Alan Morrison on

 

Bernard Saint

Roma

Smokestack Books, 2016

96pp

 

Michael Crowley

First Fleet

Smokestack Books, 2016

83pp

 

Poems of Mediumship

First Fleet cover Roma cover

Under review are two historically themed poetry collections from Smokestack Books; one being an ingenious polemical comment on contemporary narcissism and celebrity anti-culture through the prism of Roman philosophy; the other, an unashamedly didactic and uncannily authentic evocation of the trials, tribulations, thoughts and fates of a convict crew bound for Australia in the 1780s.

 

Bernard Saint's Roma demonstrates something that I noted for myself when studying Ancient History at university: how much more spiritually and intellectually advanced and cultivated the ancient sophisticates were in many respects that lack a millennia later in our more philistine modern age. In the main, Saint resuscitates the 1st century BC ethical sagaciousness of philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, author of the sublime Meditations -a kind of ancient self-help philosophy journal ripe with aphorism- as a template from which to deconstruct the materialistic sham of twenty-first century Western society.

 

Sixties film buffs of historical epics will recall Alec Guinness's Sphinxian take on this most philosophical of Roman emperors -known posthumously as 'the last of the “Five Good Emperors”', after Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antonius Pius- opposite Christopher Plummer as his psychopathic son and successor, Commodus, in the first half of The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). To which, there are some filmic moments in this collection: 'We are making a happy picture/ A happy family picture/ With Rome our glamour backdrop/ And furthermore our budget overdue’ ('Quiet on the Set').

 

By something of a coincidence I read the Meditations quite recently and am struck by how authentic the revenant Aurelius sounds channelled through Saint's poetic mediumship. Saint has perfectly captured the equanimity of Aurelius, his sound reasoning, soft-edged stoicism, harmonious tone, and emphasis on the futility of fame in light of mortality and, most painfully for poets perhaps more than any others (and no doubt a preoccupation of Saint's), the projected delusion of personal posterity. In these respects there is something of Seneca in Aurelius' thought.

 

But there are other voices in Saint's immaculate collection, though not all specified by name, one detects the almost gossipy and often quotidian tone and subject of neoteric poetry of the likes of Catullus and Cato, but also of the elegiac school of Roman love poetry of the likes of Ovid and Propertius. The flavour of Propertius in particular comes through in the accomplished polish of 'Bella Figura':

 

Search me what women see

In well-honed hunks

Their trunks too tight and torsos strained

To requisite charcuterie

For gladiatorial games –

Perhaps some dames incline by their desire

To be soft-centre of a rugby scrum

 

But I am just an old and decadent poet

I murmur one ‘bon mot’

Then salon to salon the same

Boredom of abandoned luxury offends me –

...

 

Who else might tolerate you ask

My languid and emaciated frame?

My desiccated and ironic diction?

Those who persist to retain

A broken but lyrical valour

 

Well this is the price you pay

When the muses secretly smile

While bestowing toxic laurel

On one who was a boy – and fully unprepared

For their long game of hazard

 

If there’s a chance you hear beyond the Shade

Now isn’t this so my beauties?

 

'Transformer' has an almost Audenic delicacy of touch:

 

Olive arms and faces

Long -faded from your frescoes

Enjoy the grace and silence of my shade –

Poets scribble half a dozen lines

The future will insist are but a fragment

Of epics dispersed and lost

To sandstorms of antiquity –

Then dine on honeyed dormice

At the court of Vespasian

 

Even, once might say, a Betjeman urbanity and a Larkinesque precision:

 

Mindful a man declines

Merchants’ lonely daughters

Sweetmeats sold inside the public circus

Political office and loaded dice

He may live to see his fortieth winter –

When Fate may try to fit him up again

In the role of an Uxbridge solicitor –

For he has lost his concentration

Growing tired of antiquity –

 

It's unclear who exactly the speaker is here and to whom he is speaking, but I'm supposing it's the 20th century under discussion, and an antediluvian orator with an edge:

 

You modernists may keep your century –

We’ll mingle with you on a weekend break

You’ll greet us at the baths or in the gym

The pizza parlour festival and wine-bar –

Inheriting our pastimes and our pleasures

You’ll scandalise our brief amoral lives –

You cannot see you are immersed in them

 

I was also struck by Saint's unfashionable use of capitalised first letters for each line -something I practice myself- which perhaps in part befits the antiquated mystique of his theme; when combined with short aphoristic lines, it calls to mind T.S. Eliot:

 

I notice now

Early frost and chill

Herbs and flowers struggling

Clinging to existence –

 

Another patch of sun

Apollo if you please

 

Let them remember forest birds

Gathering green stalks

The music of the bees

Amid their cornucopia of seed

 

Curiously, however, Saint only uses em dashes by way of punctuation, and omits commas and full stops altogether, as if to counterbalance the more traditional -and unfashionable- capitalised first letters, which serve to, one supposes, mark out the clauses. He also tends to use blank spaces between words within lines to act as caesuras. Stylistically I think this works very well, particularly for the theme of the book.

 

The marvellously titled 'A Roman in Umbria' catches Saint at his most lyrical:

 

I notice now

Early frost and chill

Herbs and flowers struggling

Clinging to existence –

 

Another patch of sun

Apollo if you please

 

Let them remember forest birds

Gathering green stalks

The music of the bees

Amid their cornucopia of seed

 

'Tribute to Marcus Aurelius' seems more a paean to the perennially impecunious poet than anything fathomably relatable to the philosopher emperor:

 

Long ago it seemed

The city did not circulate by money –

You occupied poor quarters nonetheless

Jobs and bed-sits few would countenance

 

With poetry your permanent companion –

So a boy of seventeen might estimate

Hope and inspiration

Sacredly above the prudent mind

 

Regarding sober stoics who maintained

There is one trusted guardian at best

Dwells within your house when all grows dark

You lacked both chronic need and inclination

 

You craved the muses’ food of mere seduction

A storm-fly pressed against their windowpane

You turned aside from knowledge to those passions

Whose false-reflected pleasures twitched your wings

 

‘Bust of Marcus Aurelius as a Boy’ has the posthumous philosopher emperor, in a fit of rhetoric, disapproving of a sculptor's depiction of him in his youth :

 

Who is this modernist?

His beardless face

His curls too artfully trimmed

By Sassoon on via Veneto?

 

I hardly recognise myself –

He seems a kind of youth

Impelled to pretty writing

One who can’t abstain from poetry

 

We then have a depiction of modernists as Mods, their sartorial and attitudinal equivalent in popular culture:

 

Appearances are wonderful

Misleaders of sound reason

All modernists knew this –

The girl-boys on Lambrettas

Their boy-girls lolling stylishly at pillion

 

And this is a juxtaposition which Saint repeats later on. The poem closes on a disarming aphorism: 'Death smiles at us all –/ All you may do is smile back'.

 

Saint's turn-of-phrase is frequently simple but sublime, as in, for example, 'A young man it is imagined/ Still has straw in his hair' from 'Julian's Dilemma'. At first I assumed this Julian was the much later Roman emperor (361-3 AD), also a philosopher and man of letters, who was nicknamed 'the Apostate' for rejecting Christianity -the last 'pagan' emperor, and the first since Constantine 'converted' Rome to Christianity via his own deathbed-conversion to the faith in 337 AD. However, chronologically speaking it can't be him, since we have mention of his having had 'A role in sunlit processions/ Orating his startling verse in Nero’s presence', dating this Julian to the latter notorious emperor's reign of 54-68 AD. So who is this Julian? who was

 

...exposed to jealousies

Of jackals who draw unscrupulous pay

Denouncing all that’s new as insurrection

Implicating unprotected citizens as spies...

 

I can't find the answer (at least, not on Wikipedia! -or is this Wikileaks' fugitive/captive founder Julian Assange?). Unless the allusion to 'Nero's presence' is meant in the sense of an historically-tinctured daydream of a youthful Julian fancying himself fitting in more with the spectacular 'artistic' decadence of Nero's court than that of his own lifetime. Whatever, the theme is resonant for all poets, writers, artists, musicians, creators, as captured in the aphorism:

 

Literature is not an easy passage

It fuels neurotic ache for recognition

 

And at this most dangerous time

The Empire a paranoid beehive

 

Note the excellent assonance and alliteration of the second line of the above excerpt.

 

Starting with the wonderfully rhythmic 'Every vice of our delusion/ Amplified by an actor’s mask', 'Marcus Aurelius at the Theatre' sees the highly cultured post-emperor, presumably from the vantage point of some Swedenborgian afterlife where past, present and future merge into a matter of moments, take an aphoristic swipe at modern celebrity fetishism:

 

I’d sooner stay at home

Sipping espresso e aqua

In my corner pavement café

Though this is not a bolt-hole

From the theatre

 

These passers-by

Surely they are extras

From sword and sandal epics –

Always clad in Armani

They stroll about in a bubble

Of self-dramatising soap

 

When did the world

Become like this

A playground

For the narcissist?

 

Self-publicists

Outweigh good sense

Preening on the internet

 

Then from a corner of your home

Reality T. V

Distracts you from reality

 

The rhetorical juxtaposition of a 'corner pavement cafe' where to meditate and the TV in the 'corner of your home' where to be absorbed by banal babble and mesmerised by ultraviolet rays is particularly effective. Aurelius' defiant closing statement gifts us an insight into this most singular, enlightened and, above all, grounded of Roman emperors:

 

If they should make me Caesar

I will not become ‘a Caesar’

But elude the dipping in purple dye

 

 

I’ll keep my rough Greek cloak

And reject the duck-down pallet

When I choose to sleep on the floor

 

It sounds as if in many respects Aurelius was to the laurel wreath what Pope Francis is to the papacy: austere, humble and self-abnegating. The nicely alliterative 'dipping in purple dye' phrase alludes to the broad strips of purple that ran vertically from hem to hem on the togas of emperors.

