Alan Morrison on
The Sailors of Ulm
Shoestring Press, 2020
Poems 2012 - 2020
Shoestring Press, 2020
Two Sailing Shoestrings
As well as being founder and editor of the immensely important radical poetry imprint Smokestack Books, Andy Croft is a long-standing poet respected particularly for his highly accomplished metrical verse and ingenuity at rhyme, which, combined with searing leftwing polemic, draw comparisons with Tony Harrison. But there is also a keenly humorous streak in Croft's verse, often magnified by some of his more surprising rhymes. Croft's latest collection, The Sailors of Ulm, would seem in its title alone to be poking fun at itself, Ulm being a landlocked German city in the state of Baden-Württemberg albeit on the River Danube; the cover, as with many of Croft's books, is strikingly illustrated by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and features two bears together with a small blue cat at sea on a ramshackle wooden raft with one mast and sail. With Croft's verse one is sometimes reminded of Edward Lear, and in terms of balladry, Kipling and John Davidson, even John Masefield. But in the title poem that starts the book there are definite shades of Edward Lear, in particular such nursery rhymes as 'The Owl and the Pussy-cat':
Put out to sea, my broken comrades,
Unfurl the torn and tattered hearts
Tattooed upon our fading colours,
For though the seas have all run dry
And our boats burned, and all our charts
Forgot, we’ll get there by and by.
Croft's collections are often peppered with important figures from the historic Left, and 'Paul Robeson Sings in Mudfog Town Hall' is one example here, depicting the eponymous legendary black actor and Communist activist appearing at the titular venue as part of his tour of the North of England.
'Moving Backwards' features some deft examples of Croft's clear and precise lyricism:
Down Durham Street we almost miss
The market square once sketched by Lowry.
Graffiti tags grow wild and flowery
Like tattoos round the old Town Hall...
That latter line repeated towards the end of the poem.
Croft occasionally uses poetic pastiche to good effect, as in 'The Apollo Pavilion: A Concrete Poem', which riffs on Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'.
'Adult Education Classes, 1980s' is a tribute to working-class self-improvement -I excerpt in full:
The 1930s. Mansfield. Monday nights.
We’re studying the Spanish Civil War,
When those who tried to put the world to rights
Were taught that freedom’s always premature.
The 1980s. Ashfield. Day-release.
An NUM Communications course
For those whose eloquence can’t match the force
Of lying press and militarised police.
Today the struggle is an ancient text
In which we trace the victory march of violence
From one dishonest decade to the next;
The best are always beaten into silence,
Defeated still by education, class,
And History still shrugs, and says Alas.
'The Work Of Giants' is a long poem composed in heroic couplets reminiscent of Alexander Pope, who is quoted before the poem starts, and is a descriptive poem about Bath; the Augustan style of the verse perfectly suits said city's iconic Georgian architecture -but with Croft there are always sardonic concessions to the rather sour intrusions of the present:
Meander round Palladian colonnades
And marvel at the Circles and Parades
Whose fame (thanks to the blessings of UNESCO)
Might now be said to almost rival Tesco.
And again, in the following passage, which movingly touches on the perennial obscurity of the stonemason with a hint of the Hardyesque:
...we might recall
The eighteenth-century men who built this town
With oolithic limestone from Combe Down—
The masons and the quarrymen whose sweat
Helped built this Nash-ville costume-drama set,
The unrecorded hands that raised the stones
Which we have just recorded on our phones.
When Croft gets into his stride his verse is impressively fluid in spite of its formalistic constraints:
By what they found in Bath: the plundered walls,
Fate-shattered towers, the splendid ruined halls
They thought were built by giants, long departed.
It never took them much to get them started
On gloomy thoughts regarding earth’s embrace,
But here in Bath they found the ruined face
Of stone an emblem of the world’s decay,
The brightness and the shortness of our day
Who rise up, Babel-like, before we fall
Age-eaten as a mossy Roman wall.
Croft pays tribute to one of Bath's self-made stalwarts, Ralph Allen, who rose from working in a family post office to being owner of Combe Down and Bathampton Down Quarries wherefrom the city's distinctive 'creamy gold' stone was sourced:
Appropriate for Ralph Allen, whom tradition
Remembers as a man of quiet ambition,
Whose meteoric rags-to-riches rise
Mixed public works and private enterprise,
Who rose from humble-born post-office clerk,
To be the master-builder of Prior Park,
A show-house built to be a mansion fit
For guests like Fielding, Richardson and Pitt.
Somehow Croft himself always manages to find the perfect fit for his rhyming lines. Croft often makes use of a kind of meta-reference in his poems:
(Imagine what the Anglo-Saxon mind
Would make of ruins purposely designed!)
If bare, unfinished Nature were removed
Pope thought the natural world would be improved,
Hence all these ‘wildernesses’, water-falls
And Roman-temple film-set ruined walls
Designed to make the landscaped Georgian mansion
Seen natural as strict iambic scansion.
