Alan Morrison on
Smokestack Books, 2016
Smokestack Books, 2016
Poems of Mediumship
Under review are two historically themed poetry collections from Smokestack Books; one being an ingenious polemical comment on contemporary narcissism and celebrity anti-culture through the prism of Roman philosophy; the other, an unashamedly didactic and uncannily authentic evocation of the trials, tribulations, thoughts and fates of a convict crew bound for Australia in the 1780s.
Bernard Saint's Roma demonstrates something that I noted for myself when studying Ancient History at university: how much more spiritually and intellectually advanced and cultivated the ancient sophisticates were in many respects that lack a millennia later in our more philistine modern age. In the main, Saint resuscitates the 1st century BC ethical sagaciousness of philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, author of the sublime Meditations -a kind of ancient self-help philosophy journal ripe with aphorism- as a template from which to deconstruct the materialistic sham of twenty-first century Western society.
Sixties film buffs of historical epics will recall Alec Guinness's Sphinxian take on this most philosophical of Roman emperors -known posthumously as 'the last of the “Five Good Emperors”', after Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antonius Pius- opposite Christopher Plummer as his psychopathic son and successor, Commodus, in the first half of The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). To which, there are some filmic moments in this collection: 'We are making a happy picture/ A happy family picture/ With Rome our glamour backdrop/ And furthermore our budget overdue’ ('Quiet on the Set').
By something of a coincidence I read the Meditations quite recently and am struck by how authentic the revenant Aurelius sounds channelled through Saint's poetic mediumship. Saint has perfectly captured the equanimity of Aurelius, his sound reasoning, soft-edged stoicism, harmonious tone, and emphasis on the futility of fame in light of mortality and, most painfully for poets perhaps more than any others (and no doubt a preoccupation of Saint's), the projected delusion of personal posterity. In these respects there is something of Seneca in Aurelius' thought.
But there are other voices in Saint's immaculate collection, though not all specified by name, one detects the almost gossipy and often quotidian tone and subject of neoteric poetry of the likes of Catullus and Cato, but also of the elegiac school of Roman love poetry of the likes of Ovid and Propertius. The flavour of Propertius in particular comes through in the accomplished polish of 'Bella Figura':
Search me what women see
In well-honed hunks
Their trunks too tight and torsos strained
To requisite charcuterie
For gladiatorial games –
Perhaps some dames incline by their desire
To be soft-centre of a rugby scrum
But I am just an old and decadent poet
I murmur one ‘bon mot’
Then salon to salon the same
Boredom of abandoned luxury offends me –
Who else might tolerate you ask
My languid and emaciated frame?
My desiccated and ironic diction?
Those who persist to retain
A broken but lyrical valour
Well this is the price you pay
When the muses secretly smile
While bestowing toxic laurel
On one who was a boy – and fully unprepared
For their long game of hazard
If there’s a chance you hear beyond the Shade
Now isn’t this so my beauties?
'Transformer' has an almost Audenic delicacy of touch:
Olive arms and faces
Long -faded from your frescoes
Enjoy the grace and silence of my shade –
Poets scribble half a dozen lines
The future will insist are but a fragment
Of epics dispersed and lost
To sandstorms of antiquity –
Then dine on honeyed dormice
At the court of Vespasian
Even, once might say, a Betjeman urbanity and a Larkinesque precision:
Mindful a man declines
Merchants’ lonely daughters
Sweetmeats sold inside the public circus
Political office and loaded dice
He may live to see his fortieth winter –
When Fate may try to fit him up again
In the role of an Uxbridge solicitor –
For he has lost his concentration
Growing tired of antiquity –
It's unclear who exactly the speaker is here and to whom he is speaking, but I'm supposing it's the 20th century under discussion, and an antediluvian orator with an edge:
You modernists may keep your century –
We’ll mingle with you on a weekend break
You’ll greet us at the baths or in the gym
The pizza parlour festival and wine-bar –
Inheriting our pastimes and our pleasures
You’ll scandalise our brief amoral lives –
You cannot see you are immersed in them
I was also struck by Saint's unfashionable use of capitalised first letters for each line -something I practice myself- which perhaps in part befits the antiquated mystique of his theme; when combined with short aphoristic lines, it calls to mind T.S. Eliot:
I notice now
Early frost and chill
Herbs and flowers struggling
Clinging to existence –
Another patch of sun
Apollo if you please
Let them remember forest birds
Gathering green stalks
The music of the bees
Amid their cornucopia of seed
Curiously, however, Saint only uses em dashes by way of punctuation, and omits commas and full stops altogether, as if to counterbalance the more traditional -and unfashionable- capitalised first letters, which serve to, one supposes, mark out the clauses. He also tends to use blank spaces between words within lines to act as caesuras. Stylistically I think this works very well, particularly for the theme of the book.
The marvellously titled 'A Roman in Umbria' catches Saint at his most lyrical:
I notice now
Early frost and chill
Herbs and flowers struggling
Clinging to existence –
Another patch of sun
Apollo if you please
Let them remember forest birds
Gathering green stalks
The music of the bees
Amid their cornucopia of seed
'Tribute to Marcus Aurelius' seems more a paean to the perennially impecunious poet than anything fathomably relatable to the philosopher emperor:
Long ago it seemed
The city did not circulate by money –
You occupied poor quarters nonetheless
Jobs and bed-sits few would countenance
With poetry your permanent companion –
So a boy of seventeen might estimate
Hope and inspiration
Sacredly above the prudent mind
Regarding sober stoics who maintained
There is one trusted guardian at best
Dwells within your house when all grows dark
You lacked both chronic need and inclination
You craved the muses’ food of mere seduction
A storm-fly pressed against their windowpane
You turned aside from knowledge to those passions
Whose false-reflected pleasures twitched your wings
‘Bust of Marcus Aurelius as a Boy’ has the posthumous philosopher emperor, in a fit of rhetoric, disapproving of a sculptor's depiction of him in his youth :
Who is this modernist?
His beardless face
His curls too artfully trimmed
By Sassoon on via Veneto?
I hardly recognise myself –
He seems a kind of youth
Impelled to pretty writing
One who can’t abstain from poetry
We then have a depiction of modernists as Mods, their sartorial and attitudinal equivalent in popular culture:
Appearances are wonderful
Misleaders of sound reason
All modernists knew this –
The girl-boys on Lambrettas
Their boy-girls lolling stylishly at pillion
And this is a juxtaposition which Saint repeats later on. The poem closes on a disarming aphorism: 'Death smiles at us all –/ All you may do is smile back'.
Saint's turn-of-phrase is frequently simple but sublime, as in, for example, 'A young man it is imagined/ Still has straw in his hair' from 'Julian's Dilemma'. At first I assumed this Julian was the much later Roman emperor (361-3 AD), also a philosopher and man of letters, who was nicknamed 'the Apostate' for rejecting Christianity -the last 'pagan' emperor, and the first since Constantine 'converted' Rome to Christianity via his own deathbed-conversion to the faith in 337 AD. However, chronologically speaking it can't be him, since we have mention of his having had 'A role in sunlit processions/ Orating his startling verse in Nero’s presence', dating this Julian to the latter notorious emperor's reign of 54-68 AD. So who is this Julian? who was
...exposed to jealousies
Of jackals who draw unscrupulous pay
Denouncing all that’s new as insurrection
Implicating unprotected citizens as spies...
I can't find the answer (at least, not on Wikipedia! -or is this Wikileaks' fugitive/captive founder Julian Assange?). Unless the allusion to 'Nero's presence' is meant in the sense of an historically-tinctured daydream of a youthful Julian fancying himself fitting in more with the spectacular 'artistic' decadence of Nero's court than that of his own lifetime. Whatever, the theme is resonant for all poets, writers, artists, musicians, creators, as captured in the aphorism:
Literature is not an easy passage
It fuels neurotic ache for recognition
And at this most dangerous time
The Empire a paranoid beehive
Note the excellent assonance and alliteration of the second line of the above excerpt.
Starting with the wonderfully rhythmic 'Every vice of our delusion/ Amplified by an actor’s mask', 'Marcus Aurelius at the Theatre' sees the highly cultured post-emperor, presumably from the vantage point of some Swedenborgian afterlife where past, present and future merge into a matter of moments, take an aphoristic swipe at modern celebrity fetishism:
I’d sooner stay at home
Sipping espresso e aqua
In my corner pavement café
Though this is not a bolt-hole
From the theatre
Surely they are extras
From sword and sandal epics –
Always clad in Armani
They stroll about in a bubble
Of self-dramatising soap
When did the world
Become like this
For the narcissist?
Outweigh good sense
Preening on the internet
Then from a corner of your home
Reality T. V
Distracts you from reality
The rhetorical juxtaposition of a 'corner pavement cafe' where to meditate and the TV in the 'corner of your home' where to be absorbed by banal babble and mesmerised by ultraviolet rays is particularly effective. Aurelius' defiant closing statement gifts us an insight into this most singular, enlightened and, above all, grounded of Roman emperors:
If they should make me Caesar
I will not become ‘a Caesar’
But elude the dipping in purple dye
I’ll keep my rough Greek cloak
And reject the duck-down pallet
When I choose to sleep on the floor
It sounds as if in many respects Aurelius was to the laurel wreath what Pope Francis is to the papacy: austere, humble and self-abnegating. The nicely alliterative 'dipping in purple dye' phrase alludes to the broad strips of purple that ran vertically from hem to hem on the togas of emperors.