 

The first verse of 'Amphorae' is notable for its highly effective alliteration:

 

Take these terracotta flasks

Their stoppers gone

But narrow necks intact

Found beneath Etruscan tiles –

The floor of an ancient villa

Turned up in our tenuous search

For further tube-train routes –

 

The poem has posthumous Romans musing on the excavated remains of their ancient civilisation:

 

Who deliberate pronouncing our containers

Amphorae pertaining

To unguents and perfumes

Requisites for a Roman bath

Brought onto the mezzanine when needed

 

This being so we gave them fitting names –

‘L’Atrine’ ‘Eau de Toilet’

‘Gorillas in a Mist’

Just take a whiff of this –

 

We speculate the later Howard Hughes

Was not the first magnate

To develop obsessive traits

Urophiliac in nature –

 

While wealth and power expressed themselves in cultivated gardens

Which even those in debt might build beyond the city gates

 

Hoarding from his Fate our ancient miser

Stored waste product of his corporate body

In ritual to Croesus –a Netherworld of wealth

 

Croesus was a legendarily wealthy King of Lydia (560 to 546 BC). It's not clear who the unnamed subject of this poem is but it's an intriguing enigma.

 

The rather hilariously titled 'Marcus Aurelius on the Catwalk' has an anonymous orator denouncing fame, celebrity and fashion, warning us, 'And safety pins of platinum will have you max. your plastic'; the orator then reflects on his youth and one of its ironic paradoxes:

 

When we were young we had the uniform

Some called bohemian

It was a uniform for non-conformists

Unquestioning we rigidly conformed

Else we might never

Recognise each other

Holding as we did diverse ideas

Maturity then ripened into seeds expelled from pods

Our separate ways to sow and walk alone

 

He then returns to the future and all-too-familiar aspects of ageing:

 

Then little did we know

Nor should we guess

Our future days –

Of sensible supportive footwear

Ergonomic chairs

Our regimens of pills and

The elasticated waistband…

 

There's a bit of droll wordplay with Latinate terms as Roman monikers, worthy of René Goscinny of Astérix fame:

 

But I digress – it was the Roman hedonist

Gave birth to our most venerated models –

Anorexia Nervosa and her twin

Bulimia I see

Haunting constantly the vomitorium

 

There follows a beautifully alliterative trope: 'Their perpetual cigarettes/ Preserving pearl-like European pallor'. The final verse addresses Aurelius directly:

 

Aurelius – though you profess

Not the slightest interest in fashion –

Surely there had come a day you found

Your rough Greek cloak of wool

An affectation?

Put aside the tweeds and corduroys

We might advise the modern thinker

Seek out those master tailors

Peppino Scarapazzi

Giorgio Battistoni –

Creators of ‘the simple and the good’ Italian suit –

A future time may come to call it Mod –

Though men forget its elegance

Entirely stems from Roman Stoic values

 

Interesting to see, again, the mention of 'Mod', and the Mods did indeed start out wearing Italianate suits, while rooting their fashion in Stoic values makes sense given a mutual austereness.

 

An unnamed poet orator in 'Sailing for Lindos' laments the philistinism and superficiality of celebrity culture:

 

I am tired of this modern religion

Lolling around in pools surrounded by starlets

Selling us lotions and serums

Comparing our hair-weaves and face-lifts

With senators and actors

Sponsoring aphrodisiac vascular enhancers –

I find it too frivolous too desperate

And Destiny has told me

This is no occupation for a Roman poet

 

I hate their temples serving lamb and veal

Perpetually feasting –

To sacrifice the young of any species

Weighs me with remorse

Old carnivorous men should not recline on cushions

Their recreational stimulants and sherbets

Get right up my nose

 

Complacently our culture is unravelling –

Orators perform their wares

Only to the comic muse

You ask them for the classics

Their lips become a trout’s

Eyes dilate and dart about

Their repertoire dumbed-down beyond recalling

 

Why should I like the Games

Their chariot wheels contrived

To make a steak tartare of every rival?

We see enough barbarity

Simply setting foot outside our homes

When macho-men make hells of weekend revels

And women by skilled flatterers descend to turpitude

 

Saint then produces a wonderfully simplistic yet profound iambic semi-couplet: 'Only poetry is where -/ You never hope to find her'. This is then capped by a final brutal realism: 'Transacting business in that land/ Between myth and dream and mathematics' -and here the use of the term 'transacting' is particularly potent in terms of Marxist reductionism of humanity's purely commercial interrelationships under capitalism.

 

'Campagna' is a succinct Aurelian gnomic poem which I excerpt in full:

 

Traveller what you are seeking

Is so often to be found

Not ten yards from your home

 

Though you circle the world to find it

All shall be waiting here

For your return –

 

Unremarkable soil

It hardly yields a thing

Except desire to leave

 

But someday you may treasure

Its lack of misleading promises

Its distance from the dissolute great cities

 

'Song of the Bees', which I also quote in full below, is the first in a series of gnomic meditations on man's illusions of immortality of the personal soul and delusions of posterity -and in these senses are markedly Aurelian in theme:

 

They say the proud

Are reborn as bees

 

‘I am an important painter’

‘I am a superlative chef ’

‘I am an eminent senator’

‘Just so’ the proud man says

 

Then since he will not turn to prayer

Believing no brief illness

To be entirely final

He joins the ones reborn as bees

Murmuring over and over

‘I am’ ‘I am’ ‘I am’

 

But it is in 'Marcus Aurelius & the Cult of Celebrity' that Saint most effectively and explicitly tackles the metaphysical cul-de-sac of artistic self-transcendence and futile deferment of gratification beyond life itself. And here Saint deploys some powerful images by example to reinforce his rhetoric to humility:

 

Observe the kind of mind that chases fame –

A ship cannot rely on one small sail

A life cannot sustain by one ambition –

Self-serving man sustains a little while

Until his sea of arrogance subsumes him

 

The cynical psychologists who claim

‘Everything is what you think it is’

Carving up the words of Epictetus

To suit their busy bromides

Reducing to banality

His vision of the unity of all things

 

Epictetus was a Greek-born ex-slave turned Stoic philosopher of Rome. Saint's imitations of Aurelius's sagacious aphoristic advices is uncanny at times:

 

Your life is but a moment

Do not set your happiness to waver

On flattery or censure of some other –

Only seek the company of those

With whom your capabilities expand

 

This narrow ledge we walk some call ‘alive’ –

Enticed with promises of pleasure

Constrained by alternating thoughts of pain –

How cheap and how corruptible –

Whose judgements and opinions

Confer renown on a harried rock?

 

But it is with the following stanza that Saint's channelling of Aurelius reaches its crescendo as he touches on a chain of thought which almost inevitably mutates in the minds of solitary creators:

 

One who sets his sights on fame

And while obscure endures the dream

Of posthumous recognition –

The praise of all the world

Means nothing to the dead

The living who remember him

One by one resume oblivion

 

The inescapable fact that one's creative output cannot attain a perpetuity through posterity outside of oneself since all who come after and made aware of that art are also mortal and will in turn 'forget' all they have known and admired. Saint's use of 'resume' before 'oblivion' is instructive of our lives only being brief intervals of awareness surrounded in a sleep, to paraphrase Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest -and this is captured perfectly in the closing trope:

 

Memory and fame are this

A rock-pool between tides

While ceaselessly the river meets the sea

 

Note the masterful sibilance of that last line. As a poet himself, Saint is clearly writing from the heart on such poetic anxieties, and to my mind 'Marcus Aurelius & the Cult of Celebrity' is among the strongest poems in this collection.

 

'Photo-Shoot' appears to depict self-destructing celebrities hounded to early deaths by Paparazzi, who ride on Lambrettas in another reference to Mods, something of a leitmotiv. The language Saint's uses in this poem is particularly kinetic:

 

Assuring all is surface with a style

Only stars possess in such abundance

Cameras whirr and purr and click and skirl

 

This could be the late and atrociously treated Amy Winehouse:

 

Her jangling hangover

Stumbling on the parquet

Spills bilious opinion into print

 

Then fuming at your gate

A pack of them pursuing on Lambrettas

 

Go stake your first long paycheck

On a souped-up mini cooper

Darken all the windows –

Tutored by a diamond-heist technician

Drive for all you’re worth

 

Upon their rooftops autograph ‘faint praise’ in grey exhaust

 

The line 'On a souped-up mini cooper' is beautifully alliterative, though I'm not sure why Saint drops the capital letters. Saint's alliterative effects reach a crescendo in 'Sunbathing Pope':

 

And contemplate a city that emerges

Continuous as Venus from the sea

 

Today He comes to bless

The shining orchard of retired

Sunbathing Cinecitta stars

Toasting on their terraces

 

And: '...figured cloth of gold// ‘You may wear it monsignor –/ The carnival is over’.  'Orpheus – Son of Apollo' is an exquisitely written poem, rhythmic, cadent, lyrical and luscious alliteration and sibilance:

 

To frolic with the nightingales and fishes

Concordant yet transcending nature’s power

Your simple tunic boasts

No purple trim – authority

Lives only in the grace-notes of your lyre

 

One naked foot is pierced

By time’s narcotic thorn

But your eyes see all too clear –

And so the ikon-makers shall suggest

Your candid poet’s face

A pattern of harmonic countenance

Beneath the un-recorded face of Christ –

 

 

Where hides that wounded fawn Eurydice

Your shy Byzantine princess?

‘Don’t look back’ – she has become

In semblance of her bridal fresco

The numinous white flame of the Holy Virgin –

 

The absence of commas can be slightly strange when Saint chooses not to have longer gaps between words which would normally be separated by commas, but it lends a kind of stream-of-consciousness sense:

 

South of Tiber’s sage-green trailing ribbon

Fountains groves of olives lemon gardens

Are her veil

 

In 'Strolling through Rome with Marcus Aurelius' the posthumous philosopher-emperor critiques the tendency of sculptors to always depict him bearded:

 

Why do all statues fit me with a beard?

Reduce me to an ideal cast in bronze?

‘Aurelius: he’s always on campaign

Philosopher and Guardian of Rome –

Therefore he never shaves’ – they might well say

‘He never bathes’

 

Give me a break!

Don’t take me for a Pict!

