Sunday, 22 April 2018

Light After Light, the debut poetry collection by Victoria Gatehouse (Valley Press 2018)

Victoria Gatehouse is a Ripponden based poet who I first had the pleasure of meeting at the Sowerby Bridge Library poetry group, and whose poetry has, over the last five or so years, been a continual source of inspiration and joy.  Light After Light (Valley Press 2018) is her debut publication, containing a wealth of enticing, subtly enlightening poems, including the winners of the 2011 Ilkley Literature Festival Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Poetry News Members' competition:

You strike the first match - 
the room lurches 
from black to indistinct

before colour reasserts itself
in ambers and golds.

(From Power Cut, winner of the 2015 Poetry News Members' competition)




With a day job as a clinical researcher, the author has skillfully interwoven the scientific and the personal, the visual and the emotional, and the book's blurb describes how Victoria Gatehouse explores science and art in her debut poetry publication, seeking out the similarities and tensions that attract and repel them in equal measure...she collects, tests, measures and records her thoughts on the materials from which we each build our lives both practical and spiritual.

Then I dipped
the nichrome loop while his inky fingers

flicked air valves closed,
turned the Bunsen blue. He gave me

goggles and the briefest of glances
through reinforced plastic

before I edged the loop
to the hottest place 
(Flame Test) 

Light After Light is a wonderful collection of sublime, finely crafted poetry - a tender, reflective, sometimes very funny, suite of poems which manage to be somehow earthy and ethereal at the same time. From the fragile intimacy prompted by a power cut - your face, as you reach / for the corkscrew, is like it was / before the lines crept in, / all the rough edges blurring. / We're adrift, you and I / in aureoles of light - to the unexpected beauty of pylons and the wonders of fungi - saffron milkcaps, chantrelles, / destroying angels, slippery jacks. / Theirs, a poetry that fruits on decay - the collection segues between the lyrically descriptive, and the poignancy of understatement. The titles are often deceptive - Blackpool offers a poignant vision of that seaside town quite at odds with its frolicksome reputation, while Recording the Phlebotomist conjures up an enticing flight of fancy inspired by a hospital notice prohibiting patients from videoing the phlebotomy process:

I suppose I could, at this point,
take out my phone to record
his newly-disinfected hands twist
the tourniquet light, delicate fingers
flicking the inside of my elbow
in exactly the right place to summon
the blue.


From the micro to the macro, the book takes in such unlikely subjects as dental braces, burning mouth syndrome, wind turbines, and pylons:

Sometimes I think of the pylons,
so ubiquitous we tune out

their dark glower over moorland
motorway and housing estate,

move unseeing beneath
massive steel shoulders

that never sag
from the weight of the Grid.

These are lonely Stoics,
their fate to hold

the power, yet never to feel
electrons leap

through the wires that hang
from wrist to twisted wrist.



 Elsewhere, we are treated to a lovely appearance by The Sowerby Bridge Geese:

patrolling the High Street - 
ganging up on the corner by The Long Chimney, 
intimidating passers-by with a show 
of downy muscle, a half-lift of wings, 
causing tail backs when they choose 
to cross the road, a twenty-strong gaggle 
impervious to hoots.

Knowing the geese as I do, I can vouch for the anecdotes in this splendid poem - its absolutely spot-on, and captures the character of these eccentric, much-loved local treasures perfectly!

 

The poems embody a certain consciousness of place, and Vicky enchants the reader with her skill of bringing her local West Yorkshire landscape to life:
And after the snow ploughs and gritters
have passed, the moors' hunched backs

retain seams of white. You come to know
the shapes of them, these snow-fossils -

the gleam of a rib, the splintered ridge

of a clavicle, the shrinking plates of a spine


 In a poetry rooted firmly in the natural environment she describes - in poems like Hymn for the Ash, for example, when we are told of that green-flame tug / curl into heartwood, / limbs sap-sticky, skin / like lichen plaques, we feel a tangible sense of the tree's existence borne of empathy rather than mere observation. The poet, without a single self-reference, is "in" the scene, and the reader is lulled into a folkloric dream of a newly budding resurgence of life:

Spring brings leaf-light
to the woodland floor,
explosions of flowers-
dog violets, garlic,

fruit clusters on twigs;


 
This is a hopeful, quietly optimistic, beautiful book, in which light is suffused often unexpectedly - a bulb alluring the affections of a moonlit moth - and acts as a bridge between people. Lives are illuminated briefly by closeness or companionship, in the shallows of the sea, under a tent, and every interaction is underpinned by close attention to detail - the striking of a match, rolled up cigarettes, the operation of scientific equipment, the holding of a camera to record the phosphorescence of the sea, all are little ignitions which momentarily shed light onto the world.






