Alan Morrison on
Cut Flowers – Selected Poems 1964-2015
Sixties Press (2015) £5
Tebb’s Trembling Blooms
For an antidote to today’s sadomasochistic materialistic –or ‘Thatcheritic’– austerity culture, saturated in inauthentic traditions, empty patriotism and myopic monarchism, one can’t do much better than reading the poetry of Barry Tebb, which transports us back to reassuringly earthier days of corduroyed flares, smoky trains, draughty political meetings and typed pamphlets. Tebb is an unstinting stalwart of those long-lost times of imperfect but idea-fired and optimistic social democracy, particularly the last two decades of the –albeit steadily fraying– ‘post-war consensus’, the Sixties and the Seventies. Indeed, so nostalgic is Tebb towards the Sixties in particular that he named his own press after that hugely influential and experimental decade (this reviewer was fortunate to have had two of his early poetry chapbooks published through Sixties Press).
Tebb’s introduction to the world of poetry came through encountering the Gregory Fellows while at the University of Leeds: Martin Bell, Peter Redgrove, Jon Silkin and David Wright (and he edited an anthology of their poetry some decades later). He was included in Michael Horovitz’ countercultural Children of Albion (Penguin, 1969), and as one of three upcoming poets in Three Regional Voices, alongside Michael Longley and Ian Crichton-Smith. His debut collection, the brilliantly titled The Quarrel with Ourselves, was praised by John Carey in The New Statesman. He then went on to edit Five Quiet Shouters, which introduced a readership to the poetry of one Angela Carter who would of course go on to become a highly respected novelist and short story writer (‘The Company of Wolves’ et al). Throughout this period, and beyond, Tebb was mentored by James Kirkup.
But in spite of an auspicious start, Tebb took something of a twenty-odd-year sabbatical from poetry, focusing instead on a career in mental health and academic pursuits. On his return to poetry, during the Nineties, Tebb was naturally dumbstruck to discover a much more streamlined poetry scene amid which his new emotionalist poetic outpourings stood out like proverbial ‘sore thumbs’.
Never one to dance to anyone’s tune, least of all the ‘fashionistas’ of the postmodernist mainstream, Tebb has preferred in the main to publish his prolific poetry and prose through his own imprint, Sixties Press (with the exception of his earliest publications, and The Lights of Leeds, which was published by Redbeck Press in 2001), which he founded around 1990. Rather than attempt to navigate the seemingly impregnable poetry hegemonies, Tebb, like many poets of authentic character, circumnavigated them instead.
Tebb is a long-standing outspoken critic of the poetry mainstream, particularly over the last two decades (arguably the most ‘stylistically policed’ of any period in British poetry), and is as comfortable infusing his poems with oppositional polemics in contradistinction to received memes and fetishes of the poetry establishments and their highest profile apparatchiks, as he is the more fundamental protest against the social iniquities of philistine capitalist society.
He is perhaps the most outspoken poet on the thorny matter of ‘poetry politics’ of his generation, and, indeed, most others. And this outspokenness, poetic ‘tub-thumping’, or ‘literary militancy’ if you like, is in part what imbues the poetry of Barry Tebb with perhaps its’ most distinctive and attractive quality: personality. At the fag-end of the postmodernist age of formulaic poetics and garden-variety verse, where the contents of so many leading poetry journals read almost indistinguishably from author to author, ‘poetic personality’ is a rarity indeed. But not only has Tebb an instantly recognisable ‘poetic persona’ –it is also an authentic one, exceptionally free of pretention or pose. Tebb’s oeuvre, however, is by no means purely polemical: amongst the thorns of the more antagonistic verses there are many flowers of love poems, friendship poems and nostalgic elegies.
It’s this compendious gathering together of thorns and flowers that make Tebb’s latest offering, Cut Flowers – Selected Poems 1964-2015, so enthralling and captivating, and such a refreshingly humanised read amid so much ‘rationalised’ contemporary output. Tebb is a poet who never shies away from emotions and feelings, from the gentlest to the angriest; and this quality of ‘emotionalism’ is in many ways –and in this writer’s view– a long-neglected essential component to true poetry. There is indeed something of the Romantic about Tebb, an aspect to his poetic personality that calls back to the likes of George Barker, or the autumnally tamed, post-surrealist David Gascoyne.
