Jo Colley’s Bones of Birds is a slim disarming volume, and although –to this reviewer’s mind– is an example of Smokestack’s slightly more ‘mainstream’-leaning range, as opposed to its trademark leftfield fare, there is certainly much poetic skill and craft to admire here. ‘Crows’ is a spare and clipped aphorismic lyric which employs some sharp alliteration and sibilance:
Slow circle the beech,
a synchronised return
to matchstick cities where
they perch and preen,
replete with scraps.
Sky pirates, poised
for aerial display
or sudden flight.
Boot polished heads,
the scalloped fan of outstretched wings.
In courtly trios
you flaunt your risky glamour.
I would ride you if I could.
One detects a certain Hughesian sensibility at work here with the rather stark natural descriptions, and it seems to be mostly an exercise in description, which is well done, nicely phrased, with a good alliterative sense.
‘Heiress’ has some nice phrases and, again, a wonderful assonantal and alliterative patina:
Her little finger trapped in the car door
when she was three years old,
stained the beige suede
of the customised Bentley,
evoking her father’s disgust.
The mangled digit, preserved in formaldehyde
became her loyal companion, one step up
from an imaginary friend.
Its messages were indirect: ask it a question
and it would turn slowly
revolving in its pickle jar like a mutant fish
until it settled in a particular direction.
When more intricate advice was called for
she’d remove the lid, insert one perfect hand,
grasp the squirming thing like a flesh pencil,
dip it in ink…
There’s a quirkiness at work here –and in many of Colley’s poems– which calls to mind, to some extent, Stevie Smith, and, more latterly, poets such as Pauline Suett Barbieri and the late, faintly surrealist, Beryl Fenton (both Waterloo poets). Although anecdotal poetry doesn’t tend to be this reviewer’s particular bag, Colley at least furnishes her offerings with affecting phrases and imaginative use of language.
But Colley is perhaps at her most effective when composing mini-portraits, such as ‘Lady Drummond-Hay: From Lakehurst to Friedrichshaven’:
Invited to dance as the ragtime plays,
the whole world elevated from mud
and up, up in the air. She grabs
the proffered hand of fate, lifts off
in a cathedral, its filigree arches
supporting straining silk, like
a generous woman in a corset,
Dangled in a gondola, her eyes devour
the Zeppelin’s shadow, a giant cigar
drifting over the surface of the earth…
Even if one doesn’t fully feel that some such poems –excuse the aeronautic pun– ‘take off’. Continuing on the certainly unconventional theme of women air pilots (or ‘aviatrixes’), ‘Final Flight’ is a very effectively written short poem –with some pantoumish aspects in its repeated lines and phrases– displaying Colley’s tangible love of language:
She wanders the gardens of Palma, earthbound
without the compass of her mother’s presence,
the skies, her former playground, no longer blue.
She begins her laborious descent,
sees Rotorura in the rain swept view.
Wings clipped, her eyes on the ground
she wanders the gardens of palma, earthbound
until disguised as a dog, opportunity bites.
She prepares herself for her final flight.
The gardens recede. No longer earthbound.
Colley’s collection, incidentally, is structured into six sections, some with very arresting titles, such as ‘Garbo of the Skies’, and the very specifically themed ‘The Night Witches: Russian fliers 1942-1946’.
‘Marina Raskova Disciplines Lylia’ has some brilliant alliterative touches throughout, such as the phrase, ‘Her fox face peaked out cheekily’ –and:
She was a creature from a fairy tale,
cutting and stitching, an elf intent
on transforming the dull cloth to preserve
her femininity, outshine the other girls…
Colley’s well-honed descriptive prowess reaches a peak towards the close of ‘Lilya Looks Back’:
But here I sit, a grandma in a tidy German garden,
my white hair carefully arranged, cheeks like wrinkled apples.
The broken bones mended, though they feel cold.
