Alan Morrison on
There Will Be No Miracles Here
Roses grow in skips on Penistone Road
I was instantly struck by the arresting cover image of this debut poetry collection by Sheffield-based Stephen Sawyer: a black and white photograph of a young boy whose haircut and sweater suggest either the late Seventies or Eighties, perched atop a metal pole structure forming an almost crucificial shape completed by his torso against a misty backdrop of council flats with boarded-up windows. This pictorial combination with Sawyer's strikingly pessimistic title packs a real punch in its depiction of defiance mixed with despondency; indeed, Jez Coulson's highly evocative photograph has something of Ken Loach's Kes (1969) about it.
Sawyer's poetry emerges from such brutalism with scrubbed-up brusqueness, like a pumice stone. The first poem, 'Orgreave Mass Picnic', is, as the title suggests, set during the 1984-5 Miner's Strike; it's quite brave to start a collection with a fairly long sequenced poem but Sawyer pulls it off well, the poem seeming to move quickly on the currents of its accumulative images, and there's a certain Harrisonian quality in its linguistic agility, not to say, Classical literary allusions -in this case, Shakespeare:
cast as the turnspit ‘jailer’
of Antonio, wearing sackcloth
in the service of Shylock;
a metallic silver-painted sword
for a part without a word.
There's a great use of consonance and assonance there too. There's a wonderful aural allusion to the 1964 film Zulu: 'You could confuse Zulu drum /– beats of truncheons on shields'. And the 'bearded man/ in a red t-shirt: Keep Calm/ and Read Marx' almost reminds one of Jeremy Corbyn. Sawyer's gritty lyricism is impressive:
Sitting with miners in Beighton Welfare
waiting for the picket call
then hands are braced
against van roofs as we hurtle
in convoy across barrens
that look like a mace-dented breastplate
under a faint rind of moon.
A light floats to the surface – blinks,
a string-vested man sings
at a frosted bathroom window:
I left my heart in San Francisco.
But Sawyer's real gift is with imagery:
A nacreous arc bisects our route,
down to third, a bandaged tree,
second, Laundry Works,
missing letters & Sons,
Butchers Entrance, time
out of joint, back up to third –
and a backward glance:
child ghosts, a grim reaper,
painted on boarded up windows;
a cooker lit by its own irony
on forecourt ruins
and we’re flying again
in the lung-dust darkness.
The phrase 'nacreous arc bisects' is beautifully alliterative. 'The colliery’s beaming eyes clock/ you like a head wound' is striking, as is this imaginatively descriptive trope: 'a single scorpion shadow/ in the marsh window light/ of a colliery bus as it crosses the line'. There's almost a documentary, filmic quality to some of Sawyer's jump-cuts in depictions, the present tense lending them a timeless urgency: 'This is a reconstruction:// A cattle baron refused the free run/ of ploughed land, hires a gunfighter/ as mean as a scabbard...'. It's interesting, this filmic sensibility, since here Sawyer uses the imagery of a Western to depict this episode in the Miners' Strike, just as he earlier used imagery from Zulu. Some scenes have an almost vertiginous, surreal quality:
A shirtless kid leaps over flowers
in neighbourhood gardens,
mounted police galloping full-tilt
tearing them up, behead the sun.
Sawyer, obviously a boy during the Strike, writes: 'Women of the communal kitchen/ insist I eat a free dinner/ though I’m not a miner on strike'. The following trope is poetically evocative:
Pensioners legless on elderflower
falling over sequestered pews
along the candlelit terraces
at the anti-Princess Di festivities.
Can you hear the pit yard sing?
And did those feet in ancient times…
These are understandably moments and memories which left a lasting impression on the poet and which he revisits with a bittersweet nostalgia:
Three hours baby-sitting
for a sack of beetroot. Eight pints
of homebrew for fixing an engine.
Sheer weight of numbers
beating off bailiffs. Can you hear
the pit yard sing: the miners united,
will never be defeated?
Laughter in the cage ascending
at 25 feet per second, stomachs
leaping as the sun sets fire
to the tongues of those who harvest
the hard fruit of the deep earth,
inseparable from saltpetre, water,
and forebears, who are themselves.
