Alan Morrison on
three poetry collections from Middlesbrough: two Smokestacks and a Mudfog
Light Shining in Middlesbrough (Part One)
Still Life Gordon Hodgeon (2012) Smokestack Books (Middlesbrough, UK) 98pp £7.95
Kids Bob Beagrie & Andy Willoughby (2012) Mudfog Press (Middlesbrough, UK) 33pp £4.00
union – New and Selected Poems Paul Summers (2011) Smokestack Books 193pp
Andy Croft’s Middlesbrough-based Smokestack Books has been at the forefront of radical – mostly socialist and communist – poetry publication since 2004, and has produced some of the most exceptional poetry collections to come from any imprint during these last nine years. This bulk review of a selection from just some of Smokestack’s prodigious output should give a sense of just how ambitiously broad the press’s range and how unflinchingly committed to providing a platform for some of the most distinctive, nonconforming voices of twenty-first century verse.
Still Life is a rare type of collection and one which couldn’t have been published at a more timely moment, as the physically and mentally disabled are being persecuted through the administrative pincer-movement of welfare caps and the notorious Atos Work Capability Assessments. Quite remarkably, Still Life is almost entirely written using Dragon software following its author Lancastrian poet (and former editor of Mudfog Press) Gordon Hodgeon becoming paralysed after a failed spinal operation in 2010 (a state so severe that he needs a hospital ventilator to help him breathe). Both through its highly accomplished poetic composition and sheer emotional force, this book is a profound and deeply moving tribute to the poet’s physical and psychical bravery; a testament to human defiance in the face of extreme disability. Still Life is also ringing proof that some of the most powerful and beautifully crafted poetry pours from the fount of psychical suffering; a vitally authentic form of poetry which simply cannot be counterfeited through synthetic conceit. This reviewer has a habit of folding the tops of the pages he wishes to return to while reading a book for review, and, complimentarily, his copy of Still Life now resembles a concertina. Right from the outset, the polish and control of Hodgeon’s exemplary half-rhyming verse is in evidence, in the very first lines of ‘This Bed’: ‘This bed is the bed of dreams, they all start/ from this bed, a white hole swallowing/ a collapsing star’. Hodgeon displays a brilliant command of rhythmic alliterative language in ‘Man Writing an E-mail with his Carer’:
The blackened frame bisects her world
between the fixed old dispensation
anything could move, the dark fold in a skirt,
that cambric sleeve, a delicate lace cap.
Hodgeon’s symbolic descriptions can be sublime, even mesmerising: ‘a shiver in the gauze curtain, shadow of air,/ the pale geometries of the window glass’. There is an Eliotonian control to such precisely musical lines. Hodgeon’s physical and psychological plight frequently gloom through with a harrowing expressionism, as in ‘Visitor’: ‘I howl it like an abandoned dog: ho o ome’. The tone and control of ‘North Tees Epiphany’ reads like a cross between Auden and Larkin:
Up in the ship of warming air
i see earth roll, unroll ten times or more
to the grey invisible sea, through terraces…
always the engines’ thrum as gulls weave
wind’s fabric round and save us, save us
their window-baffled, hardly-hoping call.
I am on ear of many, one eyeball.
This is beautifully judged verse with some unforced rhymes and half-rhymes which shape subtle cadences; Hodgeon seems to know instinctively where enjambments should fall:
big ship’s the grand, the theatrical show,
staging nativities three floors below
while this top deck sets tragicomic bones,
our breaks, distortions, fractures, agony.
‘Of the Tree’ is distinctly Audenesque:
Days will discover; this one curve of brass
marches green-veined light and shadow
over the quivering measures of grass.
Seeming fast, slow, the evanescent now.
In the bittersweet ‘Thank You, Jelly’, Hodgeon produces one of his most startling images, relating to his now paralysed body:
I want to thank it, this shivering blancmange
this paralysed jellyfish, for all it has done
these past seventy years.
‘Easter in ICU’ continues this un-self-pitying focus of evocation on the poet’s numbed body, this time, with an almost mantra-like 1/2/1/2/2 rhyme scheme, which is faintly Yeatsian:
It is my body on this slab of bed
with one white sheet my cover.
no angels at my foot or head,
but nurses here, who hover:
they lift me, turn me over.
A descriptive flourish in ‘The Leaving’ is reminiscent of passages from Christopher Reid’s A Scattering; again, Hodgeon demonstrates his technical confidence with alternating line lengths, enjambments falling where the cadences of lines seem to naturally pause, so that the effect is extremely well-judged. This poem beautifully juxtaposes the features of a hospital room with natural imagery from the poet’s memory of home and garden:
my sense of sky’s become
the emulsioned white of ceiling,
of sun, the ornate hung circle
of a shaded bulb,
my garden is cut flowers in water.
That last image is exceptional; as a particularly startling one a little later: ‘the last leaf sucked from the wood,/ ripping its fingernails’. This poem is wonderfully composed and, again, Audenesque in its almost genteel phraseology: ‘Under the grass, weak as worm castings,/ our weary archaeology, the bones of buried animals’. The line, ‘Also, the procession of cats stalking through childhoods’, is almost put formally, the ‘Also’ feeling clinical, scientifically precise, almost bureaucratic; it combines with the sound of ‘procession’ and ‘cats stalking’ to create a rustling alliteration and sibilance. ‘The Leaving’ concludes with uncompromising poignancy:
I often wake, hear the comfort,
your regular breath beside me.
But this is a single bed
and the breath I hear is the ventilator
filling and emptying my lungs.
In ‘Libby’, one catches the echo of Joseph Conrad’s famous trope – from Lord Jim – ‘in the destructive element immerse’ as Hodgeon says of being taught to swim: ‘we are in our element’. ‘Glazebury Girl’ is a candid expression of latter-day atheism set against memories of a former – and then-fellow – Methodist girlfriend. It begins with richly descriptive recollections of the past student romance, apparently unconsummated as evidenced in the – very industrial – evocation of sexual frustration:
We dragged along the cindered backs
of Railway Road, pressing our weight
on damp yard walls, dank gates.
while untaught hands quite failed
to make their way inside your winter coat,
its fingered tufts and curls of bluey-grey.
Then the poem runs to a courageously apostate confession:
But I would like to know,
when all I know will soon be ignorance,
whether you still put trust
in that belief we shared in harvest home
before we had to reckon with
what all our days have brought us.
Perhaps God knows, I tried, but years
wore down, wore through, the fabric tore.
At the back-end, I can’t accept one Word
Incarnate, even as my flash fails.
I might require salvation, but it wouldn’t work,
cliff-hanger snatch out of the fiery pit,
Hell’s teeth, jaws I don’t think exist.