I had to seal the jar to my past
with a good thick layer of wax…
On a superficial level, Colley’s poetry ‘doesn’t put a foot wrong’ (though one might occasionally wish it did, just to give a bit more edge): it’s painstakingly crafted, precisely honed, unobtrusively descriptive, and has a light-touch poetic richness –‘Stanley Crescent 1969’ being a fine example of this:
You rise up like Persephone, blinking
from the dark basement, sit on the steps
of the wedding cake house to read the letter.
It’s slim, crisp as a new note, trimmed
with promise. An unknown president
regards you from its stamp.
You sit, beatific as Buddha, the letter
in your lap, blue and white London light
swirling like a day at the beach.
All week you have waited, standing
in the ominous hallway, ears straining
for the postman’s steps.
Your fingers tear along the dotted line,
release a sigh of longing from the slanting script,
the curling down strokes.
Passing pigeons circle as your heart
war dances round the fire, smoke rising
like an exhaled breath spells ‘yes’.
The Molly Bloom-esque close of this poem is quite nice. ‘Stanley Crescent 1969’ is a pristinely composed supplemental poem of the type which one suspects most mainstream poetry journal editors would immediately lap up. Such poems have their place, or, indeed, places. But though such poems can’t be faulted technically, a certain amount of poetic spontaneity and derring-do is guillotined in the process.
‘Lamb’ has some striking descriptions, albeit punctuated with occasional lapses into prosaic phrases which, if nothing else, provide pausing spaces amid the denser imagery:
I emerge from the sweaty heaving underground
like a slippery newborn spilled into life,
stop to call you in the exhaled breath of coffee….
Out on Lower Marsh the rain begins to fall:
I think about going back to buy an umbrella,
then I remember I have never had
a long-term relationship with an umbrella
only infrequent, desperate one night stands
with no commitment on either side.
Near Waterloo the railway legacy
leaves scattered viaducts, lost cathedrals.
sheltered here, waiting for the rain to pause,
where mutant pigeons drink from rainbowed puddles,
the city reveals a secret: Blake’s Songs,
transposed to mosaic, each tiny piece of coloured clay
arranged to make a perfect copy of the book
you gave me when innocence outweighed experience.
Some might feel the last line, by way of Blakeian allusion, is slightly trite. Regards the occasional prosaic lapses, the line ‘Then I remember I have never had’ is rather moribund poetically-speaking and one can’t help thinking that surely a poet of Colley’s calibre can avoid such linguistically flat lines. The trouble with narrative-driven anecdotal poems is it can be very difficult to avoid ruptures of prose –however, these can be avoided, if the will is there. And after all, if a poem is much more about the narrative or anecdote than the engagement of language, one begins to question whether it should simply be written as a piece of prose and not a poem at all. Having said this, however, Colley’s keen poetic sense of language generally weighs the balance towards poetic justification.
‘Night Vision’ is also nicely phrased throughout –here’s the last of three stanzas:
Stay down as long as you can manage:
listen to the echo of your breath
deduce the origins of objects
barnacled in failure and regret.
But in the end your cylinder begins
the apprehensive cough of nearing empty.
You kick out for the light.
The trouble this reviewer has with this type of poem, however, is not so much that it’s anecdotal, but that it’s anecdotal about a somewhat inconsequential subject, in this case, swimming. Of course there is poetry to be found in some of the simplest of moments or activities, and while Colley certainly pushes the theme out as far as she can in poetic terms –the final pseudo-epiphanic phrase working quite well– one feels that here is one of a handful of examples in this book of a poem in search of a subject.
‘Almouth, October’ is one of the most successful descriptive poems in this collection, bristling with alliteration, colour and image, a distinctly painterly poem:
Under a big soft sky as a pigeon’s wing,
the colours of Northumberland merge:
pearl grey, oyster, sand,
the blue black rippled sea
run together like water spilled on a child’s painting,
a perfect marbled sheet, enfolding us like a gift wrap.
My body chooses baptism
emerges from the water
in obedience to moon and tide.
A seismic planetary shift
has exhumed all lost days
resurrected from a black hole.
