First of all it’s necessary to declare an interest here: Tebb has included my review of his last publication Cut Flowers - Selected Poems 1964-2015 (Sixties Press, 2015), inclusive of my overview of his oeuvre and its considerable contribution to British poetry, as this book’s Foreword. This is very gratifying but will of course indicate from the outset my admiration for Tebb’s poetry and for his long-standing courage in being an outspoken critic of the British postmodernist poetry mainstream.
These facets to Tebb are really inextricable since he is a poet of personality and that personality –defiant, passionate, gritty, romantic, idealistic, righteously angry– spills through every pore of his poetry. Warts and all, Tebb is every bit the poet in his personality as his personality is in every bit of his poetry. This means his poetry is highly distinctive in style and tone and so any poem of his is almost always instantly identifiable as a ‘Tebb’ poem with his unmistakable signature singed into it. Such a poetic characteristic is rare today in the more streamlined aesthetics of British poetry, those which shocked Tebb into counter-poetics and polemic on his return to poetry in the early 1990s after a twenty year gap.
Barry Tebb – Collected Poems 1964-2016 is a classily produced volume by Sixties Press, the poet’s own imprint: the poet’s name and the book’s title in white Times New Roman aligned left against a plain orange-brown cover gives the production a simple but elegant classic look courtesy of Tebb’s partner writer Daisy Abey’s keen eye. This unfussy but classy design makes an instant statement: that this is a poet of some standing and longevity, prolific, important, and one who really shouldn’t need any introduction. This isn’t Tebb’s first Collected, he published one back in 2007, The Nostalgia Bus, and has also published one or two Selected Poems previously too. But this book is certainly the definitive and, of course, most up to date edition.
In just over 280 pages is collected together pretty much Tebb’s entire oeuvre inclusive of Translations, and while that page count might not sound like a massive amount for output spanning approximately 30 years –that is, deducting Tebb’s 20 year ‘poetry gap’ or what we might term the ‘great Tebb sabbatical’ of 1970-90– but then one is take into account the fairly small font size used throughout (possibly 10pt TNR) and the trademark Sixties Press bleed-through of poem texts page to page (a la many older poetry anthologies) as opposed to starting each poem on a new page (a la the modern production style).
As well as bringing together all Tebb’s poetry collections, including his very first, The Quarrel With Ourselves (1966), and his poems included in the triple-authored Three Regional Voices alongside Michael Longley and Iain Crichton Smith (1968), both published by Alan Tarling’s Poet & Printer Press, readers will also delight at the ‘Easter egg’ of Tebb’s most recent ‘Uncollected’ poems at the back of the book (and after that there is a full alphabetical Index of the poems).
We are also treated to an autobiographical Postface which, among other fascinating details, elucidates Tebb’s primary poetic influences, perhaps most notably and particularly, James Kirkup, James Simmons, Martin Bell and the still relatively obscure Thomas Blackburn (whose posthumous reputation has yet to pick up the full praise his work deserves but is in the process through some handsome publications from Greville Press Pamphlets and a Selected Poems published by Carcanet and edited by his daughter Julia) who were all among the Gregory Fellows at Leeds University and whom the young ‘Loiner’ (nickname for people from Leeds) Tebb went to listen read there during the Sixties.
Since I wrote an extensive review of Tebb’s Cut Flowers – Selected Poems 1964-2015 covering most of the poet’s oeuvre not long ago, the same as mentioned at the start of this review that appears as the Foreword to this Collected Tebb, I’ll concentrate here on some of Tebb’s earliest poems and on those more recent Uncollected poems exclusive to this particular book. These start with a small selection of poems at the beginning of the Collected commemorating Tebb’s recently departed former wife and lifelong soul mate, poet and protestor Brenda Williams. ‘Journey Into the Next Room’ is a deeply moving, beautifully wrought, truly heartfelt poem that starts at the dreamlike remembrance of the recently passed-on loved one which comes with initial bereavement:
I thought to find within the very rooms of life
That other room whose door you’ll open
Yet still be as I have always known you.
This poem contains some beautiful phrases and reads almost hypnotically as one’s soul is touched by the poet’s spiritual search for the recently departed through ‘Crevices in walls, cracks in boards’ and how, eerily, ‘Scarlet, yellow and white blooms/ Spring through a strange season’. Sense-impressions and metaphors are deployed beautifully as Tebb pictures Williams sailing through the lines of her customary sonnets as if steering a boat, ‘the very sea lanes…/ …your own hands/ Fashioned over the years, the barque whose creaking masts/ Your nimble fingers tugged to pull/ The thread through all the canvas sheets/ Gathered in that very room I sought in vain’. As always Tebb’s use of alliteration is effortlessly evocative. The sailing imagery continues throughout this poem to powerful effect: ‘the rowing after God/ On rivers that have ceased to run,/ Water courses long gone, charts smudged/ Beyond recall, signs rusted and unread/ Unfathomed depths, unpeopled shores whose breath/ Has blown across the glass/ Where the shadow of our glance remains’.
Tebb subtly touches on Williams’ lifelong psychological condition of depression which is so often a curious kind of arrested death-projection or self-mourning:
Beyond the vision of the cataracts which dim
Our sight or make it over to a symphony
Where notes fade into silence or rise, then
Fade again upon a seamless shore.
For fifty years you have awaited death
As some relief from grief etched in your very soul.
Your eyes always on a blind horizon fixed.
There is a spiritualistic tone to this poem which is deeply affecting and which contemplates a ‘spirit realm’. Included after this poem is Brenda Williams’ last composed sonnet which really deserves to be excerpted here in full since it is a particularly astonishing piece, especially since it was written only days before death in July 2015 –it exemplifies Williams’ mastery of meter and tone:
This is a road I never thought to know
Where memory is mimicking the end,
The future descends on the faculty
Of my soul, my mind struggling for a foothold in
Existence, always the poem, always
The unheard, there is nothing in my hands,
I leave with nothing this world understands.
