can see Donald Trump as a symbolic figure representing all three; a man whose contempt for other people, especially women and non-whites, whose worship of capitalism and whose status as an arch-plutocrat (even if most of his wealth is an illusion) was necessarily accompanied by his disregard for the environment. Exploitation, for him, was always the name of the game. However, while we can acknowledge the destructive forces which lie behind the different forms of exploitation and oppression, it is too easy to lump them all together. Just at an emotional level, I can’t feel the same way about a damaged tree as I do when I see the terrified and hopeless face of a young girl fleeing the Taliban with her family. Perhaps this is because I am a woman, and human so while I empathise with Afghani women, I feel sorry about the destruction to plants and trees in a less visceral, more secondary way, and in part my distress arises from the impact on my environment, rather than a concern for the non-human being, in itself.
Is it possible for the human to speak up for non-human entities, like trees or birds, in a truly disinterested, ‘biocentric’ way? I believe that our concern for the environment and the natural world is inevitably anthropocentric. No matter how profound our horror at the damage humans have inflicted on the earth, our concern is still primarily for ourselves. We want to live in an environment which supports human life, an environment which is pleasant rather than toxic. Our fears for trees, birds and other wildlife are fundamentally fears for ourselves. The deep ecologists who insist otherwise, who advocate anti-human measures such as enforced population reduction, or who project, beyond a human apocalypse, the survival of a cleaner, somehow purer planet, are either disingenuous or deeply misanthropic.
Lynne Wycherley is very far from being a misanthropic poet; her vision in her most recent two collections is ecological and humane. Immediately following the first four tree poems she moves to a number of pieces which express her fear for children in a digital age:
adverts! adverts! –
‘set phasers to stun’
click-rates – war-games
children in screens
their neurons firing, firing
while the slow wonder
of a primrose waits
its silk word held to heaven.
Most of these poems have quotations from scientists, or other writers, including William Blake, Rudolf Steiner and David Jones, as explanatory epigraphs. They are often essential to understanding the gist of poems which tend towards broken, exclamatory fragments and juxtaposed sharp contrasts between the world as the poet remembers it to have been, or would like it to be and the reality of the digital present:
Selfies: humanity in a mirror-house
404: lost in device, S4L: spam for life
husked in pixels, URLS, a second skin.
Not a child but an end user.
Not a carer but a high-speed interface.
Not eyes but an emoticon
and the rivers tears
‘The Mirror-house’, p.10
Sometimes the poet’s familiarity with the very horrors she is presenting lead her into a sort of private shorthand, which make her meaning elusive; for example, I don’t know what she means by ‘husked in pixels’. The downside is that we hear a sort of shrill anger which is not always effective in hitting its target, and I am sure that Wycherley, in this sequence, does want to hit her targets. It is a campaigning work of eco-political engagement where the poet rejects the ivory tower of aestheticism for the often brutally harsh language she abhors:
Life/not life, an eerie dance
WYRN? (‘what’s your real name?’)
‘Vigil (II)’, p.19
The poems in the final quarter of the book, ‘Coda: a gift, a grace’, provide some kind of respite and contrast as they celebrate the beauties and healing powers of the natural world. The protest is still here, but it is less strident, and sometimes stunning:
The sun drifts down
like an angel from Chagall
our world still burning in its arms.
‘On Midsummer Hill’,p.36
These lines are the more powerful, because of their ambiguity. In the context of the poem, ‘love’s long moment’, the ‘burning’ could be passion; in the context of the book, it could be ecological disaster. The Coda pieces are a bit of a mixed bag; some commemorate individuals, like ‘The Bee-keeper, Buckfast Abbey’, some recall the past ‘Poacher’s Child’ which ends with a splendidly robust cock of a snook at the rich and powerful:
and filched from those who’d thieve us –
overlords, offshore funds –
a pheasant’s sheen
The final, rather mysterious, poem, ‘Waiting for the Stars’, attempts to pull together the different strands in the collection. The first stanza has a typically end-of-day, onset of dusk peacefulness, that is until the last line, ‘a chain of rooms log-on.’ Thereafter, the poem seems like a struggle between the power of starlight to soothe our souls and the agitation caused by a plethora of different electronic devices.
Our fast-lane lives, screen-shot lives.
Ambiguity returns in the last stanza, which could describe the emergence of stars in the evening sky but could equally refer to words on the screen in a dark room.
I wait for ice points to
crisp in the blue –
lit words in the rushing darkness.
I don’t imagine that Wycherley thinks we can return to a pristine, pre-digital age; it’s not as if the threat to nature started with wireless and the internet. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described the destructive effect of chemicals and pesticides; Dickens, in many of his novels, describes the life-shortening pollution and smog caused by industry and domestic coal fires.
Nevertheless, this collection seeks to shock us into realisation of the possible harm arising from our electronic technologies and an awareness of our own responsibility to take action. However, there is a strand of nostalgia in her work which is more apparent in her next collection, Brooksong and Shadows, inevitably so because a large part of the book is taken up by poems commemorating the impact of World War 1 on Otterton, the Devon village where she now lives.
There is no reason not to explore the past in poetry. In these poems, the lives of the villagers and the young men from Otterton who died in World War 1, become part of the four-dimensional fabric of the place which Wycherley is learning and exploring through her work. Nevertheless, the way in which she presents this past, particularly when she juxtaposes it with digital and electronic realities of the present, may suggest that regression to that time is desirable, an idea which is nostalgic and unrealisable. In a beautiful poem, ‘Making, Un-making’, she shows how the skills of the farm boy adapt awkwardly to his new role as a soldier, lamenting the ‘hands that once shaped/ carriage-wheels’. She seems to see the war as a water-shed between the past and modernity: ‘on the Front/the weft of life sky-blown.’ She contrasts past and present:
the Carters lofting notes in the air
as if a string was drawn across the woods.
So deft, it shimmers, shames us.
Our digits numb, dull with disuse,
our senses lost in pixels, screens,
the day’s wild honey flown.
The poem emphasises the connection between the villagers and their environment; they have made their own instruments, and when they play it is as if they were mediating the music of the woods. Against this harmony of human with the natural world, she sets our present alienation from that world caused by our obsession with screens. She points up the contrast by comparing our fingers unskilled by the digital revolution through a pun ‘our numb digits’ to the musical dexterity of the past. However, the pursuit of an earlier idyllic period when humans were at one with nature, goes back to Wordsworth and the Romantics, and further back than that to traditions of pastoral, where country life is contrasted favourably with the corruption of the city, through a deliberate blindness to the whole truth of rural society and rural poverty.
I recognise that my own resistance to Wycherley’s campaign against electronic technology may make me hypercritical of the implications of her writing, which is less doctrinaire than I may have suggested. For instance, in the second part of the book, “Path of the Dancing Hare’ she widens her range and in the moving ‘Skyline with Tractor’, shows clearly that she is not totally opposed to modernity or even the internal combustion engine, as she describes a farm worker operating complicated farm machinery:
His hydraulic ballet,
working the fears, 3-point hitch,
raising the tines as he turns.
Here, man and machine are shown to be in tune with the land, writing ‘a grooved beauty, combed/ like corduroy, wood-grain.’ In contrast, agriculture today, just a few decades on, is presented as ‘data analytics, farming/ through screens; sensors,/drones, swarming.’ There is a cold irony in the last two words which use the language of nature (bees) to refer to the unnatural.
In many of her poems, Wycherley uses language or imagery which merges human and non-human. For example, in this one the vocabulary of ploughing describes the farmer’s hair, ‘furrowed hair.’ In ‘The Fire-step’, from the war poems sequence, soldiers are equated to plants, ‘trench-mates draggled/burr-reed and heath-rush’. Throughout there is a sense of kinship between human and non-human, so that the otherness of plants and animals and other non-human entities is reduced. The Feldgrau of the German uniforms might be ‘ghost-sleet’ as the dusk melds natural and human; the terrified soldiers are ‘fern-like’. It is hard to say how far these images identify a kindness that humans share with the non-human on the earth and how far they appropriate natural phenomena in an anthropocentric drive towards expression. For example, in the first part of ‘Tremble of the Tide’, ‘A Stranded Jellyfish’, the poet explores the difference between herself and the jellyfish:
At the river’s mouth
two worlds clash,
saline and fresh, my
footsteps’ dust: your sheen.
The difference between the water creature and the land creature is then used to create a likeness through simile: ‘You gasp for water as I for air.’ In the final lines, the focus has moved all the way to the human speaker: ‘If I wear my soul like a veil/will I look like you?’
What, after all, have jellyfish to do with souls? This, I think, illustrates how difficult it is for the poet, more than for the journalist or the scientist, to write about a non-human being without revealing a personal, or anthropocentric, interest. Lynne Wycherley writes with such passion about the natural world using herself and her own experience as her instrument and her perspective. Her fellow feeling for the non-human is partly unavoidable anthropomorphism and partly a recognition of a shared identity. We may not be the same kind of creature as a tree or jellyfish, but our DNA will show that we are not entirely other either. Moreover, we are more and more realising that our own health and wellbeing rests on our preserving the health and well-being of the organisms around us. Wycherley’s poetry is challenging, not necessarily because it is particularly difficult, but because it forces us to confront many of the assumptions with which we feel too comfortable.
 Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism, Cambridge University Press, 2019
Awareness of climate change and the growth of ecocritical theory have placed a new value on poetry which foregrounds the non-human. This may lead to the revaluation of past writings about nature or to the emergence of conscious attempts to acknowledge non-human forms or beings as themselves rather than as appendages or furnishings for the human perspective. Fundamentally, however, we, as humans, continue to impose our own views, needs and ways of understanding on the world around us, although our ways of representing that world may be changing with changes in our knowledge.
One wing of ecocriticism links the ecological battle to other struggles against oppression and for social justice as expressed in feminism, post -colonialism and LGBTQ+ theory. This alignment of the environment with other ‘victim’ categories, has led to an upgrade in the status of the poet, John Clare, who has become a favourite of ecocritics, perhaps at the expense of his more middle-class predecessor, William Wordsworth. For example, in The Value of Ecocriticism Timothy Clark claims:
The case of John Clare exemplifies how ecocriticism is altering the literary canon. Clare’s status has risen substantially in the last twenty years, precisely because his work offers a less human-centric view of life, giving moral standing and value to individual birds and creatures of the field, openly persecuted. At the same time, the reputation of Clare’s contemporary William Wordsworth as a ‘nature poet’ has become contestable, with the realisation of how deeply a problematically human- and even male-centred stance structures a poem like the famous ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ For this is concerned with natural phenomena (daffodils in this case) overwhelmingly as a psychic resource, to be celebrated in almost consumerist terms for their contribution to personal growth and pleasure (‘I gazed and gazed, but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought’ (emphasis added) – a ‘great wildlife spectacle’, in effect.
