Alan Morrison on

Nigel Mellor

 

For The Inquiry

Dab Hand Press, 2010

www.nmellor.com

 

 

 

Poetry for the dirty war

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After a lengthy period in British poetry during which politics appeared, at least in the mainstream, an absolute ‘no no’, a tacit convention not helped and only encouraged by the fairly epic smokescreen of an ostensive ‘Labour’ government between 1997-2010, the symbolic echo of ‘New’ Labour in the poetry scene with the ‘New’ and ‘Next Generation’ promotions, it has been deeply refreshing to notice that openly political, actually ideological poetry is on something of an urgent return and one which cannot be ignored for much longer. The first puncture in the political apathy of the Noughties was when the truly duplicitous face of Blairism unambiguously flashed its choppers with the highly dubious and ultimately disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. This vicissitude not only sparked a new era of growing protest with the largest ever march through London in opposition to it, but also spurred the more leftfield sections of the British poetry mainstream into speaking out, most notably through Tod Swift’s 101 Poets Against the War. But it was the further fallout from the botched Iraq invasion, particularly the scapegoating and eventual ‘suicide’ of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly after he was exposed as having candidly let slip to a journalist that the dossier produced by the government to justify war in Iraq had been ‘sexed-up’, and the subsequent establishment fudge of the ‘Hutton’ inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his alleged suicide, which inspired some individual poets to take a national issue onto their own shoulders in solo collections thematically driven by this whole cloudy episode. Salt published Chris McCabe’s debut collection The Hutton Inquiry in 2005, which both served to spill this contentious and hugely symbolic topical issue to greater attention in the poetry scene, and to bring the highly accomplished, polemical, imagistic gifts of the young Liverpool-born poet to deservedly wider critical attention.

 

But the subject of this review is of a 2010 publication (which incidentally has a strikingly designed cover of a large dove against a black background), produced both as a print and e-book, by Newcastle poet Nigel Mellor, a poet whom I have previously published on the Recusant and who also contributed some strong epigrammatic poems to Emergency Verse. Similarly to McCabe, Mellor chooses as his titular umbrella theme the Hutton Inquiry, calling his collection For the Inquiry – poetry for the dirty war. As with McCabe’s earlier collection, Mellor’s is not, as its title might suggest, solely focused on the subject of the Hutton Inquiry, but poems set out in the form of a kind of figurative evidence intended for an inquiry of afterthought into the fogged fate of David Kelly and related issues, comes in later into the collection, chiefly in the section titled ‘Crisis’. But Mellor’s overall output here is of a generally polemical/political nature, with a veneer of moral axiom.

 

The first poem, ‘The man who knew the make’, suggests de-industrialised blue-collared ghosts and has a faint Luddite feel to its thrust, not to say a flavour of Marxist dialectical materialism:

 

I want right fast that engineering

Oily-handed Lord of Life

That overalled, certificated

Metalmaster, Lord of Life.

 

Drag him from his dusty cavern

Dredge him from that coaly slake

Find him, pay him, sign and bind him,

Find the man who knows the make.

 

‘On Souter Fell’ has an industrial wistfulness to it, reminiscent of the similarly sparsely lyrical styles of fellow contemporary Northumberland/Newcastle poets Keith Armstrong and Tom Kelly:

 

On Souter Fell

Latch’s rasp on rough plank door

Opening

To the sad half light

Of Souter Fell

 

Through draughty kitchen

To sodden heath

Past rusting spares of farm machines

He trudged unmarked

Returned ungreeted

With logs to burn

With thoughts to speak

 

There’s almost too an afterecho of R.S. Thomas in this kind of appealing rural bleakness. Mellor also has a talent for affecting epigrams, as with ‘Premonitions of memories in old age’, which I quote in full:

 

In the kitchen, family calm

August storm and tempers done

Clothes hung damp upon the line

To hear a tape of birthday gone

 

Recorded voices somehow made

The present telescope and fade

So that the rows and spiteful ways

Of that quite ordinary Summer’s day

Seemed like a once remembered play

Recalled in distant future time

But dimly, from an old man’s mind.

 

‘Spider’ is a weird and surreal poem, figuratively polemical with its repetitions throughout of the word ‘spin’, and serves a real stylistic curio; a similarly tongue-in-cheek feel is echoed in the slightly less oddball ‘Voices from a bike’ – and here one is also reminded a little of the appealingly witty vignettes of Welsh poet Gwilym Williams (who actually lives and writes in Austria now). ‘Following an unusual conjunction of the moon and the sun and certain planets’ is in similar territory of quirky dark humour, ending with slightly chillingly:

 

At low tide

Mudflats were exposed which

Until that day had never dried

And beyond the breakwater

Weed choked pools of unsure depth

We hesitated too long in that opening

Then the planets moved

And the waves returned.

