Dr Romola Parish is an astonishingly versatile character. She is a practising environmental lawyer, a poet, an archaeologist, an academic expert on the poetry of R.S. Thomas, and a committed Christian. She has just published two books, one the product of a six-month residency with the Oxfordshire Historic Landscape Characterisation Project, entitled Polygonia; the other, an astonishingly beautiful and moving series of meditations based on Christian icons which she has created through embroidery, Crying in the Silicone Wilderness. The icons work in a way similar to the Stations of the Cross, in that they provide images from the Christian story which enable reflection and meditation. They are accompanied by the artist’s own words, part explanation, part guidance and part her own thoughts and feelings; in addition, there are relevant quotations from the Old and New Testaments and original poems. I found the icons so powerful and so beautiful that the poems seemed a little like afterthoughts. Nevertheless, these poems, like those in Polygonia, are the products of a rigorous, occasionally playful, emotional intelligence. Dr Parish is looking for venues to exhibit these wonderful embroideries so that they can realise their purpose as devotional objects. I would love to see them displayed in an Oxford church or college; from seeing the illustrations in her book, I feel that they open spiritual pathways for believers and perhaps even more for the doubters. Oxfordfolio
Jackself by Jacob Polley could be described as an elliptical and truncated Prelude for the 21st century. Like Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, Jackself presents a childhood in Cumbria. However, as a product of post-modernity, this version of ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ is allusive, eclectic and much less certain about the nature of self or individuality. A ‘Jack’ is a generic male, usually young, often inferior or ‘common’, sometimes bad – the knave. Polley builds his ‘Jackself’ from a multiplicity of selves, exploiting the many different jacks in English culture. There are two epigraphs at the beginning of the collection and it is significant that one of them is literary, a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins which gives the title its provenance: ‘Soul, self; come, poor Jackself…’, whilst the second is anonymous and not only points to the mythic past of romance and the supernatural but also indicates the importance of popular or folk culture. Many have commented on the strong narrative of the collection but equally significant is its drive towards mythopoeia. Jackself must discover himself by elaborating a backstory rooted in place and language. It is as though he cannot be unless he is somehow indigenous, an interesting counteraction to multiculturalism and diversity which can also be identified in works such as Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem, and, a century earlier in Rudyard Kipling’s, Puck of Pook’s Hill. While Butterworth and Kipling are overtly concerned with national identity and ‘Englishness’, whereas Polley is seemingly more caught up in the quest for personal selfhood, all three draw comfort and resonance from the language of literary and folk culture and all three are very firmly set in a specific location: Cumbria for Polley, Wiltshire for Butterworth and Sussex for Kipling. All three writers refer to the natural environment and topographical features as if to assert their own heritage.
Polley’s first poem creates a legend for the building of the farmhouse, Lamanby; ‘the lovely lofts of Lamanby’ are twice referred to in the collection, a phrase which gestures towards the heritage of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, something which he does again in the first line of ‘Jackself’s Boast’: “I am hero, a harrower of hellish meres.” Lamanby is Jackself’s home or omphalos and so it is given a pedigree reaching back into prehistory based on the cycles of felling, use and regeneration of the timbers which built it. In the final cycle the timber regenerates once more and it is made to seem that the living trees form the walls of Lamanby:
weren’t felled but walled in, roofed
over, giving span
to a farmhouse, hanging
a hall from their outstretch…
So Jackself is born into and part of a natural habitat, a first claim on belongingness. In ‘The Lofts’ he lays claim to past Selves, perhaps his historic and evolutionary antecedents whose skeletons are said to be found in the attics:
Aself, Oxself and coracle-ribbed, ape-armed Selfself
his ochred bones trophied in a flaky niche in the clay wall
The second poem may be his birth, but it is made up of a collection of echoes, literary and folk, all the way from Sylvia Plath ‘the green atchoo’ to proverb, ‘All the doors must have their way/and every break of day its day’ an aural allusion to ‘every dog must have its day’. Sound is more important than sense for the preliterate Jackself in a poem made up of disparate sense impressions presented in four strongly rhythmical and heavily rhymed stanzas.
As the poems continue, Jack comes to consciousness and “now he knows/ his own mind” (‘Applejack’) he also grows to fear what is not him, the dark and ‘Lucy Fur, who/ glints at night/where he trembles.’ About a third of the way through, he comes up more decisively against the other in the person of Jeremy Wren who, in terms of the narrative, is an older boy who is apparently tougher and less innocent than Jack. However, Jeremy appears to have his own problems with an abusive father who “welted [him]/buckle-first” and a deep unhappiness which is explored in ‘It’: “there’s hair in my bowel and doubt/in my groin and my head’s full of/animal glue’’. In ‘Jack Frost’ Jackself in the persona of Jack Frost is patterning windows and surfaces with frost. He meets Jeremy engaged in a similar task, but unusually, Jeremy is the one who is seeking solace:
Wren’s weeping the lucid mask that’s welding to his cheekbones
Help me, he says, keep everything just as it is.
