Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Memories of Light - Poems for a Liminal Age

Last August,  Poems for a Liminal Age, an anthology of poetry in support of the charity Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), was published by SPM Publications, edited by Mandy Pannett. The book remains available, and it is one I heartily recommend. Along with fellow Calder Valley poet Anthony Costello, I was privileged to attend and read at the book's Northern launch in Huddersfield, and as we approach the anniversary of that event, I am drawn to reflect on both the quality of the anthology, and of how its themes (and the conflicts and politics which necessitate the work of charities like MSF) tragically persist.

Described as offering a view of the way a certain group of people at a certain time in their planet's history see their lives and the world they live in, the anthology traverses a spectrum of experience and observation and includes poetry from Roselle Angwin, David Caddy, Wendy Klein, Alison Lock, Helen Moore, Miles Salter, Marc Woodward, and many more.

In the preface, the editor explains I think I am speaking for everyone involved ... when I say how pleased and proud I am that part of the proceeds from sales of the book will be going to support Medicines sans Frontieres in its generous and courageous efforts to relieve and prevent suffering across the world.  

Addressing the book's title, Mandy examines the meaning of the word "liminal" and its poetic connotations:

'Liminal' is an ambiguous term with several shades of meaning, lending its self to many subtle interpretations, as shown in this book.  For myself, I suppose I see it as a word suggesting thresholds, transition, a midpoint, a space between possibilities, but throughout the editing I have been concerned to let contributors select their own spiritual, social, political, cultural or philosophical approaches to the theme.
This editorial liberality provides for a wide-ranging canvas of interpretations on the theme, from the danger, destruction and death of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, where

Whole towns collapsed. Planks
strewn like yarrow stalks swirled,
sub-divided into driftwood piles.
Bodies like drowned stoats stink along the shore
(Diana Mitchener)

to the soulful hope of Rose Flint's Prayer for Always Peace, in which the poet asks all the animals to open their mouths / to howl this prayer for peace, and

...the moon and the sun pause in the sky
as night and day, as right and left, as east and west
as all that is opposite yet may still come into balance
in harmony with this world, and in time

There is a peaceful element at work throughout much of this thought-provoking anthology, as in Catherine Ayres' poem Return to Coniston Water:

If I choose to forget
I would sit by the lake
stretched like a lapse
in this memory of light.

If I choose to forget
I would skim its pale stone
let my arms drift like snow
fold their white into white.

and the melancholy beauty of S.M. Beckett's Winter in Caroni, where

Amethyst clouds push darkness
over the hills where a man walks his life
through umber shadows.

This idea of moving and travelling through life is further emphasized by a glorious trio of poems by Northumbria's Oonah Joslin, beginning with the photographic quality of Toronto Journey, in which

The girl on the train sips at her drink; gazes with longing
through the beaded rain...

imagining alternate destinations

and continuing through Toronto Girl, who lives a life of gadgets and twenty four carat bank finger-sampling sushi mall bites, to the far away cultures and beautiful horizons of Haiku, which ends portentously with an unexpected segue into violence. 

The suffering hinted at or even graphically written of in Poems for a Liminal Age tends to be depicted by its effects.  In this way, the book avoids a judgmental or sensationalist tone, aiming to fix its readers' focus on the devastation MSF aims to ameliorate.  Thus, in the poem Phalin by Neil Howell, the eponymous cyclone - though described without pulling punches (punching west, / southpaw storm-surge hammering the coast) somehow seems more menacing in the desolation of its aftermath:

scurrying children cling frantic to your hands...

Return, distraught at the apocalyptic scene,
scour the flotsam, the scattered debris where you supposed
your hut, your house, your life, your home had once been.

But the elements - even when wild and stormy - are not restricted to roles of destruction, as evidenced by a rather splendid double page spread of poems extolling the majesty of coastal scenery and folklore.  Coming roughly half way through this moving, provocative, energizing anthology, Kate Firth's Crackington Haven on New Years' Eve, begins

At the twist of the year, watching the whirl
of the world on the cliffs

and gorgeously weaves the liminal theme of a precipice of change throughout its glimmering three stanzas, as This storm / is skirring your ragged December.

