Peter Ulric Kennedy is vastly impressed by Mike Barlow’s most recent collection of poems.
I am an admirer of Mike Barlow’s poetry. This collection The Promise Boat does not disappoint. Here we find stories, steeped in mesmeric imagery, of voyages and of islands. A stranger pacing the pier calls us to the Promise Boat, “an old lifeboat, clinker-built remnant … packed to its quota and always room for more.” “And have we paid or are we chosen?” is the question – but an anwer is not readily forthcoming. Perhaps we are refugees; perhaps we are souls setting out on our final voyage. We are heading each to our “own horizon, private and particular”. Possibly we will never reach our empty beach, our island paradise, for in the final lines we learn there is:
Nothing but water lapping at gunwales, swilling bilges as we go round the sun and back again, engine terminal, landfall a lost language away.
This is imaginative work. Barlow’s poems continue, throughout the collection, to be arresting, evocative, tantalising. ‘Land on the Port Bow’ is imbued with a deep air of mystery, portraying the dreams of a weary ship’s crew whose “land-starved bodies” long for home –
scrubbed decks and stowed lines triggering the thirst for home – an idea pure as water we can see through, tasting of nothing but ourselves.
What do we make of this beautiful and mystifying passage? I construe it as tired landed souls tricked by a mirage of their desired goal, by a Fata Morgana, as indeed we read in the poem immediately preceding: “… out on the horizon land appears where I know there should be nothing.”
Meanwhile ‘The Pall Bearers’ carry out their arduous task:
Who is it they bear across the sand, these six hewn faces set to the polishing wind, their long box lodged on elm shoulders, the gouged flow of their habits?
The lines are an evocation of the sculpture ‘The Journey’, created in 2008 by Fenwick Lawson. It stands in the precincts of Durham Cathedral: six hooded monks carrying the coffin of St Cuthbert away from Lindisfarne. This enig-matic poem is touched with a feeling of splendour:
Whose soul is it their load’s the lighter for, the weight of a lark’s song lighter, climbing beyond hearing?
Barlow senses the mystery of the pall bearers who move across the sand – who then step further away as we watch.
The sea alone will nourish them, their elm hearts given to the waves to wash up in the debris of the tideline, broken and worked as beads.
Historically, the monks made a long and tortuous journey with the remains of St Cuthbert, from Lindisfarne to Durham, where the saint’s tomb is now situated. In the poem, however, it seems that the little procession is going to be swallowed by the sea and will end in the debris of the tideline. Do we assume that the tideline is at Holy Island? How then will they make it to Durham? ’The Pall Bearers’ asks us questions to which we must give much thought.
We are taken to many islands in the Promise Boat: to Lindisfarne, to the island of the MacNeishes in Loch Earn, to the Isle of Discussion, to Empty Isle, to the nothing island of the Fata Morgana. The islands are populated with gulls, gannets, fulmar, puffin and shag, with broken timbers, our own dark spectres, and with “a boy child swimming for his life, his murdered clan behind him”. There are many mysteries. There are borders too:
Crooked lines on a map, shades of difference.
The poem ’in the land between borders’ tells us:
. the ground’s criss-crossed by the tracks of travellers . coming and going in search of their souls
– and at the last, in ‘They came down from the north’:
. wind-figures crossing the skyline …
They were all chants and songs, a way with difficult instruments, words we had no words for … They stayed, bedded down, got under our skin, strangers turned into ourselves, the making of us.
I will guarantee that when you, too, read The Promise Boat, its poems will stay, bedded down, in your mind, and you will be all the richer for the experience.
Peter Ulric Kennedy was editor of Days begin … (Wivenbooks 2015). He co-ordinates the website www.poetrywivenhoe.org