Forget my highbrow youth –

A little prig

Immersed in esoteric Grecian thought

Might then try out a pipe and train his stubble

 

This rather casualised tone in the second stanza isn't so distantly removed from translations of poetry by the likes of Propertius or Catullus. To the extent that I sometimes think postmodernist poetry of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has more in common with Roman poetry than it does with the poetries of the centuries in between. This poem closes on a truly stoical aphorism:

 

Life will have its use of us

When we give up connoisseurship

For simplicity

 

Profound aphorisms seep through these poems -this one from 'Chet Baker in Bologna':

 

The groove above our upper lip

A fingertip impresses before birth

Advises silence on our true abode –

 

‘Hush this is the world

Which shall pass

Though music last’ –

 

The elusively-named 'grooved above our upper lip' is a philtrum, incidentally. Again, one can only admire the euphony of his consonance:

 

To contemplate at lowered microphone

A whispered existential question mark

That bends his reputation to a stance

There are also instances of internal rhymes:

 

Of spretzatura understated cool –

Articulation of the difficult

Without personal bravura

 

And instances of anaphora, the repetition of a phrase in order to reinforce the rhetoric, as in 'The Messenger' which I excerpt in full:

 

Let me tell you about the gods –

They keep honey where you keep salt

And salt where you keep honey

 

That is why

There is nowhere on earth to hide from them

 

They prefer the prayers of children –

That if anyone abuse them

So then they cease to pray

 

A messenger is sent to hear their silence

Investigate the vortex

Of impacted threnody

 

Let me tell you about the gods –

Their slow implacable justice

 

Not only the revenant of Aurelius he spends his afterlife haunting Italian locations trying not to be recognised -but also the ghost of legendary Italian film maker Frederico Fellini who, in 'Surveillance in Full View', heeds advice to ‘Sip a cappuccino now the sun is on the roof/ That way you’re sure to pass here for a tourist'. There's reprimand for creators who, rather like the gods, toy with human emotions to make artistic statements:

 

His subterfuge is deeper one suspects –

A Jungian analyst warned him

We the archetypes

Are not some petty Tinkerbells to mess with –

 

There's a rallying call to the revolutionary potential in poetry:

 

Suppose our sacred vehicle

Poetry – impounded here in time –

Fell to the hands of anarchists?

They’d filter its fuel into fountains

Mountain springs maligned immodest Nero

Pipelined into Roma city centre –

 

Then all the world might sing and run amuck

Freed of time’s immobilising tyranny –

For now they think they are

Units of production chained

As slaves to their factory clock

 

What's curious here is Saint's choice to use the less common term 'amuck' instead of 'amok', which would also have rhymed with 'clock' at the end of the stanza.

 

A rather cryptic question is posed: 'Do you suppose they are ready for/ Free Time?' This is one of the more oblique poems in this collection -it closes enigmatically:

 

‘Fellini’ meanwhile shadows each de-briefing

Noonday in the Black Bull bar-café

Here behind the Trevi

Half-hidden by its atomising spray

He dreams nocturnal dancers

Timeless sensualities of water

Two who dance immortal – unrestrained

As we are two –

 

We also have our dreams

 

Is there perhaps a hint of reference to Alec Guinness's portrayal of Aurelius from the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire in 'Marcus Aurelius: Sixties Icon'? We appear to be present at a Woodstock-style concert or hippy love in as in this alliteratively bristling stanza:

 

The band inject their overdose of watts –

Black-clad panel-beaters out of Brum

Immune to their behemoth decibels

One poet in a man-dress bottled off

For not contributing to tinnitus

 

But Saint, and Aurelius, are critical of the temporal pretentiousness of the so-called summer of love depicting it as little more than mass-hedonism dressed up as spiritual transcendence:

 

The sixties caravan just lumbered on –

Quite harmless impure psychotropic drugs

Effecting curt lobotomies of sex from love

And other narcissistic executions

 

So this poem is rather like the equivalent of John Lennon's biting send-up of the Maharishi in The Beatles' 'Sexy Sadie'. This Stoic offensive against Epicureanism continues:

 

Meanwhile above a pint of London Pride

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin

Studying the Chelsea Potter crowd

Begged if I might intercede a line

Of stoic rectitude

Embellishing their tape-looped heavy breathing

 

I brush aside a credit overdue

For ‘Je t’aime – moi non plus’

But still you might recall a piquant line

Delivered in that Franglais redolent

Of Gainsbourg’s double-meanings –

 

‘Physical love is a cul-de-sack

Mere sex a one-way street’

You do? Me neither

 

'European Tour' is equally despondent, condemnatory and almost misanthropic:

 

His was the ‘voice of a generation’ –

And passing time accordingly displaced him –

A troubadour lauded as poet

By the twang of his sardonic lyre

 

At midnight his conversation

Veers from vision into thought-disorder

Why can’t the poor man sleep?

What further expectation comes to haunt him?

 

The sibilance and alliteration makes for some luscious lines:

 

A never-ending tour of far-flung theatres

Stadiums Arenas –

To sing for his fanatics likewise ageing

Darkly smitten by misplaced nostalgia

 

This poem closes on a true aphoristic crescendo, in my view, the most striking and sublime image in this entire collection, and that's saying something:

 

For if ever there was a poet

Who might deliver continuous truth

My old gnarled tree in the garden

Has lived on unregarded

 

This image lingers long after reading and is a brilliant tribute to the obscurity which so often afflicts the truest poets; it almost calls to mind some of the sublimity of Thomas Gray's magisterial 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'. Also of note is the nice consonantal and assonantal chiming of 'garden' and 'unregarded'. In some ways this meditative poem with its tree metaphor reminds me of the  poem that the elderly man Nonno is composing in Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana (1959).

 

'Marcus Aurelius Rehab' is a kind of 'Just Say No!' moment, a cautionary poem about the dangers of artificial highs via various recreational opiates:

 

Acolytes of Bacchus

Morpheus and crew

Flirt with a perpetual adolescence

 

Those lusciously alliterative three lines could be carved out to make a striking haiku in its own right. But in this poem Saint channelling Aurelian wisdom is also attacking fundamental human selfishness, which can also be spiritual selfishness as well as physical or sensation-based selfishness, promoting a sort of Buddhist metaphysical view, something approaching ego-death and what Arthur Koestler called 'oceanic consciousness', a loss of self and a sense of oneness with all things:

 

You just might be a man

Beginning to turn inward –

But if you try and try

You tie yourself to habits

That sabotage the spirit

 

Lose control by all means –

Lose yourself

Though not by any chemical nor potion

Esoteric practice nor technique –

But take a sacred attitude to life

That means you’re not the centre

 

What harms the hive

Is no good for the bee

 

'Marcus Aurelius and the Chinese Trade Delegation' -which almost sounds like a surreal Asteríx book title- takes potshots at financial speculation:

 

Paper yen inspire my speculation –

 

Rice to make risotto toilet rolls meanwhile

A bristle toothbrush toyed with between meals

 

Mannequins and automatons

Soybeans and tuned bells

 

Chopsticks for ceramics

Cups and teapots conjured in transparent porcelain

 

Puppet theatres and the pontoon bridge

The kite and revolving bookcase

 

Let’s celebrate in fortified rice wine –

Though there’s another side I must examine

 

This undeniable delicacy

Has a darker application –

 

 

With bellows mustard-smoke and lime

Would you blow upon and blind my honest legions?

 

Let me give you in return

A Roman Wall that’s wide as half the world

 

Please stay behind it –

At least until you’re civilized

 

Sometimes, as in 'Rest & Recreation', Saint can enter the spirit of opera buffa and give Gilbert & Sullivan a run for their money:

 

Frivolities as these might hardly cause distress

Would you not insist in sinister speculation

Of tactical reconnaissance preceding an invasion

 

Accepting these assurances

Please release my men whose sensitivity

Waxes temperamental when confined

 

Accomplishing a duty of escape

Without regard to property or lives

 

Saint's is a highly versatile voice and thus well-suited to what is essential satirical verse. It is also didactic poetry, but in the best and least obtrusive sense:

 

Centurions while confiscating Switzerland

Built their citadel beside this spa –

Nostalgically impressed no doubt

By Nero’s chic aquatic palaces –

 

The poolside bell has rung

And we must keep pace with its clock –

Moving from one muscle-toning jet

Into the next – strategically

Massaged by their warm salt-minerals

 

A thermal spring uniting opposites –

To bathe outdoors when snow descends the pines

Is quaint delight surreal as Baked Alaska –

 

Saint's attack on the super rich is masterfully expressed:

 

We are that latest Lazarus –

Ex-pats decayed by taxes

Our camels having stretched the Needle’s Eye

Of keyhole laser treatment...

 

We take the air of floral chocolate

Strolling by our Alpine bovine meadow

Of Interlaken Elysium –

And raising eyes to spiritual peaks

We calculate no loss at the casino

 

Those last line almost make one think of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain set in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where society's consumptives take their rest cure at high altitudes and low temperatures where tuburcule bacili might cease to germinate.

 

'Roman Leave' is a caustic take on the poetry scene -here it is in full:

 

Soldiers back in barracks are constrained

From open talk of politics

Not to mention merits of their gods

What do they discuss?

Poetry of course –

Being code for both of the above

 

They do not take restraint in verse

To signify conservative opinion

Nor Celtic wildness to denote

Anti-establishment freedom

 

But when on leave

They sample drinking dens

Then salons of those invitation-only

Bashes for promotion of new books

 

Hardship and attendant disappointment

Prepare them for bohemia’s striptease –

That over-rated sideshow of civilian avoidance

Those skirmishes where only egos bleed

 

Here Saint's rhythmic dexterity is matched with satisfying half-rhymes making for more formalist prosody. I've often thought privately that the collective noun for poets should be 'a disappointment'. Saint then returns to his running theme of the futility of aspiration for poetic posterity, its impossibility, which perfectly captures at its beginning the young hurry for publication, the older hunger-strike for recognition, and the poet's permanent terror of obscurity -here is the superlative 'Marcus Aurelius: Mentor' in full, to my mind, one of the standout poems in this deceptively slim volume:

 

Young poet whom no publisher

Has deigned yet to publish

Do not be distressed

You might be blessed

Blocked from racking your soul

With arrant egocentricity

 

For in that endless sea

Of those who are now published

Fathomless infinite libraries rise and fall

Must you see their slender volumes

So many doors excluding your new voice?

You imagine they have glory –

But how many have you met?