The collection starts with the title poem, ‘Cut Flowers’, dedicated to Tebb’s former wife, the late poet Brenda Williams, who passed away on 19 July this year). This richly descriptive and evocative poem kicks off the Selected Poems in fairly typical nostalgic vein:
I remember the bungalow at Rawdon
Where we met, burning coals could never warm it,
Living there alone was like wearing a hair shirt.
I had reached the end of childhood, the part
With jelly, Ludo and Rupert Bear. You came
With a friend who announced, ‘There’s no one here
Who’s not neurotic’.
This title poem is a stand-alone one, a new poem composed only in January 2015, so very much a freshly cut flower. The Selected structure proper begins with the next poem, ‘School Smell’, excerpted from The Quarrel with Ourselves (1966) –it, too, starts evocatively, the first verse, practically a haiku:
Composed of chalk dust,
Pencil shavings and
The sharp odour
Of stale urine;
It meets me now and then
Creeping down a creosoted corridor
Or waiting to be banged
With the dust from piles of books
On top of a cupboard…
Tebb is deft at unobtrusive alliteration, not to mention sense-impression –and here smell certainly serves as perhaps the most evocative sense-impression of all, particularly with regards to school memories.
‘Vincent van Gogh’ is a touching miniature which gives us a refreshingly stripped-down, almost caustic depiction of the painter, with a skilful and subtle use of alliteration throughout –here’s an excerpt:
Taking a street woman off the streets
To save her, was cursed for it:
‘You are a vicious character’,
An art dealer said.
Gauguin, whom he tried to help,
Could not stand his naivete
Ironically declared, ‘Corporal
You are right,’ then fled
From the provincial’s hurt –
‘I wish I could die now’,
Were his last words, the works
Scattered round his tousled bed,
Still misunderstood, and said,
In a last letter to a friend,
‘What’s the use?’
‘The Quarrel with Ourselves’ is quite an outstanding piece of imagistic lyricism and shows us that Tebb’s early poetic style echoed more modernist influences than his later, rangier and more emotionalist oeuvre –this exceptional poem deserves quoting in full:
Flash red and purple vestments
Shields clash and swords
But the essential blazonings
Are in the heart.
Platonic dialogues were really
Solo performances – from the wall’s shelter
To the underlying form lay in intricate
Network of pathways – crossroads
Within a single mind.
The rampant lion netted by the mouse
Produced only a temporary liaison –
Each fable’s a cardboard house
An analogue for externals only, the central truth
The quarrel with ourselves.
To my mind this poem deserves anthologising in any gathering of significant late-twentieth century verse; there is a detectable influence of particularly Forties (New Apocalypse) and Fifties modernist lyricism here, such poets as Alun Lewis (at his more abstract), Clifford Dyment, Bernard Spencer and, again, George Barker, spring to mind.
‘Everything in its Place’, from Three Regional Voices (1968), employs some highly evocative personification in its depiction of a schoolroom –it bristles with alliteration and a certain Dylan Thomas-esque sing-song synecdoche. Again, this poem really needs excerpting in full:
Desks are straining on all fours, flanks
Heaving to hurl the hunched riders
Down crack and cranny, buck
Finger-snapping lids, consume
Scrap and scribble between tongue and teeth.
The blackboard is cleaning itself behind me,
Making my neck prick as it scatters dust
Like seed, empties its clogged pores of clichй,
Anoints its carved channels and cavities
With infinite black ooze and sap.
And I don’t trust that corner cupboard!
Opening its dark doors like the jaws of
Cerberus, shelving its stacks to heave
At my head, ready to snap its quick lock
Round my wrist like a crab.
I watch the windows wink and blink,
Tug at their catches, tempt my fingers
With their openings, crack flying cords
To noose my neck; they eye the bulging roof
Beams, bent like a bow above me.
This whole room has rushed to the world’s edge,
My fingers tip its tottering walls
Braced to hold definition, floorboards
Knotted tight against infinity’s axe, doors
Bolted to contain time and place in time and place together.
I cry ‘help’ as my world whirls,
Is loosed at the single eye of heaven.
The final trope is worthy of Alun Lewis. Excellent stuff.
‘Together’ from Cross-Currents (1970) is a wonderfully melancholy haiku which makes one think of a van Gogh still life:
Your blue dressing-gown
Lying on the chair back
Like a tired arm.
While ‘Vocation’, a near haiku, is painterly and gorgeously ‘g’-alliterative:
I would with firm but delicate hand
Draw the snowscape, Japanese white,
Take from Hiroshige the grey birds
Held in a winter sky.
