Monday, 18 December 2017

Singing over the Rubble - John Wedgwood Clarke's "Landfill"

John Wedgwood Clarke's second full-length collection Landfill (Valley Press 2017) is a meditation on the discarded and the left-behind, a colourful commentary on the things we throw away, prompted from the starting point of rubbish dumps and landfill sites.  Taking us on a linguistically adventurous trip to the tip, Clarke conducts an unlikely symphony of old photographs, newspapers and knackered cookers, taking us gently, and at times not so gently, through tales of mud, membranes, cormorants, squids and starfish, suicide, and the making of lives.

Fathoms fluent in inklings of light and glass,
gothic lemons, cage-cups, washboards,

teeth and tines of silence; sunlight altered
in the needle's eye of silica, splinter 


As explained on the Valley Press website, Acknowledging that the beautiful view and decluttered house depend on the dump, Clarke responds here with neither cynicism nor sentiment; instead offering fresh perspective on a vital yet hidden part of our world.

Clarke, says poet Philip Gross on the book's blurb,  has found rich pickings in the landfill, with line after line worth lingering over for its subtleties. His high-definition observation is informed by an ecologist’s eye, its scientific knowledge lightly worn - and indeed, by reversing the customary human action of dumping the leftovers of life, for an embracing of the the chucked out and the goods of yesterday, the poet brings to focus a whole plethora of stories and life, which usually go unnoticed. 
Throughout the collection, there is a wonderful essence of other lives, other worlds, other planes of existence and the shifting sands of nature, all playing out beyond our gaze, though often just under our noses:

Without beginning - everywhere, Humber's 
great motet swirls its many voices-

mud brains skulled in clear water beneath the jetty
travel in the confluence of moon and sun

There are lovely hints of Larkin in the Humberside setting, as

Here is nowhere but getting there fast


Spurn flows through its shape like breath on glass
flaring and fading, waves at an angle

heard as a motorway becoming waves 

While elsewhere, the influence of Ted Hughes is operative -  one section of a long poem, Once Its In The Skip They Think It Disappears, is based on the Hughes poem Amulet:

Under the bucket a solid red wheel.
Around the wheel a perished tire.
Down the steps, bouncing, it booms.
Inside the bucket water collects.
Over the water, leaf-light, jet-sunder.
Suspended in water a woodlouse trembles.

The radiantly eerie Starfish seems appropriate for this festive season, based on the lyrical structure of the hymn Star of Wonder:

Star of wonder, star of teeth,
Star of feet that breathe as they're squeezed,
Star with an eye at the end of each ray,

Star of zip-fastener undersides,
Star of childhood drowned in the sea

But Landfill really is a unique collection - never did I expect that I would be turning the pages of a book of poems to find bedsteads, buckets and plastic bottles crushed / like oyster shells, nor an ode to cookers, lying in the rubbish dump:

Press and hold for the missing spark - as if
it might turn up those larks
singing over the rubble.

Later in the poem, Rainwater gleams / where the blue buds sprang / beneath that old aluminium pan, and Clarke leads on from this into Other White Goods, where we read of redundant fridge-freezers:

Go there now and see the drain-hole
plugged with gunk.  Life on hold
leaps forward in the ten-watt light

A refuse tip worker is cast in an Orphic role, Dan, like Orpheus, as the poet imagines him
going in after photos / and letters / unable to believe they won't / have second thoughts and return, and the sense of pasts beyond retrieval, drifts sadly through the stanzas of the melancholy Photo Albums:

 ...she clicks open the case
and they burst like pigeons 
from squares of sugar paper,

eyes homing now on nowhere,
lit for the last time as they fall
between bed frames, broken tiles.

A kind of persistence of memory is suggested, though, as

faces fly on in the dark
over streets where their names were called

and throughout the book, there are suggestions of new lives, new directions, of beginnings as well as ends, or of organic ripostes to the exit of humans, as in Renovation, where the room releases its breath, as an abandoned home is slowly transformed:

... Loose mortar landslides
more and more, the arguments of rain and soot
slumping into the memory of a hearth, bird bones

and black sand.

 As the author of a collection of poems inspired by insects and other small creatures, I was of course thrilled at the discovery of the Attenborough-esque Bootlace Worm with Flatworm, where:

Tweezed from a cock of estuarine mud,
it coils, slightly lighter than water,
in the specimen tray, softer than the silts 
it laced with tender black hoops  

and where this sense of the Pantheistic, or a world before and after humans, transcending the linear, is evoked with majestic simplicity:

 It has grown before and beyond us / shifting sediments, hunting by its own lights.

In the countryside around the River Humber, there are echoes of history and the history of language, the evolution of the spoken and written word, a profound yet understated sense of time being recycled as much as the remnants of kitchens, living rooms and lives that clog the rubbish dumps:

Chalk 1. 

South Cave

We shed them one by one, by shattered field and barley seas,
until the way is open for echoes of us 
made strange by wind, deserted barn, the shifting trade
of shadows on the Humbri, Humbre, Humber,
our mouths to springs that speak in tongues of thirst.

River Survey reminds me of my own participation in wildlife and conservation surveys, and of my proximity to rivers and their sometimes pollution, as

Whichever way we move,
our boots and stainless measures
set the smothering
yeast-smooth orange precipitate 
smoking in the current.
We pass through the river to the sea, as The Sea Addresses a Marine Protected Area:

Must I sing in this garden
while earth's guts billow and smother
miles the sun's crystalline
music once struck into song?

Your harbours are empty.  You grow old
beside me, hungering for 
a picture of our past you can gaze into
through a glass-bottomed boat.

 There is evidence of fragility of life, amid a stark evocation of dereliction:

Our meters say its iron-rich as blood.
The beck bleeds a maze 
of flooded wounds
past the cinema without a roof,
the shattered pub.

The valley remembers its glacial lake
in fog the hillsides fade into. 

but also of its vitality, perseverance, and of attempts to un-do or atone for past errors, as the poet and his fellow river surveyors make redeeming discoveries:

There's no way through 
without blue twine
staked at the edge
and running into papery tunnels. Rime
speckles our necks as we stoop
to the traps.  This one's
empty metal.  This, alive, 
terror teased out with straw,
mealworm, seed, into
a red-toothed shrew!

In case we should meet again
in this vast translation,
we snip the fur  on its left hind leg

There is so much to say about this splendid, startling book, which fizzes with ideas and images as bewitching as they are unexpected, and the joy of my first reading is enlarged ten-fold at the realization that I will extract a thousand more moments of wonder as I re-read it through the years.  Landfill is a book, not just for Christmas - though I can urge you to snap it up as quickly as you can - but for life, a liturgy for the deserted, a memorial to the discontinued, a Bible of the odds-and-ends of life.  It is a book in which the forgotten is remembered, the overlooked explored, a reflection, laced with wit and warmed by a compassionate and earnest style, on the sublime mess we've made of things.  But it is also a championing of the other, of the outside, of the worlds within a world and the histories we do not see.  It is an eloquent defence of memory, as well as a cathartic prayer for the right to forget, the reclaiming of lives, and the liberation of starting again:

Hurl it in like everything they ever told you not to do
and hear the big skip's rolling emptiness
stabbed and streaked by letting go.




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