'Tomskaya Pisanitsa Park, Kemerovo' depicts Croft doing a poetry reading in Russia. Stanza four is striking for its meditation on the development of human language symbiotic to or developed from the compulsion of early man to represent animals by image and symbol in cave art:
The Sympathetic Magic thesis
(See Abbé Breuil, of Lascaux fame)
Proposed that it was through mimesis
That we first taught ourselves to name
And tame the growling world with patterns;
That art expands the things it flattens;
That humankind first found its tongue
When rhythmic gesture, dance and song
Marked out the grunter from the grunting;
That knocking matter into shape’s
What separates us from the apes;
And that the hunted started hunting
When we began to imitate
Creation’s hunger on a plate.
The compendiousness of so much profound information in just one verse is quite breathtaking.
The Blakeian 'Fearful Symmetry', which pastiches Blake's 'Tyger', is a polemic on the exploitation and killing of animals for furs and other materials to augment human sartorial fashion.
'Archy Says Hooray' is a rather bizarre, surreal mini-monologue spoken by an insect remarking on how 'some human beans' refer to the homeless as 'cockroaches'; its unpuctuated lower case presentation is a departure in style for Croft and is as much a surprise as Harold Monro's 'Overheard on a Saltmarsh'. Continuing in this allegorical vein 'The Sheep and the Goats', a political fable which is like the equivalent of George Orwell's Animal Farm except in respect to Fascism and as a poem.
'Cider in their Ears' is a more substantial length polemical poem on the enervating effect of capitalism upon poetry and other artistic production but with particular emphasis on metropolitan monopolization of most publishing and prize opportunities at the expense of the poorer and more 'underrepresented' voices, and much of the Northern hemisphere:
The dictionary definition
Gives ‘stanza’ as ‘a little room’;
That’s maybe why some composition
Can feel like writing with a broom
(Especially with my filthy scansion).
But every poem—if not a mansion—
Can be a well-built, lived in space
Where readers share a sense of place.
This was the title of a series
I made with Sheasby long ago,
In which we did our best to show
The North a place, and not a theory,
Society and art alive
Outside of the M25.
Croft is particularly effective in venting his spleen on the smug, plummy complacency of much supposedly 'cultured' contemporary radio broadcasting:
And endless dull, Home Counties dramas,
The batsman walking to the crease,
Arts programmes made by press-release,
And comedies that just aren’t funny…
But then if you’re not from the smoke
The chances are, you’ll miss the joke,
Like when the cut-glass voice of money
Cut Sheasby’s tainted, awkward voice
And called the axe—Producer Choice.
Croft then returns to the moving and quite sublime image or leitmotiv of the ''stanza' as 'a little room', the poem as a studio pad, the pure production of poetry out of poverty, not enervated but actually energised by it, conjuring to mind the perennial starving poet in the garret trope, and we get seven lines which stand up on their own as an epitaph for the ectopic position of the impoverished poet in capitalist society:
On second thoughts, if that sounds Spartist,
I’ll make the point in plainer ways:
Dave Sheasby was the kind of artist
Who lived in one house all his days.
The best art’s made in confined spaces
By those who recognise their place is
Defined by things you cannot choose,
Just like an accent you can’t use,
And being so, is not diminished;
The line that’s drawn across the sand
Can deepen what we understand.
On a technical note, the alliteration and assonance of 'Spartist', 'spaces' and 'place' are nice touches.
The bitterly witty 'No Rush' is a kind of dialectical materialist/atheistic swipe at the obscure poet's fantasy of a posthumous readership:
Best-selling verse, it’s often said,
Sells best when written by the dead.
According to the apparatus
That gives dead authors classic status,
The world prefers to honour those
Who have begun to decompose,
While dead good writers are expected
To wait until they’re safely dead
Before they see their works collected.
But who wants to be dead and read?
It closes on the hilarious quip:
As Martial put it (I’ll translate)—
Posterity can bloody wait.
'Breathless' actually does take one's breath away, a deeply touching poem on a friend's death wrought with unforced feeling and some defiant natural images -it needs excerpting in full to appreciate it:
The day you rang I went out for a run,
Your doctor’s words still running round my head.
Outside, the fading February sun
Was hanging in the hedgerows by a thread,
And what remained of day was grey and cold.
But stopping at the top to get my breath
The sunset fields were filigreed with gold.
I hope the warmth between us at the death
Was just enough to right where we went wrong,
But most I’m glad your spirit shone more bright
As you grew weak, that illness made you strong,
That I have seen the way the dying light
Illumines winter’s leafless silhouettes,
And know the sun burns brightest as it sets.
'Asleep at the Wheel' finds Croft in tender lyrical mode:
Your sleepy hand in mine, the speechless moon,
The warm French night, a last shared cigarette;
No matter what the miles ahead may bring,
This is as good as it can get.