‘Letter to Michael Horovitz’ from The Lights of Leeds (2001) is one of Tebb’s many verse-missives to his poet contemporaries –the final three lines are almost a haiku in themselves:
The ghost of Walt Whitman
Grey-bearded, in lonely anguish
Walk with us.
Tebb is brilliant at poetically depicting his native Yorkshire –as in ‘The First Month of the Year’, which begins:
A page of the ‘Kelmscott’ Chaucer
Seen through out cottage window
When the Pennines were blind with snow
Flurrying round the stones.
The fire was low when I began to blow
That single flicker to a flame,
Was I too late, I wondered, the ‘poet in name’
Whose mind runs endlessly
As fingers through an old man’s hair?
(Either way I thought of you and your being there)
‘Our Son’, from Tranquillity Street (2004), is perhaps one of Tebb’s most powerful, moving and tormented poems, charting as it does his son Isaiah’s descent into schizophrenia –here Tebb is unflinching in his very emotive and visceral depiction of the ravages of this psychiatric affliction and the devastating effects it has on close relatives:
Quarter to three: I wake again at the hour of his birth
Thirty years ago and now he paces corridors of dark
In nightmares of self-condemnation where random thoughts
Besiege his fevered imagination – England’s
Imminent destruction, his own, the world’s…
Sixty to eighty cigarettes a day, unavailing depot injections,
Failed abscondings, failed everything: Eton and Balliol
Hold no sway on ward one, nor even being
‘A six language master,’ on PICU madness is the only qualification.
There was the ‘shaving incident’ at school, which
Made him ready to walk out at fifteen, the alcohol
Defences at Oxford which shut us out then petered out
During the six years in India, studying Bengali at Shantiniketan.
He tottered from the plane, penniless and unshaven,
To hide away in the seediest bedsit Beeston could boast
Where night turned to day and vaguely he applied
For jobs as clerk and court usher and drank in pubs with yobs.
Tebb’s exceptional deployment of alliteration and assonance powers the poem’s remorseless momentum. Exceptional.
‘The Philosophers’ is one of the most descriptively rich and evocative of Tebb’s poems, and in its depiction of cat-inhabited boho-homeliness, is in some ways reminiscent of Harold Monro:
Lavender musk rose from the volume I was reading through,
The college crest impressed in gold, tooled gold lettering on the spine.
It was not mine but my son’s, jammed in the corner of a cardboard box
With dozens more; just one box of a score, stored in a heap
Across my ex-wife’s floor, our son gone far, as far as Samarkand and Ind
To where his strange imaginings had led, to heat and dust, some lust
To know Bengali, to translate Tagore, or just, for all we know,
Stroll round those sordid alleys and bazaars and ask for toddy
If it’s still the same and say it in a tongue they know.
The Classics books lay everywhere around the flat, so many that my mind
Grew numb. Heavy, dusty dictionaries of Mandarin and Greek,
Crumbling Victorian commentaries where every men and de was weighed
And weighed again, and then, through a scholar’s gloss on Aristotle,
That single sentence glowed, ‘And thus we see nobility of soul
Comes only with the conquering of loss’; meaning shimmered in that empty space
Where we believed there was no way to resurrect two sons we’d watched grow up,
One lost to oriental heat and dust, the other to a fate of wards.
It seemed that rainy April Sunday in the musty book-lined rooms
Of Brenda’s flat, mourning the death of Beethoven, her favourite cat,
Watching Mozart’s ginger fur, his plaintive tone of loss, whether
Some miscreant albatross was laid across our deck, or bound around
The ship, or tangled about whatever destiny we moved towards
Across that frozen sea of dark extremity; fatigued as if our barque
Had hardly stirred for all those years of strife…
‘The Road to Haworth Moor’ has to be one of Tebb’s most well-known poems, and is certainly evocative of Brontë country, though its central narrative is of the poet and his then-poet wife (the late) Brenda Williams setting up threadbare house/poetic retreat in a remote moorland cottage:
The dawn cracked with ice, with fire grumbling in the grate,
With ire in the homes we had left, but still somehow
We made a nook in the crooked corner of Hall Ings,
A Wordsworthian dream with sheep nibbling by every crumbling
Dry-stone wall, smoke inching from the chimney pot beside the
Turning lane, the packhorse road with every stone intact that bound
The corner tight then up and off to Thurstonland, past the weathered
Walls of the abandoned quarry, beyond Ings Farm where Rover ran
His furious challenge to our call.
