Sunday, 24 December 2017

Edward Thomas: Snow


Here in Britain, it looks unlikely that we will be greeted tomorrow morning by the realization of Bing Crosby's dream of a white Christmas, just like the ones very few of us have ever known.  But there has been snow in the Calder Valley over the last few weeks, and it has been good to wander through it across the moors and along the iced-up streams and hillsides, even if only for a few days.


I thought I would sign off for 2017 with words from a finer poet than I will ever be. Edward Thomas' Snow draws together the traditional European riddle of the snow and sun, whose beginning might be loosely translated White bird featherless / Flew from Paradis, and the words of English poet John Clare, whose Shepherd's Calendar includes the following observation:

And some to view the winter weathers
Climb up the window seat wi glee
Likening the snow to falling feathers
In fancy's infant extacy

 Edna O'Brien has written of how, in Thomas' poem, oxymorons ('gloom of whiteness' , 'dusky brightness') and elegiac cadences darken the metaphor, and it is worth remembering that the poem was written when Thomas was serving on the front line during the First World War, during which conflict he would eventually lose his life, killed in action a century ago this year.


In the gloom of whiteness,
In the great silence of snow,
A child was saying, "Oh,
They have killed a white bird up there on her nest,
The down is fluttering from her breast."
And still it fell through that dusky brightness
On the child crying for the bird of the snow.

A Humble Idea - How my film about Branwell Bronte came into being

My misery was of a darker form
of deadlier deeper dye
these were the various streams that flow
into my deep deep sea of woe
the shrieking blast, the pelting rain
may strike the shattered oak in vain

(Branwell Bronte)

Early in 2012, having lived in the Calder Valley for a matter of days, I am walking - or, rather, being blown by hammering winds - over the lower edges of Norland, along a precipice of sandy stone crumbling beneath my feet like muddy meringue. Earlier, I watched a green woodpecker zigzag along a trickling stream as I trudged up from Sowerby Bridge.  Now, a frosted plateaux of bare roots, iced-up puddles, and hunched, lethargic sheep are all that punctuate the misty moorland stretched before my eyes through a stinging hiss of sleety rain.  Pulling my hood harder over my head, I gaze across the hill to the fringes of Sowerby Bridge, which this Sunday morning looks pencil-sketched by Lowri: dark old factories and chimney stacks, roofs glistening in drizzle, the road slit right through it like a serpentine vein.  A few cars and lorries judder by, but cannot be heard above the whistling din of winds, bashing against hedges and slapping into the pens and fences of farms, hassling the horses huddled in the stables along the deserted tracks of Scar Head, Clough Head, the bumpy roads wrapped around these grassless hills like tinsel clinging to the body of a tired Christmas tree, in the cold, dim days of early January. 

Down the valley, you can see the unloading yards of factories and mechanical plants, the terraced streets climbing to Sowerby, Warley, the outskirts of Halifax.  You can make out the winding old canal, moored boats bobbing beneath a fluffy gauze of frost; the hunched shelters of the train station, and further out, the deserted Tesco car park, bordered by a railway track fenced off by six-foot wire.  When it was first built in the 1840's, the town's train station stood where the car park is today, and it is partly to that station that my thoughts are turned on this January morning. Or, more particularly, to one of its ill-fated former employees, who, I am fairly certain, would have known the ground I'm walking on, and very likely would himself have navigated these same windy paths and stiles, trod these tracks and fields, overlooking this same valley with its towns and bridges, its chimneys, factories and steep, wet streets, when he lived here - more than one hundred and fifty years ago.
Back down there in the town's market, I had stumbled, days ago, on Juliet Barker's The Brontes  - the acclaimed history of the family and their writings - and back in the warmth of my flat had turned instictively to the index to find word of my newly adopted home town. I was to learn that the family's controversial "black sheep" - the beleagured brother, Branwell - lived here in Sowerby Bridge, while working at the station, in the early 1840's.  Opinion of Branwell has long been negative, his legacy largely reduced to the grim pickings of assorted anecdotes, and tales of drunkenness and gambling.  But Juliet Barker's book also details Branwell's forays into poetry and painting, friendships with local artists and writers, and the walks he loved to go on, up and down the wet, wobbly hills of this wonderfully mishapen, craggy valley.  In fact, this jagged landscape seems perfectly suited to the image of a man wracked, as Branwell was, by rigours and drama, by the slings and arrows of self doubt, and by a romantic, at times over-reaching, desire for heroism.  Yes, I am sure, as I traipse through spongey moorland soils and the remnants of reeds, past frozen becks and looming, skeletal trees, that - as they say of the departed - "he would have loved it here." 

Picking up the trail back towards the town, a pathway faintly marked out on the rocky terrain, I begin to wonder about the twists and turns of Branwell's life, and imagine various scenarios that may have brought him here to this then industrial town on the edges of West Yorkshire.  What happened to Branwell at the station, how did his life and aspirations compare with those of his famous, brilliant sisters?  Why have we not seen or heard of his exploits here in more books, or via the magic of the screen? In the film of Branwell's life now playing out in my mind, he is pictured at the station gates, harangued by his superiors and cursing at the ground; now, seeking the crags and vales, wandering across the tops on a frozen morning such as this. In one scene, he is thrown in among a rugged jumble of drunken men, propping up the bar of some tiny moorland inn, or one of the smoky pubs which cater for the town's labouring classes, puffing on tobacco and slurringly singing with the best of them - Branwell as one of the lads, as dissolute decadent, as drunk.  In another, he is pitching up an easel, gazing onto the town and beyond it, to the heathered hills and gorse-brooched clefts which spread from here to Haworth like the jewelled candelabra of a pheasant's plume.  Or he is watching from the platform as a smoke-wraithed steam train chuffers away down the silvery tracks, pushing into the darkened distance of a winter horizon.  Why has no-one ever made this film I wonder?  And could it, I ask myself, as the trundling traffic of an approaching Sunday afternoon comes lumbering into view, and I desend the bumpy slopes which straggle down into the town's grey edges, a concrete maze of warehouse yards and back-streets, could it be something to which I, new to the town as Branwell was, might turn my sights?
Some days later now, and steeling myself into the first of my excursions to work along the railway tracks which will convey me, innumerable times in the ensuing years, to jobs in other towns and cities, I rub my hands and pace the platform, drawn to the inviting huddle of kettles, flasks and paper cups nestling on a table beside the shelter.  Andrew Wright, who along with his brother Chris, runs the pub and tea shop at the station, is in charge of this makeshift coffee stall, and he places in my hands what looks and feels like a piping pint of strong black coffee, I am as grateful for the warmth to my freeing hands from the polystyrene cup as I am for the taste or cafeine kick. I curse my stupidity in not having bothered to wear gloves. This is my first day as a Calder Valley commuter, in the thick of my first Calder Valley winter. I have a lot to learn.

Backward I look upon my life
and see one waste of storm and strife
one wrack of sorrows, hopes and pain,
vanishing to rise again.