A Solitary Song - Wordsworth's Lucy Gray

Edited from original publication in November 2013 on my Ryburn Ramblings website. 
 
From my window, I look over the canal to where North Dean Wood merges into the Copley Valley, and a hilly expanse once surveyed by an 18th Century wireworks. This corner of the Calder Valley once played a role in the work of William Wordsworth.


When Anne Wordsworth, mother of Dorothy and William, died in 1778, her daughter was sent to Halifax, to live with her Anne’s cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld, who owned a draper’s shop. Dorothy remained in Halifax for nine years, and often revisited in adult life, later staying with the Threlkeld family in the village of Triangle, where they had moved to live, several times for long sojourns. 

Triangle is some miles west of Halifax, on the way to Ripponden, and in February 1794, William Wordsworth joined his sister at the Threlkeld’s for the first time.
They often walked around the Ryburn Valley, and it was here that Wordsworth heard the sad story of a local girl who went missing near Sterne bridge, Copley: “...a circumstance told me by my Sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax in Yorkshire, was bewildered in a snow-storm. Her footsteps were traced by her parents to the middle of the lock of a canal, and no other vestige of her, backward or forward, could be traced. The body however was found in the canal.”
 
 
Not before five years had passed, with the poet now staying at Goslar, Germany, would the poem describing these events be written, but with it Wordsworth immortalized the solitary child in what his biographer Mary Moorman called the most haunting of all his ballads of childhood
 
The local girl was entreated by her father to set out with a lantern, in advance of a forecast snowstorm, to light your mother through the snow from wherever she was, doing whatever a rural housewife would be doing on a winter’s afternoon. Perhaps the mother had been to market, or visiting friends, or labouring at some occupation too poorly paid to provide the fare for a vehicular return, yet for whatever reason the daughter was only too happy to oblige: 
 
That, Father! will I gladly do;
'Tis scarcely afternoon—
The Minster-clock has just struck two,
And yonder is the Moon.
 
The storm came on before its time,
She wander'd up and down,
And many a hill did Lucy climb
But never reach'd the Town.

The wretched Parents all that night
Went shouting far and wide;
But there was neither sound nor sight
To serve them for a guide.

Such is the tragic tale of Lucy Gray, whose identity assumes, via the poet’s preoccupation with the ethereal, a kind of spiritual association with the lonesome wild: local superstition held that the surrounding moorland was haunted by the child’s ghost.
 
 
Lucy Gray appeared in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, in the year 1800, and at that time the bridge upon which the poor girl’s footsteps were imprinted on the snow was, according to Calderdale Council’s local history department, a rather slender wooden bridge - Wordsworth’s Bridge of Wood. As their website goes on to explain, the original bridge was dismantled in 1914, and sturdily rebuilt. 
 
No Mate, no comrade Lucy knew; writes William Wordsworth in Lucy Gray,
She dwelt on a wild Moor,
The sweetest Thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!
 
It is worth reflecting that Wordsworth’s subtitle for the poem was Solitude. In Lucy Gray, as in the Ruth and (unconnected) Lucy poems, we find the distillation of a quintessentially Wordsworthian theme, a Pantheistic vision of mortality and the Human condition rendered incorporeal through the prism of a solitary spirit.  The story of this child’s disappearance remained potent in the poet's memory for five long years, encompassing travels throughout Europe and the turbulent struggles of his personal relationships, so that as he wrote to quell homesickness in Goslar, during the coldest German winter of the Eighteenth Century, he would remember how:
 
 some maintain that to this day
She is a living Child,
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome Wild.

O'er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.
 