They erupt onto the beach, reborn
like corpses in a Stanley Spencer churchyard,
scattered offerings brought into the light.
However, this reviewer would prefer more metaphorical emphasis and less overt simile: the repeated use of ‘like’ feels too frequent for comfort, and the ekphrastic phrase ‘Stanley Spencer churchyard’ relies on the reader instantly picturing such a painting when some might not be so intimately familiar with that painter’s work, or, even if they are, one feels part of the poet’s duty, to evoke and not simply reference works of art, is being neglected in favour of a kind of vicarious descriptiveness. I've encountered this sort of description-by-proxy technique in other contemporary poetry –somewhere else by another poet he read of a ‘Turner sky’, for instance.
The next stanza feels like a rather trite metaphor:
I stand before you in the sweet, salt air
a message in a bottle
you must break open to read.
Having said that, however, the phrase ‘You must break open to read’ does manage to justify the image with its slightly sinister implications. The final stanza is very effective in tone, mood and language:
The dark line or rocks rises into cormorant
as gulls cast wave shaped shadows on sand
carved by the retreating tide.
My hand hides in your hand,
our Siamese skin stitched together
like a boy and his shadow.
The last image is particularly resonant.
‘Salvage’, subtitled ‘Items commemorating the wreck of SS Stanley on 23 November 1864 on the Black Middens at Tynemouth, Tyne and Wear’, comprises a triptych of imagistic, ekphrastic lyrics, and is largely effective:
The cutlery, displayed on white, is a chorus line
the bowl of each tarnished spoon glinting
like a face turning to the light.
The knives are mini scimitars, embossed with rolls
and curls, homage to the sea they were fished from
all those years ago
the girls were found in Mussell Scarp
their linen swaddled bodies
laid out in the morgue, side by side.
The language is well-honed here, though one wonders where all the hyphens have gone!? And, to be picky, the line ‘all those years ago’ is, again, linguistically moribund. But it’s still a fine piece. The second and third lyrics are more aphorismic:
II John Sopwith’s dictionary
Words and there definitions can’t be erased.
no storm can silence such a store
so carefully compiled.
The sea added salt. The printed pages
washed up on the beach survived.
choose. Write your epitaphs.
III Wallace Gravestone
Salt and wind eat stone
eradicate the message
meant to last forever.
Underneath, the bones
settle in their bed of soil
knowing who they are.
Overall, Jo Colley’s Bones of Birds is a collection of deftly composed poems which can hardly be faulted in terms of craft. What lacks from some of the poems, however, is a sense of poetic urgency or overpowering purpose; such precise craftsmanship and, to some extent, lack of risk-taking, can often come at the price of spontaneity or edge. Nevertheless, there is no doubting Colley’s poetic skill and eye for an arresting image, and in these respects, her poetry is certainly a pleasure to read.
I reviewed Gordon Hodgeon’s remarkable debut Smokestack volume, Still Life, some time ago, and was, as the review will testify, struck by its exceptional poeticism, not least since the poet, paralysed in a hospital bed, has composed his poems using Dragon voice-recognition software. Without wishing to place too much emphasis on Hodgeon’s chronic physical incapacity, it is nothing short of astounding that a poet so near-completely impaired bodily is still inspired to produce such supremely composed poems –or, indeed, perhaps this very purgatorial infirmity is precisely what spurs this poet on to keep producing such captivating verbal music.
The very slim but beauty-brimming Talking to the Dead (only 47 pages) –adorned with a striking painting of a man in a café, ‘Mr W’ by David Watson (also the title/subject of one of the poems in the book)– is every bit as astonishing a poetic accomplishment as Still Life. The first poem in this collection, the wistful ‘I Walked out This Morning’, is a compelling and deeply moving ‘out-of-the-body’ lyrical vignette with an almost Fairy Tale quality (which faintly recalls some of Stevie Smith’s sketchier parable-poems). Here it is in full:
I walked out this morning
from the jigsaw jumble of
dreams and memories
and found a man in my bed
with a fly on his nose.
only his weeping eyes could move.