(Branwell Bronte)

A cruel wind lashes through the rain.  The platforms glisten under treacherous ice.  My train showing no signs of turning up, I quiz Andrew on the history of the town, and of the station.  It has only been at its present site since 1876; previously it stood where the Tesco supermarket is today.  And I've heard, I say, that Branwell Bronte once worked there.
"He did, yes...he was there when the station opened in 1840."  Unaware of the full historical significance of this fact - which would, in the course of time, become hugely relevant to my life - I ask what capacity he worked in.  Andrew tells me Branwell was a clerk, that he worked at Sowerby Bridge for about a year, before repairing to nearby Luddendenfoot, a station which no longer exists, but at which Branwell was promoted to the post of Clerk-in-Charge, or Stationmaster, in 1841.  "But..." and here Andrew half looks away, frowning, as if remembering the downfall of some ill-fated relative, or a memory too unpleasant to dwell on, "Well, it didn't end too well..."
"Oh." I want him to expand, but at this point another commuter ambles up, ordering a coffee.  As Andrew fixes the drink, and the man hangs about counting money and talking about the weather, I tot up the little I have heard about Branwell in my life so far. That he had been an aspiring poet and painter.  That he was commonly seen as having been in the shadow of his famous sisters.  That he had a drink problem, and had caused his family, in the words of a local girl in Haworth, "no end of trouble."
"I hear he had a bit of a drink problem," I venture, as the other customer shuffles off.
"Yes," says Andrew, with a knowing smile.  "He had all sorts of problems, I'm afraid.  Drink problems.  Gambling problems.  Drug problems, maybe.  We don't really know the details, to be honest, but...there was some mix-up over missing money, and...well, like I say, it didn't end too well."
Itching to know more, my curiosity is thwarted by the lumbering arrival of my train, crawling along the track in a mechanical lethargy, slowly shunting to a halt.  As I board, and we lurch out through the frozen fields, beneath the arching stone viaduct, the abandoned signalman's huts at long-gone stations, past the terraces of Brighouse and the stretching suburbia of Mirfield, the thought of Branwell and the missing money revolves through my mind like a carriage looping over icy tracks, spinning through the dark morning air until we have crossed into Kirklees and the undulating hillsides of the Calder Valley are dimming in the distance.

Amid the world's wide din around
I hear from far a solemn sound
that says Remember Me

(Branwell Bronte)

Q&A - On the subect of my film about Branwell Bronte

A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years available now:

All images below are stills from the film and are copyright Alan Wrigley.


Why did you decide to write a film about Branwell Bronte?

I'd been living in the Calder Valley for just a few days when I read Juliet Barker's book The Brontes, which I found at my local market in Sowerby Bridge. I discovered Branwell had lived here and, knowing absolutely nothing about him at this point other than vague rumours of his reputation for drunkenness, wanted to find more.  I was surprised that nobody in the Valley had done much work on him - books, articles, films - and it gradually began to dawn on me that perhaps I ought to do so.

Did making the film change any of your thoughts on Branwell?

Absolutely.  I expected to find out that he was a drunkard and a bit of a hopeless case, but I discovered he had been a very ambitious artist and poet, with a genuinely original turn of phrase in his writing, a skill for translating Classical poetry, and a proclivity for themes we would consider modern or subversive today: Atheism, psychology, unrequited love, not in the abstract, Universal manner of the great poets of antiquity, but in the sense of actually naming the person he was writing about, placing himself and his own predicaments firmly at the centre of his poems.  And I also found I actually rather liked Branwell.  I think most of us who worked on the film felt that we could empathize and associate with him in various ways - in my case, his habits of drifting off from the job in hand to go wandering around the hills, or to sit scribbling poems and pictures when he was meant to be doing his day job!  Most importantly, we learned that the charges against Branwell from many biographers are simply not true or that there is no evidence for them - as the film makes clear. Branwell seems to have been very popular, and was said by a contemporary to possess "the genius of personality" - especially after a few drinks! He seems to have been basically a victim of circumstances.

How did you go about making the film?

I had done some research and posted some material on my blog, and was contacted by Alan Wrigley, whom I knew through the local arts scene here in Sowerby Bridge.  Alan and I had both been clients of a local arts and crafts shop which sold, among many other things, his greetings cards and some of my books, and we both frequented various poetry and music events in the town.  I'd made it common knowledge that I wanted to make a film on Branwell's time in the Valley, and Alan suggested that we make it together.

What did you most enjoy about making A Humble Station?

Working with Alan and so many other talented people who appear in the film - from Bronte biographer Juliet Barker, and Ann Dinsdale from the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, to local historian David Cant and Calder Valley poets such as Genevieve L Walsh and Steve Nash.

L.R: Director Alan Wrigley, SZ, Sam Redway (voice of Branwell), Genevieve L Walsh

Then there were the artists that we met - Julia Ogden at Hebden Bridge, and Stella Hill and Mike Acton from Legacy Art Gallery in Todmorden.  It was fascinating to meet the owners and locals of the Lord Nelson public house at Luddenden, where Brawnell used to drink, and where the current landlady Jessica Grunewald told us about how he used to go there to take advantage of its lending library - the first of its kind in the whole Ridings area.
 With Julia Ogden at Brighouse Library and Smith Art Gallery.

Closer to home, I interview Chris Wright, landlord of the Jubilee Tea Rooms, on the site of today's Sowerby Bridge Railway Station, and over in Hebden Bridge I enjoyed chatting with Diana Monaghan from St James Church, whose vicar in the 1840's was a friend of Branwell's - and who met a not dissimilar end to him, as you will see in the film.  It was also fabulous to work with Caroline Lamb, my colleague from the multi-disciplinary performance project Exploring the Brontes, and author of a play about Branwell - The Dissolution of Percy.  Caroline is interviewed in the film and, like Genevieve Walsh, delivers her own poem written about Branwell.  She also came with Alan and I to meet Juliet Barker, which was a very enjoyable day for all of us because we like Juliet's work so much and to get the chance of meeting such a world renowned Bronte authority was a real delight.  There was quite a funny moment at The Old White Lion, an 18th Century inn at Haworth where we filmed the interview with Juliet, and before Caroline and I had gone to meet her, when we were setting up the room for filming, I was waxing lyrical about some aspect of the Brontes' legacy and, in sweeping my hand mid-statement, accidentally swiped an ornament from the fireplace, only catching it in the nick of time before it fell to the floor and smashed. I often wonder if maybe it was a priceless object of some kind, and how the whole story of the film might have turned out rather differently if I'd failed to intercept it in time!
 Caroline Lamb.

