Carla Scarano reviews a serious and uncompromising new collection from Steve Rudd
The expressive poems of Steve Rudd speak to the heart echoing loss and bereavement both at a personal level and with a more universal perspective. His spare lines speak directly to the reader with irony and disenchantment, though at times religion seems to be a temporary relief to the burden of human sorrows. From the first page, the poet states his isolation in a mourning setting by quoting from the book of Lamentations, Quomodo sedet sola civitas (how lonely the city stands), and the sonnet from Dante’s Vita Nova, “Piangete, amanti” (weep, you lovers).
The opening poem, ‘A Summoning’, recalls the narrator visiting a chapel and its graveyard:
On a still June day; the iron gate creaks, then sticks: A shove secures the latch back, with a click Unheard by anyone but me. … Reaching my goal, I stand a while, head bowed More from rain than from religion, though respect Is due to the dark storm of my feelings, unexpressed By any faith’s convention … My penance fulfilled for another year, I don’t look back, nor has it helped the pain. But on the stone, now slick with summer rain, My garage flowers lie, wrapped in cellophane.
The journey towards recovery and healing starts here and poetry plays an important part leading the narrator to a deeper understanding and eventually to acceptance.
Blizzards and cold weather reflect a bleak vision that reverberates in the poet’s mind relentlessly. It is an acknowledgment of the emptiness that surrounds us, as there is no answer to human sorrow, only a faint hope that spring may come at the end:
Absence is a hole at the centre The Tic-Tac missing from the Polo; Absence is having a conversation, then waking And finding you were dreaming Of someone who is now in Kathmandu (Other God-forsaken locations are available) (“Absence hear my protestation”) Superficially, we’re painting over all our fissures But we all know the cracks beneath veneer And we all feel those dark insidious pressures Acknowledged only to ourselves. (“Almost”)
An interesting description of the poet’s job is offered in the poem “A Shepherd’s Tale” where shepherding is at first understated as a humiliating and hard occupation. However, it opens new horizons to the poet:
But at night, under a vast bowl of stars, You were conscious of other movement in the darkness around you, in this ancient landscape, which had once been Eden. We talked the lore of shepherds, Of the sheep.
This brings a new awareness, a novel connection with humanity when an expertise with lambing is revealed as being useful in helping a woman to give birth to her child:
…we helped her as we could And used our sheep-lore, made her comfortable. We put a newborn lamb in with the child Figuring fleece-warmth would save its life,
It is a moving salient scene that highlights Rudd’s capacity for encompassing all creatures in his compassionate vision of a symbiosis of human and animals.
The collection also includes witty reflections on famous poets such as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and John Betjeman, and ironic comments on recent political events:
And now in America, In America tonight There’s a mad orange vampire Wants to set the world alight; He won’t condemn Nazis (His hair’s obviously dyed) But instead he whines on that There’s fault on both sides. (“Faults on both sides”) God stops at the border God stops at the wall God will bring the jobs back, Make tills ring at the Mall. (“God stops at the border”)
Rudd’s open straight opinions address the major current crises such as Brexit, migration, the war in Syria and food banks. He takes a stand against discrimination, exclusion and conflicts, in favour of a more inclusive, compassionate and accepting view:
And so, in every direction The vast white ranks of the dead Stretch away to the horizon … What if they lived? What if The world had not lacked them? What could these millions of white shades Have accomplished for themselves and others? (“They shall not grow old”)
A poem that stands out is “Old man, river” celebrating the Humber; it testifies the poet’s sense of belonging and love for his land as he remembers the ships that plied the waterway
... keeping religiously to the deep water channels Always shifting between the mudbanks, Past the Middle Whitton lightship To tie up at nameless creeks near Goole, Places that ended in –toft, or –fleet.
The distinct picture gives a sense of reality that goes beyond the words and yet it is linked to language, striking the reader’s imagination and revealing sudden evocative imageries. This approach is an effective technique in Rudd’s poetry and is scattered throughout his poems, putting his work in an intimate conversation with the reader.
The last piece of this interesting collection, “A bracelet of bright hair”, is a prose poem that marks the end of the journey in this encounter with a dead loved one. She keeps a ‘braid of hair around her wrist’, his hair, and he has hers around his wrist, ‘after all those years apart.’ This reveals their profound connection that is expressed in ‘evanescent energy … merging and fluxing’ and ‘a combined heat and light’ surrounding them until they become ‘one light of bliss, together’ transcending loss and rediscovering joy.