Bob Horne: Knowing my Place

Bob Horne's debut collection, Knowing My Place (Caterpillar Poetry 2016) was published in July 2016, and launched in the magnificent setting of the Smith Art Gallery, within Brighouse Library, West Yorkshire.

Containing 41 poems within a beautifully designed, dreamy yellow cover - which features the author's own photograph of his trademark bicycle resting against a road sign in the Scottish Highlands - Knowing My Place is a sparkling suite of poems, whose geographical reach stretches from a post-war childhood in the Industrial North, to the tumbling crofts of the Hebrides, from the a frosty Lake District where The water is almost still. / Burnt umbers of autumn's fading fronds / will blur on its surface. / Boulders flock like sheep over falling screes, to the streets of New York in a sweltering summer - and to the reassuring simplicity of English village cricket.  All of these situations and locations, and many more, are observed through the prism of the poet's mindful, compassionate, acutely analytical perspective.  In 2016, proving itself to have been among the most difficult of this country's recent years in so many ways, it was a pleasure, indeed a greatly needed relief, to turn to this insightful and reflective collection.

His own poetry traverses a thematic spectrum which takes in memories of childhood explorations of rock pools, underground streams and the grey-green emptiness of sea -

That summer I was strong enough
to swim out, haul myself from the water
on to the black wooden boards
as the tide smacked at its sided.

From harbour to headland
chalk cliff to shore line
summer colour covered the sands, 
spilled into the fringes of the sea

- but also plausible and engaging portrayals and descriptions of characters as diverse as the British mountain photographer WA Poucher, World War One soldiers, and Anne Frank, movingly imagined cycling  

... beneath 
Carrock Fell's volcanic crags, 
tyre-rasp on dry tarmac, 
gripping the camber round the road's curves,
spinning past low farms, limestone walls, 
the Glenderamackin as it gallops 
down to Wordsworth's Derwent
and onto the Irish sea.
Perhaps the most startling of the poems concerns the memory of a local chip shop owner's daughter, while others manage to be simultaneously nostalgic and witty, such as the lovely Great Leap Forward and the bittersweet Friends Reunited, in which a teenage relationship is fondly recalled, defined by afternoons of listening to Glenn Miller with the approval of your mother, and depicted in the clumsy romance of adolescence:

I remember one town-centre Saturday
in drizzle-dark December:
you in your yellow PVC raincoat
fashionably, I supposed, tied
at the waist, making your way
from the 41 bus
to where I lolled, combat-jacketed,
by the Gents in George Square.

Bob writes very strongly about people - often with the sense of a story, and I am greatly taken with his ability to draw out the most vital and memorable aspects of a person's life, and so present a kind of condensed autobiography which is under-emphasized, subtle, linguistically economical and yet teeming with the essence of that person - it is a style surely rooted in the very kind of traditional Northern culture (a culture characterised by its understatements, shyness of the limelight, and no-nonsense, matter-of-factness) that he brings so elegantly to life.
Sometimes this skill is highlighted by his ability to draw out observations of individuals, as in Busker: an elegiac, melancholy narrative which is at once dreamlike and life-like. I feel I can see the busker and his love, and both have a realistic sense of character. On other occasions, the lens is fixed on a more general metaphor for a wider range of people, such as Navvy.  Here, we find a whole trajectory of historical exploitation, and achievement, represented by a monologue-like exposition of hard facts:

You've seen my embankments, cuttings,
tunnels where I blasted and hacked
through granite, Kentish coastal chalk,
millstone grit of northern dales.

The poem pulls no punches.  We are told both of the calling curlew, and the brutal realities of life - and death - imposed on those labouring generations packed in shanty towns, who were

Killed by winter, disease and drink,
killed by landslips,killed by the wind;
killed by capital's careless pace.

