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Alan Morrison on

Nigel Mellor

For The Inquiry
Dab Hand Press, 2010
www.nmellor.com

Poetry for the dirty war

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After a lengthy period in British poetry during which politics appeared, at least in the mainstream, an absolute ‘no no’, a tacit convention not helped and only encouraged by the fairly epic smokescreen of an ostensive ‘Labour’ government between 1997-2010, the symbolic echo of ‘New’ Labour in the poetry scene with the ‘New’ and ‘Next Generation’ promotions, it has been deeply refreshing to notice that openly political, actually ideological poetry is on something of an urgent return and one which cannot be ignored for much longer. The first puncture in the political apathy of the Noughties was when the truly duplicitous face of Blairism unambiguously flashed its choppers with the highly dubious and ultimately disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. This vicissitude not only sparked a new era of growing protest with the largest ever march through London in opposition to it, but also spurred the more leftfield sections of the British poetry mainstream into speaking out, most notably through Tod Swift’s 101 Poets Against the War. But it was the further fallout from the botched Iraq invasion, particularly the scapegoating and eventual ‘suicide’ of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly after he was exposed as having candidly let slip to a journalist that the dossier produced by the government to justify war in Iraq had been ‘sexed-up’, and the subsequent establishment fudge of the ‘Hutton’ inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his alleged suicide, which inspired some individual poets to take a national issue onto their own shoulders in solo collections thematically driven by this whole cloudy episode. Salt published Chris McCabe’s debut collection The Hutton Inquiry in 2005, which both served to spill this contentious and hugely symbolic topical issue to greater attention in the poetry scene, and to bring the highly accomplished, polemical, imagistic gifts of the young Liverpool-born poet to deservedly wider critical attention.

But the subject of this review is of a 2010 publication (which incidentally has a strikingly designed cover of a large dove against a black background), produced both as a print and e-book, by Newcastle poet Nigel Mellor, a poet whom I have previously published on the Recusant and who also contributed some strong epigrammatic poems to Emergency Verse. Similarly to McCabe, Mellor chooses as his titular umbrella theme the Hutton Inquiry, calling his collection For the Inquiry – poetry for the dirty war. As with McCabe’s earlier collection, Mellor’s is not, as its title might suggest, solely focused on the subject of the Hutton Inquiry, but poems set out in the form of a kind of figurative evidence intended for an inquiry of afterthought into the fogged fate of David Kelly and related issues, comes in later into the collection, chiefly in the section titled ‘Crisis’. But Mellor’s overall output here is of a generally polemical/political nature, with a veneer of moral axiom.

The first poem, ‘The man who knew the make’, suggests de-industrialised blue-collared ghosts and has a faint Luddite feel to its thrust, not to say a flavour of Marxist dialectical materialism:

I want right fast that engineering
Oily-handed Lord of Life
That overalled, certificated
Metalmaster, Lord of Life.

Drag him from his dusty cavern
Dredge him from that coaly slake
Find him, pay him, sign and bind him,
Find the man who knows the make.

‘On Souter Fell’ has an industrial wistfulness to it, reminiscent of the similarly sparsely lyrical styles of fellow contemporary Northumberland/Newcastle poets Keith Armstrong and Tom Kelly:

On Souter Fell
Latch’s rasp on rough plank door
Opening
To the sad half light
Of Souter Fell

Through draughty kitchen
To sodden heath
Past rusting spares of farm machines
He trudged unmarked
Returned ungreeted
With logs to burn
With thoughts to speak

There’s almost too an afterecho of R.S. Thomas in this kind of appealing rural bleakness. Mellor also has a talent for affecting epigrams, as with ‘Premonitions of memories in old age’, which I quote in full:

In the kitchen, family calm
August storm and tempers done
Clothes hung damp upon the line
To hear a tape of birthday gone

Recorded voices somehow made
The present telescope and fade
So that the rows and spiteful ways
Of that quite ordinary Summer’s day
Seemed like a once remembered play
Recalled in distant future time
But dimly, from an old man’s mind.

‘Spider’ is a weird and surreal poem, figuratively polemical with its repetitions throughout of the word ‘spin’, and serves a real stylistic curio; a similarly tongue-in-cheek feel is echoed in the slightly less oddball ‘Voices from a bike’ – and here one is also reminded a little of the appealingly witty vignettes of Welsh poet Gwilym Williams (who actually lives and writes in Austria now). ‘Following an unusual conjunction of the moon and the sun and certain planets’ is in similar territory of quirky dark humour, ending with slightly chillingly:

At low tide
Mudflats were exposed which
Until that day had never dried
And beyond the breakwater
Weed choked pools of unsure depth
We hesitated too long in that opening
Then the planets moved
And the waves returned.