I asked if I could help him
but could not understand his reply.
Oh dearie me, oh dearie him.
so I turned away to go and saw
him in the mirror standing
about to leave the room, and me
supine in the bed with a fly on my nose
and only my weeping eyes could move.
The eponymous ‘Talking to the Dead’ is another exceptionally compelling poem, brimming with subtle alliteration. Again, I excerpt it in full:
I am talking to the dead,
who are sullen, not responding.
I try their silent language, fail
over and over. Who can teach me,
guide me through their dark palaces,
their ungrowing fields? Sometimes
one seems to speak to me, but there is
no air to carry the utterance. Faces
are blank zeros, sighs, unfathomable.
This might be a welcome, a warning.
Should I tell them what it is
I need to know or turn my back on them,
talk to the living while I can? These
seem just as incommunicado,
standing off, not wasting breath.
The sunlit living, they witness how I slide,
though they will follow me down.
I must talk with the inarticulate dead
again, learn to be one with them,
wear the common habit, nameless, and innumerable.
‘Thunderflies’ finds Hodgeon in a nostalgic reverie for distant times when he could interact with nature; its mournful final stanza is particularly effective:
No thunder in this quiet garden,
just the flies. Time to get out of the sun,
creak up the wheelchair ramp.
Those days are lost,
most of their people dead.
Inside, free of those harbingers,
wait for the god to strike.
‘Totentanz’ is one of Hodgeon’s slightly more polemical poems –again, beautifully phrased with an almost effortless-seeming light poetic touch. I excerpt it in full:
Never a star shining
down in the cold of earth.
There they are scattered,
flesh-flakes in the soil’s stir,
do they still dance it,
that thick dark winter?
Do yellowing bones still clutch
traces of DNA like an old tune
round and round in the head?
Do these spiral up in me?
If so, my connection’s made
with register and census glimpses,
a few papers, family Bible,
some of their heart in there.
Infants who waltzed away
before they knew their names.
But this is not the book of the dead,
no gold leaf, no spices, no precious stones,
no feasting. Their after-life
a deep ditch, not Dante’s,
paupers’ graves in a crowded churchyard
in the slums they were born to.
I can only dig so far: field labourers,
mill hands, servants, colliers.
Down below that they fade
into no names, invisibility
of toil, of famine, of poverty.
They were serfs, peasants, wage slaves.
Who owned the land they lie in?
Those who made the chronicles,
history books, T.V. documentaries?
Barons, queens, factory owners, all the rest,
these in their tombs and sepulchres
with the same orchestra,
the same Okey-Cokey.
My plan is to join with
the anonymous dead,
forgotten soon enough,
no memorial stones,
I’ve seen too many.
I will hold hands with death
and all of you, my folk,
in the glorious dance of the earth.
Nothing but earth.
As this poem demonstrates, Hodgeon’s clipped aphorismic style is wonderfully underscored with deep feeling and humanity –his is a fundamental talent.
‘I, Said the Fly’ is perhaps one of the most exceptional poems in an exceptional collection, containing some sublime tropes:
There is the white plain of your linen.
There is the outcrop of your head…
All one, all angels, sculptors in flesh
remove the tyranny of pain,
discovering the blank ideal,
the anatomy of bone.
This is our daily bread,
our artistry and sustenance.
Now I taste your sweaty pores,
harvest the flakes of skin
among your head’s sparse hairs.
I feel you thinking how the days diminish,
the rustling leaves spell autumn,
the end of our dominion…
There’s something of a Yeatsian sensibility in such aphorismic lyricism.
We get some depictions of Hodgeon’s working-class upbringing in Leigh in the nostalgic ‘George’, which has Lowryesque qualities:
You fed the children from that grid of streets
when their dads were on strike or had no work;
you lent money, thinking it would come back,
it didn’t. You ran the Sunday school, you
made a gift to me of well-thumbed books,
Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, George Eliot.