We had little, so little it might have been nothing at all
The few hundred books we’d brought and furniture bought
At auction in the town, left-overs knocked down to the few pounds
We had between us, dumped outside the red front door by the
Carrier’s cart; stared at by neighbours constantly grimacing
Though the grimy nets of the weavers’ cottage windows, baffled
As to who we were and how and why we’d come there.
It’s one of Tebb’s mini-epic poems, one of the longest –if not the longest– in the collection. Tebb is particularly adept at sustaining longer poems by varying his styles of verse throughout –so, much further into the poem, we come across an exceptional lyrical flourish which is –again– reminiscent of Alun Lewis:
And of it all and of what I cannot speak?
The silence in Gethsemane
The breaking of bread
The communion when the wine I drink
Made your cradle Catholic soul
Fret at my insouciance.
Tebb’s use of assonance in these lines is extremely effective.
This poem is succeeded, appropriately, by ‘In memory of Emily Brontë’, the eponymous middle-sister to Anne and Charlotte surely being the most fascinating and poetic of the three, her novel Wuthering Heights practically a narrative prose-poem in many respects, so deserved of verse-tribute.
The hagiographical ‘A Hope for Poetry: Remembering the Sixties’ reminds us of Tebb’s pet-decade, which of course informed his choice of imprint name. This is a quite fascinating anecdotal insight into the literary energies of the time, yet also manages to contain some of the poet’s most striking lines and images. Here we are reminded of the almost naïve-idealism of that decade in the following Lawrentian trope:
I read aloud The Rainbow and the children drew
The waterfall with Gudrun bathing, I showed
Them Gauguin and Fra Angelico in gold and a film
On painting from life, and the nude girls
A favourite of this reviewer’s is the following, not particularly for its rather candid anecdote, but for its brilliant images and almost stream-of-consciousness rapture:
… I was more lucky and had the brightest
Children – Sheila Pritchard my genius child-poet with
Her roguish eye and high bright voice, drawing skulls
In Avernus and burning white chrysanthemums,
With her long legs and gold salmon-flecked eyes…
‘For James Simmons’ is one of Tebb’s most candid and no-holds-barred polemics on the thorny subject of ‘poetry politics’, the fractiousness of poetic factions, cliques and the subsequent shrapnel of reputations, something rarely if ever addressed in any contemporary verse, but something at which Tebb has a particular poetic expertise. (Tebb has long championed the poetry of James Simmons, as well as that of the gifted but troubled Thomas Blackburn). The poem begins deceptively, in a subdued mood, before edging into thornier territories, albeit punctuated throughout with hagiographical digressions. It really needs to be excerpted in full here to be appreciated:
Sitting in outpatients
With my own minor ills
Dawn’s depression lifts
To the lilt of amitryptilene,
A double dose for a day’s journey
To a distant ward.
The word was out that Simmons
Had died eighteen months after
An aneurism at sixty-seven.
The meeting he proposed in his second letter
Could never happen: a few days later
A Christmas card in Gaelic - Nollaig Shona -
Then silence, an unbearable chasm
Of wondering if I’d inadvertently offended.
A year later a second card explained the silence:
I joined the queue of mourners:
It was August when I saw The Guardian obituary
Behind glass in the Poetry Library.
How astonishing the colour photo,
The mane of white hair,
The proud mien, the wry smile,
Perfect for a bust by Epstein
Or Gaudier Brjeska a century earlier.
I stood by the shelves
Leafing through your books
With their worn covers,
Remarking the paucity
Of recent borrowings
And the omissions
From the anthologies.
“I’m a bit out of fashion
But still bringing out books
Armitage didn’t put me in at all
The egregarious Silkin
Tried to get off with my wife -
May he rest in peace.
I can’t remember what angered me
About Geoffrey Hill, quite funny
In a nervous, melancholic way,
A mask you wouldn’t get behind.
Harrison and I were close for years
But it sort of faded when he wrote
He wanted to hear no more
Of my personal life.
I went to his reading in Galway
Where he walked in his cosy regalia
Crossed the length of the bar
To embrace me, manic about the necessity
Of doing big shows in the Balkans.
I taught him all he knows, says aging poet!
And he’s forgotten the best bits,
He knows my work, how quickly
vanity will undo a man.
Tom Blackburn was Gregory Fellow
In my day, a bit mad
But a good and kind poet.”
I read your last book
The Company of Children,
You sent me to review -
Your best by so far
It seemed an angel
Had stolen your pen -
The solitary aging singer
Whispering his last song.