The John Clare poem which Clark chooses counter Wordsworth is ‘The Ballad of Swordy Well’ where the poet speaks in the voice of a personified tract of land threatened with enclosure and over-exploitation: ‘When grain got high the tasteless tykes / Grubbed up trees, banks and rushes’. Clark argues that Clare’s poem ‘demonstrates a rhetorical, conceptual and narrative inventiveness sensitive to the claims of non-human entities’. This may be so but Swordy Well or Swaddy Well as it was more commonly known cannot be held up as an example of nature uncorrupted by human influence. The area had been a quarry since Roman times and was therefore shaped and marked by anthropogenic activity for centuries.
Clark rightly recognises that ‘Clare bestows Swordy Well mainly with the language and perspective of a labourer who would formerly have lived with and from the land, but who is now fallen in want upon the parish.’ Clare’s poem recognises the parallels between the exploited habitat and the exploited peasant, both victims of what we would describe as oppressive capitalism. However, despite the poet’s strong feeling for the land, this is not really a biocentric or non-human-centric poem. Swordy Well becomes an alter ego for Clare himself, and for the people whose lives and livelihood had been destroyed by the new agriculture, the demand for corn during and following the Napoleonic Wars and the appropriation of common land by larger farmers who could afford to finance the legally binding acts of enclosure. Even so sensitive a portrayal as this cannot be more than a human perception of what the land has suffered and felt; it can never really represent the voice of the land. Moreover, much of what Clare describes is presented in terms of the damage it has done to people and community:
Lord bless ye, I was kind to all
And poverty in me
Could always find a humble stall,
A rest and lodging free.
Poor bodies with a hungry ass
I welcomed many a day
And gave him tether-room and grass
And never said him nay.
There was a time my bit of ground
Made freemen of the slave.
The ass no pindar’d dare to pound
When I its supper gave.
The gipsies’ camp was not afraid;
I made his dwelling free,
Till vile enclosure came and made
A parish slave of me.
This is a poem of political protest which recognises the injustice of the social system into which the poet was born, just a few steps away from villeiny or serfdom, which was to some extent mitigated by the existence of common land which made ‘freemen of the slave.’ It is most certainly anthropocentric but perhaps differs from other poetry of its time in that the poet recognises his kinship with the land and nature and identifies with it in fellow victimhood, rather than being awed or charmed by it as spectacle. If we compare this poem with the famous passage from the stealing the boat episode in Wordsworth’s Prelude where the poet becomes aware of powers and forces in Nature which are terrifyingly other:
huge and mighty forms, that do not live Like living men, moved slowly through the mind By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
we see a difference in perspective which may in part be connected to the types of natural phenomena the poets are writing about, in part to do with the difference in class of the two poets.
The notion that the forms of Nature or behind nature ‘do not live/ Like living men’ contrasts sharply with Clare’s ability to empathise and identify with the creatures and even the land itself. Further insight into Wordsworth’s perception of Nature as ‘other’ is provided in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Discussing his choice to use simpler language, stripped of poetic artifice, Wordsworth wrote:
Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.
This now seems a very peculiar idea, derived more from the poet’s poetic, psychic and philosophical needs than any empirical evidence. Nevertheless, it became ingrained in the Romantic credo and goes some way to explain the initial popularity of the poetry of John Clare and other peasant poets, who were seen to be closer to the elementary feelings and forms of Nature. It is an attitude which, I feel, persisted into the reception of Seamus Heaney’s early work, a somewhat condescending admiration for the lowly, even oppressed figure, from a rural background who somehow had the authority to speak with authenticity about and even for the phenomena of the natural world. However, neither Heaney nor Clare primarily seek to portray the non-human as separate from the human; rather they use their detailed knowledge of the natural environment to express their own condition or plight; Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first book, is largely to do with growing up and moving from innocence into experience, while Clare’s beleaguered gipsies, birds and tracts of land represent his own sense of displacement and loss. Clare nevertheless shares with the modern ecologist the sense of nature as impermanent and threatened, in contrast to Wordsworth who speaks confidently of ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.’ Granted, it is never quite clear whether these forms are real and phenomenal or underlying ideas.
Clare, Wordsworth and Heaney must all be seen as writing anthropocentrically. They can do no other, because they write as humans. The quest for a biocentric poetry can be little more than a poetic conceit or enabling device to allow us as humans to devise new human ways of presenting non-human forms to ourselves. There is a growing body of ecopoetry in which writers do search for new, less egocentric ways of writing about the environment and the non-human life forms with which we co-exist.  It may be instructive to compare two texts, written about fifty years apart, which present the life of the eel. The first is Seamus Heaney’s “Lough Neagh Sequence’, a group of seven poems which were included in his second collection, Door into the Dark (1969); the second is Steve Ely’s book length poem, The European Eel (2021). I should say that I think that this is not Heaney’s best work, whereas I was extremely impressed by Steve Ely’s poem. Nevertheless, both poets work through their perceptions of the eel, its otherness, its strangeness which is so very not human, to present a world where human and eel co-exist and do have a relationship. In the end, both poets use the eel as a device to say something about humans, because it is impossible for humans actually to assume the voice or perspective of the eel.
Most of Heaney’s sequence makes very little attempt at the eel’s point of view. The poems are dedicated to the Lough Neagh fishermen and it is with them that Heaney identifies.
Only in the second and sixth poems does he focus directly on the eel and its journey. Interestingly, in the second poem his eel is male:
delivers him hungering
down each undulation.
This poem, like the sixth, where his eel becomes female, is written in a form of free verse where the beginnings of lines are not capitalised and the short, enjambed lines slither down the page imitating the shape and motion of the eel. ‘Undulate’ is a word which seems intended for the eel and both Heaney and Ely make use of it.
However, in Heaney’s poem, the attraction of the word as an appropriate end to the poem does not compensate for the vagueness of meaning. We know that eels prefer to feed in the dark and shun daylight, so in this sense Heaney is accurate; furthermore, this image is thematic for the collection in which the poems appear. ‘Dark/delivers’ seems to be a metaphor of birth, while dark, as always, has connotations of fear, death and the unknown, all of which are shared by the eel. However, what undulation is the eel ‘hungering down’? His own body? or the riverbed or ditch where he is lurking? The ambiguity is annoying rather than enriching. Ely uses the word to describe his eels at an earlier stage, when they are known as ‘glass eels’:
in the flexural power of its new undulatory wiggle.
These lines are as idiosyncratically Ely as Heaney’s image is characteristic of him. The combination of scientific and colloquial language, ‘flexural’, ‘undulatory’, and ‘wiggle’ as well as the repetition of the ‘əl’ sound which creates an auditory image of the newfound wiggle make the eel simultaneously strange and recognisable.
Heaney too presents the eel as strange and ‘other’; indeed, the choice to use free verse for the two eel poems creates a forceful contrast with the ‘human’ poems, which are written in one or another carefully rhymed fixed stanza forms, where the beginnings of lines are capitalised. The first and last poems are written in quatrains, whilst 3,4 and 5 are in tercets.The eel becomes the antagonist in Heaney’s poems, where the fishermen or the poet himself are the protagonists. This sense of conflict, pitting the human against the eel, carries over into the language: ‘The fishermen confront them one by one’. In this first poem, Heaney seems to be trying to establish an epic struggle, man against the elements, in a battle which has chivalric rules: ‘There is a sense of fair play in the game’. However, the heroic flavour is undermined by Heaney himself, when he criticises the fishermen’s fatalistic attitude to drowning, expressed in the repeated line: “The lough will claim a victim every year.’ The implication that this is some kind of sacrificial tax, exacted by the lough in payment for the harvest of eels is countered by the poet’s common-sense argument that on inland water, even on Lough Neagh, a fisherman who could swim would be able to stay afloat long enough to be rescued. The apparent timelessness of eel fishing is put in doubt by reference to new gates and sluices put in place at Toomebridge. This doubt reappears in the fifth poem, Lifting:
And when did this begin?
This morning, last year, when the lough first spawned?
The crews will answer, ‘Once the season’s in.’
The folksy wisdom of the fishermen is again undermined by the vagueness of the expression. In normal speech, ‘Once the season’s in’ would refer to a question about the future, i.e. ‘When will this begin?’ rather than responding to one about the past, as here. Further, it is unclear what is meant by ‘when the lough first spawned’ which recalls the mythic origin stories of the first poem. How can a lough ‘spawn’? Does the poet mean the fish within it spawn, even though we know that eels, which are at the centre of this poem, do not spawn in the lough? Throughout this sequence, we feel that the poet is struggling, on the one hand, to present an accurate picture of eel fishing while, on the other, to work out what the eel means to him.
Comes aboard to this welcome:
The hook left in gill or gum,
It’s slapped into the barrel numb
But knits itself, four-ply,
With the furling, slippy
Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly
That stays continuously one
For each catch they fling in
Is sucked home like lubrication.
‘Welcome’ is a strange word to use in this context; perhaps it is ironic. The lines which follow, however, are visually and aurally effective as the poet describes the brutality of the hooks, and uses a combination of slithery ‘l’ s and plosives to convey the sound of the wet fish ‘slapped’ into the barrel. I can’t help asking how he knows the eel is ‘numb’ but am won over by the enjambed, coiling lines ‘furling, slippy/Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly’ only to be brought up short again by the confusing simile in the last line. How can a catch be ‘sucked home’ like ‘lubrication’? Although the image of slipperiness is maintained, the exact meaning is unclear.
This is one of several places in the sequence where the poet swithers between empathy and revulsion. In the third poem which shows the fishermen collecting worms for bait, we can see the same fascinated disgust as he first describes the capture of the worm: “Nab him, but wait //For the first shrinking, tacky on the thumb’ and then sympathises with it, ‘Innocent ventilators of the ground’. The tactile language of the first quotation contrasts strangely with the Latinate vocabulary in the second again, to my mind, creating an uncertainty of tone in the poem. Perhaps Heaney finds the solution to his dilemmas in the final poem where he stops trying to write about fishermen or eels in any objective sort of way and reveals the place of these amphibious images of land, water, worms and eels in his own psyche.
Interestingly, in this early version of the sequence, this poem comes first and I think that it illuminates the poems which follow. As the sequence stands, in the published version, we have to read meaning back into the group from the final piece. We are presented with a small child, recognisable from Death of a Naturalist although distanced from the poet by the use of third person. This is a very vulnerable and insecure child, ‘small, dirty, doomed’, terrorised by the bogey threat used by adults to force compliance. It is easy to see how the lice who ‘gang up/ Into a mealy rope’ metamorphose into the ‘four-ply’ oneness of the captured eels. The ‘riverbank/ fields’ previously simply the place where the fishermen found their bait are revealed to be places of terror, where the wind rippling the grass suggests the ‘thick cable ‘ which is the monstrous rope, be it lice, worm or eel, which will drag the child down out of his own element into the water. Migrating eels, even for the adult, are ‘hatched fears’ and their sinuous oneness is said to have ‘re-wound his world’s live girdle.’ This line may, to some degree, explain the line about the worms in the third poem ‘Making the globe a perfect fit’. The ‘live girdle’ is an ambiguous image; it seems to take in the figure in the poem and the world, perhaps binding them together in a recognition of the continuity between human and the natural. However, the final three lines and the curiously anticlimactic shudder of the last three words, suggest that this is not a happy resolution and that this ‘horrid cable’ of connectedness is a threat to life and identity. The sense of flux and disorientation is powerfully conveyed as the stationary becomes mobile and the solid turns liquid: ‘the field flowed past’, ‘eels crossing land’. Whether placed at the beginning or the end, this is by far the most successful poem of the sequence. At the same time, it confirms Heaney as a poet who is using the imagery of the non-human and the world around him to explore his own place in that world.