 

Anxious in renown they fear a fall

Once more to obscurity – the forest floor

Where bashful nature’s creatures

Have but one ambition –

Not to be noticed at all

For the swivelling eye of the predator

Welcomes silly fledglings to his larder

 

And they are dead

Who once could feel

The centre of their galaxy

As images ideas and rhythms swirled

 

It was only a foaming wave

Brilliantly basting a pebble

White for a while in the winter sun

Of a grey sea shelf

 

The contrast between man's yearning for fame and recognition and fear of obscurity and oblivion with the opposite desire for concealment and invisibility in the natural world is a profound one. Aurelius as channelled through Saint ends with emphasis on how much more difficult it is to accept one's mortality and the inevitability of having to leave the world eventually the more stakes one has within it smacks not only of Stoicism but also of Christianity which, along with Platonism, shares a common ancestry with Stoicism in many respects, particularly in terms of austereness, anti-materialism/distrust of matter and the earthly, simplicity, virtue through poverty, and even pain. And so this fine poem closes on two more sublime aphorisms:

 

The gaudier their flag

The greater death’s denial

You have no cause to envy this condition

 

Turn your metal-detector along the shore

You will stumble on such trash

As questions every man who called it treasure

 

A tendency towards more metrical verse and occasional rhymes resurfaces in 'The Games':

 

With vineyards and estates

The pension of an actor –

One who serves the State

As diplomat and orator

 

I’ll not enumerate his mass

Of grievous wounds and lesions

Vox populi accordingly

May call my verse ‘effete’

 

'Marcus Aurelius at the Cenotaph' sees the eponymous posthumous philosopher-emperor speak out against war:

 

I have no use for grandiose procession

Victors in a war are unimpressed

By anything save universal sadness

While that an eager populace expects

May differ by degree – intoxicants

Such as the siege and slaughter of a foe

Make only a non-combatant trip out

On patriotic fervour

 

Our nausea we swallow back until

Safely back in barracks we can spew

Indignation that the landless poor

Courageous young –and untried soldier

Suffer on all sides in times of war

 

Aurelius doesn't relish visiting the Cenotaph but if he has to he will 'wear a black armband/ As going to the funeral of a friend'. In 'Marcus Aurelius: A Long Campaign', Saint serves up an authentically Aurelian aphorism:

 

Enemies are predictable

 

Beware those who

Overwhelmingly

Admire you

 

They have a greater need

To set you underfoot –

Of all they once esteemed

To make a doormat

 

They style it ‘progress’ –

 

But when

Did disdain

Contempt

Ambition

 

Amount to anything

But poison?

 

How they avoid your path

Now you are of the past

 

Then come into that citadel

Where only the ancients speak

Who earned their salt experience

By self-examination

 

'Gregory's Corso', subtitled 'Caffe Vineria, Campo de’ Fiori', critiques academia and the Roman Catholic Church, both establishment bodies or systems -it's not totally clear what is Saint's exact target in the initial stanzas but one detects it might relate to English Literature as an academic subject, literary criticism, or even university creative writing courses:

 

Academics Gregory

Chop out lines to suit their pedantry

Sustain dishonest industry

Vying for outlandish variation

Their critical gimmicks

Ever more lucrative

 

I sense they dislike the lyric

From which they chew their bread

While lyrical poets living

Simply blunt their way

To sharper practice –

 

 

None of them can claim

A poet from their ancestry

Rather they’d one eye upon a tenure

The moment their milk teeth sank into a steak

 

Saint rightly chastises religious hypocrisy:

 

Now here come the priests

How very sleek –

In days preceding Holy Week

They line up in the barber’s on this street

One whose radio bawls perpetual opera

He cuts their hair most carefully for free

Why? They appear on Vatican T. V.

Evidence of his pious handiwork –

He thinks it worth a fortnight of novenas

 

Then comes another of Saint's killer Aurelian aphorisms which will touch a raw nerve for all those poets of the present day who still nurse illusions of widespread popularity or that getting published means, as it once did, significant circulation of one's work:

 

'Idioms of March' is another Aurelian warning against vanity, superficiality, falling for appearances and sycophancies, but also, on the other hand, other trappings of fame such as paranoia:

 

We poets are as poignantly deluded –

Giving to the Gatekeepers our final sheaf of wheat

Believing they’d distribute to the street

 

It ill becomes a man of my estate

To have no vices –

You need not be so proud

Concerning a mere accident of birth

 

If you were born to vices of this city

Where nothing’s ever quite as it appears –

 

You are served a delicious peach

Which upon examination

Becomes a coloured marzipan

Sculpted to a ball

 

Surely this is worth the tasting

Where can be the harm?

 

But artifice becomes a habit

Then an expectation

 

This can lead to downfall

Suspecting those sincere

Of insincerity

 

A pat upon the shoulder

Does not mean

A dagger in the back

 

‘Have a nice day’ on the other hand –

Whatever can they mean?

Is this day to be my last?

 

'The Spanish Steps' bucks the trend of depictions of Keats as a fragile, frail waif at the mercy of critics, as somehow virginal, unearthly and uncorrupted, a predestined consumptive, and asserts his less mythologized contradictory qualities of physical outdoors stamina and stubborn determination:

 

John Keats was not ‘himself ’ that day

Ambling out to Highgate on the Heath

His little rifle only fit for larking

Braced in one bunched shoulder

Knocked cock-robin off a branch red-breasted

‘I think I’ll pack in the medical game’

 

To end up renting rooms

So near The Spanish Steps

Each pilgrim footfall fired

Mood-swings to his T. B. raddled nerves

 

Idealised portraiture

Toned down his tough exterior

Unrequited ardour

Gave an early death romantic glamour

 

‘Written on water’? Nothing more?

Came Forensics on the scene

‘Take his DNA and have the lab-boys run it down’

 

The final stanza tries to show how Keats was little different to the likes of Coleridge, Shelley or Byron in partaking of narcotics, however, this doesn't really tell us anything that different or revelatory about him, given that he was an apothecary's apprentice and so would have had easy access to pretty much any opiate of the period since all then were legal medicines:

 

A kink in his museum locket-hair

Discloses tincture of cannabis

Opium laudanum cocaine-tonic

All legally acquired (historically of course)

From Haverstock Hill’s dispensing late-night chemist

 

The alliteration, assonance and consonance of that final -somewhat tongue-in-cheek- stanza are particularly notable.

                           

'Marcus Aurelius: Historian' is another aphoristic statement on not only mortality but the mortality of memory and the futile quest for posterity:

 

Sand dunes drift across Sahara

Covering sand dunes formed before

Concealing the past in sand we assume

Constitutes permanent landscape and form

 

This way history fails to give warning

To blinkered men mired in their time –

For whom compassion to those departed

A mere year ago is a footnote too far –

 

Are they departed? Are we so sure

We walk with the living and touch what is real?

Or conjured from sand is this but a dream

We put on our work-clothes vainly pursuing?

 

Ours is the mirage rising from dust –

Cast modest eyes on the ghost of the world

Its shifting pattern of border and rule

Of herds and of armies masses and markets

 

For there’s no such thing as a good-natured camel

His neck is contrived to turn on the rider

Rending and tearing just as the mood takes him –

 

The past we forget will return to devour

 

'Marcus Aurelius is from Mars' a tribute to Rome's might and majesty:

 

Have you seen my legions dance

Ecstatically in full regalia?

 

Have you seen them

Seamlessly

Raise their wall of shields

Into a blinding river

Formed of silver fish-scales?

 

The shawms and bagpipes

Of our foes grow silent

Today it is

The festival of Mars

 

A 'shawm' for those who don't know -and I didn't until I looked it up- a conical bore, double-reed woodwind instrument apparently invented in the 12th century, so I'm not sure of its placement in the context of ancient Rome. 'Conquest' is another aphoristic take on impatient ambition:

 

Having subdued the natives

Quite to his satisfaction

And dreaming of an imminent promotion

He mistook a sleeping lion for a sand dune

Delivering one quick kick

So hard his sandal sailed into the air

 

This prevented running very far

 

An obstacle placed squarely on the path

As picaresque displacement to a journey

Is better accepted surely

 

Than to elevate one’s status prematurely

Above its guiding providence

 

From those who try to achieve fame prematurely to those who never achieve it at all in their lifetimes, no matter how talented they might have been, in one of my favourite poems in this collection, 'One Small Room' -the first four lines are particularly poignant:

 

He came to this poor quarter of the city

Seeking one small room at meagre rent

 

Now a plaque is placed above the door –

A poet of these streets once ill-esteemed

 

The poem becomes more poignant as it continues:

 

Obituaries all praised his well-made verse

But could not see beyond the one small room

 

‘Sordid and squalid’ they called it

Imputing his search for love the same

 

They live in rooms far smaller –

Their offices of prurient assumption

 

The undivided world of imagination

That was where he lived and worked

 

And they cannot contain him

Reduce him to one small room

 

Who has entered that vast embrace

A poet sings towards across a lifetime

 

'Spiritus' employs the metaphor of snowflakes to represent the infinite variation of individual human souls:

 

That snowflakes fall

By myriad design

Suggests they have a destiny

Though meltingly temporal

Beyond desire to simply co-inhere –

As if creation were in love

With diverse individuation

 

This poem closes on a curiously tongue-in-cheek note:

 

The gods are gathering and throwing gravel

Up to your shuttered bedroom window

The gods who awake to incite uncertain journeys

Neither angels demons nor your friends

They are rather agency nurses

Tasked with assertive outreach on your soul

 

'Excavation' picks up where 'One Small Room' left off, meditating on the perennial sour irony of posthumous praise after lifetime's damnation:

 

On dreamtime’s licensed premises

They praised their poets dead

When lacking this condition

Were seen to tolerate

Scars from dislocation

Of the spirit and the mind

Invisible flaws became

Acceptable stigmata

 

Their long dark bars in aftermath

Of sick regret and callous disregard

Sanctified bohemian adherence

Where fortune only bloomed

To haunt a sad decline

 

There's almost a Shakespearean quality to the closing verse:

 

And did they love each other?