'Booked' is a meditation on the bittersweet life of the ageing writer and in some aspects links back to 'No Rush' in its pessimism:
His chamber lit by midnight oil,
A shadow of his former self—
A writer left upon the shelf.
Since books are written now by readers
Who may discover in the text
What those of us who write the bleeders
Do not intend, what follows next
Is that unless a book is read
It is (like modern authors) dead…
However, Croft manages to augment this self-deprecating gloom to high comedy:
A spectre in the Stygian gloom
He drags his chains across the floor,
Awoken from the sleeping tomb
His ghostly slumbers are no more;
What nightmare stops his Lordship dozing?
The ghastly sound of bookshops closing.
Dead poets know their books are doomed
But in this electronic age
All writers find themselves consumed
On bonfires of the kindled page.
Dead poets unite! O shades of dread:
The wrath of the unread Undead!
And there's a satirical quip so typical of our times: 'But where have all the poets gone?/ Like bookshops—up the Amazon.'
'Don and Donna' is an Audenic long poem in twenty-seven numeraled octets; a polemic on the fickleness of fame and laudation and its flipside of naming-and-shaming and 'cancelling'. Stanza XX comments on the national mistreatment of so many army veterans who, often due to PTSD, end up either homeless or lapsing into crime and ending up in prison, sentiments reminiscent of Kipling's poem 'Tommy' from Barack-Room Ballads:
We send them out to Helmand and Iraq
Just like when half the globe was coloured red,
Then guiltily we fly the bodies back;
Not quite a hero’s welcome, but instead
A coffin wrapped inside a Union Jack.
We call them heroes when they’re safely dead,
But there’s now twice as many in the can
As there are serving in Afghanistan.
On the reality of prison life: 'there’s no man born/ Can flourish in this sunless, dull condition/ Illumined only by the grey of morn'. The ballad form Croft utilises here is particularly effective in rhythmically hammering home his polemic:
We’re prisoners here of more than our own Fate,
Combatants in an economic war
In which the forces of the modern State
Are used to discipline the jobless poor
By offering us a choice of Going Straight
Or years spent learning How to Mop a Floor.
Between the dole queue and the tabloid mob,
The Market and the Law in gaol collide.
We’ve seen the future and it doesn’t pay.
A prisoner works for 80p a day.
Although this poem-monologue is ventriloquised through an imaginary or empathised-with prison inmate alter ego (the poem was written when Croft was writer-in-residence at HMPs Moorland and Lindholme in South Yorkshire), the verse-invective is very authentic Croft, particularly when aiming his guns at the contemporary poetry scene of which he is a long-standing critic:
As somebody once said, ‘all poets steal’
And every prison’s full of thieves turned writers;
Confinement makes the need to write more real,
And lads who in their normal lives are fighters
In prison want to write down how they feel.
Though some may think this kind of art detritus,
It’s infinitely preferable to
The shit they print in Poetry Review.
Croft then tilts his polemic back to the less combative, more harmonious realm of his 'best art’s made in confined spaces' trope of 'Cider in their Ears':
So many prizes and so little art!
For those whose lives are cabin’d, cribb’d, confined,
Nobody ever needs to set apart
The dancer from the dance; art’s not designed
To elevate the lucky and the smart
But to remind us what we share in kind,
And that this lonely world’s not always friendless.
Though Art is brief, in prison Life is endless.
Nevertheless, the polemic becomes more caustic again when focusing on a precocious up-and-coming poetess whose pretensions to authenticity are wholly inadequate in keeping up with the heights to which she's been catapulted by the poetry promoters:
A poet—Spoken Word Performer please!
(She saw herself as one who broke the mould)—
She’d slammed at raves and rapped with grime MCs,
Her Glasto set last year was download gold,
Her blog about the plight of Burmese bees
Went viral overnight (the rights were sold
To Channel 4), meanwhile her pamphlet Voice
Was this month’s Poetry Book Society Choice.
Croft's 'politically incorrect' sense of humour can't resist going in for some penal innuendos, such as when commenting on the prison inmates 'mentally undressing' the young attractive poetess: 'And we began to feel, in every lecture,/ More Cool Hand Luke than Norman Stanley Fletcher'. The juxtaposition of 'thieves' in -open- prison with the metaphorical 'thieves' that are poets, the veritable magpies of the literary world, is ingenious, and is revisited later in the poem at the event of a prison poetry slam:
The day arrived at last. The place was heaving.
The mood was tense. The poets, though rehearsed,
Were nervous as before a night of thieving;
Each meant to do their best (or do their worst),
Each dry-mouthed author hoping and believing
That they might win the prize and come in first.
Croft's straight-talking, no-nonsense cynicism, what some might term 'realism', can produce some punchy and memorable aphorisms, as in 'The truth is that the truth won’t set you free;/
So when it doesn’t, don’t come blaming me.' This mood culminates in the particularly striking stanza LXV:
For if I’ve bent the truth, or botched my rhymes,
It clearly wasn’t done for bloody payment.