The first verse of 'Amphorae' is notable for its highly effective alliteration:
Take these terracotta flasks
Their stoppers gone
But narrow necks intact
Found beneath Etruscan tiles –
The floor of an ancient villa
Turned up in our tenuous search
For further tube-train routes –
The poem has posthumous Romans musing on the excavated remains of their ancient civilisation:
Who deliberate pronouncing our containers
To unguents and perfumes
Requisites for a Roman bath
Brought onto the mezzanine when needed
This being so we gave them fitting names –
‘L’Atrine’ ‘Eau de Toilet’
‘Gorillas in a Mist’
Just take a whiff of this –
We speculate the later Howard Hughes
Was not the first magnate
To develop obsessive traits
Urophiliac in nature –
While wealth and power expressed themselves in cultivated gardens
Which even those in debt might build beyond the city gates
Hoarding from his Fate our ancient miser
Stored waste product of his corporate body
In ritual to Croesus –a Netherworld of wealth
Croesus was a legendarily wealthy King of Lydia (560 to 546 BC). It's not clear who the unnamed subject of this poem is but it's an intriguing enigma.
The rather hilariously titled 'Marcus Aurelius on the Catwalk' has an anonymous orator denouncing fame, celebrity and fashion, warning us, 'And safety pins of platinum will have you max. your plastic'; the orator then reflects on his youth and one of its ironic paradoxes:
When we were young we had the uniform
Some called bohemian –
It was a uniform for non-conformists
Unquestioning we rigidly conformed
Else we might never
Recognise each other
Holding as we did diverse ideas
Maturity then ripened into seeds expelled from pods
Our separate ways to sow and walk alone
He then returns to the future and all-too-familiar aspects of ageing:
Then little did we know
Nor should we guess
Our future days –
Of sensible supportive footwear
Our regimens of pills and
The elasticated waistband…
There's a bit of droll wordplay with Latinate terms as Roman monikers, worthy of René Goscinny of Astérix fame:
But I digress – it was the Roman hedonist
Gave birth to our most venerated models –
Anorexia Nervosa and her twin
Bulimia I see
Haunting constantly the vomitorium
There follows a beautifully alliterative trope: 'Their perpetual cigarettes/ Preserving pearl-like European pallor'. The final verse addresses Aurelius directly:
Aurelius – though you profess
Not the slightest interest in fashion –
Surely there had come a day you found
Your rough Greek cloak of wool
Put aside the tweeds and corduroys
We might advise the modern thinker
Seek out those master tailors
Giorgio Battistoni –
Creators of ‘the simple and the good’ Italian suit –
A future time may come to call it Mod –
Though men forget its elegance
Entirely stems from Roman Stoic values
Interesting to see, again, the mention of 'Mod', and the Mods did indeed start out wearing Italianate suits, while rooting their fashion in Stoic values makes sense given a mutual austereness.
An unnamed poet orator in 'Sailing for Lindos' laments the philistinism and superficiality of celebrity culture:
I am tired of this modern religion
Lolling around in pools surrounded by starlets
Selling us lotions and serums
Comparing our hair-weaves and face-lifts
With senators and actors
Sponsoring aphrodisiac vascular enhancers –
I find it too frivolous too desperate
And Destiny has told me
This is no occupation for a Roman poet
I hate their temples serving lamb and veal
Perpetually feasting –
To sacrifice the young of any species
Weighs me with remorse
Old carnivorous men should not recline on cushions
Their recreational stimulants and sherbets
Get right up my nose
Complacently our culture is unravelling –
Orators perform their wares
Only to the comic muse
You ask them for the classics
Their lips become a trout’s
Eyes dilate and dart about
Their repertoire dumbed-down beyond recalling
Why should I like the Games
Their chariot wheels contrived
To make a steak tartare of every rival?
We see enough barbarity
Simply setting foot outside our homes
When macho-men make hells of weekend revels
And women by skilled flatterers descend to turpitude
Saint then produces a wonderfully simplistic yet profound iambic semi-couplet: 'Only poetry is where -/ You never hope to find her'. This is then capped by a final brutal realism: 'Transacting business in that land/ Between myth and dream and mathematics' -and here the use of the term 'transacting' is particularly potent in terms of Marxist reductionism of humanity's purely commercial interrelationships under capitalism.
'Campagna' is a succinct Aurelian gnomic poem which I excerpt in full:
Traveller what you are seeking
Is so often to be found
Not ten yards from your home
Though you circle the world to find it
All shall be waiting here
For your return –
It hardly yields a thing
Except desire to leave
But someday you may treasure
Its lack of misleading promises
Its distance from the dissolute great cities
'Song of the Bees', which I also quote in full below, is the first in a series of gnomic meditations on man's illusions of immortality of the personal soul and delusions of posterity -and in these senses are markedly Aurelian in theme:
They say the proud
Are reborn as bees
‘I am an important painter’
‘I am a superlative chef ’
‘I am an eminent senator’
‘Just so’ the proud man says
Then since he will not turn to prayer
Believing no brief illness
To be entirely final
He joins the ones reborn as bees
Murmuring over and over
‘I am’ ‘I am’ ‘I am’
But it is in 'Marcus Aurelius & the Cult of Celebrity' that Saint most effectively and explicitly tackles the metaphysical cul-de-sac of artistic self-transcendence and futile deferment of gratification beyond life itself. And here Saint deploys some powerful images by example to reinforce his rhetoric to humility:
Observe the kind of mind that chases fame –
A ship cannot rely on one small sail
A life cannot sustain by one ambition –
Self-serving man sustains a little while
Until his sea of arrogance subsumes him
The cynical psychologists who claim
‘Everything is what you think it is’
Carving up the words of Epictetus
To suit their busy bromides
Reducing to banality
His vision of the unity of all things
Epictetus was a Greek-born ex-slave turned Stoic philosopher of Rome. Saint's imitations of Aurelius's sagacious aphoristic advices is uncanny at times:
Your life is but a moment
Do not set your happiness to waver
On flattery or censure of some other –
Only seek the company of those
With whom your capabilities expand
This narrow ledge we walk some call ‘alive’ –
Enticed with promises of pleasure
Constrained by alternating thoughts of pain –
How cheap and how corruptible –
Whose judgements and opinions
Confer renown on a harried rock?
But it is with the following stanza that Saint's channelling of Aurelius reaches its crescendo as he touches on a chain of thought which almost inevitably mutates in the minds of solitary creators:
One who sets his sights on fame
And while obscure endures the dream
Of posthumous recognition –
The praise of all the world
Means nothing to the dead
The living who remember him
One by one resume oblivion
The inescapable fact that one's creative output cannot attain a perpetuity through posterity outside of oneself since all who come after and made aware of that art are also mortal and will in turn 'forget' all they have known and admired. Saint's use of 'resume' before 'oblivion' is instructive of our lives only being brief intervals of awareness surrounded in a sleep, to paraphrase Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest -and this is captured perfectly in the closing trope:
Memory and fame are this
A rock-pool between tides
While ceaselessly the river meets the sea
Note the masterful sibilance of that last line. As a poet himself, Saint is clearly writing from the heart on such poetic anxieties, and to my mind 'Marcus Aurelius & the Cult of Celebrity' is among the strongest poems in this collection.
'Photo-Shoot' appears to depict self-destructing celebrities hounded to early deaths by Paparazzi, who ride on Lambrettas in another reference to Mods, something of a leitmotiv. The language Saint's uses in this poem is particularly kinetic:
Assuring all is surface with a style
Only stars possess in such abundance
Cameras whirr and purr and click and skirl
This could be the late and atrociously treated Amy Winehouse:
Her jangling hangover
Stumbling on the parquet
Spills bilious opinion into print
Then fuming at your gate
A pack of them pursuing on Lambrettas
Go stake your first long paycheck
On a souped-up mini cooper
Darken all the windows –
Tutored by a diamond-heist technician
Drive for all you’re worth
Upon their rooftops autograph ‘faint praise’ in grey exhaust
The line 'On a souped-up mini cooper' is beautifully alliterative, though I'm not sure why Saint drops the capital letters. Saint's alliterative effects reach a crescendo in 'Sunbathing Pope':
And contemplate a city that emerges
Continuous as Venus from the sea
Today He comes to bless
The shining orchard of retired
Sunbathing Cinecitta stars
Toasting on their terraces
And: '...figured cloth of gold// ‘You may wear it monsignor –/ The carnival is over’. 'Orpheus – Son of Apollo' is an exquisitely written poem, rhythmic, cadent, lyrical and luscious alliteration and sibilance:
To frolic with the nightingales and fishes
Concordant yet transcending nature’s power
Your simple tunic boasts
No purple trim – authority
Lives only in the grace-notes of your lyre
One naked foot is pierced
By time’s narcotic thorn
But your eyes see all too clear –
And so the ikon-makers shall suggest
Your candid poet’s face
A pattern of harmonic countenance
Beneath the un-recorded face of Christ –
Where hides that wounded fawn Eurydice
Your shy Byzantine princess?
‘Don’t look back’ – she has become
In semblance of her bridal fresco
The numinous white flame of the Holy Virgin –
The absence of commas can be slightly strange when Saint chooses not to have longer gaps between words which would normally be separated by commas, but it lends a kind of stream-of-consciousness sense:
South of Tiber’s sage-green trailing ribbon
Fountains groves of olives lemon gardens
Are her veil
In 'Strolling through Rome with Marcus Aurelius' the posthumous philosopher-emperor critiques the tendency of sculptors to always depict him bearded:
Why do all statues fit me with a beard?
Reduce me to an ideal cast in bronze?
‘Aurelius: he’s always on campaign
Philosopher and Guardian of Rome –
Therefore he never shaves’ – they might well say
‘He never bathes’
Give me a break!
Don’t take me for a Pict!