If, for Heaney, the eel is the antagonist, in The European Eel it is presented as the protagonist. However, like Heaney, Steve Ely is concerned to show the creature as other, non-human and he takes considerable care to avoid anthropomorphism or sentimentality, specifically through the use of a vast amount of scientific and technical vocabulary, which creates the effect of objectivity and in forcing the reader to look up so many words, makes the eel and its environment strange. This is a poetic device; it may allow for accuracy of detail and allow the poet to say things about the life of the eel which could not otherwise be conveyed, but no matter how latin or greek and unfamiliar, this is still human labelling, not the language of the eel itself. There is, however, a relish in bringing this scientific lexis into the poetic realm:
the bluefin persist into open ocean,
harrowing the holocaust photocline with xiphius,
macrocephalus, savage architeuthis.
The notes tell us that xiphius, macrocephalus and architeuthis are swordfish, sperm whales and giant squid, all names with which most readers are more familiar. Ely subdues the jaw-breaking terms to the music of his propulsive unrhymed lines with their ancestral memory of blank verse.
The poet counters the estranging, alienating effect of scientific language with sudden incursions of the familiar, for example, when he describes how the minute leptocephali, eels in their larval stage, begin to feed: ‘hunts /in the eutrophic blizzard, seizing diatoms, /dinoflagellates, polyethylene microbeads’. This has the same shocking effect as Chris Jordan’s photographs of the guts of baby albatrosses that have died from ingesting plastic. It also reveals the human purpose of Ely’s poem. He is not writing as the eel, or even directly for the eel, but for, or to, humans, showing us how we have created the toxic environment which has made the eel, like so many other non-human creatures, an endangered species.
At one level, this is an epic like the Odyssey, recounting the maritime journeys and adventures of its hero and celebrating miraculous escapes and astounding achievements; as in the Odyssey, the initial group of voyagers reduce to one. However, unlike Odysseus, Ely’s eventual protagonist is neither male, nor human and although her journey brings her home and unites her with a ‘nuptial’ partner, it results in new life for her progeny but in her own death. At another level, though, this is a poem which seeks to inform and persuade. It is a protest poem and as such, employs some techniques which are as much journalistic as poetic. Ely provides a detailed set of notes, which go some way to absolving him of the charge of obfuscation. In addition, he frequently uses journalistic or didactic similes, as opposed to purely poetic ones. In a poem we are accustomed to seeing the simile used to draw a comparison between two known elements so that we see one or both of them in a new light. Heaney very few similes in his sequence, although there are many metaphors which work in a similar way: ‘Thick as a birch trunk/ That cable flexed in the grass’ (Vision). Here the cable which has already been introduced in the first stanza as the ‘mealy rope’of lice is given dimension by being compared to a ‘birch trunk’, something which we can also relate to. In the didactic simile, one of the terms is unknown. Showing us the feeding leptocephali, Ely writes:
A month or so since hatching, the size
of an April tadpole, they move in the plankton
This is a brilliant simile, because it is so visually effective but also smacks us straight back into the realities of the Anthropocene which are listed in gruesome detail at the bottom of the same page:
oestrogen-saturated sewage, methamphetamine
neonicotinoid run-off. The leptocephali soak it up,
and tumble to Hatteras with the flotsam
of the current – single-use Canaveral
space junk, the strip mall’s car-tossed,
fast-food trash and radioactive manatees.
Such passages, which could be described as merely eco-rant, are redeemed by their rhythmic force, their skilful deployment of assonance and alliteration and by the surprising juxtapositions which keep us alert and make us want to know more. I think the manatees are radioactive because they seek refuge in the warm waters created by nuclear power stations.
As the eel reaches England, the landmarks and ecological disasters become more familiar and homegrown. Ely seizes the opportunity to show his political hand: ‘they’ll travel north and west/ into the PRIVATE salmon and brown trout streams/ of Northfield’s Tory spots day;’ and
Barely a cordon, hardly a shoal, they move into the kingdom
of the Amazon Fulfilment Centre, its clear-fell
devastation of investment, jobs and growth.
Ely’s distaste for consumerist modernity sometimes topples over into growling misanthropy as when he fantasises a cultural avatar of the eel, the Bentley Worm:
from the ranks of the High Street’s drunks
and the grave-yard’s coked-up, shrieking children.
Nevertheless, despite the devastation of the deindustrialised landscape the eel travels through, when she eventually reaches Frickley Beck, there is enough goodness left to sustain the survivor and perhaps the faith of the writer in the ‘dark pleroma’ defined by him in his notes as ‘the fullness of life and spirit on Earth’:
you can still tickle trout,
and river fish flee before your bootsteps –
dace and gudgeon, bullhead and barbel,
the odd patrolling pike. And eels, of course,
This is one of only a few authorial intrusions into the poem, where we understand that he has brought the eel to his own place, somewhere he knows personally and where, we learn from the prose interlude between the two sections of the poem, he has captured the eel which he kept in an aquarium for three months in order to study its behaviour.
Generally, the poet keeps himself out of the eel’s story, fulfilling his intention of foregrounding the natural object and avoiding anthropomorphism. Sometimes, though, the empathy seems so strong that it becomes a form of anthropomorphism, as in the final three page long account of the eel’s mating and orgasm which matches Molly Bloom’s in intensity. The eel is described as shivering ‘in the warm,/aphrodisiac current, every nerve-end tingling,/ each tender tip engorged.’ ‘Aphrodisiac’ is surely an adjective which is culturally human and just as I found myself asking how Heaney knew his eel was ‘numb’ so I wonder how Ely knows his has ‘tingling’ nerve-ends. I suppose the description is physiologically justifiable but the arousal and excitement of these final pages draws on human feeling and experience.
In the reflective essay which appears in the blog of the Longbarrow Press, Ely presents three hypotheses which underpinned the writing of his long poem.
My first research hypothesis asserted that grounding the writing of the poem in scientific research, ecological commitment, and direct, sustained experience of the natural object would provide the basis for writing about nature that would have scientific as well as literary credibility, and might therefore contribute in an informed way to debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene. I think the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The engagement with research that informed the piece is clear, as is the ecological commitment. The natural object is foregrounded, protagonism is limited to the structurally necessary middle section, and the piece is, I hope, not exploitative or parasitic. The poem has the potential to educate and inform the poetry reading public and be an adjunct to scientific research.
Ely hoped that researching the eel as a scientist or scientific journalist might have done would allow him to write in a way which would have scientific as well as literary credibility. He believes he has done this and this may well be the case. However, the poetry -reading audience is at best, fairly small and it is questionable how far this poem does more than could be done by a good, popular science writer. For me, this poem does succeed in foregrounding the representative endangered species and so contributing to ‘debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene’. However, I can’t help wondering if the poetry needs the eel more than the eel needs the poetry. In other words, are poets seeking to justify their endeavours by taking on the mantle of the scientist and the eco-crusader? And, if so, is there anything wrong with that?
The second hypothesis asserted that writing emerging from an engagement with scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will show the influence of those factors in the foregrounding of the natural object, the nature of the language used, the forms and structures adopted and in an expression that seeks to create its effects as much by the artful deployment of empirically, experimentally and experientially derived knowledge as by rhetorical means. Again, I feel that the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The poem is replete with scientific and technical language to the degree that a distinctive register is achieved, and the engagement with research that underpins it echoes through its structure and language. The natural subject is foregrounded, in a largely non-anthropomorphic manner. The poem’s epic monology, a deviation from my usual dialogic, polyphonic practice when composing longer poems, emerges directly from the ethos and praxis implied in this hypothesis.
This is where I think Ely justifies his project. His poem is ‘replete with scientific and technical language’ and does create a ‘distinctive register’. This is not simply through the acquiring of empirical and experientially derived knowledge, which is surely what we do all the time to some extent anyway, but by the artful deployment, using the poetic skills, traditionally called rhetoric, of the unfamiliar scientific and technical vocabulary.
The third hypothesis asserted that it is possible for writing that is shaped by the first two hypotheses to nevertheless demonstrate a sophisticated and reflexive artistic subjectivity that constitutes affective, but non-didactic art. I believe that the principles embodied in the first two hypotheses led directly to the vindication of the third hypothesis, in the specific and unexpected sense that the decision to imagine in detail the lifecycle of the European eel paradoxically highlighted the elisions, lacunae and uncertainties in our knowledge of the species, and created in me an overwhelming sense of its enigma and otherness. This produced a speculative expression that infuses a religious or spiritual aspect into what began as a strictly scientific project and broadens the focus from the European eel to the cosmic context of life on Earth. I’ll conclude with some reflections on this unexpected development.
Ely suggests his poem is ‘affective but non-didactic’; this contradicts the intention, stated in the first hypothesis, to educate and inform. As far as I can see, the poem is both affective and didactic, but not preachy. The rest of this paragraph refers most obviously to the last part of the poem, which presents the part of the eel’s journey about which least is known, that is, its return to the Sargasso. As the poet himself admits, in another authorial intrusion: ‘I’m making it up as they go along.’ (p.44) What the poet seems to be acknowledging is that the unsolved mysteries of the eel have propelled him into writing not a treatise, but a poem. He takes this further by suggesting a ‘religious or spiritual aspect’ which is indeed reflected in some of the language in the final pages, which abound in aureate expressions almost as ornate as the gold leaf on a medieval icon: ‘her gold load’, ‘glittering golden ova’, ‘cornucopean flame’. I’m not sure about this; I felt that the poem was working very well without this dimension and that the poet had conveyed his respect for the eel’s ‘enigma and otherness’ very successfully by the scientific language mediated by explanatory or didactic metaphor and simile found throughout the poem.
I admire this poem because Ely has succeeded in presenting and foregrounding one of the natural objects with which we share our world in such a way as to show how the human and the non-human co-exist and to emphasize the damage inflicted by the human on other species. By presenting the eel’s life in the recognisably human form of epic, just as Clare chose to represent Swordy Well through a recognisably human first person voice, Ely has shown us which side he is on – the side of the oppressed and the threatened, whether it be by capitalism, industrial and agricultural revolutions or consumerist pollution. The poem attempts to be with and for ‘nature’ whilst respecting non-human otherness, rather than distinct from and threatened by nature and indeterminate but terrifying natural forces, which is what we see in Heaney’s ‘Lough Neagh Sequence’ and in the boat-stealing episode from The Prelude.
 The Value of Ecocriticism by Timothy Clark (Cambridge, 2019), p.11
 I don’t intend to suggest that Heaney should have been writing eco-poetry, or been more aware of the eel. When he wrote the sequence, the eel was not an endangered species and awareness of what is now referred to as the Anthropocene was in its infancy.
