Monday, 24 December 2018

Cormorant over the Calder

Twice now I have watched a cormorant, who in my mind is the selfsame bird I see perched atop an iron bridge across the Calder, flying over the edge of Sowerby Bridge.  As the factories of yesteryear peel by, disused chimneys and abandoned mills peering over the riverbanks like thinning autumn trees, I have sat by train windows and watched its shadowy shape, like a thin black bullet, creeping through the evening skies.

I have written about cormorants here before, and have several poems about them in collections, but my sightings of the cormorant over the Calder have prompted a specific suite of three poems, with which I would like to sign off this year of 2018.

Jet thread spinning
over chimney stacks,
racks of roofs
and a river
wintry with rain,
you cruise,
a spool
of raven lace
above the skeletons of trees

As evening drags a ragged shawl
across a valley fringed in frost
you're a shadow
slicing through December cloud,
ebony heron
charcoaling a sunset-sprinkled sky.

Stygian quill
inking Northern townscapes
in a slaty scrape
of sable,
star-strewn skies
in a twisting slit
of scintillant wings .

Dark hearted one,
you float a fine line
between river
and town,
skirt a precipice of crag,
hack a mizzled scrim
of sleet, swing
beneath the brow
of a moon-crowned hill
like a memory of witchcraft.


Tuesday, 18 December 2018

In Search of the Political Poem

At times I have been encouraged to write political poetry, and have sometimes done so. It is a difficult proposition because my instincts are not ideological, and, as such, the issue of political poetry is one in which I am likelier to find myself cast in the role of ever-learning observer rather than well-informed expert.  I have been inspired by much political poetry of the past, particularly from previous generations and from places other than Britain. I think back to poetry by Pauline Melville, writing about South African Apartheid, of more recent responses to injustice which I have documented on this blog - Romanian poet Ana Blandiana, Persian poet Payam Feili, persecuted and condemned to death for his sexuality in Iran before finding asylum in Israel, the Zimbabwean poets who wrote excoriatingly about life under Mugabe and their anxieties since the departure of that despot:

Burial of An Activist, by Ethel Kabwato (Zimbabwe)

They buried him today
Lips and tongue
Cut out
As if to silence
Even in death. 

I think of the poets and writers I know and have known, for whom the Russian Revolution is something to celebrate - all of them British, having no connections to Russia and having never set foot there, none of them ever open to even questioning the blinkered narratives to which they slavishly subscribe, most of which are themselves penned by British academics at safe distances from tyranny.  The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova did not escape the terror of the Revolution, whose bloody inhumanity was recorded in her poetry, written in response to first hand experience.  The poet's first husband was executed by the State's secret Police, while her son and long-time partner - poets Lev Gumilyev and Nikolay Punin - spent many years in prison due to "Anti-Soviet activity", the latter dying behind bars.  Poets like these have few counterparts in today's Britain, where most writers barely venture beyond the ivory towers of Universities.

In general, my bugbear with British - and specifically English - political poetry is its predictability. I try to be objective, and as such will give any poem a go regardless of whether I agree or disagree with its message. I've seen a few poems by far-right authors and they were truly dreadful; on the other hand by far the majority of "political poems" are left wing, and I have rarely experienced surprise from any.
This is changing a bit. But generally it seems to me that the political poet is driven first and foremost to deliver a message, and chooses to do it via poetry second. Often I hear poets at open-mics describing their work as political, when what follows are little more than ramblings against particular politicians, or diatribes against "the bankers." Most of this poetry shares certain commonalities. Subtleties of language appear not to be important.  Attention to, or conscious rejection of, symbolism, rhythm, imagery and form are exchanged for simplistic rhyme schemes or raw anger. Above all is the obvious conviction that the poet's perspective, put across without equivocation, is unquestionable. How far this is strictly "political" - ie the exploration of an ideological idea, an attempt to change others' ways of thinking, or a response to a particular policy or societal movement - and how far "poetic" rather than light verse or simply abuse, is a matter of debate.

Thinking back over some of the most political readings I have attended, the strongest have come from poets born outside of the UK, relating their experiences of growing up in areas of conflict, and the effects this has had on them.  British political poetry, on the other hand, seems often to be about "issues" rather than experiences or memories, or is moulded around group identity, and it has often seemed to me while listening that what is being delivered is surely more along the lines of a poorly structured essay or a pitch at Speaker's Corner than a "poem" in any recognizable sense. The most memorable thing about many is precisely that their content tends not to be memorable.  The shouting of anarchists, the woman who ranted about Syria, urging the audience to join in chants expressing support for one side or another of that state's interminable civil war, without any background information on the conflict or explanations of why we should take sides; the foul-mouthed tirades against public figures or, conversely, the vague celebrations of  "The People," or "Our NHS," - little of this yields any concrete memories in my own mind of actual lines and phrases, of linguistic experimentation, questions, words.

