Emma Lee shares some observations about Christopher North’s latest collection


The Night Surveyor
Christopher North
Oversteps Books
ISBN 9781906856458
52pp   £8


Some of the poems in Christopher North’s new book are drawn from personal experience and others concern landscapes, particularly of the Chilterns in southern England. “Axes” describes an upright piano with drawing pins pushed through the hammer felts to make it sound as if it were being played by Winifred Atwell, even though the brothers who did the pinning couldn’t play. Later they ask their grandfather to play

Homburg tipped back, he hit the drawing-pinned keys.
His curl of Woodbine fell:
God’s truth, what you done to this?
Cancer got him two years later and two years

after that we passed the upright through
a toilet seat; a rag-day stunt. It was what
you did then, my brother and I,
in a shoal of students, wielding axes.

The poem’s voice has the confidence of those students, tempered by the knowledge of the ruined piano. There’s a note of hope in that final phrase, a suggestion of self-knowledge that wielding axes won’t become a life-long habit. The acuteness of observation equally applies to old age. In “88th Birthday in Sunrise” (where Sunrise is the name of a care home) we learn

In this place of silent forms in chairs
.           every shade is dulled and mute.

Those strange familiars seem concerned
.           but soon become swinging doors.

That tree the window frames,
.           just out of reach –
.                     you know that once you knew its name.

Without hammering the point home, this captures both the sense of the care home’s lounge being a waiting room and also the frustrations of failing memory. This lightness of emotional touch is successfully employed in “Index: Beechwood” which ends:

Spectra of light beneath canopy     daily variations thereof
Sudden closure of discussion in mid sentence     under canopy of
Suppression     of welling thoughts concerning
Tears (blinding)     occurrence in
Time     considered as stationary in
Trail     wearing intricate way through
Unified object     seen faintly from a great distance as
Visions     of spectral form moving through
White Admiral     single sighting of

Christopher North has confidence that his control of language will convey what he wants and also allow readers to interpret and draw their conclusions from the poem. Here, the need to index is also the need to make sense of something that resists being tidily grasped and defined. In “Central Park: Red Bird”, a stranger asks the poet to look at a poem of his and asks for an opinion, reading a poem about two lovers walking along a moonlit, perfect beach, like an amateur actor. He insists on dedicating the poem to the poet and friend.

Something has to measure
beneath the heat, beneath the trees.
Dollars changed hands.
I gave him a photograph of our house.

O my O my O my he said,
shaking his head in faux disbelief.

Eloquence of trees – their gracility,
The sun’s warmth beneath them
and on one close branch a bright red bird,
contemplating the endless traffic.

The final piece in The Night Surveyor is a short story, “10th February 1963”, a fantasy about visiting Sylvia Plath – the difficulty of getting there, the snow, the people the narrator might have met on the way.  An awkward fan meets a favourite author and then what…?  The ending is left as a question: would this meeting have been enough to stop her from committing suicide? The closing sentence echoes the beginning: I could have.

Emma Lee’s Mimicking a Snowdrop is forthcoming from Thynks Press and Yellow Torchlight and the Blues is available from Original Plus. She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com and is a blogger-reviewer for Simon and Schuster. She also reviews for The Journal, Elsewhere and Sabotage Review magazines.