But it is perhaps in relation to his own family and ancestors that Bob's poetry is most naturally focused.  Ancestry forms a kind of centre-piece to the collection, divided equally between portraits of the poet's mother and father, and contrasting the tranquility of bike rides around 

... Langstrothdale, over Fleet Moss
and Buttertubs, down Swaledale, West Tanfield

and the dangers, and oddly banal routine, of war:

First house at The Albert that Saturday
was Robert Newton in 'Hell's Cargoes.'
The siren must have gone during the film,
but by then nobody paid much attention.

If planes were flying along the valley,
people used to say, from the engine sound,
"That's a German bomber," or, "One of ours,"
reckoning they could tell the difference. 

In Christmas Morning, we find ourselves shivering in wintry weather:

Cold rain in an east wind
on grandad's allotment
where I wasn't allowed-
He likes to be on his own 
when he's back from work-
except this once a year.

Icicle fingers ripping sprouts
from their stalks for dinner
then into the frowsty shed
for his tale of the Territorials. 

My Father's Father is so lovingly recollected and yet simple, an uncomplicated recording of a life. Its like a biography in poetry, a whole life's story condensed into these clear, deceptively straightforward examples, all of which have a filmic clarity, and which again distills the spirit of an older generation, the "keep myself to myself" Yorkshiremen of yesteryear, and the sense of lives pushed to the margins by the impact of war.  

But the natural world is also evoked with much beauty and detail:

Like a sheet of white shadow 
close enough to disconcert
it climbs from the cottongrass,
iolaire suil na greine- 
eagle of the sunlit eye-
smoulders for a moment
still as a Stone Age carving,
until it rises, in its own time,
above this wilderness, the bay, the ocean, 
leaves me at best 
a fleck of a far-off star.

(White Tailed Eagle)

In Red Deer, Bob encounters the animals where snow drifts deep, at the closing of a December day, feeling himself to be "trespassing" along the arrogant track of human interference in the wild environment.

At times these qualities of the natural and the personal are intertwined - as in the memories of childhood exploring - and perhaps most effectively in the understatedly beautiful Wanderer:

He dreams of an early morning,
dew dancing like stars
in sun's low-angled light
along the beech wood,
blackbird song in the thorn hedge,
beck hurdling over granite rocks.

She stands on the hill,
hair the colour of elderflower,
dress of wild pink thyme 

The poem has a lovely lyrical quality, and reminds me both of certain pastoral English poems but also of some of the songs of Bob Dylan - a favourite of Bob's, and honoured with a titular reference in the poem No Direction Home -  especially from the Blood on the Tracks period. In Wanderer's sublime three stanzas, we find poetry as sweet, loving, dream-laden and majestic as early Keats, the simple beauty of the Lyrical Ballads, the reflective sublimity of Hopkins, Heaney or the meditative magical of haiku and nature-laden Oriental verse:

She is Queen Anne's Lace,
Sweet Cicely, blackthorn blossom
lighting an April meadow 

It is tempting to imagine that the dreaming "He" of the poem, the wistful Wanderer delighting to the blackbird's song, is the poet himself, finding and finally knowing his place.  Like Endymion venturing through the forest brake, his reverie is demystified, or enhanced, and given form by the appearance of love.

About Bob

A retired teacher of English, Bob Horne has also worked in such diverse occupations as that of a stone-dresser and a milkman, and has played an active role in the local poetry scene: one of the hosts of Sowerby Bridge's Puzzle Poets Live, his publishing venture Calder Valley Poetry, has struck an innovative note in a valley emerging from the recent misery of the Boxing Day Floods, bringing to light new collections by Peter Riley, John Foggin, Mark Hinchcliffe and many more. 

No Matter

The shepherd said, Ride on
they’ll part and let you through,
so I changed down a gear,
pedalled up the single-track road
past Greystoke Ghyll
just fast enough to balance
without whipping up a fluster,
and they did. Herdwicks
on their way to winter pasture
made for the verges
gave me a gangway,
and the sun shone low
over Great Mell Fell
on the amber leaves of autumn
and the shepherd smiled and waved
as I picked up my pace
in a following breeze
that late afternoon,
the thirty-first of October.

© Bob Horne

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