Hodgeon then cites the ‘small mercies’, such as ‘glimpses of poems,/ the studied breath of the ventilator’. This touching poem ends in a kind of epigram:
So here I sit, have little left to say,
locked in this wheelchair’s pew-hard seat.
Too many years gone, I can’t face you now.
More miles, more hills than I will ever make.
‘Long Meg’ appears to be a nostalgia piece about the poet’s upbringing, named after a ring of stones in Cumbria; again, it has some beautifully judged descriptions: ‘Last of the sun backlights Blencathra/ great stranded whale on the luminous shore’ – a line which faintly reminds this writer of Alun Lewis’s wonderful personification of his home village’s chapel ‘Stretched like a sow beside the stream’ (‘The Mountain Over Aberdare’, Raiders’ Dawn, 1942); and the closing flourish:
I bike to the shop, bread and the paper,
the green’s empty. Next to the daughters’ circle
and the great stone chisel plunged into earth
where the light said to itself ‘Stab, stab here!’
‘Up Hartside’ continues this energetic nostalgia with some lovely half-rhymes, assonance and alliteration:
Can’t get enough, that old prune sun,
so tantalised, can’t drink, can hardly sip
with those several septic tongues.
The rasp of them on the grain of scalp
lifting the beads of my sweat,
rubbing each moist pore open.
‘To Long Meg’ is a more personal tribute to the stone circle, bursting with affectionate evocations on revisiting the childhood spot which seems to have altered little during the decades since:
The laneside hedges
much as they were, the red soil banking under them
a shifting tracery of rabbit holes.
Such is the bond of Hodgeon’s consciousness to this childhood haunt that his affection sounds proprietorial – such a powerful sense of place, origin, is enviable: ‘I will explain to newcomers/ the bunkum of Tudor myths, the witchcraft hokey’. ‘Life Class’ is, for this writer, possibly the most breathtakingly composed descriptive poem in the volume, bristling as it is with crackling alliteration and deeply concentrated figurative evocation. Here are some favourite tropes:
We are arranged, the four sides of a rectangle
its cracked edges these square work-tables
tops of scabby teak, others scuffed mustard.
…our model is laid out
on her lilo, old cushions from a lost settee
easy in private pool, the slightest breath
lifting her belly, fronds of her fingers stirring.
Dark weed hair falls into textures of cloth
clings in a moss where legs part
from where they flow in their echoing lines.
The horizon of skull, the pencil stroke of eyebrow
the delicate fringe of one lid shivering
finer than any brush here, thinner than trembling lines.
The soul looks out, timid bright, from its hard shell.
Here Hodgeon brilliantly transforms what might initially seem like an ekphrastic poem into its own subject, or rather, into an object deserved of its own ekphrasis; the marine imagery is tantalising. Tropes such as ‘where men took stone,/ the flickering tarn of the eye’ and ‘this obstinacy of eyes and fingers’, are mesmerising. Above all, it is clear that here is a poet enjoying words and their figurative properties, using them fittingly for the subject, and with a painterly appetite for the palette of language:
And the wolds of your body slope up and away
not an abruptness, the angles cameras might configure,
nor the abstractions of clothing. It is not
as an ideal either you are come here, but one
holding-together, while the glue’s strong, the human genome
Note how Hodgeon quite curiously and frequently omits commas at the end of lines/enjambments, as in ‘up and away/ not an abruptness’: it suggests a poet of masterly confidence, in terms of his command of composition, that the reader will read the absence of a comma where the enjambment falls as if the enjambment itself is the clause delineator, or ocular pause. Happily, ‘Life Class’ is one of Hodgeon’s marginally longer poems:
The gathering of shadows,
our hands winding the sun through the sky
into a final darkness where, this same afternoon,
in mortuaries, quick dug graves, bulldozed in-fills,
the murdered lie unpuzzled under dry heaven.
‘Tall Ships in the Shipley’ is another phantasmagorical transfiguration of the poet’s present hospital environment into natural scenes of memory; with its maritime descriptions, it has some of the flavour of the sea-verse of John Masefield, especially in its rhyme form; though is more imaginative in its use of image – more akin, indeed, to Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s poems on his time as a merchant seaman (circa Phantom Ships):
Ships heave, decks twitch, masts lean in wedding dress,
brave elements with their newfangledness.
Each ship’s an island, risking liberty,
dragging day-trippers out of their depth like me.
The parquet floors swell with the pregnant moon,
the granite creaks, the ceiling trickles down.
Extractor fans break out in harsh gull cries,
horizons leach and lurch before my eyes.
Gateshead’s good ship laden with precious ore
lurches land-lover wisely back to shore.
There are echoes of Martinson’s more imagistic sea-poetry in the following piece, ‘Bella Pateman For This Night Only’, which is couched in one of Hodgeon’s specialities: richly phrased tercets:
A cart is crossing the bridge that’s swung
across the sun-slapped harbour, the rippled bowl.
The drink licks shadows on the crusting steps.
She might have jumped at Scarborough last night
after the show’s slow hand-claps, boozy boos,
the run-out sands of emptying stalls.
The same can be said for ‘Sailors’ Song’ which includes some striking turns of phrase: ‘the sea swells up to a bruising lip’, ‘And all I’ve left is a gap-toothed song’, and:
I should haul you safe under a wing,
hold you as close as the words we spoke.
But it’s well that you take this cold embrace
on your silky pelt and swim or choke
round-eyed, electric, remembering.
In ‘Large Winged Vessel’, there’s a hint of the subversive bucolic of D.H. Lawrence’s poetry; even conceivably shades of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath:
In air I squat, in light, coiled heavy
as heaviest artillery,
immune and monstrous bee,
thick-set on slaughter: ‘What I do is me’.
You might break
my silence, prove your scholastic
cunning, get your frost to crack
glazed hide where no nerve lives.
And indeed this might be a case of burning ears, as only a couple of pages on Hodgeon delivers a brilliant pastiche of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Figs’, in his engrossing and amusing ‘Hydroponic’, which begins hilariously: ‘Figs grow, ripen in Middlesbrough’. Hodgeon proves himself here a first rate poetic mimic with an ingenious eye for figurative parody in lines such as ‘these stallion’s testicles gone rusty/ these well-hung wonders of the hydroponicum’ – one can almost hear a delectating Alan Bates licking his lips as he recites these lines to let off some steam between shoots during the filming of Ken Russell’s Women In Love:
Little wonder Mother-in-Law’s Tongue
has ceased its wagging, gone green
or that a Cup of Gold Wine has
spilled down the wall of the hothouse.
Already there are reports of
giant plastic ladybirds
screwed onto tree stumps
where lanky whips of freckled stem
can have their way with them.