 The Poet Must Die, by Don Mattera, 1983 (South Africa)

The poet must die
His murmuring threatens their survival
His breath could start the revolution;
He must be destroyed.

Ban him.
Send him to the Island
Call the firing squad.
But remember to wipe his blood
From the wall.
Then destroy the wall
Crush the house 
Kill the neighbours.

If their lies are to survive
The poet must die.

Artists in North Korea or Iran, like their predecessors in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, face abuse, imprisonment and even death, for their words.  Here, we feel brave attacking Trump, Farage etc, when no harm and only acclaim will result. If only more poets, comedians, and journalists were more honest about this. Anna Akhmatova's long poem The Requiem, a memorial for those murdered in the Stalinist terror, was considered by its author to be too dangerous to publish until Stalin's death in 1953. I simply cannot imagine any poet in Britain trembling at the thought of Theresa May's reaction to their poems poking fun of her Brexit deal or her dancing.

I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I've learned to recognise
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That's why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall

(From Requiem, by Anna Akhmatova).

I remember some ago a poet I know to read a piece he had written "about the rise of a certain political party," and as he said these words, audiences would murmur knowingly - the whole affair a hammed up delusion that they were all uniting in something subversive, as if by naming the party they would be risking getting into bother. Why could he not have said it was about Ukip? What did he actually think would happen?

The response of the poetic populi to the vexing question Britain's EU Referendum was understandably combustible.  My gripe is not that poets lamented the results, but more that there seems to be a desperation in poetic circles to somehow translate everything that has happened into easily comprehensible terms, often with contradictory results - in their poems, essays, twitter feeds and open mic intro's I find poets simultaneously savaging those enacting Brexit while canonizing Jeremy Corbyn, even though the latter is very much one of the former. 
But without wanting to rehash the arguments themselves, how are poets to respond to such societally seismic events?
The Referendum was bread and butter for the politically inclined, but destabilizing and ruinous for many of us on the sidelines, or who, thanks in part to our idealistic or gullible natures, became putty in the hands of bigots and extremists. We found ourselves at the mercy of a  political class unable to resolve their ideological dilemmas, and handing the task over to an unprepared electorate, who in spite of the challenges, stresses and responsibilities upon our shoulders in our daily lives, were expected to cast deciding votes on an issue of imperceptible complexity, without the time, and certainly the payment, granted to the MP's we elect to manage these affairs - the supposed experts in the field. 
So how can I articulate the predicament of having made the agonizing decision to vote Leave, for reasons of Internationalism, animal welfare and the impact of EU policies on the developing world, yet supporting membership for the same reasons, regretting it, equally torn in different directions? How do you put into words the despair, the indecision, the horror at violence against ethnic minorities, the disgust at the ageist abuse and hatred that the aftermath has normalized? There were some unexpected positives to be taken from my own experiences, not least my involvement with the charity Migrant Help, but none of this lends its self for me to anything translatable as poetry.  Instead, the situation seems turgid, depressing, and confusing. We are living in a society where simple solutions are offered for insoluble problems. When did we become divided into two tribes, "Leavers" and "Remainers"?   These identities are imposed on us in attempts to boil down decades' worth of multi-stranded philosophical debates, in which each possible outcome evinces a diversity of pro's and cons.  How many people, proudly sporting the stripes of one or the other of these persuasions, has professional experience of the European Union?  Has read and understood the various EU treaties?  How many have genuinely put themselves in the position of those on the perceived other side, or admitted the validity of a countervailing claim?  Of course, expecting poets to incorporate such considerations into their work is to miss the point: contemporary British political poetry relies on generalities and partiality, not on nuanced micro-analysis, or, despite the frequent pretensions to the contrary, on empathy across dividing lines.
Although undertaken for relatively honourable reasons, who now can fail to see that the decision to hold a Referendum will go down as one of the greatest mistakes in British history, one that has divided families, wrecked relationships, disrupted communities and workplaces - and that it will not end there? Racism in the debate cuts both ways - Little Englander Nationalists with narrow protectionist instincts, and those who proclaim they are "proudly European" as if this dictates that a federal Union should be established in accordance with their selected identity.  I am sick of hearing people debate if leaving the EU will result in more non-EU "migrants" as if this were a bad thing in its self.   A "migrant" is a human being and, notwithstanding security considerations etc, all should have equal rights of movement whether EU citizens, Africans, Asians or anyone else - regardless of whether we depart.
Now we have been dragged down the Referendum route, it probably make sense to  hold one every five or ten years. But two things are for sure: whatever the results of the "Peoples' Vote," the losing side will demand a re-run; and to pitch the vote in binary, In/Out terms may well prove catastrophic in terms of the remaining social fabric of this country.