‘Memories of the Fifties’ is one of Tebb’s most richly descriptive and period-evocative of poems, dripping richly with sense-impression and nostalgic rapture:
Eggshell and Wedgwood Blue were just two
Of the range on the colour cards Dulux
Tailored to our taste in the fifties,
Brentford nylons, Formica table tops and
Fablon shelf-covering in original oak or
Spruce under neon tubes and Dayglo shades.
Wartime brown and green went out, along with
The Yorkist Range, the wire-mesh food safe
In the cellar, the scrubbed board bath lid
And marbled glass bowl over the light bulb
With its hidden hoard of dead flies and
Rusting three-tier chain.
We moved to the new estate, Airey semis
With their pebble-dash prefabricated slats,
Built-in kitchen units and made-to-measure gardens.
Every Saturday I went back to the streets,
Dinner at Auntie Nellie’s, Yorkies, mash and gravy,
Then the matinee at the Princess with Margaret,
The queen of my ten-year old heart.
It’s one of many poems that display Tebb’s very painterly poeticism.
‘The Fabulous Fifties’ is also richly evocative of period and deploys some sumptuous alliteration:
Fablon, formica and melamime
Those most lovely fabrics, first seen
When I was in my teens, green,
Yellow and orange of an aubergine
Unstainable, unbreakable and now unseen
Apart from in the windows of the retro shops…
Perhaps this reviewer’s favourite poem in the book, which comes very near to its close, is ‘Old Books’, which really is an excellent example of sense-impression-rich depiction:
With sewn spines and dusty boards
Covers in cerise or saffron, backlists
Of poets, Roughton, Iremonger, Reed,
Thirties and Forties pamphleteers
Who made it to Apocalypse anthologies
On war economy paper, print chafing
At font size confines, page limitations
And short runs relegated to dealers’ basements
With spiders, soot and illustrated histories
Of World War One, naval almanacs
And Thirties pacifist pamphlets, Gollancz
Left Book Club editions and the novels
Of Ethel M Dell.
Now the dealers have gone the way
Of all flesh, left as old flowers, lost hours
In the memories of attics and pavement
Boxes priced in shillings with pages missing
And names on corners, college bookplates,
Bede, Durham, Balliol in violet ink.
The poet describes rare, fugitive and forgotten old books and chapbooks as if they are variations of pinned butterflies:
I secrete them in the loft up creaking ladders
With Dawson reprints of The Journal of Psychoanalysis
Titles tooled in silver on spines, tattered Folio editions
Of Proust, Hand and Flower Press Selecteds of Blackburn,
Grey Wall Tennysons, Poet & Printer Redgroves.
The gold of old books relegated to inaccessible places,
Corners of minds as odd as mine.
This beautifully descriptive poem then concludes with a perennial meditation on literary posterity and authorial mortality which is faintly Larkinesque:
How long have we, or they?
Decades with luck but not many
Between bouts of surgery, memorial services
As enemies, friends and vague acquaintances
Go into the ground or as smoke drift into
Cloud banks while early snowdrops huddle
In half-frozen new year soil.
To conclude on Cut Flowers – Selected Poems, this reviewer can only really say that, having read most of Tebb’s prolific output and his many previous variations on Collected and Selected Poems, this modestly-sized chapbook Selected is perhaps the author’s crowning achievement as a compendious but apposite clipping together of some of his most powerful and beautifully written poems –a prime cut, if you’ll excuse the pun– which really does serve the purpose of providing a Selected crop of poetic cuttings supremely well. For anyone who wants to read a truly heartfelt and authentic collection of deftly composed and emotionally stirring poetry then Barry Tebb’s Cut Flowers will more than suffice such seldom-sated cravings.
One of the eternal open questions in late twentieth/early twenty-first century verse has to be, Why isn’t the poetry of Barry Tebb better known? But we can deduce that much of the reason for this is simply down to the fact that Tebb –once nicknamed ‘the dreaded Tebb’– has always been outspoken against predominating poetry pecking orders and those apparatchiks who have sought to police British poetics to the point of impoverishing it of much of its essentials: emotionalism, musicality, joy of language, and personality –qualities that Tebb’s poetry, even at its rawest, has never lacked. ‘Unfashionable’ both by dint of style and undaunted propensity to speak out against what he feel cheapens or offends the art of poetry, the posterity of Tebb’s poetry will to some degree depend on the simpatico of certain types of poet-curators, but there are enough of these, and in future, I’m sure, there will be plenty.
Alan Morrison © 2015