Unimaginable those early days
The spirit conjuring its poetry,
Forgiveness he cannot borrow or lend
Words unfinished as the first light of day,
Lost as they are, forever on the way
The flickering candle he cannot trim
The undeciphered script of tomorrow.
Returning to Tebb, it’s really instructive to be able to read the entirety of his debut collection The Quarrel With Ourselves (1966) which brought praise from The New Statesman’s John Carey and brought him to the attention of Michael Horovitz who included Tebb in his groundbreaking anthology of the British Poetry Revival, Children of Albion (Penguin, 1969), alongside such names as Adrian Mitchell and Edwin Morgan.
But Tebb’s early poetry is perhaps best contextualised within the framework of influences from the tail-end of the Forties’ New Apocalyptics and New Romantics, particularly Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Vernon Watkins and Norman MacCaig who, rebelling against the openly political-realist poetry of the Thirties, sought to reassert the Lawrentian poetic qualities such as myth, expressionism and some aspects of surrealism (it was from D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse published in 1931 that they drew their collective name). There is also something of the surrealist poet David Gascoyne in Tebb’s earliest poetry, not to say of early W.H. Auden who himself flirted with surrealism before finding his more famous polemical form for his mid to late Thirties verse. Perhaps imagistic as opposed to surrealistic is more accurate for categorizing Tebb’s early output but what is notable is the tightness of form, the short lines, the packing-in of images and symbolism couched in lyricism, the highly figurative quality especially in terms of self-expression and personification.
Here is the poem ‘Change’ excerpted in full, which is instantly arresting for its tonal confidence and use of personification:
As milled silver I was welcome
In every gutter, tinkling over cobbles
I rang the truth loudly on solid-oak counters
And tills tolled for me clear as bells.
Boldly I gave myself to many,
Slipped from moist palm to pocket,
Pirouetting without points, jingling
With dull coppers and important keys.
First I was lost in a hundred
Children’s essays, found myself
With pearls in secret pockets,
Counterfeit and shiny.
Then I discovered in a deed-box,
Frowned over as I beamed a dusty smile
Of centuries, polished till I pierced the fondness
Nastily, with a sickly yellow glare.
My smooth face made the end easy;
I piled up with the rest, counted and
Columned, exchanging memories
In a sudden hot flood of death.
There’s a rhythmical clarity and air of poetic purpose unusual for a poet in his twenties. These qualities crystallise more as one reads on through this highly distinctive first selection. ‘Disorderly Conduct’ shows precision of tone, rhythm and image and the sharply enjambed short lines, almost staccato –here it is in full:
The poet, alone at snowfall
Must be insane
To feel the cold
Hand of God.
Neurotic, of course, to consider
His breathing might shatter
The flakes’ fluid pattern
Frosting the glass.
Hurrying from the house
To be caught disturbing
The orderly procession of weathers
His disorderly mind endeavours
To unify the falling fragments
And make lucid the chaos
Of his mind’s kingdom.
If the Zulu believe rain
Is a god weeping
For dead birds,
Our easy acceptance
Of its frozen flood –
At worst a background for comic cards,
At best a poet’s trope –
Rainbows no starry promise
For the spirit’s darker skies.
The natural imagery and brooding tone convey a deep vein of Romanticism in Tebb, something which has sustained itself in his post-1990 output. There’s also at work some typically exacting alliterative technique, as in ‘Neurotic, of course, to consider’. There’s almost something of William Carlos Williams in the ekphrastic lyric ‘Miro’s The Rays of the Sun Wound the Lingering Star’:
A child could gather
Every part in a morning’s
Play and similarly spiral
Stars across a canvas.
A child’s pillow could hold
The grimacing golliwog
Cloaked in a rainbow
That is the artist’s dream.
The acid sophistication
Of his scrawl
Enacts a clockwork
In a toy universe
The red moon leers,
Illuminates the mad
Only the necklace
Of black sunspot’s
Clustering could not
Be a child’s.
Surrealistic qualities and occasional Dylan Thomas-esque turn of phrase mark out ‘A Kind of Distraction’:
You always disrupt me;
When I ring you for comfort
You wing me, send my
Pudding of a mind
A-splatter on the wall.
You chase me to bed even,
You bawl your lewd reminders
Down aching avenues of dreams
To shudder me awake.
And then at last you’ll fake
Your promises and take
Some simpler way, battening
On the eggs you’ll hatch
Warmly some tea-cosy day.
All this, you’ll say, was
Merely adolescence, not
The real unpoked you,
Tittupping in high heels
And cellophaned to view.
There’s something of Thomas in the phrase ‘tea-cosy day’ as there is in the use of the very physical-sounding term ‘Tittupping’ –which means to move in a capering or prancing manner– and the linguistic confidence to take liberties with grammar i.e. ‘unpoked’, ‘cellophaned’. ‘The Children’ is rich with distinctive and imaginative description:
Autumn to them means
Most of all leaves
Twirling russet skeletons
Underfoot for crunching,
Boughs spangled silver-grey
Or red with squirrels on them.
(Really their unbecoming dark
Crawls with damp white fungi,
Less than half have seen
A squirrel and I cannot disturb
One’s innocent vision of ‘squirrel’
On the canal bank, the slinking
Rat among weeks and corpses).
One wonders whether ‘weeks’ is a mistype as was meant to be ‘weeds’ –if so it’s serendipitous in its curiosity value not to say alliterative effect. ‘For an Infants’ Poem Book’ has some interesting turns of phrase, such as ‘where a million dots dancing like weirds/ Tiered the wall’ –the internal near-rhyme of ‘weirds’ and ‘Tiered’ works particularly well (the curious term ‘weirds’ must presumably be a slang term of the Sixties). This poem nicely captures the poet’s school days –unhappy, of course, as they are for almost all poets– through colour and fruit images from ‘Starched Miss Smith barked and brayed in tweedy green’ to
And always in the playground rotting apple cores,
Orange skins bleached like bones in the sun,
Weeds springing in crevices as I run
From the terrifying cries of children
Falling like blows.