Forget my highbrow youth –
A little prig
Immersed in esoteric Grecian thought
Might then try out a pipe and train his stubble
This rather casualised tone in the second stanza isn't so distantly removed from translations of poetry by the likes of Propertius or Catullus. To the extent that I sometimes think postmodernist poetry of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has more in common with Roman poetry than it does with the poetries of the centuries in between. This poem closes on a truly stoical aphorism:
Life will have its use of us
When we give up connoisseurship
Profound aphorisms seep through these poems -this one from 'Chet Baker in Bologna':
The groove above our upper lip
A fingertip impresses before birth
Advises silence on our true abode –
‘Hush this is the world
Which shall pass
Though music last’ –
The elusively-named 'grooved above our upper lip' is a philtrum, incidentally. Again, one can only admire the euphony of his consonance:
To contemplate at lowered microphone
A whispered existential question mark
That bends his reputation to a stance
There are also instances of internal rhymes:
Of spretzatura understated cool –
Articulation of the difficult
Without personal bravura
And instances of anaphora, the repetition of a phrase in order to reinforce the rhetoric, as in 'The Messenger' which I excerpt in full:
Let me tell you about the gods –
They keep honey where you keep salt
And salt where you keep honey
That is why
There is nowhere on earth to hide from them
They prefer the prayers of children –
That if anyone abuse them
So then they cease to pray
A messenger is sent to hear their silence
Investigate the vortex
Of impacted threnody
Let me tell you about the gods –
Their slow implacable justice
Not only the revenant of Aurelius he spends his afterlife haunting Italian locations trying not to be recognised -but also the ghost of legendary Italian film maker Frederico Fellini who, in 'Surveillance in Full View', heeds advice to ‘Sip a cappuccino now the sun is on the roof/ That way you’re sure to pass here for a tourist'. There's reprimand for creators who, rather like the gods, toy with human emotions to make artistic statements:
His subterfuge is deeper one suspects –
A Jungian analyst warned him
We the archetypes
Are not some petty Tinkerbells to mess with –
There's a rallying call to the revolutionary potential in poetry:
Suppose our sacred vehicle
Poetry – impounded here in time –
Fell to the hands of anarchists?
They’d filter its fuel into fountains
Mountain springs maligned immodest Nero
Pipelined into Roma city centre –
Then all the world might sing and run amuck
Freed of time’s immobilising tyranny –
For now they think they are
Units of production chained
As slaves to their factory clock
What's curious here is Saint's choice to use the less common term 'amuck' instead of 'amok', which would also have rhymed with 'clock' at the end of the stanza.
A rather cryptic question is posed: 'Do you suppose they are ready for/ Free Time?' This is one of the more oblique poems in this collection -it closes enigmatically:
‘Fellini’ meanwhile shadows each de-briefing
Noonday in the Black Bull bar-café
Here behind the Trevi
Half-hidden by its atomising spray
He dreams nocturnal dancers
Timeless sensualities of water
Two who dance immortal – unrestrained
As we are two –
We also have our dreams
Is there perhaps a hint of reference to Alec Guinness's portrayal of Aurelius from the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire in 'Marcus Aurelius: Sixties Icon'? We appear to be present at a Woodstock-style concert or hippy love in as in this alliteratively bristling stanza:
The band inject their overdose of watts –
Black-clad panel-beaters out of Brum
Immune to their behemoth decibels
One poet in a man-dress bottled off
For not contributing to tinnitus
But Saint, and Aurelius, are critical of the temporal pretentiousness of the so-called summer of love depicting it as little more than mass-hedonism dressed up as spiritual transcendence:
The sixties caravan just lumbered on –
Quite harmless impure psychotropic drugs
Effecting curt lobotomies of sex from love
And other narcissistic executions
So this poem is rather like the equivalent of John Lennon's biting send-up of the Maharishi in The Beatles' 'Sexy Sadie'. This Stoic offensive against Epicureanism continues:
Meanwhile above a pint of London Pride
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
Studying the Chelsea Potter crowd
Begged if I might intercede a line
Of stoic rectitude
Embellishing their tape-looped heavy breathing
I brush aside a credit overdue
For ‘Je t’aime – moi non plus’ –
But still you might recall a piquant line
Delivered in that Franglais redolent
Of Gainsbourg’s double-meanings –
‘Physical love is a cul-de-sack
Mere sex a one-way street’
You do? Me neither
'European Tour' is equally despondent, condemnatory and almost misanthropic:
His was the ‘voice of a generation’ –
And passing time accordingly displaced him –
A troubadour lauded as poet
By the twang of his sardonic lyre
At midnight his conversation
Veers from vision into thought-disorder
Why can’t the poor man sleep?
What further expectation comes to haunt him?
The sibilance and alliteration makes for some luscious lines:
A never-ending tour of far-flung theatres
Stadiums Arenas –
To sing for his fanatics likewise ageing
Darkly smitten by misplaced nostalgia
This poem closes on a true aphoristic crescendo, in my view, the most striking and sublime image in this entire collection, and that's saying something:
For if ever there was a poet
Who might deliver continuous truth
My old gnarled tree in the garden
Has lived on unregarded
This image lingers long after reading and is a brilliant tribute to the obscurity which so often afflicts the truest poets; it almost calls to mind some of the sublimity of Thomas Gray's magisterial 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'. Also of note is the nice consonantal and assonantal chiming of 'garden' and 'unregarded'. In some ways this meditative poem with its tree metaphor reminds me of the poem that the elderly man Nonno is composing in Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana (1959).
'Marcus Aurelius Rehab' is a kind of 'Just Say No!' moment, a cautionary poem about the dangers of artificial highs via various recreational opiates:
Acolytes of Bacchus
Morpheus and crew
Flirt with a perpetual adolescence
Those lusciously alliterative three lines could be carved out to make a striking haiku in its own right. But in this poem Saint channelling Aurelian wisdom is also attacking fundamental human selfishness, which can also be spiritual selfishness as well as physical or sensation-based selfishness, promoting a sort of Buddhist metaphysical view, something approaching ego-death and what Arthur Koestler called 'oceanic consciousness', a loss of self and a sense of oneness with all things:
You just might be a man
Beginning to turn inward –
But if you try and try
You tie yourself to habits
That sabotage the spirit
Lose control by all means –
Though not by any chemical nor potion
Esoteric practice nor technique –
But take a sacred attitude to life
That means you’re not the centre
What harms the hive
Is no good for the bee
'Marcus Aurelius and the Chinese Trade Delegation' -which almost sounds like a surreal Asteríx book title- takes potshots at financial speculation:
Paper yen inspire my speculation –
Rice to make risotto toilet rolls meanwhile
A bristle toothbrush toyed with between meals
Mannequins and automatons
Soybeans and tuned bells
Chopsticks for ceramics
Cups and teapots conjured in transparent porcelain
Puppet theatres and the pontoon bridge
The kite and revolving bookcase
Let’s celebrate in fortified rice wine –
Though there’s another side I must examine
This undeniable delicacy
Has a darker application –
With bellows mustard-smoke and lime
Would you blow upon and blind my honest legions?
Let me give you in return
A Roman Wall that’s wide as half the world
Please stay behind it –
At least until you’re civilized
Sometimes, as in 'Rest & Recreation', Saint can enter the spirit of opera buffa and give Gilbert & Sullivan a run for their money:
Frivolities as these might hardly cause distress
Would you not insist in sinister speculation
Of tactical reconnaissance preceding an invasion
Accepting these assurances
Please release my men whose sensitivity
Waxes temperamental when confined
Accomplishing a duty of escape
Without regard to property or lives
Saint's is a highly versatile voice and thus well-suited to what is essential satirical verse. It is also didactic poetry, but in the best and least obtrusive sense:
Centurions while confiscating Switzerland
Built their citadel beside this spa –
Nostalgically impressed no doubt
By Nero’s chic aquatic palaces –
The poolside bell has rung
And we must keep pace with its clock –
Moving from one muscle-toning jet
Into the next – strategically
Massaged by their warm salt-minerals
A thermal spring uniting opposites –
To bathe outdoors when snow descends the pines
Is quaint delight surreal as Baked Alaska –
Saint's attack on the super rich is masterfully expressed:
We are that latest Lazarus –
Ex-pats decayed by taxes
Our camels having stretched the Needle’s Eye
Of keyhole laser treatment...
We take the air of floral chocolate
Strolling by our Alpine bovine meadow
Of Interlaken Elysium –
And raising eyes to spiritual peaks
We calculate no loss at the casino
Those last line almost make one think of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain set in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where society's consumptives take their rest cure at high altitudes and low temperatures where tuburcule bacili might cease to germinate.
'Roman Leave' is a caustic take on the poetry scene -here it is in full:
Soldiers back in barracks are constrained
From open talk of politics
Not to mention merits of their gods
What do they discuss?
Poetry of course –
Being code for both of the above
They do not take restraint in verse
To signify conservative opinion
Nor Celtic wildness to denote
But when on leave
They sample drinking dens
Then salons of those invitation-only
Bashes for promotion of new books
Hardship and attendant disappointment
Prepare them for bohemia’s striptease –
That over-rated sideshow of civilian avoidance
Those skirmishes where only egos bleed
Here Saint's rhythmic dexterity is matched with satisfying half-rhymes making for more formalist prosody. I've often thought privately that the collective noun for poets should be 'a disappointment'. Saint then returns to his running theme of the futility of aspiration for poetic posterity, its impossibility, which perfectly captures at its beginning the young hurry for publication, the older hunger-strike for recognition, and the poet's permanent terror of obscurity -here is the superlative 'Marcus Aurelius: Mentor' in full, to my mind, one of the standout poems in this deceptively slim volume:
Young poet whom no publisher
Has deigned yet to publish
Do not be distressed
You might be blessed
Blocked from racking your soul
With arrant egocentricity
For in that endless sea
Of those who are now published
Fathomless infinite libraries rise and fall
Must you see their slender volumes
So many doors excluding your new voice?
You imagine they have glory –
But how many have you met?