These days I’m sure that there are greater crimes
(An extra bedroom when you’re still a claimant
Will get you on the front-page of The Times).
And since there are no angels in bright raiment
We need (and please don’t think I’m being satirical)
A revolution—or a fucking miracle.
The 'satirical'/'miracle' end-rhyme is particularly striking.
'Doodgeskiet' (Afrikaan for 'dead') is a song-like lyric on racism which lingers in the mind with its haunting repeated lines at the end of each verse, and is particularly resonant at this time of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Closing the collection is the lugubrious but memorable 'The Cosmonauts of Ulm' which ends bitterly:
And so the world goes spinning by,
And upstart stars still fall,
Beneath our heavy boots the planet clings;
And only bird-brains still recall
How we once tried to fly
Around the broken earth on gorgeous wings.
The Sailors of Ulm is another highly accomplished collection from Andy Croft and further cements his reputation for impeccable formal craft and bravura versification, as well as for having the singular knack of tackling thorny and often complicated political themes in a lucid and accessible way.
Poems of birth and death, conception and senescence, sit side by side in veteran poet Alexis Lykiard's Stygian Winter Crossings - Poems 2012-2020. The opening title poem, subtitled 'St Malo–Plymouth 2013', depicts the septuagenarian author enduring a purgatorial ferry-crossing of the English Channel and closes with a tongue-in-cheek literary pun:
I focus on Nadar’s grim photograph of Baudelaire,
and manage to avoid Les Fleurs Du Mal de mer.
Like Croft, Lykiard is an accomplished formalist. 'Birthdays' begins with the poet's conception in Thirties Athens and closes with him, now in his Seventies, contemplating his umbilical hernia as a symbolic linking back to his mother with whom he senses he'll soon be spiritually reunited. Immediately following this poem is 'Incubus' in which Lykiard compares his aged face and mannerisms to those of his late father:
Opting for truth not vanity, I more than once
glimpsed a sharp, unsettling insight without any
clear sense of either life or work as perfect flow.
Dissembling's done with, but there's no flight in this case
from one's own ghost, and what's been termed the family face.
In its theme, tone and conversational style 'Incubus' is reminiscent to an extent of T.S. Eliot's 'Gerontion'. 'Eyes Off the Doomsday Clock' is a superlative lyrical meditation on ageing:
Ageing, you're very aware of every threat to existence -
More than ever the evident frailties of friend or acquaintance
Alike - while what will be coyly labelled fatalities
Proliferate, are numbered with quick or sorry obsequies.
In 'Transitional' Lykiard revisits his birthplace and, perhaps, spiritual home, Greece. The poem contains some deft descriptions:
almost imperceptible from the Aegean dusk,
cicadas sing once more, susurrant.
Meals with muses at midday, ouzo, loaves of bread
and olives, bodies linked beneath the pines in steep
places where goats liked best to clamber, browsing
There's some nice use of sense-impression and alliteration:
...After the bells
came louder, scrambling hooves, dislodging the dry soil
and lukewarm stones during the hunt for a securer track,
easier footholds, surer paths, succulent herbs to munch.
There's a particularly effective passage further on:
Perhaps we overstayed, for always it proved hard to leave
when each day melted happily away, until
persistent scents of thyme and resin dwindled in the dark,
gave way on our nocturnal strolls to waves of jasmine,
the night flowers drinking starshine all around the bay…
The fourteen line 'Shaken' with its A/B/C/D/B/A/D/C/E/E/B/A/D/A might be called a Lykardian sonnet - it's another picturesque depiction of Greece, this time set in Samos in 1979 and during an earthquake:
Panic-stricken, we forsook a friendly kaffenéion –
Dashed out as walls cracked and some plaster fragments fell.
The silent beach was only yards away, the lukewarm sea
Seemed calm enough that night, the usual stars ashine,
With bright foam gleaming on the wave-crests, plus a hint of swell
The second stanza closes on a dulcet chiming with the rhymes of the first:
Tremors from the unsettling past are soundless though, no sign
Of firmer ground ahead…. But is it tinnitus, that bell
Deep in the brain, an obligato to odd dreams of mine?
'Wising Up, Winding Down' is subtitled a 'Triptych for three Graces'. The first, 'Verbal', is about the poet's visit to the legendary Blarney Stone, an 'Impassive Gaelic masonry. Gift of the gab/ it promised'. The second, 'Umbilical', links back to the imagery of 'Birthdays' and commemorates, in sempiternal present tense, the occasion of the poet's second wedding:
remembering a long-lost land, a sunlit site
of oracles and tripods, laurel leaves, incense
burning, omens, cryptic messages to come
scribbled upon an unbelievably blue sky
over the Omphalos, the navel of the ancient
world. Thus on that hollowed stone I set one thumb,
then made a wish, although not in my mother tongue,
and asked a question which required no answer.
It was enough, at Delphi, to sense deep content.