That final trope is particularly effective not to say sublime in implied subversion of the hoary adage ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’.
‘Ibsen at Seventy’ is a curious miniature on the Norwegian playwright, rich in sense-impression and brooding with Nordic gloom:
The room exhales its odours,
Musk rose and powdered lavender
Haunt his nostrils, one side of him
Breathes awareness of them.
He is trying to write something,
His name; the pen refuses him,
Ink dries out his mind.
‘Expectancy’ is a simmering meditation on poetic creativity, its agonies and ecstasies, and its essential neuroticism –here it is in full:
Lodged in some deep recess of the soul
Poems are waiting for me to write them;
They are growing in me like a cancer,
Each one a nub of pain, weaving untidily
Between the unsound organs of sense.
Whenever I breathe I exhale the odd
Unwritten, unspoken as yet even unthought
Half-line. What swells between stomach and head
May be the stanza I thought was lost, exploring
The labyrinthine coils of blood and gut.
The deft movement of my hand on paper (stabler
Than the shaking inner wrist of doubt) makes
Me wonder who or what guides the pen, makes me
Tremble at what I may unwittingly leave out.
Re-write? I can hardly make a fair copy…
And yet they come; maybe trailing along,
An urchin gang sobbing and snotty-nosed,
But getting somewhere, however late, arriving
Unnoticed on the dusty blank page
Of an unread book none bothers to cast out.
‘A Gathering of Fugitives’, dedicated to one of the Gregory Fellows, the respected poet Peter Porter, re-enters more surrealistic territory:
There are lice in Santa Claus’ beard,
He is wearing black jack boots proofed
Against fall-out, his sledge is gilded
With swastikas, pulled by Jewish deer.
He will die of exposure on rooftops
His going mourned in plastic churches
And tears will be specially sent from Rome.
Interestingly images of staleness, dust and decay often cluster when Tebb writes of poets and poetry –we have the ‘dusty blank page’ and the expectant poems ‘like cancer’ in ‘Expectancy’, and in ‘A Gathering of Fugitives’ we get this third and final stanza ending on a similar image:
The poet dare not discuss himself,
Instead slinks round the ‘objective world’
Of his peers, observing that it only seems
To exist, that he is hovering like a fly
Round the specious grin of ‘the real’,
That ‘deep inside him’ vacancy hangs
Like dust on an airless day.
Early Tebb’s sharply cut imagistic lyricism –sometimes reminiscent of Clifford Dyment– is once more exemplified in the brilliantly titled ‘Absent Enemies’:
They all ghost by
Etching in the air
Backwards and forwards
On strings and wheels
Slumped in action
A matrix of motion
Left and right
Gathers them in, sucking
Gently round blind corners.
Whooshed away whoever’s left
Watches blank air, no easy
Thoroughfare for ghosts
To be fleshed from the thin
Columns of steel, to sign with blood
Their signatures in fear.
Eerie stuff. Of a similarly ethereal, autumnal quality is the beautiful lyric ‘Morning Walk’, which has an almost stream-of-consciousness form:
I step off the pavement like a precipice
Engage the darting sunshafts in a duel
In the wall’s shadow I web my prints to pattern
The moist stone virgins.
The lawns are white-coated their throats red
With berries and bird-song; in petrified gardens
Hyacinth tongues lip the wall.
Leaf mould muffles my heel-taps the enormous trees
Totter in the hyaline air; I hear the Sunday strollers in their
Mist-making walks, pressing through them
Like some voiceless ghost.
Tebb’s surrealistic sensibilities are perhaps best demonstrated in the first stanza of ‘The Quarrel with Ourselves’:
Flash red and purple vestments
Shields clash and swords
But the essential blazonings
Are in the heart.
Lastly I will focus on a choicest snatch of excerpts from the ‘Uncollected’ poems at the rear of this volume; some of the poems appeared in Tebb’s previous chapbook Selected, Cut Flowers, but are –excuse the pun– offcuts that haven’t actually been part of any collection. ‘December’, which addresses Tebb’s partner, writer Daisy Abey, is a brilliantly talkative poem, almost like a poetic diary entry inclusive of some of Tebb’s trademark literary commentaries and quips and swipes on the contemporary poetry scene towards its close. The first short alliterative verse is the least characteristic of the poem as a whole having a more meditate quality as Tebb contemplates his lifelong poetic restlessness in a manner not dissimilar to Keats’ ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be/ Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,/ Before high pil`d books, in charact'ry,/ Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain’ etc.:
For you words aren’t enough
For me they are too numerous to read
In ten lifetimes. Thought at sixty-eight
Late is it is, I try, I try.
There are Dylan Thomasesque portmanteaus amidst a wash of nostalgic images and some stunning period descriptions:
The whiteroaded silence beyond the windows
Of the Londonward leap of the train
Stirs memories of Nineteen Forty-Six
When drifts stood higher than your head
And made us dream eternities of snow,
Of Scott’s Antarctica, of the glow
Of coals in my mother’s black-leaded grate,
Platoons of POW’s hefting shovels
To clear the snow-skirted roads.
Tebb remembers a relatively idyllic childhood in post-war Leeds:
An ivory tower, my childhood, no beatings,
No neglect, Meccano and Biggles, Marks and Spencer’s
Angel cake, Boots book department in its Briggate basement,
Keats mock-Morocco bound, titled in silver…
Things take a sour turn into Tebb’s teenage years, however, while he only part name-checks one particularly famous alumni of his Leeds school, Alan Bennett, a few years his senior:
The prison hall of secondary school, all boys
With Bennett about to go to Oxford
And become a national treasure
With his tawdry plays, the Rattigan of our days
I doubt, however much come out, he’s no
Tennessee, as even blind Tiresias can see.
