Michael Bartholomew-Biggs tries to keep up with Keith Howden’s poetry as it covers the landscape, the history and the people of the Lancashire Moors
This is a collection largely made up of five quite long sequences. The first of these – which is not quite the longest – gives the book its title and is notable among other things for its particular form of word play which involves recurring variations on more-or-less enigmatic assertions. Thus “Maps draw their makers’ mind” is a face-value persuasive statement; but “A map dances its maker’s mind” is more mysterious, as is “My map stutters its maker’s mind.” Similar progressive repetitions occur throughout: we are told in the opening poem that
My father’s father’s Lancashire, my father’s, mine records a sour religion sucking austere sustenance from the famine moor;
after which we learn that the same familial lineage
... records a sour contagion mapping austere apocrypha on our famine moor;
and then, a couple of pages further on, it is said to have
... nurtured the sour osmotic autisms that were the instinct language of our moor.
Some examples of this rhetorical device might strike the reader as being more successful than others; but the overall effect of these broken echoes is rather haunting. But all the same it comes as a welcome contrast when human speech or human emotions break into these more abstract speculations about place and time – as in the unambiguous resentment of “Mercedes / commuters tart mill cottages” or the bleak certainty of ‘I’m not much use at dying /I’ve never done it before.’
Similar linguistic / stylistic elements are to be found in the subsequent, shorter sequence ‘Familiar Landscapes’. But these are accompanies by a new note of unexpected threat as in
And you are foreigners here. The lark’s bullet says so.
This slow ferocity of grass counter-attacking tells you so.
‘Team Photographs’ is the major sequence in the collection and it is essentially a domestic drama – in contrast to the foregrounding of landscape and history in the previous poems. It is a story of illness, injury and infidelity told against the background of local football and the local pub. The tale is convoluted and is told – as real stories often are – with a certain amount of repetition and non-sequential introduction of important facts. Landscape fades into the background as we contemplate some of the main male characters in a team photo of a side “that never won anything” and “specialised in relegation.” Significant events in the story are sometimes introduced with shocking brutality as in the casual mention of “the accident / that scraped his wife to leglessness”. Other episodes are semi-revealed in guarded conversations:
He knew what I had tried. ‘There’s always Alice, can’t be wasted.’ His equal irony brushed aside my own. ‘Which of us is the bastard?’
Then I knew that she hadn’t been the opponent of his games but agent and entrepreneur and they were gestures of a sort, her schemes a kind of love, even compassion. And then she struck. ‘You got your ration.’
Howden has a good ear for the pleasing rhythms of natural dialogue and he gives the reader a realistic sense of eavesdropping on local gossip (disclosure: two of the poems from this powerful sequence have appeared in a recent issue of London Grip New Poetry).
The next group, ‘Seven Lost Chapels’, might have benefited from some background notes to give context; and these poems seemed to lack some of the energy of ‘Team Photographs’. There are some telling lines however such as “She was the moor’s merchantman, / a Flying Dutchman riding at harbour / under the fell” or “Silences / of a pumped harmonium swell / umbilical in her belly’”.
Several individual poems continue the collection in their own gritty way, seeking to tap into ‘ a language for rough land’ – one which embodies itself when it declares that
Alliteration hauls a syntax more of moor than meadow a grammar of rough transits...
We are back to story-telling with the final sequences ‘Cracked Mary’s Mill’ and ‘Barley Top’. Cracked Mary sets her own scene in a way that echoes some of the long-remembered family lines that figured at the start of the book
They call me mad. My father’s, his father’s father’s mill this was. Now mine. Brick broken fingers crude for the sky’s soft pieces.
Ideas of heritage and inheritance also run through ‘Barley Top’ which seems to be a kind of ancestral history – although not one that involves special pleading for kinfolk. It begins “I wear them, ranting bastards, / my blood forebears, children / of unforgiving creeds, acid within their moor.”
At the end of all this I must admit to having felt rather overwhelmed by the weight of local history and regional lore and place-names. The poems are certainly powerful and the language is rich; but I could not help feeling that Howden sometimes revisits ideas about the past a little too often. It is when he engages fully with people in the here and now – as in ‘Team Photographs’ – that his poetry seems to be most successful.