 Google does not seem to recognise this creature but in behaviour it seems to resemble the Lambton worm, a monster from medieval legend which terrorised the Durham countryside until eventually vanquished by the man who had first discovered it as a small, elver-like creature.
Louise Glück, in her essay Invitation and Exclusion, argues for poetry that requires a listener or a reader rather than that which is merely overheard, contrasting Eliot, whose ‘cri du coeur craves a listener who becomes, by virtue of his absorption, [the poet’s] collaborator’ with Wallace Stevens: ‘Stevens’ meditative poems are not addressed outward; they are allowed to be overheard’. Some readers regard the work of W.S. Graham, with its enduring preoccupation with language, as metapoetry, exclusive because it is concerned with the writing of poetry, rather than with the world. This is very far from the truth as can be demonstrated from an analysis of The Nightfishing, pivotal in the poet’s career. Graham’s poem is about the sea, about the real sea, ‘a grey green sea, not a chocolate box sea’, a poem which he hoped would make ‘somebody seasick ( a good unliterary measurement)’; it is a very Romantic poem with its outsider hero off on a quest:
Moreover, as the ‘seasick’ comment suggests, it is a thoroughly physical poem, written to be heard, whose hypnotic rhythms drew me in many years ago, before I even tried to understand it.
The opening of the poem, like that of Dante’s Inferno, places us somewhere that is immediately recognisable yet obviously allegoric, suggesting that the narrator has reached a crucial point in his life and is about to embark on a journey, we imagine, a journey of discovery:
Very gently struck
The quay night bell.
Now within the dead
Of night and the dead
Of my life I hear
My name called from far out.
This summoning bell tolls or knells faintly throughout the poem, offering both a sense of mortality, especially since it is introduced here alongside the repetition of ‘dead’, and a feeling of security or stability as it anchors us to the land, to the quay from and to whose ‘open arms’ the voyager travels and returns. However, this is balanced or contradicted by the poet’s preoccupation with flux, often suggested to derive from Heraclitus. Be that as it may, Graham sees the instant as the only living reality, while all the moments of the past are a heritage of dead selves:
Within all the dead of
All my life I hear
My name spoken out
On the break of the surf.
I, in Time’s grace,
The grace of change, am
Cast into memory.
What a restless grace
To trace stillness on.
The poem is a psychic drama and a poetic meditation dressed up in a very physical, tactile language of reality. Indeed, one of Graham’s themes or purposes is the relation of language to reality. In all his letters about the poem, Graham insists on the reality of the sea while also establishing it as a metaphor, something which becomes possible in this poem because the sea is envisioned as the ground of being. The Nightfishing is often recognised to be in a tradition of literary works about the sea; I have seen references to Moby Dick and The Wreck of the Deutschland. I am strongly reminded of The Ancient Mariner, particularly because of the dead selves Graham carries with him on his voyage. Whatever its literary antecedents, the poem is strikingly effective in its evocation of the Atlantic waters fished by Scottish fishermen. When I first read the poem, I assumed that it was set off the coast of Cornwall, but the few geographical references are apparently to Scotland: ‘the Mor light’ ‘the Black Rosses’, ‘Skeer’, although these names are generically Gaelic rather than specific:
‘The place names in this section have a Scottish flavour, suggesting that Graham was thinking of a voyage beginning in the Firth of Clyde, and moving out past the islands.’
Graham did go out with fishing crews several times, so the poem reflects experience: ‘The undertow, come hard round,/ Now leans the tiller strongly jammed over/ On my hip-bone.’ (p.109) Or, hauling in the nets: ‘The headrope a sore pull and feeding its brine/Into our hacked hands.’ (p.113) The boat , with its ‘twin screws’ that ’spun sweetly’, the gear of nets, corks and bladders:
Our mended newtanned nets, all ropes
Loose and unkinked, tethers and springropes fast,
The tethers generous with floats to ride high,
And the big white bladder floats at hand to heave.
all convey the reality of a working fishing trip. The sea too as it changes through the course of the night is presented with painterly clarity, whether it is in the still moment of dawn after the nets have been set:
Now round the boat, drifting its drowning curtains
A grey of light begins. These words take place.
The petrel dips at the water-fats. And quietly
The stillness makes its way to its ultimate home.
The bilges slap. Gulls wail and settle.
It is us still.
or the heavy seas encountered on the return journey:
The long rollers,
Quick on the crests and shirred with fine foam,
Surge down then sledge their green tons weighing dead
Down on the shuddered deck-boards.
Knowledge of the sea and fishing lore feeds into the narrative:
Yes, we’re right set, see, see them go down, the best
Fishmarks, the gannets. They wheel high for a moment
Then heel, slip off the bearing air to plummet
Into the schooling sea.
The protagonist of the poem is the writer in the present moment of his life, but despite the abstract nature of this concept, he is presented in heroic, almost cinematic images:
I turned out
Into the salt dark
And turned my collar up.
There are echoes of old black and white naval movies as the hero ventures out with the crew on the mission and returns successfully with nets full of herring. Gerard Carruthers advances a loftier model for Graham’s fisherman, suggesting that the narrator is based on ‘the fisherman-apostle Peter’. He argues that Graham’s poem is ‘underwritten by the account in Luke’s gospel where Peter has had a fruitless night of fishing on the sea of Galilee and is ordered back out by Christ. Peter proves his faith by following the command and being rewarded with a prodigious, miraculous catch’. Some of Graham’s language and rhetoric has a religious provenance; like Samuel, the narrator hears his name called: ‘I hear/ my name called from far out’ and he refers several times to ‘grace’, ‘Time’s grace, the grace of change’, the grace of the ‘instant,/ bound by its own grace’. Nevertheless, the poem is wholly secular.To me, the narrator-protagonist is the hero of his own metaphysical romance, writing the story of himself in his head in a rhetoric which is often raised to match the heroic nature of the quest.
No matter how convincing and physical the detail of the fishing voyage, the poem is always metaphysical. In his letter to Charles Causley, Graham writes:
…although I wanted to write about the sea it was not the sea only as an objective adventure ( if there is such a thing) but as experience surrounding a deeper problem which everybody is concerned with.
I mean the essential isolation of man and the difficulty of communication.
This may be the central theme of the poem, though as Graham acknowledges in the same letter, others may read more or less into it. Certainly, he returns repeatedly to the difficulty of language in the context of time and change. He declares that only in the present instant is he alive and himself, so that it seems impossible for language and communication to be accurate and authentic: ‘Each word speaks its own speaker to his death.’(p.115) As if to reinforce the aliveness of the moment, much of the narration is in present tense, giving the impression that the ‘adventure’ is unfolding before us, moment by moment.
The air bunches to a wind and roused sea-cries.
The weather moves and stoops high over us and
There the forked tern, where my look’s whetted on distance,
Quarters its hunting sea.
However, the poet’s view is neither as bleak nor as solipsistic as this argument might suggest. The next few lines in this stanza indicate the importance of memory, in a simile which extends the hauling in of nets to the metaphysical level: ‘I haul slowly/ Inboard the drowning flood as into memory,/ Braced at the breathside in my net of nerves.’ (p.112) A few stanzas later, there is a lapse into the past tense: ‘And then was the first/ Hand at last lifted getting us swung against/ Into the homing quarter’. (p.113) This is an implicit admission of continuity, as is the combination, in the next stanza, of the description of the voyage with the process of the poem:
Into the running blackbacks soaring us loud
High up in the open arms of the towering sea.
The steep bow heaves, hung on these words, towards
What words your lonely breath blows out to meet it.
Communication is possible, though difficult: ‘I cried headlong from my dead’. The poet’s language is built from the continuity of dead selves which have preceded the present moment and thus he is able to articulate his ‘ghostly constant’.(p.111) It is the possibility of memory, continuity and communication that permit the inclusion of the ballad-style section 2, with its reference to his birth:
When I fell from the hot to the cold
My father drew his whole day’s pay,
My mother lay in a set-in bed,
The midwife threw my bundle away.
and also, what seems to be a love poem, section 4, using, Graham claims, the rhythm ‘I took from an early poem I came across in the MSS of early Scots poetry, from the Ballantyne MS.’ Although the section reiterates the idea of change and death from one moment into the next, he sets this against the possibility of love and a home whose identity is not put into words:
O my love, keep the day
Leaned at rest, leaned at rest.
What one place remains
Home as darkness quickens?
So, despite, the difficulty of communication we realise that Graham is not speaking simply to himself; rather, he is speaking as himself and as a representative human being to others, with the hope though not necessarily the expectation of being heard. As he puts it in a later poem:
W.S. Graham is said to have been a man at once gregarious and shy, who sometimes found social interactions awkward but who enjoyed a number of intense and valued friendships. ‘The Nightfishing ’ overcomes isolation, not only in its address to the other in section 4, but in its recognition of companionship throughout the voyage. The ‘we’ he uses so often is not simply the collection of dead selves, but other members of the crew, those who set out and hauled in the nets alongside him. As they come back into harbour:
Moored here, we cut the motor quiet. He that
I’m not lies down. Men shout. Words break. I am
My fruitful share.
His poetry is difficult and his meanings often elusive but his focus on language arises out of his recognition of its centrality to our humanity, as that which articulates our ‘ghostly constant’ allowing us, despite our instant to instant, and final, mortality, the possibility of memory and communication:
So I spoke and died.
So within the dead
Of night and the dead
Of all my life those
Words died and awoke.
In addition to books cited above, I have found the following helpful:
Give Me your Painting Hand, W. S. Graham and Cornwall, by David Whittaker, Wavestone Press, 2015.
SINGER, LAVINIA. “Significant Shapes: W. S. Graham’s Painting Poems.” Chicago Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2/3, 2018, pp. 60–66. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26725259. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.
WILKINSON, JOHN. “The Weight of Words: W. S. Graham’s Lyric Poetry.” Chicago Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2/3, 2018, pp. 40–57. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26725257. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.
Natalie Pollard, ‘The pages are bugged’: The Politics of Listening in the Poetry of W. S. Graham, The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 1–22, https://doi.org/10.1093/camqtly/bfq001
A Nobel prize winning poet, writing in English, that I had barely heard of. Shamed by my ignorance of the work o, I started to read her in bulk. I started with A Village Life, 2009, which is comparatively recent, and which I will return to. I followed up with The First Five Books (Carcanet, 1997) which includes all her work up to Ararat(1990). The prevailing impression from this collection was gloomy. In fact, when I read ‘The Undertaking’ , the opening poem in ‘The Apple Trees’ which is the second section of The House on Marshland (1975), I was surprised by how upbeat it was.
The dark lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.
the sun is shining,
everywhere you turn is luck.
At the same time, I asked myself how long this sudden cheerfulness would last.