The exhibitionists of the plant world
are gathering, rubbery, tattooed intimates
flaunting blossoms like open wounds
pistils of pinky yellow.
This poem grows increasingly surreal as it comes to a botanically polemical close:
Let them cast out
the grubby-fingered peddlers of verse
on the winds of dispersal, the muddy verges
of dual carriageways. Set up a working party
Figs in the Post-Industrial Economy
‘Over the Border’ is possibly Hodgeon’s most consciously uncontrolled poem, which sweeps the reader along through its imaginative word-play:
The river’s invisible, licks
along down there, hums its burden
under crane feet, abstractions of the cranium
Not the Transporter where the cars fly slow, traditional like
cargoes of iron ore, dogs’ breath, slave-sweat, Serb girls, soft drugs,
This poem’s sense of compositional experiment is dextrously underpinned by the sheer confidence of poetic craftsmanship: hence poetic-prose lines such as ‘green flickering laughter of mudland where ex- cathedral stood’ sound meaningful and commanding where similar tropes from less experienced poets might seem merely mechanical. ‘For CAK, July 2008’ seems to be a threnody for a deceased friend or intimate, and displays again Hodgeon’s thoughtfully descriptive lyricism:
The family you drew close-stitched together,
strong-willed, generous, artful, with humbling love,
nurtures your sampler tree, inscribes your long, wise book.
‘For a Future Reader’ is a hypnotic lyric, which reads almost as a projected self-threnody:
Safe on the shore of your forever city
from fabled books, their wormy memories,
you found and broke my bottled verses open.
Poets without question
should be banished, spell-bound messages
returned unopened. Or you’ll lose eternity.
‘Down’ continues this focused lyrical vein with some wonderful colouristic images: ‘The sky’s a rush of tattered suits,/ gabardines of grey, charcoal, ebony’. ‘Rain Falling’ is spellbinding in its almost phantasmagorical mix of bodily and bucolic imagery, brimming with musicality – it has some of the qualities of Alun Lewis and Dylan Thomas in phrases such as ‘hungry for the shiver of movement, the sliver of wet lightning’ and the prayer-like ‘Be silent, listen. It is all of us, living, dying’:
From the broken spine, the weary, worked-out hills,
my arm reaches to the trampled horizon, unravelling the dale,
thirsting in all its veins, stretched to that hands nailed to the gares,
‘Spades’ is one of the most political of Hodgeon’s poems, a scathing piece against the aristocracies of the land-grabs, which calls to mind some of the writing of pamphleteers John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley (of the 17thc. Levellers and Diggers respectively). Tropes such as ‘admires/ his ermined and embroidered belly’ and ‘his hands are white, his furs are white,/ he’s never had to scrub/the dirt out of his nails’ act as powerful aphorisms against privilege. ‘Spades’ is dialectic as poetry, deeply rhetorical: ‘Where did/ his fine fibres root, the sheep of his woollens/ graze?’ and ‘Unsoiled, a proper worm-riddle./ …Rich dead bones, safe as a saint’s/ …marbled in basilicas’. The poem closes on a barbed note of warning to the upper echelons of society, particularly the monarchy, with a distinctly Shelleyean tinge:
We are sick of your majesty,
all your angelic orders.
We will queue at the ironmongers
We will return without passports,
The Digger imagery is implicit here. ‘Advent’ finds Hodgeon in more self-deprecating mode, with a trope depicting the more pathetic aspects to late middle age worthy of Larkin removing his bicycle clips in ‘Church Going’, or Eliot’s balding ‘Prufrock’ with his rolled trousered ends: ‘I wear loud sweaters and bark urbanely’. ‘Discovery’ is a powerful, supine nod to impending extinction and the prospect of a personal posterity which is of no proleptic comfort to the devout atheist; it is Larkinian in its clipped rhymed precision and nihilistic tone:
What there is. Keep it for keeping’s sake
with mildewed book, scrapped manuscript,
half a story. Scrape them together, rake.
‘At the Parish Church’ is resoundingly Audenesque in its tone and style, and echoes the sardonic religious scepticism, criticism even, of other poems in this volume:
Words grow together this way, weave themselves
in compound patterns: poet’s inky flick
or twining through the generation’s tongues.
A word to share past lych-gate, obelisk,
break into fragments, dole out hand-to-mouth
across the town she lived a good life in
The line ‘Such voluntary of people on this earth/ would swell the smoke to heaven’ has the assuredness of a Shakespearean trope. ‘A Picture of March’ gifts us ‘massed bands of daffodils’. ‘Rising’ is perhaps the best distilled of Hodgeon’s irreligious lyrics – a perfectly judged, beautifully composed pseudo-sonnet reminiscent of the plaintive though more religiously inclined poems of Robert Nye or Sebastian Barker:
Ending today, the whisky in my glass
replaced the day’s colour, scent and taste,
remarked its minute’s unremarkableness.
Hodgeon’s engagement with language is deeply imaginative and delights in alliterative sound as much as substance:
of sense made from these rattled parallels.
I sipped the hours’ slow-greening field, hedge, trees;
dredged grainy souls from the driftleaved village pool.
The curlew’s bent blade ploughs the clays.
Applause from scrambler bikes as lapwings wring
It closes on an excellent rhyming couplet: ‘Easter’s church fills to its prompt: ‘Risen indeed!’/ is emptied
like the tomb is, like my glass is emptied’. ‘Cats in the Alhambra Gardens’ is again very much sculpted from sense-impression, especially visual and aural, as in ‘the green/ between-light, tremble of guitars that wake us’ and ‘on the pitch-blue velvet of the gardens’ (presumably witnessed by night?). This reviewer has visited the Alhambra, and Granada itself several times; it is a high challenge to evoke in poetry the vertiginous beauty and complexity of the Moorish palace, particularly its intricate interior decorations – intended to represent infinity – which induce in the onlooker something approaching hyperkulturemia (particularly if visited in the heat of spring or summer), and has yet to read any poem which truly brings this particular setting to full life. However, Hodgeon manages to engender here a strong sense of the place through a ripe engagement with sense-impressing images. ‘Muse in Spring’ finds Hodgeon again in a mood of poetic introspection, where he coins the poet’s core as ‘the ambit of my inner/ consciousness, the dark/ where poems grow’, ending hauntingly with ‘You move in wordless and I write./ The days grow longer yet’. ‘Near Midnight’ is another mood-poem, this time of notable despondency: ‘Pitiless/ as those who lead us in our flashbulb blindness’ – ‘The hapless universe/ wants me as much as roses, foxgloves, cow parsley’. ‘The Sands of Respite’ is one of the most powerful and uncompromising poems about the poet’s present physical incapacity, justifiably scathing towards the seemingly un-empathic, proscriptive (rather than prescriptive) ‘can do’ approach of the worst forms of occupational therapy: those more atomistic than humanistic, which patronise the patients’ incapacity as a misguided means to motivating them:
Staff pinned such pink and flower rhyme
to notice-boards. Each butterfly
was crucified, the therapeutic game
got played: ‘I can’t walk’. ‘Try’.