Women feature very little in these poems, either as mothers or girlfriends, while fathers are cruel or insensitive: ‘Mugginshere’ seems to have little understanding of his son’s difficulties at school. Instead we are presented with a world which looks back to saga or Anglo-Saxon epic. Following the apparent suicide of Jeremy Wren, Jackself finds himself on a quest, like Beowulf, to slay a monster, the Misery, a monster whose “dead/ face he’s sure is Jeremy Wren’s”. However, there is something curiously reflexive about this quest. When Jackself slays the monster, he seems also to be confronting himself:
But skin me, Jackself says,
and you’d see I’m
and he rips out the Misery’s
throat with his teeth
Polley appropriates not only the imagery and machinery of folk tale and epic but also the traditional sounds and patterns of oral poetry, nursery rhyme and colloquial language. He makes raids on the subconscious through the kind of word play nonsense you might expect from very young children, beguiling his reader with magical sounds and echoes which have an appeal beyond rationality. However, although the playfulness with language releases both poet and reader it is tightly controlled within the overall psychodrama of the book. Jeremy Wren is something of a Peter Pan figure, representing escape, freedom, the power of the imagination, but at the same time, he is a lost boy, who is unable or does not want to grow up. Jackself has to vanquish or assimilate Jeremy Wren in order to move forward into consciousness and if not adulthood, at least boyhood.There are two school poems which reflect this passage from the unreflecting child to the social being. In the first, ‘Lessons’ Jackself is unsocialised, the class dunce, “pig-slow, a starey calf”, still completely a part of Nature:
his mind a corner
his fingers a box of matches
his nose the afternoon rain
his ears yesterday
his eyes green eyes
his tongue an earwig
before it hatches
In ‘The Desk’ which comes after Jeremy Wren has died, Jackself seems to have accommodated to the loss of his friend who nevertheless remains a presence. Jackself has acquired some of Jeremy Wren’s common sense and dry wit. When Jeremy protests that Jackself has taken his”rubber,[his]calculator, his shatterproof ruler and [his] spider/ in a matchbox” Jackself retorts “what were you going to do,/… spend your death/catching up on your maths homework”.
From this point till the end Jackself learns to accept the loss of Jeremy Wren, who increasingly seems to represent himself or an aspect of himself. In ‘Tithe’ the haunting seems to have stopped but is missed:
dead now his due
However, in the last poem, ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ it is unclear who is Jack and who is Jeremy:
Now I can make him do my naughty
his eyes will not betray me
they’re just like mine
but minus nine
times twelve to the power of maybe
Jackself becomes ‘Doublejack’ as he struggles between the world of reality and imagination. He decides to “stay inside/which is really no choice at all” but Wren appears “on the window ledge/come out/come out he cries/poor Jackself swears/there’s no one there/ and fills in both his eyes.” However, he succumbs to the temptation and the sequence ends with him
dancing down the lonning
at the bottom of the world
the only proviso being that he must “be back before he’s old”.
Jackself operates at many levels. It can be the story of a childhood friendship of two boys, one of whom commits suicide, leaving the other to deal with grief and growing up on his own. It could also be the story of a child growing into boyhood, moving away from his place of origin and his possibly imaginary friend into the wider social world. It is a drama of the passage from innocence into experience framed as a quest and set in the landscape of rural Cumbria. It is an assertion of identity or identities based on a long-shared language, history and natural environment. It is a story which seeks to mythologise itself and which draws its mythopoeic elements from very traditional literary and folk sources. It seems in some ways to be the very opposite of modernity and the world in which most of us find ourselves, yet its power comes from the counterweight of its intense and pristine localism.
Still Life with Feeding Snake John Burnside, Cape Poetry, 2017
John Burnside is a poet whose religious sensibility reflects his Catholic upbringing. His poems are often mysterious; however, it is not always clear if this mystery is an enrichment or an obfuscation. Burnside pursues the liminal, that which is almost but not quite perceived by the senses or the intellect. The blurb on this latest volume declares that the poems ‘illuminate transient experience with a profound clarity and a charged, sensual beauty.’ This is perhaps to understate what Burnside is doing: clarity is not always what he is after and the sensuality is not always beautiful, but sometimes terrible. As in his prose, there is much which is intransigently crossgrained.