Now how do you get all that into a poem - and who the Devil would wish to?!

How do you get the sense of feeling at once depressed by the anti-semitism of Labour - how can I get behind a party who so cravenly capitulated to a tainted and untrustworthy leader they had previously fought tooth and nail to get rid of? - or the idea that, in contrast to a seeming majority of poets who are utterly convinced of their own viewpoint, that you simply have no idea of what solutions may be offered to Britain's current political malaise, into poetry that is emotionally and intellectually challenging, satisfying or stimulating?  How to approach our current impasse and dreadful dearth of political wisdom in a way that is not alienating, but cathartic, both to the writer, and the reader?

As I write, the twittersphere is exploding with hysterical responses to  Brexit, the Middle East, or the American President's latest outbursts.  Everyone writes with such conviction, unable to spot the contradictions in their own assertions. Everyone seems to have a crystal ball with which to point to Utopian or Doomsday scenarios, and is ready to subject anyone who disagrees to personal abuse.  Britain is breaking up before our eyes, its institutions battle-scarred, its politicians fractious and underwhelming. At the very point where empathy is needed, unity and healing bitterly overdue, we have hatred, fear and despair.  Perhaps the reason I have failed to make some sort of sense out of all this through the medium of poetry is that I simply do not have any answers or suggestions.  To me, the paths ahead seem strewn with bigotry, each proposal distorted by the war-cry of the crowd.  Empathizing with both sides, I am damned by both.  Disbelieving each, I am comforted by neither. Unable to join the swelling ranks of the determined, I drift like flotsam on a cold, unpredictable sea.  I face the past with a mixture of sorrowful yearning and deep regret; the present with bewilderment; the future with foreboding. Now, at close to midnight, I find I have written my much sought for, long evasive, political poem:

Britain, 2018:
Nobody knows what the Hell is going on.
Everybody knows they're right.

Rediscovered poetry of canals

Resurrected from storage, having been featured in an exhibition years ago in Sowerby Bridge, the following poems all relate to the canal which features in much of my life.  My flat overlooks the Rochdale Canal, and its sights and sound are regular fixtures in my days. The rediscovery of these poems has been a bittersweet experience, as most were written early in my Calder Valley days, lonely and unhappy times, and yet a period of time much simpler than now, long before our country was wounded by tormenting divisions over Brexit and the current climate of hatred and confusion which characterises this fractured land:

January dusk; 
ducks huddle upon waters
bounced on by a cavalcade of rain.


 My overriding interest was in the wildlife found on and around the canal:

Midnight, and a daggering black shape of wings
like a looming W appears
in shadow over moon-blue water;
seconds later and its brooding form
is overhead, and floating
into tar-black distance.

Herons, which I often see traversing the watery worlds of the canal and the Rivers Calder and Ryburn, would come to dominate my canal poetry, and in one rediscovery I notice the transience and mirage-like manner in which I seem to paint them:

At a distance on this Sunday afternoon,
you're eyebrow-fine in river mist,
cut sharp and almost one-dimensional;

as though your wafer-thinness
were a cloak
a winter pelt,
a wraithlike sillhouette,
a flickered implication.

I note brief, elegiac glimpses of the canal from winter's afternoons:

Frost-fog settles over locks
hinging the horizon like bent birches

and overviews of the canal network as it seemed to me in those early days of close proximity:

Like tunnels burrowed by enterprising gangs
of weasels, voles, or lithe, subsurface predators,
they split and sub-divide, 
a grid of burrowed waterscapes
as if the veins of earth had somehow opened up.

And this, written from my window as the scarlet majesty of a June evening blended into a starlit fantasia of warm summer rain, silvery water, and much sought, rare calm:

Rain subsides,
rain falls,
rain blends on a sky-like surface,
fishes glittering below;
ducks sail gently by.

Evening sun glows gently over the canal.