 

‘The clouds’ is one of my favourites in this collection, written, as Mellor notes at the bottom of the page, For the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; those who have read that socialist novel will recognise the last line’s of Mellor’s poem as a homage to a memorable line from said book, which, from memory, goes something like, ‘the only reason they had not monopolised the sunlight was that it was not possible to do so’:

 

The possibility that someone

Would build a meter large enough to hold the air

And send me bills

For rent and standing charge

And so much fuel adjusted cost

Per breath

And that armies would defend

This meter

And this man

And you their right

To deny me air.

As I say, you listened, painfully.

Since that time I’ve heard complaints

That someone tried to steal the rain

From Denver, Colorado

The problem there it seems

Is that no one knows who owns the clouds.

 

The equally caustic ‘Two foot of 3 by 2 pitch-pine’ relates poignantly by its end of a stack of wood ‘Two foot of 3 by 2 pitch-pine/ To mend a door/ Broken open.’ ‘Speelam Harbour’ again taps into the Northern industrial ghost towns that once made not only Morlocks of their labouring populations, but latterly, ghosts of Morlocks:

 

Speelam Harbour sits in pools of engine oil

Not leaking, thick from a tanker

But thin and wasted

Furtively disposed

 

...

 

Further down

An abandoned mineral line

And staring out

Someone remembered Speelam

Full of men.

 

Mellor has a definite gift for quirkily metaphorical poems, as in ‘Corruption’, the microcosmic motif for macrocosmic polemic of which is the equatorial ‘stink ant’. Mellor displays a compassion which does his political stance greater service than the sometimes overly vitriolic writings of other left-wing poets, as in the accomplished epigram ‘The re-burial of Lord Haw Haw’, worth quoting in full:

 

Hanged at Wandsworth

Thirty years this month

His body placed in sacking

In an unmarked grave

Soaked with quicklime within the prison walls.

 

I had thought that justice

Had progressed.

Surely death was quite enough

For traitor and betrayed.

 

‘At times like Spain is a curiously elliptical, slightly cryptic, but intriguing little tribute poem:

 

O.K.

So Alec often gets it

Wrong

And he’s workerist

And just a bit of a sexist

But he kicks arse

(When camera men from the Front

want photos for Bulldog)

And that’s not nice

But at times like Spain

Looking back

Words were not enough.

 

* For the 50th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War

 

 

While the epigram ‘Official secrets’ packs some compacted polemical punch, especially in its quite sublime last line:

 

We are in greatest danger

From the freedoms we have

 

They do not become a part of life

But a way of forgetting

The struggle which gave them life

 

When we no longer have to fight

We forget why and how to fight

 

To be free is not enough.

 

‘Opposition’ is also quite hard-hitting, seemingly drubbing the left’s gradual submission to right-wing governments, but it feels possible this is also a brow-beating of the poet’s own frustrated part in this:

 

We talk

At times

As if they came with hammers

And iron bars

To kick and splinter

An oak door.

It wasn’t like that at all

The door was hollow

Rotted through

They hardly needed to push

And we did

Nothing

To hold it.

 

There is a karmic, holistic sense of retributive justice to Mellor’s way of thinking which is instantly appealing and reassuring, and smacks of a kind of Charles Kingsley-esque Christian socialism (i.e. Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby from The Water Babies):

 

Interrogation*

 

I won’t hold out for long

Soon you’ll get the lot

The names

And more besides

I will crawl at your feet

I know that

But in the long dark night of your soul

You must finally face what has been done to you

That you can do this to me.

* For the fortieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights

 

This is no trite moral lesson, it is unfashionable and sublime; sentiments echoed in ‘War crimes’, which one can only wish Mellor might in the future post in a greetings card to directly to Tony Blair:

 

Now listen to me

You have one job

And one job alone

Do not resist

You have no power to stop the screams

They would kill you anyway

Do only this

Remember

Remember the names

Remember the faces

It may be a lifetime

Before you can stand there

And accuse

So do your job well

Just survive

And remember.

 

The collection ends with the last section, ‘Collapse’, including just one poem, ‘Afterwards’, one of the more hauntingly figurative meditations:

 

It would have been about three in the afternoon

If there had remained

Some trace of reason in the world

The man continued to cradle the child

From time to time

She appeared to sleep

They faced ruined walls

But made no attempt to turn

Or seek shelter

As the walls were everywhere

It did not comfort the child

But when awake

The man spoke of times past

Until her sickness returned

For a long while

He had held a housebrick

But could not use it

It would have been about three in the afternoon

When the child began

A cry that would not stop.

 

Nigel Mellor has a clean, sparse, highly figurative but also occasionally descriptively engaging style; For the Inquiry... is an imaginative and beguiling little collection, its poems in the main of a deceptively simple, morally didactic and enchantingly symbolic timber, at times faintly reminiscent of the slightly naïf social-tone of W.H. Davies, even of some aspects to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in their subversive nursery-rhyme style charm cradled over deeper wells of meaning, even occasionally, of the sublime. Recommended. [The full ebook can be downloaded at www.nmellor.com 

 

Alan Morrison © 2011

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