That’s quite a critical swipe Tebb takes at Bennett but one with which I’d probably agree, he does seem to be somewhat over-celebrated as a playwright, though arguably some of his output is comparable to Rattigan; ‘blind Tiersias’ is the transsexual prophet from Greek myth whose mention immediately calls to mind Ovid’s Metamorphosis but also T.S. Eliot’s ‘III. The Fire Sermon’ from The Waste Land. Tebb continues his quite withering incidental critical commentaries on certain high profile literati he came into contact with in the Leeds of his youth and whose continuing and growing reputations are more than a little pruned by the poet’s acerbic observations –but that’s fine, their reputations can support it:
So much is chance as Goethe noted,
Missing Blackburn’s turn as Gregory Fellow
Cost me a decade of dead ends
The lacklustre publicity of Redgrove and his ilk
A booming voice but poetry as weak as water
Sixty before I fell into Hockney’s pool
Of Proust and Mallarmé, Appolinaire and Reverdy.
But Tebb is just as keen to cite those poets he’s admired throughout his life and they’re impeccable choices:
Wystan, your iconic voice survived it all
Your Oxford American drawl enthralled my twenties
And the call of you, Hugh McDiarmid
Constructing the Lallans lingo while the masses
Flock to Corrie and to Bingo.
Joe Corrie (1898-1968) was an autodidactic coal miner turned poet and radical working-class playwright –comparing him to Bingo in terms of popularity among the working classes is certainly an enormous compliment. After citing a couple of other influencers, ‘There were bright starts but few/ Blackburn and Moraes to name but two’, Tebb then brings this enthralling poem to a more damning critical close with regards to the more high profile poets of the postmodernist mainstream:
Mostly the ghastly Armitage and his grosser lineage
I cannot name: they should construct
A statue to their shame.
Muse poets we must want and wait
The passing of this post-modern trash
Where Duffy and Jackie Kay still rule,
The naked empress and her royal fool.
Yes, Tebb pulls no punches when writing about the contemporary poetry scene and its pecking orders, and this can make for slightly uncomfortable reading for some no doubt, but one cannot help respecting such poetic outspokenness in a scene otherwise rinsed in insincere mutual flatteries and sycophancies; and the phrases ‘ghastly Armitage’ and ‘grosser lineage’ are brilliantly alliterative. As to the validity of Tebb’s critical take on ‘this post-modern trash’, well, there are many simpatico poets today who, while they might only voice it privately, would share this viewpoint.
In ‘No Pasaran!’ (Spanish for ‘They shall not pass!’) Tebb recounts his being the pupil selected to be present at the farewell gathering of one of his school teachers, Mr Holmes, who was a Spanish Civil War volunteer veteran. This is an evocative vignette which draws the reader in straight away:
The farewell gathering was undistinguished,
The current head and one retired
With a dangling deaf-aid, a councillor
From the sub-committee, surreptitiously eyeing
His watch, the children, grateful for missed lessons
Myself the only old pupil.
Holmes wore the same worn suit and the tremor
In his left arm shook in the same spasm
That for decades had marked him out
With his limp. He had just returned from
The final re-union of the comrades of the
International Brigade. That was the beginning
Of his Spanish, which we all began at nine.
As well as teaching Spanish, Holmes also taught Art:
Art was his other subject, the older boys
Had seen his Andalusian sunsets
“It was like the desert come alive,
The sound went up till it met the sky”
The merger made the man and broke the body
But the spirit went on.
This teacher clearly left a strong impression on the boy Tebb as this poem has great empathetic effect:
He’d always taken the boys’ leavers,
His reputation for discipline second to none.
The cane held up the door curtain,
With a voice that had carried to the opposing
Trenches, raising it a few decibels was enough
To keep those fifteen year old heads down
When he wanted silence but usually he preferred
A low murmuring, he said it reminded him
Of comrades giving each other courage
Before a big push.
The conversational tone of these reflective verses give them a sense of intimacy and a real vividness while the well-poised prose is reminiscent of Stephen Spender or even George Barker:
Missing the big one didn’t bother him, after all.
He said: “They were mostly conscripts. We had a
Choice and there were damned few took it.”
As it was his last day he wore his medals,
Sitting awkwardly on the podium. The present head
Had known him only a year and he’d
Been off sick most of it while they tried a final but failed
Operation to calm the tremor in his arm.
One is almost reminded of the 1975 television series Nightingale’s Boys, about a Spanish Civil War veteran teacher reuniting six of his ex-pupils. Tebb was clearly a star pupil of Holmes’s:
“It’s a scar I’m proud to wear. One hand Charlie Holmes
Should have been my birth-name.”
When my turn came, the last voice, for once
I had little to say and muttered ‘Gracias’
From the year’s Spanish that stayed like a shell’s splinter
I could have mentioned Lorca’s Duende
Or ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ but I kept my learning
To myself. Instead, I talked about the Festival of Britain
And how old Holmes had got us to do a mural
Which ended up like Picasso’s ‘Guernica’
With Holmes’ additions of helmeted troops,
Bayonets and machine gun nests.
The final stanza neatly depicts at once the obscurity of British volunteers’ involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the sense of hushed respect for those young left-wing Englishmen who took up arms to defend the besieged Spanish socialist Republic:
On Open Night the parents shuffled past,
A bit unsure of what it was all about,
“Spain 1937”, one whispered, “Ee fought there”.
They bowed their heads in silence at the sight
Of the defeated, many wounded, shuffling
Along a troop train to France
While Franco’s pompaded militia shouted
“Viva El Caudillo, Sieg Heil!”