Carnally the evidence is clear –

Each presumed the lead role in a play

All others dimly lit upon their stage –

Often in a wine-lodge matinee

Struggling with a few allotted lines

Mood-swings used a wrecking ball

To improvise

 

'Marcus Aurelius: On Love' links back to 'Spiritus' in its imagery:

 

This world will dissolve like snow

Your personal world

Ever more swiftly passes –

 

Aurelius asserts that in the time of the Stoic romantic love hadn't yet been invented:

 

Love was not invented in my time

There were so many words for this

None took it quite as seriously

 

Instead we searched for Truth –

Our ethical symposiums

Accompanied by much wine

Often ended in debauchery

 

There then comes a sublime semi-rhyming quatrain:

 

You only save someone

You have not first exposed to terror –

Love without ambivalence might be

Beyond your animal nature

 

And then the riddling aphoristic tickle:

 

How unprepared you are

For the ultimate pertinent question –

Let me suggest an antidote

In a world of change and chance

Metaphysics play the minor part

 

'A Foreign Country' is a very effective anti-austerity poem:

 

We disembark

To Britain’s bracing climate –

Cashconverters Poundshops

Scored discarded Scratchcards

Foodbank fodder Charity couture

 

Theme Park for a working poor

 

Bacchus is un-worshipped in binge-drinking

Lads and Ladettes shout

Then piss about the market square –

Banished gods return as new diseases

 

Health Services hit targets

But meanwhile miss the point –

 

That which can be measured

So often counts for nothing

When that which counts immeasurably

Is held of no account

 

The anecdotal tone of 'Drusilla' recalls Catullus and Propertius, it is a poem worthy of mention for its domestic erudition and delicious consonance:

 

‘They keep coal in the bath

Not that they bathe

But go all year in goose-grease undergowns’

 

 

But I might say

It beats the brutal sunstroke

Handed out by Carthage

Or dodging Goth atrocities

All along the Danube into Linz –

 

 

And my cousin Rocco breeds the best

Black olives in Emilia-Romagna

 

'Patrol' is notable for its similar erudition and alliterative language:

 

You never know on whom the gods may smile

 

Tribes that trouble Rome

Attribute occult power

To hacked-off heads

They hoist them by the hair

 

And so to charm our border guard

Post them on their poles of holy juju

 

Imagining we’d lose our rag

Rampage through their forest

Blunder stupefied by grief

 

Soberly the truth is this

We wait

We wait until there is no time

 

'Policy Application', as its title presages, uses a cold procedural tone in relation to Christian martyrdom following Christ's crucifixion:

 

While they have their private joke

Refining a straightforward crucifixion

Nailing scrotum sacs and ears unnecessarily

 

It might not take much measure of persuasion

Should one condemned insist

They nail him upside down

 

That he should not appear to

Approach in form of punishment

The despatch of his late master

 

A pretender to Judea’s throne

For which in purple duster

Briar crown and brushwood sceptre

 

He learned firsthand those jocular

Conceptions I have outlined

To which as yet no policy pertains

 

It's not clear, to me at least, precisely who the 'She' is -Mary Magdalene, Herodias?- in 'The Temple at Jerusalem' nor whether it is related to  the trial, Passion and Resurrection of Christ, or to John the Baptist's fate prior to that -nonetheless, it is a thought-provoking poem on the nature of spirituality and the human mind and the gulf between reason and faith:

 

The cosmos bore a human outline

And when they brought the prisoner in

He seemed as present yet removed

All the while her consort searched the truth

By philosophical dialogue –

But the prisoner would have none of it

Refusing abstract thought

She had lingered in this city far too long

 

Absorbing antiquated superstition –

The ark that lived unseen inside its unrecorded room

The hidden circuits of the inner temple

The want of transparent truth

A constant source of unrest with Roman rule

 

 

 

Her dreams had passed their crisis now

And should one prisoner go free

Might history subside to spare

More hapless martyrs in its endless sphere?

The sphere of light containing time and space

Its hideous powers and movements

Too numerous for any human mind?

 

'Marcus Aurelius: Astronomer' once more uses natural phenomena as a contrast to much of humankind's egoistic, introspective, even sometimes solipsistic consciousness:

 

The stars do not speak our language

And cannot reason with themselves –

Volatile mineral gases

Hotheads and burnt-out creatives

Who consider their birth and passing

Of inflated importance to human affairs

 

In another apparent tribute to Chet Baker, 'Chet: Summer Sketch', Saint depicts the obscure American jazz trumpeter as a 'Self-sabotaging angel/ Sleepwalking fame’s absurd fast-burning tightrope'.

 

'Maggiore', again touching on the futile vanity of worldly success, is one of Saint's more formalistic poems, metrical to the point of being almost iambic pentameter, and employing a quite unusual irregular semi-rhyme scheme of A/B/B/C, C/D/D/A, C/E/E/F, G/H/H/I, J/C/C/A:

 

Silent walls surround our ancient family –

Absence of pronouncement in the press

Our safely irreproachable dark dress –

Such lives avoid the taint of ostentation

 

Abjuring webs of monetary transgression

(The lake is placid where a sail expires)

We’ve tacked beyond the breeze of all desire

Nor give occasion to the world for envy –

 

A facile sense that some have found a haven

Without responsibility or fault

(Our family crypt contains a secret vault)

Old money has humility of purpose

 

Meetings shall of course be kept to time

Your quiet tie suggests you have the gist

Regrettably the Rolex tags your wrist

As someone yet removed from subtle battle

 

True samurai need hardly show the sword

To indicate all status is distraction

We hope we have begun your education

We trust your stay remains a mystery

 

'Marcus Aurelius: On Impiety' contains some striking lyricism, evocative, bucolic, consonantal:

 

Those concrete-thinkers having won the day

Have filled your every day with concrete

You have been conned

You cannot hear the corncrake

Rising from the wildflower meadow

 

Do you think they are Romans?

You have been conned –

Apollo source of light

Has their celestial measurement

He circumscribes their stars

And stares into their lack of feeling

 

'The Animals Preach to St. Francis' is a critique of the perceived anthropocentrism of Christianity:

 

Prelates of your Church

Dissemble and decline

To say that we possess eternal souls

 

Birds of the air and Lilies of the field

Were good enough to serve as metaphor

When you renounced your father’s fashion-house

To be a teenage hippy in these hills

 

Let us reconsider who it was

Carried his fruits of labour

Transported to foreign parts

Those bales of rag-trade schmutter

You gracelessly abandoned

To form a Brotherhood

 

...

 

This can lead (at last) to sacred love

An impulse of compassion

Your own eccentric species seems to lack toward its brother

 

'Fontana' is a short exquisite lyric which is reminiscent of Alun Lewis in its precision and cadences:

 

A fountain throws itself away

Water is theology

Its spray

Erodes the world’s

Psychopathic sanity

 

As through the rainbow

Falls the rain

On you as on your enemy

 

Water falls

Through law and book

Rivers leap

Before they look

 

And fish have reached

The Vatican

Proposing new

Jerusalem

 

The Eliotic 'Duchessa' has something of 'The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', and also of Burnt Norton and The Dry Salvages from Four Quartets (i.e. the “strong brown god” of a river):

 

Her mind is in another room

There you may not follow

Never should you quite attain

Its long-established climate

 

You are unborn untutored here

Where privilege subsumes itself

Fortune means you no offence

Do not deny your nervousness

 

But let us speak of timeless themes

Anodyne voluptuous

Present time suspends its truth

Her humour has that modest deprecation –

 

But put away all greater expectation

Collect yourself with coffee – recollect

A river brown with finance flows between you

Your rooms are rented from the circumspect

 

The wonderfully titled 'Paper Dagger' is a paper-sharp poem on the caprice of close acquaintances, the tendency in some to betray those they claim to befriend, and gives a snippet of Machiavellian advice on how to lure those who would betray you into betraying themselves and their ulterior motives:

 

Machiavelli advised the Prince

‘Hand to your associates

A secret paper dagger –

 

Choose a fictional failing

Have it known

Such a theme of weakness or remorse

Hurls you helplessly

Into intemperate mood –

That you no longer function

Fight nor reason

But are a malleable person

 

See who will

Draw from his sleeve

This paper-soft stiletto

Wielding its imagined slight

As if to find the slight

 

Might you call him 'friend'?

Many a friend of princes

Conceals such seed of enmity –

 

Then furnish them all

With harmless paper daggers

That point towards their own hearts

When unsheathed’

 

'Marcus Aurelius is Not Proud' begins with a thumping aphorism:

 

The world is simple

Only man

Maddened by his appetites

Prefers a hell of endless disappointment –

 

What might satisfy?

He feeds on everything as if in famine?

 

A pageant a farce a new romance

All novelties –

What selfish impulse sets his course

Ajar like wooden puppetry?

 

Until his thoughts are anchored in regret

He tramples flowers before him unreflecting –

 

For flowers now interpose his fellow man –

Not put here for his usury

Nor animals designed

As walking delicatessen

 

But he must have rule over them

 

And so his outlook grows mechanical

Pursuing new obsession

To companion his conceit –

 

Pride that prides itself

On being free from pride –

Isn’t this the more sinister?

Politicians crawl into that pot-hole

Dragging their retinue with them

Then cripple the whole population

Overtaxing the poorest poor –

 

‘Such briars are good for you

Instilling a Spartan spirit’

Say those whose pious practice is

The vice of self-flagellation

 

'Prolific' is another nugget of Aurelian wisdom touching on the notion that the creative act, in this case writing, is an unconscious attempt to somehow delay the inevitability of death -it starts off almost in the style of a Danny Kaye tongue-twister or a Comden and Green lyric a la 'Moses supposes his toeses are roses' from Singin' in the Rain:

 

As long as you are composing

You are not decomposing

You suppose

 

That must be the reason

– 32 books and counting –

Continuously you bare your soul

 

Attempting the longest chain letter

From any one man to his maker

 

 

I simply sent a love-note

– What’s the hurry? –

On mule by second-class mail

 

Trusting the courts of heaven

Remain un-swayed by ceaseless chanting

 

'Bay of Lindos' is a short pithy plea for freedom from religious belief:

 

There are so many gods

To help you kneel

To help you squat or sit

To tie yourself in knots

To task yourself

With duties and devotions

 

gods you love to fear

and gods you fear to love –

 

Where is the god

To say ‘Stand up’

‘Stand up and walk away

From this ungodly enervating sickness’?

 

'A Provincial Assizes' depicts Aurelius's lenience of judgement of a Roman soldier converted to the early Christian cult and contains fascinating insights into how the philosopher-emperor might well have done so whilst at the same time belittling the fledgling religion:

 

‘Please go home and reason with yourself ’ –

The presiding magistrate resisting undue haste

‘Take a fortnight to resume

Your tribute to the gods of Rome

Your oath to Caesar crowned a living god

From whom your service-discharge bread and wine

Commends your past allegiance bearing arms’

 

Why sanction execution of a soldier

Drawn into that slaves’ pernicious cult

Deemed to stem from one dead Nazarene?