Anxious in renown they fear a fall
Once more to obscurity – the forest floor
Where bashful nature’s creatures
Have but one ambition –
Not to be noticed at all
For the swivelling eye of the predator
Welcomes silly fledglings to his larder
And they are dead
Who once could feel
The centre of their galaxy
As images ideas and rhythms swirled
It was only a foaming wave
Brilliantly basting a pebble
White for a while in the winter sun
Of a grey sea shelf
The contrast between man's yearning for fame and recognition and fear of obscurity and oblivion with the opposite desire for concealment and invisibility in the natural world is a profound one. Aurelius as channelled through Saint ends with emphasis on how much more difficult it is to accept one's mortality and the inevitability of having to leave the world eventually the more stakes one has within it smacks not only of Stoicism but also of Christianity which, along with Platonism, shares a common ancestry with Stoicism in many respects, particularly in terms of austereness, anti-materialism/distrust of matter and the earthly, simplicity, virtue through poverty, and even pain. And so this fine poem closes on two more sublime aphorisms:
The gaudier their flag
The greater death’s denial
You have no cause to envy this condition
Turn your metal-detector along the shore
You will stumble on such trash
As questions every man who called it treasure
A tendency towards more metrical verse and occasional rhymes resurfaces in 'The Games':
With vineyards and estates
The pension of an actor –
One who serves the State
As diplomat and orator
I’ll not enumerate his mass
Of grievous wounds and lesions
Vox populi accordingly
May call my verse ‘effete’
'Marcus Aurelius at the Cenotaph' sees the eponymous posthumous philosopher-emperor speak out against war:
I have no use for grandiose procession
Victors in a war are unimpressed
By anything save universal sadness
While that an eager populace expects
May differ by degree – intoxicants
Such as the siege and slaughter of a foe
Make only a non-combatant trip out
On patriotic fervour
Our nausea we swallow back until
Safely back in barracks we can spew
Indignation that the landless poor
Courageous young –and untried soldier
Suffer on all sides in times of war
Aurelius doesn't relish visiting the Cenotaph but if he has to he will 'wear a black armband/ As going to the funeral of a friend'. In 'Marcus Aurelius: A Long Campaign', Saint serves up an authentically Aurelian aphorism:
Enemies are predictable
Beware those who
They have a greater need
To set you underfoot –
Of all they once esteemed
To make a doormat
They style it ‘progress’ –
Amount to anything
How they avoid your path
Now you are of the past
Then come into that citadel
Where only the ancients speak
Who earned their salt experience
'Gregory's Corso', subtitled 'Caffe Vineria, Campo de’ Fiori', critiques academia and the Roman Catholic Church, both establishment bodies or systems -it's not totally clear what is Saint's exact target in the initial stanzas but one detects it might relate to English Literature as an academic subject, literary criticism, or even university creative writing courses:
Chop out lines to suit their pedantry
Sustain dishonest industry
Vying for outlandish variation
Their critical gimmicks
Ever more lucrative
I sense they dislike the lyric
From which they chew their bread
While lyrical poets living
Simply blunt their way
To sharper practice –
None of them can claim
A poet from their ancestry
Rather they’d one eye upon a tenure
The moment their milk teeth sank into a steak
Saint rightly chastises religious hypocrisy:
Now here come the priests
How very sleek –
In days preceding Holy Week
They line up in the barber’s on this street
One whose radio bawls perpetual opera
He cuts their hair most carefully for free
Why? They appear on Vatican T. V.
Evidence of his pious handiwork –
He thinks it worth a fortnight of novenas
Then comes another of Saint's killer Aurelian aphorisms which will touch a raw nerve for all those poets of the present day who still nurse illusions of widespread popularity or that getting published means, as it once did, significant circulation of one's work:
'Idioms of March' is another Aurelian warning against vanity, superficiality, falling for appearances and sycophancies, but also, on the other hand, other trappings of fame such as paranoia:
We poets are as poignantly deluded –
Giving to the Gatekeepers our final sheaf of wheat
Believing they’d distribute to the street
It ill becomes a man of my estate
To have no vices –
You need not be so proud
Concerning a mere accident of birth
If you were born to vices of this city
Where nothing’s ever quite as it appears –
You are served a delicious peach
Which upon examination
Becomes a coloured marzipan
Sculpted to a ball
Surely this is worth the tasting
Where can be the harm?
But artifice becomes a habit
Then an expectation
This can lead to downfall
Suspecting those sincere
A pat upon the shoulder
Does not mean
A dagger in the back
‘Have a nice day’ on the other hand –
Whatever can they mean?
Is this day to be my last?
'The Spanish Steps' bucks the trend of depictions of Keats as a fragile, frail waif at the mercy of critics, as somehow virginal, unearthly and uncorrupted, a predestined consumptive, and asserts his less mythologized contradictory qualities of physical outdoors stamina and stubborn determination:
John Keats was not ‘himself ’ that day
Ambling out to Highgate on the Heath
His little rifle only fit for larking
Braced in one bunched shoulder
Knocked cock-robin off a branch red-breasted
‘I think I’ll pack in the medical game’
To end up renting rooms
So near The Spanish Steps
Each pilgrim footfall fired
Mood-swings to his T. B. raddled nerves
Toned down his tough exterior
Gave an early death romantic glamour
‘Written on water’? Nothing more?
Came Forensics on the scene
‘Take his DNA and have the lab-boys run it down’
The final stanza tries to show how Keats was little different to the likes of Coleridge, Shelley or Byron in partaking of narcotics, however, this doesn't really tell us anything that different or revelatory about him, given that he was an apothecary's apprentice and so would have had easy access to pretty much any opiate of the period since all then were legal medicines:
A kink in his museum locket-hair
Discloses tincture of cannabis
Opium laudanum cocaine-tonic
All legally acquired (historically of course)
From Haverstock Hill’s dispensing late-night chemist
The alliteration, assonance and consonance of that final -somewhat tongue-in-cheek- stanza are particularly notable.
'Marcus Aurelius: Historian' is another aphoristic statement on not only mortality but the mortality of memory and the futile quest for posterity:
Sand dunes drift across Sahara
Covering sand dunes formed before
Concealing the past in sand we assume
Constitutes permanent landscape and form
This way history fails to give warning
To blinkered men mired in their time –
For whom compassion to those departed
A mere year ago is a footnote too far –
Are they departed? Are we so sure
We walk with the living and touch what is real?
Or conjured from sand is this but a dream
We put on our work-clothes vainly pursuing?
Ours is the mirage rising from dust –
Cast modest eyes on the ghost of the world
Its shifting pattern of border and rule
Of herds and of armies masses and markets
For there’s no such thing as a good-natured camel
His neck is contrived to turn on the rider
Rending and tearing just as the mood takes him –
The past we forget will return to devour
'Marcus Aurelius is from Mars' a tribute to Rome's might and majesty:
Have you seen my legions dance
Ecstatically in full regalia?
Have you seen them
Raise their wall of shields
Into a blinding river
Formed of silver fish-scales?
The shawms and bagpipes
Of our foes grow silent
Today it is
The festival of Mars
A 'shawm' for those who don't know -and I didn't until I looked it up- a conical bore, double-reed woodwind instrument apparently invented in the 12th century, so I'm not sure of its placement in the context of ancient Rome. 'Conquest' is another aphoristic take on impatient ambition:
Having subdued the natives
Quite to his satisfaction
And dreaming of an imminent promotion
He mistook a sleeping lion for a sand dune
Delivering one quick kick
So hard his sandal sailed into the air
This prevented running very far
An obstacle placed squarely on the path
As picaresque displacement to a journey
Is better accepted surely
Than to elevate one’s status prematurely
Above its guiding providence
From those who try to achieve fame prematurely to those who never achieve it at all in their lifetimes, no matter how talented they might have been, in one of my favourite poems in this collection, 'One Small Room' -the first four lines are particularly poignant:
He came to this poor quarter of the city
Seeking one small room at meagre rent
Now a plaque is placed above the door –
A poet of these streets once ill-esteemed
The poem becomes more poignant as it continues:
Obituaries all praised his well-made verse
But could not see beyond the one small room
‘Sordid and squalid’ they called it
Imputing his search for love the same
They live in rooms far smaller –
Their offices of prurient assumption
The undivided world of imagination
That was where he lived and worked
And they cannot contain him
Reduce him to one small room
Who has entered that vast embrace
A poet sings towards across a lifetime
'Spiritus' employs the metaphor of snowflakes to represent the infinite variation of individual human souls:
That snowflakes fall
By myriad design
Suggests they have a destiny
Though meltingly temporal
Beyond desire to simply co-inhere –
As if creation were in love
With diverse individuation
This poem closes on a curiously tongue-in-cheek note:
The gods are gathering and throwing gravel
Up to your shuttered bedroom window
The gods who awake to incite uncertain journeys
Neither angels demons nor your friends
They are rather agency nurses
Tasked with assertive outreach on your soul
'Excavation' picks up where 'One Small Room' left off, meditating on the perennial sour irony of posthumous praise after lifetime's damnation:
On dreamtime’s licensed premises
They praised their poets dead
When lacking this condition
Were seen to tolerate
Scars from dislocation
Of the spirit and the mind
Invisible flaws became
Their long dark bars in aftermath
Of sick regret and callous disregard
Sanctified bohemian adherence
Where fortune only bloomed
To haunt a sad decline
There's almost a Shakespearean quality to the closing verse:
And did they love each other?