This almost stream-of-consciousness rapture of nostalgia builds to a breathtaking bloom of imagery:
That way of hanging out, power
of the untamed thought
between chimney pots, chinks
of curtain light, bits of motor bike,
a mother’s valium lips, thinking
without banister rails. A first love,
a mirage’s sister, receding
as I approach her Bacall-glam eyes,
and braced front teeth, who
always got a speaking part.
Her mind I knew like the Sea
of Tranquillity, tried to find
one Sunday, amidst verandas
of blue hydrangeas; the absences
of abstract sculptures, a Pekinese
cradled in arms, garden walls
of slab-cut lumber; a union jack;
the Spion kop chanting of a train,
calling me back, calling me back.
Sawyer's poetry is infused with tactile and gustatory sense-impressions:
Children release balloons
in front of the main stage.
All the time of light
and a hiss of anger remain
in the green apple I bite into.
Pit-boot flush in stirrup-cup...
True beauty in the grit of circumstance. This is an exceptional lyrical opening to the collection, at times sublime, it immediately detonates any preconceptions based upon the despondent Loachian cover image.
'Picasso's Bull' is a quite surreal poem, its actual subject not entirely clear to my reading, either Sawyer is depicting a boy playing blind man's buff like a bull, or the other way round -no matter, it has some excellent images: 'a winged minotaur of immolation'. It might be ekphrasis, describing Picasso's painting. It's followed by another similarly themed poem, 'Draft for the Contemporary Love Poem', which uses equine imagery. In 'Time Served' Sawyer imaginatively depicts the processes of his father's carpentry as an almost sacramental alchemy, the evocative terms for various techniques and tools tripping off the page:
I wanted to rag-dab
on the knotting, stem the flow of resin, seal;
sand the wood, prime – with milk-thin paint.
You barely had time to mortise and tenon
crossbar and upright before I was a brother
of the brush and the cat, a silhouette,
on the corrugated roof of the motorbike shed...
References to listening to a bulletin about 'the Bay of Pigs' interspersed with Petula Clark's 'Down Town' on the radio suggests this is the early Sixties. 'Central Leading' is a cascade of animalistic descriptions again, this time set in the computer pool of a library, and again it has a faintly surreal quality to it:
I look around the table, see a young woman
the colour of rosewood, tears of barley pearl,
her cheeks diffusing the light of hot flesh.
Users of the computer suite are staring at her
and one another, as if she were flailing her limbs
like ocean-rich kelp or conjuring a marmoset
from her tunic sleeve...
Strangely, I anticipate it; need it more
than I need a Patagonian llama to shamble
through this library door en route for Music and Film.
The people round the table stare at me now
as well as her, as if she and I were one.
Vowels drift like dandelion seeds to fade
between Poetry and Adventure. I go to her:
scalded eyes like mineral springs...
'Niobe of Gaza' is a hard-hitting depiction of the indiscriminate massacre of Palestinian innocents on the Gaza Strip, wrought with fine Lorcan images that jar against more brutal ones:
She sees her children in the open pores
of sunset as bluish purple flowers
on a high-rise balcony washing-line full,
as swaying blue jeans, a table of crayons,
a girl’s blouse concealing an alarm clock
that faintly rings in a world where truth
is a bundle of wet kindling.
She sees her children
in the blown ash
of a side board, a neck tie,
a brittle white school shirt,
a row of empty desks.
Should she write:
Please Help children missing, last seen
in classrooms, chalk dust, making fun
of the mad village poet, selling courgettes
in the souk. A poster for every clinic,
village square and yard of separation wall,
written in the unsubmissive spirit of the olive.
That last-excerpted trope, 'written in the unsubmissive spirit of the olive' is quite stunning on many levels: sibilantly, alliteratively, and symbolically. This poem is a triumph of lyricism amidst righteous indignation and angry compassion; it is a masterclass in expressive and poetic discipline in terms of how Sawyer resists overt expression of outrage but instead encapsulates everything in meticulous description of the abandoned objects of a bombed-out Palestinian home -it's a chilling still life:
Where is this street
they have hidden from her?
the House of Waiting Bowls: 48 pieces
of fine china and a haunted kettle.