You let me learn your sense of serious fun.
How you tormented the old ladies
reading their teacups, winking at me.
At times I’m reminded to some extent of the similarly poetically succinct verse-vignettes of the likes of Tom Kelly, Ian Parks and David Swann.
‘Late Lament’ recalls Larkin in its prosodic restraint, abundances of images and descriptions packed into its excellently sustained eleven six-lined half-rhyming stanzas employing an a/b/a/b/c/c scheme. It’s a poem simply brimming with nostalgia.
‘Solstice’ is an exquisitely phrased miniature, again, faintly Larkinesque in its wintry wistfulness:
It is midsummer, the evening overcast,
grey as chapels, grey as sorrow.
All the house is children’s laughter,
their footsteps rattling the corridor.
From here we all go down
to the darkest day, so slow.
It is hard to imagine these children older
dropping with the once-green, autumnal…
Not wishing to over-use ‘Larkinesque’, but ‘Wed’ has distinct Larkinian qualities in its philosophical depth and poetic control, and reminds me a little of the latter’s masterful thanatophobic ode, ‘Aubade’:
Looking back, it’s what we mostly do
as life draws near to its close
and what i see, though slightly out of focus,
is now we have us to ourselves
more than we ever had those lengthy days
we crammed with too much work, with lovely children.
I wish we had found more time together
but then my sceptic self says best to wait
and watch conclusions leap to their various deaths.
Comparisons with ‘Aubade’ become more pronounced in the closing stanzas of this exceptional poem, and to my mind there’s something of Larkin’s atheistic lament, ‘Religion used to try, / That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die’:
What’s next? We’ll never know or
hardly. When it arrives, we will not be
prepared. Die Soldaten kommen,
die Soldaten kommen. No, not Germans,
three words drumming in my head,
an army of little deaths. Whoever,
they can take us and let the young ones go.
Or maybe not. Life is never so disciplined,
in stories awkward bits are shovelled
into silence through arbitrary devices
leaving life alone, let out like us
for rough grazing. We will muddle through
weeds, long grasses, nettles, our common pasture.
And share our laughter.
The slaughterhouse is always open.
‘A Paltry Thing’ finds the poet empathising with the plight of Turkish miners struck by a pit implosion, via a meditation on his coal-mining ancestry, and name-checks Yeats with a poetic humility unsurprising in such a humanely anchored talent as Hodgeon’s:
…then find my mind sticking
on the now, refusing to let go
its grip on the immediate
which roots disturbance
into what I’d thought
protected in my memory…
I never saw me following
Yeats, sailing to Byzantium
or perching on a golden bough
to sing prophetically.
But miles away in Soma
I am all ears to grief and anger
for bodies dragged into the light
or lost in dark, to the damp
which stopped their breath.
That hit me hard. I had forgotten
the coalfields of my youth
and long before me when
ancestors bent to this work,
the darkness dangerous,
the air foul. Now I recall
a line of those disasters
that punctuated miners’ lives with death…
The picture depicted here is indeed sublime: that so many miners throughout history should end up prematurely cold in the pursuit of the source of others’ warmth.
‘Boris’ has schoolboy ebullience and some marvellous cartoonish descriptions, though it’s a teacher’s reminiscence, which is of course its jocular point:
Nicknames cling to teachers like stickybobs.
Mine was Greenmould, it was my suit, it was
the only suit I had, could afford. You were Boris,
you looked like Karloff in the horror films.
your pebbled glasses, your bent back,
wild and thinning hair, all made you our target…
‘After Your Visit’ is a genuinely heartbreaking poem which captures the poet in self-mourning mood, imagining himself gone from life as he already pictures in his head his prolonged absence from home life:
My room’s reflected on the glass.
the bookcase behind me, the lamp
in the corner, the lit corridor, my daughter
moving up and down in there…
But I’m not there, am gone with the sun,
paled to invisible, my place is in
the company of dark shades, curtains
that frame the dusky room.
my absence fills my eyes,
erases lump of body
in this wheelchair, only the blanket left.
