Friday, 29 January 2016

Inside the Honeycomb: Alison Lock's "Beyond Wings"

Alison Lock's rich, hypnotic, and yet somehow very grounded and natural second poetry collection Beyond Wings (Indigo Dreams 2015) is described by poet Jo Haslam as a journey through a personal vision of landscape and fulfilment.  The author, says Jo Haslam, is not afraid to experiment with language and form, nor to demonstrate her sensitivity to the natural world and her ability to conjure it.  Quite.  Beyond Wings is a beautifully delicate collection, nonetheless brimming with understated strength, and bewitching contradictions.  I have been reading it since the autumn, and every re-reading is a voyage of new discoveries. The collection opens,

We shed our dream-skin
bottling the djinn

as fine petals reveal
the harlequin

of a Snakeshead Fritillary
(On Waking)

and immediately I am entranced by the dream of waking, and by the poet's skill in bringing to life a new day's hue in language that might lull me into sleepy visions - just as in Oystercatchers she manages to convey the apparently innocent and peaceful dangling of feet (drawing / heart-shapes on the tarn) as unintentionally alarming a nesting pair of birds:

not knowing our symbols will be
read as hostile flags

until we seem the semaphore of wings.

The poem's line endings are almost a poem in themselves, and a quick scan of them reveals much about the lexicon of this poet's acute sensitivity to onamatopoeic language:


Alison Lock is originally from Devon, and is now living near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, where she plays a key part in the literary scene - but the natural history of these places is also evident - deliciously and richly evident - in Beyond Wings. You can sense that this is a writer who has spent a great deal of time not just observing, but listening to and absorbing - if it weren't a cliché I might dare to say "being a part of" - the world around her - and in On Black Hill as the grouse are chortling and we three clamber and slip among knolls and tussocks and, we do indeed get a strong impression of someone wading through the slippery bog, senses primed to register every rustle and splash. We can see the poet peering through binoculars at the rise of the hill / thickened with snow and we can picture the grouse perfectly, as they chatter in that know-it-all way / at a white wedding ... beneath the brims / of their whipped up hats. And in this poem also, the powers of contradiction and surprise lay in wait: no sooner are we warned of shooting boxes, weapons, gunneries and beaters, and the snowy scene is set for bloodshed, than the grouse are met not by violence but by amusement, sizing up the poet's dog.  We see no sign of hunters, shooting or killing - instead, we hear a yap, a yelp and suddenly Our dog is a laughing stock / - a new subject for the grouse of Black Hill.

Notwithstanding these poetical tricks, and the tenderly descriptive language in which scenery and animals are deftly depicted, the book's two main strengths would seem to lie in territory more oblique - minimalism, and silence.

If you want to hear silence, the poet proposes at the start of Hexagon, be still.  It is surely no accident that Hexagon faces a poem celebrating John Cage's famous piece of silent "music", and there is something of the Zen about the poem, and the way in which Alison Lock explores the imagery of stillness throughout the book, with fish "lying low", moss "intensifying", sepia ghosts and invisible unicorns.  We cannot speak, she says in Shrovetide,
our breath barely flickers,
our words extinguished in the damp air - just small exchanges
over stiles, murmurings through brambles.

It is the same pensive, ponderous tension as pervades the ominously titled Peace Talks, where an unspecified "We" are camped up at the centre of a village, a temporary green in a gathering of tents and marquees, and are able, thanks to light let in through the arches of tall buildings, to glimpse new paths yet all the while the firing continues.  However, the poem, which is set out in a paragraph of prose, offers no apparent answers to the external problems which have forced the participants together, with our own language, the idiolect of peace, and ends unexpectedly in Haiku, as

lily pads float on a pond
breaking the tension
The suggestion, to me at least, does not appear to be that this sedate scene offers any solution - if anything the pond and its lily pads are surely fodder for the firing - but it breaks, as stated, the sense of tension, and levers the reader back into the timeless, floating world in which this bewitching collection is so deeply steeped, like an Impressionist painting glimpsed from underwater.  The Haibun style is repeated several times, sometimes multiple times within a piece, and again is sometimes used to present oddly beautiful contrasts:
flecked moors
bog cotton-grass
the snow of summer
It is not that Alison Lock is a poet without a sense of sound. On the contrary, her multimedia projects melding spoken word with sound, her melodious deliveries at readings, and the keenly felt descriptions of movement in Beyond Wings, where a river clatters over stones, where a brass band plays valley deep, are redolent with sound. But in this collection, she has turned the volume down - and the book hovers somewhere beyond the sound and fury of the world. Birds "hum" on wire harps, colours and harebells are "muted" (suggesting that the poet sees colour very much as sound), even children - rarely associated with quietude or soundlessness! - are like tumbleweed who, at the edge of Southern England, float and roll in the surf. Their voices become waves, folding in, turning, as gulls glide.