I’m not certain but it’s possible ‘pompaded’ is a typo and that it was meant to read ‘pomaded’, which would mean greased or waxed as in, presumably either the shiny three-cornered hats of some of the Fascist Spanish soldiers or alternately a reference to their slicked black hair. After the rather surreal dream-narrative of ‘Counter-inspired by Jacko’s Send-off’ comes ‘A Surrealist Vision’, and the poem certainly lives up to its title. This is a magical dream-verse with a rocking back and forth locomotive rhythm moving irresistibly to its breathless, gasping crescendo –it’s like a merging of Auden’s Night Mail with Thomas’s Under Milk Wood:
There was a larger than life plastic cow
Tethered to a tree outside Hampstead Thameslink
Black and white bloated with full udders and a plot
Of imitation grass beneath her feet and
I wondered how she had arrived and why
A character from Cider with Rosie had strayed
So far that particular wet Saturday and the effect
Was nothing short of miraculous and incongruous
Yet immensely attractive like Magritte’s
Toy train emerging from a suburban hearth
And I was suddenly transported on a cloud
White with wonder to a field in what was once
England with scarecrows decked in overcoats
Their pockets stuffed with windfall apples
Who would break into speech and croak
“My name is Wurzel Gummidge” and I remembered
Puffins with their pastel covers at half a crown
And then the sky cleared and a wind blew
Small and keen and the dappled cow began to moo
As cows do and fifty years fell away and the train
Bore us through the darkening September night
The lights glowing in a mix of scarlet and pink
Like a Miro where cows graze on roof tiles and
Reverdy writes the script while Réda records it all
For me to translate and the railway company
Prints the poem on posters in violet ink
Always the favourite of René Crevelle
Mounted on every station platform
And the early stars twinkled and the full moon
Glowed and we were back in the cottage in Honley
Listening to milk churns loading and trains
Getting up steam and the night and the lights
Were one with the stars and the moon and the memories.
‘Cancer Clinic’, dedicated to Dr. Sanjay Popat at the Royal Marsden depicts the poet in the clinic waiting room contemplating the fine art prints on the wall:
I looked at the print on the wall,
Was it I wondered Claude Lorraine
Or Poussin in a lighter vein?
I asked the Lecturer in Art History
Sitting next in line but he stared ahead
As if frozen in time and I remembered
Your silent protest on the English lawn
And the snow falling on your hair
Until it covered you wholly and a student there
Enquired earnestly whether you were a
Living statue in snow and I answered ‘no’
And that you had been excluded by David
Bishop-of-Durham-to-be for having
An illegitimate child, not that you had failed
Mature Matric, that was just a trick to make you go
The professorial veto was not on the Statute Book.
Writing on behalf of the Queen, the Official Visitor,
The courtier was sad but there was nothing he could do
But the letter waiting at home on your mat was from
Iris Murdoch urging you on and you sat again outside
Magdalen near the bridge at the bottom of the High
And that time you were arrested but the court found
In your favour.
After the as ever fascinating digressive literary vignette Tebb returns to the chill reality of his lifelong kindred spirits’ terminal illness:
Here there is no jury, only fate or time or perhaps
A benevolent deity behind the folding screens
Who can tell us what life means and I noticed another
Print, it was Michelangelo’s ‘Moses’ and next to it
Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ and the timeless marble said
All or nothing, the roll of a dice or Mallarmé’s
‘Coup de dés’ was an even more appealing metaphor
And I, too, stared ahead, as if frozen in time
Before it was your turn to be called.
‘Endless Dream’ is a heart-tugging dream lyric, one of the many bereavement verses that make up most of the ‘Uncollected’ section:
Was it for you I waited
With my suitcase packed
The travelling and hotel booked
Yet something lacked, the certainty
That you would in fact arrive
And keep our pact.
The tickets seemed in order
And the dates correct
Sealed in an envelope marked ‘Collect’
Yet still suspicion lurked that something
Lacked, some doubt that our ‘understanding’
I have a certain conflict of interest here since the short poem ‘From the Durham County Advertiser Friday 8 February 1935’ is dedicated to myself –here it is in full:
Swathed in white my grandmother stands in the second row
‘Rough Lea Methodists Guild: A Pageant of Bible Women’
The caption says but my eye strays to ‘Unemployment Rates
Auckland Urban and Rural Council protest the Standstill Order
Under the new Unemployment Board. A letter to Mr Baldwin
Against the breaking up of the homes of our people
Reducing them to beggary.’
Cameron and Baldwin, standstill order or sanction,
Needs Test to Means Test, everything changes, nothing changes.
Tebb’s pairing of ‘Cameron and Baldwin’ is absolutely spot on since both Tory prime ministers imposed elective austerity/economic Depression on our nation and both punished the poorest but particularly the unemployed arguably more severely and remorselessly than any other British governments before or since (in much of my polemic for the anti-cuts anthologies and to some extent in my poetry I have argued that the Tory-led Government of 2010-15 tacitly modelled itself on the Tory-led National Government of the mid-Thirties, both in policy and rhetoric, so Tebb makes a very astute political point in this short poem).
‘Intensive Care’ is dedicated to Brenda Williams and is another emotive verse made all the more vivid for its almost forensic physical descriptions:
How long shall I stay?
Are there words to say?
The pain makes you mute,
Morphine has no song.
Forty- five years is a long
Time to be together and apart,
Husband and ex-husband, now
Carer for your cats who met
Me this morning bewildered
By your absence as I changed
And filled bowls and watched
Their bent heads lapping.
The short lines give a gasping staccato quality that gives an appropriate sense of time and stamina pacing away, the quick-time of dying:
Sat by your bed, the drip,
The battery of instruments
Measuring input and output,
Flow charts, cannulas and clips,
The hands of the nurse move
With the precision of a pianist
From point to point, pressing,
Adjusting, constantly checking.
He waves the sister away when
His break is due, “I'll let you know
I’ve things to do.”
I listen but your words are few
And drop to silence before
A sentence is half way through.
Your eyes close. I moisten
Your lips. The odds were against
But for a second time you survive
And when woke your question
“Are my cats alive?”
