London Grip Poetry Review – Grahaeme Barrasford Young

Poetry review – STARSPIN: Luigi Marchini finds both careful observation and lyricism in the latest collection by Graheme Barrasford Young

Grahaeme Barrasford Young
Stairwell Books
ISBN 9781913432126
81pp   £8

Young’s latest collection of poems, Starspin, both reflects and expands upon the themes that run through his exciting last book, Routes of Uncertainty. Within Starspin, the reader will find poetry that explores not only landscape and nature but also our place in this world, our experience in life and what arrives at the end. All this is viewed through a tender yet scientific eye.

Divided into three parts, the book opens with a memorable opening line in any poem let alone to open a collection:‘Cutting a calf’s head off. The poem it comes from, “Cornish farm, 1972”, is a striking depiction of a harrowing experience where a cow’s life is saved whilst giving birth by sacrificing the calf. As the narrator says, ‘when animals go wrong / kill the child’. With cows, the adult is worth more than the child, as Young shows us at the end with the line ‘A few months on, you ate her.’

This opening poem, as well as being splendidly visceral is extremely well crafted with a memorable syntax For example, consider the symmetrical assonance in thecouplet:

to excavate its twin, flopped out
by exhausted animals and men.

In this poem the image of blood is to the fore, and Young returns to this motif throughout the collection, bringing home to the reader the fact that all life is tenuous and that it should never be taken for granted:

When my brother nose-dived
from the howdah of a slide
we wiped blood from grass

Young continues with the ‘blood on the thigh’ in “Ars Longa”, the ‘blood beneath the stone’ and the wonderful ‘dead blood’ in “and the women calling”. There are a few more similar instances scattered throughout the book which is very much a collection grounded in effective concrete imagery.

I said at the beginning that there Young has a tender eye, and this is manifested in poems like “Now, too late, I ask” where he uses the first person to great effect in its exploration of sexual awakening and the narrator’s mistrust of the opposite sex. The poem ends with the poignant tercet:

I still cannot read 
anything but a book
Or trust too much.

And there is a related poignancy in “Twist”:

before I could learn to cope,
and now I want exception
it will not come’

Young’s beautiful turns of phrase are a joy to read, and he demonstrates his skill as a wordsmith throughout: ‘in my false orphan’s bed’ (“Twist”); ‘let indifference become a loss of loss’ (“Ars Longa”); and the alliterative assonance of

Amber-shackled by late sun
a still hawk hunts dusk 
                                    [“Descending Schiehallion”]

The first section is the most autobiographical one and it places the author in scenes where it seems as if he is a victim of fate and circumstance, trying awkwardly to find his way in the world. For me it is the most successful section in that it seems the most personal in voice and therefore the more inviting. It started with ‘Cutting a calf’s head off’, and appropriately ends with the sublime couplet ‘Not being aware of extinction / makes it no easier’ (“The unnecessary death of an otter cub in a new hydro scheme”).

The excellent second section explores Young’s fascination with landscape – in particular his native Scotland – and, on a broader scale, man’s movement through it. But he considers not just man but all nature. Here the reader will find raven, goldie, buzzard, along with wild violet, asphodel, and cotton grass among others. Each poem in this section is about movement from the brilliantly concise opener “Risk” where ‘One walked on shells’ to the ‘Days on our bicycles‘ from “Impermanence”. Indeed, there are titles like “Perpetual Motion” and “The Art of Moving” which give a flavour of the poems. In fact, the latter poem – the last one in the section – is extremely beautiful and, for me, among the most accomplished in the book. Consisting of 8 tercets, it opens with the poignant line ‘With no place to come from, life has moved me’ and from that starting point, the narrator is always wondering where he belongs as he ‘has never been sure’. So, thematically, this is a continuation of the opening section where the narrator is searching for a place in the world. But here, he examines the landscape where

… rock, frosted and baked, has flaked
miniscule deaths changing little, but atom by atom,
speck and speck, seed by seed, all has been made soil

In the next stanza the narrator asks if they will become part of the rock’s ‘slow consolidation’ or follow ‘a dream, a wish’; and from here Young expertly and sublimely paints a picture of a world where the touching of dead lips brings forth trees that

sprout from flesh, small scurrying things grow fat,
the parts not feasted by hawk and beetle become moss.

This poem skilfully merges the narrator’s search for identity with his realisation that it does not really matter in the grand scheme of things: nature is both smaller but larger than all of us.

Whereas this second section provides an emotional, almost visceral response to landscape, the third section investigates it with a scientific eye. Young shows his hand straight away with the opening two poems titled “the engagement of nature and credulity” and “the marriage of landscape and understanding”. The titles are misleading however as there is an urgency in the writing, as if Young must write everything down before the ever-shifting landscape changes:

If I walk the precipice and watch the sky,
while my shadow lengthens in knowledge of the sun,
perhaps squares of darkness will soften into light,
faceless masks grow faceless faces,
stone people warm to life.
                                         [“Inhabiting de Chirico”]

This beautiful stanza from is evidence of both Youngs tenderness as well as his inquisitive nature. The third section is a marvellously assembled group of poems that affirm Young as one of the more interesting contemporary nature poets. He takes risks – for instance is “The persistence of indifference in the face of catastrophe” even a poem? And it is this risk taking that excites me.

There are instances where the work might have been edited more carefully. The last three lines of the penultimate stanza of the aforementioned “the marriage of landscape and understanding” seem superfluous and the long poem “… and the women calling” is overly so. Less could certainly say more here as well in other places. Some poems repeat ideas, and Young is not always successful in putting his ideas across clearly; but the collection, as a whole, is a fine piece of work. What Young achieves so successfully is the amalgamation of self-portraiture (first person/confessional point of view) and the perspective of the environmental poet. He is fascinated by the human condition. His poems are sometimes catalysed by the literal and the “real,” though the real can include dream states and other surrealistic experiences; at other times, he is inspired by ideas and contemplation. Either way, he wants to discover something that sheds light on what it means to be human, and he is prepared to wrestle with his subjects on the page to make them matter to himself and others. At other times, his poems seem to inhabit the world of the environment. Not simply the world of nature but also urban landscapes-for instance in “Seeing what there isn’t”. So the collection’s point of view can be sweepingly panoramic, and in these poems, setting becomes as important as character does in the self-portrait poems.

In this collection Young proves he is a master of careful observation, lyricism, and accuracy. The world external to him is foregrounded, although sometimes there is a fusion of internal and external landscapes. Reading Starspin, I am reminded, in places, of his countryman Norman McCaig; I can think of no better recommendation.