Irish Poetry, and the Good Friday Agreement

I vividly remember the announcement of the Good Friday Agreement, which recently saw its twentieth anniversary.  Its hard to imagine such an achievement amid today's squalid politics, but perhaps harder to overstate the optimism which pervaded much of British public life in the closing years of the Twentieth Century, the backdrop to this historic agreement, an agreement borne of painful compromises and difficult decisions. 
 Although I have family in Ireland and have thoroughly enjoyed visiting, my own life has been mercifully untouched by the situation there, which persisted through the 70's, 80's and early 90's under the somewhat understated byword of the "Troubles".  Like the conflict in the Balkans, it raged by varying degrees across the anesthetic distance of a television screen.  I remember a bomb scare disrupting access to the city centre, a television news item about a playground in Belfast being opened for infants in response to childhoods blighted by violence, and the deep sense of injustice in comparison with my own peaceful, and thus comparatively idyllic, young life. It was a world away, but seemed, even to my eight or nine year old eyes, a conflict apparently intractable. I have vague memories of schoolyard squabbles between those of Catholic or Protestant backgrounds, and loyalist and nationalist graffiti in areas of significant sectarian demographics, but this also seemed somehow second-hand, daubed by those safely away from the line of fire. Contrast this with the recollections of the great poet Seamus Heaney:

He was blown to bits   
Out drinking in a curfew   
Others obeyed, three nights   
After they shot dead   
The thirteen men in Derry.   
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,   
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday   
Everyone held   
His breath and trembled.

The lines breathe fear, and resignation to an inescapable reality. Born to a Catholic family in Derry in 1939, Heaney was certainly far from averse to establishing his own place in the context of Irish political affairs:

Be advised, my passport's green 
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen

and yet was sometimes criticized for the lack of overt focus on the Troubles in his work, or perhaps more accurately the lack of concrete side-taking.  To quote from the BBC's obituary to Heaney, from 2013:

He came under pressure to take sides during the 25 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and faced criticism for his perceived ambivalence to republican violence, but he never allowed himself to be co-opted as a spokesman for violent extremism.

His writing addressed the conflict, however, often seeking to put it in a wider historical context. The poet also penned elegies to friends and acquaintances who died in the violence.

Describing his reticence to become a "spokesman" for the Troubles, Heaney once said he had "an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head".(1)

Indeed, to overlook this is to ignore the degree to which Heaney's distinctly personal or intimate poetry is weighted by the burden of history.  For me, Heaney's poetry distills the tragedy and tension of his people's past in a way which is both more "telling" than many more militant streams of didactic or one-dimensional political poetry.  As Professor Michael Valdez Moses of Duke University, North Carolina, told an audience in October 2013, two months after Heaney's death, at an event entitled Expressing Humanity During The Troubles"He is one of the few poets able to combine political and personal poetry in very striking and unique ways. He literally allows us to see the world differently."


To many readers, far from neglecting the important subjects of Irish politics and their attendant pains, Heaney's work was central to a broader cultural understanding of them.  His poems, interviews and essays articulate the territory with acute sensitivity and detail, and according to Duke's Professor Richard Brodhead, "Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and had the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence."

The disruption of these sudden intrusions seem to hammer beneath the surface of the work of Collette Bryce, who tells us in her poem The Whole-Domed Universe how, I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside, / To the sounds of crowds and smashing glass… and whose work has sometimes recalled the intimidation wrought by soldiers on the streets of her home town.  Such recollections echo the terrible stories of my old colleague Mary Kelly, a former pub landlady who, as we propped up the counter during shifts at Oakwood Library in Leeds, would describe her experiences of growing up in Derry, which involved being shot at and threatened during walks to and from school.
Elsewhere, though, Bryce has reminisced in a way not dissimilar to those who recall playing on the rubble of bombsites during World War Two: ...it was also quite exciting to be raided. I was very young at the time so I didn’t really understand what was going on. We were raided at a particular period of the Troubles when they wanted to pick up every young man in the area. So the bin-lids would go, the women banging them to warn you that the Saracens were coming. It was a common enough occurrence in our neighbourhood. (2)

When I published Nuala Fagan's Not All Birdsong in 2015, one poem which stuck out for me during the editing process was Nuala's subtle History House.  The poem is distinct from others in the book both for its length, and the departure from personal observation, but its inclusion was fundamental to the shape and spirit of the collection, for it places its author deeply in the context of the country of her birth.  I told Nuala at the time that I felt History House somehow articulates the whole of Irish history in its three thematically opaque, yet highly visual, stanzas. For me it i s a poem which speaks of loss and time, of rituals, traditions, questions, and of pain. 


