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