Sleight of the magician’s palm
prefiguring that long shadow,
which leaves those books, that lamp,
even this wheelchair, solid as flesh…
This will come, it’s little wonder
we did not speak of its coming,
are come too close to it to mention.
For now we are agreed, you will send
the first email, give me an update,
I will wait impatient for summer.
Already the blossom trees are waking,
the narcissi you brought me
in full flower on the windowsill.
‘Garden Pond’ is a breathtakingly sublime figurative lyric brimming with subtle alliteration and sibilance, and warrants excerpting in full:
The little pond is thick with duck weed,
frog spawn. A tight fit, I hug the murky bottom,
peer up at the obscured glass.
Someone appears, the breeze
shivers the surface, we both tremble
then become still. The trees are opening
their first flags around me and say
welcome to you. I think you are
the high clouds, the haze of sunlight.
What do you spy? Torn fragments
of a crazed plane drowning? Troops
massed at the border? All I see from here
is beyond me, mazy weed,
the small spawn thickening, preparing
their next stage, they know nothing.
Will you come to this earth, water?
Will you observe my dead weight,
my mouthings? Not even a raised hand
summons you, but spring is about us
urgent for something we might have given.
Me in my little pond, me looking for myself
down here. It is without malice
I let you go, see to my own end,
the year’s giving, taking.
‘Psalm’ is a wistful and beautifully phrased self-threnody, which relinquishes its commas, its punctuated breaths, so we have caesuras instead, which lend a faintly stream-of-consciousness quality to the verses:
Our loving we thought all our lives
gone in some storm some silent morning
where are bog and stone
ogre of fell wind whisper of snowfall.
Where are you which mountain crest
which valley chiselled into rock
which plain with its despairing cities
its unknown gods its abandoned books?
The only term really fitting such a deeply poetic flourish is ‘inspired’.
‘Physician’, again, has Larkinesque qualities, reminding me particularly of ‘The Old Fools’; it’s a searing depiction of hospitalised incapacity punctuated by occasional home visits, this particular autumnal one, metaphorically captured in anticipation of death (‘winter’); but this poem is defiant in its tone and exceptional poetically, displaying Hodgeon’s mastery of form and language, and has to be one of the standouts in an outstanding collection –here it is in full:
Fifteen days away, now I am back
from that den of healing and see:
that thieving autumn has sneaked
into the empty garden, left its calling card
colouring the avenues of trees,
September sun, first warning of winter.
It was a dream with no escape,
I cried nurse but they swept by.
Devils only answer their proper names,
I try from my poor stock, Belial,
Moloch, Beelzebub, Meph…
But they are passed already, easy
does it. Or they are angels,
remote, indifferent. This is
no garden, no Eden, no
bower of bliss. They have
their uniforms, we all have
our uniform, our grades.
We poor patients lie
or sit or wander, all
in our surgical gowns,
bare arsed, our life incurable.
I stare into the blanked-off
squares of ceiling heaven, a prisoner
aching for home, for death in its own good time,
some human requiem.
But no, the smiling crimsoned doctors
shake wise young heads, I must abide
their bloods, their protocols, must find delightful
the symphony of insane sirens.
Those fifteen days and nights had seem
eternity, but here I am, the remnant
of a dream, in this ageing garden.
I welcome this late autumn, this approach
of winter. I will see them out and they
will bury me. I shall look forward
to the next spring, hope to admire its first flowers.
But keep me safe from those cure-alls,
from their blessed rituals. It is too late
for this well meant and monstering regime.
You will find me squat amongst
our motley perennials, waiting on my last day.
Let me lie there, one with our local earth,
let me root in, lost my name,
all manacled identities.
The phrase ‘monstering regime’ is particularly striking; ‘monstering’ is and example of Hodgeon’s occasional neologisms (another example, in the next poem, is ‘clumsied’).