The third part, 'Biblical', is more political, touching on the plight of refugees and a Christian orthodoxy apparently neglectful of their plight:
Weighing up myths, we marvelled that a Christian church
could suavely welcome walkers, boast of renovation
on a lavish scale while, so close by at Nablus,
a myriad refugees crammed into the Balata camp.
In the second stanza there follows polemical comment on one of the thorniest issues of our time:
A mortal right’s too often claimed; the strict religionist
may terrorize and kill, evict and dispossess the natives:
such seems the fate of Palestine – the Promised Land, say thieves,
those Zionists and zealous settlers who impose
their own apartheid on the mainly Muslim Untermensch.
What deity exists, empowered to promise anything?
In its clipped, succinct style and tone "When You Are Old" is particularly Larkinesque -here it is in full:
That variation Yeats once wrote
On Ronsard’s sonnet, which I read
So long ago at boarding school,
Made youthfully romantic sense…
I’m nodding by the open fire,
The past seems dead, a half-closed book,
Not worth a second look. You led
An anxious life, yearned to fly higher,
Escape harsh rules, cold baths, the Bell,
Nonsense from bullies, daily dread…
A writer’s life meant living well,
The best revenge of innocents.
No fool, it’s said, like an old fool:
You burned your boats yet kept afloat.
'Writers and Their Works' employs a sort of personification in describing a shelf of books:
A motley crowd, crammed elements on dusty shelves,
Names and fast-fading shadows of our mortal selves,
Although some restless, more insistent ghost may walk
It closes pessimistically, or simply atheistically:
Books to treasure remain few, their origins forgotten.
Judgements are rarely final, literary or otherwise –
Only one certainty abides: the author dies.
'My Rhymer's CV' is a charming little ditty, just six lines long:
Forced plant, if often awkward learner. Early tried
the fine weight of new worlds of language, to extract
some hardwon certainties from ash. Strove not to hide
hurt deeper than burnt fingers. While dissatisfied,
found ‘proper jobs’ – all too prosaic; got sidetracked.
Poetry (its elusive truth) can’t be denied.
In 'A Changing City Garden' we get classic Lykiard: a disciplined, eloquent style wrought with precisely sculpted description:
An ancient bath, whose metal feet once clawed
at fitted carpet, perched on slabs of stone:
my artist friend painted its flanks a skyblue matt.
It turned into an earth-filled plant-vase, iron throne,
enamelled relic of the Forties house
you well recalled; so now we could accord
it pride of place… In latter days, the tall bamboos
Sprouted where previously an outside privy stood;
still later, roses rambled for all to enjoy.
That leafy jungle’s vanished...
The alliterative and assonantal effects of 'enamelled relic'/'recalled' and 'Forties house'/ 'accord'/ 'Sprouted'/ 'stood', respectively, are beautifully effective.
'Colour Charts' is a meditation on blue, such a fundamental colour, that of sky and sea; the poems contains some fine aphorisms:
Space without borders should reflect sublimity…The fine
Idea spread to dissolve romantic precepts, muddle, mess,
those sad, blurred mirrors of ourselves… Ultramarine?
An impure mixture, not a global trademark-hue!
But Malcolm Lowry did distil more lurid brews
and reinvented Siren-songs long-faded, though he knew
voluble minds might founder on a tide of blues.
Nostalgia dominant blots out coherence,
with art drowned in a silence incorruptibly sea-green.
'At 77' finds Lykiard reflecting on his university days:
Strange also, to recall my undergraduate days,
And skim these full, most fulsome, celebratory Obits
Of various contemporaries. A vague curiosity, if that,
Seeps in as I review the faded, dreamlike details,
Fragments of fugitive events...
'Taking Lines for a Walk' is a singular poem in that it is a sonnet about the sonnet form and needs excerpting in full to appreciate it fully:
‘A dread of the sonnet’, Edward Thomas said he had,
since ‘many of the best’ seemed ‘rhetoric only’.
He detested the workhorse life of the prose-hack,
words forced out of depression, most routinely.
The successful sonneteer might choose to be
‘tremendous poet’ and/or ‘cold mathematician’
with a mind well-disciplined. So how could he
‘accommodate his thoughts to such a condition’?
Wordsworth, another great walker, managed it,
as did Shakespeare, Donne, John Milton and John Keats.
They hid their mastery, mysterious holy writ
where skill and feeling meet: thus literature’s elites
move briskly with an easy stride… Then, via Frost,
Thomas mapped his route, the life that’s won, not lost.
'Moore's Apples' is another deft sonnet, beautifully composed:
A sonnet a day keeps the doctor away.
An ample store of words will feed the memory,
therefore between hard stints as psychoanalyst
he harvested a myriad calm, uncluttered lines –
grist also to the practice mill, a subtle means
of circumventing daily pressure. What relief,
wry formulae for peace worked out through patience,
a way past all the formless traumas which persist…
How, though, extract a valid style from the despair
of others? Always the puzzling mind, aware
no certainties exist, runs on still noting awkward hints
at what’s concealed. To explicate some blurred belief
meant honing one’s own meanings, while the neater codes
held healing truths as well as wild, audacious odes.