Five pages later the poem ’12.6.71’ opened and closed thus:
You having turned from me
which has not ceased since
Gluck repeatedly rejects the idea that she is a confessional poet, yet many of her poems are clearly based on the material and suffering in her personal life. However, when we read her work, we are forced to agree that she is far from confessional in the manner, say, of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell. Somehow, even when poems include details which seem most intimate and personal, they seem strangely impersonal, detached or even cold. Some of the poems carry a tremendous punch, but although they shock, they don’t quite move. For example, poems on the death of a father:
For once, your body doesn’t frighten me.
From time to time, I run my hand over your face
lightly, like a dustcloth.
What can shock me now? I feel
no coldness that can’t be explained.
Against your cheek, my hand is warm
and full of tenderness.
‘For my father’ in Metamorphosis in The Triumph of Achilles (1985)
Grief is undermined by self regard. The speaker is looking at herself, the one who is still living, the survivor, with a truthfulness that shocks and disturbs. The pieties surrounding grief, death and burial are further subverted in ‘A Fantasy’, where the widow is imagined after the funeral:
In her heart, she wants them to go away.
She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows
it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.
What seems at first to be grief, resolves into fear of the future, the wish to have things the way they were, rather than any kind of celebration of love or the marriage.
We know that one of the most significant factors in Glück’s life occurred before she was born, the death of her sister as an infant. She writes about this in her short essay ‘Death and Absence’(1984, reprinted in Proofs and Theories, Carcanet,1999):
I have always been, in one way or another, obsessed with sisters, the dead and the living both. The dead sister died before I was born. Her death was not my experience, but her absence was. Her death let me be born. I saw myself as her substitute, which produced in me a profound obligation towards my mother, and a frantic desire to remedy her every distress.
She says that she wrote about her sister’s death only after the birth of her own son. Although the lost sister appears in several poems, perhaps the most powerful is ‘Lost Love’ from Ararat (1990):
Something did change: when my sister died,
my mother’s heart became
very cold, very rigid,
like a tiny pendant of iron.
Then it seemed to me my sister’s body
was a magnet. I could feel it draw
my mother’s heart into the earth,
so it would grow.
What strikes me again in this poem is how clipped and reserved it is, how controlled. The language is simple with a metaphor that extends through two stanzas but becomes part of the massive understatement about the poet’s mother and the complex mother-daughter relationship. Perhaps the adherence to rhyme in her first book, Firstborn, which more or less disappears from the second book onwards, was an early manifestation of this need for control. There is also a frequent sense of holding back and distrust. This is particularly evident in ‘Mock Orange’ and ‘Night Song’ both of which appear in The Triumph of Achilles (1985). I find ‘Mock Orange’ viscerally shocking:
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
paralyzing body –
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union –
These stanzas have a truthfulness which is hard to acknowledge since they present a fear of losing control and a distrust of the body that may remind us of ‘the syndrome of anorexia that for years shaped [her] life’. The Triumph of Achilles contains many poems about love, but its poems are not exactly love poems as they wrestle with the conflict between individual autonomy and union with another; in this sense, ‘Mock Orange’, the opening poem, has an admonitory function. The sequence ‘Marathon’, in particular, reveals this ambivalence about love:
And in each of us began
a deep isolation, though we never spoke of this,
of the absence of regret.
We were artists again, my husband.
We could resume the journey.
Ararat, the fifth book, is constructed on a family very similar to Glück’s own family, three generations: parents, daughters and the daughters’ children. Structures, emotions and relationships are dissected and analysed in a manner that would be raw if, again, it were less controlled.
They always said
I was like my father, the way he showed
contempt for emotion.
They’re the emotional ones,
my sister and my mother.
The justification for this laundering of family pain seems to be the poet’s conviction that her experience is general, that her familial structures are archetypal, a belief which becomes true through the enaction of the poems. However, not all of her poetry is as apparently transparent as Ararat and I will consider three later books where family or personal tropes persist but within the artifice of an overarching book-length concept. These are The Wild Iris, 1992, A Village Life, 2009 and Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014.
The Wild Iris is an exploration of religion or at least of theology by a poet who has previously seemed profoundly agnostic. ‘Celestial Music’, the penultimate poem in Ararat, puts a clear space between her and a friend who is a believer.
I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,
she thinks someone listens in heaven.
The clear implication is that belief in God is stupid, yet in The Wild Iris God is a key player. The collection, set in the garden, a locus immediately resonant with religious and mythical archetypes, is shared between the voices of plants, the poet and God. However, the plants, God and the figure of the poet come across as dramatized arguments rather than as real, even when the detail is accurate and convincing. The collection reads like a series of thought experiments and indeed there is a heady excitement in taking on the voices of God, who is presented through a variety of different human perceptions. In ‘Clear Morning’ God is transcendent, ‘thinking matter could not absorb [human] gaze forever’ but ‘prepared now to force / clarity upon you.’ In ‘Midsummer’ there is a stronger sense of incarnation, ‘You were/ my embodiment, all diversity’. Most of the time, God is the disappointed Creator familiar from Genesis:
‘I couldn’t do it again,
I can hardly bear to look at it –
We have to remember that God is in dialogue with the Poet who is also the Gardener, an ambiguous figure, halfway between creator and curator. Moreover, the Poet is ventriloquising the voice of God just as she ventriloquises and anthropomorphises the plants to make up the tapestry of her debate. The plants follow the natural seasons from early spring through to late Autumn, rehearsing a cycle of death and resurrection the poet acknowledges as Romantic: ‘let them/ bury me with the Romantics’. (‘Matins’ p.13) Two pages later, in ‘Retreating Wind’ a disappearing God points out the fallacy of an over simple identification of the human with the seasonal:
Whatever you hoped,
you will not find yourselves in the garden,
among the growing plants.
Your lives are not circular like theirs:
your lives are the bird’s flight
which begins and ends in stillness –
Nevertheless, it is in the plants that Gluck finds images for living or for expressing human yearnings or dilemmas. ‘Trillium’ discovers grief, ‘Snowdrops’ faces the pain of re-engaging with the world, Scilla celebrates community over individualism, whilst Lamium seems close to a self-portrait:
Some of us
make our own light: a silver leaf
like a path no one can use, a shallow
lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples.
But you know this already.
You and the others who think
you live for truth and, by extension, love
all that is cold.
The disingenuousness here is the failure to acknowledge the passion and emotion which is found throughout this collection although suppressed by the austerity of the diction and the control of the lines. The book shows the poet making ‘[her] own light’ and the two long lines ending the second and third stanzas attest to the quality of this light; it is derived from the sun but it pings ‘like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon’ and it is ‘silver’ not golden. The poet aspires to the coldness of intellectual rigour which is metallic and inorganic but recognises implicitly that this is far from enough, that her ‘lake of silver’ is ‘shallow’, an idea emphasised by the placement of the word at the end of the line.
Despite the rejection of the parallel between humans and plants, the dialogue between plants and their human gardeners mirrors that between the human and God and the plants seem to move from birth through adolescence to eventual old age. Whereas the snowdrops at the beginning of the sequence dare to ‘risk joy’, the white rose near the end faces bleakly the uncertainties of death in unanswered cries to the human,’ you are not the light I called to/ but the blackness behind it.’ This is not the last word, however. The final two plant poems move through the despair of the crucifixion – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’:
close enough to hear
your child’s terror? Or
are you not my father
you who raised me.
‘The Golden Lily’
to the hope of resurrection:
Hush beloved. It doesn’t matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendour.
‘The White Lilies’
We may note in this final image of the poem and the book that plant and gardener are at one. The relationship between the human and the god she has created is more problematic. In ‘Retreating Light’ God is leaving, job done, because the humans have finally learnt how to live ‘like independent beings’ and how to create, how to be their own god.
Creation has brought you
great excitement, as I knew it would,
as it does in the beginning.
And I am free to do as I please now,
to attend to other things, in confidence
you have no need of me anymore.
Yet the sequence does not end there. In ‘Lullaby’ the god who withdrawing from the world is also withdrawing the world as creation is reduced to flickering appearances:
You must be taught to love me. Humans must be taught to love
silence and darkness.
In ‘September Twilight’, the last God poem, the god has become a grumpy poet unhappy with his flawed creation, ‘a draft to be thrown away,/ an exercise// because I’ve finished you, vision/ of deepest mourning.’ The last two lines evade explanation but, at the very least, convey a sense of terminal dissatisfaction. The voices of God and human go past each other, each wanting more than the other can give.
The ‘human’ poems are usually titled either ‘Matins’ or ‘Vespers’, placing them within the tradition of Christian prayer and meditation. Some have likened the collection to the medieval books of hours. Certainly, the voice of the human echoes the spiritual travails of figures such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as it struggles with a God which is at first the ‘unreachable father’, unknowable and impersonal: ‘I am/ at fault, at fault, I asked you/to be human’. Then about halfway through, there is a change in perception as the view of god does again become human.
I am ashamed
at what I thought you were
distant from us, regarding us
as an experiment: it is
a bitter thing to be
the disposal animal,
a bitter thing. Dear friend,
dear trembling partner, what
surprises you most in what you feel,
earth’s radiance or your own delight?
For me, always
the delight is the surprise.
In this poem, the poet is on the same level as her God who she is constructing in her own image. It contrasts strangely with God’s final poem, ‘September Twilight’ quoted above. We move from Matins to Vespers, morning to evening where the poetic voice torments itself with its relationship to God. On page 43 she describes how God appears to her:
the small hill above the wild blueberries, metaphysically
descending, as on all my walks: did I go deep enough
for you to pity me, as you have sometime pitied
others who suffer, favoring those
with theological gifts?
Here, the poet appears to be inviting a ‘dark night of the soul’ in order to achieve the ecstatic vision:
your fiery self, a whole
pasture of fire, and beyond, the red sun neither falling nor rising –
However, the ending of the poem reverts to rationalism:
I was not a child; I could take advantage of illusions.
Glück allows herself to construct a faith to set against her nihilistic idealism, where the natural world and the garden she loves are always on the point of disappearing to leave noting but darkness behind them. Towards the end of the book, in ‘Parousia’, she remembers childhood belief which she is trying to recover:
I try to win you back,
that is the point
of the writing.
But she adds, a few lines later: ‘What a nothing you were’ and then concludes ‘you are everywhere, source/ of wisdom and anguish.’ In the next poem, winter is approaching as is death and the poet’s sense of having been admitted to the divine presence has been cancelled: ‘you have drawn/ a line through my name.’ The poem ends with an ambivalent restatement of the relationship between God and human.
When you go, you go absolutely,
deducting visible life from all things
but not all life,
lest we turn from you.
I suggest that Gluck is an idealist because in this book, plants, garden, the world of nature, even the bit players, John and Noah, her husband and son, are all constructs, fictions dramatizing the struggle of a mind or soul to know or redeem itself through the possibility of a relationship with a god which is itself fictional. It is a metaphysical exploration of ideas which is the very opposite of materialism.