At every fall adjusted sweepstake odds
on black eye, cracked rib, broken limb.
without a second glance
at what the future tries to hold but drops,
we’d focus on the daily do’s and don’ts,
the present tense that neither starts nor stops,
the short-lived safeties of intensive care,
wrecked fellowship on such gaunt islands.
Hodgeon’s decision to ensure the closing line consciously avoids conforming to the preceding rhyme pattern serves as a symbolism for the poet-patient’s refusal to slot into the tactless, even humiliating regimen foisted on him. ‘October’ is slightly more despondent in mood, though no less angry, with phrases such as ‘But set your face for winter,/ the sharp-tongued matron marshalling the yards’. There’s a flavour of Larkin’s supreme monody ‘Aubade’ or even ‘The Old Fools’ throughout this powerful piece:
Where autumn in obsequious uniform
attends to grey and drooping beds,
the dying, the asleep, dark-cheery evergreens.
I see what passes by this box, this window,
a golden leaf swung on one thread of web,
the swept away. The silent night patrols.
What have we done? The wasted roses ask,
their washed-out blossoms shivered in
this last warm westerly. My way
to figural fall, cased, cared for, behind glass.
‘Closing Down’ is a barnstorming cavalcade of frustrated imagery, a kind of (controlled) rant against the legion obstacles of disability, distinctly as experienced in the capitalist black farce we term ‘society’:
The world is full of half price sofas,
the universe getting that way. Cliffs of fall,
each hue of leather, fabric of your choice.
Between these mindless mountains, little me
in my wheelchair, doing my little wheelies
The grinning of the grim, grime-gulping
Drac, which scythes as it bites as it sucks
dust, dead flies, dried blood up, lost screws,
all detritus up, horsehair, human skin flakes, split ends
This poem is simply bursting with imagery: ‘when the army of robotic sweepers removes all trace’; it then launches expertly into figurative polemic, playing on the famous phrase from ‘Ode to Remembrance’ (‘at the setting of the sun, we will remember them’) as taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For The Fallen’:
I know, I know,
at the closing down of the sun, everything must go.
all of us caught, packed into bags, boxes,
sprayed out like crummy birds’ eyes, fingers,
squirting like Catherine wheels,
slithering like mice droppings
There’s a hint, too, of Eliot’s iconic close to ‘The Hollow Men’: ‘This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper’ – though here Hodgeon hones his apocalyptic tone to the death of the soul that is mindless consumerism, as if he is saying, in effect: ‘This is the way the world ends/ With a closing down sale and bargain Wimpy’. Finally, with ‘Still Life, Autumnal’, Hodgeon ends this magnificent volume on a faintly defiant note:
The darkening hemisphere
shreds its used leaves, the other half
mints bright new currency
to light this globe of teas.
It would perhaps have been a bit more defiant had it ended on ‘currency’, consumer-polemic connotations notwithstanding. Hodgeon the poet is the anti-consumer, the processor of experience and response, who spits out the detritus of bodily being with a glorious psychical gusto and undaunted command of poetic language, image and cadence. Still Life is a book to be treasured and reread; a glimmering tribute to the moral courage and imaginative defiance of one man enduring almost unendurable disability – but what a poetic testament to a masterly lyrical talent trussed-up in such cramping parameters. This is one of the most engrossing and beautifully composed poetry volumes this reviewer has read in some years.
Moving on now to another Middlesbrough-based press, Mudfog, founded by the previously discussed poet Gordon Hodgeon. Kids is a glossily produced collaborative chapbook collection by Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby, drawn from their ten-year residencies in local youth and community projects – facts which implicitly make this publication as much a social as poetic intervention. The two poets draw much of their imagery and leitmotivs from the more socially oriented silent films of Charlie Chaplin, most notably The Kid (1921), hence the title. The chapbook opens with a consummate semi-rhyming sonnet, ‘Looking For Signs’, which closes with the deftly alliterative-sibilant couplet: ‘Unblinking but in their clear eyes spectres flicker best/ And the hungry bairns of the boomtown are manifest’. ‘Occasion for Keeping Shtum’ might be based on the conflagrations of the August 2011 riots but serves as a more perennial depiction of the largely ghettoised and marginalised ‘ASBO’ generation of the stigmatised inner-city young underclasses:
Outside the take-away on Parliament Road
Mill a pack of clockwork boys, full of intent
And no direction, no sense of anything existing
Beyond the tight band of hills and the boiling river.
A fatigues-clothed polemic surfaces in ‘The Art of War’, which produces the chilling aphorism: ‘When all else fails your weaponry should be/ Whatever lies in reach’. ‘Batteries Not Included’ is a less oblique polemic, figuratively demonstrating the social relevance of a Chaplin doll manufactured by Louis Amberg & Son in 1915, a toy of ‘the tramp’ which, as the poets’ suggest, might as well be re-marketed again today, for the ‘Big Society’. ‘It’s a Thin Line’ is visually thinned down on the page, as if the lines have been sliced in half, no more than four syllables each; it produces some powerful tropes:
make the rent.
on the tramps
too big soles
(Presumably an apostrophe is missing after ‘tramps’, and maybe ‘too big’ should be hyphenated?). ‘The Hungry Ones’ is lyrically direct but evocative:
You hook onto him
in a hooded huddle outside the fishy
at the edge of the louder crowd,
watch for the flick of a fin,
the quiet pike with the bite,
catch the restless shifting of his eyes,
don’t know if it’s your papered chips
The poem alludes to a marginalised youth who has ‘become the Octopus boy,/ all tentacles desperate to suck on,/ make himself real’: the insatiable ‘hunger’ depicted here is not so much literal (although in these days of food banks, who knows?) as metaphorical, relating to the cultural fasting imposed invisibly – through the Pontius Pilate policies of successive out-of-touch governments – on whole sections of socially ostracised young people growing up in impoverished communities. It is the inexpressible, even hardly realised ‘hunger’ for social inclusion, for a stake in an increasingly class-atrophied society, wherein, now, what were once – following the Attlee Settlement and post-war consensus – established rudimentary social entitlements and rights, are now “privileges”, or so we are weekly drip-fed by genuinely privileged government ministers through their red-top foxhounds. This ‘Octopus boy’, a symbolic case study representing the millions of modern Oliver Twists and ‘Little Times’ (re Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) passed on like parcels from one unreconstructed social agency to another –is
In childrens’ centres; Barnardos,
last ditch community rooms
before reform schools and
the inevitable clink
he moves constantly, feeds
through his fingers
It is significant that there is a marked assonantal use of ‘o’-sounds in this stanza, symbolic no doubt of the hole or hollow in the psyche and the stomach of the young victims of social injustice, trapped like flies in the mucilage of the intractable British class system. In some Buddhist philosophy, much emphasis is placed on the problem of physical hunger, a perennial state of the poor which, if only it could be overcome without the need for continual supplies of food, would mean a human social transformation on a hitherto unthinkable scale: without the need of the body to eat, there would, obviously, be no hunger, thus no poverty, no famines, and quite possibly no wars (at least not over trade). The Buddhists tend to use bodily hunger as a metaphor for spiritual hunger – but it is precisely the latter state of numbed emptiness, though transposed into a more philosophical or socio-cultural form, which this poem is driving at. ‘The Hungry Ones’ is one of the longer poems in this collection, and also one of the strongest, at times, almost harrowingly so, as we seem to witness the ‘Octopus boy’ watching a Chaplin film:
His screwed up eyes stretch
mooncalf wide, fix for a while
on the screen as the hungry tramp
makes his morning forages.