'The Appetite for Words' is laugh out loud funny in its display of Greek signs in mistranslated English, malapropisms aplenty: 'GREYFRUIT', 'GIRO IN PLATE. LAMP HEADS./ SOSITJES. GRETAN HOT PIE./ STAFFED PIPER' and – 'PLEAS NOT PUT PAPER IN THE BOWEL –'.
'Ends and Meanings' has an epigrammatic quality:
God must be dead: the dreaded despot in the sky,
(if there’s a ‘He’ at all) omnipotently fair,
devised a heavy game-plan, those light years ago,
for one small globe – strange fancy gone awry.
Man maketh Myth and War, so who’s to tell or know
whose head shall roll, stay wholly covered, and whose hair
may be short-cropped or sprout, which way to grow?
Playthings of Fate, and our own dupes, how should we go
about a life that’s brief, based on some fluent lie?
Religion sells us short: ours not to reason Why.
'Glum Thoughts, Listening To Verdi’s Requiem' finds Lykiard reflecting on ageing and mortality, the fragility of later life, the loss of friends and contemporaries. 'De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum' is a sublime short lyric on similar themes -here it is in full:
As good as Shelley and in some ways even better,
averred the late Australian poet Peter Porter,
quick to drop the old, anarchic macho mask of Oz
and hail the flawed legacy of ill-starred Sylvia Plath.
Why though, award laurels – those illustrious classic bays –
for chaos or bruised, ingrown talents? Artists ought to
ruminate objectively that suicidal days
and early deaths aren’t merit badges, while more measured praise
averts absurdity, forestalling Apollonian wrath.
The half-rhyme or eye-rhyme of 'Plath'/'wrath' is particularly effective and if one is a Northerner, of course, it is a perfect rhyme. When reading Lykiard, I am often reminded of the oeuvre of Bernard Spencer (1909-1963), a poet who also wrote many poems about Greece, having been stationed there -as well as Egypt, Italy, Spain and Austria (where, mysteriously, his body was found by a railway line)- for a time when he worked for the British Council.
'The Late Reading', in memory of the distinguished and prolific poet, Peter Reading, uses again some of the Stygian imagery of earlier poems in this collection:
No more exasperation, waiting in line by the inky Styx
Birdwatching a thing of the past – though a clear view of Charon’s craft –
Thus the world-weary poet departs, first downing one farewell draught
Fine bardic words not required (libations perhaps, on the ferry?)
Oblivion’s obol paid, no obvious mark of deletion
Awaits an obsessive maker, so artful and contrary…
Life’s mill grinds on, but he’s well away from our mortal politics.
Note the bravura assonance of 'Oblivion's obol... no obvious.../ ...obsessive'.
'Threnody' is a short but poignant lyric:
Eheu fugaces, Postume,
Postume, labuntur anni…
Horace’s lines on time fleeting
speak truth more distinctly to me.
Eheu fugaces… What of old friends?
The jazz musicians are mostly dead,
yet life’s wild harmony never ends:
words and memories whirl through my head…
'Finishing Up' is anything but if its agile language is anything to go by:
What niggling irritations of old age!
Grim fates of Nagg and Nell and Beckett tramps
are far from fiction, nearer documentary now.
Each pause and stasis may suggest a smouldering rage;
the candles madly gutter, ancient lamps
burn low, obscuring slowly the smeared page,
which stays unturned and blurred until the bell
'Everyone Their Island' depicts a stay in Greece and a torturous war of attrition with mosquitoes and insomnia in a shabby hotel named, as if mockingly, Morpheus. In 'Like' Lykiard is critical of the titular word's ubiquity in contemporary teenage discourse, and of its misuse: 'When corrupted meanings persist, art requires truthful fact;/ Hesitant vagueness was never what Aristotle taught.'
'Labouring the Point - A Colonial Question', dated 1st August 2019, is a candid and many would argue courageous polemical poem on the currently toxic subject of the Netanyahu regime's ever-expanding occupation of Palestinian land, and is worth excerpting in full:
The endless, questionable anti-Semitism fuss
Is media-stoked to fool the credulous and hoodwink us –
All those presuming to deplore, or even criticise,
The fact that stolen acres are annexed by Israel.
Much of the so-called Promised Land’s a living hell
For its original inhabitants the Palestinian folk,
A peaceful people, whom the Zionists coerced to dwell
Under their military rule, apartheid yoke.
The dispossessed and brutalised – here’s irony! – are forced
Through daily cruelty to heed that distant Holocaust
For which they’re blameless; elsewhere Gentiles must apologise
Sheepishly for European history, ad infinitum.
Politicians, flush with cash, close ranks to sneer and fight them –
Dissenters, any conscience-driven humans who resist
The shrillest imprecations of the Zionist.