The smell of cooking stew, stronger
than the power of revolutionary phrases.
Dolls made of soft leaves, branches
and paper, a carton of caterpillars
under the dining room table.
The poem is pockmarked with exceptional aphorisms, such as 'The smell of cooking stew, stronger/ than the power of revolutionary phrases', and 'Her enemy gods haunted and cursed/
bang on the night’s ceiling with a cane'. This tour de force closes with haunting questions:
Do they know her. Is she, she –
with broken spectacles,
they have not watched her hair turn grey.
Does she remember the spreading fig tree
that fed the generations, 49 widows,
then left to litter the square with fruit.
Does she know they cut it down ?
'The Wedding Song of Whirlow Park' is a cascade scintillating imagery:
the chrome grilles
and cream tail-fins of the stretch-limousines
oozed-up the gravel drive like hammerhead sharks.
Then, from the side of the house, the men
in frockcoats, swallows drinking in flight;
women, hand-signing for a draw
on a shared cigarette: low v-line necks
and butterscotch calves, dresses of gold
and lavender, sleeveless and purple, ruby
and strapless. One: ivory, mermaid tight,
thighs of nude pink in the sunshine.
this whirlpool of tree ferns
and caspia, pink candles and lumps of butter,
soft, wide-brimmed black hats at 26 degrees.
Why don’t they just ask me to leave?
I’m not one of them; I’m older and younger,
louder when vulgar; mostly, say nothing
at all. Photographs! Caught – writing my
escape, a dog bowl of stagnant water
at my feet. The serrated skyline
of marching pines with associating blues,
greens and variegated shading, bordering
the lawns. Ponds that teem with water fowl,
reflect yellow fleeces of laburnum that break up...
There's something in common with Tony Harrison's oeuvre in a focus on class, accents and vernaculars: 'I feel I know these guests/ I haven’t met: iron-bridge direct, vowels/ hammer-bounced flat for a tang' -Harrison's 'Rhubarbarians' comes immediately to mind. Sawyer's depictions of the strained formalities and sartorial showiness of a wedding are highly imaginative and incisive in their constant penetration through the superficialities of such a scene:
I stare into the baize-green, mid-distance,
the little helpers, holding the bridal train
above rolling lawns, the married couple
ascending flights of steps, thumbs-up
to applause; one woman – I return
to this one woman – cropped, dark hair;
a pink-mauve gown, with halter neck,
a pulse of sadness in her chanting eyes,
her smoker’s husky laughter, scratched
and dry, buffed up to a fine sheen
on a roll, mellowing out at the tail end
like a sea-bell wrapped in harbour mist.
Her mouth disappears in sunshine.
Words bluster, whisper; a kissed cheek,
a top hat, then she’s smaller, diminished
...How close you can get
to see-through pink ears, still feel alone
and related. She will see them again
in Spanish cathedrals, night train-windows.
In a rather Larkinesque way, the poem tapers off into the melancholy shadows towards its close, as the poet picks his way through 'gloves/ of white lightening, envelopes, marmalade' and focuses his attention on an 'elderly man in a plush weave of cloth' and observes, again, in Harrisonian mode, 'a river of words/ without language, that soens as he walks/ in freckled light among the pines'. 'Eyewitness' is a rather cryptic miniature:
Here they are in dramatis personae:
slack-jaw, blank-stare, pensive as cattle; one,
a bespectacled historian, dictaphone live,
pencil-in-hand, foredoomed to record
the sound of a sailor, wielding a lighter
to knock out a tooth souvenir.
'The Iron Woman' is a fine narrative piece reminiscing on a stalwart elderly woman activist during the Miner's Strike:
Waiting for the phone to ring in the Miner’s Welfare –
the men told last moment of the night’s mass-picket:
grabbing coats, thrown about on cratered roads, hands
pressed against the roof as we swerved past haulage yards,
treatment plants, the anthracite air leaking darkness
...I saw her cycle towards us
in the early hours to picket the night shift going in.
