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Sunday, 1 November 2015
Since first reading it this spring, I have been enchanted by Mandy Pannett's collection Jongleur in the Courtyard (Indigo Dreams 2015), which explores change, grief and hope through a prism of myth and unites the beauties and folklore of natural history with the fleeting, transistional present:
The moth in me twitches
in frail light like a rapid
flash dancer or text on a screen
Mandy Pannett's earlier collections, including the bewitching Bee Purple (Oversteps 2002), Frost Hollow (Oversteps 2006), Allotments in the Orbital (Searle 2009) and All The Invisbles (SPM, 2012) all rank among my favourite books, and Jongleur in the Courtyard is a worthy addition to the repertoire of this uniquely gifted poet.
Described on its blurb by poet Jay Ramsay as soul journeys (which) take place in a timeless present, the poems traverse a spectrum of at times apparently incongruous images - Hades at Charing Cross, gulls, nerves and iron clad bells, algae and rock from a fallen star. They are, as Ramsay says, rich with insight, and a remarkable empathy, and might be seen as spiritual reflections on science and nature, and - to borrow from Jay Ramsay once again - excursions into history: indeed, the opening section is just such an excursion:
Ancient Egyptians believed the soul was composed of five parts," the poet explains in the note to Small Part - and correspondingly the poem consists of five short segments - Heart, Shadow, Name, Essence, Spirit. Serving as a kind of poem-prologue, Small Part, whose title seems cut from the same musical cloth that characterises so much of the lyrical, rhythmic, song-infused collection, begins with a skilfully compressed minimalism, neatly constrained and yet bursting with feeling:
The succeeding four sections are less declarative, weaving images of light and air, stone, hatred and the starling's silhouette, with a central, seven-lined stanza (Name) depicting the private misery of a bullied child:
At school he covered
his hatreds, mostly, that misfit boy.
Every day he hid
the register, every day
it turned up in a bin.
"If their names were lost," he later said
"I hoped they'd vanish too."
With line-endings as pointed and implicative as "covered," and "hid," and of course the twinning of the authoritative, factual register with the children's actual existences, we have already, in this early portion of the book, a sense of Mandy Pannett's ability to draw parallels, and often seamless links, between the figurative and material world, and the essence of identity and self - and the differences between what is recorded as legitimate and proper, and the world beyond official facts and definitions. This is evident in the long and complex poem In Ice and Iron, where the present is contextualized with the times when
we once looked up, ancient foragers in
ice and iron
and even today, the
segmented bits and pieces on the
left over from the Great
Dying, that mass eradication of insects by a large impactor
I will turn again to this poem, but suffice for now to say that its undercurrents of deciphered meanings in the bedrock of soil are harmonious with the thematic core of Small Part, which sweeps aside the curtain for the collection in its deceptive, multi-faceted simplicity. The fourth of its constituent parts, Essence, is surprising, original, and yet integral: almost summarizing her talent for extracting the unexpected from the often overlooked, later demonstrated in relation to such subjects as leaves, ravens and Hogarth paintings. I sometimes use Essence as a prelude to readings of my own poems, for it so acutely sets the stage for reflections on the overlooked elements that make up our world:
Where some see ugliness
in slime mould, call it dog's vomit, detest
the way it feasts on rot and creeps
through trees in yellow-
wet threads, others
in these cells, these singular
mirages of life
The joys of the unusual, the celebratory sense with which Mandy depicts
a day for dalliance in the woods,
lovers reach up to branches of hazel
and go a-nutting for joy
sharing praise of
how easily the elderberries
slip through my fingers into a dish;
their empty stems are spaces of airiness,
delicate-bare as lace
are highly prevalent in pieces like My English Blossom Tree, which is laced with subtly ironic Oriental flavours
... April in snow, now heavy
soft-white feather flakes touch
a mandarin duck
and floral references such as bamboo and camellia nicely place these three-line stanzas in the realms of Haiku-inspired meditative verse, beautifully blending into the poem on the facing page - Three Friends and a Hundred Birds (after a mediaeval painting by Bian Wenjin), in which Siberian Robins, Oriental Skylarks, laughing thrushes and a Slatey-Blue Flycatcher erupt in a
cacophony of feathers
like those of the scarlet minaret who flies away
with a beak of bugs flushed from the bark
by his adamant throbbing of wings.