HISTORY HOUSE

Here is the house,
opened at last
to the public.
On the drive
a blue car and a van
Whose car?
The parents'.
Of no consequence,
they were not there.
The van?
We need to go outside.
An arrow on the stair,
the bed.
Here I lay me down to sleep...

The October orchard
swells beneath the window
with its rowan reds,
yellow pears,
its wares
of fallen apples,
purple plums,
and the sweet smell
of dogwood on the wind.
There is the bicycle
half-hidden
I give my soul to God to keep...

We must go down.
here is the freezer.
Slices of green?
The jacket.
Mixes of red and white?
Bandages.
A swathe of silk?
Spread on the road
And so many rubies?
Yes.
Scattered everywhere.




My closest connections to the Irish political situation came not during the years of violence, but in the years following the Agreement, when, living in east London, I would visit a Leytonstone bar called The Croppy Acre.  The owner, and most of the clientele, were Irish - from the North and the South, both Catholic and Protestant - and were more than happy to share with me how the previous thirty years had shaped their own lives and worldviews.  The pub's name was, of course, a reference to the burial grounds of the Irishmen killed during and after the 1798 Rising, when those with close-cropped hair were assumed to be in sympathy with the Society of United Irishmen, a republican group.  On the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Easter Rising, Seamus Heaney published Requiem for the Croppies. In the 1960's, he had read this poem to a Protestant audience, and in 2009 told Sameer Rahim in an interview for the Daily Telegraph, To read ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ wasn’t to say ‘up the IRA’ or anything. It was silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing. If the work of Seamus Heaney might be said, then, to target the trauma of the Troubles in an historical context, it was the poetry of Belfast born Padraic Fiacc which, to my mind, most humanly expresses it in a Universal sense.  The effects of the period on the Irish people have, rightly, been mostly the subject of most poetry of the Troubles.  In much of this, the British soldiers on the streets of Irish towns and cities seem to figure only as abstract, background presences. This is not so in Fiacc's poem Enemy Encounter, which I first heard in a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast eight years ago, in which the human tragedy of the conflict is brought brutally, unexpectedly, to the foreThe poet describes how, dumping dead leaves near a culvert, he encounters a British Army Soldier /
with a rifle and a radio / Perched hiding.
There is an avuncular note in the narrator's assessment:

He is young enough to be my weenie
-bopper daughter’s boyfriend.

...and the sense of unlikely kinship is furthered when the soldier becomes aware of Fiac's presence:

We are that close to each other, I
Can nearly hear his heart beating.

The delicate balance of the poem's tense lines - reminding me a little of Wilfred Owen's Strange Meeting - is bluntly broken by the poem's denouement, which demonstrates both human empathy, and the bleak futility of the conflict:

I am an Irishman
and he is afraid
That I have come to kill him.

Few poets, says Fiacc's fellow Irish poet Brian Patten, have faced up to contemporary Irish history like Fiacc. Without wishing to denigrate other poets, for me it is the torn soul of Padriac Fiacc that has mirrored the modern history of Belfast and its troubles like no other writer. He is the shadow falling across the conscience of so many poets, the elephant at the literary tea party. It would seem at first that he is a political poet, but that would not do him justice. It is empathy for the frightened and maimed individuals, for all on either side of the great divide, that shines through his work. (3)

As I began by saying, I find it almost impossible to imagine such an achievement as the Belfast Agreement taking place today.  Against a backdrop of insecurity, extremism and economic instability, our quests for answers seem to have led to the rise of divisive figures and an ideological impasse, an atmosphere of cynicism and fear for which the spirit and optimism of two decades ago would serve as a deeply needed balm.  When former US President Bill Clinton addressed in his remarks to the community the Irish public in Londonderry in November 1995, neither they nor he could have known that within three years the Belfast Agreement would have been signed, ushering in a cautious cessation to a conflict that had lasted three decades, nor the manifold ways in which the world would change during the years to follow. But in his address, Clinton quoted from Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles' play Philoctetes, from 1991.  In the opening chorus, Heaney's translation celebrates the role of poetry as the voice of reality and justice:

 History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme


1. BBC News, 30/8/13 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-13930435
2. Dundee University Review of the Arts https://dura-dundee.org.uk/2016/01/14/interview-with-colette-bryce/
3. BBC News, 02/05/10 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8653690.stm

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Winter Poems, 2018

SNOWFLAKES ON A MARCH MORNING

You glide and you slide
down eddies of air,
you drift and you sift
through thin wisps of trees,
veneering valleys
in a chalky visage.