And yet what Palestinian would accept this unjust fate,
Repressive occupation by a racist State?
'Cold Comfort, Finally' is a particularly striking aphorismic lyric from a defiantly atheistic perspective:
The sunset sky is stippled pink on blue,
The sort of scene that should appeal to me and you,
Though these days there’s awareness of what’s close:
A certain end to pleasure, love or suffering;
Hints of what Henry James dubbed ‘the distinguished thing’;
The last requests of artists for more air or light;
Deathbed conversions – desperate insurance! – lachrymose
Farewells, et cetera… Life’s a black comedy all right,
The likes of Gogol going gaga and religiose,
Maupassant’s wretched fate, wrecked body and wild mind.
Does satisfying work suggest fulfilment of a kind?
The almost tangible g-alliteration, and the o-assonance, of 'Gogol going gaga and religiose', together with the weight of meaning to the phrase itself, is a gorgeous example of Lykiard's epigrammatic gifts as a poet, even if a tongue-twister.
'Goethedämmerung', which I'm assuming means 'Goethe Dusk' in German, is set in Vienna. It begins with a pithy eloquent description of a statue of Goethe in said Austrian capital:
Imperious mandarin in coat of verdigris, he sprawls,
Goethe parked upon a tarnished emerald throne.
This is one of the longer poems in this collection and has a sense of narrative:
“And he wasn’t even Austrian”, our friend recalls,
noting the sole, correctly-spelled graffito we have seen,
scrawled on a builder’s board beside the German genius:
Urban Youth Never Sleeps...
Lykiard describes Vienna as an 'antiseptic city', and expands on this descriptively as he picks apart the commercialisation of the Austrian capital and its rich cultural heritage:
Migrants, Muslims, buskers, beggars have been shovelled elsewhere
so there’s not a speck of gum, dogshit or litter
freckling immaculate streets, tram-routes, efficient U-Bahn.
Everything’s affluent, conformist, uber-clean,
the imperial past as icing-sugar. You can buy
Klimt trinkets, keyrings, Mozart chocolate
bonbons, most ingeniously gross confectionery.
Lykiard's polemical thrust tips into the sublime by way of a brilliant enjambment:
Enormous banks, curlicued façades of whitest buildings,
ranks of horse-drawn cabs, Hapsburg palaces restored post-war,
show that the largely Catholic bourgeoisie has triumphed:
whoever else ought revolutions to be for?
This is rhyme at its most poetically effective, to make emphasis and thereby augment the greater meaning and, in this case, the monumental irony. Lykiard's cultural knowledge of Austria is evident throughout:
True, there's the Freudhaus, or a passing mention of Karl Kraus,
and Joseph Roth the ‘holy drinker’, who preferred Berlin.
By now we’ve come to wonder who might feel a
frisson of bohemian sex or deathwish, syphilis and Schiele…
Lykiard seems quite critical of Austrian disciplined cleanliness and Ordnung (order) as typified in pristine Vienna which comes across as more like a period set of the city than the authentic city itself. The poem started on the imagery of Goethe 'the Great Man' in statue form and close on the almost pagan image of 'the diminutive Green Man' symbolic of nature and wildness.
'Views From A Third-Floor Balcony', set in Berlin, is another of Lykiard's aphorismic meditations on ageing:
The things one thought or did, and often dreamed
of celebrating in some form, assume with age
a quite repetitive if not insistent role,
as though the fragments which our faulty memories
record might still reveal some message from the past.
Great works once read and savoured are reread: each page
exacts a different response; what earlier seemed
significant is not so now. That bell will toll,
its sound more resonant on days like these,
when words lose flavour and spill into air at last.
'Foolhardy Perennials' again glimmers epigrammatically - one is reminded in such sagacious pieces of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, as well as other philosophical poems of the ancient world, Horace in particular:
Has he read all those books? A self-styled dullard asked my wife,
Who was not especially pleased, but felt bound to explain
How the writing of books had always been my life,
And that in learning to write well, writers take time to read.
One’s books were like most necessary milestones in a life,
And seemed to choose their owner, marking paths to lead.
No doubt this ever-doubtful question will be asked again.
Had I been the publisher of this fine collection I'd have opted for 'The Old Sleep Less' as the book's title since the titular phrase is a perennial truth with a mystery all its own -here is this thought-provoking poem on insomnia in full:
Flail through all those so-called small hours wide awake:
It seems appalling when there’s no effective course to take
Except to court monotony, dull wordgames, lists of stuff,
Ruses to muffle or annul the over-active mind.
But still the would-be sleeper’s rarely tired enough
To slip free from the consciousness of Self, beat time’s slow grind.
Insomnia suggests each flight is blocked; pills never make
For consolation, nor give grace to set the past behind.
The present warns of future desperation, hour on hour,
Till night turns to belated, longed-for chill of dawn –
The broken day that hints at brightness soon reborn,
With life itself amply restored, brought into flower.