Her silhouette softening under fence lights – Women
Against Pit Closures, clapping – to dismount at the gates,
embrace her comrades on the line, time backed into a corner.
She must have been in her eighties. Front row, third left.
Same seat, row, teacher, slate; a spire she can no longer see.
Orchestras, chapel choirs, dance nights at the Greystones.
Her husband’s lungs ripping themselves inside-out
on summer nights. Elvis in the Closed Shop taproom...
The poet reflects on his route out from this gritted background through education: 'She’s as live to me as the guilt/ I feel for trying to escape – not the people – the mining life,/ through the promise-lie of education, to stumble upon myself/ in a stranger on Collegiate Crescent, speaking a language/ that wasn’t my own...' There's more than a hint here of Tony Harrison, and also of Dennis Potter's Nigel Barton. The spectre of the militant octogenarian looms large in Sawyer's memory and remains with him:
…I carry her
in coffee spoons, sleeplessness, a love of nocturnal beasts
that run against the odds. I see her in the childhood of stars,
a spinal canal of grassed-over spoils, words I mine.
Cycling past the pithead baths the miners built themselves...
'The Six Goodbyes of the Eightfold Path' abounds with bristling alliteration:
There is a big-bottomed Bluebottle
on Bob Brighton’s paint-soaked blocks
of raw hessian and flax, here,
in the first floor computer suite where we
are welcome to weep and flirt, suffocate
on rags of time, imitate a cockatoo
but are forbidden to shout...
As I walk through the glass doors of swing
to the entrance hall, children’s poetry
on the wall, a tiptoe over discarded chips,
down yellow-trimmed steps
onto the Surrey Street thoroughfare...
contorted willow in the scornful florists.
Sawyer has a playful turn in juxtapositions of the profound, philosophical and spectacular with the urban, grim and mundane, carpet factories jostling with images of ancient mystique:
ask myself if this is the sound of the Higgs
Boson particle. Feel the primordial urge
to invoke passengers to relax the muscles
on either side of the spinal column. Chant
the Six Goodbyes of the Eightfold Path
...power reaching its epiphany
at Eric Gilbert Domestic and Commercial
Carpets and Flooring when the top deck
is moving like the pottery and egg
decorators of ancient Machu Picchu.
The brilliantly titled 'Nostalgia for the Light' transports us to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where 'ni pena ni miedo, written in the sand/ with earthmoving equipment'. It is the time of Pinochet. In contrast to the desert there is 'Baptismal snow on the observatory dome'. Sawyer meditates on philosophical quandaries:
Astronomers tell us we live behind time;
search beyond the light for our origins
in a sack of atoms in a halo of winter.
In the Atacama’s absolute desert, not a blade
of grass or weightless god...
...the women of Calama
search below sand for a scintilla of bone
with a hand-held plastic shovel. Husbands,
sons, brothers – a splinter of guitar finger –
the same calcium galaxies are made of;...
The poem dissipates into Lorcan aphorism:
you smell the white cap snowmelt, hear
the desert breathe lightly, the Milky Way
read softly. As for the poet?
I could say: Raul Zurita.
I could say: the dead that change places
with the living.
You would need to study dust.
'Ithaca' tackles the devastating austerity imposed by the Troika on Greece over the past decade -it veers from mythological, almost surreal imagery, to the bleakly desperate and futile:
...Barbarians are preparing
to buy the slow tempo of the morning;
disused gods are eating cliff eggs
and walnuts in abandoned ice-cream vans.
You’ve seen a well-dressed, elegant man
asking tourists if they could spare the biscuits
on their saucers and Cassandra with staff
and hurricane hair-do, wandering
between soup halls and a shrine that bubbles
in a tree-lined courtyard – foretelling
of a military coup. People stare at her, buy
postcards as the mad pomegranate tree burns
in the garden of tumultuous poses.
Sawyer relays some traumatic tales of those Greeks pushed over the edge by utterly relentless recession and decline:
...the eighty year old woman
who, bathed in petrol, paid for the flames
with a smile of Piaf – refused to be a burden
to her children. Praise the fortitude of suicides:
Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist,
preferred a bullet in Syntagma Square
to delving deep into garbage heaps for food
after a life-time’s work...
