John Lucas reviews a mixed bag of recent poetry collections from both sides of the Atlantic
Down Stranger Roads by Roger Craik
Blazevox Books, N.Y.2014
ISBN: 978-1-60964-135-1 $16
Millenium Blues by Evan Gwyn Williams
Remus House, £7.99
(available through Book Printing UK,
Coltsfoot Drive, Woodston, Peterborough,
Roger Craik is very much the Englishman abroad. The alluring cover image of his new collection is derived from a painting by Algernon Newton which is housed in Nottingham’s Castle Museum and Art Gallery. ‘Regent’s Canal, Maida Vale, London’, the picture is called, but the straight stretch of water heading off into the distance under a blue, innocently-clouded sky, could conceivably be of many another city. The names of cities – Paris, Venice, Rome –/ Held out their arms, Louis Simpson wrote in his great poem, ‘My Father in the Night Commanding, No’, and reading through Down Stranger Roads it soon becomes apparent that foreign cities have held out their arms to Craik. They include Amsterdam, Bruges, Sofia and Izmir, in all of which places he has taught and/or spent enough time to cast an attentive eye on people and objects.
But however perceptive he may be, he is always in the role, if not of flaneur, then of outsider. His characteristic tone is that of a slightly bemused, wry observer, yearning, perhaps, for a closer acquaintance with the exotica that passes before his eye and can be turned by imaginative process into something more substantial, but aware that this presumed substantiality is itself elusive, possibly even illusory.
And even though I’m only thirty-three, and even though I’ve told myself I’ve given up desiring love, I long in my poorly-cobbled disappointing shoes to rove these streets I think of as my own to picture her behind one shutter, just a crack ajar, two candles guttering, and her fleshy tight-ringed finger beckoning to me. [‘Fairuz’]
Down these mean streets ….
Not hard to imagine a certain kind of moralist tut-tutting at such “orientalism,” as we have learnt to call it. When found, make a note of, Dickens’s Captain Cuttle would say, though he wouldn’t then conclude that Craik should be dragged before the thought police and asked to account for himself. (Thirty-three was, of course, the age which Christ had reached when he was arraigned before Herod, but I doubt Craik intends an allusion.) Cuttle would be more likely to enjoy – he’d certainly understand – Craik’s note of rueful acquiescence in his role as down-at-mouth-and-heel rover in his far-from suave, poorly-cobbled, disappointing shoes.
America, where for years Craik has earned a living as a university lecturer, is, for all its familiarity, no less exotic, or at all events an experience – a culture – from which the poet feels himself partly estranged. A suitably comic, abashed poem ‘Ulysses in the New World’ reflects how the narrator
used to marvel, stunned, when I was told how Ulysses would ‘goof,’ ‘screw up, and ‘kinda show he had to be the boss – a typical jock,’ as if he’d locked himself out of his car or run out of gas or spilt popcorn on his girl’s jeans the jerk,
before recognising that Ulysses belongs to no one culture, because There never was / an Ithaca or home, but just himself, alone, / shiftless, yet immortal as the stars. The last phrase is a routine bit of cheer-up. The real poem ends on alone, / shiftless. Such words might well form an epigraph for Craik’s collection.
But this is not to say that the poems are in any way self-obsessed, let alone confessional. Craik is saved from the indulgences of soul-baring by his very real delight in the world-out-there which he registers, for example, in ‘Heron’:
thin raincoated William Burroughs of a bird stalking hypodermically toe-deep in shingle or shallows of a stream. But on wing, shouldering off with six great languid flaps all birdbook posturing, you rise magisterial
‘Magisterial’ is a near-lapse into cliché, although I suppose there is the possible justification of a nod toward some gowned magistrate – the “beak” (ha!); but anyway much can be forgiven of the writer who compares a heron to a raincoated William Burroughs. As it can of the lovely, funny poem in celebration of a grandfather remembered for his prowess at farting. Warned by his mother not to laugh, because ‘this is how older people get –/ you’ll be like this yourself, some day’ / ‘Oh, I do hope so’ the boy replies, and rejoices in the old man’s unembarrassed dismissal of his fart – Get out, you pay no rent!
Memories of home aren’t always so reassuring. Home is the past and, like the places you travel to, can be known only as you appraise it from a distance that it is both physical and emotional. One of the best poems in the collection – all the more powerful for its understatement, its readiness to rest in implication – is ‘First Journey’: As inch by inch the train pulled out / with me inside alone, it begins, with the boy noting his parents as they wave farewell from the platform and, through the glass, watches with a kind of blank detachment his father run alongside until the train leaves the station. The poem ends, powerfully, bleakly, heart-tuggingly, with the boy now seeing in his mind’s eye the father running beyond the platform’s end on stony ground, on straggling grass,/ outdistanced, and outdistanced further still.