We are very lucky to live on this beautiful planet.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Sluggish Surprise ... Rediscovered Poems

Although I have lived in my current flat for nearly four years, I have never really fully "unpacked", and find myself still sifting through boxes and bags of disparate books, notepads and scribblings, sometimes containing long-forgotten poetry.  I was sorting through my kitchen recently when I came across a sequence of haiku-like poems all revolving around one particular subject:

On my finger 
the chill of slug, 
summer has begun

The period was the summer of 2010, when I was collating, and still writing, the poems which would go into my 2013 collection Little Creatures: Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, and the scene, as I recall, was the University of Manchester, where I was sequestered for the day at a training course for my then job at the Leeds Music Library, which perhaps explains the imagery in the first piece:

Black keys on the piano 
of our garden, 
the speechless slugs


While this poem, with its rather racy evocations of gastropodal romance, could almost have been taken from my poem Slug Sex, from Little Creatures:

on the rockery - 
squiggly antennae twitch 

I reproduce the remainder below, in the sequential order into which they have assembled themselves in my mind, the poems being unlikely to find sufficient thematic parity with any other group to warrant their inclusion in a future collection.   
The night light beams 
upon a concrete multiplicity 
of slugs and snails

Like congealing cigars 
the slugs, seed eyes 
illume the night

By the toadflax 
the solitary slug - 
do you feel lonely?

Streaking the path 
in slimy reminders, 
nocturnal mollusc

Monday, 30 July 2018

Emily Bronte bicentenary

Today marks 200 years since the birth of Emily Bronte.


It seems strange to reflect that six months ago I had planned a whole raft of activities to commemorate this prestigious bicentenary, from live talks to library events,  publications to radio recordings.  I did indeed begin the year with a talk about Emily including some readings from her poems, at Morley Library.  But 2018 has not turned out the way I had hoped, with the death of my father, and a subsequent tally of losses, family illnesses and personal troubles casting one shadow after another as the months have racked up, all of which have put paid to my initial hopes.  So it has happened that my marking of this momentous birthday has been more private than originally envisaged.  Nonetheless, I shall still pay a visit to her birthplace, and the famous Haworth home at which Emily Bronte's great novel Wuthering Heights was written.

Both Thornton, the Bronte birthplace, and Haworth Parsonage, have been regular haunts of mine, as I have visited in the course of making my film about Branwell, or simply for interest, and have for one reason or another become like places of pilgrimage through my last few years - as has the moorland pinnacle of Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse reputed to be at least one of the inspirations for Wuthering Heights.

Ruins of the church  where Patrick Bronte preached 1815-20, at Thornton, West Yorks, birth town of Emily Bronte
St Michael and All Angels Church, Haworth
Top Withens

 There have been many celebrations and commissioned works to acknowledge and celebrate Emily's bicentenary.  But with all of the above in mind, my own tribute to Emily Bronte takes the simple form of reproducing the following three poems, three of my personal favourites which I often read and quoted from in delivering my talks about the Brontes with Caroline Lamb, and which over the years have brought me considerable fulfillment and comfort.  Happy birthday, Emily.


High waving heather, 'neath stormy blasts bending,
Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars;
Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending,
Earth rising to heaven and heaven descending,
Man's spirit away from its drear dongeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars.

All down the mountain sides, wild forest lending
One mighty voice to the life-giving wind;
Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.

Shining and lowering and swelling and dying,
Changing for ever from midnight to noon;
Roaring like thunder, like soft music sighing,
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying,
Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.


 It was night, and on the mountains
Fathoms deep the snowdrifts lay;
Streams and waterfalls and fountains
Down the darkness stole away.

Long ago the hopeless peasant
Left his sheep all buried there,
Sheep that through the summer pleasant
He had watched with tend'rest care.

Now no more a cheerful ranger
Following pathways known of yore
Sad he stood, a wild-eyed stranger,

 On his own unbounded moor. 


Cold in the earth — and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore;
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
That noble heart for ever, ever more?

Cold in the earth – and fifteen wild Decembers
From these brown hills have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion –
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Stitching Time - in the Poetry of Sudeep Sen

Its twenty five years since I last traveled by aeroplane, yet the powerful sensations of change, of migratory transitions, of a widening, or shrinking, sense of one's own place in the context of an enormous planetary jumble, is still a very clear memory, evoked acutely by a recent re-reading of Flying Home,  a poem by Indian writer Sudeep Sen.

Flying Home contains both memorable images of flying its self - the unpredictable lumps and hollows of a sky and the patchwork quilt of aeroplane lines - with a testament to the emancipation of flying free and leaving the phenomenon of alternate time zones and realities.

I meticulously stitch time through embroidered sky, the poet tells us, explaining how:

I am going home once again from another 
home, escaping the weave of one reality into another.

