Nov 5 2023
Poetry review – LOSING ITHACA: Merryn Williams considers some of the themes in Christopher Southgate‘s latest collection
Christopher Southgate has been a biochemist, a chaplain in university and mental health contexts, and a teacher of theology. Several of his poems concern the Christian story, but he is very aware of the problems of religious belief and is not dogmatic.
Bereavement is a major theme in this collection. The first poem in the book, “Notes from a Ditch near Troy”, contrasts decorous modern funerals with the primitive urge to weep and howl. On the other hand, the bleak little ‘Six Ingredients of Self-care’ suggests a very recent trauma:
It is said Everyone should have Six people in their lives To whom They could confide anything. I had six. Two have gone missing. I had not dreamed The gap They would leave.
How then does one live with pain – ‘the wounding not mortal but deep, deep’ (“Year Five”)? Having lost his mother, Southgate revisits her early life, when she dropped him off at university and kept an address book going back to 1953. That reminds him that she was always ready for the next adventure and perhaps has not completely disappeared. There are also two agonising poems about Mary cradling her dead son. Grief will be ‘fiercely-spoken, quietly sung/ And take as long as it takes’ (“Seen on a T-shirt”).
Other poems inspired by the New Testament are “Three Versions of Judas”, “The Takes at Emmaus”, which considers the possibility of getting celebrated actors to film the Resurrection, and “Thorn in the Flesh”, which suggests that the misogynistic Paul of Tarsus may have had inappropriate feelings for a young man. “And on the Sixth Day?” asks the ultimate question – why does evil exist? God has created man, and this creature has ‘altered air’ (poisoned the atmosphere), and ‘lynched his fellows from the trees of the Lord God’. There is no glib answer.
But this striking collection (his fifth) is not all about pain; indeed it is sometimes highly amusing. “Ladies who Trek” describes two elderly women who walk over glaciers or along the silk road, “Six Sixes in an Over” celebrates a famous cricketing occasion. I especially liked “Better Worlds”, discussing the Lucan Library, Dunfermline, which notes that
Even the Nobel Prize for Literature is not enough to keep one’s book in a library.
Whereas if you are like Lord Lucan and commit a famous murder, people will always want to read about you. It’s a depressing thought, but if you are a good poet, what can you do except laugh?