Graham Hardie admires the poetic agility with which Ruth Valentine explores some dark themes.
Ruth Valentine’s collection Downpour is a serious study of death, reminding us all of its inevitability and that there is no knowledge or substantiated evidence of an afterlife, nor any chance of immortality. Valentine has worked as a celebrant at secular funerals, and so has a wide and relevant experience. Consequently, the poems persuasively illustrate the finality of death. Valentine makes eloquent use of language and poetic agility, and the poems are often poignant and personal.
The collection is split into seven sections and the opening poem is called “The Message”. It is about a fox lying dead in the gutter, after being hit by a car. By starting with this poem, Valentine shows us that death is an inescapable part of the greater scheme of things. Valentine’s writing is fluid and poetic and the words almost trickle off the page. Phrases like of dead leaves, chicken bones, nettles and sunlit bed of yellow poppies and his fur all the colours of seasoned wood, I find a joy to read.
This poem seems to offer hope after death in that the fox pulses out a message to the children / on their way to reception class to which they stop and listen. The message is, I believe, about a spiritual connection between man and beast and a receptiveness in our relationships with animals. The fox is perhaps allowing the children to share in a secret about the cycle of life and death.
If “The Message” makes a fascinating start to the collection there is another poem from section I, “Strand”, which I was less comfortable with (almost the only poem in the collection about which I would say this). It contains some excellent imagery: tall daises are pepper-scented and plum trees were scourged with salt / till the blossom rusted; but the content seemed to me to be vaguer and less substantial than other pieces in the book, where meanings and settings are expressed with greater clarity. This can certainly be said of the opening poem in Section II, “Death of the Choreographer”, which features lines like: The orchestra / halts, in mid-bar. The conductor drops his baton. / At the back, the percussionist / pauses, the cymbals six inches apart. Here the reader can appreciate a sense of time and place and the scene is set. It continues in this vein with: The black projection / turns itself off. The male dancers / lower the women gently. There follows the blunt realisation that the choreographer is in fact dead and that The consciousness that created them has gone. The second half of the poem continues in this graphic style to illuminate the grim reality that the choreographer is now in a hospital gown, / pale blue with daisies, lying on his back very still, mouth open, / eyes focussed on elsewhere. In clear narratives such as this, Valentine does not distance herself from her reader (as in “Strand”). Consequently she engages with the reader on several levels and leaves one with questions like where do all our memories go when we die? which are easy to relate to.
A second poem from Section II, “Like Snow”, is my favourite of the collection. Valentine produces a sublime metaphor for death in the opening stanza:
Then in that moment everything he’s seen
in eighty-five years spills out from his eyes
into the winter air, like snow falling
steadily out of nothing,
This idea that humans come from nothing and then end up as dust – i.e. “nothing” – is suggested by like snow falling / steadily out of nothing,. Yet, to my mind, there is a gentle and almost sacred quality about snow falling, so perhaps there is something more to life, a spiritual reason to our nothingness. Whether or not Valentine means this, I’m not sure, but it is certainly suggested. Valentine continues with this image of a man whose muscle-memory – / chopping wood, carving a joint of meat – disperses / like snowflakes at night and again this representation of snow as death illustrates the fragility of our existence perfectly.
Section III begins with a piece called “Radiotherapy” which comes from a four-part sequence under the main title “Extra Care”. The poem, as the title suggests, is about the use and consequences of radiotherapy when treating disease. The bleakness of this process is implied in the first stanza:
Don’t be afraid. They’re taking
a mould of your face,
an anti-death mask for you to slip back on
each morning, when they pour energy through you.
This sense of illness and disease and its rather sinister treatment is reiterated in the beginning of the next line, The long drive to the hospital, which implies that the whole process of radiotherapy will (like the drive to the hospital) be laborious and protracted. Nevertheless, by the third stanza, hope returns as Valentine states that The cells doing you damage will fall away and Your face emerging into the spring light / will be yours to live in. The relief and celebration that healing will bring is suggested at the end, when Valentine writes your mouth / after its weeks of fasting will long to taste sea air, the first raspberries, her kiss. Through her use of vernacular, Valentine succeeds in expressing the painful practicalities of the treatment of life threatening disease.
The central poem and in my opinion the most important (mainly because it seems to hold this collection together) is called “Radovan Karadžic at the Hague Tribunal”. It appears in section IV, is the largest poem in the book, and is in three parts. Arguably, it is an essential piece in understanding Valentine’s thoughts and attitudes to death. It touches on the consequences of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the resulting war crimes and atrocities which were committed. Karadžic was one of the perpetrators of these war crimes and was subsequently brought to trial. Valentine reflects, often with justifiable anger, on the nature of the man and the ramifications of his actions. Also Valentine mentions the innocent victims caught up in events beyond their control.
The opening stanza describes Karadžic before his arrest, as an old man with a white beard /quietly busy in a Belgrade suburb Valentine suggests he was viewed as a neglected prophet and that his military days were over: no more uniform, no more giving orders and perhaps that he was remorseful as he helped others as best he could.