The lines above are from the poem about the Lizard - that distinctive leg of land which juts from the Cornish coast into the sea, and is the most southerly point of mainland Britain.  Anyone familiar with the area will  recognise
a quivering sea
blue glitter
striking granite,

... imagery both visual and aural - and even now on a winter evening streaming with rain, I can hear the crackling of the sunlit waves striking against the Cornish rocks.  With its broken sandal strap teased from Leonard Cohen's Take This Longing, its

Feathery pampas
wind rusted crocosmia,
bristling at the edge,

and the spume of the incoming tide, it is such a fluent, rich poem, capturing  a certain shimmery beauty of late summer, early autumn better than I ever could!  Just as the recurring silences do not preclude the sounds of colour and the music of nature, nor is the collection, in its mood of stillness, devoid of movement:  Beyond Wings, flickering with the flights of birds and the dive and wriggle of aquatic life, shimmers between distant points of Britain - from The Lizard to a lighthouse on the Isle of Skye, where the wind is bitter, biting at my ears and nose, but at every turn it is the same fine, minimalist evocation of the world - which can at times be razor-sharp or even tumbling and big  -

through caged arches
a train growls
which draws the diverse imagery back to a narrative, with its slumbering pigeons and its fibonacci mist - a tale of sunshine, rock, seas and steeples, brambles and stars. 
If the changing imagery is noteworthy, so too is Alison Lock's arrangements of the poems on the page - not just in terms of the unexpected Haibun, but in the layout of some of the poems, such as in the sequence about Hildegard of Bingen:

and perhaps most effectively in The Traveller:

It is entirely possible that these pieces would still impress if printed in the typical way, but it is also very clear that their writer is not one of those poets who experiments with word arrangements for the sake of it. Indeed, the impression of the halo is all the more impactive for the somewhat playfully ephemeral positioning of lines, which leave a gaping, powerfully blank slice of paper in their wake, and which weave the poem into a halo which can be read both backwards and forwards and in other varieties of ways.  The more I read of this book, the more this seems to be the case with much of what glimmers on its pages.  The Traveller, with the self at the apex of the triangle, takes on a different slant when we place it in the context of cliffs and countries' edges in which this collection of the edgelands frames it - when viewed this way, the precarious nature of the poet's adventures through life is all the more apparent.  We can see the ensuing triangle as a gently cascading and unfolding tapestry of experience, both an inner and an outer quest brought to life by places and people, a metaphor for a life lived to the full, in a world made rosy with tinted triangles.

Eye of the Heron - Summer of 2012, Holmfirth is arranged down the centre of the page, and seems to slice like a knife trough the collection as, if not its stand-out piece (such a sobriquet seems too showy for the melancholy subtleties of the poem, which was performed for the launch of the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2013), then a kind of flag which waves the powers of the poet with vigour and panache:

...the heron
of the vales
the Ribble and the Holme
stock solid
as rock
a hieroglyph
an ibis poised
grey white
spoonbill, crane
in flight
a trinity, a confluence
of wing
Beyond Wings is a collection teeming with magnificent poetry, certainly far too much of it for every quality to be adequately documented here, and much of centres on the mysteries of the wild world - though the author's narrative skill and acute sense of pathos is also evidenced by pieces such as Her Watch, where a watch is bequeathed to the poet, and is too precious / loaded on my wrist.  It is one of several poems which brought tears to my eyes.
But every time I think of Beyond Wings, each time I take the book from my shelves and plunge once more into its warm, delicate depths, my mind is lulled back to Hexagon, that short and simply laid out poem about a third of the way in, just as the quietness of the book is beginning to engulf the reader.  If you want to hear silence, be still.  It is of course as profound, and simple, a message as one will find among many poems written these days as we struggle to exist in an ever changing world, in which each day the noise of suffering grows ever louder.  But what takes the poem beyond the scope of this laudable but everyday reflection, is the caveat:
but do not ask the butterfly to freeze
or the damselfly to close its netted wings
or the bee to stop the nectar's flow.
It is the poetry of real silences, of deep ecology, in which the lessons of the exterior might best be learned through introspection - revealing truths beyond the anthropocentric.
...take a look inside the honeycomb,
hold up a single hexagon
to a clear blue sky,
see how all sides connect.

Gently but persistently building on its fine, delicate imagery, its deep exploration of concepts such as peace and silence, and its soft but confident, thought-provoking poems like Woodburner - in which a poem is repeated symmetrically, so that when one read sit whole the tale is told in reverse - the story mirrored and the moss, frost, fish and rumbled hooves coming back on themselves like echoes, and with all the power of ghosts - Alison Lock's beautiful and finely crafted Beyond Wings rings with the strangely strident subtlety of a Philip Glass symphony.  A kaleidoscope of ecology and the search for inner peace, it casts an eye both across the vast trajectories of natural history and life, and on the foibles of human behaviour and emotional fallibility. With its travelogue of animals and landscapes spanning the length of mainland Britain and beyond, it has at its heart a love of wanderings and places - "rooms" - together with a curiously English sensibility - perhaps most beautifully realised in the slight, simple, and wonderfully moving poem The Crossing, where the interactions and relationships touched on so sensitively throughout this tender and reflective gathering are compared to Venn diagrams, and presented to us in quite simply perfect poetic language, as

we skip a dance,
to each other,
when all that matters
that when we pass
-we smile.

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