he’d like to keep the baby too,
make a nest in his mouldy wardrobe.
Again, the use of o-sounds and assonance is significant here: the phrase ‘mouldy wardrobe’ has an appropriately long-sounding groan to it. Suddenly, one senses, the Chaplin film has morphed into the young viewer’s own real life future:
Flash forward in this plot,
he’s looming blank and fish faced
from the shallows of the evening rag –
he tried to swallow his own name
mis-spelt a thousand times
on the auld graveyard walls.
With Kids, Beagrie and Willoughby have produced an important contribution to a growing breed of poetry as polemic or social document, even social intervention, adumbrated in recent years by, among others, two collections based on prison residencies, David Swann’s deeply poignant The Privilege of Rain (Waterloo, 2010; shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award 2011) and Andrew Jordan’s exceptionally ambitious Bonehead’s Utopia (Smokestack, 2011; which should have been shortlisted for something, but was probably too polemically subversive to be).
Paul Summers’ compendious union is one the most important New and Selected Poems of any poet of this time; it is a book which spurred Alan Dent of The Penniless Press to eulogise thus on its author: ‘He’ll never be poet laureate or be published by Faber, but posterity will cherish him’. Dent’s review of union is an enthralling critique-cum-polemical essay on the pitiful safeness of contemporary British poetry. Dent demarcates between ‘political ideology’ and ‘sensibility’, the latter being vastly more experiential and felt than the often more artificial former; he places Summers firmly in the latter category. Summers does indeed write with a sensibility drawn from a Northern working-class upbringing, a perspective particularly scathing on themes such as middle-class hypocrisy, which (according to Dent) he approaches from a ‘Ramachandran’ vantage point, allied to a biting satirical wit. Such poetics are a punch in the solar plexus of the “radical chic” (Dent again) through which many high profile contemporary poets try to project themselves to whittling publics while otherwise seemingly sanguine about merging into the hegemonic scenery.
This reviewer broadly agrees with Dent’s verdict on Summers’ extraordinarily powerful and – for a poet born in 1967 (not ‘1976’, as Dent apparently mistypes) – prolific output, which is as surgically focused as it is linguistically rich. Summers’ poems are deceptively self-deprecating: on closer reading, they reveal themselves to be deeply – and commendably – subversive; not to say, confrontational. The oeuvre as a whole constitutes a kind of poetic dialectic, empowered rather than impeded by the poet’s formidable grip on his own pre-allocated ‘positioning’ in the social order. And it is through this constant jostle between social origins and empirical sensibilities – and the threat of their embourgeoisement as the price for reaching poetic destinations – that Summers sculpts out a recalcitrant poetic, one which, in its triumph, leads to the cul-de-sac of marginalised authenticity to which Dent alludes. And there can be no more worthwhile and authentic destination for any poet of challenging origins to reach; no more admirable approach than to go distinctly against the grain of the ermine-fawning protocols and expectations of established literary elites. True poetic authenticity can circumnavigate any socially constructed obstacles; and that way awaits a cussed but authentic posterity, every bit as inevitable as all those agencies which do their best to stall it. Because poets such as Summers – and there are many more that poetry’s modern doyens would prefer us not to know about: David Kessel, Alexis Lykiard, Niall McDevitt, Peter Street among them – simply refuse to compromise the tone and form of a poetry which is as much about its felt impulsion in response to real experience as it is, in a prosodic sense, fine-tuned and ‘polished-up’. This pits poets such as Summers – in spite of open praise from such high profile ‘names’ as Sean O’Brien – in an ‘unmarketable’ hinterland of authentic poetics which sets him immediately apart from those types of poets whom – as Alan Bold put it in his Introduction to the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (1970) – ‘have been … cut off from industrial conflict’ so although ‘financially allied to the working class … have…middle-class pretensions’. Summers’ poetry is emphatically the antidote to such – ultimately self-defeating – precocities. This is implicit from the very first poem in union:
we are more than sharply contrasting photographs
of massive ships and staithes for coal, more than
crackling films where grimy faced workers are
dwarfed by shadows or omitted by chimneys, more
than foul mouthed men in smoky pubs or well-built
women in wash-day chorus. we are more than
lessons in post-industrial sociology, more than
just case-studies of dysfunctional community.
This is about as dialectically direct as Summers gets. For the most part, Summers takes a concrete approach, allowing physical description, image and sense-impression to do much of the work in terms of relaying mood, narrative or polemic:
the balding pebble-dash
to mam asleep,
& dad squinting at the match
the door will be open.
familiar stairs will greet me;
still a slither of carpeted pyramid
Then we get the understated machismo of male working-class protocol:
no spoken welcomes;
perhaps a patted shoulder,
a general enquiry of mutual well-being,
an offer of alcohol or tea
This poem, divided into titled sections, is about the poet returning home to Blyth to ‘bury his father’. Summers paints a deeply poignant and candid miniature of his late father:
he had known nothing but outside toilets,
grown accustomed to draughts; thinking
our place posh with its upstairs lav. a relic
of before. he had known the harshness
of strikes, & of begging to the guardians
to a vestige of their charity
Such a depiction is shamefully relevant again in 2013, now that the Tories are returning us to such a pre-Attleean type of society where charities are being increasingly tasked to “hand out” assistance through food banks. The British have an instinctual taste for selective nostalgia and fall effortlessly into the trap of a romanticised pre-welfare mutualist society, where everyone knew their place, and church and charity ‘helped’ the poor; the ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’ bakelite mentality which is today pinned with the neologism nosterity (or one might alternately call it, austalgia). But it’s a false heritage, since it was precisely the more communitarian ‘wartime mentality' which tramped the way towards the Attlee Settlement. It is in his supreme reclaiming of poetic language that Summers transcends his own background; and, crucially, on the engine of imagination drawn from the psychical challenges of impoverished experience, rather than in spite of them: the poverty makes the poetry (or povetry as one might term it).