Carnally the evidence is clear –
Each presumed the lead role in a play
All others dimly lit upon their stage –
Often in a wine-lodge matinee
Struggling with a few allotted lines
Mood-swings used a wrecking ball
'Marcus Aurelius: On Love' links back to 'Spiritus' in its imagery:
This world will dissolve like snow
Your personal world
Ever more swiftly passes –
Aurelius asserts that in the time of the Stoic romantic love hadn't yet been invented:
Love was not invented in my time
There were so many words for this
None took it quite as seriously
Instead we searched for Truth –
Our ethical symposiums
Accompanied by much wine
Often ended in debauchery
There then comes a sublime semi-rhyming quatrain:
You only save someone
You have not first exposed to terror –
Love without ambivalence might be
Beyond your animal nature
And then the riddling aphoristic tickle:
How unprepared you are
For the ultimate pertinent question –
Let me suggest an antidote
In a world of change and chance
Metaphysics play the minor part
'A Foreign Country' is a very effective anti-austerity poem:
To Britain’s bracing climate –
Scored discarded Scratchcards
Foodbank fodder Charity couture
Theme Park for a working poor
Bacchus is un-worshipped in binge-drinking
Lads and Ladettes shout
Then piss about the market square –
Banished gods return as new diseases
Health Services hit targets
But meanwhile miss the point –
That which can be measured
So often counts for nothing
When that which counts immeasurably
Is held of no account
The anecdotal tone of 'Drusilla' recalls Catullus and Propertius, it is a poem worthy of mention for its domestic erudition and delicious consonance:
‘They keep coal in the bath
Not that they bathe
But go all year in goose-grease undergowns’
But I might say
It beats the brutal sunstroke
Handed out by Carthage
Or dodging Goth atrocities
All along the Danube into Linz –
And my cousin Rocco breeds the best
Black olives in Emilia-Romagna
'Patrol' is notable for its similar erudition and alliterative language:
You never know on whom the gods may smile
Tribes that trouble Rome
Attribute occult power
To hacked-off heads
They hoist them by the hair
And so to charm our border guard
Post them on their poles of holy juju
Imagining we’d lose our rag
Rampage through their forest
Blunder stupefied by grief
Soberly the truth is this
We wait until there is no time
'Policy Application', as its title presages, uses a cold procedural tone in relation to Christian martyrdom following Christ's crucifixion:
While they have their private joke
Refining a straightforward crucifixion
Nailing scrotum sacs and ears unnecessarily
It might not take much measure of persuasion
Should one condemned insist
They nail him upside down
That he should not appear to
Approach in form of punishment
The despatch of his late master
A pretender to Judea’s throne
For which in purple duster
Briar crown and brushwood sceptre
He learned firsthand those jocular
Conceptions I have outlined
To which as yet no policy pertains
It's not clear, to me at least, precisely who the 'She' is -Mary Magdalene, Herodias?- in 'The Temple at Jerusalem' nor whether it is related to the trial, Passion and Resurrection of Christ, or to John the Baptist's fate prior to that -nonetheless, it is a thought-provoking poem on the nature of spirituality and the human mind and the gulf between reason and faith:
The cosmos bore a human outline
And when they brought the prisoner in
He seemed as present yet removed
All the while her consort searched the truth
By philosophical dialogue –
But the prisoner would have none of it
Refusing abstract thought
She had lingered in this city far too long
Absorbing antiquated superstition –
The ark that lived unseen inside its unrecorded room
The hidden circuits of the inner temple
The want of transparent truth
A constant source of unrest with Roman rule
Her dreams had passed their crisis now
And should one prisoner go free
Might history subside to spare
More hapless martyrs in its endless sphere?
The sphere of light containing time and space
Its hideous powers and movements
Too numerous for any human mind?
'Marcus Aurelius: Astronomer' once more uses natural phenomena as a contrast to much of humankind's egoistic, introspective, even sometimes solipsistic consciousness:
The stars do not speak our language
And cannot reason with themselves –
Volatile mineral gases
Hotheads and burnt-out creatives
Who consider their birth and passing
Of inflated importance to human affairs
In another apparent tribute to Chet Baker, 'Chet: Summer Sketch', Saint depicts the obscure American jazz trumpeter as a 'Self-sabotaging angel/ Sleepwalking fame’s absurd fast-burning tightrope'.
'Maggiore', again touching on the futile vanity of worldly success, is one of Saint's more formalistic poems, metrical to the point of being almost iambic pentameter, and employing a quite unusual irregular semi-rhyme scheme of A/B/B/C, C/D/D/A, C/E/E/F, G/H/H/I, J/C/C/A:
Silent walls surround our ancient family –
Absence of pronouncement in the press
Our safely irreproachable dark dress –
Such lives avoid the taint of ostentation
Abjuring webs of monetary transgression
(The lake is placid where a sail expires)
We’ve tacked beyond the breeze of all desire
Nor give occasion to the world for envy –
A facile sense that some have found a haven
Without responsibility or fault
(Our family crypt contains a secret vault)
Old money has humility of purpose
Meetings shall of course be kept to time
Your quiet tie suggests you have the gist
Regrettably the Rolex tags your wrist
As someone yet removed from subtle battle
True samurai need hardly show the sword
To indicate all status is distraction
We hope we have begun your education
We trust your stay remains a mystery
'Marcus Aurelius: On Impiety' contains some striking lyricism, evocative, bucolic, consonantal:
Those concrete-thinkers having won the day
Have filled your every day with concrete
You have been conned
You cannot hear the corncrake
Rising from the wildflower meadow
Do you think they are Romans?
You have been conned –
Apollo source of light
Has their celestial measurement
He circumscribes their stars
And stares into their lack of feeling
'The Animals Preach to St. Francis' is a critique of the perceived anthropocentrism of Christianity:
Prelates of your Church
Dissemble and decline
To say that we possess eternal souls
Birds of the air and Lilies of the field
Were good enough to serve as metaphor
When you renounced your father’s fashion-house
To be a teenage hippy in these hills
Let us reconsider who it was
Carried his fruits of labour
Transported to foreign parts
Those bales of rag-trade schmutter
You gracelessly abandoned
To form a Brotherhood
This can lead (at last) to sacred love
An impulse of compassion
Your own eccentric species seems to lack toward its brother
'Fontana' is a short exquisite lyric which is reminiscent of Alun Lewis in its precision and cadences:
A fountain throws itself away
Water is theology
Erodes the world’s
As through the rainbow
Falls the rain
On you as on your enemy
Through law and book
Before they look
And fish have reached
The Eliotic 'Duchessa' has something of 'The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', and also of Burnt Norton and The Dry Salvages from Four Quartets (i.e. the “strong brown god” of a river):
Her mind is in another room
There you may not follow
Never should you quite attain
Its long-established climate
You are unborn untutored here
Where privilege subsumes itself
Fortune means you no offence
Do not deny your nervousness
But let us speak of timeless themes
Present time suspends its truth
Her humour has that modest deprecation –
But put away all greater expectation
Collect yourself with coffee – recollect
A river brown with finance flows between you
Your rooms are rented from the circumspect
The wonderfully titled 'Paper Dagger' is a paper-sharp poem on the caprice of close acquaintances, the tendency in some to betray those they claim to befriend, and gives a snippet of Machiavellian advice on how to lure those who would betray you into betraying themselves and their ulterior motives:
Machiavelli advised the Prince
‘Hand to your associates
A secret paper dagger –
Choose a fictional failing
Have it known
Such a theme of weakness or remorse
Hurls you helplessly
Into intemperate mood –
That you no longer function
Fight nor reason
But are a malleable person
See who will
Draw from his sleeve
This paper-soft stiletto
Wielding its imagined slight
As if to find the slight
Might you call him 'friend'?
Many a friend of princes
Conceals such seed of enmity –
Then furnish them all
With harmless paper daggers
That point towards their own hearts
'Marcus Aurelius is Not Proud' begins with a thumping aphorism:
The world is simple
Maddened by his appetites
Prefers a hell of endless disappointment –
What might satisfy?
He feeds on everything as if in famine?
A pageant a farce a new romance
All novelties –
What selfish impulse sets his course
Ajar like wooden puppetry?
Until his thoughts are anchored in regret
He tramples flowers before him unreflecting –
For flowers now interpose his fellow man –
Not put here for his usury
Nor animals designed
As walking delicatessen
But he must have rule over them
And so his outlook grows mechanical
Pursuing new obsession
To companion his conceit –
Pride that prides itself
On being free from pride –
Isn’t this the more sinister?
Politicians crawl into that pot-hole
Dragging their retinue with them
Then cripple the whole population
Overtaxing the poorest poor –
‘Such briars are good for you
Instilling a Spartan spirit’
Say those whose pious practice is
The vice of self-flagellation
'Prolific' is another nugget of Aurelian wisdom touching on the notion that the creative act, in this case writing, is an unconscious attempt to somehow delay the inevitability of death -it starts off almost in the style of a Danny Kaye tongue-twister or a Comden and Green lyric a la 'Moses supposes his toeses are roses' from Singin' in the Rain:
As long as you are composing
You are not decomposing
That must be the reason
– 32 books and counting –
Continuously you bare your soul
Attempting the longest chain letter
From any one man to his maker
I simply sent a love-note
– What’s the hurry? –
On mule by second-class mail
Trusting the courts of heaven
Remain un-swayed by ceaseless chanting
'Bay of Lindos' is a short pithy plea for freedom from religious belief:
There are so many gods
To help you kneel
To help you squat or sit
To tie yourself in knots
To task yourself
With duties and devotions
gods you love to fear
and gods you fear to love –
Where is the god
To say ‘Stand up’
‘Stand up and walk away
From this ungodly enervating sickness’?
'A Provincial Assizes' depicts Aurelius's lenience of judgement of a Roman soldier converted to the early Christian cult and contains fascinating insights into how the philosopher-emperor might well have done so whilst at the same time belittling the fledgling religion:
‘Please go home and reason with yourself ’ –
The presiding magistrate resisting undue haste
‘Take a fortnight to resume
Your tribute to the gods of Rome
Your oath to Caesar crowned a living god
From whom your service-discharge bread and wine
Commends your past allegiance bearing arms’
Why sanction execution of a soldier
Drawn into that slaves’ pernicious cult
Deemed to stem from one dead Nazarene?