The poem, which shines with bittersweet beauty and a wry, sad humour (Or perhaps the artist was weary / his fingers tired of plumage and leaves. / Or maybe he lost count.) is at its strongest when melding elements together, in minimal or implied poignancy - such as the closing section, in which Mandy's deft description paints a picture of stoicism and strength:
Three friends are here as blessings
in this busy winter scene:
pine, bamboo and blossom of plum -
blossom which flourishes best in snow
Neatly, but painfully, the collection flows from this resilient and almost battle-hardened image to the melancholy Agree a Separation, where the struggle to save a marriage or relationship is compared to plight of an injured bird, and where
we could watch the city sparrows
pecking around this station bar
blown in by the windy platform's
draught from a leaving train
The use of the train station setting, and the turning on its head of the traditional romance of reunions and lover's trysts that this scene might ordinarily conjure up, neatly characterizes the thin balance between unspoilt peace and hinted horrors that recurs at various junctures of this thoughtful, quietly persuasive collection, perhaps most strikingly in Fine Detail. Here, amid evocations of the deceptively idyllic -
A nestling will open its tiny beak
for any shape of silhouette that flickers
above its eye
the brutal realities of man's inhumanity to man are laid bare:
Now this is a season for children to die
though a drone overhead has a detail of a bird
and its time for the faceless men to scurry
along a nowhere road
Its a season of loss a father says
as he carries home a scrap of torso
The world as painted in Jongleurs in the Courtyard is a world of ironies and contrasts - a world of teeth, tusks, splinters of wishbone, ransacked cities and a Museum of Death, mid December dusk and blue Athenian skies. It is a place where Keats' nightingale weaves in and out of the flight-path of doom-foretelling ravens, where Homeless people shiver, crouch in nook, and where we feel empathy with insects, moths and even woodworm, who
die in tunnels
poor miserable atoms
choked with the fruit of their soft plunderings
and wiped out
in all the darkness
that once was chosen as home.
As the book builds towards conclusions, a feeling of reflected-on mistakes, new truths and insoluble difficulties, pervades in deft, silvery lines, rhythms soft and deceptively gentle, like leaf-fall on an autumn day.
In Remember When We Tried, the pathetic recollection of attempts
to protect the growing grain
by killing off the sparrow, once,
in a landscape swarming with men and boys
all running, shooting, shouting, beating
the air with fists
is almost a metaphor for the whole of human history, the human condition, or perhaps the lost loves and broken alliances touched on in earlier, as
locusts, free of claws and beaks, hovered
above the succulent crops, then plummeted
down, more after more, like a biblical plague
Mandy Pannett could not have spelled out more clearly had she written it in bold capitals. Human Beings, with stubborn clumsiness and short-term, destructive schemes, are destroying the planet and its natural ecology; our desperate endeavours in trying to repair and seal up the cracks that gape wide in our own lives and the wider world, inevitably fail. For me the book's thematic hub is convincingly laid out in the page-length poem In Ice and Iron, discussed earlier but deserving of a closer focus. This nine-stanza poem, each verse packed into a three-line, almost prose-like gasps which manage to somehow cultivate a sense of historical reflection - foot-rooted us - perfectly in tandem with a fast moving action - Snatching at flies ... ferocious scavenging ... racing to the spot.
The poet skilfully draws a parallel between a heritage of those dark interludes where our ancestors lived / in a time before fire, and today's world, where
Now we've forgotten to look at the sky, let alone look
through it or go beyond the faces of stars
fresh dead when man hit flint.
Yet, with a keening anger or despair, a resignation bordering on the nihilistic or a trace of Keats' Negative Capability, we are reminded that
the sky is no clearer now
than it was on the day we once looked up, ancient foragers in
ice and iron
The poem affirms an unflinching vision, a bleak but realist tale of adaptation and survival, sealed in some of the collection's most alluring language:
Can you hear the wind, hear absence of wind, creakings in the
permafrost, the crawling of segmented bits and pieces on the
sea bed left over from the Great
Dying, that mass eradication of insects by a large impactor? Yet,
even as a trickster shifts
from salamander into heat, his name (sparrow-
soft in a tabby's mouth) is caught.