Valentine next moves to the courtroom where Karadžic sees the foreign lawyers as Pharisees, Sadducees and refuses to speak to them. The particularly horrific nature of Karadžic’s crimes is addressed in a compelling fashion:
The people that walked in darkness lie in the dark,
muddled together in pits, in mortuaries,
Yet Karadžic remains disarmingly reticent in his attitude to his victims, as Valentine reports he has sat with the distressed / and learned nothing.
Valentine’s disgust and anger at this man’s actions and his apparent nonchalance is explicitly expressed, when she writes that he should walk through the forest/where the women trudged and the fifteen-year-old girl/hanged herself from a branch. With a sense of frustrated injustice for the victims, Valentine calls upon Karadžic to stand under the tree, and to call the tree as witness to his inhumane deeds.
Part two sets out Karadžic’s defence, that he did everything in human power/to avoid the war and reduce the suffering. But then Valentine invites him to the mortuary to see if he can identify this broken arm, the label on this jacket, / this singing voice, this honesty, this skill / with wood or wool, this laughter,/ this trust in a future. By listing what can be identified at the mortuary, Valentine reinforces this man’s guilt, and underlines her frustration and anger at Karadžic’s denial in the face of the evidence.
The final section of this poem offers the reader further background on the life of Karadžic. Valentine informs us that He is Dragon David Dabi?, alliterative specialist in alternative medicine/and psychology. We also learn that He likes his football. By attributing “normal” qualities to Karadžic, Valentine introduces the notion that this “Butcher of Bosnia” (as the western media called him) was indeed, on the surface, a well adjusted member of society. He was even as Valentine writes an understanding man, which raises the question of whether it was the war that drove him to commit atrocities or whether he genuinely believed what he was doing was justified. These human qualities that Valentine attributes to Karadžic serve to raise another awkward question: “As humans are we all capable of barbaric acts when placed in the theatre of war?”
We are told that Karadžic had already been in prison for embezzlement and so the seeds of criminality were already sown in his constitution. And yet, perplexingly, the conclusion of the poem again makes the point that Karadži?’s supporters see him as some sort of “prophet” and even – astonishingly – one of the most prominent / sons of Our Lord Jesus Christ / working for peace.
Valentine continues in Section V to explore ides bout death via its role in mythology. The poem “The Deliberations of Ershkigal” is in four short parts, and the reader is informed that Ershkigal in Sumerian mythology is the goddess of the under-world, twice abandoned – exiled at the moment of creation, and left by the god Negral after seven days and nights of lovemaking. This is a welcome new direction for the collection because it permits lighter moments of humour.
The first poem “She studies psychology” introduces Ereshkigal and dwells amusingly on the fact that her negative attitude to the dead might change if there was some weather in the underworld. Change of weather, a chance of kindness as Valentine puts it. Parts two and three deal with the goddess taking up music and finding a mother; but it was part four which most caught my attention, because Valentine introduces our world into the world of mythology. This piece, called “She watches the riots”, is arguably a comment on disenfranchised youth in many urban areas of Britain today. Ereshkigal has viewed the recent riots in London and the poem suggests that when the dead go back to the upper world that abandoned them they will feel, act and behave like the rioters, those disappointed kids. The dead will be grabbing gadgets and trainers, turning over cars, and singing the sound of falling glass. The poem ends with this question:
flourishes somewhere, dares to show itself –
playgrounds, flowers in front gardens-what do you think
the dead can do but torch it and breath the smoke?
Here perhaps Valentine is saying that the rioters are like the dead in Ereshkigal’s underworld, and that if one offers them playgrounds these dead youths will still be dissatisfied and continue to riot in the future. I found this poem imaginative and inventive in its use of mythology to offer a form of social commentary.
In the penultimate section, it was the first poem “The Thaw” which caught my eye. The premise of this piece is that a young child has died in suspicious circumstances, and her frozen body has been discovered in the wilderness. It deals with the subsequent funeral and mourning for this child. Yet there is a sinister overtone in the suggestion that this child was murdered by a relative or maybe a participant in a religious or ethnic conflict. The unknown suspect states I dropped her into the azure canyon. Once the child has been discovered, those who knew her mourn her passing: I hear the women muttering to her dark wide-open eyes, I watch the uneasy children / drop poppies across her face. Furthermore it is made evident that someone involved in her murder is a witness to her funeral and he or she states, at the end of the poem: I will be there / clasping my weathered walking-stick, and then / finally I will absolve and bury her. What the dead child is guilty of is unclear; and this adds to the air of mystery involving an unsolved murder and a masked murderer in a foreign land. Thus Valentine succeeds again in channeling the reader’s mind in to disquieting places and areas of intrigue and that is what I like most about her poems in Downpour.
Unfortunately, as I approached the end of the book I began to be disappointed that Valentine does not offer any glimmer of hope or light, or redemption or positive afterthought on death. I would have preferred it if Valentine had not left us staring into the abyss. However I have no hesitation in saying that the majority of Downpour is well worth reading for the poetic adroitness of its exploration of the landscape of death from a variety of vantage points. But those who take a less bleak view of that landscape might have welcomed being shown an oasis offering some hope (an afterlife?) even if there is no promise that it is not a mirage.