Two calls, twenty-two hours
Waiting for a diagnosis and you
At the point of death.
Three weeks on wards, IT3, IT4, DW7,
Numbers burned into my brain
With the memory of your pain,
The creases on your brow,
The steel clips, the ward rounds
I always missed, your terror
On discharge, your arms like sticks,
Your face swathed in death’s pallor
You could just lift a cup,
The continuous nightmares,
The cats at the door,
The letters on the floor.
For weeks you waited
For me to come and count
The tablets, one by one,
Heat up food continue
With the cats.
Slowly, how so slowly,
The cuts began to heal,
You moved more steadily,
The weeks passing,
A new month beginning.
Characteristically Tebb lets rhyme happen of its own accord as and when it chances, and when it does happen it serves its purpose of feeding the poem’s rhythm:
February half through
You said you could get through
When my own op was due.
Nothing we were told
Was clinically true
The unmentionable pain,
The nightmares, the absolute
Lack of aftercare,
These we knew.
And so, like Lawrence, I may say,
“Look, we have come through”.
The last line’s literary allusion has a soul-scouring irony about it.
‘Last Song’ has an almost Whitmanesque quality in its long song-like rangy lines and has a compelling rhythm:
I shall follow you down the years, o my beleaguered heart,
The place where I was born levelled beneath time’s storm.
The stars began to guide, where to I could not find but followed
All the same with vanity and pride till I learned in my
That few friends are true, some upped and died, others disappeared
To hide. Between the living and the dead there is a lonely land
Where the mad decide, amid storm-filled meadows where herons
Hunt and dive, these mad become our masters and we the slaves
Beside our fellows pulling the oars in the hold of a trireme
Hurled by a crazy tide of talk and visions beside a tapestry
Where victims stride, though they have long since died, corpses
Propping up corpses in monuments so wide we cannot see the end
Of their incoming tide.
War’s aftermath was a decade in which I learned to ride the storm
That words provide, laying side by side with a muse
that would provide
The harvest of my heart, the passion but not the bride on the plume
Of a soaring tide, finger touching finger, eye meeting eye,
The tremulous harebell’s sigh as we learned to love and die.
Tebb’s is an essentially expressive poetic sensibility and the impulsiveness of some of his verse can be very appealing and effective in its unvarnished vitality; Tebb has the poetic courage to let imperfections and serendipities be rather than spoil expressive spontaneities with too much polish of redrafting. In short, while Tebb is a poetic craftsman he is not particularly a draftsman –at least nowhere near as much as most contemporary poets are either pressured or pressure themselves to be through the commonplace ‘workshopping’ process of poem-shaping. It’s this raw, earthy flavour and spontaneity of expression which for me makes Tebb’s poetry so effective and affecting and somehow more real than most polished, pared-down antiseptic contemporary verse.
‘Leaving Leeds’ is one of Tebb’s most effective lyrical pieces, a beautifully-wrought tribute to his native city dripping with brilliant descriptions and aphorisms. It’s a lilting, sing-song magical poem lit with a Dylan Thomasesque verbal vibrancy:
City of grief, city of dreams,
I am leaving you for the second time
For the last time, city of back-to-backs,
Kingdom of my heart, Kirkgate Market's
Domes and stalls, spiralling fruit and flowers,
Unable anymore to walk along your avenues
Of leather goods and gee-gaws bright as stars.
Sweet Aire sing softly while I spin my dreams
The deeper I dive into your Lethean streams
The higher I fly and like a hawk hunting I hurtle
Over cloudbanks hovering beyond the lost townships
Of Beeston and Armley, the mills gone with the trams
And throngs of my childhood companions,
How many, how many?
I have counted the bridges where I watched
The barges of my childhood glide, the streets where I played,
The ginnels tunnelled under sidings, hollows decked with flowers,
The silent bells of Crossgreen.
[‘ginnels’ is an urban term, presumably Yorkshire in origin, for the walkways between houses connecting streets together]. This delightful eulogy to Leeds ends as it begins on the same refrain:
City of grief, city of dreams, I cannot laugh or cry
As you crumble and disappear like mercury on my palm
Between the cracks of memory, lines of disused tracks,
Brocaded banks of graves under arches,
Sweet Aire, sing softly while I spin my dreams.
‘Lines for Jeremy Reed’ is addressed to the super-prolific poet of the title but the poem itself is another descriptive piece rooted in place, Leeds, and in time, Tebb’s formative years of education and poetic apprenticeship:
Gas lamps on corners tied with metal bows
Blue lights flickering in serried rows
Drays pulled by horses, sacks of coal
Cascading as the cellar’s toll.
A kaleidoscope world shaken like the strobe lights
Of fifties dance halls and I was stricken
With the whirl of words, an infection
Uncured for seventy years.
There’s something reminiscent of fellow working-class ‘Loiner’ poet Tony Harrison’s (his first collection in 1970 was actually titled The Loiners) From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems (1978), particularly ‘The Rhubarbarians’ which brilliantly captures the autodidact’s awestruck introduction to aspects of Classical education. There are some similarities between the two poets both biographically and poetically: both come from working-class backgrounds in Leeds, are of the same generation, are largely self-educated in the Classics and French, have narrative drives to much of their verse, and are both besotted with language (e.g. Tebb’s being ‘stricken/ With the whirl of words, an infection/ Uncured…’):
The drone of Latin verbs, the inflexions of Greek,
Monotonous as static, sterile and bleak
Bars I could neither break nor live inside
But something called me, something deep inside
And poetry was my love, my pride
When I first translated Mallarmé
Who took my breath away and like Claudel
I thought how well I’d do in Rimbaud’s hell.