Note the stunning aptness of the words Great Dying, hanging from one stanza to the next - a dreadful mirroring of the immense timescales of ice ages and "eradications", and subtly implying the ways in which world-changing and terrible events are gathered into collective consciousness not in the immediate moment, but over generations, to assume specific namings and identities. In this same spirit of reflection and the making sense of a vast, changing, bewildering, beautiful Universe, the poem continues, telling us - like an argument from Sartre but conveyed in a more poetic, spiritual voice:
... So we offer
identity to a meteorite, or rock of it, call it Woman, Wigwam, Dog-
words to cling to and pin down-
words from the bedrock of soil. A solution then,
somewhere in the interludes.
Mandy Pannett's Jongleur in the Courtyard, a wonderful new chapter to her already glittering bibliography, is a fine, elegant, at times surprising canvas of thought-provoking, musical, visionary ideas and reflections - undeterred from wit and having fun, unafraid of venturing into the darker corners of the psyche and the pains of life's extremities - but underscored by a pure, peace-seeking vitality, a search for truth, and a confident, detailed, at times entrancing poetry. It is a book I highly recommend.
Published in 1984, Mabel Harrison's When Buzzers Blew is now scarcely available except through libraries and online sources such as Amazon, but remains an engaging portrait of West Yorkshire life in the early decades of the 20th Century. I first read the book more than eleven years ago, and it is one that I can highly recommend. Just twenty two pages long, it is described on its cover as Dialect poetry and reminiscences of the West Riding and contains some sixteen poems, several prose pieces and a story - all of which relate to life in the mill towns of West Riding, a now defunct administrative region of West Yorkshire north and west of Leeds, later absorbed into that city and nearby Bradford). Of particular focus is the town of Yeadon - today the location of Leeds and Bradford Airport. The blurb asks, Its a different world - but is it a better one? Were they the bad old days or the good old days? Perhaps these questions need no further answer then the opening poem, in which the author's earliest employment at the mill machines on leaving school are depressingly recalled:
no future but to work int' mill,
fate hed decided what hed t' be.
Tears an' tantrums made noa mark,
on mi muther's frame o' mind,
mill wor th' natural place t' work,
mi laikin' days left behind.
Apart from the at times unnecessary commas it is poetry as natural as human speech. Though the dialect poetry may seem over done, if I close my eyes it might almost be my own grandmother - also a mill girl in the inter-war years and after - who is speaking. My own disgruntlement with dialect poetry is that it often seems an affectation, whose laboured clunkiness can prohibit rather than deepen comprehension - but Mabel Harrison's language makes her poetry as revealing as photographs. The age-old predicament of many working peoples is evidently expressed in the poem - on the one hand resenting the mundaneness of the job, on the other afraid of losing it:
Less hope, less work, mooar strife.
Less brass, short time, an' then
on t' dole. Such a waste of life.
Lasses tramped thro' t' snaw in tears,
beggin' jobs, feet frozen raw,
'til at last new industries
gave hope, no mooar th' dole t' draw.
I grant that some of that second stanza may seem over-written, or a lapse into the Dickensian Picaresque ... but the combination of its harsh imagery and authentic words enables a vivid visualization.
The portraits of the era, though, are not all steeped in gloom. In Nowt so Queer as Fowk, Mabel paints a humorous picture of a loveable local rogue:
Bugger Afloat lived in Ells Square.
An owd sailor, he wor a reight owd soak.
Various eccentrics are remembered before the poet observes:
Today some fowk might be quite as odd,
but each tries to be like t' other one,
they all lewk like peas in a pod.
With the passing of a further three decades, this complaint seems all the more appropriate.
Mabel Harrison is unafraid of sentimentalizing the past, or of expressing - as in the book's first poem - genuine sadness at injustice. Yet her general overview of the era she describes is one of happiness. The piece The Year of Mi' Life is about 1926, year of the General Strike. Too young to understand the complex political situation, she simply enjoyed having her parents both at home. It was a year I wouldn't have missed. She romanticizes silent films, playing Cowboys and Indians, dancing to scout bands. I shall always be glad my childhood was spent before the roads were crammed with motorcars, that I could ride on tradesman's carts, behind the big grey horses, and smell the new baked bread from every house.
