Oct 27 2022
Poetry review – JOURNEY INTO SPACE: Merryn Willams appreciates the nostalgic elements in Seán Street’s poetry
Journey Into Space was a radio science fiction series (1954-58) which briefly had a bigger audience than any television programmes which went out at the same time. How long ago that seems! Seán Street, who was born in 1946, grew up listening to this series, and writes in the title poem of his latest collection about how difficult it was to keep changing schools and, each time, to be the boy with the strange accent:
As sound can fall into silence, likewise to speak was to become solitary, saved when radio’s primal light invented alternative serial empires where we were all foreign together once a week, and the aerial pulled Ariel and all his quality out of the night, holding the literal at bay.
Space can also mean the spaces between people, places, sea and land, present and past. ‘Hawthorn Crescent’ is a particularly fine poem about a childhood address, now existing only in the poet’s mind:
Beyond the glass, a parch of summer grass and a rowan, lost when they needed some off-road parking sometime in the time since we’ve been gone…. Borrowed time in the house and its history, just after the dead moved on, before we did.
Street’s mother (who I guess is no longer alive) is a powerful presence in this poem, and also in another very affecting poem, ‘Song for Mina’, which is a tribute to her courage; apparently she had a bad time giving birth to him:
Well, you kept your voice for Ireland, made the red stain that became me, and we came through, right enough, so I’ll sing it for the two of us now.
Seán Street was Britain’s first Professor of Radio and spent most of his working life making programmes (his sequence ‘On the Air’ was written in memory of the producer Piers Plowright). Radio was very important for the baby boomers and their parents, until television displaced it, around the time Journey Into Space came to an end. The visual image, as we all know, is more glamorous and accessible than the spoken word. These poems, however, suggest that we should sometimes close our eyes and attend to sounds – clocks, birdsong, the turn of the tide. ‘Slow Radio’ describes how it felt to tune a wireless set in 1957, accompanied by strange noises and the wind in the reeds. In a similar way, poetry also benefits from close attention to the words, and from listening to them being read aloud.
But how do you respond to a poem about a picture, if the picture isn’t in front of you? This book includes four poems inspired by paintings, another about a wood carver and yet another about a trick photograph of a man leaping into space. Not everyone will take the time to look up these images, but we probably all know Brueghel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’, and here is an Street’s accomplished sonnet which was inspired by it:
People were skating when the elder Brueghel sent his men and dogs homeward across snow, and evening’s first fluttering candle lit a valley window somewhere below them, its glow igniting the dusk, a thrill of fire beneath the mountain, a known light hung on darkness, owning the sacred skill to take thought on to where a prayer might transcend the loneliest fragile gleam, blaze up into night and set it apart from other meanings. Or so it would seem from the spreading scintillas candles start. A wished-on flame can shape walls’ winter frieze to benediction. And the traveller sees.
Street’s is a quiet voice and one to which we should pay attention.