At the end of the film, you also hear the vocals of Amy-Rose Atkinson, a folksinger and musician from Sowerby Bridge who performs in the folk duo Didikai, and is one of the co-ordinators of the Sowerby Bridge Morris Dancers.  Alan and I had both seen Amy-Rose sing live, and were thrilled when she agreed to deliver the vocal to his song Legacy, which he wrote specifically about Branwell.  Its a beautiful song and she captures it marvelously, and hearing the results of that at the end of a film I'd first envisaged years earlier on a winsdwept, icy moor, new to the area and with no concept of how things would turn out, was a very moving moment.

What do you like most about the film?

It was thrilling to see how Alan developed as a filmmaker, having had no experience of filming, to gradually build up his self-taught skills to the point of being able to produce a thing of at times quite stunning visual beauty. Everyone who has seen the film has complimented both his use of Calder Valley scenery, and his atmospheric music, but also for his seamless editing of the scenes.  We have had industry professionals comment on how well it flows together, and he has woven the film together in such a way that every time I watch it I see new things, notice different deft touches with colours and light, and hear new quirks and motifs in the music.  Of course, the other thing that I enjoy equally is the wealth of knowledge and talent brought to the film by our contributors.  Everyone was chosen for both their local connections and involvement with the Brontes, and we've had many positive comments from those who have seen the film at our screenings about the local authenticity of the guests, and the balance between those who are obviously from Yorkshire and those who are not!  I like how we have not fallen into the trap of cliche, while also staying true to the Calder Valley setting, and frankly to share a screen with people like the artists and writers I have mentioned, hearing their thoughts on Branwell, was a real privilege.  But one of my absolute favourite moments is where we actually see a version of the "young Branwell," in the form of the son of a friend of mine, who happens to have ginger hair, and who we took along to film a scene dressed in quite traditional looking clothes and enacting an imagined scene from Branwell's life, or more accurately from his imagination. It involves balloons and a very historic building.  I don't want to give away any spoilers so I'll not say any more!

Why should we watch A Humble Station?

Firstly to get a grasp of another element of the Brontes' story - we're not trying to steal the fire from his famous sisters, but rather to shine a light on one of the lesser known aspects of the Bronte story - that of Branwell, and why he wasn't all bad! But also because in doing so, you will get to see the nature and history of the Calder Valley depicted in glorious colour and seasonal splendour, hear tremendous music, and enjoy poetry and paintings work by some highly talented contemporary artists, as well, of course, as by Branwell himself.  The film is not all serious - we found much humour in Branwell's work, and in the many anecdotes and scenarios that his life seemed to engender - and you will encounter scenes of beauty that will remain with you for the rest of your life.


Beautiful Flocks of the Mind - Leytonstone, and the Poetry of John Drinkwater

Fifteen years ago, I was living in Leytonstone, east London, birthplace of the English poet John Drinkwater (1882-1937)

Although never a prosperous area, the Leytonstone I lived in was doubtless different to the town Drinkwater would have known in the late 19th Century.  A sprawling corridor of poverty, whose High Street, on which I lived, was by day the busiest road I have ever known - with incidents of road rage not unknown - and became by night a red light district, its atmosphere was one of impending violence and unrest, and yet a strong sense of community was evident.  I have never lived in an area more friendly, nor one in which friendships were so easily forged, and be it among my neighbours, the local traders, the drinkers at the anarchic Irish bar, or even the homeless wanderers and "working girls" who would haunt the terraced streets in the bleak small hours of the London night, conversation, often eased by copious quantities of vodka, was forthcoming.  Leytonstone, with its warm-spirited West Indian coffee shop, its tube station draped in mosaic memorials to the film director Alfred Hitchock, born in a grocer's shop at the north end of the High Street, near where the road peels off into the fielded fringe of Essex, with its pretty community garden and dainty pond, its landmark church and its dingy crack-houses enormous tower blocks, now demolished, and its multitudes of terraced houses, lived in by families of almost every race, creed and colour, was a home to me, and the progenitor of a thousand memories.

Drinkwater's rather naive, pastoral poem The Vagabond depicts the life of a gentleman of the road, free from worries amid scenes of bucolic innocence. I know the pools where the grayling rise,says the wistful narrator, I know the trees where the filberts fall, I know the woods where the red fox lies,The twisted elms where the brown owls call. Owing to the fact that I sow no seed and I pay no rent, an idyllic existence is enjoyed:

 I thank the Lord I'm a rolling stone
With never a care to carry.

I often wonder, when I read his hearty, unaffected lines, how much the jolly wanderer these lines imply, would have had in common with his 21st century counterparts, subsisting among the concrete labyrinths of Leytonstone, who would wind their ways to beg at Stratford tube, or congregate around Lea Bridge Road or the vast estates on the outskirts of Wanstead Flats to score heroin. 

I know the pools where the grayling rise,
  I know the trees where the filberts fall,
I know the woods where the red fox lies,
  The twisted elms where the brown owls call.
And I've seldom a shilling to call my own,
  And there's never a girl I'd marry,
I thank the Lord I'm a rolling stone
  With never a care to carry.

I talk to the stars as they come and go
  On every night from July to June,
I'm free of the speech of the winds that blow,
  And I know what weather will sing what tune.
I sow no seed and I pay no rent,
  And I thank no man for his bounties,
But I've a treasure that's never spent,
  I'm lord of a dozen counties.

There was Andrew, an emaciated African who carried his clothes in a bin bag, who had worked as a prison guard for many years, and who, on retirement, had found it impossible to adapt to life on the outside; there were drug addicts and petty criminals, illegal immigrants, and lonely people whose lives in Leytonstone were as lost as mine, but without the pretence of involvement in the civilized world - in my case a job for Newham Social Services, followed by stints for various charities in the care and homelessness sectors. There were the silent figures hunched in darkened units selling Islamic books, sceptical of my greetings, the Afghan refugee I helped to find his way to nearby Leyton, who was too terrified to seek the refuge of the local mosque in case they detected the fact that he was drunk; there was John, the half-Maltese hairdresser who befriended me, the Indian family who ran the shop across from my small flat, its trade so wide as to encompass almost every line of product, and who took me in almost as a member of the family. There was the Spanish chef, who had been working at Brighton's Grand Hotel on the night that it was bombed in 1984, with whom I would meet for nervous dates, but with whom I would never, thanks to my own impenetrable barriers of absurd reserve, embark on anything more intimate than polite coffees or drinks washed down with spluttered small talk.  There were the crowd at the Croppy Acre, a pub almost defiant of description, where my friends included both Irish Nationalists and Unionists - some of whom worked behind the same bar.  A record I listened much to in those days and nights, was Marc Almond's Tenement Symphony, and in some respects our town, in that pivotal, nerve-racked period of phoney war squeezed between 9/11 and Iraq, might be summed up by the title of one of the album's songs: Beautiful Brutal Thing.  
Given my dangerous mixture of idealism ultra-naivety, and the sorts of company I was often keeping, it is a mystery to me that I remain alive to tell the tale, yet despite my own often grim financial situation, my work amid the hopelessness of human misery, and my deep unease at the increasingly volatile global situation, when I see the photographs of those strangely liberated times, it is a happy, young man who smiles back at me, looking almost like Drinkwater's vagabond, without a care to carry.