You whisper in white,
sonatas of snow,
silent reminders,
gentle spirits,
soft stars sailing
through oceans of space.


STRAY SNOWFLAKES

Pin-balls scuzzing
in haphazard zig-zags,
disrupting the flow

these erratic flakes
         melting mistakes
chaotically
                      tumble
into fences, chimneys,
each a scrap of chromosome
  cracked

damaged diamonds
oddball organelles
flapping about like snowballs in Hell.


SEAGULLS

Many miles from sea,
you circle the valley,
swooping ringlets
of ten or twenty birds,
a long white chain

dispersing

        weaving inwards,
                 swaying over birches
           and Norwegian spruce
like the soft tread of ghosts,

 the spindrift of a dream.








Monday, 19 February 2018

A Short One

February has been a difficult month, dominated by family illness, and I have seen more of the insides of hospital wards and gp surgeries than my own home.  Neither reading or writing has featured much in my life, and I have little to report in terms of anything positive or poetic.  I don't believe in hackneyed ideas of hope being found in bleak circumstances, nor do I have faith in my own ability to process much in the way of the written word at present.  But as I have been wandering the corridors and staircases of the increasingly enormous, and thus increasingly impersonal, St James Hospital, Leeds, I have been briefly heartened by some of the paintings, photographs poems exhibited on the walls.  When I worked at the now demolished Roundhay Wing psychiatric unit on the premises in the early 2000's, I remember exhibiting some of my own poems on our corridors, and I do feel that poetry in such circumstances, if offered non-intrusively, can help to lift the spirits of patients, visitors, or staff. It reminds us we are human, a person rather than an NHS number, gives us pause for thought, and can have the unexpected effect of removing us for a moment from the reasons of our presence on the ward or waiting room.  That's why I am grateful to such poets as Mandy Sutter, whose poem At Least caught my eye as I ascended the stairs in Chancellors Wing, en-route to another visit, another uncertainty, and made me smile for a moment:

AT LEAST, by Mandy Sutter

At least, he said, you’ll get a poem
out of this and I thought
yeah, a short one.



Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Shivering Slightly - The Moon in Poems by Sidney, Wordsworth and Larkin



Philip Larkin's poem Sad Steps was published in his 1974 collection High Windows, but its theme - and title - were drawn from much earlier roots.  In Sad Steps, Larkin specifically references two poems, of the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,one by Philip Sidney, the other by William Wordsworth.  I want to look at how Larkin neatly samples both the language and the themes of the preceding poems, and creates with his contribution both a compliment and a riposte to both.

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!  begins Sir Philip Sidney's address to the moon, published in 1591,  How silently, and with how wan a face!

 

Sidney's lines are taken from Astrophil and Stella, a sequence of sonnets in Petrarchan style.  The title is taken from the Greek - "Astro" for star, and "Phil" for lover, thus Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his "star."  Sidney's sonnets are melancholy and at times self-pitiful, as in the lunar lines, where the poet claims an empathy with his celestial addressee:

thou feel'st a lover's case,
I read it in thy looks: thy languish'd grace,
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.


and asks rhetorically:

O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?


Sidney - or rather Astrophil (scholars generally agree that the persona is distinct from the poet, and not an alter-ego) - lapses into moralistic judgement, asking the lovelorn moon whether even in heav'nly place those who are loved scorn whom that love doth possess? and implying that the object of his unrequited affections is guilty of ingratitude:


Do they call 'virtue' there ungratefulness.

To be honest, I don't particularly like the poem, and find its narrator's self importance pompous and embarrassing, like the priggishness of a workplace pest who cannot understand how his romantic overtures or sexual advances would be met with anything other than reciprocation, a man who thinks that he is "God's Gift to Women," as the saying used to go.  And yet, there is a certain pained brusqueness in his barbed closing lines which smacks of the spurned grouch, too far down the road of disappointment to really care what others think of his petulant wit, which in later centuries could almost spring from the curled lip of a Tony Hancock, or indeed a Philip Larkin, which I do find drags me back into the fold of the poem's admirers, if reluctantly.