Summers’ occasional Symbolist tendencies help his poetry eschew any easy reductions as being simply social realist: ‘while they were sleeping, the damp patch on the ceiling/ has grown into a map of the dardanelles’ (‘faking springtime’). His descriptive and figurative powers transform his subjects, as in this sublime depiction of a homeless teenage girl forced into prostitution in ‘needlework’:
she was too desperate for embarrassment,
oblivious to protocol, bumming tabs and
scaring old dears into making donations.
eighteen at tops, and with the same
exhausted eyes as my grandma had:
a tell-tale sign of needlework in ill-lit rooms.
Summers pulls no punches in his grittiness of depiction, as in the girl’s slide into drug abuse:
transported away to a light-starved room
where she gnawed the damp leather
of a tourniquet
This is blistering poetry, beautifully described, bitterly felt. ‘class act’ is a wonderful piece of satirical inverted snobbery: ‘i have refused cigarettes on the basis/ of southern accent alone’. In ‘contemplating dust’, we have some strikingly descriptive tropes, such as ‘her lips were strewn on the velour of the three piece’. Summers has that peculiar ability, reminiscent of – though more poetically developed than – the young Paul Weller’s urban lyricism in songs such as The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ or ‘Saturday’s Kids’ (‘Their mums and dads smoke Capstan non-filters,/ Wallpaper lives 'cause they all die of cancer’), to beautify the ugly, inspirit the gritty, through the empowerment of descriptive language:
the walls grow more patient with each coat of paint,
quite confident the rage will go, we’ll shout so much less,
grow so close as to carve our names in the inch-thick dust
which has settled on the lid of the wedding snaps box.
Or in ‘the hundred years war’:
they huddle in a clique of pints
recalling between bingo lines
bleak paragraphs of angry times
In ‘scab’, Summers echoes Percy Shelley’s deeply empathic depiction of the poor fallen on charity relief in ‘A Tale of Society As It Is: From Facts, 1811’ (‘And now cold charity’s unwelcome dole/ …The law’s stern slavery, and the insolent stare/ With which law loves to rend the poor man’s soul’) with the phrase ‘how many more/ days would you have to wear the empty slouch/ of charity?’. It is in such empirical observation of the minutiae of lived hardship that Summers’ authenticity comes into sharpest focus. Some of Summers’ almost stream-of-consciousness prose poems read almost like miniature staccato Under Milk Woods, as ‘at the bedlington miners’ picnic, 1986’:
the lodge banners from disbanded collieries, the union jacks, & the branch secretary from crofton who had never properly learnt the words for perennial flag anthems.
& how attlee had boomed his ferocious words, when labour men still could, & grandma had sobbed when they knocked out jerusalem completely convinced that the lyrics were a prophecy.
(Although it’s difficult to imagine the famously reserved, rather clerkish Attlee having ‘boomed … ferocious words’ at any point; more so the robustly outspoken firebrand Aneurin Bevan). ‘heirloom’ contains some potent, aphorismic imagery of working-class domesticity:
they were less concerned, it seems,
with heirlooms, than I, leaving instead
their intangible constants as documents
of our lineage: the acrid legacy of a bedtime fag,
the blunt reek of coal tar soap, of fishermen’s friends;
the taste of cold & of half dry towels, the high pitched crunch
of shovelled coals, or the snapping fingers of half-charred
sticks, spitting their bubbles like grey-faced consumptives.
Note the coruscating alliteration and sibilance of ‘acrid legacy’ and ‘coal tar soaps’ – this is social document poetry of the highest order; Shelley meets Ken Loach via Humphrey Jennings. Possibly the only tangible heirloom of the title is the ‘watch-chain’ that the poet’s father (presumably?) carried like a ‘medallion’, ‘worn down’
…where he’d doubtlessly rubbed it,
when he needed good luck. they sold it to a vulture,
to subsidise a christmas.
Nothing, not even personal mementoes, are sacred in the struggle for material survival. ‘the shadows of
chimneys’ is like a marriage of Tony Harrison and Arthur Rimbaud, with its repeated refrain:
we danced our infant summers
in the shadow of chimneys
each episode, a symphony
of bar-code light, clinging
like hockle to a blackleg’s face
(According to the Wiktionary a hockle is: ‘A knob in cordage caused by twisting against the lay’; though I’m not sure what a ‘lay’ is, but ‘cordage’ means ‘a clump of cords’). Touching again on similarities to the very kinetic use of language in the poetry of Tony Harrison, there is indeed in that last line from Summers a consonantal ricochet of Harrison’s striking ‘crossing the crackle as the hayricks blaze’ from his exceptional epigrammatic poem ‘The Rhubarbians’ (The School of Eloquence and Other Poems, 1981). There are very marked similarities between Harrison and Summers in their attention to the sound as well as meaning of language, and the robust, sibilant bounciness. Perhaps one of Summers’ recurring leitmotivs of playful and ironic inverted snobbery towards the middle classes, ‘rhubarbs’, is a conscious or unconscious echo of Harrison’s ‘Rhubarbarians’? Harrison famously transcended his working-class Leeds background through gaining a grammar school scholarship and then advancing onto Leeds University to read Classics, which in turn led to the philological preoccupations that very much define his particular poetic. Summers’ path has parallels, though not specifically scholarly ones; but like Harrison, he is a working-class poet reclaiming language for himself and, in turn, his class.