The pithy aphorismic poem 'Survival Kit' again evokes the ancients, the philosopher and satirist Seneca having once in his writing alluded to how contemporary Roman doctors referred to asthma as a 'rehearsal for death':
Armed with preventer, enabler and spacer,
a backpack of tissues, spectacles, notebook,
bottle of water, you’re able to face a
stranger new world...
...When challenged by asthma,
don’t surrender to panic, simply move rather slower,
for reason requires that you treasure each breath:
Life’s joys become measureless rhyming with Death.
'BPPV' is another succinct study in ageing and infirmity and ends on a rather Senecan note, the Roman philosopher having often depicted death, or rather, in his illustration, suicide, as an ever-available and perversely reassuring opt-out clause for the suffering soul:
Benign Paroxysmal Positional
Vertigo was your young doctor’s diagnosis.
Certain maladies may prove less grim than one supposes;
most folk stoically accept ‘Age is no bed of roses’,
yet any competent physician’ll
check, double-check, manipulate and reassure…
We’re both relieved, though what each medic knows is
all lives are short or fraught enough, until that final cure.
'Nocturne' brings us thumping down to earth with its earthiness and scatological Lykiardian humour:
Earworms and distant echoes plague the old
who strain to summon half-remembered rhymes
and fear unwonted heat yet dread the cold.
They’re teased by trivial facts from former times,
ephemera, small things that prompt regret…
Odd twinges in a limb cause them to fret,
while variously, on every night like this,
the rarest dreams are interrupted for a piss.
'Net Result' is a vitriolic piece on our dumbed down modern culture and is notable for the phrasal confidence of its rangier lines -here it is in full:
The self-perpetuating sphere our crowds are busy destroying
Should warn us life’s no virtual realm whose language is inexact,
Where lies proliferate coolly and fiction can always trump fact.
Still, shit accumulates, is smoothly stirred, then smartly tossed about,
Hitting every fan. The clichés, arbitrary if annoying,
Click onward… New piles of outlandish crap, both crass and quick-drying,
Are swallowed by swelling masses. Joker, gossip or lonely lout,
Dull fanatic and airhead, strut axe-grinding stuff. Games are played out,
The Real World mirrored online – mainly greed, misplaced love, little tact.
Offence is taken, crimes denied: there’s grudging, lame apology.
Thus entropy speeds up, the globe spinning its own necrology.
Closing the collection on a somewhat sour note though, poetically speaking, no less eloquent and effective, is the sepulchral 'Cold Season', a meditation on ageing as a prolonged coming-to-terms with others' departures, and the difficulty in finding consolations -in its air of atheistic pessimism it is particularly Larkinesque, to some extent reminiscent of his 'Aubade', but in Lykiard's case, though there is an element of anguish, the tone is not thanatophobic as in Larkin, but more, well, philosophical, in the secondary dictionary definition of the word, as in a 'calm attitude towards disappointments or difficulties':
There’s simply no escape from cliché or banality,
given this most mundane of subjects, whose totality
remains so disconcerting; few enough can face
examining the prospect with absolute composure.
Farewells near the terminus may ease the time of ‘closure’,
that academic and inadequate last word… The race,
however it is run, quite wrenchingly extends
to close and distant loves, as all acquaintances and friends,
partners and dear ones, disappear. It’s just the human fate,
Though every fate may seem unjust to young or old,
pointless at worst, at best immortalised – stories retold
until the relics of emotion fade. They lie in wait,
these silent raids upon the once-articulate, cause pain
or bring a brief and raging joy. Thereafter nothing calms
the so-called soul. And if no phantoms tease the restless brain,
grief only gives one pause, invokes more unrelenting qualms,
seeks false insurance – pace outworn creeds. What dread,
what anguish burdens everyone, when musing on the dead!
Most of all, Lykiard appears to be saying that we should honour the dead in a more realistic and less emotional way, recognising each person for who they were and what they were actually like rather than idealising them. This very grounded, secular, humanistic philosophy of death is in keeping with Lykiard's detectable philosophy of life, one primarily of carpe diem, of sensation and experience, of love and travel, of socialising and socialism, of art and rationalism, of what the Greeks termed eudaimonia (happiness), of epicureanism and its goal of achieving a state of ataraxia (tranquillity and freedom from fear -could there be a better destination for the human mind?), of the mortal soul as opposed to the eternal spirit.
Winter Crossings is once more testament to how the poetic gifts of Alexis Lykiard, far from diminishing with advancing years, grow greater and more sage like with age, gifting us ever more valuable and surprising insights from a sprightly mind that in some aspects still seems so young.
It's pure serendipity that both these publications from John Lucas's Nottingham-based Shoestring Press have maritime titles and cover images -the books are also very nicely produced, a consistent quality which belies the name of the imprint; both collections sail high seas in terms of quality.
Alan Morrison © 2020