Make precedent of liberal jurisprudence –
Marcus Aurelius counselled as much
Finding something yet to admire
In youthful alienation
Scrawling chalk graffiti of small fish
On pavements by the Apian Gate –
‘A puerile imitation of the stoics’
He summarised their interesting creed
Rome of course was harder pressed
Its jails were jammed with martyrs –
‘Why not loop a rope around your neck
And step out from a precipice?’
One judiciary advised them –
An exasperating problem!
He blamed the schismatic Gnostics
For insisting that their Jeshu never suffered
Nor died nor lived again –
It was all to be perceived symbolically you see –
But only by trained adepts such as they!
The poem closes on as abrupt and flippant a tone as Philip Larkin's 'Aubade':
Result? – a disturbed minority
Volunteer to be free lunch
In the Coliseum’s – hideously expensive –
Abyssinian lions’ jaws
'Cinecitta' in both theme and style recalls to my mind Thirties filmic poetry of the likes of Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNiece, and Joseph MacLeod:
The film plays to an empty theatre
Time elapses –
Now the audience enters
They try to ascertain the plot –
Vineyards seas and cities
Fact and dream collide and intermingle –
Unlikely heroes raise applause
Also bears and horses –
Comedy misfortune interlude for kisses
The beginning still unseen –
So pivotal to the plot
Absorbed by the film
They forget a former existence
Beyond the cinema door
Then one by one they leave
The film still runs
They never see its ending
The film plays to an empty theatre
Time elapses –
Now the audience enters
'Marcus Aurelius Offers Solace' tries to offer consolation for regret and failure in death and oblivion but at least does so with Saint's usual eloquence and wit:
In a very little while
You will be scattered ashes
Or a skeleton
Having fed the worms
Then be of good cheer –
Turn of fortune
Failure in worldly success
Accompanies this –
Your superannuated corpse –
Surely it is not
So difficult to bear
Some follow funerals
Then tell themselves
How glad they are to be alive –
The poem closes on an almost impossibly upbeat note:
When you throw a peck of earth
As it were on your own coffin
Take my hand –
Your friend Marcus Aurelius –
History does not know
For never would I tell
But between you and me
Add a Roman pinch of elegiac poet
Closing the collection is the witty 'Marcus Aurelius: Webpage':
From Elysian groves I Google myself
In coffee shops of the garrulous dead
Who enjoy supernatural sight
Light-years beyond your wi-fi bounty
Accompanying an unpaid mid-day break’s
Cinnamon-sprinkled low-fat skinny latte
How these specious scholars of the web
Have simplicated me –
Another ancient sanitised celeb.
Consigned to wicked-pedia
(Read my Meditations for the juice
And never trust a hippy)
I continue virtually at least
In bluffed and sweated schoolboy cribs
Their multi-trillion hits assuring me
That when disordered government
Plants its citizen-chip
In every new-born brain
Fusing mini PC screens
To pairs of non-negotiable Gucci glasses
And so closes this erudite, exquisitely crafted satirical poetry collection by Bernard Saint.
Michael Crowley's First Fleet is an historical outing in poetry attempting to fill in the gaps -where there is an absence of first hand accounts- of a particular episode at the tail-end of the eighteenth century relating to the epic voyage of the first British ship bound for the new penal colony of Botany Bay. Crowley's compendious Foreword is excerpted below:
In May 1787 eleven ships left Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay
on the south eastern coast of what was then called New Holland.
Their cargo was eight hundred convicts and a year’s worth of
supplies. They had little knowledge of the land they were
attempting to settle or its inhabitants. The ambitious endeavour
of the First Fleet was led by Captain Arthur Phillip with around
two hundred marines under his command. That all eleven ships
got there at all, and all within days of each other, is remarkable.
An extraordinary feat of seamanship and navigation. A journey
of fifteen thousand miles through stretches of under-explored
ocean in eight months and one week. The experience of the
ships’ crews is an epic story in itself.
For the first few years the existence of the settlement was
precarious. The thousand or so new inhabitants were faced with
crop failure, drought, diminishing rations in a strange and
uncharted land where the seasons were in reverse. They had
little to go on to begin with. Cook’s charts were sketchy and the
reports of his naturalist Joseph Banks erroneous in some
respects. Of course the British had the experience of colonis -
ation elsewhere, yet this had limited currency with the people
with whom they struggled to build relations.
The events have come to us through eleven journals and
letters, mainly by the marine officers. There are no convict
journals and there are no records from Aboriginal people.
Though plainly told, the journals are extraordinary reading for
they concern, often rather casually, events of great historical
significance. They remind us how our present was once
balanced on the edge of individual endeavour. The very survival
of the settlement at Sydney Cove depended upon the rescue
mission of the Sirius circumnavigating the globe at below forty
degrees to purchase supplies from Cape Hope; to a lesser degree
the efforts of convict farmer James Ruse. Events that are terrible
and fascinating: the execution of Thomas Barret; Arthur Phillip’s
relationship with Bennelong. Necessarily they are viewed
through the screen of a colonisation that led to a disaster for the
Aboriginal people, its opening chapter the smallpox epidemic
in the spring of 1789.
It's at the close of this informative Foreword that Crowley explains his poetic approach to the subject matter that so fascinates him, and it's a singular one of what one might term the poetry of period-empathy, or even of psychic witness/ poetic clairaudience (psychical hearing):
What is absent from many primary sources are the private,
intimate voices we long to hear; those of the marines, of the
convicts and Aboriginal people. These I have occupied with
poetry. Both people about whom there is memoir and biography
as well as those about whom we only know name and sentence.
What follows will not add to the history of the First Fleet. I
would dearly love to do that but poetry can’t help. The sequence
was borne from an impossible desire to enter history, to get
closer to the dead and the silent to whom we are indebted,
whether we know it or whether we like it, or not.
Clairaudience or not, there is something uncanny in the felt authenticity of Crowley's depictions of the period and setting throughout this accomplished collection; indeed, at times while reading this collection I was reminded of an atmospheric Boulting Brothers film, Thunder Rock (1942), in which a solitary lighthouse keeper in the late 1930s is visited by the revenants of a shipwrecked crew from the 19th century and becomes their witness and unwitting chronicler. Particularly striking is Crowley's ability to bring individuals to life on the page, often through physical descriptions, images, objects, belongings, as in the first poem, 'Condemned', subtitled 'Susannah Ruse, Bodmin Assizes, 29 July 1782', though more in relation to an incidental figure: 'James Ruse, face like Growan clay,/ will pull a plough in his burgling clothes'.
Similarly, Crowley encapsulates one character in 'Chimney Sweep', subtitled 'John Hudson on the prison hulk Dunkirk, the Thames 1785', in the trope: 'He swills rum like a tinker, tells me it tastes like rag water'.
Perhaps it is a fairly standard technique of contemporary mainstream poetry but Crowley's focus on objects and the habits that circulate around their uses as idiosyncratic indicators of individual personalities is an intriguing way of letting us into the shadow-worlds these obscuritans inhabit, as in 'Charlotte Medal', subtitled 'Thomas Barrett on board the Charlotte, October 1787':
A catch poll nabbed my father.
A maker of tools and crippled bob pieces
he learned me a fob is best done on the sly.
I struck out on my own still young,
working sneaks on Clerkenwell Road,
up to High Holborn...
bids me engrave an image of the Charlotte,
on his silver kidney dish...
I might be a bit biased in this, in that I'm the son of an ex-Royal Marine, but given the marines were specifically in place on ships to keep discipline among the sailors, the gossip-snippet in 'Badlands', 'I have my rations/ without the pleasure of marines. They are ill-tempered' doesn't entirely ring true to me.
'First Up the Fig Tree', subtitled 'Surgeon White at the execution of Thomas Barrett, February 1788', is a poignant and deeply moving depiction of the antipodean gallows awaiting some of these convicts, presumably for 'crimes' committed en route, no matter how petty: 'They stole property/ of the Crown: beef and pease'. Surgeon White seems to have exploited a certain industry in one of the felons:
Barrett, a convict of guile and craft,
coined quarter dollars out of buckles,
pewter spoons, on the passage from Santa Cruz.
I had him brought to my cabin,
gave the boy a dish of plated silver.
He fashioned a medallion in the dimness of the hold.
For the most part Crowley employs a pithy, almost staccato poetic technique which is often effective, especially in terms of the descriptions and striking images couched within each sentence -as here, from 'Reflections on a Recent Expedition', subtitled 'Arthur Phillip, First Governor of New South Wales, about his ablutions, March 1788': 'Natives upon the rocks, arms like raised oars' and 'Faces painted with pipe clay,/ walls with red ochre. Tench beckons me withdraw', and the wonderfully phrased 'Our ragged settlement. This hungry, ashen, tent'.
In 'Making Mortar', subtitled 'Jane Fitzgerald, Rushcutters Bay, April 1788', Crowley's sense-impressing descriptions of convicts harvesting oysters is particularly evocative:
All day I pick up oyster shells.
Nothing divides us from the sun,
no wind or cloud, or shade.
There are no pearls,
just the pummelled milk white ears
listening to their own rattle in our sacks.
Men are folded to the ground,
stooped like horses nibbling the earth.
Unconscious or not, the o-assonance in one stanza is particularly effective in terms of communicating a huge labour:
Bloodworth gives the orders.
He stands straight, chest out,
works men hard to have brick houses built.
The Governor imagines a town,
fine houses like Bristol.
The poem ends on a telling trope particularly pertinent to prisoners: 'A shell is also a blade'.
Crowley often employs poetic couplets or tercets to encapsulate his succinct poetic images and I'm often reminded of the similarly succinct style of David Swann, who also, ironically, penned a penal-themed poetry collection, The Privilege of Rain: Time Among the Sherwood Outlaws (Waterloo Press, 2014). In 'Damned', subtitled 'James Daley fears for survival, June 1788', Crowley's application of sibilance, assonance and alliteration is extremely effective:
The Governor talks of a city. He has drawings under his bed.