 In my case, the flight was across the short stretch of the Atlantic separating England from Ireland, while for Sudeep Sen, the journey described is a much longer one, from England to India, yet, having found myself, for various reasons, lately undertaking different journeys back into my own past, retracing former steps and having reason to revisit the sites of former schools, I feel a sense of connection with Sudeep's exchanging of realities, his nod to how the past gently reminds and stalls to confirm: my body is the step-son of my soul.

In the above lines, Sen suggests that our outward appearances convey only a semblance, second-hand, of our truer, inward feelings, located, for the poet, in the soul.  He goes further:

But what talk of soul and skin
in this day and age, such ephemeral things,

that cross-weave blood and breath
into clotted zones of true escape.

What talk of flight time and flying
when real flights of fancy are crying

to stay buoyant, unpredictably in mid-air
amid pain, peace and belief: just like thin air

With its distinctions between formalities with the strength of natural instincts emphasized in clotted zones of true escape, the poem sketches a beautiful evocation of true freedom: of feelings and "flights of fancy" and the liberation of life above the world, where, free as a bird, the soul is unconstrained by human time zones and finds deliverance where another home is built / in free space vacuum.

The poem's strength lies in its metaphorizing of realities into aeroplane lines, with all of the ephemerality implied, and its author's neat yet somehow loose fitting arrangement of the lines into couplets, whose phrases hang over into the next, and whose brief descriptions of a drift through time perfectly distill the subjective nature of overlapping realities, time zones and the idea of places, roots and "home."

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Diluting the Darkness - Poetry of Alice Taylor

The brief, sensitive verses of Irish poet Alice Taylor's collection The Journey (The O'Brien Press 2010) offer indirect but empathic responses to loss, framed in glances at the natural world. Discovering them three months after my father's death, I have found many of the poems to make subtly therapeutic reading, while others pull no punches in their commentaries on grief.


From my inner grove
A deep-rooted tree
Has been dragged up
A gaping chasm
Where I once stood
Beneath sheltering branches,
A weeping hole
Pours black tears
From my morning
Down through my day.

Comprising poems written and published over several decades, The Journey is thus a sort of Selected Poems, but they seem to have been sequenced in such a way as to sketch an honest representation of the poet's losses, being both stark and subtle, dark and quietly restorative, but ever sentimental:

Shawls of Silence

Let me creep down
A brown burrow,
Down into the
Quiet womb of earth.
Deep down there
Is only silence.
Down, down,
Where velvet darkness
Clothes the ragged mind
In a shawl of gentle stillness.

Born in County Cork, Alice Taylor grew up on a farm, and much of her work is underscored by observations of agricultural life, the ways of the countryside, and the workings of nature, which are somehow reflective without seeming passive - indeed, one really gets the sense of a poet of whom that over-used accolade, "at one with nature," is entirely just:

Extraction time,
The pregnant combs
Release their ripened treasure,
Golden liquid pouring
into sparkling jars 

(From Storing Summer)

There is something Heaney-esque in the lines above, outlining the mechanics of physical activity, while in poems like Morning Cobwebs a reverence for the mysterious charms of the wider environment is distilled:

Early morning
Pools of silver,
Each tree a halo
Of webbed stars
Holding hands
Of shimmering chains
Shrouded in veils
Of silver mist
Reflecting the nature
Of the night.

Alice Taylor's poems often seem to take place at night or early morning, those times of day when we are most alone, or free from the constraints of everyday responsibilities, when the mind might wander, on the margins of time.  The onset of a day brings shimmering reflections on the wonders of the wild world; the night in these poems is strangely comforting, a time for solitudeIt can also be a time when hidden hurts emerge, as in the acutely visual Dark Crevices:

Night weaves
A grey cobweb
That nets
The morning mind.
Old pain creeps out
Of dark crevices.

This time around, however, the poet does not seek to further "burrow" into the seclusion of the dark.  The "quiet womb" which offered security in Shawls of Silence is not escaped to at the conclusion of this surprisingly cathartic, story-like poem:

In the morning
I must crawl
Out from under
A black blanket,
Let the light
Into my mind
And the sun 
Dilute the darkness.

In its understated way, the poem reminds me of Ecclesiastes. It is not a detailed story of recovery or the process of healing. It offers no practical solutions or suggestions.  It does not venture to suggest any sort of permanence. It is simply a straightforward, but beautiful, account of gentle resilience, with a grain of hope.