To return to Summers’ ‘the shadows of chimneys’: there is too an inverted invective against the comfortable middle classes which produces some thornily riveting tropes:
we stalked the kids at number 12
like golding’s boys with savage blood
with skewer spears of penknived birch
for crimes of having gardens
Summers continues this more confrontational seam in ‘false memory syndrome’; but these class skirmishes are here laced with a deeply pessimistic and (self-)critical sense of ‘working-class consciousness’:
we have grown deluded & confused; like old women
who think their cats are human: learnt to exist as curios,
cheap entertainment for interested liberals with company
cars: trapped like soap stars in our cyclical plots, we churn
out our childhoods like excerpts from potempkin
But it seems more the self-appointed empathisers among the more sociologically-minded middle classes with whom Summers takes issue, rather than with those among that class who would more readily dismiss his: ‘over the aperitifs, they feign excitement at my mother’s net curtains,/ or her ritualistic scrubbing of the sandstone doorstep’ – and:
…perfectly aware that it’s not in the script to gloss
their tidy histories or shatter their romanticism: so we answer
instead their clumsily worded questions on the place of social
realism in the work of d h lawrence, & they nod their heads,
as if they understand
But a counter-argument might be made against Summers’ polemic: that his own presumptions of what the middle class ‘think to themselves as they wash off the make-up in their marbled/ en-suite bathrooms’ could be construed as every bit as patronising – albeit in an inverted sense – as the stilted politesse they show towards the poet’s domicile. Herein is the nub of the perennial psychical clash of classes; the biggest barrier to mutual understanding and more joined-up social progression. While this reviewer sympathises with the poet’s point of view in this poem, he does feel some of the more socially conscious of the middle classes might be spared a little of the Jimmy Porter-ish vitriol that others of their own class, far less empathic than they, deserve far more: middle-class Tories for instance; not to say working-class Tories too – Disraeli’s “angels in marble”.
‘school photo’ provides a snapshot of Summers’ state school days, which serves as a barbed polemic for a more embourgeoised future generation:
we were deranged looking,
ragged kids in badly fitting blazers,
segued brogues and jam badges:
ours will be different
not one of them call after a saint –
they will dip their rhubarb
into brown sugar.
(It seems this reviewer’s earlier allusions to Paul Weller and The Jam weren’t entirely amiss with the image of ‘segued brogues and jam badges’. Interesting too to see the ‘rhubarb’ leitmotiv again).
Currently living in Australia, Summers’ dilapidated Northern backdrops are interspersed with contrasting antipodean imageries, albeit with an aspect of British murkiness (is it the British who really 'take the weather' with them?), as in ‘shallow water’: ‘in water murky by the mud-crabs’ dance’. Returning to his flat, ‘the draught/ from the bedroom has the faintest trace of violins’. There is something of David Gascoyne in such surrealistic descriptions as in ‘glass’:
& archie’s glass hoarded
by the bean-canes like marner’s gold.
occasionally, he is static, in reverence –
his bare feet, leather-skinned & salt-white
sinking like picture-hall wurlitzers
into the sand…
Class contrasts are played off against one another throughout this book: a trope such as ‘the smile of the gleaming teeth of affluence’ (‘the dinner party’) is followed on the next page by a profound line from the other side of the fence: ‘he is dying of something he cannot spell’ (‘english breakfast’). Images of hands and fingers are among Summers’ leitmotivs: ‘build a cairn for ghosts with dirty nails’ (‘on quarry moor’); ‘their fingers grip the ebony,/ like brambles on unkempt graves’ (‘the comrades’). Dirt, damp, mould and other images of decay form the order of Summers’ bruising symbols, like cub badges collected by poverty-stricken kids. In ‘the beautiful lie’, we get a portrait of someone called ‘old jo’:
when the earth is damp & the mould
blooms ripe, a smoking gun appears, an
unlit pipe conjoining with his roaming,
georgian nose, & not unlike pinocchio’s
These imagistic miniatures produce some startling imagistic lyricism, as in ‘ghosts’:
looks like brezhnev
grey and unmoved,
the camber of her sepia eyes
preoccupied with losses.
& sasha mechtatel mourns
the white silence of dacha snow,
imagines ice dendrites melting
on his tongue, his father’s smile,
an heirloom glass, a silent toast
In pieces such as these, the reviewer’s reminded of the crystallised lyricism of Clifford Dyment; even Alun Lewis – as, again, in ‘sparrows & lovers’ (though both poets would have stopped short at de-capitalising the beginning of sentences!):
easter sun stoops;
makes silver-gilt of birch,
& charcoal shadows
dragged through ragged grass.
they tangle like the arms
of scrapping girls.
‘eucharist’ is lyricism of the highest form, exquisitely scored through with sibilance and alliteration, and some deft rhyming:
the old couple adjacent have us engrossed
he places moiva on his tongue, as if the host,
undaunted by an acrid taste of desiccated piss
each sacrament’s anointed with a kiss,
& each sets free their ancient lips to reminisce.
their eyes are fixed on heaven still
though cataracted by the grill
& in their gaping, muted jaws
a frozen accusation thaws.
And in ‘stigmata’, again, Summers’ image-sharp lyricism feels effortless:
this place not shrine but crypt;
for the ill-taught and ill-equipped.
a mournful claxon broke the news.
the sky, rain-charged, a dusty bruise.
In ‘polonaise’, there is something of Keith Douglas’s haunting ‘Simplify Me When I’m Dead’: ‘define me today/ by what I am not// not by the recalled/ but things forgotten’. ‘cabaret’ is comprised of half-rhyming couplets, such as the brilliant: ‘from byzantine iconoclasts to soviet kitsch,/ the vodka’s nudged our volume switch’. On purely a surface level, ‘germinal’ is wrought with buoyant assonance which gives it a muscularly musical quality:
& when they sank this frozen shaft
the miners & the soldiers laughed
carrion gorged on bourgeois words
the corpses of imperial birds.
the laughter spread like heinous germs
it seeped, ten full wet fathoms below,
where comrade mole & comrade worm
sipped absinthe in gehinnom’s glow.
This poem appears to be a powerful Marxian depiction of coal mining and the slow death of the industry, juxtaposed with imagery of the Jewish pogroms. Summers is equally accomplished at the lingering aphorism: ‘all history is here, reflected/ in the eyes of a pitiful dog’ (‘the long shadow’); or when surreally conjuring a friend as ‘a giant seagull perched on the armrest of my mother’s settee. a big bastard, like an albatross’ (‘fourtrack’) – and note the wonderful alliterative effect of the slangy insult with the avian image. He is also sufficiently self-objective as to not duck his own self-doubts: ‘last night I dream of krylov’s dogs/ dagger-tongued & bitter of spleen,/ stripping the bones of my rhetoric bare’ (‘gossamer’). Nor does he flinch from uncompromising polemic, no matter how topically toxic it might be, as in ‘suicide trilogy’, which appears to hint at the politically obfuscated nature of Dr David Kelly’s “suicide”: ‘text-book execution// river bank/ pills/ scattered like hail/ melting like ambition// one last sigh/ your claret eyes/ marbles’. In ‘the fisher king’, we have another of Summers’ extraordinary lyrical flourishes, rich in imaginative imagery, as he depicts an Australian fisherman:
on his right arm he wears a scar; it is the shape
of a flattened gecko, the colour of stewed rhubarb.
he skewers a flailing soldier crab with a barbed
chrome hook. both of us are smoking, both silent:
a muted union of paper & tobacco, of roaring blood
In ‘surge’ we have an almost phantasmagorical scene-setting, this time in Shanghai – the thick lashings of sibilance throughout make the poem surge:
tonight the moon’s face is bloodless and cold.
we drink more rice wine, smoke endless cigarettes,
conjuring the gentleness of the village’s eyes.