Lies stricken with sickness, a landed fish in another world.
He won’t keep Christmas here.
The Sirius gone for grain to bring back flour for bones.
I’d say the crew will whip ashore, hide in the port.
Poor Barrett turned off up the ladder,
tail flapping for a handful of pork.
A storm the same day washed him out his grave.
If I've any criticism of such clipped, precise poetry, it's a certain formulaic quality which does become a bit too predictable. But in spite of that, the poems are almost-always accomplished technically-speaking. Take the wonderful k-alliteration at the start of 'Crop Failure', subtitled 'James Ruse to Governor Arthur Phillip, July 1788':
Six months louster on eight acres
grubbing up roots, hacking at gums, felling trees
twenty five feet about the trunk.
No plough or beasts, all hack and peck hoe.
Men break and die. One I know a lead miner,
laid down arms folded on his breast,
the yellow ground his tomb. I shut his eyes for him.
There's a real cadence in these descriptive lines, a toing and froing sing-song quality which has a maritime quality, although these particular scenes are set inland. Louster, incidentally, means to 'work actively'. And the sheer quality of Crowley's descriptive ability and turn-of-phrase is beyond dispute: 'Famished soil, mean as Cornish clay,/ washes off the rock, air thick with lightning' -as is his capacity for aphorism: 'dreaming of English Aprils and September apples./ They have worked and died only for more seed./ They have tasted this earth and spit out my name with it'.
'Sermon', subtitled 'Reverend Richard Johnson, chaplain to the Colonies, July 1788', is moving poem meditating on the obscurity of the convicts' antipodean sentence, which Crowley atmospherically evokes through natural and seasonal images of nostalgia:
We shall perish with the crop or the harvest,
become the juice that sweetens the earth
without the witness of a church, only the marvel
of the gospels in my hand.
The poem closes on what might possibly be a poignant agnostic metaphor for religious faith:
An eagle above us bathes in the spa of the air.
His vexed eye hunts for game that isn’t there.
'Flogging Duty', subtitled 'Surgeon White oversees the punishment of James Daley, August 1788', is a gorgeously imagistic poem, albeit on a grisly scene of execution by hanging, and here Crowley employs the poetic device of anaphora (Greek: ἀναφορά, "carrying back") and epiphora, which are basically the repetitions of certain sequences of words and phrases at the beginning and ends of neighbouring clauses -it's necessary to excerpt the poem in full to appreciate the effect of this technique:
Flesh hardened, skull thickened, eyes deepened,
led again to the triangle or the tree.
The drummer boy’s roll, a sentence mumbled,
black strap in the mouth, whip shook out,
hands tied high, heels off the ground,
skin pulled tight. Not much of a crowd.
A ludicrous man, claimed he’d found a goldmine.
Hundred lashes this time, shoulder to buttock
the cat collects his flesh, throws it back in our faces.
Pieces loop over heads like sea spray, thinning
in the wind. Cockroaches carry portions away.
Barangaroo the native woman, wails from the woods,
runs about naked, waves a branch at the major.
The bone’s exposed. White as cockatoo feathers.
Bathe with salt water, cover the mess with leaves.
This is what a New Holland surgeon does with his day.
This is what a New Holland surgeon does with his day.
Bathe with salt water, cover the mess with leaves.
Barangaroo naked, shoulder to buttock.
Not much of a crowd. To the triangle or the tree,
black strap in the mouth, hands tied, heels off the ground,
skin pulled tight. Wails from the woods.
Flesh hardened, skull thickened, eyes deepened.
A ludicrous man, thinning in the wind.
'The bone’s exposed. White as cockatoo feathers' is a particularly striking image.
'Illustrating a Journal' subtitled 'Surgeon White paints the crested cockatoo, September 1788' is as painterly as its subject, loaded with strong images and deploying a deft use of half-rhyme:
The gamekeeper brings me birds he has slain,
a kingfisher without its head to match.
I sought out its colours up-river and found
a crest that glows gaily against its back,
like the silver darlings that shone about
our ships all the days of the doldrums,
until with the grampus we drifted south
carried by the spawn of the ocean.
Scurvy taints the convicts’ skin sallow white.
Faces are clouds, mouths are parrot tails;
a runaway was found blackened by lightning.
The sky is bruised, it will bring more hail.
My cockatoo prances along the chair,
his black eyes in the mirror keep him there.
A universe of maritime literature from Moby-Dick to Conrad is evoked in such tropes as 'This man can navigate. Stars are like words to him./ He can catch a handful of wind', from 'A Convict Can Sail', subtitled 'Samuel Bird on the prospects of escape, January 1789'.
For the most part, these are essentially verse-vignettes, which admittedly justifies their succinct, staccato quality -'Healing', subtitled 'Jane Fitzgerald receives twenty five lashes for disobedience, March 1789', is a case in point:
His narrow fingers, soft as water make me sleep.
I dread the flies that’s all. Footsteps along my wounds,
the shiver of their eggs.
William is no soldier. His uniform hangs off his shoulders,
he is young, taunted and ordered by all others.
But he brings me the healing leaves,
sets down his musket, reaches for me.
I will sew his torn sleeves.
Once again it contains some wonderful alliterations.
Meanwhile, 'Landed', subtitled 'Arabanoo of the Gayimai People fails to escape captivity, March 1789', is an excellent example of Crowley's most gnomic moments:
They ask about living with white men,
their eyes are always the same,
I close them, bury or burn them
at a place where the captain says.
They are lizards in the flames.
The phrase 'butterfly children about my feet' is particularly effective in conveying that particular scene of a white colonial interloper in a native village being surrounded by frenetically curious native children.
In 'Calgalla', subtitled 'Surgeon White on the death of Arabanoo through smallpox, April 1789', begins with another of Crowley's evocative stanzas:
We have brought our blood here and it sickens.
Centuries of malady flows within us.
A plague once asleep now stirs and quickens,
hunts among the natives laying blisters
While exploring uncharted territories Down Under in 'Discovery', Captain Tench ends up daydreaming of distant England: 'I think on the Thames at Putney' while native 'Ducks hear gunfire for the first time and flee'. Crowley's occasional rhyming is nothing if not imaginative, as in 'They have weapons I can steal,/ hatchets to fight the Cameraigal' from 'Desecration', subtitled 'Bennelong of the Eora People is taken prisoner, November 1789'.
There's no denying that the clipped quality of these poems perfectly complements their purposes, as in these precisely sculpted p-alliterative lines from 'The World Dried', subtitled 'Jane Fitzgerald on the death of her infant son James, January 1790':
The chaplain brought over grapes,
I rubbed the juice on James’s lips.
A pip trembled there,
I wiped it away and he sucked my finger.
The chaplain laid him near his house,
he says a church will be built by the graveyard.
'Home', subtitled 'James Ruse to Susannah Ruse, Rose Hill, February 1790', opens somewhat disorientatingly: 'Susannah, have you expected to see me/ walking through Launceston on market day?' It closes on a slope of staccato aphorism:
You would like the land. But not the company
or the conversation. Work is my only master
and the fields don’t have an end.
Similarly, in 'Proposal', subtitled 'James Hudson to Jane Fitzgerald, April 1790', we get:
No one cries for her that jumped from the cliffs today.
She couldn’t bear the island, gave in to the ocean.
She was alone. I find this no harder
than my life in London. My mind is grown,
I have spirit to give away.
I see through you to the bottom of the well.
When we walk in the woods, amongst trees like castles,
our loneliness leaves in the quiet.
Just the wind on our clothes,
a scream from the ghost of a bird.
'Second Fleet', subtitled 'Norfolk Island, August 1790', is one of Crowley's trademark vignettes, engorged with assonance and consonance:
His father pulled him towards the bloodstained light.
A gentleman felon, a chancer who claims
his line from Ireland’s earls. Darcy.
I come from peasants and rogues, they wait
in ditches, on roads for the gallows or the voyage,
still it was me that Darcy chose on the lag-ship.
In 'Prayer', subtitled 'Reverend Richard Johnson, Sydney Cove, August 1790', Crowley's technique of half-rhyme line endings is extremely effective and lends a melodic quality like a sea shanty:
We are a wicked people, truly. Blind
to the commands of government and God.
I watch men think on the end of their time
who would trade their souls for a cup of grog.
Descriptively Crowley is particularly adept -these lines from 'Payback', subtitled 'Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse on the spearing of Governor Phillip, Manly Beach, September 1790': 'We came to humour Bennelong/ dancing in his red kersey jacket,/ besmeared in pipe clay and blood./ A whale beached a week since, putrid yet devoured'.
'We Give Thanks', subtitled 'Reverend Johnson decides he must build a church, February 1793', is a profound poem with the power of allegory and closes on a sublime aphorism:
Milbah my new child thrives. Her hands open
and close, I stroke the folds, and Araboo
the native girl, her fingers pick ripening
fruit, pulp oats and pease. Cucumbers
I have a thousand, a wheat field and even
an orchard where my boy, stillborn lies.
I shall dig up, lay out
the mud bricks myself, hew down the palm trees.
Man must have walls, an end to what he believes.
'Bennelong in London', subtitled 'Bennelong after the death of his friend Yemmerawanne, Eltham,May 1794', shows Crowley's empathetic gifts in voicing an aphoristic inner-monologue of one of the antipodean natives brought back to England:
I am invisible now, lazy as the moon.
There are men under bridges who cannot read the stars.
Some will come home on ships, some strangled where they are.
Once we were like long ago, when all
had been made, yet all was in darkness.
I shall be home when the Emu is in the sky.
Then I will leave my English clothes for good,
keep a handkerchief.
Closing the First Fleet section of the book is 'Departure', subtitled 'Arthur Phillip at home in the town of Bath, Somerset, July 1796', which reveals Bennelong's inauguration as an English gentleman, though there's the implication that he will eventually become a faded novelty little different to a zoo exhibit:
When Bennelong sang Edward Jones wrote down his songs.