There are other resonances in Drinkwater's poem. It was among the Victorian sidestreets of late-night Leytonstone that I saw my first fox - one summer midnight, it stopped me in my tracks, stock-still and beaming through me with two eyes as powerful as golden darts.


Limbs dangle
a raffish mooch,
each furry step slots promptly
into a moonlit loop -

in and out of lamplight,
smooth as a glob of honey
dissolving into coffee
the midnight searcher tries his luck among the backstreets - 

East-end terraces tangle into criss-crossed sprawl,
estates expand to concrete crush,
bottlenecking into pub backyards and warehouse forecourts,
deserted car-parks, scrubland, a grid of lanes where drinkers
straggle out of pubs, prostitutes cross paths, the urban wastelands
and a frosty Wanstead Flats, which veer into the spiderweb of sliproads
pre-empting the M11.
Turning down the High Road, into a block of buildings tightly tucked
into the bricked-in ghetto of east London, I am startled by his stare: 

Seeing me, his gait assumes rigidity,
a temporary tightening of muscles.
Frozen stiff, this frame
of burnt-oak,
nameless midnight wanderer,
mammal of the alleyways,
once more slips into a casual insouicance
shuffling into shadow. 

What I caught last
was not the shapely outline, gingery tint or snow-fluff
tail-tip, as fox fleet-footed out of visibility
but, a souveinir from its shoot-back glance,
two amber eyes half answering,
half questioning. 

I said farewell to Leytonstone on a sleety day in early 2003, watching from the window of a Salford van as the concrete cobweb of its teeming streets and houses spiraled into the background like a tunnel winding into obscurity.  We headed past motorway service stations and flat fields, the neatly sectioned agricultural miles of Southern England gradually rolling into the wilder indiscipline of the Northern countryside, and through the January greyness of South Yorkshire, the Sheffields and the Doncasters and the Wakefields weeping into wintry mirror-images.

With eyes upon the gravel
He does not heed the year,
Among the lives that waken
He moves but does not live,
A bitter way to travel
He travels without fear,
But with no blessing taken
Goes on with none to give. 

(From The Passing of a Stoic, by John Drinkwater)

The next time I saw London would be in December 2005.  Emerging onto the street from Tottenham Court Road tube, I saw from the newspaper boards that David Cameron had won the Conservative Party leadership, and an old Irish woman tried to sell me a sprig of heather.  In Stratford, I stumbled through swollen Christmas shopping crowds to take the trudge to my old home, felt lost and disconnected among the seemingly alien landscape of new discount shops and cash-and-carries.  On a District Line train I sliced through miles of ice, the ghettoized squalor of Limehouse splayed below like some frozen-over Hell.  Finally, at Romford, I repaired to the home of an old friend from Newham, the daughter of a prominent Kenyan politician who nonetheless lived in anonymous poverty among the jumbled dereliction of an over-crowded estate.  When the next morning, my friend, who had tried earnestly the previous night to convert me, went dutifully to her Jehova's Witness meeting, I took myself for a long walk through Havering park, a wide stretch of green belt which, in the glossy frost of mistletoe and holly, glistened in a peace more befitting of some rustic Dales village than a London over-spill.  Strolling through the fields, I came upon a herd of deer, ambling and lazing, some reclining in the winter sunshine, and was filled with a warm, contented feeling of unexpected joy.
Early the next year my poem about the deer was written, and it appeared in my 2014 collection Random Journeys

 This morning I was reading through some poetry of John Drinkwater, and was surprised to discover a piece I had never read before, entitled Deer. It seems to encapsulate something of the idea of freedom, and of that same rejuvenating innocence offered by the deer I saw on the sylvan brink of London, on that cold, glowing December day.


SHY in their herding dwell the fallow deer.
They are spirits of wild sense. Nobody near
Comes upon their pastures. There a life they live,
Of sufficient beauty, phantom, fugitive,
Treading as in jungles free leopards do,
Printless as evelight, instant as dew.
The great kine are patient, and home-coming sheep
Know our bidding. The fallow deer keep
Delicate and far their counsels wild,
Never to be folded reconciled
To the spoiling hand as the poor flocks are;
Lightfoot, and swift, and unfamiliar,
These you may not hinder, unconfined
Beautiful flocks of the mind. 

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.




Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Names of Stars - LA Johnson's "Little Climates" (Bull City Press, North Carolina)

There are always signs we chose not to see, California-born LA Johnson tells us in Little Climates, her myth-laden, elegantly poetic collection from Bull City Press, which blends dreamlike encounters and imagined animals with fields of foxtails, little rooms, scavenged bones and razor blades. Fitting together in a collage of understated narratives, the poems paint vivid pictures, simultaneously mysterious and coherent, like short stories with carefully laid out structures and plots, yet distinctly poetic and written in a fluent free verse style quite unique to their author - truly one of the most original books of poetry I have read all year.

Taken as a whole, the collection makes me feel like I am a passenger on some surreal car journey through the poet's native California, but a trip taken by night, as

In the Adobe Valley, early rabbitbrush
lines the freeway, we watch it burst into sight. 

 So often in Little Climates, the detail is in the omission, as in the opening lines, I never had quiet times in the kitchen (Epistimology) or the splendidly implicative We live in a house full of breakable things (Forecast) The poet's skill lies in juxtaposing of everyday images like these, and wonderfully stimulating choices of metaphor:

In the evening, the walls confine
the regular angers. We listen
to the kettle sing on the stove
that nobody bothers to stop. 

In the freezer, always, only the notion
of an icebox cake—its layers
softening to be like the real thing.
The icing, milk and smooth. 

Elsewhere, in the midst of domesticity, a watery enigma is floated, beautifully:

I dreamt tonight of a glass-bottomed boat
floating through a pine forest, needles pierced
above and below my reflection in the lake surface 

There are echoes of Ovid and Dante in the woodland metamorphoses of Shapeshifting:

Strange things click in the forest.
I feel the cold break in a tree hollow.
My body could be taken anywhere. 


Beneath an indifferent grove, I stagger
and filmy minerals take hold inside
my lungs. Deer wake in the night 

 The poem's deft sweep through its strange nocturnal forest enlivens the senses, in stanzas as sleek and image-laden as Haiku

i v. 

In tall grass, velvet-colored antlers
loom above a curved spine collapsed
with fever, hooves splayed in the dirt. 

and which recurs later in the book for a second visitation, as

Bats circle low in the air, cry
in the chimney. All evening I watch
their violent contours of longing. 

...the narrator embodying a liminal presence, transcending linear narrative into a state of pure poetry:

Lying in a field of wildflowers,
I fall asleep with wet hair. I dream
the names of stars, the myth of language 

The poems burn brightly in symbolic colours - yellow warning flags, blueblack clouds, and throughout the collection you have the irresistible sense of a poet who loves language and is unafraid of demonstrating this - and interweaving atmospheric, often deceptively serene, metaphors and imagery with the language of legend and folklore, as in the portentous Oar Fish,

Rarely seen, they are washing up
on shorelines from Catalina to Santa Cruz. 