 

Make precedent of liberal jurisprudence –

Marcus Aurelius counselled as much

Finding something yet to admire

In youthful alienation

Scrawling chalk graffiti of small fish

On pavements by the Apian Gate –

‘A puerile imitation of the stoics’

He summarised their interesting creed

 

Rome of course was harder pressed

Its jails were jammed with martyrs –

‘Why not loop a rope around your neck

And step out from a precipice?’

One judiciary advised them –

An exasperating problem!

 

He blamed the schismatic Gnostics

For insisting that their Jeshu never suffered

Nor died nor lived again –

It was all to be perceived symbolically you see –

But only by trained adepts such as they!

 

The poem closes on as abrupt and flippant a tone as Philip Larkin's 'Aubade':

 

Result? – a disturbed minority

Volunteer to be free lunch

In the Coliseum’s – hideously expensive –

Abyssinian lions’ jaws

 

'Cinecitta' in both theme and style recalls to my mind Thirties filmic poetry of the likes of Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNiece, and Joseph MacLeod:

 

The film plays to an empty theatre

 

Time elapses –

Now the audience enters

 

They try to ascertain the plot –

Vineyards seas and cities

Fact and dream collide and intermingle –

Unlikely heroes raise applause

Also bears and horses –

 

Comedy misfortune interlude for kisses

 

The beginning still unseen –

So pivotal to the plot

 

 

Absorbed by the film

They forget a former existence

Beyond the cinema door

 

Then one by one they leave

The film still runs

They never see its ending

 

The film plays to an empty theatre

 

Time elapses –

Now the audience enters

 

'Marcus Aurelius Offers Solace' tries to offer consolation for regret and failure in death and oblivion but at least does so with Saint's usual eloquence and wit:

 

In a very little while

You will be scattered ashes

Or a skeleton

Having fed the worms

 

Then be of good cheer –

Whatever hardship

Turn of fortune

Failure in worldly success

Accompanies this –

Your superannuated corpse –

Surely it is not

So difficult to bear

 

Some follow funerals

Some obituaries

Then tell themselves

How glad they are to be alive –

 

The poem closes on an almost impossibly upbeat note:

 

When you throw a peck of earth

As it were on your own coffin

Take my hand –

Your friend Marcus Aurelius –

 

History does not know

For never would I tell

But between you and me

 

Add a Roman pinch of elegiac poet

 

Closing the collection is the witty 'Marcus Aurelius: Webpage':

 

From Elysian groves I Google myself

In coffee shops of the garrulous dead

Who enjoy supernatural sight

Light-years beyond your wi-fi bounty

Accompanying an unpaid mid-day break’s

Cinnamon-sprinkled low-fat skinny latte

 

How these specious scholars of the web

Have simplicated me –

Another ancient sanitised celeb.

Consigned to wicked-pedia

 

(Read my Meditations for the juice

And never trust a hippy)

I continue virtually at least

In bluffed and sweated schoolboy cribs

Their multi-trillion hits assuring me

Mathematical immortality

 

That when disordered government

Plants its citizen-chip

In every new-born brain

Fusing mini PC screens

To pairs of non-negotiable Gucci glasses

 

And so closes this erudite, exquisitely crafted satirical poetry collection by Bernard Saint.

 

Michael Crowley's First Fleet is an historical outing in poetry attempting to fill in the gaps -where there is an absence of first hand accounts- of a particular episode at the tail-end of the eighteenth century relating to the epic voyage of the first British ship bound for the new penal colony of Botany Bay. Crowley's compendious Foreword is excerpted below:

 

In May 1787 eleven ships left Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay

on the south eastern coast of what was then called New Holland.

Their cargo was eight hundred convicts and a year’s worth of

supplies. They had little knowledge of the land they were

attempting to settle or its inhabitants. The ambitious endeavour

of the First Fleet was led by Captain Arthur Phillip with around

two hundred marines under his command. That all eleven ships

got there at all, and all within days of each other, is remarkable.

An extraordinary feat of seamanship and navigation. A journey

of fifteen thousand miles through stretches of under-explored

ocean in eight months and one week. The experience of the

ships’ crews is an epic story in itself.

For the first few years the existence of the settlement was

precarious. The thousand or so new inhabitants were faced with

crop failure, drought, diminishing rations in a strange and

uncharted land where the seasons were in reverse. They had

little to go on to begin with. Cook’s charts were sketchy and the

reports of his naturalist Joseph Banks erroneous in some

respects. Of course the British had the experience of colonis -

ation elsewhere, yet this had limited currency with the people

with whom they struggled to build relations.

The events have come to us through eleven journals and

letters, mainly by the marine officers. There are no convict

journals and there are no records from Aboriginal people.

Though plainly told, the journals are extraordinary reading for

they concern, often rather casually, events of great historical

significance. They remind us how our present was once

balanced on the edge of individual endeavour. The very survival

of the settlement at Sydney Cove depended upon the rescue

mission of the Sirius circumnavigating the globe at below forty

degrees to purchase supplies from Cape Hope; to a lesser degree

the efforts of convict farmer James Ruse. Events that are terrible

and fascinating: the execution of Thomas Barret; Arthur Phillip’s

relationship with Bennelong. Necessarily they are viewed

through the screen of a colonisation that led to a disaster for the

Aboriginal people, its opening chapter the smallpox epidemic

in the spring of 1789.

 

It's at the close of this informative Foreword that Crowley explains his poetic approach to the subject matter that so fascinates him, and it's a singular one of what one might term the poetry of period-empathy, or even of psychic witness/ poetic clairaudience (psychical hearing):

 

What is absent from many primary sources are the private,

intimate voices we long to hear; those of the marines, of the

convicts and Aboriginal people. These I have occupied with

poetry. Both people about whom there is memoir and biography

as well as those about whom we only know name and sentence.

What follows will not add to the history of the First Fleet. I

would dearly love to do that but poetry can’t help. The sequence

was borne from an impossible desire to enter history, to get

closer to the dead and the silent to whom we are indebted,

whether we know it or whether we like it, or not.

 

Clairaudience or not, there is something uncanny in the felt authenticity of Crowley's depictions of the period and setting throughout this accomplished collection; indeed, at times while reading this collection I was reminded of an atmospheric Boulting Brothers film, Thunder Rock (1942), in which a solitary lighthouse keeper in the late 1930s is visited by the revenants of a shipwrecked crew from the 19th century and becomes their witness and unwitting chronicler. Particularly striking is Crowley's ability to bring individuals to life on the page, often through physical descriptions, images, objects, belongings, as in the first poem, 'Condemned', subtitled 'Susannah Ruse, Bodmin Assizes, 29 July 1782', though more in relation to an incidental figure: 'James Ruse, face like Growan clay,/ will pull a plough in his burgling clothes'.

 

Similarly, Crowley encapsulates one character in 'Chimney Sweep', subtitled 'John Hudson on the prison hulk Dunkirk, the Thames 1785', in the trope: 'He swills rum like a tinker, tells me it tastes like rag water'.

 

Perhaps it is a fairly standard technique of contemporary mainstream poetry but Crowley's focus on objects and the habits that circulate around their uses as idiosyncratic indicators of individual personalities is an intriguing way of letting us into the shadow-worlds these obscuritans inhabit, as in 'Charlotte Medal', subtitled 'Thomas Barrett on board the Charlotte, October 1787':

 

A catch poll nabbed my father.

A maker of tools and crippled bob pieces

he learned me a fob is best done on the sly.

 

I struck out on my own still young,

working sneaks on Clerkenwell Road,

up to High Holborn...

 

 

bids me engrave an image of the Charlotte,

on his silver kidney dish...

 

I might be a bit biased in this, in that I'm the son of an ex-Royal Marine, but given the marines were specifically in place on ships to keep discipline among the sailors, the gossip-snippet in 'Badlands', 'I have my rations/ without the pleasure of marines. They are ill-tempered' doesn't entirely ring true to me.

 

'First Up the Fig Tree', subtitled 'Surgeon White at the execution of Thomas Barrett, February 1788', is a poignant and deeply moving depiction of the antipodean gallows awaiting some of these convicts, presumably for 'crimes' committed en route, no matter how petty: 'They stole property/ of the Crown: beef and pease'. Surgeon White seems to have exploited a certain industry in one of the felons:

 

Barrett, a convict of guile and craft,

coined quarter dollars out of buckles,

pewter spoons, on the passage from Santa Cruz.

 

I had him brought to my cabin,

gave the boy a dish of plated silver.

He fashioned a medallion in the dimness of the hold.

 

For the most part Crowley employs a pithy, almost staccato poetic technique which is often effective, especially in terms of the descriptions and striking images couched within each sentence -as here, from 'Reflections on a Recent Expedition', subtitled  'Arthur Phillip, First Governor of New South Wales, about his ablutions, March 1788': 'Natives upon the rocks, arms like raised oars' and 'Faces painted with pipe clay,/ walls with red ochre. Tench beckons me withdraw', and the wonderfully phrased 'Our ragged settlement. This hungry, ashen, tent'.

 

In 'Making Mortar', subtitled 'Jane Fitzgerald, Rushcutters Bay, April 1788', Crowley's sense-impressing descriptions of convicts harvesting oysters is particularly evocative:

 

All day I pick up oyster shells.

Nothing divides us from the sun,

no wind or cloud, or shade.

There are no pearls,

just the pummelled milk white ears

listening to their own rattle in our sacks.

 

...

Men are folded to the ground,

stooped like horses nibbling the earth.

 

Unconscious or not, the o-assonance in one stanza is particularly effective in terms of communicating a huge labour:

 

Bloodworth gives the orders.

He stands straight, chest out,

works men hard to have brick houses built.

The Governor imagines a town,

fine houses like Bristol.

 

The poem ends on a telling trope particularly pertinent to prisoners: 'A shell is also a blade'.