‘The clouds’ is one of my favourites in this collection, written, as Mellor notes at the bottom of the page, For the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; those who have read that socialist novel will recognise the last line’s of Mellor’s poem as a homage to a memorable line from said book, which, from memory, goes something like, ‘the only reason they had not monopolised the sunlight was that it was not possible to do so’:

The possibility that someone
Would build a meter large enough to hold the air
And send me bills
For rent and standing charge
And so much fuel adjusted cost
Per breath
And that armies would defend
This meter
And this man
And you their right
To deny me air.
As I say, you listened, painfully.
Since that time I’ve heard complaints
That someone tried to steal the rain
From Denver, Colorado
The problem there it seems
Is that no one knows who owns the clouds.

The equally caustic ‘Two foot of 3 by 2 pitch-pine’ relates poignantly by its end of a stack of wood ‘Two foot of 3 by 2 pitch-pine/ To mend a door/ Broken open.’ ‘Speelam Harbour’ again taps into the Northern industrial ghost towns that once made not only Morlocks of their labouring populations, but latterly, ghosts of Morlocks:

Speelam Harbour sits in pools of engine oil
Not leaking, thick from a tanker
But thin and wasted
Furtively disposed

...

Further down
An abandoned mineral line
And staring out
Someone remembered Speelam
Full of men.

Mellor has a definite gift for quirkily metaphorical poems, as in ‘Corruption’, the microcosmic motif for macrocosmic polemic of which is the equatorial ‘stink ant’. Mellor displays a compassion which does his political stance greater service than the sometimes overly vitriolic writings of other left-wing poets, as in the accomplished epigram ‘The re-burial of Lord Haw Haw’, worth quoting in full:

Hanged at Wandsworth
Thirty years this month
His body placed in sacking
In an unmarked grave
Soaked with quicklime within the prison walls.

I had thought that justice
Had progressed.
Surely death was quite enough
For traitor and betrayed.

‘At times like Spain is a curiously elliptical, slightly cryptic, but intriguing little tribute poem:
 
O.K.
So Alec often gets it
Wrong
And he’s workerist
And just a bit of a sexist
But he kicks arse
(When camera men from the Front
want photos for Bulldog)
And that’s not nice
But at times like Spain
Looking back
Words were not enough.

* For the 50th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War

While the epigram ‘Official secrets’ packs some compacted polemical punch, especially in its quite sublime last line:

We are in greatest danger
From the freedoms we have

They do not become a part of life
But a way of forgetting
The struggle which gave them life

When we no longer have to fight
We forget why and how to fight

To be free is not enough.

‘Opposition’ is also quite hard-hitting, seemingly drubbing the left’s gradual submission to right-wing governments, but it feels possible this is also a brow-beating of the poet’s own frustrated part in this:

We talk
At times
As if they came with hammers
And iron bars
To kick and splinter
An oak door.
It wasn’t like that at all
The door was hollow
Rotted through
They hardly needed to push
And we did
Nothing
To hold it.

There is a karmic, holistic sense of retributive justice to Mellor’s way of thinking which is instantly appealing and reassuring, and smacks of a kind of Charles Kingsley-esque Christian socialism (i.e. Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby from The Water Babies):

Interrogation*

I won’t hold out for long
Soon you’ll get the lot
The names
And more besides
I will crawl at your feet
I know that
But in the long dark night of your soul
You must finally face what has been done to you
That you can do this to me.
* For the fortieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights

This is no trite moral lesson, it is unfashionable and sublime; sentiments echoed in ‘War crimes’, which one can only wish Mellor might in the future post in a greetings card to directly to Tony Blair:

Now listen to me
You have one job
And one job alone
Do not resist
You have no power to stop the screams
They would kill you anyway
Do only this
Remember
Remember the names
Remember the faces
It may be a lifetime
Before you can stand there
And accuse
So do your job well
Just survive
And remember.

The collection ends with the last section, ‘Collapse’, including just one poem, ‘Afterwards’, one of the more hauntingly figurative meditations:

It would have been about three in the afternoon
If there had remained
Some trace of reason in the world
The man continued to cradle the child
From time to time
She appeared to sleep
They faced ruined walls
But made no attempt to turn
Or seek shelter
As the walls were everywhere
It did not comfort the child
But when awake
The man spoke of times past
Until her sickness returned
For a long while
He had held a housebrick
But could not use it
It would have been about three in the afternoon
When the child began
A cry that would not stop.

Nigel Mellor has a clean, sparse, highly figurative but also occasionally descriptively engaging style; For the Inquiry... is an imaginative and beguiling little collection, its poems in the main of a deceptively simple, morally didactic and enchantingly symbolic timber, at times faintly reminiscent of the slightly naïf social-tone of W.H. Davies, even of some aspects to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in their subversive nursery-rhyme style charm cradled over deeper wells of meaning, even occasionally, of the sublime. Recommended. [The full ebook can be downloaded at www.nmellor.com 

Alan Morrison © 2011