The poem is faced on the adjacent page by Outliers, by Rachel J Fenton, who immediately injects a note of fairytale magic into the Shakespearean-sounding ophiolite rock of a Shetland landscape:

Bathed in Burra Firth's foamy mouth,
Flugga's mermaid coifs
her hair aloft...

mafic glass crackles like static in magic
light at her feet.

My own offering to Poems for a Liminal Age stemmed very much from this same kind of pastoral and yet transitional place, a desire to embrace the impenetrable and break through the limits of everyday realities and escape into something which brings together both the natural and the mystical:


I want to see Juniper.

Not driveways or dual carriageways
but Juniper,
to open the door to its green greeting,
just a single stem, one tree
to guard against the plague.

I am open to all species -
Chinese, common, the cedarish lace columns
of softwooded Juniperus virginiana,
pencil cedar, whose long-needled juvenility
bears lime-like ovals of dehiscent green,
aromatic, heartwood of rose-red, inward bleeding,
sistering Hibernica, communis of the purpling fruits, savin,
hybrids with their bluish berries ripening roundly like the
glimmering gems of delicate necklaces.

And if I cannot see it, I’ll imagine Juniper.
My thoughts and angers, my anxieties, 
those last thoughts
passing through the brain as I drift to sleep
like the revs of cars half-heard deep in the night,
all will be sharpened in the shape of Junipers,
their stoicism, spindling twigs and petioles,
their daggered leaves, love-bladed, 
hanging like manicured fingers.

I will imagine Juniper,
dream their gin-sting and their brown dye gifts,
their ancient acid foliage, their voluptuous,
medicinal fruits

Just as I imagine you, 
perennial and spicily defensive, hardy 
but becoming more elusive

I was honoured to read this poem at the Huddersfield launch, and when I did so I commented on the strong political messages that had been conveyed in some of the preceding readings.  I noted how although this had been done with admirable verve and power by the poets concerned, it was generally not my tendency to express these themes in poetry, owing to my own general bafflement at world affairs and the inability I feel to arrive at any kind of concrete conclusions as to the causes of current conflicts, much less to pronounce my own opinions on how they might be solved.  Rightly or wrongly, it is my belief that the human race is in the grip of unfathomable, relentless and in some cases irreversible hate and discord.  Indeed, we might be said to very much inhabit a Liminal Age - a time when the old boundaries and battle-lines have shattered, when the problems of international cohabitation appear to defy logic or answers. Much of the planet seems in the grip of revolutionary ferment, and in the absence of straightforward, comprehensible narratives, human beings find ourselves pondering the insoluble, and yet aware of fear and changes in the air.  David Caddy brilliantly evokes this sense of impending change in For A Week In May 1968, when

Chub were visible late afternoon.
Early crabapples appeared in profusion.
The cart horse was mysteriously led away
amid cries of malo-lactic fermentation.

This somewhat bucolic scene, recalling for me scenes from Constable's paintings, until the mysterious departure of the horse conveys a more foreboding feeling, carries a prophetic quality when considered in the context of the poem's title.  Without the slightest indication of these events within his poem, David Caddy's title has evoked for me the imagery of French uprisings and strikes, street battles and the fleeing of De Gaulle:

Onion men sat on their bicycles
schoolboys wrestled in bed with transistors,
gypsies took their pegs and luck to town,
the milling conveyed to famish and dwindle

When I consider the turbulence of previous decades, it seems that little, internationally, has changed, and instead of pretending to offer magic solutions, Poems for a Liminal Age positions its self, in the spirit of its title, firmly on the side of the sufferers, those caught in the cross-fire of insoluble conflicts or the blameless victims of  catastrophes of climate and environmental degradation.  Patricia Ace's searing Refuge delivers just this kind of non-judgemental, compassionate portrait, with its painfully straightforward image of a refugee:

Louis has taken sanctuary at the airport.
In Terminal 4 he loses himself in thronging crowds
jostling trolleys across acres of high-gloss flooring,
luggage tagged with details of fixed abodes.

It is precisely in response to the horrific persistence of these problems that Medicines sans Frontieres exist, and I salute Mandy Pannett in her production of this anthology in support of them. 

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