Sunday, 22 April 2018

Light After Light, the debut poetry collection by Victoria Gatehouse (Valley Press 2018)

Victoria Gatehouse is a Ripponden based poet who I first had the pleasure of meeting at the Sowerby Bridge Library poetry group, and whose poetry has, over the last five or so years, been a continual source of inspiration and joy.  Light After Light (Valley Press 2018) is her debut publication, containing a wealth of enticing, subtly enlightening poems, including the winners of the 2011 Ilkley Literature Festival Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Poetry News Members' competition:

You strike the first match - 
the room lurches 
from black to indistinct

before colour reasserts itself
in ambers and golds.

(From Power Cut, winner of the 2015 Poetry News Members' competition)

With a day job as a clinical researcher, the author has skillfully interwoven the scientific and the personal, the visual and the emotional, and the book's blurb describes how Victoria Gatehouse explores science and art in her debut poetry publication, seeking out the similarities and tensions that attract and repel them in equal measure...she collects, tests, measures and records her thoughts on the materials from which we each build our lives both practical and spiritual.

Then I dipped
the nichrome loop while his inky fingers

flicked air valves closed,
turned the Bunsen blue. He gave me

goggles and the briefest of glances
through reinforced plastic

before I edged the loop
to the hottest place 
(Flame Test) 

Light After Light is a wonderful collection of sublime, finely crafted poetry - a tender, reflective, sometimes very funny, suite of poems which manage to be somehow earthy and ethereal at the same time. From the fragile intimacy prompted by a power cut - your face, as you reach / for the corkscrew, is like it was / before the lines crept in, / all the rough edges blurring. / We're adrift, you and I / in aureoles of light - to the unexpected beauty of pylons and the wonders of fungi - saffron milkcaps, chantrelles, / destroying angels, slippery jacks. / Theirs, a poetry that fruits on decay - the collection segues between the lyrically descriptive, and the poignancy of understatement. The titles are often deceptive - Blackpool offers a poignant vision of that seaside town quite at odds with its frolicksome reputation, while Recording the Phlebotomist conjures up an enticing flight of fancy inspired by a hospital notice prohibiting patients from videoing the phlebotomy process:

I suppose I could, at this point,
take out my phone to record
his newly-disinfected hands twist
the tourniquet light, delicate fingers
flicking the inside of my elbow
in exactly the right place to summon
the blue.

From the micro to the macro, the book takes in such unlikely subjects as dental braces, burning mouth syndrome, wind turbines, and pylons:

Sometimes I think of the pylons,
so ubiquitous we tune out

their dark glower over moorland
motorway and housing estate,

move unseeing beneath
massive steel shoulders

that never sag
from the weight of the Grid.

These are lonely Stoics,
their fate to hold

the power, yet never to feel
electrons leap

through the wires that hang
from wrist to twisted wrist.

 Elsewhere, we are treated to a lovely appearance by The Sowerby Bridge Geese:

patrolling the High Street - 
ganging up on the corner by The Long Chimney, 
intimidating passers-by with a show 
of downy muscle, a half-lift of wings, 
causing tail backs when they choose 
to cross the road, a twenty-strong gaggle 
impervious to hoots.

Knowing the geese as I do, I can vouch for the anecdotes in this splendid poem - its absolutely spot-on, and captures the character of these eccentric, much-loved local treasures perfectly!


The poems embody a certain consciousness of place, and Vicky enchants the reader with her skill of bringing her local West Yorkshire landscape to life:
And after the snow ploughs and gritters
have passed, the moors' hunched backs

retain seams of white. You come to know
the shapes of them, these snow-fossils -

the gleam of a rib, the splintered ridge

of a clavicle, the shrinking plates of a spine

 In a poetry rooted firmly in the natural environment she describes - in poems like Hymn for the Ash, for example, when we are told of that green-flame tug / curl into heartwood, / limbs sap-sticky, skin / like lichen plaques, we feel a tangible sense of the tree's existence borne of empathy rather than mere observation. The poet, without a single self-reference, is "in" the scene, and the reader is lulled into a folkloric dream of a newly budding resurgence of life:

Spring brings leaf-light
to the woodland floor,
explosions of flowers-
dog violets, garlic,

fruit clusters on twigs;

This is a hopeful, quietly optimistic, beautiful book, in which light is suffused often unexpectedly - a bulb alluring the affections of a moonlit moth - and acts as a bridge between people. Lives are illuminated briefly by closeness or companionship, in the shallows of the sea, under a tent, and every interaction is underpinned by close attention to detail - the striking of a match, rolled up cigarettes, the operation of scientific equipment, the holding of a camera to record the phosphorescence of the sea, all are little ignitions which momentarily shed light onto the world.