A Village Life is even more clearly a fictional setting where the writer can work through her ideas. The blurb suggests this village is Mediterranean, but it is not any place that ever actually existed. It made me think of my grandchildren’s favourite computer game, Minecraft, where it is possible to construct your own house, estate, town, world. The poet works out emotions and ideas through her avatars who are given a gapped narrative that the reader feels must exist but struggles to follow. The first poem gives some sense of the abstract quality of the entire collection. It begins in the third person, describing the meditations of, apparently, a mill worker as he looks out through his window to see ‘not the world but a squared-off landscape’. The poet is indicating already that this is a selective and constructed picture, and our perspective is further skewed when she moves to first person in what seems to be some kind of renunciation which may anticipate old age or death
I open my fingers –
I let everything go.
I let it go, then I light the candle.
Is this the old man at his window coming into his own voice or the poet consciously substituting the light of her art for that of the real world?
There are a number of different characters, some still living in the village, some who have moved away, some old, some young, or possibly the same individuals presented at different times in their lives. The pervading perspective is of jaded, rather sour, rather plastic wisdom. The setting is stylised: the village has a central fountain to which all roads lead at the same time as they lead away towards the mountain:
The roads don’t gather here anymore;
the fountain sends them away, back into the hills they came from.
Avenue of Broken Faith, Avenue of Disappointment,
Avenue of the Acacia Tree, of Olive Trees,
The wind filling with silver leaves,
Avenue of Lost Time, Avenue of Liberty that ends in stone,
not at the field’s edge but at the foot of the mountain.
The poems reflect the seasons and the weather which are made to echo the ages and stages of the characters in a conscious use of pathetic fallacy which the writer had exploded elsewhere. There are recurring events, two poems from the earthworm, two from bats, and four about burning leaves which seem to signal the cycles of life and death, destruction and phoenix-like resurrection. The image is so persistent that I wondered if it might originate from the poet’s experience of losing her own house to fire.
So it’s finished for another year,
death making room for life,
as much as possible,
but burning the house would be too much room.
‘Burning Leaves’ p.26
Reflecting the sense of decline in the book, the balance of the burning leaves tips towards death in the later poems
it is obvious they [sparks] are not defeated,
merely dormant or resting, though no one knows
whether they represent life or death.
Maybe this is how you’ll know when the earth is dead –
it will ignite.
For me, the imaginary world of this book is mostly grey or sepia coloured, but there are momentary glimpses of real toads, as in the rather curious poems about adolescence which depict boys and girls on the cusp of sexual awareness.
They know people who’ve done it, as a kind of game or trial –
Then you say, no, wrong time, I think I’ll just keep on being a child.
But your body doesn’t listen. It knows everything now,
it says you’re not a child, you haven’t been a child for a long time.
Their thinking is, stay away from change. It’s an avalanche –
All the rocks sliding down the mountain, and the child standing underneath
just gets killed.
In this poem, where the Edenic companionship of boy and girl is under threat from their growing consciousness of their sexuality and there is a powerful sense of loss, one of the oddest things is the fluidity of the pronouns. The first stanza is all ‘they’ before moving to direct address in the second ‘you can spend the whole day’. Later, even the body gets a voice ‘it says you’re not a child’, and towards the end of the poem the unity of the two children separates into ‘he’ and ‘she’.
Today she’s folding the blanket alone, to be safe.
And he looks away – he pretends to be too lost in thought to help out.
This confusion of voices, where the writer seems to intrude upon her creation, once again undermines the autonomy of the imaginary world. In a companion piece, ‘At The River’, a young girl describes, or mocks, how her mother has told her about sex:
she went on holding my hand as she made her speech
which was more like a speech about mechanical engineering
than a conversation about pleasure.
She and her friends gather by the river where they laugh about this and the book, Ideal Marriage, which her mother has given her. They are preoccupied with sex which they discuss endlessly without, most of them, having any actual experience. Running in parallel with this, is the story of her parents’ marriage, the father who pours himself two glasses of wine every night, one, suggests his daughter, for the Holy Ghost who never shows up. At the end of the poem, she asks him:
Did your friend go away?
And he looked at me intently for a while,
then he said, Your mother and I used to drink a glass of wine together
The particularity of this detail and the sadness it reveals contrasts with the preceding stanza where the protagonist, returning from the river, comments on the reflections of the stars in the water:
But the ones in the river –
they were like having some idea that explodes suddenly into a thousand ideas,
not real, maybe, but somehow more lifelike.
The ‘like’ in the second line is unexpected and ambiguous; it could reflect the idiom of an American teenager (not a Mediterranean one) or it could signal the introduction of an elaborate simile. Either way, the reality of both the actual world and the imaginary world are undermined by the primacy of ideas.
The final poem is also the title poem and it features an older man, perhaps the same one as in the first poem and probably the same one as in ‘A Warm Day’. He may even be looking out the same window as in the opening poem. However, in this poem he speaks in first person as he ruminates over his daily routines, the different stages of life and approaching death. It is hard not to see him as a stand-in for the aging poet. His instruments are locked up but he still hears ‘music coming from them sometimes’. He thinks back to the tension of the pre-adolescent. ‘Soon it will be decided for certain what you are, / one thing, a boy or a girl.’ Although written before trans issues became so prominent, this foreshadows, perhaps accidentally, the angst of binary sexuality. The light in the poem fades and reduces to firelight, then moonlight and the moon becomes a symbol of the soul:
It’s dead, it’s always been dead,
but it pretends to be something else,
burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes
it could actually make something grow on earth.
If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.
This concluding notion seems both religious and Platonic, although earlier in the poem he has decried his neighbour’s religious faith: ‘She believes in the Virgin the way I believe in the mountain, / though in one case the fog never lifts.’ The soul is seen as a deception, ‘pretend[ing] to be something else’, but nevertheless deriving its truth or being from a remoter power.
The village of A Village Life, with its stylised setting and characters, is a device which allows the poet to clothe and develop her ideas. Faithful and Virtuous Night exploits a different convention partly through a deconstructed quest narrative where there appear to be at least two protagonists: one is an aging male artist who remembers his life going back to his childhood as an orphan, living with his aunt and his brother. There are accounts of episodes in boyhood, living in Cornwall and undergoing psychoanalysis. However, another voice belongs, apparently, to the poet herself, notably in ‘Visitors from Abroad’ and ‘Aboriginal Landscape’ in which the recurrent themes of her relationship with her mother and the sister who died in infancy reappear. It is quite difficult to work out what is going on and whether we should see the male figure as detached from, complementary to, or an alter ego for, the poet. The quest imagery and indeed the title of the book derive from the old man’s childhood memories of his brother reading Arthurian romance: ’my brother was reading a book he called/ the faithful and virtuous night’. This misunderstanding is the foundation for the image of night as death or at least the harbinger of death: “I became/a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart/became the steed underneath me.’ In this book, Glück is much possessed by death, but not particularly gloomily; in fact, this poem even includes a pun:
If the old man’s adventures all seem to be episodes on the journey towards death which becomes itself the object of the quest as suggested in the opening poem ‘Parable’, the utterances which come from the poet appear in one way or another to be a reaction to the death of her parents, or particularly, of her mother.
We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.
But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister – you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.
‘Visitors from Abroad’
Along with the characteristic austerity and control, manifest here in the clipped, end-stopped lines often backed up by full stops which are used for emphasis rather than to demarcate sentences, Glück exhibits again an almost gleeful, if macabre, dark humour.
However, most of the book is devoted to the novelistic development of the central character, who is reminiscent of other hyper-refined male sensibilities, a sort of cross between Henry James and Philip Roth. He is embarked on the quest for, or journey towards, death which is neither a real quest nor a real journey, as to paraphrase Beckett, he would have died in any case. This is the message of ‘The Parable’:
we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.
I don’t know quite how to regard this, admittedly very readable, narrative thread. I have to see the old man as a pretext rather than an autonomous character, partly because at times he seems to merge with the other speaker, partly because, like her, he is preoccupied with the relationship between art and life. In ‘The Past’ and ‘A Summer Garden’ there is reference to a mother who has died, apparently recently, although the old man’s mother was killed when he was a small child. This might suggest that the poems are in the voice of the poet except that their preoccupations seem to echo that of the male character. In fact, ‘A Summer Garden’ is primarily an elegy for the poet’s mother, Beatrice Glück, who died in 2011, aged 101: ‘Mother died last night, / Mother who never dies.’ The poem goes from the day of her death when the bereaved daughter reflects on her loss, echoed in the songs of, presumably, an au pair:
We could hear
Maria singing songs from Czechoslovakia –
How alone I am –
songs of that kind.
How alone I am,
no mother, no father –
my brain seems so empty without them.
These songs may remind us of the Jacques Brel song which haunts the old man:
The little cat is dead, meaning, I suppose,
one’s last hope.
The cat is dead, Harry sings,
he will be pointless without his body.
In Harry’s voice it is deeply soothing.
Sometimes his voice shakes, as with great emotion,
and then for a while the hills are alive overwhelms
The tug between life and death carries on throughout the collection and comes back to a celebration of a moment of life earlier in the life of the poet’s mother, when she took her grandchildren to the park:
The children held hands, leaning
To smell the roses.
They were five and seven.
Infinite, infinite – that
was her perception of time.
She sat on a bench, somewhat hidden by oak trees.
Far away, fear approached and departed;
from the train station came the sound it made.
The sky was pink and orange, older because the day was over.
There was no wind. The summer day
cast oak-shaped shadows on the green grass.
This not the last poem in the book. The final piece is a short prose text which picks up some of the threads in the whole collection, including, I believe, an underlying interest in the delimitations of gender. This brings together, or perhaps it doesn’t, a man and woman, who might perhaps or perhaps not be the two voices in the poem. Figures from a photograph, they are imagined meeting:
She drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes a little ballerina made of wood. I have created this, the man thinks; though she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.
‘The Couple in the Park’
The ‘puzzling music’ refers to an earlier poem, where the male artist meets a woman who tells him about walking in a garden where she would hear final notes of The Marriage of Figaro. She tells the artist that all her walks are circular, and she always ends up where she started, at her own front door. The artist attempts to interpret this experience but concludes
that whatever message there might have been
was not contained in speech – so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me
her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastising me –
‘A Sharply Worded Silence’
The ‘sharply worded silence’ which is something we may all recognise becomes even more resonant when we remember that the artist’s mother is dead. The overlap between the man and the woman reappears as we question our first assumption that it is the male who is speaking.
It may be the limitations of a prosaic mind which drives the reader of poetry to seek for logical interpretations and explanations. There is an instinctive quest for meaning which may be one of the pursuits this book is challenging, but only if you plump for the most negative reading. The poem travels beyond logical prose in expression and, if we trust the poet, we may see that what she is saying now in verse we may be able later, in our enlarged experience, to translate into prose. Death is on the horizon, and the horizon may always be coming closer, but it is the process of the quest which matters. Louise Glück beguiles us with the language of childhood, with stories and images, which are cut loose to drift across each other in a way that is productive in challenging assumptions, but which does not offer any definitive alternatives.