The 'barbarians', then, would seem to be the drivers of austerity, the technocrats and monetarists of the Troika. This poem is awash with arresting descriptions and images: 'a sister/ who plays the concertina with light brown arms', 'father, purple chiton clasped at the shoulder,/ striding across a vineyard' and 'wild-eyed lions/ staring under the dead echo of a cloudless sky'. There is again a filmic element with direct reference to cinema:
...A numinous orange glow
above the neo-classical picture house
that once featured Charlton Heston in Ben Hur;
now, it’s ash drifts like burnt celluloid; closer,
an open-air kitchen: nurses, teachers, clowns
on stilts waving at you by a clouded samovar,
graduates serving tea to graduates, who serve tea.
In an austerity-ransacked country where the currency is so devalued, Sawyer notes that 'Later, we will pay/ for a cinema seat with a blonde onion'. There's some evocative consonance in 'Afterlife': 'curing bacon,/ translating black smoke rising in circles', and: 'After my life I find myself ascending on the assisted chin-dip to a bass line/ that mangles the brain endings, a blurr/ of birdseed lyrics...'. We then enter the surreal again: 'silence in the buildings, sobbing/ of the man inside the burning woman/ as if we’re never, merely, who we are./ What do you think of that, Mr Death?' Sawyer's imagining of an afterlife as a kind of dreamlike rush of associations lends itself nicely to a stream-of-consciousness awash with striking images and phrases:
Is the one who was once me
The Singing Molecatcher of Pig Island?
I’m spending my death in Large Print
Romance: spines of silent talking books,
the click of a purse clasp, a faint scent
of urine, laughter and voices
that must have a source. is, the room
where souls seek the bodies they crave:
a librarian’s gypsum fingers, shelving
Love in Stormcrow Castle; Mrs Green
of Fishamble Street, retaining water
and an albino vampire on a vinyl sofa.
Don’t take me completely: don’t leave me!
After my life I returned to the woman
who used to serve but now she drinks
in the Sheaf View Inn; lives with a cocker
spaniel, a bichon frise and a man.
I find myself noticing small details:
the earth accelerates, passes onions, oranges,
scaffolding; meets oncoming streaks
of pale-blue gold in the surface water...
'Chute' is a nicely descriptive set in a rubbish tip:
Coins and fingers
in a sofa, dumped
for a ‘corner’
with chrome feet
are angled steep
to raise skip sides
take more in.
Wobbly bubbly glass,
a set of sash windows,
a flash wind
from Graves Park,
cathode-ray lit curtains,
The Maltese Falcon.
The first time ever I saw your skip
I lean inside, a hand appears,
we dance with a third eye
and a chair that likes poetry
when its legs are in the air.
I don’t want to be cremated…
just scattered between greedy doors
a Christmas tree
in monsoon rain,
an errant eye lash
on a damp mattress
‘I told you’:
‘You told me –
I told you!’
There's a dreamlike stream-of-consciousness aspect and an almost Joycean juxtaposition of the mythical and the mundane:
I read of Hephaestus, beater
of the cuirass and greaves.
His mother threw him out of heaven
for making plastic windows.
They still sell tripe on London Road;
I dream awake in the barbers
of pigs turning back into people.
In 'Dark Matter' there are aspects of Tony Harrison again, the focus on linguistics mingled with Classical allusions:
The front door’s glottal stop off-beat
like my neighbour’s hammer glancing
headless nails. He’s taken to prising
bricks into the gaps, throwing the debris
on my side. As the earth mis-shapes
under the weight of shoppers and skips,
we seem, more than ever divided
and alone. Insurrections of branches
ring voices from the birdless dark, wind
tugging at the moorings of the house;
rain tapping like a vintage Olivetti
on the window sill. I open the door
offer to help the man who loves a fence,
blowback pressing on the cheeks
of my face; he’s falling out of his windtricked
shadow like Ajax on the down
swing slicing through a solitary eye,
lopping off a monstrous tail, lying
in the glassy slag of blood and skin
that was his herd. I wake in the belly
of a dream: bust up fence float, aside
clothes pegs and Seneca’s Tragedies...