But the similarities are balanced by the differences between the two poets: Harrison’s talent is above all dramatic as demonstrated in his many celebrated verse-dramas over the decades, he is also a poetic formalist, and rhymes in trademark Northern-inflected vowels; Tebb’s talent on the other hand is much more expressive, personalised and temperamental, and his prosodic tendencies more towards free verse and blank verse but often with broken rhymes or internal rhymes. To use a rather dated paradigm, Harrison’s oeuvre shows most influence from the verse of the Thirties, while Tebb’s shows most influence from the poetry of the Forties and Fifties.
Tebb has much more in common with one of the poets he most admired, Martin Bell, and with the former’s allusion to Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell against the backdrop of Leeds, one is also reminded of Bell’s poem title-cum-epithet for his adopted city, ‘The City of Dreadful Something’ (a titular pastiche of Scots poet James “B.V.” Thomson’s lugubrious epic poem of the 1870s, ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, actually about his adopted London) in which he famously wrote ‘Leeds is Hell’. But returning the Tebb poem, worth mention is also an italicised rhyming couplet which punctuates the denser semi-rhyming stanzas around it in a not dissimilar way to Eliot’s ‘In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo’ which interrupts passages in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1920):
Heaven was Liberace at sixteen,
Smoking gold tipped black Sobranies in between.
I’m flattered again to come upon a poem dedicated to myself and to Emergency Verse for having inspired Tebb out of his writer’s block: ‘My First Poem in Three Years’ is a nicely alliterative and descriptive piece and biographical sketch of the poet’s late mother:
Mother in the mirror of another I saw you,
Bespactacled, bent, burrowing into a book
Like a mole snouting grubs in the churned marl
Your stick by your side, the twinkling in your eye
Always ready with a sly fiver to slip in my palm
And your dogged pride, a Durham miner’s daughter
Bequeathing to me the ghosted template
Of Methodist Sundays, Hunwick the hamlet
You grew up in, seven siblings to share, speaking
A tongue I could never master except “Haway, man”
Your teetotal Bible-punching father, turned Quaker
In old age, taking me for walks down hidden tracks
Shades of Dylan Thomas swoop in once more in a brilliantly lilting passage bringing the poem to a close:
To lost villages where the stones spoke syllables
To the doomed skies and Museless I cried
With the wheeling rooks in their spring tide.
I learned your canny ways years after you died,
Lonely in London and exiled, when I saw your face
In the mirror of another I cried and cried.
The next two poems, ‘Old Books’ and ‘The Fabulous Fifties’ I’ve praised to the hilt in my review of Tebb’s 2015 Selected so will not comment on them again except to reiterate their brilliantly descriptive evocations of Britain’s better times and better literatures. The wonderfully titled ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of The Hollows’ is another image-rich nostalgia poem as the elder poet revisits the old stomping ground of the younger, which naturally has altered in that time:
There were streets there till the thirties
Then a fantasy playground for us all
Mounds of broken bricks, foxgloves,
Dandelions, cobbled roads leading to the
Land of Oz, runways and secret tracks,
Where our parents never ventured.
The alliteration and assonance of ‘broken bricks, foxgloves’ and ‘cobbled’ etc. are beautifully done. But it’s the final verse of this short poem that really demonstrates Tebb’s complete control of tone and form and expression when he chooses to compose that way, the nicely poised phrasings, the alternating between short and longer lines depending on the length of the phrase in each:
We had our last fire there, November fifth, 1954,
Obbo’s dad climbed fifteen feet to light,
The guy tied to a chair.
I sat on a broken settee reading early Superman comics
Worth a fortune if only I’d known it.
Margaret Gardiner was with me, our last year
Together; we carried chumps from
Falmouth Terrace, star maps on our backs,
Eden if only we’d known it.
Once more Tebb’s alliterative technique is particularly striking –‘I sat on a broken settee’, ‘chumps from/ Falmouth Terrace, star maps on our backs’ etc. And what a striking phrase ‘star maps on our backs’ is. When Tebb is in short-form descriptive and anecdotal mode I’m reminded of the similarly nostalgic urban poetry of other contemporary Northern poets, such as Tom Kelly.
‘The Green Triangle’ is subtitled ‘In Memory of Brian Haw’ the indefatigable anti-war protestor who with his array of placards occupied Parliament Square during 2001. This poem is Tebb at his most vitriolic as he launches a short but blistering tirade against the Metropolitan Establishment using a pulsing rap-like rhythm to unleash a menagerie of imagery antagonistic to the London elites:
London's mafia monster Boris and Grinsta his fella gorilla
With Barrow from Westminster, Blair and Cameron
All dancing the conga, feeding children to Moloch,
Blake’s tyger should trigger a seething volcano
Of civic disorder to free our green country
From Cameron the strangler, unjust Johnson,
Their placemen and planners, royalty's toadies,
WE NEED A BURNING
Like the prophets of old Justice should descend
From the clouds and burn the Sodom and Gomorrah
Where a rodent-ridden traffic island, grubby, polluted,
Steel-fenced from freedom, shattered by sirens,
Accessible as Everest, targeted by every gung-ho politico
“For aesthetic reasons”- you've got to be joking
It’s the fucking royal wedding with Sun readers waving
Their union jacks, tanked up on Tetley’s, spitting and screaming,
Due process in hiding, justice abandoned to Johnson's gorillas
To Barrow from Westminster, the Royal Courts of Justice
Curtained in silence
When planning means banning
WE NEED A BURNING
The uncompromising capitalised refrain WE NEED A BURNING is absolute Tebb –at moments like this he’s the latter day Wat Tyler of the Poets’ Revolt. By some contrast, in the next more lyrical poem Tebb with some justification frames himself as ‘The Last Romantic’ in a short mostly rhyming poem on revisiting the Brontës’ Haworth, which at 15 lines is just one line over a sonnet:
O to be in Haworth now the heather's there
Purple and in clusters singing in the air
Winding tracks are urging, “Come and join us here”
Hills soar up in rapture, willing us to stare,
Here the Brontës wandered in the hyaline air
Winds are always sighing “Why do you despair?
We will all enfold you through your darkest year.”