Legend says the slime-covered, fatty beasts
mean bad luck, like the hundreds that beached 

themselves in Japan right before the tsunami. 

Deer weave in and out of these poems, portending deaths, punctuating journeys through the night or winding drives along roads that curve, play hide-and-seek with high beams, through a landscape of the American River / running parallel to us, icing over in late season.

Today, the two of us perform a funeral for a home—
we wreathe the doorway with lilies, carry
our possessions above our heads like caskets. 

We scatter the enviable parts of our lives
across the lawn: a radio, ceramic bowls, a sweater 

that never fit. Strangers stop by to look
at all our things. They offer us lemonade
and quarters, each one dressed in black. 

before the pent up bottle-neck of emotion compressed
within this startling suite of poems is finally given vent, unleashed in an unexpected, comedic, abrupt
moment of release, as, Then with hammers, we begin the destruction.

An edited version of this review will appear on Sabotage Reviews.

These Lonely Places - The Forgotten Poetry of George Moor

George Moor is something of a forgotten poet.  I first discovered his writing in the Archives section of the Halifax Central Library, and indeed, this mysterious figure lived for some years, and died, in the Calder Valley, as we shall see.  Between them, Calderdale and Leeds library services stock most of his collections and  several of his novels in their Reference stock, and I've managed to find several of his books on the usual sites such as Amazon and ebay.  But other than that, a large gaping hole appears where, in my view, Moor's place in the public consciousness ought to be.

At Halifax, with the help of the industrious library staff, I was able to uncover a couple of 1950's newspaper cuttings, from the local Halifax press, praising his early fiction, tipping this promising author for big things, while further research has yielded up a few facts and figures about his life and work.  I want to share these, in the hope of gaining further recognition for this somewhat mysterious writer, which I believe is greatly deserved.

  Born on the 3rd May, 1927, Moor attended the Holt High School, in Liverpool. My research has uncovered only that his birthplace was Lancashire, but the few facts I've been able to gather about his youth do contain other Liverpudlian implications -  In 1945, when he was 18, he had a long poem broadcast on local radio, about the Liverpool Blitz. The earliest publications of his poems appear to have been in The Listener, when Moor was just 13.


In 1945, he went to Cambridge University where he studied English and German, and awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal for English verse. When he was 19 he was given the Oscar Blumenthal Prize by Poetry Magazine (Chicago) receiving a small award.The musicologist and composer Wilfred H. Mellers was a tutor at Downing College Cambridge during the same period that George Moor was a student in Cambridge.They collaborated on two works, with George Moor writing the words for a puppet masque and a chamber opera. After university he worked as a teacher in North Wales, then joined his family on their farm in the Yorkshire Dales. This farming life may well have influenced much of Moor's poetry - his best known work was a collection called The White Kid, in which a young man discovers a unicorn-like goat in a forest, who leads him to the girl he will eventually marry.

George Moor seems to have moved to the Calder Valley at some point in the early 1950's, eking a living from farming and writing at Hardcastle Crags.

This would have been around same time as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were known to stay in the area, and I find it tantalizing to speculate on if, how and where they might have met.   Certainly, although conforming to a regular rhyme scheme, Moor's poem about a moorland well, with its Biblical flowers, slightly sinister ravens, and spirit-imbued water, is not too huge a departure from the kinds of poetry each produced in response to the Crags.

A mirror chill with light
the morning well upon the moor
bright presence of shy water secretive,
wind-lit and pure,
the tack winds to it, sewn with gold-pricked broom,
mists rise around.
The mosses slope with starry flowers like pins
and sponge the ground.
The hunchbacked ravens wisely, quietly sit upon its posts,
and I rise and I tend near as one who serves a hall of ghosts,
kneeling to break the shining element,
reserved and fair,
brightening out of earth mysteriously,
it is like a prayer.

 There is in Moor's poetry a tangible sense of Yorkshire history, as in his 1946 poem, The Brontes

They found life hard, with so much to be wept
They in the end preferred to keep their tears
Charlotte adopted irony and kept
balancing clauses through the bitter years.

Anne, who was innocent,
made much of Sin-from-which-in-time-the-hand-of-God
had caught her,
Branwell managed life, if he had gin,
and there was left the last, unlovely daughter.

She on the moors, when flowers advertized
their blaze in spring, discovered earth was good,
and life's long anguish can and must be prized

as a sort of rapture, not quite understood.

Moor's poetic territory was varied, but covers a great deal of mythical and zoological ground, and one thing I have discovered is that snails crop up more than once, as indeed they do in my collection Little Creatures!  Here is George in 1946,

My nerves were fuses creeping snails of fire
My mind fecund and sprouting monstrous things-
Like rabbits twitching on electric wire
Or headless chickens with still trembling wings

and later, with the snail its self as focal point:

The Snail

Curled in a world of wet,
in the dewy grass
like an old brown finger asleep!

The light of my lamp
windows bright rain-beads from every water drop
as you wind and stir
like a noonday leaf.

Sensitive watery satin!
One almost envies
your soft-skinned pleasure or your dew-sweet blade.

But you wilt in the light,
tenderly twisting.
I leave you in the dark.

And whether describing the micro or the macro, his poetic lens brings a sense of place and industrial history sharply into focus

To the farms and neighbouring hills
ascends all day the sound of mills,
a distant noisy thud, resembling
a massive metal jelly, trembling.
In the valleys of the moors
wherever copious water pours,
sprawl with mill-sheds, black and dull
the towns that rose and thrive by wool,
industrial villages that lie
9 months beneath a drizzling sky.
Behind, the grim black moorlands, close
like a world's end where no road goes,
where Romans whistled in their day,
now in the wind wail spectral choirs
from the bare poles' singing wires,
a lonely file they kept before
sinking into every moor.

 Elsewhere, the influence of Coleridge is apparent:

While the frost works silently
its cold and glittering artistry
and icicles shine thin and bright,
long thawing through the silent night.

...and at times, one feels a sense of pure, lyrical delight, bringing beauty to the bleakest of landscapes:

A sky of hyacnthine frost
where, a feeble daytime ghost,
the moon's faint orb lurks dully white.
The frozen moor, in waning light,
lonely and dead on either hand,
appears more like a sea than land,
bounded by the vast bare sky.
On earth's dark breast the snowflakes lie
fresh fallen, new and cold with light
speckling the hills where hangs the light

In one of Moor's most powerful poems, a dad and lad set out one winter dawn to walk across the outskirts of Wigan. The poem, with its unsentimental depictions of a working class neighbourhood, reads at times more like a work of skillfully descriptive prose:

There was no-one in the street as they closed the door of the little house
among all the other little houses set in two rows,
looking strangely pathetic as the dawn light numbly shone in the knocker
and dappled with rose and apple the window, the curtain closed.