Like Joyce, Sawyer constructs myth from the urban and at times climbs the sublime:
In Our Time radio talk
of Xerxes, vibrating with anger:
men beheaded, the Hellespont lashed
and branded, redress for his stormwrecked
bridges as the blown mist
recovers its laughter at the water’s edge.
I make peace with rotten wood
bearing traces of age-old knots;
white bed sheets and hands fly from
a plastic basket. Hear knives of rain
from gutters stab as I put the squeeze
on a teabag in a leaking cup. Compose:
Help – Shed wanted. Ten by
Eight (or slightly larger).
Must be tongue-in-groove
for scattergun apple tree orchard.
'Litany' is another cascade of rapid images:
...Because you were
the rain that dreams of larkspur
and woodruff, the smell of loam and bubblegum
laughter as the pub door opened.
Because we felt the same way about the city
of leaves and the miners’ strike, string-vests
and washing lines in back yards.
There are some wonderful olfactory sense-impressions: 'It's true,/ when we first met my senses were alert/ to amber clouds radiant like hives, the smell/ of the bread bin, burl in the bark, iron/ in the dew...'. There's frequent mention of Neruda, the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate, which links back to the earlier poem set in Pinochet's Chile. I confess at times in this particular poem I started to find the constant and almost staccato associations a little tiring, even repetitive, whilst still admiring Sawyer's evident linguistic gifts:
at this table under the caped silhouette
of the Porto Sandeman, as folk musicians
played button accordion. Remember, we
didn't know what a euphonium was, so we
bought another round of drinks, quoted
Marx from The Class Struggles in France,
asked whose side Christ was on...
Whilst this stream-of-consciousness versifying is often compelling and certainly Joycean, I'm not sure it's always a technique which should be used across so many poems. Nevertheless, the piling up of imagery is always arresting in its imaginativeness:
That night your chrome yellow Mini-cooper
went missing outside the Star and Garter;
remember, we walked in donkey jackets
by the burnt-out boathouse, a glycerine lake
under the alopecia moon. I called you three
birds that teach three birds to sing.
I called you Burning blue breaks
of the sea. Your navel was an ear
to the shore – the bark of silence. Now,
I throw you a bone...
Having said that, some parts of this poem begin to slightly grate: 'How could I forget/ your cold-war tantrums and bonfire eyes/ Niagara could not quench. How could I forget/ Your six quavers of silence to the apocalypse/ smile and when we talked of Plato’s cave...'. By the time it gets to 'Tell me everything/ you know about Medusa, Cruella De Vil,/ Ivor Cutler. Because you were a tyrannicide/ hiding behind another tyrannicide, disguised/ as a florist', I found myself zoning out a little. But really this is nitpicking an otherwise exceptional poetics. 'Flood' is immediately more engaging because it feels that it has a clearer purpose of evocation:
Rain in Sheffield falls on Jazz
at the Lescar
on the anarchist tree surgeons
of Heeley Green
on the Abbeydale Picture House
car-booted into perpetual revival,
in baths for sale up to the brink
on London Road.
There's a surreal element again here:
Rain falls on the self-pouring tea pot
of 1866. Rain falls
on outsourcing and cheap imports,
on a long dance hall –
a salsa class at the workers club
on Mulehouse Road.
But the tonal and compositional confidence and the ever-imaginative evocations keep me engaged:
A woman sitting on the top deck
listening to the rain’s church Latin
rinsed with Anglo-Saxon, verse
of Nether Edge, Manor Park,
Heeley Green, Walkey library...