Up the cobbled High Street, where the tourists stroll,
Along the graveyard pathway through the rusted gate
Past the hens in houses, horses in their pens,
Up the crooked pathway to where the cobbles end
Where the vistas beckon, hills, paths, a distant reservoir,
This is my nirvana, where God has sown the heather
And I will paint the rest, long gone muses gather
By the singing stream, the dreamers in my dream.
It’s interesting to see Tebb use the term ‘hyaline’ again, which means ‘glassy’ or ‘pellucid’. ‘The Servant’ is a semi-stream-of-consciousness reflective vignette that begins with a Yorkshireman’s confession couching a fond dismissal of George Orwell’s legacies:
I was raised to despise the forlorn aspidistras of
Wigan pier and Lancashire generally
Till early in manhood I found the queen of my heart
A Lancashire lass none the less who still at a distance
I embrace at the pace she commands, the space between is
Her diktat, certainly not my own as I champ like a dog with
A bone I can neither eat nor own.
The child I eternally am I cannot disown
The crown you wear I cannot tear down
My clumsy hands grow worse with the years
And the tears, seeking still to please with verse
Or prose the diamond petals of an alabaster rose
Or the pose of Beriosova in Swan Lake, the diva
Burning the boards of Bradford’s Alhambra where
I found in dance a passion until poetry struck
Like the doom and boom of a gong
Song, song, where do I belong?
‘Apocalypse’ is a poem with a Romantic atmosphere that turns more surrealistic towards its close:
Like you, Delius, I was born on the cusp
Of Bradford and Leeds, the roaring roller-coaster
Of cities that breed poets and murderers
As only excess will do, encompassing constellations
Of far-off stars and walkabout whores,
The unmentionable realities of love and death,
The treadmills of Behemoth that moles have
Tunnelled to funnels among the gangling fennel
Making the marvellous meadows beckon with
Their bracken blackberry-laden invitations, deformed
And defamed to make my southern sojourn yearn
To return to the hearth and heart of home
Marooned in the sour South like a polar bear
In a desert or laid in a ditch where pitch and tone
Itch equally for the measured third of a sonata
Whose cycles stay silent until the blast of the past
Opens visionary tunnels to dreams of pavements
With yearning for you, Margaret, my first girl,
Oh my beloved do you still twirl like a top?
Or have you, too, passed into the beyond of the earth
Where heard songs are the mirth of the mad dead,
And the libidinous lyre of uplift to the summer zeniths?
Some striking alliteration again with ‘bracken blackberry-laden’. The final piece in this extensive volume is aptly titled ‘EPILOGUE’ and is a real departure for Tebb: it is a fully justified square of poetic prose, a form becoming more and more common in contemporary poetry to the extent that some poetry imprints partly specialise in it (one such being Black Lawrence Press in the States). This is an interesting formalistic statement for Tebb to make at the end of his Collected Poems and might point towards an unanticipated stylistic twist in the poet’s oeuvre. Tebb handles the form excellently and in a pseudo-Joycean stream-of-consciousness (though not without punctuation!) with a fluid onrush of dream-like imageries and a sense of poetic spontaneity, not to say some almost surreal turns of phrase:
Waking suddenly I searched for Reverdy and Baudelaire and
having dipped briefly into their sweet bitterness I solaced
myself with swallowing a lozenge of honey and memory I
keep by my side for such awakenings. It was you Jeannie and
Ali too, a meeting in a pub after half a century of separation
and we were laughing and taking turns to sample smiles left
by a passing angel. We mingled with a crowd losing and
refinding each other and every encounter began with a caress
and yes we all had loyalties to other loves but after all it was a
dream and the summation was when we set to clear a
mountain of washing-up, chasing plates with buckets of foam,
bubbles falling and floating, mingling with a forever of hugs
and smiles strewn on a hazed grass bank which made us all
slightly drunk as we rummaged for lost threads. There were
no memories as time had never happened and the slight
change to our appearance was put down to forgetfulness and
the refound affection in rainbows children reach to in a neutral
sky and we sighed as the dream was put by and held each
other before the lid was sealed by an angel in exile.
What I find of particular interest is the final trope of this prose-poem which seems to suggest that this is a dream or vision of an afterlife and having read some alleged accounts of the afterlife communicated through scribe mediums, inclusive of Emanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (1758) –he having claimed to have visited the afterlife while still alive and then wrote said book describing it– Tebb’s touching on the altered appearances but still-recognisable vibes or auras of souls certainly has the flavour of much spirit-literature.
What is particularly striking in this ‘Uncollected’ section of most recent poems is Tebb’s moving more into the realms of imagination than perhaps he has done for some time, a kind of memory and dream-induced Romanticism of sensibility which at times has an almost spiritualistic taint to it, to be expected to some extent for a poet finding his way through the mists of a recent bereavement. Brenda Williams was not simply Tebb’s ex-wife and the mother of his son, she was also his poetic kindred spirit and so it is hardly surprising her absence should haunt his most recent poetic output so exceptionally.
With the inclusion of The Quarrel with Ourselves at the front and the surprise orphaned poems to the back of this handsome volume –not to mention the couple of hundred pages of frequently startling always affecting poetry in-between– Collected Poems 1964-2016 is not only a book of remembrance but also of new beginnings and long may Barry Tebb continue to compose his poems of irrepressible personality, grit and passion for many more volumes to come. Of all Tebb’s books –and there are many– I would single this Collected out as the absolute must-acquisition of his prolific career. It is also, as previously mentioned, beautifully produced with a timeless classic look. Highly recommended.
On a final note, I am heartened to notice in recent times ever more frequent, complimentary and lengthier reviews of Tebb publications appearing not only in poetry journals and webzines but also in newspapers, so it seems that there is underway already a critical renaissance in what one might term ‘Tebbabilia’ –something I predicted at the end of my last Tebb review– and long may it continue.
Alan Morrison © 2017