 With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heav'nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case,
I read it in thy looks: thy languish'd grace,
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, ev'n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov'd, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call 'virtue' there ungratefulness?

 
The poem is written in a tone in which Larkin would also pay homage to the moon, but in a different, deeper, and more self-reflective way - but is far different from the style of its next incantation.


When Wordsworth wrote his sonnet inspired by the poem in 1815, it was the moon's magical allure that he embraced, with characteristic romance.  Maintaining the opening feel of the original, he also begins with a question:

 With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the sky,
"How silently, and with how wan a face!"
Where art thou? 



 Wordsworth's poem, though, soon departs from Sidney's sense of disenchantment.  The only concession to earthly concerns is an unusual comparison:

Unhappy Nuns, whose common breath's a sigh
Which they would stifle, move at such a pace!


And at the half way juncture, we are indulged in the stuff of myth and magic:

The power of Merlin, Goddess! this should be:
And all the stars, fast as the clouds were riven,
Should sally forth, to keep thee company,
Hurrying and sparkling through the clear blue heaven.



 Wordsworth invokes the lunar goddess Cynthia, an epithet of the Greek Artemis, born on Mount Cynthus, and synonymous with Selene and the Roman goddess Diana.  Wordsworth's lines are slightly reminiscent with those of Ben Jonson, whose 1601 play Cynthia's Revels contain a lovely paean to the goddess:

Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia's shining orb was made
Heaven to clear when day did close:
    Bless us then with wish├Ęd sight,
    Goddess excellently bright.


In Wordsworth's sonnet, the majesty of moonlight is given the full vent of the author's celebration, with no attempt at linguistic self-restraint.   It is a poem devoid of irony, which both centres on the sadness of the moon's retreating image, and the elaborate imaginings of the poet

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the sky,
"How silently, and with how wan a face!"
Where art thou? Thou so often seen on high
Running among the clouds a Wood-nymph's race!
Unhappy Nuns, whose common breath's a sigh
Which they would stifle, move at such a pace!
The northern Wind, to call thee to the chase,
Must blow to-night his bugle horn. Had I
The power of Merlin, Goddess! this should be:
And all the stars, fast as the clouds were riven,
Should sally forth, to keep thee company,
Hurrying and sparkling through the clear blue heaven.
But, Cynthia! should to thee the palm be given,
Queen both for beauty and for majesty.




Philip Larkin's Sad Steps was written in 1968, and would be included in the author's final book of poems six years later. It is a fine example of the sort of poetry which defines "Late Larkin," and the scholar John Welford credited the poem as setting out an impression of beauty being observed yet stripped of its traditional connotations.

 
 Sad Steps, though obviously taking its title from the previous two poems, could hardly be more different in its opening lines:

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness. 


It is classic Larkin, though the curtness and apparent casualness of the scene serves a purpose beyond dour humour.  Typically, most people focus on the word at the end of the first line, but I would suggest that the first word, "Groping" is, if anything, even more of a powerful kick in the teeth to the poem's illustrious lineage.  Rather than its association with unwanted sexual advances, "groping" as written in 1970's England would conjure images of a weary, half-blind old an stumbling through the dark. It is a clumsy, cantankerous, loveable image - again the thought of Hancockian comedy springs to mind, and I picture a Rupert Rigsby or Alf Garnett, or even an out-of-sorts Kenneth Williams, perhaps clinging to the banister or reaching out with uncertain arms for the bedroom door. Like a kitchen sink comedian, Larkin commences his meditation on the moon by ushering in an image of the everyday, transposing Sidney's and Wordsworth's "Medallion of art" onto a distinctly unromantic setting with which his 20th Century readers might easily identify, lacking any references to Classical mythology or Heavenly figures. To those familiar with the titular significance, the opening line serves as a brusque dismissal of a less cynical past, and does so with a certain black humour.  When I first read the poem at the age of sixteen, I had no idea of its roots in Sidney or Wordsworth, and rather assumed that the sad steps referred to where those of the narrator.  Either way, Larkin sets the scene of a man standing at a window in the middle of the night.  One shivers slightly, looking up there, he tells us, and he could be a man on the deck of a ship, on a scaffold, at the edge of a bridge. It is an image he refines to dark perfection in poems like High Windows, full of pathos and foreboding - a man taking stock of his life, of the years he cannot reclaim, of the unknown still to come.