But it is in his depictions of marginalised contemporary urban life that Summers musters his descriptive powers to most profound effect, creating poetry as social document, as in ‘anthem’:
& over by the war memorial
a gaggle of burberry charvs
take tokes on a badly rolled spliff.
More fragile dreams are shelved,
dissolving in a puff of smoke
the colour of duck eggs
or rain-charged dusk.
(Charvs is presumably another variation on the Romani word chavi meaning child, or more specifically, a feral child, corrupted in common British parlance to the pejorative chav, used to stigmatise vast sections of the young British working- and under-class; burberry would appear to refer to an upmarket clothes brand, so the allusion here appears to be to a ‘designer-label underclass’). The Dyment-Gascoyne-Thomas-esque imagistic lyricism resurfaces in ‘fugue’ – ‘from dour bog cotton’s/ cataract mist of cuckoo spit// windsong & wingbeat’ – and ‘harehope quarry’:
admitted to, denied, each mica epoch underscored,
each still, each fragile schist, the faint arc of moments lost
left captured in the turquoise of bernician seas
And it goes on: in ‘john innes no. 2’: ‘you can see the algae grow/ in emerald peaks on humid glass,/ imagine then at pristine dawn/ draped in the fur of perfect snow’; and, more surreally, in ‘broken’:
we are digging graves for our dreams
a cold tumour of cloud spitting its bridle
throws an obese cherub from its back
Enchanting indeed; even in the midst of visceral urban subject matter, there are archipelagos of almost bucolic imagery: ‘a-bed, fermenting dreams;/ so gentle cuthbert preached// his sermon to the seals’ (‘matins’); ‘speaks of air-less toil & rusted pride./ the crucible aglow like rampant sun’ (‘quench’); ‘burn graphite rain,/ spear the sodden earth/ of this tumescent fell,/ of this crimean fall’ (‘come where the heather blooms’). There are echoes of Yeats, via early Philip Larkin – circa The North Ship – in ‘nightfishing’:
& cold-gripped feet
crack the brulee hoar:
a dance-step bequest
of insignia petals
we read the rod’s
Such sparse yet luscious lyricism is produced through a whole string of other pieces, such as ‘the glassblower’s ghost’, ‘inficete’ (which proffers the aphorism ‘the virtue of ambivalence’), ‘breath’, ‘the diggers’, ‘refrain’, and the longer lyrical poem, ‘liturgy’, which delights above most in onomatopoeiac wordplay:
round here the streets are dampson
percussion in the practised
gobbings of hubba bubba
pale flesh on display
goose bumps & bony arms
its concrete leached
each rusted tumour growing to a fracture
honeycombed, like swan bones
a blizzard of mould spores
caught in the strobe
Captivating stuff. But, again, Summers is most effective as a poet of social conscience, as in his portrait of a homeless man in ‘regeneration’:
on norfolk street
a man who has one shoes
and smells of special brew
is speaking in tongues.
oblivious, his form intrudes.
mizzle dances, cold & chill,
the streetscape blurred
in melted pastel aquarelle.
…; it grips the pavement
like a half-sucked sweet spilled
from someone’s flapping gob.
There are other gems of social observation, such as the epigrammatic ‘spoil’. Summers’ politics, if one has to categorise them, would seem to constitute a form of left-wing anarchism, disillusioned with attempts of parties and movements to properly represent – let alone transform – the interests of his disenfranchised class. Subsequently his perspective seems to be that of impotent class consciousness, one which can only look on and lament its own tattered histories, as in ‘the march of the landless mice’:
witness the march of the landless mice
snaking like some poison brook
through all our threatless cul-de-sacs
a seamless carpet of rodent grey,
like ancient plagues or refugees,
they’ll plot and curve upon a map & plod
into the heartlands of all our rancid artifice.
each barley-field they once possessed
to fill their swollen bellies ripe to split
to celebrate the lessons of an endless
greed; mooted, amended, agreed
Then comes the magisterial ‘acknowledged land’ which comprises a stream of thundering aphorisms:
inscribe a legend on your map,
no longer whippet & cloth cap
this north, this cold, acknowledged land
where rule is cheap and underhand
where heritage is all the rage
& all our rage now heritage.
Summers also coins the gaspingly resonant phrase ‘the anatomy of rage’ (‘anatomy’).
Perhaps one of the most lingering poems in this book is the title poem:
sun, mute alchemist,
fashion each footfall
a perfect fitting slipper.
doubt dissolving in the thrash,
in this union of inseparables.
Such bitingly politicised, image-rich lyricism as Summers’ simply cannot be found among today’s post-modernist mainstream poetry presses, journals or supplements; only through non-conformist presses such as Smokestack. This once again emphasizes the stylistic apartheid of today’s poetry scene, where rarely do any two poetic sensibilities intermingle – except occasionally in some of the more consciously catholic anthologies. Indeed, this writer would argue that the poetry mainstream acts in part as the administrative arm of a thinly “inclusive”, instinctually exclusive, and strictly policed bourgeois stylistic; while the non-mainstream caters for the rest, and in that, is far richer in variety and scope, encompassing so much exceptional poetry from naïf and outsider to modernist and experimental.
Summers’ deeply subversive oeuvre is free to swim in this other stream of contemporary verse, with its sharply polemical undercurrents. But it is not only such poets themselves who miss out on the level of recognition they evidently deserve; it is also the reading public who miss out: drip-fed processed produce from such a narrowly trained seam of poetry while being denied the full fruits of a medium which belongs as much to them as to its practitioners. This is tantamount to a cultural theft, and one made all the more heinous by the ‘bigger’ established presses athletically marketing thin imitations of ‘political’ poetry in place of the genuine thing; and much of this more commercial replacement material is post-modernist conceptual parody of political poetry, and of its perceived futility in the long shadow of W.H. Auden’s imperishable aphorism ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ (from his ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’; though the passage actually goes on to partly contradict itself by saying poetry ‘survives/ In the valley of its making // …it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth’).
It is in this context that Smokestack’s role over the past nine years as a widely distributing publisher of radical ‘unfashionable’ poetry has been and remains vital – at least, if British verse is to eventually reengage a readership outside itself. Paul Summers is undoubtedly one of Smokestack’s prime finds: a genuinely gifted, imaginative, and astonishingly forceful voice – he is one of the most powerful poets currently writing of any stream. union is an absolute must-read for socially conscious poetry lovers; it is, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the most important poetry books to be published in the last decade.
Alan Morrison © 2013