Alice Taylor's poems are unpretentious, simple without being simplistic, minimal without feeling cold, and softly charged with a powerful current of understanding, empathy, and compassion.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Wild Geese

Sometimes I hear them, honking through the dusk.  A look outside my window reveals a long line in the sky, a hooting, tooting caravan of black-and-white, slanting upwards over the canal, above the grey-blue twilight mists clinging to the spindly rags of winter trees, or through the calm, honey-coloured sunsets of a summer evening, spearing forwards, upwards, pilgrims aiming for the light.

By day, I watch the Canada Geese gliding over the Calder, or spooling over water like swans. I watch their streetwise cousins, the white geese, waddle over the stony riverbank, or colonize the verges and pavements of Sowerby Bridge. Geese are in my life daily, and have been an increasingly visible yet gentle presence in recent weeks and months, drifting into the poetry I read, sewing a snow-white, feathery hem of inter-species kinship as they appear at every corner, float into my daydreams and flaunt their signs of life outside my window.

The Sowerby Bridge Geese are famous, treat the town like its their own, have become a landmark.  Established here as long as anyone can remember, they set up camp down by the river under the viaduct, beneath the bridges straddling the Calder and the Ryburn, in the overgrowth fringing the canal.


 But they are most well known for their incursions into human territory.  Gangs of them front the entrance to the leisure centre, or amass in the yard of the taxi rank; in wobbling bunches threes and fours they stroll the pavements, they will even wander through an open doors.


In her debut collection Light After Light (Valley Press 2018) Ryburn Valley poet Victoria Gatehouse describes the geese patrolling the High Street and:
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

These Northern European, Emden geese are part of the furniture, an expected presence in the town.  Interesting and often amusing in the day, by night they represent a reassuring familiarity.  Disembarking the train on returning late, I have wandered down the lonely hill beside the station, flanked by the cavernous dungeons of the old coal drops, the scrapyards and the battered arches, and the railway bridge that was the scene of murder in Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley, to see them gathered, yapping, like a gossipy, gaggly night watch, at the foot of the street as the town begins, and felt at home.


In the small hours, the town is theirs, and I wonder at the secrets spiraling in their Anserinae brains; how they view the town that lends them their colloquial name; how they view us, as bigger birds, as ominous presences, as strangers, friends, a grounded, landlubbing, collective anomaly?

In the winter, the waterways of Calderdale are quieter, and the geese seem more prevalent in the post-migratory exodus.  Padding through the frost, they jerk their heads quizzically through the depleted larders of the fruitless canalsides,  descend like icy mermaids into the river's silent freeze.  At a distance, the Emdens almost merge into sleety mists, bobble like pearly ghosts through the half light in the early morning snow.

 In spring, the geese are joined by goslings, as they guide their babies over the chilly quilt of the river to find food in the tangled shallows. It is always a familiar and yet strangely unexpected moment, to see these eager, nervous, unsteady babies scrabbling through the ripples, hungry for life.

The Emdens and the Canada geese coexist, and weave a watery ballet along the green, wet edges of Sowerby Bridge, are my neighbours (too cautious to be "friends", they sidestep close proximity and regroup into a tribal safety- in-numbers if approached by foodless human hands) as I walk through the town.  

As I write this, my thoughts are diverted by that well known exclamation, somewhere between the whistle of a steam train and a wild bird's cry.  What awaits beyond the window on this spring day - a single filed platoon of geese bulleting through the hazy afternoon air; a lone goose lifting himself above the hazel trees and blossoms to seek out the bounty of the wharf; or floating forlornly as she slowly climbs the skies in an aimless stray over the chimney tops and antique factory stacks?

I'm not sure what I read in the sad songs of the geese, in their glassy mysterious eyes, their moonlit wanderings, their essence of unhindered calm - the reassurance of evolution, reminders of our own, aquatic lineage, the promise of rebirth, the energy and atoms of the recently deceased?  I only now that they have played, are playing, their own quiet part in my efforts to regain some sort of footing,  some better knowledge of myself, some kind of understanding of the world.  

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Black Combe, Cumbria, in the Poetry of Branwell Bronte and Norman Nicholson

Coming across Norman Nicholson's Sea To The West (Faber 1981) at Hebden Bridge Library, I was reminded that it is just over a year since I was in the district to which most of the book's poems pay homage.  In late April 2017 I was with Ayelet Mckenzie, launching her collection Small Bear (Caterpillar Poetry 2017) at Barrow Library.

The day before the launch I was given a tour around the town and its vicinity, including a trip to Walney Island and a walk along the edges of the Walney Channel.