I came to Light-fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets, 2019) after hearing the poet read. I was immediately struck by her attention to text, to meanings, sound and cadence so that every syllable seems to justify its location. Most of these poems are set outside, in the woods, in the fields, near the sea but the texts work at different levels, hinting at human stories and drama played out in a context where natural detail is of profound and felt importance.
‘Today’ is constructed around an opposition of self and a loved other where:
you watch the sea from the doorway, while I study grasses…
Self (the poet) is content to focus on close-up detail outside and ‘come back tuned to fine-jointed staves,/ shy-coloured panicles.’ The other, however, looks out to sea and notes the loss of the horizon; together they mourn as ‘a low fleece/ of fog wraps the chord-line between’ sea and sky. Ingrams’ ability to combine figurative language with scientific exactitude ‘shy-coloured panicles’ gives her writing extraordinary authority. The musical imagery is an undernote suggesting the loss and recreation of harmony between the couple which is led by the speaker who shows the other ‘the frail/fastenings, like hair, weaving Earth to the air’ so that their shared vision becomes whole gain, or ‘regains curvature’. It is not clear what the subject of this final verb is; it could be the Earth or it could be an unstated whole which is either a human relationship or a view of the universe. As we reach the end of the poem, we realise that we have been reading a slightly deconstructed love sonnet.
Indeed, many of the poems are unobtrusively love poems where emotions are worked out through the language of the natural world. In ‘Signs’ the poet demands to read nature as a code, echoing the childhood game of pulling petals off a daisy to discover ‘whether you loved me loved me not’. Ingrams plays with and contrasts the covert meanings in the signs written in letters with the natural language of ‘fields/hung with signs of their own’. The poem reaches no conclusion but it adds lustre to love through the beauty of the images which are looked to for answers
I’m not whether you love me love me not
flowering stars on the blackthorn bars and at dusk
Sirius setting Leo rising or neither and both.
This is an example of the poet’s attention to lineation and spacing, which I have not managed to repeat accurately here. She is careful to use the way the text appears on the page to bring out its emphases and music.
‘So will there be apples’ is another love poemwhich seems to open with the hopefulness of spring: ‘all thought of / him rinsed with light… the hedges whisper in / new viridian dialects’. In the second stanza, doubt sets in with the desire for rain ‘when will it rain?’ and the threat or promise of fire ‘this blue match / to a log – flame licking /the emerald evenings.’ The third stanza invokes with all its connotations the mystery of the ‘greenwood’ which has somehow been there all along. Love becomes dangerous as perhaps the object of love is dangerous, or unnatural ‘”frost in May”‘ and the fire of passion is in danger of becoming a ‘conflagration’ but the protagonist of the poem persists in her quest despite the dark warnings of her friends: ‘she goes out she goes looking’. What is she looking for? – love, the forbidden apple, the mysterious promise offered by the greenwood?
‘Ship carver’ is a tribute to a craftsman and a reflection of the poet’s love of the sea which uses sea-related imagery with astonishing skill to convey the dedication of the carver to his work: ‘coiled shavings …foam at the door’, ‘dusk closes over, swift/as the sea takes a skiff’. Somehow the poem evokes maritime history as far back as the Vikings as she describes how the woodcarver dresses ‘a prow for the wind’s/hoops’ and all this although he is working in a ‘workshop keep / seventy miles from/the tidemark.’
Ingrams excels in conveying emotion through the phenomena and cycles of the natural world. In “August letter’ she appears to be grieving for someone who is lost to her, probably through death. She celebrates the meaning of August, as a pivotal point leading to winter:
‘I peer into its tunc/and trace a tiny counterpoint: snow hyacinths on a tablecloth,/winter coats on chairs pushed back, the smell of pears.’ I’m not sure about ‘tunc’; I assume it’s Latin and not as the online urban dictionary tells me, ‘male genitalia’. Occasionally, I feel Ingrams takes her adventurousness with language too far; I was also uncomfortable with the adverbial coinage ‘latticely’ (‘Blue Hour’) although I knew what it was saying. Here, conversely, I’m not sure what the word is saying but I enjoy its sound and positioning.
I will quote the last three stanzas of ‘August letter’ which brilliantly combine images of nature, ourselves in nature, light, death and loss.
The evenings here are long still, are they with you? Yet I find
I plant mine up with candlelight, burn apple wood – watch
the mirror catch and flush.
This month’s like that, a flare I want to boost. That even so
will carry summer out upon its bier. My fingers flutter like
the leaves to think of it.
In the dream, your hands were empty – full of your touch. If you
were here, I could put mine out and you could take them.
Lucy Ingrams has already won The Manchester Poetry Prize , 2015, and the Magma Poetry Competition, 2016. This is a pamphlet of outstanding quality from a poet whose work continues to develop and excite. I very much look forward to a full-length collection.
At the moment, there seems to be a lot of poetry about. Online magazines and small presses proliferate; even the small print magazines seem to be keeping their heads above water. Some of this may be due to corona virus; people have time to write and even read poetry. However, as I pick my way through Zoom poetry events, I find myself wondering how it is possible to read with discrimination, or even enjoyment, under this onslaught of words. I am not complaining about an excess of bad poetry; on the contrary, much of what is available is, thanks to poetry workshops and courses, pretty good. What is difficult is to discover and recognise the very good, the authentically new, the lastingly valuable. With an ever-growing pile of magazines, pamphlets and first collections on my desk, I have been tempted to flee, to look backwards and to reconsider some of the older names in the poetry world.
Thus it was that I started reading, or rereading Elizabeth Jennings. Why? For a start, she once lived at the bottom of my road. Secondly, she is a woman poet who has dropped out of fashion but who had known considerable success, was moderately famous, but never, sadly, rich. In my mind, she was the sort of poet whose work turned up in GCSE and A-level anthologies. I remembered her poems as thematically unthreatening but with plenty of technical features to be identified in the pursuit of good marks.
Engaging now with the full range of her poetry, I find her more interesting but strange, in the sense of alien. She suffers by being out of tune with her time and even more so with ours. What concerned her has been pushed to the very margin of our concerns today. On a line drawn between Christina Rossetti and Sylvia Plath, she would come much closer to Rossetti, not simply because she was a single woman and deeply religious, but also because she clings to some outmoded nineteenth century poeticisms. She is a little too fond of the exclamatory ‘O’. In ‘In This Time’, lamenting the loss of myth and legend which she seems to attribute to excessive introspection and self-absorption, she includes a somewhat startling and metrically unnecessary inversion: ‘Hardly we hear the children shout outside’ as well as an equally unnecessary undirected apostrophe three lines further down, ‘O let the wind outside blow in again’. She is confident with form and her earlier poems were mostly written in carefully organised and rhymed stanzas, made more subtle by half and near rhymes. Even so, sometimes the form pushes her towards conclusions which are too pat, or a rhyme can seem forced, or a line is padded. In ‘Poem in Winter’, the pronoun ‘it’ is awkward in the first stanza as it buckles under the demands of end rhyme:
Today the children begin to hope for snow
And look in the sky for auguries of it.
In the first three lines of the second stanza, there is another awkward ‘it’ forced into prominence by the iambic pattern, while ‘And’ and ‘still’ seem to be there to preserve the metre and ‘indeed’ does more for the rhyme scheme than the meaning.
And even if the snow comes down indeed
We still shall stand behind a pane of glass
Untouched by it,
The last stanza, as rather often in Jennings’ poems, takes on a didactic function, which more contemporary poets would perhaps avoid. Nevertheless, her work is underpinned and strengthened by her vision and sense of vocation, by her ideas of what it was to be a poet. In her case, the poetic vocation was bound in with her Catholic faith although the relationship between her religion and her poetry was not as smooth as she would sometimes have had it appear. Like T.S. Eliot, whom she much admired, she yearned for the mystic’s union with God, and she explored the relationship between mysticism and poetry in Every Changing Shapewhich, although written relatively early in her career, provides a key to understanding her own poetic vision. She seeks to show, through a study of writers from St Augustine to Wallace Stevens:
Not only …the usefulness of poetry as a vehicle for mystical experience but also …some kind of demonstration, however, tentative, that both mysticism (contemplation) and poetry (making) spring from the same creative source.
She goes on to argue, and here she is close to David Jones, also a poet whose Catholicism is central to his art, that poetry:
…is itself a kind of contact with God. And it can be a contact with God because all art is a participation in the eternal act of creation.
Jennings is careful to maintain the distinction between poetry and mysticism, but values poetry for its power to use the imagination (and imagery) to convey experiences otherwise beyond language. However, although she holds this exalted view of what poetry can do, only a minority of her own poems are directly concerned with religion. Her themes are childhood, relationships with parents, friends, lovers, nature, loneliness and death. Her poetry is always written out of her own experience and although she abhorred ‘confessional’ poetry, it is difficult to read her work as anything other than autobiographical. Indeed, because she disapproved so strongly of letting it all hang out and washing the family dirty laundry in public, it is often quite difficult to know what she is talking about in her poems, if, for instance, she is addressing Christ, a friend or a lover in “Transformation’:
I am inclined to think that this poem is actually addressed to a friend or one of her quasi lovers, as so much of her work seems prompted by actual incidents, even though, as here, it borrows the language of religious or transcendental experience. The only poem I have found where Jennings does seem to be writing about a personal mystical experience is ‘A World of Light’. The title acknowledges the mystic poetry of Henry Vaughan and in it she describes the sort of encounter which she explores in the work of many of the mystics and poets she considers:
However, unlike Vaughan she becomes self-conscious and the final stanza suggests that she feels that her language and her imagery are second-hand and inadequate:
Yes, fire, light, air birds, wax, the sun’s own height
I draw from now, but every image breaks.
Only a child’s simplicity can handle
Such moments when the hottest fire feels cool.
And every breath is like a sudden homage
To peace that penetrates and is not feared.
Incidentally, Jennings skill is demonstrated by the way she has used the same end sounds in all five stanzas of this poem. Despite this virtuosity with form, the imagery is less convincing. The ‘hottest fire’ that ‘feels cool’ recall simultaneously the cleansing fires of purgatory and the oxymoronic language of courtly love. We might wonder why in the last line ‘peace’ should be ‘feared’ and question whether she is talking not about a peace but a penetration that need not be feared. Jennings was known to have a fear of sex and it is doubtful if any of her various love relationships were ever physically consummated. Rather conveniently, she transfers the responsibility to one of her loves, apparently a Catholic priest:
I don’t really know what the last lines of this stanza mean and the final stanza of the poem also strikes me as a fudge:
A touching, then a glancing off.
It is your vows that stretch between
Us like an instrument of love
Where only echoes intervene.
Yet these exchanges are enough
Since strings touched only are most keen.
There is a feeling that she has successfully worked through the metaphoric vehicle, but that the actual experience, the underlying tenor remains stubbornly unchanged.