A Solitary Song - Wordsworth's Lucy Gray

Edited from original publication in November 2013 on my Ryburn Ramblings website. 
From my window, I look over the canal to where North Dean Wood merges into the Copley Valley, and a hilly expanse once surveyed by an 18th Century wireworks. This corner of the Calder Valley once played a role in the work of William Wordsworth.

When Anne Wordsworth, mother of Dorothy and William, died in 1778, her daughter was sent to Halifax, to live with her Anne’s cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld, who owned a draper’s shop. Dorothy remained in Halifax for nine years, and often revisited in adult life, later staying with the Threlkeld family in the village of Triangle, where they had moved to live, several times for long sojourns. 

Triangle is some miles west of Halifax, on the way to Ripponden, and in February 1794, William Wordsworth joined his sister at the Threlkeld’s for the first time.
They often walked around the Ryburn Valley, and it was here that Wordsworth heard the sad story of a local girl who went missing near Sterne bridge, Copley: “...a circumstance told me by my Sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax in Yorkshire, was bewildered in a snow-storm. Her footsteps were traced by her parents to the middle of the lock of a canal, and no other vestige of her, backward or forward, could be traced. The body however was found in the canal.”
Not before five years had passed, with the poet now staying at Goslar, Germany, would the poem describing these events be written, but with it Wordsworth immortalized the solitary child in what his biographer Mary Moorman called the most haunting of all his ballads of childhood
The local girl was entreated by her father to set out with a lantern, in advance of a forecast snowstorm, to light your mother through the snow from wherever she was, doing whatever a rural housewife would be doing on a winter’s afternoon. Perhaps the mother had been to market, or visiting friends, or labouring at some occupation too poorly paid to provide the fare for a vehicular return, yet for whatever reason the daughter was only too happy to oblige: 
That, Father! will I gladly do;
'Tis scarcely afternoon—
The Minster-clock has just struck two,
And yonder is the Moon.
The storm came on before its time,
She wander'd up and down,
And many a hill did Lucy climb
But never reach'd the Town.

The wretched Parents all that night
Went shouting far and wide;
But there was neither sound nor sight
To serve them for a guide.

Such is the tragic tale of Lucy Gray, whose identity assumes, via the poet’s preoccupation with the ethereal, a kind of spiritual association with the lonesome wild: local superstition held that the surrounding moorland was haunted by the child’s ghost.
Lucy Gray appeared in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, in the year 1800, and at that time the bridge upon which the poor girl’s footsteps were imprinted on the snow was, according to Calderdale Council’s local history department, a rather slender wooden bridge - Wordsworth’s Bridge of Wood. As their website goes on to explain, the original bridge was dismantled in 1914, and sturdily rebuilt. 
No Mate, no comrade Lucy knew; writes William Wordsworth in Lucy Gray,
She dwelt on a wild Moor,
The sweetest Thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!
It is worth reflecting that Wordsworth’s subtitle for the poem was Solitude. In Lucy Gray, as in the Ruth and (unconnected) Lucy poems, we find the distillation of a quintessentially Wordsworthian theme, a Pantheistic vision of mortality and the Human condition rendered incorporeal through the prism of a solitary spirit.  The story of this child’s disappearance remained potent in the poet's memory for five long years, encompassing travels throughout Europe and the turbulent struggles of his personal relationships, so that as he wrote to quell homesickness in Goslar, during the coldest German winter of the Eighteenth Century, he would remember how:
 some maintain that to this day
She is a living Child,
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome Wild.

O'er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.