The poetry is mainly written in rhyming couplets, but the occasional charge of parochialism is offset by such gems as Sunrise at Scarbrough - the poem which first took my attention when discovering the book in a library:
I will awaken when the wings of dawn,
swim across the sky, and keep watch
until the dark sea lightens
...I await in eager anticipation
longing for the one enchanting moment,
when in crimson glory gleams
the rising sun.
There is a spiritual feel to the worshipping of sunrise:
fusing sea, sand and sky together,
in an all consuming flame.
The metaphors are at times dramatic:
The rough sea rages,
challenging the armour of the cold cliff sides
At others laced with subtle melancholy:
Waves discarding driftwood wash the sands,
tossing Neptune's treasures.
I feel that, as strange as it may sound, the dialect poetry is best suited not to being heard out loud, but to being read from the page and mentally embraced. The risk of unintended comedy, of deadpan bathos or exaggeration, is averted when lines like the following are processed purely with an internal voice, which may aid the processing of the intertwined imagery and raw accentuation:
Ah breeath in deep as t' heather breezes blaw,
from th' high purple mooars araand.
Unseen ah gaze at t' morning's glow
of sunleet on t' bronze an scarlet ground.
Of all th' year ah think ah d' choose
these Autumn mornings, cobweb-kissed.
There are also reflections of urban life, particularly in Christmas Shopping in the 1920's, where childhood trips to Leeds are recollected:
Ah skipped wi' joy along Boar Lane,
an' Woodbine Liz stood by a wall...
Growing up in Leeds sixty years later, I can well remember talk of Woodbine Liz - a "gentlewoman of the road" found in the city, puffing on an endless supply of Woodbine cigarettes.
After passing through City Square, where the tramlines shone wi' frosty gleam and admiring the toyshops with their dolls, horses, trains and teddy bears, following a visit to Santa Claus and tea-and-cakes, the family take a walk through the Grand Arcade:
The Arcade clock soa high above
waited ready t' strike th' hour,
we saw th' magic figures move,
then stand motionless as before.
The magic figures - statues in mediaeval dress who take turns to bang a huge bronze bell, were still there when my mother would show me, as a child myself, and certainly on Christmas shopping trips, the very same mechanical enactments. As far as I know, they are there still.
Less reassuring is the fate of the market. Walking among the stalls, Mabel Harrison notes We smelt th' flowers an' fruit soa sweet / an' walked on sawdust for a carpet. Until recently, my mother kept a bric-a-brac and clothes stall, on which I l also often worked, on the same market. Nowadays, the description might more accurately read We smelt the cannabis and ciders o stale, / walked on needles for a carpet.
As to the debate between good days and bad, Harrison does not ignore the difficult issues of her day, either. Th' Little Black Boy is about encountering a child on a train to Manchester.
Little Black Boy, why soa sad?
Tha' art such a tiny lad.
No concrete reasons are given, but the writer is very much aware of how the child
Watches the white world whirl along
wi' eyes so raand in his solemn face.
Discerning solemnity and having the boy listening and watching the world, rather than just seeing or hearing, is demonstrative of empathy. After all, the poet's own poverty-stricken childhood could be said to have had many parallels with that of a black boy in Britain in the Twenties. An unrepentant optimist, however, and seeing in the young man's future a wealth of possibilities that may transform his present circumstances, she is eager to point out:
Tha' cud be doctor, lawyer, judge
an' t' world wud not then howd a grudge.
There is further social realism in Th' owd Dog Strike, an account of industrial action in 1909. That November, Yeadon dye workers took industrial action on account of what were felt to below average wages. It was seven years before the birth of Mabel Harrison, but clearly a story that still evoked strong feeling in her local area. As the strikers clashed with men who had remained at work ("blacklegs"), the house of one of the dye work's directors - Mr F Watson - was attacked, with all the windows broken and much of the furniture damaged. At Yeadon Town Hall, archive papers document the strike, and a local newspaper reported:
The riotous scenes in Yeadon on Saturday & Early on Sunday morning were the subject of much discussion in the locality yesterday; & there is still a great deal of feeling among sympathisers with the men who have come out on strike at the works of the Yeadon Dyeing Company. Mabel Harrison's re-telling is unbiased and objective, but certainly shot trough with a painful authenticity which imprints upon the reader's mind the grim injustices, and sad rivalries, of the time:
Three hundred fowk stood in t' snaw,
booin' the blacklegs goin' hoam,
...A violent battle raged fower days,
blood spilt on th' snaw so white.