Splayed beyond the entrance of Barrow Museum, the Walney Chanel its self begins lethargically, a threadbare fray of patchy puddles blotching a shore of dark, wet sand and chunky pebbles.  The plateau stretches out into a desert of bumpy, rocky ridges; further across the bay there are modern vessels, pleasure boats, and a sense of calm somewhere between seaside jollity and some picture-postcard riverside.  The channel is defined by crossings and the remnants of crossings, from the thin bridge with its rickety railings, to the bridge which spans its northern edges, built in 1908 for the benefit of shipyard workers crossing to and from the yards and factories, now dotted by traffic and stretching almost incongruously against a backdrop of sand and water like the body of some huge amphibious predator. As you stroll along the pier, turn your head towards the slate-blue waters, and you notice a dark, damp, sloping sandscape of abandonment: the hulls of long-forgotten ships, wrecked boats, a bicycle slowly sinking into earth.

Further on, you are met by the imposing mass of Black Combe, rising over the Duddon Estuary nearly two thousand feet and formed four hundred and sixty million years ago.  Like a glacial goddess of black ice, the Combe looms above the Irish sea, and is visible across the entire district, the views from its summit stretching from the Irish coast, to as far as Wales and Scotland.  Wordsworth wrote that, from the Combe, the amplest range of unobstructed prospect may be seen that British ground commands, while his enthusiastic celebrant Branwell Bronte, who lived and worked as a tutor at nearby Broughton-in-Furness, was moved to write a sonnet in honour of the fell.

 The relationship between Branwell Bronte and the Combe has significance for me, as I have made a film about Branwell's Calder Valley Years, which were preceded by his ill-fated time at Broughton, cut short due to the early signs of an alcoholism which would lead him towards ruin. I can see why the formidable entity, almost Volcanic - Norman Nicholson called it the dynamited Combe - held such magnetism for the romantic Branwell. I want to look at both Branwell's poem, and the Black Combe poems of Norman Nicholson, to see how both poets were influenced, directly but differently, by this unforgettable natural landmark.

Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light, begins Branwell Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; before comparing the stoicism of the Combe to the vulnerability of humanity:

...he smiles,
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise,
As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight
Again rejoices in his stormy skies,
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.

Undoubtedly influenced by the Lakeland poets and Romantics, Branwell nonetheless injects a strain of pessimism into his sonnet, which, while awed by the huge and heath clad Combe, owes perhaps more to Keats' notion of Negative Capability than to Wordsworth's lyrical grandeur.  In fact, it reminds me of Houseman to a point, though rather than disappointed love it is perhaps the "unstable joy" of debauch that sees the poem's human subjects irredeemably defeated.  Branwell uses the phrase "pleasure's wiles" in another poem, and this repetition is revealing, perhaps illustrating the subconscious way in which he regarded his own descent into instability as  a snare that he was lured into by circumstance as much as a temptation to which he chose to yield.  Ultimately, it is the rock-solid invincibility of Black Combe, simultaneously omniscient and non-interventionist, that prevails , with menacing triumph, and seals the externally descriptive poem's status as an internalized, brooding prophecy against the black clouds of the Combe.

Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light
 Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; he smiles, his mighty form
Scarce bending in to peace; - more formed to fight
A thousand years of struggles with a storm
Than bask one hour, subdued by sunshine warm
To bright and breezeless rest; yet even his height
Towers not o'er this world's sympathies - he smiles,
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise,
As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight
Again rejoices in his stormy skies,
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.
Thus tempests find Blackcomb invincible,
While we are lost, who should know life so well!

 There is a sense in Branwell's poem of the Combe's presence as an anchored constant, not unlike his earliest poem to the Pole Star, contrasting with the vagaries of human experience, and the poet's own troubled life.  Unlike the Pole Star poem, Blackcombe (Branwell conflates the two words) expresses this fixity with unhappy irony.  It could almost, in its colouring of sable black, be a metaphor for the Haworth Parsonage, the childhood home to which Branwell increasingly found himself returning in the shade of adult misadventures, a place perhaps of reproach and repentance.  Perhaps more than this, it could be a foreboding image of the God-fearing faith of his Parson father, which the pleasure-seeking Branwell would abjure.  We know that this diversion from his father's path caused disturbance in his family. Branwell's own use of religion in his poems is so often blasphemous or Hellish.  Did Black Combe represent for him a sort of subconscious fear of Providence, a shadow of his formative beliefs, a kind of Hell?
Whatever its connotations, the Combe, for Branwell, was a constant in a life of change.  But Branwell was only in the area for a few months, and will have seen the Combe only through one winter and spring, so his analysis is inevitably borne of brief association.  For an in depth poetic study of this 460-million year old feature of the Cumbrian landscape, we need to turn to a more recent poet, who, unlike the itinerant Branwell, lived within sight of it for most of his life.