As the pair continue, we are given a glimpse of the escapism conjured up by the sight of railway lines, as The rails led flashingly into unknown free land.

 From a high vantage point, and in this poetic spirit of escape, the town of Wigan its self is seen through slightly awe-struck eyes, and in terms which lend a magical sparkle to items of everyday domesticity:

A low plain of roofs and spires
with the grey honey-hued coolers
rising like gigantic milk bottles.
As the dawn sky frostily shone and melted a million colours,
only one chimney wavering white smoke that trailed and thinned away over the moors,
seeming so real in the thin crystal light of the morning,
grey blue flashes where the mines had sunken of old,
and the earth was exhausted and sagging like a cake that had not come right.

It is like a child's view of a decrepit landscape, something DH Lawrence might have written in a light mood, where even the town's tiredness and industrial decay is lit by humour and an unexpected beauty.
This sense of wonder only grows, as further out into the country, and watches birds flying over a reservoir:

...the boy saw wild things flying and flaying
arrowing the fresh sky as they soared with weird cry,
ringed iridescent, blue and green, dark spiritual wailing forms

His heart yearned to be with them in these lonely places
that in the air he might go winging like a throb to the sun with them
as the boy in the story became a swan

This dreamlike peace is shattered when the reason for the excursion is made clear.  One by one, the father dispatches several birds, his gunshots echoing across the surrounding countryside.  Father and son take the long walk back home, and, in a bleak inversion of Seamus Heaney's 1966 poem Death of a Naturalist, his infant innocence is tarnished by the touch of the dead birds' loose, rubber-like necks.  For Heaney, his coming of age was triggered by an intimate experience of encountering nature; Moor's young subject feels his world turned upside down by the bruising realization of man's impact.  The reality of this avian death colours not only the child's consciousness of the non-human world, but of the world its self.  The sad, newly useless bodies flap in the bag over his shoulder:

 twisted and unlovely, like all things,
the smoking factories,
the crippled streets,
their street, too, as they came up,
it seemed small and hateful.

Such is the forgotten poetry of George Moor, a man whose literary legacy is as dim-remembered as the long-lost neighbourhoods whose lonely songs he wove upon the Northern melodies of his sad, lyrical verses, and whose life remains largely a mystery even in the towns and villages where he lived and wrote. 

Monday, 11 December 2017

The Dark Train - Travelling Through the Night with Kenneth Slessor

Much of my life is spent on trains or on railway platforms, so at times I naturally gravitate towards poetry relating to these settings.  I am also a night owl, who regrets the lack of a twenty four transport system in this country - though considering the yobbishness which plagues our trains in even daylight hours, perhaps this would not be such a good idea.  I am, though, used to traveling late, and well recognize the nocturnal depictions in The Night Ride, by Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971).

Pull up the blind, urges the narrator, blink out - all sounds are drugged; / the slow blowing of / passengers asleep;/ engines yawning; water in heavy drips.  The poem, which describes its author's observation of a group of soldiers entering the carriage on which he is riding through the night, begins, not with any sense of nocturnal stillness or moonlit eeriness, but a sense of clamour and hurry:

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;
Milk-tins in cold dented silver


Slessor's interest in the scene is mostly stoked by the arrival of Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station - a silhouetted cast of characters half-obscured by gaslight, whose "mysterious ends," and "private fates" are reflected on with obliquely:

one moment in the window, hooked over bags;
hurrying, unknown faces - boxes with strange labels -
all groping clumsily to mysterious ends,
out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates,
their echoes die
And the future's blank, foreboding page is suggested bleakly by the external scene, in which a darkened slideshow is underscored by subtly inserted sound effects: 

The dark train shakes and plunges;
bells cry out, the night-ride starts again.
Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,
pale, windy fields, the old roar and knock of the rails
melts in dull fury. Pull down the blind. Sleep. Sleep
Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside


 The sounds of motion dulled by the wintry elements, the vision of the train and its passengers transfigure a human journey and the search for destinations against a hostile landscape.  It is interesting to speculate on how, had the poet not encountered this unexpected collective of fellow travelers, The Night Ride might never have been written.  Was its composition prompted purely by their unexpected presence?  Or was there something in the poem's nocturnal setting, of watching a darkened world go by and sitting by a window reflecting on the transience of life, that was instinctive to its author?  To know something of Slessor's life is to appreciate something of the underlying "baggage" present in his poem.

Kenneth Slessor was born in New South Wales, the son of a Jewish mining engineer, whose Australian mother's family was of Hebridean origins.  The Slessor household was known for its bohemian liberality, and regularly hosted musicians and artistic gatherings.  The family spoke French at mealtimes, and the young Kenneth was encouraged to develop a European outlook, not to be negated by his love of country: at 17, his poem Jerusalem Set Free won the Victoria Prize for Patriotic Poetry.

Slessor would go on to win great acclaim and prizes for his poetry, and come to be regarded as perhaps the quintessential Australian poet of his age.  With a first class honours degree in English, and a successful career in journalism, he was appointed official war correspondent by the Commonwealth government in 1940, and his life and poetry were the subjects of several celebrated critical studies and biographies.  Yet one of the defining moments in Slessor's life came in 1927, the death by drowning of his friend Joe Lynch, an artist who died after falling into Sydney Harbour.  The thirty year old Lynch, whose most famous work, a sculpt called Satyr, was both praised, and damned as "pagan" by critics and contemporaries, was drawn to a hedonistic lifestyle.  The night he died, Lynch had been drinking with friends and was traveling with them back across the harbour, en-route to the house of cartoonist George Finey.  All the party, which did not include Kenneth Slessor, were carrying copious amounts of alcohol to be consumed later, but once on board the boat which was to convey them to their destination, Lynch removed to the rear of the deck, and without warning threw himself over the edge.  It is said that he was followed into the water by a friend, desperately trying to save his life, but resisted the attempt, and that was the end of Lynch, who was eventually found dead with two bottles of beer still stuffed into his pockets.
Slessor later recalled how Joe Lynch was prone to a nihilistic attitude, and remembered in an interview how “Joe was a devout nihilist and frequently (over a pint of Victoria Bitter) said that the only remedy to the world’s disease was to blow it up and start afresh.”  The unhappy artist's famous sculpt, cast in bronze forty years after his death, now faces the sea in which its sculptor drowned.

The sad death of Joe Lynch might have almost gone forgotten - another tragic statistic in the history of Sydney Harbour - even before the opening of the Harbour Bridge, suicides were numerous, with a further forty happening since the bridge was built in 1932 - were it not for Kenneth Slessor.  Perhaps Slessor's most famous poem is 1939's Five Bells, a meditation on the five ringing bells of ships, in which the death of his friend is remembered. Frequently anthologized, inspiring multiple contemporary songs and novels, and a mainstay of many on Australian school syllabuses, Slessor's  tribute to Joe Lynch is tender and respectful, and articulates the persistence of a grief which has not ebbed twelve years after the sculptor's death.

