Poetry review – THE BATTLE OF HEPTONSTALL: Stuart Henson admires the eloquent blending of historical and contemporary in Michael Crowley’s collection
Conflict, conflicting loyalties, trust and betrayal: the very stuff of drama. The stuff of history too. These poems grew out of a play, and that drama grew out of history. And History, as another poet said, is now and England.
The Battle of Heptonstall is a book of two halves. The first is made of monologues developed from a community play the author wrote for the battle’s 375th anniversary. The second—slightly less tied to monologue—looks at contemporary divisions in the light of what’s gone before. As Michael Crowley puts it in his introduction: ‘It is strange how some themes remain unresolved four hundred years later, how questions refuse to lie down but then this is Britain and history isn’t in the past.’
The voices of the first part speak with a grave simplicity:
All else depends on warp and weft, that the tension be right and be even, or the coat unravels at the back. I make a cloth of simple tabby weave the shafts and shuttle like it well, all day tying to the heddles until my eyes fail.
And it’s this lack of adornment, the apparent lack of sophistication, that gives these poems their power. Crowley has found an idiom which is adequate to the characters’ predicaments and convincingly historical. The sequence unfolds, in the lead-up to the battle, following the inner struggles of a family of clothiers, their neighbours and their enemies. Crowley becomes, in effect both dramatist and spirit-guide. One principal actor is Rose, an orphan who has been drawn in to the world of radical preaching. She’s innocent—and dangerous. And she has bewitched Joseph, the son of the weaver John Cockroft.
She wears half-skirts and will not curtsey, strumpet dressed mother says. her face a potion, her voice like ale, a voyage my nights, a torment my days.
Rose is sincere but fickle. She has poor Joseph entangled and yet she loves another—one who turns out to be a Royalist spy and a traitor. When Joseph finds her picking rose-hips on Popples Common (the name itself rich with land-rights resonances) she’s not above flirting, and Joseph’s emotions are conveyed with tender economy:
I ask will she be at church? She will not kneel before a man for she is married to Christ. The sky becomes troubled, rain falls softly, then faster, holding her hair to her face.
It’s a truism to say the Civil War pitted community against community, brother against brother. What Crowley knows and shows is that extremism—religious and political—and its twin, zealotry, almost always bring suffering with them. And the greatest pain is when you understand your opponent’s point of view, respect his sincerity, but believe him to be fundamentally wrong. There are voices, equally convincingly presented, from both sides: a pike-man, a preacher, the local Squire, a Catholic priest, a Royalist commander, the Cockroft family (as in all wars it’s the civilian population that bears the brunt) and the Parliamentarian soldiers billeted on them.
The dialectic is cleverly embodied in the ‘Wind of Doubt’ which troubles the spy, Edmund Reeve: ‘Are they traitors or is it you?’ it asks. Reeve’s background, including the torture of his father, is shown with some sympathy. Even his confusion:
Days are dark, light and life short here and I cannot think for this wind which speaks to me.
One of the finest evocations of period in this section is Alice Cockroft’s view of the soldier in their house. In this we can see not only her shrewd assessment of his personality, his psychology, but also the speaker’s own apprehensions and the delicacy of her position. The poem, ‘Lodger’ deserves to be quoted in full:
The soldier billeted in my house makes a play of manners as best he can but the campfire is where he belongs. All his coin he has given me for meat left on the bones since he may not need it when the battle’s done. Blood swims in his eyes, slaughter he thinks upon, the mother’s sons he has cut open, he sees as he chews the mutton. His skin turned grey the look of a wolf, the smell of a hound coming off him, he sings to my son, We three Soldiers be lately come from the Low Country, and his eyes in darkness see.
There’s a lot of art concealed here: the drumbeat of half-rhyme—can, belongs, bones, done upon, open, mutton, son—tightening to the jaunty-sinister triple rhyme of the last stanza; the syntactic inversions that give the speaker’s voice a local habitation; the sequencing of images she uses, of meat, blood, wolf, hound, culminating in that penetrating, enigmatic closing line. And this monologue is one among thirty-odd of similar quality.
The sequence makes you want to see the play it grew out of. Even within the constraints of the book-of-poems setting the dramatic construction is nicely worked, the love-triangle playing out through betrayal and mischance towards Joseph’s bathetic and incidental death on the night of the battle, and Reeve’s arrest, trial and execution. There’s palpable tension: the dramatic clash of opposing forces each believing it has God on its side. The last word should probably go to Alice Cockroft, timeless observer, mother, sufferer. The poem is titled, ironically, ‘God’s Work’.
My last son run down the hill never to run up again. Was it God that dawn that took my careless one?
It’s a rhetorical question. She knows who’s responsible. The people who are confident they can interpret God’s word—and one in particular.
She spoke to Joseph of God, sent him running at swords and horses under rocks pitched like bales of hay. To know God you must have a child of God then see them killed whilst still a child. Grief spins into yarn that has no end.
