Poetry review – LARKSONG STATIC: Stephen Claughton takes a journey through a selection of Martin Malone’s poems
Subtitled “Selected Poems: 2005-2020”, Larksong Static draws on Martin Malone’s three previous collections, as well as various pamphlets. The title, which puns on a lark’s hovering and the warbling static of old radios, is taken from “Barbury Castle”, the first poem in the book and one of a number about a relationship conducted in the landscape around the Uffington White Horse:
Here, beyond the tidemark of Swindon’s dirty ochre, power up the heart’s deep electric and bring to me your darkness. Let me reach towards its livewire its larksong static, earth your now in the harebells, ox eye, horseshoe vetch.
There’s a lyric strand that—alongside more hard-edged poems—runs throughout the selection (a strikingly pure example, later in the book, is “What Thought Did”), but if there’s a fault with the earlier poems, it’s a tendency towards sonorous phrasemaking, as in:
But, for now, we stand on Dragon Hill, our own slain myth bleeding circumstance onto hope … (“At Uffington”)
Back at Uffington, the line heavier now with a history; its haul weighty beyond the burden of ground hefty with its own tales … (“Best Kite on the Hill”)
In the next group of poems, about his North-Eastern roots, Malone uses more direct language.
I once was a prize bingo wage slave marking your card for six bob an hour. Evening stints on the mic, doing it right (“Seaton Carew 1979”)
Although the poems are mostly written in free verse, “Digitalis” is a villanelle about his father rediscovering his youth ‘Between his first and third heart attack’. Other poems (“Decades”, which puns on a rosary and time, and “Liverpool-Irish”) deal with the poet’s Irish ancestry. There’s one about an aunt who was a fan of all-in wrestling (“Lords of the Ring”) and a very moving poem about parental illness (“Like I Was Your Girlfriend”). Another poem deals with the technical considerations involved in setting up before a sound-check (“Mic-ing the Kit”).
Later, Malone takes us on travels to the Middle East, France and Italy. There is more lyricism here:
Musandam this Spring, and it catches me unawares: you below the waterline, striped with sunlight, shade and a sudden renewal; the tidal come and go of your limbs to the elver rhythm of the first stroke taught you by your daddy when you were five. (“Musandam”)
But there are more down-to-earth accounts as well:
Things quietened down after Tony left town, in his wake a grudge and way too much love to keep him safe in the lifestyle he’d known. (“Café Castignolles”)
Back in England, there is a short sequence about a dirty weekend in a Leeds hotel (“Prodigals”), preceded by “Cur”, the title poem of one of Malone’s earlier books, which describes sex in terms of something feral happening between foxes. “Prodigals” itself has Metaphysical echoes:
Next stop is yours and we’re cutting it fine for that connection. You know what, let’s not. Let’s not make it; neither yours nor mine. Just turn around and do it all again and keep on doing it until we change weeks, months, years into this weekend. We can do that, right?
It’s in the argument rather than the imagery here, although an earlier poem, “Map-Making”, reminded me of Donne’s ‘O my America! my new-found-land’ and “Haas Effect” draws on a psychoacoustic phenomenon in a poem about separation or break-up.
Before becoming a poet, Malone was a singer-songwriter, but—on the evidence of this selection—his poetry responds more to art, with poems inspired by or about Blake, Cezanne, Giacometti, Klee, Paul Nash, Wyndham Lewis and other, less well-known figures. “Mont St Victoire” reads in its entirety:
Ce?zanne as Sisyphus: each day climbing the steep sides of self, a mountain on his back, to lose the light, to not quite get right the it, the it-of-it. Rolling back down him each night towards the morning; a mountain on his back, each day climbing: Ce?zanne as Sisyphus.
And it is with visual art that Malone begins the extracts from both his pamphlet, Mr Willett’s Summertime, (“Mrs. Mounter” after a painting by Harold Gilman) and the prose-poem sequence, The Unreturning, (the Kitchener recruitment poster). Both sets of poems result from Malone’s PhD thesis on Great War poetry and without wanting to downplay the achievement of the earlier poems, I feel it’s here that he really gets into his stride, the writing more direct and assured and the poems more ambitious and clearly focused.
“Mr Willett’s Summertime” isn’t, as you might suspect, about the idyllic summer before the outbreak of war, but concerns the introduction of British Summer Time during the Great War, the result of a campaign by builder, William Willett. Although the emphasis of these poems is on the harsh realities, there is again an element of lyricism:
A dream, conjecturable as heaven, flight’s still fresh miracle paints its brilliance across your days, and earth grows suddenly remote while cirrus turns copper, fades pink then drifts away grey into night. (“Wanton Boys”)
“Let Us Sleep Now” takes its title from the last words of Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”, Malone turning Owen’s dream of encountering a dead enemy in the ‘profound dull tunnel’ of Hell into a fantasy about sighting him ‘after all these years’ on the opposite platform of the Vienna underground:
You glimpse his profile in the tunnel’s gloom but can’t quite root that lean face, clean and good-looking and well again. . . . just an Austrian boy heading west again, not your way but up the line to Simmering.
(Simmering is the location of one of the city’s main cemeteries.)
The Unreturning is a sequence of prose poems also about the Great War. The prose, which is nevertheless rhythmic, has the advantage of distinguishing these from actual war poems, so there is no danger of pastiche. It also enables Malone to get the detail down with the brevity of dispatches from the front and to make sudden switches and juxtapositions. This is important, because they deal not just with the war itself, but the way in which it has entered the national consciousness. A key theme is the re-creation of war for recreation. In one poem, there’s a computer game, in which:
Tommy’s pixelated soul recurs as Warfare 2.1TM from the bods in Shenzhen: new features, new characters, pathos & chronotope, a shared heritage with the unseen. True to the land that bore them, the Surreys play this game as, under the field gun’s brazen frenzy, the shires win their name. I f love could have saved us we would not have died but die we did for all the love, post-human each, lousy with it, reeking. Please remember that you ought to remember but not like this, sweet Jesus, not like this. (“Futureproof”)
Another is about the collection of memorabilia (“Webbing”) and a poem linking the war with street gangs (“Aristeia”) refers to a comic sketch (although, as far as I recall, the comedian ‘perfecting the voice: you is, like, dead meat innit, Blood?’ was more RAF than RFC).
Malone doesn’t confine himself to the Western Front, but strikes out into Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles and the returning soldier in “Nostos”—from Mr Willett’s Summertime, but appropriately used here to round off selections from both sequences—is not a Tommy, but a poilu, an ‘Ariége boy, home on leave’ about to commit a crime passionnel.
In a recent interview for The Grierson Centre, which also contains a link to an academic paper he wrote about his First World War project, Malone was asked whether or not he saw himself as a poet of place. He answered by saying that place was no more important to him than time, although certain projects did emerge from his sense of place and he was currently working on poems about Gardenstown on the Aberdeenshire coast, where he now lives. While it’s true that most of his poems are precisely located, place itself isn’t foregrounded, until we come to the poems about Scotland at the end of the book. On the evidence of these word-painted landscapes, set in the present rather than the past, if Martin Malone isn’t yet a poet of place, he may well become one.