We went to Sadlers Wells, St Pauls,
he listened with me to Haydn.
Handel is not for us. Was not to our taste.
We caused a stir at Covent Garden,
He has written to me, asking for handkerchiefs,
stockings and shoes. Of ‘muzzy doings’
Each evening people pay a shilling
to see a kangaroo at the Lyceum.
It's worth noting that Crowley has previously written for radio and theatre, and this is apparent throughout First Fleet, these poems being essentially dramatic monologues in verse, and one could easily imagine them being broadcast as a sequenced play for voices on radio.
The second supplemental section of this collection, Time Signature, is a selection of other verse. The title poem is accomplished enough with some pleasant phrasing: 'each of us picking up its refrain/ softening in the heat of darkness,/ playing on the roof tiles under the rain'. These poems also share an antipodean setting with First Fleet, since Crowley has visited Australia as part of his family has emigrated there, which perhaps sparked his interest in the story of First Fleet. These kinetic lines from 'The Passenger Bird':
All the way back the off-side wiper nudges it;
it hangs on, wing a torn flag, a pitiful hand-signal.
At night eyes muster beyond the porch.
In the morning the bird has gone.
A smear on the windscreen, cleaned by the wiper-blade.
In 'Ten Pound Alan' Crowley recollects adumbrations of Australia since his childhood when a schoolfriend was about to emigrate to 'That country in the corner of the map on the wall,/ spread out like orange peel'. To my mind this is one of the most exquisitely descriptive poems in the book:
We went to his house before they left.
I sat on the floor by the fire pulling threads
from the carpet, a varnished boomerang
above me on the wall. His mother, poised
in front of net curtains, a silhouette inside silver
cigarette smoke, talked about the wages out there.
It was June, we stood in assembly
holding blue hymn books,
too much sun in the hall. The teacher,
her long dress yellow with flowers,
asks us all to wave to Alan...
In 'The Fatal Shore', subtitled 'After Robert Hughes', which takes on a looser, more discursive form on the page, I assume a relative of the author's is trying to persuade him, while visiting, to emigrate to Australia, and interspersing this dialogue are lines from, presumably, an account of the fates of one of the First Fleet convicts:
Seven years transportation
a torpor of contentment
for a pair of stockings.
and I’d never make the journey.
Spewed out of London,
swallowed by the passage.
The poem closes mysteriously:
She squats to the shells, sifts one for me,
blows the sand out for a wish.
Take this back across the world.
A photo frame away her mother
stares into the terrifying perfection.
In 'No-Man's-Land', subtitled 'Portadown, Co. Armagh 1973', a vignette set in Troubles-era Northern Ireland, there's a brilliantly consonantal image: 'a boy in saggy camouflage surfaces,/ holds his rifle casually like luggage'. 'Too Late' is a powerful and well-crafted short poem relates the tragic suicide of a young prison inmate:
In the governor’s office, I have no questions.
I’ve slept well since I got the news –
no more phone calls from custody sergeants,
people he owed money to barking at the door.
He checks his notes, Shall we go over?
Never ending lawns, well-kept flower beds,
two prisoners throwing grass at each other.
A pack of seagulls fighting outside the wing.
One swoops down, its beak open; I can see
its tongue. They hand me his clothes bagged and sealed.
The cell like his bedroom the day I turfed him out.
He’d leaned forward, the sheet around his neck.
A boy collecting laundry stares in on me,
edges his cart forward another door.
Beyond the window, conifers and hills,
one of those early winter sunsets, raging.
That final image is particularly poignant in conveying feelings barely expressible. It's not completely clear in what capacity Crowley is speaking here, or whether he is giving voice to anonymous narrator, though with the line 'The cell like his bedroom the day I turfed him out', one might almost assume this is a father relating the suicide of a son while in custody. However, I note from Crowley's biographical extract that he was once writer in residence at HM Lancaster Farms, a Youth Offenders' Institution (once no doubt one of those brutal-sounding 'borstals'), though the narrator of the poem comes across as if he is a staff member such as a warden. So this poem is a bit of a mystery, all the more tantalising for it also being one of the most lingering.
Crowley's descriptive powers are everywhere in evidence in 'Field': 'Gusts surf the grass – the wind deep./ I hack at ground crammed with rainfall,/ each spade-full heaving a drunk to his feet'. The poems ends on a wonderfully imaginative image: 'A stoat leaps, rain moves off the hill –/ a wedding dress blown across a field'. 'Sky' is a painterly eight-line poem -here it is in full:
Behind us the field’s reach to horizon.
Sky charged and moving, clouds group then merge
banking north. We watch one bleed through another,
its centre deepens, the edges glow.
Some days, the evenly grey, we close the blinds.
On others we stand on chairs for the heavens’
ploughed field. Or walk to the top of the hill,
look up from the bottom of a well.
As mentioned, Crowley is highly imaginative in his descriptions, and in 'North Gower Triptych' he verges on the surreal: 'The loud-mouthed wind/ splits us like a child scheming'. In the similarly pastoral 'South Gower Triptych' we get some almost Dylan Thomas-esque lines: 'Cart after horse, after goats, after a hawk on a glove/ after wolves, all before the walks for Whitsun-ale./ A tree arches into the moss zone. Light squints off water spilling down the gutter of the gulley', and the somewhat less rhapsodic 'the asphodel flower, reddening now, poisons the sheep', and the haunting 'I go in against the wind, the shingle, your cold advice,/ swim out far enough to see you smalled at the arc of the bay'. I'm also reminded here of the moody and atmospheric pastoral poetry of contemporary shepherd-poet Tim Beech.
'Leaves' has an unsettling nursery-rhyme quality to it -here it is in full:
They come in a rush like children out of school.
The willow sprinting, the birch behind,
bright-lined creases looking up to the light –
an infant’s hand unfolded in mine last year.
Between my fingers a blackcurrant leaf –
a colander full, air thick with wine in my mother’s kitchen.
Come Christmas I’ll heap dead leaves to feed the buds,
my finger in Rosa’s palm, round and round the garden.
In 'Mid Wales Triptych' the poet is 'elbows clenched/ through wind-slapping darkness'. 'Hill of Faith', subtitled 'John Wesley in Heptonstall, May 1747', is a quirky historical vignette which closes:
one gave me rose-syrup when I was dry.
We will a chapel build when I come back,
with eight strong sides, a door never locked
so the wind will turn away, but never the flock.
'The Reckoning', subtitled 'Padraig Pearse, Good Friday 1916', is a haunting meditation on war, faith and sacrifice -here it is in full:
My letters are written, debts acknowledged,
some verses unfinished. I took communion
this evening, settled my disputes with God.
There remains one last play, one stark, true action.
My uniform is too tight in the trousers,
a little loose in the shoulders. My sword,
my revolver. History is a shroud
I offer to share at Liberty Hall
from under a portrait of Tone. War is loved
by people; the boy at the barricade,
his mother at the grave. Birth comes with blood.
A century has passed since last it was staged.
The fallen, the risen body of Christ
reminds us what our tongues are for at last.
Concluding this accomplished collection is a poem appropriately entitled 'The Last Room', and this is to my mind perhaps the most powerful poem in the entire book, so a well-chosen colophon for an exemplary run of poems. It appears to be the poet remembering his wife in their early years of marriage in stark contrast to her apparent decline into some form of dementia as he visits her daily in a the nursing home; in all these aspects, the poem strikes a particular chord with me since my father was for years in the same depleting and despondent situation visiting my mother daily in her final years when she was in a nursing home suffering from Huntington's Disease, which gradually erodes cognitive and motor functions and includes all the dreadful effects of dementia-like illnesses. This is a beautifully observed piece:
He takes the hair oil from the cabinet,
the razor, the long serving aftershave,
wipes the sandwich-board face he has worn
across forty years of the shop floor.
He turns both shoulders
buttons the blazer, his back a lawn of blue,
bordered by a chequered cravat
an ocean away from the sailing shoes.
Cleans out his pipe, walks out
searching for a garden rich with roses,
the low race of house martins, a piano,
someone half-singing Vera Lynn.
For a pier bombed into the sea,
the Capstan cigarette lit hours
behind khaki doors, for the laughter
as he carried her case into the room.
In the pub on the promenade she smiled
leg swinging from the bar stool.
Those sudden years before the kids came,
drinking, dancing in Streatham ballroom.
The following stanza is unnervingly resonant in its depiction of a typical nursing home where a TV seems to be on perpetually more for the seeming benefit of the 'care workers' than the inmates:
Beside her now in the dayroom
she remembers a song,
the nurse breaks her round to listen.
He talks to her above the television, always on.
There's a Larkinesque quality to Crowley's pithy and uncomplicated phrasing. The penultimate stanza could have been a description of my own father when half-living in a similar limbo, particularly his habit of reading the newspaper despairing at the parlous state of politics:
He finds himself between the co-op
and the kitchen, flexing his newspaper,
clearing his throat, swallowing
his disappointment with the government.
That's such a straightforwardly written stanza, almost prose, and yet packing an emotional punch through its use of common images that are almost mythic in their universality. Sometimes the commonplace bursts with symbolism. So closes as consummate a collection of poems as you're likely to read anywhere today.
Smokestack is to be commended for its increasingly protean interpretation of what constitutes contemporary left field political poetry by publishing two unobtrusively erudite, historically-rooted but still deeply polemical collections by two poets whose work should be much better known that it probably is. Both Roma and First Fleet, in their very distinctive, individual ways, vitally remind us just how little about human nature, its concerns and priorities, actually alters through the centuries -or even, as in the case of Roma, millennia. Both collections demonstrate, then, the timeless relevance of the core themes of life, thought and feeling of the human animal, but an animal, crucially, lit with an inimitable spark of spirit. Highly recommended.
Alan Morrison © 2019