Perhaps the best way to show how the second part of the collection relates to the first would be to take that last line and apply it to one of two poems in the second half that explore the effects of the Manchester Arena bombing. In this case, I think, it’s a father who speaks. ‘The Last Day of the Shrine’ finds him standing by a railing in the city centre on a day when the makeshift memorials are being removed. ‘It’s not time yet,’ he says to the cleaner with the ‘unfurled’ bin-bag. It’s clear that the temporary shrine is where he goes most mornings, where people stop, stand beside him, sip their coffee and go. It’s hard to contemplate even beginning a piece like this. Where empathy must be absolute, and without the distancing of the historical, there’s not the slightest room for the poet to exploit the persona he’s inhabiting. All to Michael Crowley’s credit, then, that the avoids playing to any gallery and manages to convey that enduring sorrow in a modern context. The speaker knows ‘A shrine is where people pretend / they haven’t forgotten.’ The way grief un-fixes things is again poignantly conveyed in the last three lines:
I have been swept around this past year I must go into town with the crowd look for someone there.
The bomber, presumably, believed he had God on his side. The other poem, whose title ‘Aftermath’ is also the title of the whole section, puts the bombing squarely into the context of clashing ideologies, but not into the simplified box that politicians are wont to call “The War on Terror”.
There was a war for a while. Soldiers in the precinct, one camouflaged for the desert outside JD Sports. … seven days of hellish scenarios then the soldiers went away and there was peace.
It’s not, of course, a true peace. Crowley explores the equivocal meaning of the word in the second part of this poem, and his conclusion is anything but an easy one.
The scope of the Aftermath section is broad. The pike-men of the first part become a squaddie from the conflict in Northern Ireland, a veteran in recovery from experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan, a bomb disposal expert… Michael Crowley gives them uncomfortable witness too. The ending of ‘Chances Are’ in which the Ordinance Disposal officer explains his work through an extended metaphor is stunning:
The enemy holds its breath under the pale earth; Its father is watching and filming; this is getting silly. I sweep the sleep away from its eyes, bring it into the light, put my hand over its mouth until the last sigh. When I come home we will learn to love each other again.
The conflation of bomb and child is symptomatic of the soldier’s state of mind, the delicacy of his gestures mimetic. The sense of separation from love and reality is intense.
One of the striking things about this book is its refusal to judge. If Crowley is on any side it’s the side of understanding. The original play, he tells us, was funded by ‘a Brexit and the arts related initiative because of the supposed parallels between contemporary divisions in the UK and the great schism of the 1640s’ and he addresses that contemporary division directly in ‘Fire-Bug’. There’s a serious point, but he’s able to approach it obliquely—and with the leavening of wit he allows the speaker as he explains the consequences of his voting decision.
they’re so angry you’d think we’d been keeping slaves in the shed. Someone told me they’d been crying like a child who’s had his iphone taken been given a Nokia instead.
The reader is left to figure out the connection between the speaker’s present situation and the memory of childhood he presents us with in the second half of the poem—a childhood of opportunities denied and just-for-the-hell-of-it amusement, the fire-raising of the title. If you read this book—and I urge you to—it may not change your mind but it might enlarge it. It’s a book about important issues: Justice (‘Break-in at the Gallery of Justice’), the freedom to think outside accepted norms (‘Hold That Thought’), environmental loss (‘Gone’) and climate change (‘Low Pressure’) with a good deal of amusing social observation thrown in, in poems like ‘Dog’s Own Country’ and ‘Pub Landlord West Yorkshire’.
Ultimately, Michael Crowley’s The Battle of Heptonstall is a standard-bearer for Smokestack’s campaign to champion writers who’re radical or left-field and working a long way from the metropolitan centres of cultural authority. ‘Back and Forth’, the poem that concludes the book, brings it all together. The title, describing the movement of the weaver’s shuttle, could be the very definition of dialectic There are opposing voices. The first, which I take to be someone like Henry Ireton, is essentially anti-suffrage, suggesting the privileged part of society is somehow wiser, more fit to make decisions—and to retain control, incidentally, of the ways we are governed.
There are those that would have weavers make laws … not knowing the greater part of the people is not the better part.
This morphs into another, perhaps an angry Remainer, declaring in desperation ‘Not everyone should be allowed to vote.’ The clue to where Crowley himself stands is probably in the off-set final stanza which offers us three Brechtian aphorisms:
He that lives in a ditch has a better view of the fields than a man on a throne. The man behind a plough knows the price of corn better than a merchant. We who stand in the queue for a contract that adds up to nothing have lived before.
The first two belong to the age of the Levellers. The last is richly ambiguous and brings us into the present. What is the queue? Dole queue? Bread-line? Voters waiting to cast their ballot? And what is that contract that adds up to nothing? Zero-hours employment? The Hobbesian Social Contract? The contract between a people and their Government remains valid only when faith is kept between them. We have lived before. We have seen it all before. Now and in Heptonstall in 1643.