Larkin was in his early forties when he wrote the poem, and rather than mocking the grandiosity of his forerunners, it is to his own reflections that he is prompted by watching Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below. In pondering these reflections, though, he is not without humour:

There's something laughable about this
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow 
Loosely as cannon-smoke.

Nor does Larkin ignore the fantastical allusions others might draw from an unexpected lunar interlude, suggesting associations with werewolves, describing the moon as a Lozenge of Love, and letting us dwell for a moment on its separate immensity.  The impact, then, of his terse, monosyllabic refutation - No - reads both abruptly, and with a certain reflective length.  It feels as if we are there with Larkin, standing by the parted curtains, and we can trace the thought process of the poem from its genesis by the window, presumably through the groping walk back to bed, as the gradual realizations form in the mind.  The poem brings Sidney's imagery full circle, touching on the drama and passion of the Wordsworth variation, and homing in on that same sense of resignation, or is it middle-aged fear and anxiety, which taints the original in its sour sadness.  Unlike Sidney, Larkin is reflecting from an older perspective, but like the former he is engaged on a summing up of something unrealized, and at the end of its useful course.  Yet the poem is also a cautionary tale, urging us to to grasp the reality and sharpness of the moment. For Philip Sidney, the moon offers empathy and solace against a background of thwarted young love, an unrequited romance from which the young narrator is bound to recover and strike out afresh. For Larkin, it is a symbol of a past beyond reach, but, as he acknowledges, also the circle of existence, a chain in which all the strength and pain of being young is passed on to another generation.  As such, Larkin's angle on the subject is inconclusive, and interpretative.  The moon, which alone stands firm while he, the human, ages, symbolizes the impenetrable mysteries of the Universe, and the insignificance of all of life's dramas and triumphs in the passing of time.


Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness


Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this,


The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)


High and preposterous and separate -
Lozenge of love!  Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory!  Immensements!  No,


One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare


Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.


 





Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Weasel

Although I have always enjoyed watching and learning about birds, it was on my birthday exactly ten years ago today that I first "took up" bird-watching as a regular activity, on a family wander around Newmillderdam, a nature reserve outside Wakefield, West Yorkshire.

Most of the birds visible that winter morning were bluetits - birds well known to me already, but which, in my newfound persona of serious would-be ornithologist, I eagerly scrutinized through the lenses of my binoculars, dazzled by their smooth collages of sapphire and gold, slotting in and out of branches like pirouetting harlequins, six to the dozen.  Later, I would learn that these birds were so frequent as to be regarded as nothing special in the eyes of "serious" bird-watchers , but I have never paid much heed to the vagaries of the snobbish world of twitching, and remain entranced by the beauty of bluetits whenever I see them.


But the sighting which stood out for me that day was not a bird sighting at all, but that of a weasel - weaving through the stones in the shallows of the lake.  It was the first time I had seen a weasel, and the animal inspired a poem which would find publication on the American website In Possee Review that September, and would eventually appear in my 2014 collection Random Journeys.





I had been struck by the weasel's willowy verve, its flexibility as the furry frame seemed to bend and twist with the water, swerving through the current with both determination and grace.  As far as other humans were concerned, the sighting was entirely solitary  - my fellow walkers were all some way off, as I had sauntered far from the official path and felt myself the sole audience of this shape-shifting mustelid, and so as the words of the poem began forming in my mind it seemed natural to address the poem to, rather than about, the weasel - indeed, when In Possee Review published it, they placed the piece in a section of the website called Conversations.  I will relay our conversation below.


Weasel

I found you in mid hunt,
in search of eggs,
invertebrates,
or unsuspecting voles.
All in a moment
I saw you slide
a tangled thicket,
arch-backed,
like an elongated
pint of lager,
gingery flanks
licked by a frothy rim
of white,
a lithe half-yard
of fur:
probing reed beds,
eyes primed
you sensed me,
uncoiled, flash-like,
snuck beneath a clump
of sedge and nettle
and vanished into undergrowth.