 

Crowley often employs poetic couplets or tercets to encapsulate his succinct poetic images and I'm often reminded of the similarly succinct style of David Swann, who also, ironically, penned a penal-themed poetry collection, The Privilege of Rain: Time Among the Sherwood Outlaws (Waterloo Press, 2014). In 'Damned', subtitled 'James Daley fears for survival, June 1788', Crowley's application of sibilance, assonance and alliteration is extremely effective:

 

The Governor talks of a city. He has drawings under his bed.

Lies stricken with sickness, a landed fish in another world.

He won’t keep Christmas here.

 

...

The Sirius gone for grain to bring back flour for bones.

I’d say the crew will whip ashore, hide in the port.

 

Poor Barrett turned off up the ladder,

tail flapping for a handful of pork.

A storm the same day washed him out his grave.

 

If I've any criticism of such clipped, precise poetry, it's a certain formulaic quality which does become a bit too predictable. But in spite of that, the poems are almost-always accomplished technically-speaking. Take the wonderful k-alliteration at the start of 'Crop Failure', subtitled 'James Ruse to Governor Arthur Phillip, July 1788':

 

Six months louster on eight acres

grubbing up roots, hacking at gums, felling trees

twenty five feet about the trunk.

No plough or beasts, all hack and peck hoe.

 

Men break and die. One I know a lead miner,

laid down arms folded on his breast,

the yellow ground his tomb. I shut his eyes for him.

 

There's a real cadence in these descriptive lines, a toing and froing sing-song quality which has a maritime quality, although these particular scenes are set inland. Louster, incidentally, means to 'work actively'. And the sheer quality of Crowley's descriptive ability and turn-of-phrase is beyond dispute: 'Famished soil, mean as Cornish clay,/ washes off the rock, air thick with lightning' -as is his capacity for aphorism: 'dreaming of English Aprils and September apples./ They have worked and died only for more seed./ They have tasted this earth and spit out my name with it'.

 

'Sermon', subtitled 'Reverend Richard Johnson, chaplain to the Colonies, July 1788', is moving poem meditating on the obscurity of the convicts' antipodean sentence, which Crowley atmospherically evokes through natural and seasonal images of nostalgia:

 

We shall perish with the crop or the harvest,

become the juice that sweetens the earth

without the witness of a church, only the marvel

 

of the gospels in my hand.

 

The poem closes on what might possibly be a poignant agnostic metaphor for religious faith:

 

An eagle above us bathes in the spa of the air.

His vexed eye hunts for game that isn’t there.

 

'Flogging Duty', subtitled 'Surgeon White oversees the punishment of James Daley, August 1788', is a gorgeously imagistic poem, albeit on a grisly scene of execution by hanging, and here Crowley employs the poetic device of anaphora (Greek: ἀναφορά, "carrying back")  and epiphora, which are basically the repetitions of certain sequences of words and phrases at the beginning and ends of neighbouring clauses -it's necessary to excerpt the poem in full to appreciate the effect of this technique:

 

Flesh hardened, skull thickened, eyes deepened,

led again to the triangle or the tree.

The drummer boy’s roll, a sentence mumbled,

black strap in the mouth, whip shook out,

hands tied high, heels off the ground,

skin pulled tight. Not much of a crowd.

A ludicrous man, claimed he’d found a goldmine.

Hundred lashes this time, shoulder to buttock

 

the cat collects his flesh, throws it back in our faces.

Pieces loop over heads like sea spray, thinning

in the wind. Cockroaches carry portions away.

Barangaroo the native woman, wails from the woods,

runs about naked, waves a branch at the major.

The bone’s exposed. White as cockatoo feathers.

Bathe with salt water, cover the mess with leaves.

This is what a New Holland surgeon does with his day.

 

This is what a New Holland surgeon does with his day.

Bathe with salt water, cover the mess with leaves.

Barangaroo naked, shoulder to buttock.

Not much of a crowd. To the triangle or the tree,

black strap in the mouth, hands tied, heels off the ground,

skin pulled tight. Wails from the woods.

Flesh hardened, skull thickened, eyes deepened.

A ludicrous man, thinning in the wind.

 

'The bone’s exposed. White as cockatoo feathers' is a particularly striking image.

 

'Illustrating a Journal' subtitled 'Surgeon White paints the crested cockatoo, September 1788' is as painterly as its subject, loaded with strong images and deploying a deft use of half-rhyme:

 

The gamekeeper brings me birds he has slain,

a kingfisher without its head to match.

I sought out its colours up-river and found

a crest that glows gaily against its back,

 

like the silver darlings that shone about

our ships all the days of the doldrums,

until with the grampus we drifted south

carried by the spawn of the ocean.

 

Scurvy taints the convicts’ skin sallow white.

Faces are clouds, mouths are parrot tails;

a runaway was found blackened by lightning.

The sky is bruised, it will bring more hail.

My cockatoo prances along the chair,

his black eyes in the mirror keep him there.

 

A universe of maritime literature from Moby-Dick to Conrad is evoked in such tropes as 'This man can navigate. Stars are like words to him./ He can catch a handful of wind', from 'A Convict Can Sail', subtitled 'Samuel Bird on the prospects of escape, January 1789'.

 

For the most part, these are essentially verse-vignettes, which admittedly justifies their succinct, staccato quality -'Healing', subtitled 'Jane Fitzgerald receives twenty five lashes for disobedience, March 1789', is a case in point:

 

His narrow fingers, soft as water make me sleep.

I dread the flies that’s all. Footsteps along my wounds,

the shiver of their eggs.

 

William is no soldier. His uniform hangs off his shoulders,

he is young, taunted and ordered by all others.

But he brings me the healing leaves,

sets down his musket, reaches for me.

I will sew his torn sleeves.

 

Once again it contains some wonderful alliterations.

 

Meanwhile, 'Landed', subtitled 'Arabanoo of the Gayimai People fails to escape captivity, March 1789', is an excellent example of Crowley's most gnomic moments:

 

They ask about living with white men,

their eyes are always the same,

I close them, bury or burn them

at a place where the captain says.

They are lizards in the flames.

 

The phrase 'butterfly children about my feet' is particularly effective in conveying that particular scene of a white colonial interloper in a native village being surrounded by frenetically curious native children.

 

In 'Calgalla', subtitled 'Surgeon White on the death of Arabanoo through smallpox, April 1789', begins with another of Crowley's evocative stanzas:

 

We have brought our blood here and it sickens.

Centuries of malady flows within us.

A plague once asleep now stirs and quickens,

hunts among the natives laying blisters

 

While exploring uncharted territories Down Under in 'Discovery', Captain Tench ends up daydreaming of distant England: 'I think on the Thames at Putney' while native 'Ducks hear gunfire for the first time and flee'. Crowley's occasional rhyming is nothing if not imaginative, as in 'They have weapons I can steal,/ hatchets to fight the Cameraigal' from 'Desecration', subtitled 'Bennelong of the Eora People is taken prisoner, November 1789'.

 

There's no denying that the clipped quality of these poems perfectly complements their purposes, as in these precisely sculpted p-alliterative lines from 'The World Dried', subtitled 'Jane Fitzgerald on the death of her infant son James, January 1790':

 

The chaplain brought over grapes,

 

I rubbed the juice on James’s lips.

A pip trembled there,

I wiped it away and he sucked my finger.

 

The chaplain laid him near his house,

he says a church will be built by the graveyard.

 

'Home', subtitled 'James Ruse to Susannah Ruse, Rose Hill, February 1790', opens somewhat disorientatingly: 'Susannah, have you expected to see me/ walking through Launceston on market day?' It closes on a slope of staccato aphorism:

 

You would like the land. But not the company

or the conversation. Work is my only master

and the fields don’t have an end.

 

Similarly, in 'Proposal', subtitled 'James Hudson to Jane Fitzgerald, April 1790', we get:

 

No one cries for her that jumped from the cliffs today.

She couldn’t bear the island, gave in to the ocean.

She was alone. I find this no harder

than my life in London. My mind is grown,

I have spirit to give away.

 

I see through you to the bottom of the well.

When we walk in the woods, amongst trees like castles,

our loneliness leaves in the quiet.

Just the wind on our clothes,

a scream from the ghost of a bird.

 

'Second Fleet', subtitled 'Norfolk Island, August 1790', is one of Crowley's trademark vignettes, engorged with assonance and consonance:

 

His father pulled him towards the bloodstained light.

A gentleman felon, a chancer who claims

his line from Ireland’s earls. Darcy.

 

I come from peasants and rogues, they wait

in ditches, on roads for the gallows or the voyage,

still it was me that Darcy chose on the lag-ship.

 

In 'Prayer', subtitled 'Reverend Richard Johnson, Sydney Cove, August 1790', Crowley's technique of half-rhyme line endings is extremely effective and lends a melodic quality like a sea shanty:

 

We are a wicked people, truly. Blind

to the commands of government and God.

I watch men think on the end of their time

who would trade their souls for a cup of grog.

 

Descriptively Crowley is particularly adept -these lines from 'Payback', subtitled 'Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse on the spearing of Governor Phillip, Manly Beach, September 1790': 'We came to humour Bennelong/ dancing in his red kersey jacket,/ besmeared in pipe clay and blood./ A whale beached a week since, putrid yet devoured'.

 

'We Give Thanks', subtitled 'Reverend Johnson decides he must build a church, February 1793', is a profound poem with the power of allegory and closes on a sublime aphorism:

 

Milbah my new child thrives. Her hands open

and close, I stroke the folds, and Araboo

the native girl, her fingers pick ripening

fruit, pulp oats and pease. Cucumbers

 

I have a thousand, a wheat field and even

an orchard where my boy, stillborn lies.

 

I shall dig up, lay out

the mud bricks myself, hew down the palm trees.

Man must have walls, an end to what he believes.

 

'Bennelong in London', subtitled 'Bennelong after the death of his friend Yemmerawanne, Eltham,May 1794', shows Crowley's empathetic gifts in voicing an aphoristic inner-monologue of one of the antipodean natives brought back to England:

 

I am invisible now, lazy as the moon.

 

There are men under bridges who cannot read the stars.

Some will come home on ships, some strangled where they are.

 

Once we were like long ago, when all

had been made, yet all was in darkness.

 

I shall be home when the Emu is in the sky.

Then I will leave my English clothes for good,

keep a handkerchief.