‘The Words Man’ manages to almost rejoice in its death-anticipation, and is skilfully composed in four-line stanzas of a rudimentary a/b/a/b scheme with some nifty half-rhymes:
Another month and two more old friends gone,
so two more empty places in my head
that won’t be filled in any later season,
if any comes before I join the dead.
My brain is ageing, shrinks and gapes,
it loses systems, names, so many words
that won’t leap to my clumsied lips
as they once did like young cats after birds.
This way the hole behind the eyes
gets more profound, a dizzying drop
into a last and lingering demise,
the end of all I am, have been. Full stop.
So many words, they made my voice,
but here I count the last of them,
the final drips of my rejoicing
from broken gutters of the brain.
A plenitude of rain, they filled
my seventy years with blessing,
made my soil rich and fertile,
the voice I thought unceasing.
They grew my life, from the familial
first stumblings to what I understood
was me, student, scholar,
reader, teacher, reader, poet,
made me spill volumes from my store of words
in pulpit, classroom, on the stage,
in love, in poetry. But now the clouds
have emptied, emptied most of Hodge.
The final croaks drip like a dodgy tap:
the washer is at last worn out,
syllables drown in spouts of sputum,
The words man. So they said,
but now, would not take the chance.
My words gone sullen, lumps of lead
misshapen gobbets of utterance.
Their ghosts stay quiet in my skull,
I’ll work them secretly, bequeath
these death’s head poems, rush them all
out to the deaf world, in one last breath.
Once again there is some supreme use of alliteration throughout this buoyant poem. And
‘The Good Eye’ captures Hodgeon in more clipped, imagistic lyrical vein, and the effect is nothing short of startling, the first stanza’s sibilance and ‘c’-alliteration almost have an acidic effect on the tongue, while the short staccato lines lend a sense of diminishing breath:
The good eye
Acid, ice needles.
Squeeze it shut.
A tear easy
skis down the razored cheek
into the stubbly trees.
I shall soon cease
to keep this
hard to identify
sign of a life
Perhaps the time
to die, I can’t say.
When we arrive,
realise the place, stumble
into a new grave.
The wormy soil heap by
and bought for shovels.
In we go, down we go a little way.
Everything goes down, down the hill,
where the trees receive us, welcome
the final scores, the stubs of saints,
fag ends, bones of chicken, children,
what is left of you, her, him and me,
all that falls easy as palls burn,
easy as tears slighter into the thorns,
freeze on the bloodied snow.
‘An die Musick’ is another outstanding lyrical poem, so richly poetic in its apparent simplicity –if that’s not contradictory:
I play his songs on this sad stereo,
the light and dark I find it hard to bear
as mind alone makes its Schubertiade.
Relentless years gone by since we
made pilgrimage to the real thing,
music in the clear air.
For me more poems, scratches at the itch
of my decay…
The sum of all our days? Perhaps not much
if we compare with his so short,
so rudely shortened life, in which
he wandered through the groves
of music’s hopes and deep despairs.
Now Billie sings her mortal blues
and on the unread shelves the metaphysical
George Herbert sits in contemplation.
Yes we know, dear parson poet, music shows
we have our closes, all must die.
But while we live the small remainder
let’s anchor in our mutual joys and griefs
and what transforms these into music
played long before and sun long after
we are returned to stardust, brief notes
in earthsong’s cycle, dying, undying.
‘Wild Westerly’ is one of Hodgeon’s more ferociously poetic pieces, bristling with spirited defiance, a quite tumultuous, Whitmanesque poem which almost seems to shout off the page:
Your Atlantic-laden, shrouded skies
make the chimney groan
behind my poetry books
and at our blasted backs
that winged chariot hurtles
from the deep wreck-throated
cable-strained sea, from the hurl
of air, of sucked-up wet.
What do you sing to me
stumbling like love from those high fells
down nearby Tees, down far off Humber?
I have a poet’s answer to this storm
for all assembled here,
these silent legislators.
I can’t read their verses now
but know their truth.