I looked out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand . . .
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.

How present, then, was this loss in Kenneth Slessor's mind as he sat on board the dark train, gazing beyond its watery windows into a black, cold distance?  We can only imagine now, more than half a century from when the poem was written, how deeply his years as a correspondent reporting on the horrors of World War Two were present in the poet's mind as he watched the anonymous soldiers boarding, bound on their journeys to mysterious, uncertain fates.  And we can only imagine how strongly the thought of his drowned friend might still have reverberated in his mind, as the train pulled in and out of stations, like a ship in a harbour, shaking and plunging through the night.  Bells cry out, he tells us in the poem, a line laced with knowing sadness, the night-ride starts again.

The Night Ride

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;
Milk-tins in cold dented silver; half-awake I stare,
Pull up the blind, blink out - all sounds are drugged;
the slow blowing of passengers asleep;
engines yawning; water in heavy drips;
Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station,
one moment in the window, hooked over bags;
hurrying, unknown faces - boxes with strange labels -
all groping clumsily to mysterious ends,
out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates,
their echoes die. The dark train shakes and plunges;
bells cry out, the night-ride starts again.
Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,
pale, windy fields, the old roar and knock of the rails
melts in dull fury. Pull down the blind. Sleep. Sleep
Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside.
Gaslight and milk-cans. Of Rapptown I recall nothing else.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Poetry of Marko Vesovic

On 22nd November, former Bosnia Serb General Ratko Mladic was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against Humanity, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, bringing a degree of closure to a conflict which traumatized an entire region. The Balkan conflict of the 1990's stretched throughout my adolescence, a seemingly interminable tragedy played out nightly on the television news. The resolution of the conflict at the decade's end, and the subsequent removal from power of many of its architects  has enabled the area to develop and prosper, but this seemed all but unthinkable when the fighting was at its height, bringing to the political lexicon a range of macabre new terms, such as the chilling "ethnic cleansing," words which will forever be associated with the period's most infamous chapter, the Srebrenica Massacre of July 1995, which occurred towards the close of the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

One man who lived through the war was the Montenegro-born poet, essayist, translator and academic Marko Vesovic, who was born in 1945, in the Montenegrin village of Pepe, arrived, via family connections, in Sarajevo in 1963, and has remained there ever since - first studying, now teaching, at the city's University.  Having translated Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva and Aleksandr Pushkin into Serbo-Croat, Vesovic is a member of the Serb Civic Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and by the 1990's had become one of the country's most respected poets.  But, having been born when one enormous war was at an end, he would endure three and half years of living amid conflict, and emerge from them as a fierce opponent of Nationalism, with a sense that the city of Sarajevo, as he recently told Bosnian journalist Sergio Paini, "has unfortunately changed forever."

American poet Chris Agree has described how,  Suffused with an ironic, Rabelaisian wit, Vešovic´s poetry both mocks an imperfect world and celebrates the enchantments of childhood memory with gentleness and ardour. A striking feature of his oeuvre is the huge arc of its perspectives: from intimate conversations with his dead mother, through the harsh splendours of Pape, to the overwhelming pressures of the Bosnian war. In a language that is both richly imagistic and formally dextrous, one encounters everywhere in Vešovic´s poetry the eternal dialogue between the tenderness and cruelty of existence.

Summa Summarum (Latin: All in All)
The leaves of the ilex by the graveyard
Whisper prophetically.

And barley-corn ripens
Like those actors who
In the same role for the hundredth time
Stand forth before the audience. (1)


Indeed, there is much insight - and wit - in the works of this talented, somewhat don-ish in appearance, at times contrary, poet - who is stopped on the street by admiring fans, yet whose sense of humour is self-deprecating, and who recently told a magazine that, on being offered the chance of taking political office in Bosnia,  I responded that my students would laugh when they heard that, because I'm not capable of putting a classroom in order, much less a country. I can't imagine myself in a situation where I am commanding, giving orders to anyone.

In the early 60's, Vesovic, like many rising stars of the Sarajevo poetry scene, made the acquaintance of a charismatic, imposing, ultimately murderous poet, lawyer, and, almost unbelievably, children's author, who would come to international recognition as a war criminal responsible for murdering any of Vesovic's own countrymen - Radovan Karadžić .  This former association and the shock with which Karadvic's culpability for genocide would wreak on Vesovic and others, would form a pivotal moment in his thinking and world view, but during the war its self, Vesovic turned his skill towards encouraging his fellow citizens to resist the military onslaught. On the Poetry International website, Chris Agee explains how During the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo, Vešovic remained in the city and wrote over 100 essays for Oslobodenje ('Liberation'), Dani ('Days') and Slobodna Bosna ('Free Bosnia'). These writings, which exemplify the multi-ethnic defence of the Bosnian capital, were of immense importance to the morale of the city's besieged inhabitants. Vesovic also saw this material as a means of reaching out to many of his Serb contemporaries lured by the emotive, age-old tug of Serb Nationalism.  In 2014, Vesovic told Frontline magazine:
 I only know this - we were still hoping that the war would stop. As if a misunderstanding had happened - human consciousness could not possibly agree to evil, to a war. We thought it was entirely monstrous, that there was a war in Sarajevo, and Bosnia as a whole.
The poet's own experiences of military service clearly influenced his writing, which even when recalling times of long ago seems inevitably prophetic:

 I'm doing sentry duty.  At dawn.  Nearby is a house.  Actually,
a yellowish hovel.  Beside it--a poplar above a well.
The poplar is as tall, it somehow seems to me, as
the well is deep.  Above the house white smoke is unfolding
Like a baby's diapers.

In the house a child is crying. Long. For years already.

It seems: The shack would come down if the child fell silent.
Anything can come to mind when one is
Doing sentry duty. (2)

Later, I am reminded of Houseman's deceptively tranquil pastoral set among the balmy days immediately preceding World War 1, On the Idle Hill of Summer, as the calm before the storm is depicted in Mario Susko's skillful translation:

From a green meadow, wounded, was staring at the sky.
There was nothing for a million miles around.
Yes, miles, as if the immense void that
Roared around me was in fact the open sea.
Stark and boundless.   From everything, under the sky,
Only a blind starkness remained that roared brutally. (3)

I think the Houseman comparison may have been partly triggered by my coincidental recent reading of the journals of Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, and later the Peace Implementation Council's High Representative to Bosnia and Heregovina,  in which his own first visit to the soon to be battle-scarred countryside of Bosnia evokes a memory of the poem.  The diaries depict in painful detail the impact of the war on the civilians of Bosnia, and provide snapshots of everyday life - the unease of which is captured by Vesovic, in an atmospheric, and moving, invocation of Tolstoy's War and Peace:

I, too, like Prince Andrey, before death,
suddenly felt that there was nothing
In the world but that immeasurable distance
Above me, and the still more immeasurable distance,
Inside.  As if the soul was looking upon itself
From an immensity
powerfully healing.
Or as if it were looking on its pain after a million summers.
Pain turned into a white waterfall roaring like the spring of the Bosna.