 

Closing the First Fleet section of the book is 'Departure', subtitled 'Arthur Phillip at home in the town of Bath, Somerset, July 1796', which reveals Bennelong's inauguration as an English gentleman, though there's the implication that he will eventually become a faded novelty little different to a zoo exhibit:

 

When Bennelong sang Edward Jones wrote down his songs.

We went to Sadlers Wells, St Pauls,

he listened with me to Haydn.

Handel is not for us. Was not to our taste.

 

We caused a stir at Covent Garden,

 

He has written to me, asking for handkerchiefs,

stockings and shoes. Of ‘muzzy doings’

 

Each evening people pay a shilling

to see a kangaroo at the Lyceum.

 

It's worth noting that Crowley has previously written for radio and theatre, and this is apparent throughout First Fleet, these poems being essentially dramatic monologues in verse, and one could easily imagine them being broadcast as a sequenced play for voices on radio.

 

The second supplemental section of this collection, Time Signature, is a selection of other verse. The title poem is accomplished enough with some pleasant phrasing: 'each of us picking up its refrain/ softening in the heat of darkness,/ playing on the roof tiles under the rain'. These poems also share an antipodean setting with First Fleet, since Crowley has visited Australia as part of his family has emigrated there, which perhaps sparked his interest in the story of First Fleet. These kinetic lines from 'The Passenger Bird':

 

All the way back the off-side wiper nudges it;

it hangs on, wing a torn flag, a pitiful hand-signal.

 

At night eyes muster beyond the porch.

In the morning the bird has gone.

A smear on the windscreen, cleaned by the wiper-blade.

 

In 'Ten Pound Alan' Crowley recollects adumbrations of Australia since his childhood when a schoolfriend was about to emigrate to 'That country in the corner of the map on the wall,/ spread out like orange peel'. To my mind this is one of the most exquisitely descriptive poems in the book:

 

We went to his house before they left.

I sat on the floor by the fire pulling threads

from the carpet, a varnished boomerang

above me on the wall. His mother, poised

in front of net curtains, a silhouette inside silver

cigarette smoke, talked about the wages out there.

 

It was June, we stood in assembly

holding blue hymn books,

too much sun in the hall. The teacher,

her long dress yellow with flowers,

asks us all to wave to Alan...

 

In 'The Fatal Shore', subtitled 'After Robert Hughes', which takes on a looser, more discursive form on the page, I assume a relative of the author's is trying to persuade him, while visiting, to emigrate to Australia, and interspersing this dialogue are lines from, presumably, an account of the fates of one of the First Fleet convicts:

 

exhausting bonhomie

Seven years transportation

a torpor of contentment

for a pair of stockings.

and I’d never make the journey.

Spewed out of London,

swallowed by the passage.

The poem closes mysteriously:

 

She squats to the shells, sifts one for me,

blows the sand out for a wish.

Take this back across the world.

A photo frame away her mother

stares into the terrifying perfection.

 

In 'No-Man's-Land', subtitled 'Portadown, Co. Armagh 1973', a vignette set in Troubles-era Northern Ireland, there's a brilliantly consonantal image: 'a boy in saggy camouflage surfaces,/ holds his rifle casually like luggage'. 'Too Late' is a powerful and well-crafted short poem relates the tragic suicide of a young prison inmate:

 

In the governor’s office, I have no questions.

I’ve slept well since I got the news –

no more phone calls from custody sergeants,

people he owed money to barking at the door.

 

He checks his notes, Shall we go over?

Never ending lawns, well-kept flower beds,

two prisoners throwing grass at each other.

A pack of seagulls fighting outside the wing.

 

One swoops down, its beak open; I can see

its tongue. They hand me his clothes bagged and sealed.

The cell like his bedroom the day I turfed him out.

He’d leaned forward, the sheet around his neck.

 

A boy collecting laundry stares in on me,

edges his cart forward another door.

Beyond the window, conifers and hills,

one of those early winter sunsets, raging.

 

That final image is particularly poignant in conveying feelings barely expressible. It's not completely clear in what capacity Crowley is speaking here, or whether he is giving voice to anonymous narrator, though with the line 'The cell like his bedroom the day I turfed him out', one might almost assume this is a father relating the suicide of a son while in custody. However, I note from Crowley's biographical extract that he was once writer in residence at HM Lancaster Farms, a Youth Offenders' Institution (once no doubt one of those brutal-sounding 'borstals'), though the narrator of the poem comes across as if he is a staff member such as a warden. So this poem is a bit of a mystery, all the more tantalising for it also being one of the most lingering.

 

Crowley's descriptive powers are everywhere in evidence in 'Field': 'Gusts surf the grass – the wind deep./ I hack at ground crammed with rainfall,/ each spade-full heaving a drunk to his feet'. The poems ends on a wonderfully imaginative image: 'A stoat leaps, rain moves off the hill –/ a wedding dress blown across a field'. 'Sky' is a painterly eight-line poem -here it is in full:

 

Behind us the field’s reach to horizon.

Sky charged and moving, clouds group then merge

banking north. We watch one bleed through another,

its centre deepens, the edges glow.

 

Some days, the evenly grey, we close the blinds.

On others we stand on chairs for the heavens’

ploughed field. Or walk to the top of the hill,

look up from the bottom of a well.

 

As mentioned, Crowley is highly imaginative in his descriptions, and in 'North Gower Triptych' he verges on the surreal: 'The loud-mouthed wind/ splits us like a child scheming'. In the similarly pastoral 'South Gower Triptych' we get some almost Dylan Thomas-esque lines: 'Cart after horse, after goats, after a hawk on a glove/ after wolves, all before the walks for Whitsun-ale./ A tree arches into the moss zone. Light squints off water spilling down the gutter of the gulley', and the somewhat less rhapsodic 'the asphodel flower, reddening now, poisons the sheep', and the haunting 'I go in against the wind, the shingle, your cold advice,/ swim out far enough to see you smalled at the arc of the bay'. I'm also reminded here of the moody and atmospheric pastoral poetry of contemporary shepherd-poet Tim Beech.

 

'Leaves' has an unsettling nursery-rhyme quality to it -here it is in full:

 

They come in a rush like children out of school.

The willow sprinting, the birch behind,

bright-lined creases looking up to the light –

an infant’s hand unfolded in mine last year.

 

Between my fingers a blackcurrant leaf –

a colander full, air thick with wine in my mother’s kitchen.

Come Christmas I’ll heap dead leaves to feed the buds,

my finger in Rosa’s palm, round and round the garden.

 

In 'Mid Wales Triptych' the poet is 'elbows clenched/ through wind-slapping darkness'. 'Hill of Faith', subtitled 'John Wesley in Heptonstall, May 1747', is a quirky historical vignette which closes:

 

one gave me rose-syrup when I was dry.

We will a chapel build when I come back,

with eight strong sides, a door never locked

so the wind will turn away, but never the flock.

 

'The Reckoning', subtitled 'Padraig Pearse, Good Friday 1916', is a haunting meditation on war, faith and sacrifice -here it is in full:

 

My letters are written, debts acknowledged,

some verses unfinished. I took communion

this evening, settled my disputes with God.

There remains one last play, one stark, true action.

 

My uniform is too tight in the trousers,

a little loose in the shoulders. My sword,

my revolver. History is a shroud

I offer to share at Liberty Hall

 

from under a portrait of Tone. War is loved

by people; the boy at the barricade,

his mother at the grave. Birth comes with blood.

A century has passed since last it was staged.

The fallen, the risen body of Christ

reminds us what our tongues are for at last.

 

Concluding this accomplished collection is a poem appropriately entitled 'The Last Room', and this is to my mind perhaps the most powerful poem in the entire book, so a well-chosen colophon for an exemplary run of poems. It appears to be the poet remembering his wife in their early years of marriage in stark contrast to her apparent decline into some form of dementia as he visits her daily in a the nursing home; in all these aspects, the poem strikes a particular chord with me since my father was for years in the same depleting and despondent situation visiting my mother daily in her final years when she was in a nursing home suffering from Huntington's Disease, which gradually erodes cognitive and motor functions and includes all the dreadful effects of dementia-like illnesses. This is a beautifully observed piece:

 

He takes the hair oil from the cabinet,

the razor, the long serving aftershave,

wipes the sandwich-board face he has worn

across forty years of the shop floor.

 

He turns both shoulders

buttons the blazer, his back a lawn of blue,

bordered by a chequered cravat

an ocean away from the sailing shoes.

 

Cleans out his pipe, walks out

searching for a garden rich with roses,

the low race of house martins, a piano,

someone half-singing Vera Lynn.

 

For a pier bombed into the sea,

the Capstan cigarette lit hours

behind khaki doors, for the laughter

as he carried her case into the room.

 

In the pub on the promenade she smiled

leg swinging from the bar stool.

Those sudden years before the kids came,

drinking, dancing in Streatham ballroom.

 

The following stanza is unnervingly resonant in its depiction of a typical nursing home where a TV seems to be on perpetually more for the seeming benefit of the 'care workers' than the inmates:

 

Beside her now in the dayroom

she remembers a song,

the nurse breaks her round to listen.

He talks to her above the television, always on.

 

There's a Larkinesque quality to Crowley's pithy and uncomplicated phrasing. The penultimate stanza could have been a description of my own father when half-living in a similar limbo, particularly his habit of reading the newspaper despairing at the parlous state of politics:

 

He finds himself between the co-op

and the kitchen, flexing his newspaper,

clearing his throat, swallowing

his disappointment with the government.

 

That's such a straightforwardly written stanza, almost prose, and yet packing an emotional punch through its use of common images that are almost mythic in their universality. Sometimes the commonplace bursts with symbolism. So closes as consummate a collection of poems as you're likely to read anywhere today.

 

Smokestack is to be commended for its increasingly protean interpretation of what constitutes contemporary left field political poetry by publishing two unobtrusively erudite, historically-rooted but still deeply polemical collections by two poets whose work should be much better known that it probably is. Both Roma and First Fleet, in their very distinctive, individual ways, vitally remind us just how little about human nature, its concerns and priorities, actually alters through the centuries -or even, as in the case of Roma, millennia.  Both collections demonstrate, then, the timeless relevance of the core themes of life, thought and feeling of the human animal, but an animal, crucially, lit with an inimitable spark of spirit. Highly recommended.

 

Alan Morrison © 2019