Born in Millom in January 1914, Norman Nicholson enjoyed a considerable reputation as a poet in his lifetime, and his work continues to gain acclaim both for its sensitive evocations of everyday working class life in his iron-mining town, and its sense of the natural and primeval - a poetry which delves deep into the long history of the earth and is rooted in the dunes of the Cumbrian coast.  Black Combe features prominently. Indeed, it is a key element in the natural heritage and folk history of his area.  In The Shadow of Black Combe, he explains how:

In wise, proverbial days they used to say
That everybody born
Under the shadow of Black Combe
Will comeback there to die

and movingly delivers a sing-song like refrain, urging the spirits of the deceased:

Back Arthur, come back Andy, come back Will.
Come home, 
While there's still time.

And all you who were shot in France,
Drowned in the Great Lakes,
All exiles and dole-day migrants,
Who swallowed influenza, took T.B. like snuff-
Get ready to come back. 

For Nicholson, who was of course born in the year the First World War broke out, the legacy of those shot in France, this epitaph casting them as murdered martyrs, victims, must have been a kind of primal permanence, not unlike the Combe its self, which - just like Branwell's Pole Star or Nicholson's Rock-pie of volcanic lava that is Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain - is a continual presence on the poet's horizon.  In the poem Black Combe White, he describes how:

From each rise in the road, each break in the hill's barrier,
Comes glimpse after glimpse of the nearing Combe, first white,
Then patchy, and then streaked white on black,
Darkening and sharpening every minute and every mile.
(Black Combe White)

and this image of the colouring of the Combe betrays a deeper understanding of its features, based on many years of observation. Its lower reaches heavy in Ordovician black, the Combe lightens near its peak to a heathy green or brownish tinge, depending on cloud cover or the angle of the light, like a polar bear whose fur glistens white only by means of reflecting the sun:

Slick fingers of wind
Tease and fidget at wool-end and wisp,
Picking the mist to bits.
Strings and whiskers
Fray off from the cleft hill's
Bilberried brow, disintegrate, dissolve
Into blue liquidity-
Only a matter of time
Before the white is wholly worried away
and Black Combe starts to earn its name again.
(Cloud on Black Combe)

There is, in contrast to Branwell Bronte's powerful image of immovable solidity, a delicious sense of fluent movement in Nicholson's hymns to the hill, a feeling of the evolving cycles of time. I also feel there is an acknowledgement of the inter-connectedness of things - like a sweeping, symbiotic ballet,the elements, the atmosphere, the flora of Black Combe and its environs are woven in a misty tapestry of changing seasons. The poet once remarked in a radio interview:

The universe is not just a huge mechanical coffee‐grinder, ticking over and over without aim or purpose. It works to a pattern; it works to a plan. And part of the sheer enjoyment of being among mountains comes from our sometimes feeling swept up in the plan, where every end is a new beginning and every death a new birth.

With its strings and whiskers, its mist pulled to bits, its personified rain "clocking off" for the day, reminiscent of mill workers and his region's declining industrial life, Cloud on Black Combe is the work of a poet deeply connected with both his natural environment, and the human history surrounding him.  


 The air clarifies.  Rain
Has clocked off for the day.

The wind scolds in from Sligo
Ripping the calico-grey from a pale sky.
Black Combe holds tight
To its tuft of cloud, but over the three-legged island
All the west is shining.

An hour goes by,
And now the starched collars of the eastern pikes
Streak up into a rinse of blue.  Every
Inand fell is glinting;
Black Combe alone lies still hides
Its bald, bleak forehead, balaclava'd out of sight.

Slick fingers of wind
Tease and fidget at wool-end and wisp,
Picking the mist to bits.
Strings and whiskers
Fray off from the cleft hill's
Bilberried brow, disintegrate, dissolve
Into blue liquidity-
Only a matter of time
Before the white is wholly worried away
and Black Combe starts to earn its name again.

But where, in the west, a tide
Of moist and clear-as-a-vacuum air is piling
High on the corried slopes,a light
Fret and haar of hazy whiteness
Sweats off the cold rock; in a cloudless sky
A cloud emulsifies,
Junkets on sill and dyke.
Wool-end and wisp materialize
Like ectoplasm, are twined
And crocheted to an off-white,
Over-the-lughole hug-me-tight;
And over Black Combe's ram's-head, butting at the bright
Turfed and brackeny brine,
Gathers its own wool, tucks shadow out of shine.

What the wind blows away
The wind blows back again.