Blake, Brecht, Marlowe, Donne, Marvell,
Coleridge, Lawrence, Neruda, Keats et al.
Yes, we understand that you’re preoccupied
with worms and what they’ll try, it’s natural.
Your sense our brevity, the frittering of our breath,
we gutter out before we’ve scarce begun.
So what I’d bellow at you if I could
would go like this; we wonder, love, cry freedom, rage.
The living talk to the living in singing words,
which outlive their makers.
If you touch us, yes we will bleed.
You know I can’t. But I implore you,
open any page while you have breath.
What you discover, life. Read it, devour.
‘Stumm’ is an extremely effective lyric expressing the essential inertia of physical being, specifically when one’s body has almost ceased functioning –again, alliteration buttresses the lines:
is what I have become
is who I am
dumbfounded in my brain.
The din of its foundry
resounds and finds
there’s no way out of
the confines of my skull.
No sound of rationality,
only the gurgling
of throaty sewers.
Otherwise stumm stumm stumm
is who I am, is what I have become.
I beat this muffled drum,
no-one has yet to come to hear
my brain’s impatient thrum.
Do not, oh do not blame them,
we would do the same.
That sort of said, my dear,
this dull December day
we have a little left to say.
By contrast, ‘Enough’ is a more of a verbal explosion on the page:
Him and me, the two of us
On the brink, on the double white lines.
Not a pretty sight, me stuffed in the wheelchair,
Him with his empty sockets, their bloody eyes
Two hard-boiled eggs squelched in the briny grass
Into tarmacadam. No wonder the TV moguls said no
When we offered them a head-to-head. They said,
‘not likely, imagine such awful visuals,
And you with your mouth agape, your dropped jaw,
Saying nothing. And him just repeating his lines,
Nothing we haven’t heard before’. Fair point,
Shall we jump? Shall we cross? In either case
He will have to push. The birds peck our bare heads,
The cars nudge our toes. Is it a sheer drop? Is there a gap?
Horns blare, birds screech, we will make a mad dash,
Rush for the exit, for the free air. Wait for the crash.
Collateral, some startled sunbathers, a six-car shunt.
We have no need of friends, other fantasticals, their horns,
Their many noses, their loony eyes. Or angels.
We’ll cling here on the rim to human care, to human love
Until our weary flesh cries out, enough, enough.
Closing this astonishing collection is the beautifully figurative ‘January Twilight’, which, as an exquisite piece of high poetic lyricism, more than rewards the reader with its defiantly wistful brushing of the page:
Sun wants off
quitting this grey, raggedy,
old overcoat, the garden.
Too cold out there for me,
I retreat under my blanket,
again read Lawrence’s
a new spring
My dark night, I still see
flashes of our love
the bright colours
our meld of ancestors
field hands, weavers
Even here, even now,
out in the garden
you can read helpless signs,
the firstblind shoots,
snowdrops, a miniature iris.
A new world. Always.
Talking to the Dead might be a modestly sized volume, effectively a perfect-bound chapbook, but the sheer poetic quality of its contents makes this collection an unmissable buy at only £4.95 –a genuine bargain amid numberless more expensive collections by so many far less powerful poets as Hodgeon (Don Paterson’s latest Faber slim, 40 Sonnets, is only nine pages longer than Hodgeon’s volume, but £10.04 more expensive, at a whopping £14.99!! showing once again how hyped reputations -and prestigious imprints- reap the big prices –and prizes).
Talking to the Dead is verse-in-adversity at its highest level and these are genuinely poems which move the reader deeply and profoundly. Hodgeon is living testament to the ability of poetry, true poetry, to transcend the most daunting and uncompromising of human circumstances. This reviewer cannot recommend Talking to the Dead –or, indeed, Hodgeon’s poetry altogether– highly enough, and if any slim volume today deserves prize-winning recognition (for what that’s actually worth), it’s this one –which is precisely why it won’t get that, much like the best poetry being written today.
Alan Morrison © 2015