Nevertheless, the title poem of the collection is a brilliant exploration of different ways of being in the world, which achieves its power by painfully probing failures in engagement and emotion. The epigraph is a quotation from Goethe, which advocates detached observation as a method of understanding the world. The male protagonist of the poem focuses on the phrase neither desiring nor disliking as he pursues his art. He is presented as an intellectual ‘far away from the given world’, a formalist: ‘Now what he wanted/ was texture: how it reconciles the mind/ with gravity’ and also an aesthete: ‘He was one of those men who feel shamed/when they find something ugly’. His artistic quest has demanded a detachment and repression of emotion that cuts him off from felt experience and has damaged his marriage. The artist’s wife comes to tell him that ‘in the crawl space/under his feet/some kind of snake/is swallowing some kind of bird’ interrupting his meticulous focus on inanimate detail, the ‘blues and greys’ of a ‘pair of hand-made fruit bowls’ set out on a white cloth. His wife forces him to notice the messiness of the animate world which he has literally overlooked yet which is part of the reality on which he takes his stand. He recognises ‘how disengaged he had become/ from any world’ in which his wife could figure. The concept of the painting, the clinical observation and recording of the relationship between objects, collapses as he goes in search of his wife and finds her observing and engaging with the suffering of the dying bird. Thus the protagonist moves from the focus on detached observation in the first part of the Goethe quotation to a felt understanding of the second part: If we know how to relate this knowledge to ourselves in our actions, we earn the right to be called intelligent. He progresses from an intellectual awareness of pain and evil, ‘ a dark/ immensity of bruise and appetite’ to a ‘willing’ engagement with ‘all the forms of suffering’ which acknowledges but is involved in and has compassion for every ‘tender thing’ which falls prey to the forces of darkness and the brutality of nature.
This poem is more accessible than many in the book, perhaps because it attempts to confront an introspection which elsewhere seems almost solipsistic and generates many arcane or private references. For example, the second poem ‘Abiding Memories of Christian Zeal’ must be read in the context of the rest of the book, and indeed in the context of the poet’s developing body of work. There is a concern with the figure of the mother, with blueness and with space and cosmonauts, all of which occur in this poem but are developed elsewhere. The second line refers to ‘Mother as Script and Ideal’ which becomes the title of a poem later in the collection. The notion of script seems to include the idea of genetic inheritance as well as destiny while the ideal is developed as a consciously idealised image of the mother who is always there ‘in lanternglow/ a light that makes this world believable’. It is only with second thoughts that we recognise that ‘lanternglow’ isn’t very illuminating and understand the poem may be acknowledging the falseness of the memory. This poem also features the notion of the lost boy, the brother who died, or alternatively, the life not lived: ‘someone, not myself,/goes missing, while I lie down in the warm’. The poem ends with a peculiar version of bedtime story reading where the speaker declares himself kin to the Snow Queen or the Lady of the Lake, both representations of coldness or death.
There is a thread of malice running through the collection, which occasionally seems personal, as when the speaker describes how he always brought his mother forget-me-nots on Mother’s Day, when he knew her preference was for flowers that were red, ‘fleshy, red/ begonias, the strangeness of the colour purple/ when it puts forth veins and hair’. There may be all sorts of psychosexual undertones in this fairly revolting image but the poem presents again a bond with a mother which is partly resented, partly acknowledged as genetic destiny, ‘the cold/exemplum/in each blueprint of the heart.’ The text is so dense, the allusions so interwoven and polysemous that the reader is bewildered and the writer escapes without committing himself. Here, for example, the cold blueprint suggests again the story of The Snow Queen and the frozen emotions of the little boy, Kay, in the Hans Christian Andersen story, but blueprint also suggests the genetic code by which inheritance is passed from parent to child, while blueness suggests ‘blue baby syndrome’ which, we are told, resulted in the death of the missing brother and almost killed the persona.
In the poem following this one, we read: ‘I am the boy who stole the sodium/and dropped a single grain/into the fish tank.’ I had to look this up on You Tube; believe me, it would not have benefited the fish. The writer continues ‘I never thought of this/as malice’ adding that ‘anything intact’ … ‘is inadmissible.’ Is this resentment of a relationship with a dead brother that was never possible or is it a view that the transitory nature of life means that nothing good can ever last and ‘anything can burrow to the heart/ or chill the soul’? Incidentally, this poem, ‘Hendrick Avercamp; A Standing Man Watching a Skating Boy’, lapses into blank verse, as do others in the collection. I’m not sure how purposeful this is, or whether it is simply the default metre of English poetry speaking through Burnside.
For me, the poems about mothers, brothers and cosmonauts are the most provocative and disturbing. Burnside’s work is cumulative, an accretion of myth and image, so that each poem must be read in the light of the others in the collection and this book must be read against the books which have preceded it. As I suggested at the beginning, his is a religious sensibility which has perhaps substituted ecology for God; however, in doing so he is assembling a theology and iconic system as elaborate as that of the vestments and dogmas of the faith he has abjured.
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.