Dominic Rivron on
The Last Almanac
Yaffle Press, 2022
Over the years, Bob Beagrie's work has often taken him backwards and forwards in time, back to the English Civil War and to Anglo-Saxon times, and forwards, to future tribal cultures. The poems collected together in The Last Almanac are more rooted in the day-to-day experience of the present moment. That's not to say the book doesn't play tricks with time (more later), or that the past and the future are ever far away. One often gets a feeling of 'everything all at once', for example. Such moments, in poetry as in life, often arise from the poet focusing on one specific moment:
I see you through the hole in the witch stone,
pale in the sun against a salmon wall.
['Watching the Witch', p30]
The year in this almanac is divided into four, seasonal sections. In the first, winter, snow
apart, demands we all take things slower,
consider our habits, step with extra care,
its tempo teaches how to walk with ghosts.
['Snow Song', p5]
Just in case we thought things were veering towards the ordinary there, the last line brings us up with a start with its insight. There is a general point here: when writing about seasons and invoking the past there is always a danger of degenerating into the commonplace. Bob Beagrie studiously avoids this. Reality is always a starting point from which to go on to explore the inscape of things and experiences, as when – in the second quarter, Spring – his father introduces the poet to the joys of bricklaying:
the right way
to catch a thrown house brick,
guiding it into a gloved cradling
almost like catching a baby.
['Life Lessons', p34]
Bob Beagrie has talked about the influence of the Deep Image Poets on his work and has quoted the poet Jerome Rothenberg's observation that 'the poem is the record of the movement from perception to vision'. In 'The Weatherers' (p18), blossom on a twig takes the poet on a voyage through space and time: through space to the Andromeda Galaxy, through time, stretching a season, a mere cosmic blink of an eye, out into the impending collision of that galaxy with ours:
...the first flush of blossom
spotting the dark-stripped twigs like cool sparks
or a far star cluster inching closer by the day
Reading it, it was hard not to recall, too, Basil Bunting's stars: 'wrapt in emphatic fire roaring out to a black flue. / Each spark trills on a tone beyond chronological compass...' (Briggflatts, V). As Bunting starkly observes: 'Then is Now.' (Ibid.)
The natural world – and humanity's place in it – is central to this book. We create industrial landscapes (and the ideologies to go with them) only for nature to reclaim them. When he goes out on his mountain-bike during the Covid lockdowns ('Re-Wilding', p93), the poet asks – meaning 'useless' in a good way – 'Have you forgotten / how useless you can be?' He goes on to say:
So long to worthy notions of productivity
of being handy
as a man should aspire to be and weigh his contributions
on the rigged scale of conscience
He's dead right, of course. True to form, though, the poem does not come over as consciously polemical. These are the natural thoughts of someone on a mountain-bike cycling round 'the remains of Ironopolis / liminal spaces', the wreckage of a world that gave rise to those 'worthy notions'. One doesn't have to try to make a point: one merely has to try, honestly, to turn the stuff of life into poetry.
The poems, curated as they are into seasonal groups, don't appear in chronological order. They were written over twenty years, though, and reading them it's hard not to wonder, sometimes, at what point they were written. Some poems – such as one of my favourite poems in the book, 'Beltane' (p63) – seem to deal with the concerns of younger people:
we have come away to taste a little time
between our deadlines and demands
parking fines and career plans
to pitch a tent and coax a fire
Others – for example, one that references the Teesmouth wind-farm ('Message', p35) – suggest more recent experience. Yet others could've been written at any time. One's shadow is with one all one's life. It comes under poetic scrutiny here. The poet wonders
if his two dimensionality
without the depth of doubt
allows him to believe
This book contains the ghost of an autobiography, a life transmuted into poetry. This, I think, is one of the clues as to the book's power. The poetry in it has sprung from experience spanning a substantial period of time (and recollections from times before that) and, if one gathers all one's springs, all one's summers and so on, each into one place, as Bob Beagrie does here, that experience is intensified in each case. In the case of this book, that gathering has proved to be a magical thing. It also – if my memory is typical – reflects the way memory works. I don't go back through my life month by month, year by year: if the trees are coming into leaf, it reminds me of previous times in the past when the trees were coming into leaf.
A review such as this can only scratch the surface of The Last Almanac. There is so much to find in it: there are 142 pages of it, after all. The interested reader has no alternative but to buy the book and read it.
Dominic Rivron © 2023