There is far less stony ground in Di Slaney’s attractively produced debut collection. The back cover blurb remarks that These are questioning poems, interrogating the past: who came before, what were they like, who did they love, what is true? Of the twenty-four separate poems which make up what amounts to as near a sequence as makes no difference, half are in rhymed quatrains (or use the Shakespearian sonnet form of three quatrains followed by a couplet), pentameters never allowed to dominate, rhymes for the most part unforced and unemphatic. Much that’s best about the collection depends on its tonal variety: Slaney shifts from light to dark, from grave to comic, and is attentive to the voices of different speakers.
As with Craik, Slaney can recruit imaged landscape and memory to provide more than the merely visual. Hence, the resonances released in the opening poem ‘On The Forestry Commission Track,’ which begins Deep in the woods, and has an older woman looking at a little girl caught in a moment’s click of Dad’s patient lens, and wanting to
whisper in her ear, go back and say that there will always be too few moments, words will never paint another picture like this. I want to tell her to inhale the silence, smell the dark scent of pine.
The danger of this kind of looking, remembering, and wishing, is, of course, that it slides into nostalgia, that sickness of the soul which is too often mistaken as the deep source of poetry. Slaney allows for tears glistening at the corners, but CLICK and the scene changes, though this title-poem, a very-well managed pantoum which begins It’s nearly a year ago, makes a perfect vehicle for a forward momentum that carries trace memories with it:
and the pictures pile up around us CLICK that we can only remember they pull us in, bring us to this point while the pictures pile up around us and the tears keep us silently blinking CLICK and bring us, pull us to one point all of us just a white flash, thinking while tears keep us silent, and blinking. It’s nearly a year ago. CHANGE CASSETTE
This is seriously good poetry.
Equally good is the way Slaney manages to evoke a family living its way through a recent history of outer events, dress styles, of rollneck turtles on display / on every holiday, head scarves, wool socks / tweed coats from the mill, the whiff of Bay Rum, and of the inner weather: those unbridgeable gaps between present and past, people, their loves, dislikes, forgotten certainties. Truly, though our element is time, Larkin famously wrote, We are not suited to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives. They link us to our losses. Yes, yes, old misery guts, but the long perspectives also provide reasons to be grateful for what we had and have, as Slaney indicates in the charming ‘His Arms Round Her’, about a rare occasion on which she was able to snap her father when
he barked instructions at me from across whichever bog or quarry or mountain top
they were on, and
for one second (or 1/160th to be precise) I caught his arms around her with that tender, taut expression he never let me glimpse otherwise.
I love the wit of that 1/160th, the comic bow to precision which undercuts sentiment and which at the same time tells you how the man on whom the lens is focussed takes exact care to ration out his emotional life, the moment’s surrender.
No sentiment in Millenium Blues, nor any risk of it. Evan Gwyn Williams is now in his late seventies, and still raging against the lying blight of politicians, media moguls, not-so public services, the destruction of the mining communities of South Wales, the gradual demolition of the NHS, and much else besides. There is a raw eloquence in a book which the author himself calls ‘A Collection of Poems & Short Stories including Apocalyptic Rants’, and which brings together various pamphlet collections published over the years, including Invocation of Manawydan, first published by Shoestring Press in 2000, and further back, Three Poems from Hospital (Triskel Poets 4, 1971), the older work buttressed by some new stories as well as the self-proclaimed ‘Rants – (mixture of comedy, Pathos and Muckraking Horror.)’
Millenium Blues might at a glance seem something of a rag-bag, its hundred pages stuffed full of every conceivable thing, but what gives the book its unity is the unappeasable anger of a voice sometimes rising to real eloquence in its denunciatory frenzy:
Filth of wage-labour sold to the Kapitalist for a wage which is the price of labour on the market. Man as Commodity to be bought and sold like cattle. O exploited workers you know what I’m talking about, you experience it living day by day like Stupid Assholes, being bled dry by stupid, malevolent Tories. I, Evan Gwyn Williams, master of the long cadence, has this sussed out in verse, and like ol’ rag head the Rabbi am reviled by the Lower-Middle establishment of little lyric writers, scule teecherz and lecturers, the Pharisees of Thought, Blairites & other prevaricators.
That’s telling ’em.
John Lucas is a poet, critic, biographer, literary historian and publisher who runs Shoestring Press. His most recent books are a critical study Second World War Poetry in English from Greenwich Exchange, the poetry collection Things to Say (Five Leaves Press) and The Awkward Squad which deals with some cricketing rebels. Forthcoming works include a critical study of George Crabbe and a new poetry collection, Portable Property.