I, too, like Prince Andrey, realized
that nothing matters more
than those distances that multiplied with lightning speed.
Seventy-seven immensities, the soul
drinking from each like from the seventy-seven fountains of home,
The world was, all around, ground to powder,
and looked like that
Ruddy column of dust that surges upward
When a shell smashes into someone's house in Sarajevo.  (4)

I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in one of the most bitter warzones of the Twentieth Century.  A library colleague, who served in a NATO peace-keeping unit during the Siege of Sarajevo, has described some of his experiences, but also talks about the "gallows humour" and resilient attitudes among the military.  This sort of thing is suggested by Vesovic in his lighter moments, as in his poem
in which a soldier in an unspecified conflict is depicted as having found a blouse among his kit, a reminder of some amorous adventure:

Suddenly, because of all this—the wine-colored west,
the new moon with horns, the woman’s tiny blouse whose
scent, like a thread, can lead you out of hell—
suddenly, because of this, I feel my soul relieved,
more at ease with the world. (5)


But lurking beneath any happiness or calm, is an ever-present murmur of disquiet, of anxiety, of fear:

It is a stillness and solitude when you listen to a baby bird’s feathers
Growing, when you listen to an elder tree
Sprouting from human absence amid the ramparts,
And when rocks start looking, for a moment,
Like gigantic layers of police files
With the fingerprints of millions of vanished beings
Whose murmur is heard anew.   (6)

See how even the rocks remind Vesovic of "layers of police files."  This is, after all a poet who lived for most of three decades under a Communist dictatorship.


But Marko Vesovic will be best remembered for his poetry decrying the effects of the war which followed Yugoslavia's break up.  Perhaps Vesovic's most famous poem is the stunningly simple Signature, describing an incident in which he and his infant daughter were returning home during a period of fighting:

 I'm running home with my little daughter –
again, shells have surprised us on the street.
Shells have, for centuries, been falling every day,
and every time they surprise us.

I'm hurrying her on with angry words:
transferring my rage from the Serb gunners
to a child awaited ten years.
Let me write my name, she tells me, as we pass
a patch of virgin snow in the park.
Instead of scolding her,
I—God knows why—let her forefinger
break the delicate whiteness,
and then, around the Cyrillic IVANA VEŠOVIC
my forefinger describes a circle,

Like in fairy-tales.   (7)

Looking back on the war today, Vesovic expresses little in the way of triumphalism.  Indeed, there is an element of the "stiff-upper-lip," or the militant machismo he has spoken of as inherent to his generation of Montenegrins:

We should lock it all up in the soul
and forget. But at least we shall, from now on
have a touch more self-respect, I hope,
like the fighter who takes a billion blows
but stays on his feet and his mangled face
in the mirror tells him who he really is.    (8)

Offering scant philosophy, Vesovic soberly attests that:

 We who passed through the siege of Sarajevo
shall, of course, gain nothing.
An experience that will serve no purpose:
as if you lost your arms and won a violin,
as Rasko would say. You can’t even tell
others about it. Can you reconstruct an ancient
jug from the lonely handle that made it to
our time?  
 To know how much you can bear, without
exploding—that is the only property that you
shall, if you survive, bring from this war,
endless like the handkerchief a magician pulls
out of his hat. This knowledge—a saber which
we shall not draw very often from the scabbard.
But at least I will keep my hand
on its hilt.    


Thankfully I have never experienced the kinds of horrors Vesovic and his generation lived through; nor, despite the current political and economic crises troubling Europe, is it likely that the Balkans will ever again face the anarchy and violence which characterized the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The book I am reading at the moment is an account of the crimes of, and subsequent hunt for, Serbian politician Radovan Karadžić - Nick Hawton's Europe's Most Wanted Man: the quest for Radovan Karadžić.  And it was his unlikely associations with this war criminal, currently serving a term of up to forty years for genocide and crimes against Humanity.  Remembering Karadzic as an egotistical presence on the 1960's literary scene, Vesovic has nonetheless explained how he and many of his fellow poets had an affection, or respect, for the future warmonger - who, while infamous for his role as a Serb Nationalist, was actually born in Vesovic's native Montenegro.  The friendship petered out in the early 1970's, when Karadzic was exposed as a spy for the Communist authorities by whom Vesovic had been reprimanded for some of his anti-government writings.  But even this betrayal did not overly taint Vesovic's view of his supposed friend: I'd rather have a have my own Montenegran inform against me, he told Frontline magazine, than someone from Bosnia who didn't know me at all, and he really knew me.

Over the years, Vesovic and his friends would watch their old associate assume national recognition through a political career, which did not surprise Vesovic in the slightest:

He's a born politician because of his absolute self-confidence. And because of his optimism. In my opinion, a politician is by definition a born optimist. He really did have these characteristics which would have made him a politician even in a different kind of time when butchering people and changing the borders wasn't a part of it. The point is, I have talked to his colleagues and I didn't know how to find the right description for him. But they did. He is a psychopath. You know, being a psychopath is a very dangerous illness.
In early 2012, Hague Tribunal prosecutors produced recorded evidence, in the form of audio recordings whereby Karadzic and others are heard authorizing mass slaughters, finally putting paid to any lingering revisionism propagated by their partisan supporters.  One of those for whom this evidence had an immense personal impact was Marko Vesovic:

The voice which said this shocked me. And it was forever engraved in my mind. Because for me, all I had known about Karadzic up to then, dissolved in one second. I only realized that it wasn't the same man; that weakling, that clay... He became someone who had control over the life and death of his own nation. 

With the chief protagonists of the Balkan slaughters now either dead or behind bars, the butchery of which Vesovic speaks is surely a thing of the past, and last week's the sentencing of Ratko Mladic does seem to indicate the closing of a chapter in the region's tragic history. But it is a chapter whose echoes resonate across the world today, and the age-old anxieties, emotions and pains bound up within its memory will never be erased.
Summa Summarum
The leaves of the ilex by the graveyard
Whisper prophetically.

And barley-corn ripens
Like those actors who
In the same role for the hundredth time
Stand forth before the audience.

Yet do not extol,
To the skies, your native land.
It ought to extol you.

Seen from this cloud
These meadows and fields
Are a stamp album;

And to the ant a smoke ring
Twirling from your cigarette
Is a whole new landscape!

And stop threatening for once
To return next time
To this handful of land without history
Only in the shape of a rider in bronze.

And before you leave
Stroke the bark of these trees
Which all the while have given you
Free lessons in standing tall!

1,10 -  Chris Agee
2,3,4, 7-Mario Susko 
5,6 -  Omer Hadžiselimović 
8-Zvonimir Radeljkovic
9 -  Zvonmir Radeljkovic