Men, women an' bairs, all wor brayed
an' still cam; back again t' fight.
The unflinching account would be well worth reading by those people who - themselves often comfortably off University lecturers or journalists - to this day prefer to celebrate strikes and the scenes that oftentimes accompany them - the violence and division, families ruptured, children harmed. While making clear her sympathy with the strikers, the author later reflects that, ultimately, despite all the different efforts of workers to improve their lot, in her experience working people
Seldom won their struggle for decent living conditions.
Life was hard for Mabel Harrison herself, who was born just three years after the Yeadon Hunger March. In June 1913, 130 men marched from Yeadon to Blackpool to highlight the plight of workers during a lock-out of their clothing works. Demanding better pay, their Unions faced a stand-off with the management, who temporarily closed the works - a kind of strike in reverse. Desperate for money and food, the men passed through Bradford, Liverpool and other towns and cities, raising a banner which read Collecting for the Yeadon and Guiseley General Lock-out Fund. On behalf of 8,000 men women and children. Subscriptions Earnestly Solicited" and Mabel Harrison describes how:
The mills in Yeadon were locked out. A lot of people were on Poor Relief. Shopkeepers were good in allowing people to owe money for food and giving vegetables ... to a group of women making soup ... a soup kitchen was opened for the families of the men who were locked out.
She could do worse than recounting this to today's comfortably-off University lecturers who pour out platitudes blaming "economic deprivation" for today's social disorder, where groups and individuals - many of whom wear expensive clothing, go on foreign holidays, own mobile phones and splash out on consumer goods on credit cards - mug and maim the innocent or vandalize bus shelters smashed on booze.
As for the family of Mabel Harrison, they reached their lowest economic ebb in 1926, the year she so fondly recalls, and of which her father spent the majority unable to find work:
We had to cope with the shortage of food and coal as best we could. It made a big difference when the Miners struck. Houses had only a cold water tap. Few people had even a gas ring so it was imperative to get coal. We children were sent every day to the railway at Esholt, to pick up bits of coal that had dropped from the trains before the strike.
It is worth wondering just what the Yeadon Hunger Marchers, families subsisting on soups made from donated ingredients, or the children left to salvage fallen coal on railway lines, might have given for an ounce of the privileges enjoyed today by so many of the people regarded as deprived. Deprivation, though, may well have been said to have been the lot not only to Mabel Harrison, but also to many of her contemporaries, as they struggled through the Twenties amid hunger, strikes, mind-numbing labour, and social unrest. But despite this, When Buzzers Blew is far from being a desultory or dispiriting book. With delicate portraits of nature, evocative re-kindlings of daily life in the inter-war years, and a deft injection of warm wit, the collection is distinguished by its author's affectionate and perceptive style.
When Mabel Harrison died, on the 10th of January 2008, the Aireborough Local History Society paid tribute to her memory:
Aireborough's artistic community is in mourning for a poet from Yeadon who has died at the age of 91.
Mable Harrison was a prolific writer of both verse and dialect who wrote about the hard times as well as the lighter side of life.
She left at 14 and reluctantly went to work in the local mills, later she worked at Crompton Parkinsons, Carter and Parkers and Silver Cross.
During the war, after her marriage to Fred, she worked at the Silver Library in Otley, followed by 20 years of office work at Cartwright's and Dacre Son and Hartleys and Legal and General.
As well as writing she broadcast many times on Radio Leeds and made two local films for Yorkshire TV.
She contributed articles and poems for the Dalesman and several other magazines and local newspapers.
She wrote forwards, features and local history for books on Aireborough.
When Buzzers Blew is one of several collections Mabel Harrison produced, which can still be found in libraries, and which I recommend to anyone who is interested in local history, West Yorkshire dialect, and well written, acutely observed poetry.