Of course, she was completely aware that sexual imagery is often used as a way of conveying mystical experience, something that she acknowledges in her discussion of St John of the Cross. I am wary of tipping over into prurience when discussing Jennings but the tone and content of her love poetry, which often seems to have an adolescent intensity, would be easier to understand if more was known about her life. The only biography, The Inward War by Dana Greene, while it supplies possible names and dates, does very little, despite its title, to illuminate the poet’s inner conflicts. Perhaps biography shouldn’t matter, and the best poems can be appreciated without it. Nevertheless, so much of her work clearly springs from the day to day events in her life that a better knowledge of what was actually going on would be beneficial, partly because the less successful work does not detach itself fully from the context. Jennings’ poetry invariably strikes us as searingly emotionally honest, but she keeps a great deal from us. Some of her most compelling poems draw on her experience of mental illness in hospital. In ‘The Visitors’, Section V of ‘Sequence in Hospital’ she describes the difficulties of dealing with visitors, whose ‘kindness makes [her] want/ To cry’ but whose visit leaves her feeling ‘limp and faint’. However, the poem ends with an address to an unnamed you:
Your absence has been stronger than all pain
And I am glad to find that when most weak
Always my mind returned to you again.
Through all the noisy nights when, harsh awake,
I longed for day and light to break –
In that sick desert, you were life, were rain.
In this case, the imagery of light, life and rain incline me to think she means Christ, but there is an almost coy awareness of the traditional overlap of language in the treatment of sacred and profane love.
The themes which emerge most strongly from Jennings’ work are a yearning for the innocence of early childhood which is linked to a prelapsarian view of Nature and a pervasive fear which is never made specific but overshadows her entire oeuvre. These ideas come together in an early poem, ‘Reminiscence’, where she speaks of childhood as ‘cloudless and gentle’, as life experienced through the senses before the life of the mind introduced ‘something’ which ‘made [her]numb with fear’. This disabling fear may be related to the growth of consciousness, it may be related to her difficult relationship with her father, it may be a fear of sex or of God derived from her early and unhappy perception of the Catholicism she was born into, or it may be simply an existential dread.
On the other hand, ‘The Fear’ hints at something more specific:
It is known that as a young person she found her religion oppressive, and this was something she only overcame when she went to Rome and discovered a joyful way of living with her faith. Nevertheless, the memories of childhood unhappiness were enduring as shown in ‘First Confession’, a poem from the 1990’s.
Despite her apparently unquestioning acceptance of her religion – she protests, she struggles, but never denies it – it does not seem to have brought her happiness even though she used it to underpin her poetic vision. It seems to me that her first loyalty is to poetry even though she longs for the mystical experience which would reward her faith. Her vocation is poetic, not religious. In ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’she considers the differences:
Your vows enfold you. I must make my own;
Now this, now that, each one empirical.
My poems move from feelings not yet known,
And when the poem is written I can feel
A flash, a moment’s peace.
She makes comparisons elsewhere between the experience of vision of transcendence which the mystic may seek language for and the momentary achievement of vision which the poet feels, having written successful poem. The poem’s final stanza suggests that the darkness which for the religious is the absence of God is for her the silence when the words for the poems do not come.
Yet with the same convictions that you have
(It is but your vocation that I lack),
I must, like you, believe in perfect love.
It is the dark, the dark that draws me back
Into a chaos where
Vocations, visions fail, the will grows slack
And I am stunned by silence everywhere.
Silence is identified with chaos, whereas the poem is a device for creating order. I think this is why Jennings was so prolific, writing compulsively, up to three poems a day, even when most ill or unhappy : ‘Coins, counters, Towers of Babel/ Mad words spoken in sickness too – / All are considered, refined, transformed / …And stored and given back – and true.’ In another poem she says ‘poetry must change and make/ The world seem new in each design’. The stress is on design, form, number and imagery, the power of the imagination to create pattern and order, however fleeting. This ‘flash’ is the poet’s participation in divine creativity. Rebecca Watts argues that Jennings did not write in order to heal her wounded psyche, but because ‘she felt that writing poetry was “ the one thing I can do”’. I think this was a way of overcoming the fear, the darkness and the silence, or at least holding it at bay.
We can see that Jennings had an elevated view of the poet’s calling and that her ‘vision’ was coherent throughout her career. Childhood is Edenic and associated with the joy in the natural world; it is destroyed by fear and guilt and Jennings accuses adults of creating this sense of fear in children much too early. She values friendship, love as agape, but suffers from unfulfilled desire, fear, guilt and loneliness. She yearns for the solace of her religion but only rarely can she reconcile the demands of her ‘hard creed’ and her impulse to poetry:
Alice Oswald argued, in her inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, that great poets had a unified vision, whereas minor poets did not. This is a debatable distinction and I would suggest that while Elizabeth Jennings did have a unified vision, she is only occasionally great. Often her language and her form do not hold up under the strain she puts on them; sometimes she drops back into banality. Nevertheless, she had a lifelong commitment to poetry and there are many ‘flashes’, whether whole poems, stanzas or memorable lines or images.
This brings me back to my feelings of uneasiness when contemplating the current poetry scene. What is required to be a poet? What is poetry for? These are silly questions, because they are so wide-ranging. Poetry has been used for everything from trying to seduce a lover (though it is unlikely that many seduction poems were written primarily for this purpose) to entertainment, to recording and celebrating a shared history to praising God. The training to be a Bard in ancient Ireland was long and rigorous and involved a huge amount of memorising as well as learning complicated traditional rhyme schemes, metaphors and similes. A sixteenth century Elizabethan gentleman would have been expected to be able to compose verses as well as wield a sword. John Donne, whose verses were circulated among friends, could be described as an amateur poet: Shakespeare was obviously a professional. No matter what the background, any decent poet will have learned from their predecessors. Even John Clare, isolated in rural Helpston, was desperate for books and found his early inspiration in The Seasons by James Thomson. Whether the poet starts young or comes to poetry later in life, they will develop as they assimilate the work of the past and of their contemporaries. Some writers will become central to them, touchstones they regularly return to, as, for example, Alice Oswald does to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Poets also learn by sharing their work with their contemporaries and accepting constructive criticism. This is a process which has become almost industrialised through Creative Writing Degrees, poetry workshops and institutions such as the Arvon Foundation and The Poetry School. The fact that these organisations seem to flourish reflects the level of demand. There is also a multitude of small presses, print and online little magazines and local poetry nexuses, many of them surviving on minimum funds through the energy and hard work of dedicated enthusiasts. The Alchemy Spoonis a new print magazine, a courageous venture at a time when our entire lives seem to be going online. Its inaugural edition includes some impressive poems from writers well-known and not so familiar. The introductory editorial by Vanessa Lampert is also interesting. She explains the magazine’s commitment to ‘welcoming older unpublished and new phase writers to our pages’. The phrase ‘new phase’ apparently refers primarily to those who have come to poetry later in life, although Lampert also suggests that the ‘new’ of ‘new phase’ refers to poets who have ‘remained alert to the athleticism of poetics and the potential of poetry to branch out and articulate the ethereal and changeable feeling states of our lives.’ This seems admirable, but I am more concerned by her earlier suggestion:
The art of poetry offers writers the opportunity to abandon the conformity embedded in the way we learn to use language, to reach out and seek invention. Additionally, poems can free us from the tiresome constraint of always being required to tell the truth.
In the world of Trump and Johnson, where the tiresome constraint of telling the truth seems to have been rendered null and void, it would seem preferable to suggest that poetry is indeed a way of telling the truth, albeit through such lying devices as metaphor and imagery. The emphasis on playfulness also worried me, although I recognise that poetry and all art does have a ludic function. The quality of the poetry in this magazine, the level of engagement of the interviews and essays belie these suggestions of hobby writing, or poetry as something to do when you have retired. I doubt if Elizabeth Jennings would have welcomed a description of her work as either untruthful or playful and, as someone who had devoted her entire life to her art, she might have been lukewarm about the notion of ‘new phase.
A whole year without seeing the sea. Last year, I was lucky: I went to St David’s in Wales, to the coastal path of Cornwall and to the Island of Elba, off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean. Not to Ireland, not last year – too complicated and too expensive. Now I’m sitting at my computer, browsing ferry prices, contemplating running the gauntlet of Covid and the weather, in a last-minute effort to get to Ballycastle beach. Inland, in Oxford, as far as it is possible to be from the sea in England, I have been surfing the Internet, browsing poets and making unexpected links. So it was, by a process of one thing leading to another, that I came across Anne-Marie Fyfe and her 2019 book, No Far Shore. I have known of Fyfe for many years, but I have not read her poetry; nor did I know until now that she grew up in Cushendall. It was this fact as well as her enthusiasm for the work of Elizabeth Bishop which drew me in. I have only just discovered Bishop’s poetry, in the sense of ‘getting’ it, although I had in the past read a number of her poems with nothing more than polite admiration.
No Far Shore is a mix of memoir, poetry and travel writing. It touches on what is familiar to me, the Antrim coast and the Achill Islands, writers like Bishop and Melville and MacNeice but also introduces places and writers I don’t know or have never visited, like Martha’s Vineyard, Nova Scotia and the work of Robinson Jeffers, whose writing I barely remember from my Faber anthology of American Literature at university. Usually, I don’t like mixtures of poetry and prose, because I find that I need to change gear when moving from one to the other, which I find uncomfortable and often leads to paying less attention to the poems than they deserve. However, I enjoyed this book, partly because of the combination of the familiar with the unknown, and partly because of what the poet had to say about the sea, which, if you have grown up close to it, exerts a magnetic influence all through life. Although I grew up in Belfast, Ballycastle, on the other side of Fair Head from Cushendall, was almost a second home for me, in childhood, adolescence and even into my twenties.
Fyfe pays attention to coasts as liminal places, the border between water and land, but also acknowledges the pull of the horizon, that sense of boundlessness that the sea offers and which we fear and yearn after. She explores this in the title poem, which is taken from an earlier collection, Late Crossing:
NO FAR SHORE
It will be winter when I untie
The boat for the last time:
when I double-lock the back door
on an empty house,
go barefoot through bramble
& briar, measure each
stone step to the slipway.
It will be night-time when I row
to the horizon,
steady in the North-Star light
the darkened house at my back.
It will be winter when I draw
each oar from the water,
& bite the cold from my lip.
Another interesting poem, which accompanies Fyfe’s exploration of the idea of North, is ‘NORTH HOUSE’. Although Fyfe’s take on North is very different from that of Seamus Heaney, this poem reminds me of Heaney’s ‘Storm on the Island’, which, despite its place on the GCSE syllabus, has always struck me as portentously heavy-footed. Like Heaney’s poem, Fyfe’s appears to be allegorical and is one of the few places where she addresses the political context as she refers to ‘A mansard dwelling that guards its northernness’ and ‘Our north-wing corridors are the iciest in history.’ She does also write about her grandparents’ mixed marriage in relation to the building of the Titanic. Her grandfather was a Protestant and therefore able to work in the shipyards where Catholics were not welcome.
This is not a review and I have not worked out in my own mind how I feel about the poems in this book. However, I have been encouraged to look further at Anne-Marie Fyfe’s work and inspired with a longing to return to the sea, best evoked for me by lines from Seamus Heaney, which although they do not refer to the Antrim coast, catch the magic of light on water and of the opening up of vistas.