Again Sawyer makes surreal play: 'Sheffield rose/ from the water, magnified by a rain/ drop rocked-still on plate glass'. This is rain of biblical proportions, a second Flood that submerges shops and malls:
You could hear it breathing, behind
barricades, gathering itself to fall
elsewhere, then everywhere else,
without tears, a clock ticking, water
lapping in Mrs Bouquets –
In these longer, discursive poems Sawyer has a habit of striking aphoristic gold: 'roses grow in skips on Penistone Road' -a beautifully alliterative and assonantal line worthy of greater exposure, it's like Betjeman at his descriptive best. We get a nicely alliterative 'retail Atlantis' and 'flagstoned patio'. 'Host Rufus Regardless Addresses the Artists at Dr Sketchy’s' is a nicely descriptive study of the poet sketching a nude female: 'Is that an artist’s shadow/ on your picture plane or a someone/ keeping the pencil moving?' There are some nice turns of phrase: 'Draw from the laughter of cells/ in each nerve to the ache/ of her smile'. Other phrases border on the pretentious: 'Skin is an open border to the epoch/ inside'. There's one lyrical flourish which I'm undecided on:
Listen to the swish of charcoal,
the squeak and crack of the unsayable.
Is that a train overhead or acoustics
on a loop for effect? Remember,
the marks we don’t make
are our spaces, unparalysed by fact.
But really this is nitpicking again as of course in a collection there are bound to be some poems on doesn't particularly warm to. 'Classically Trained' sees Sawyer going in for long rangy lines which almost give the piece the look of a prose poem, and the usual deluge of images arguably comes a cropper on a rather clumsily made polemical point:
‘Blueberry’, the depressed ballerina
from the New York Met. That Thai masseuse they found dead
in the Paris Hilton: his private number like stigmata on her tan.
Oh, he has the people’s blood on his sundial, for sure.
Those intelligence dossiers in western sideboards,
next to crosswords and jigsaws. He’s as guilty as old Salah.
After all, there’s no smoke without ballistic-missile-systems.
I've no idea which particular despot or dictator is being depicted in this poem, perhaps he is a product of the poet's imagination -whatever, Sawyer produces another plethora of aphorism:
In the beginning he tackled the shortfall in camels and dreams.
kissed ten babies and put out the sun. Restored the fish supper
and typewriter. No end of fun was to be had in the tearooms.
en his ideas began to explode in the high streets and tramcars.
People bled in the barbers. Surgeons ran out of arms and legs.
Horses lay like broken saddles on the edge of smoking cities.
No one could find the weapons of mass amnesia.
I’m the same with theatre tickets when the play is weeks away.
He forgot where he’d left them. Remember the days of triumph?
He wore the People’s thin cotton black pyjama garb.
His moustache was a panther’s silence. His stallion, a silhouette.
He said politics is the minted breath of a patron saint,
a hand that holds a fountain pen. Walmart in Madagascar,
'Permit' seems to be a polemical poem on the Palestinian plight, and is one of the most formalist of the poems in this collection, set out in quatrains of fairly even lengths -here it is in full:
Do the eggs in the fridge need a permit? Where
neither the dead die nor the living live,
without passing three road blocks and five checkpoints
between Tulkarm and Ramallah.
What questions do those who return ask strangers,
to whom they themselves are strangers?
Is the small woman who lived next door smaller still?
Does the centuries-old fig tree still stammer at odd times?
Where the fruit in a bowl forms a parliament
when elders return from weddings and mortuaries.
Does the barber still dance tango with a matador’s countenance
in the tea house when business is slow?
Where kids kick a ball between crater and curfew,
argue over a goal and the girl with the mango-sad eyes,
who wanted to play. Do rivers surrounded by poems
and lips need a permit to reflect Red Gazelles?
Where the girl who wanted to play, cycled
by the checkpoint and a soldier chased her and a dog
chased the soldier. The dog’s face is on the wall too.
Does the orange-tubed sunbird need a permit?
This lyricism is reminiscent of Forties poets such as Bernard Spencer and Clifford Dyment. The questions that close four of the five stanzas gives a resonant rhetorical quality. 'In Search of Yellow House Lane' is another impressive descriptive workout with some highly imaginative images in what seems to be the depiction of an ageing couple -I excerpt it in full:
They remind themselves that life is short. A Spanish voice –
sounding like a full ashtray at 3am – on a loop
in the lounge. Lips on skin earn their skin. Fireworks –
ten days from Fright Night. That’s how it begins. His collar bone,
her weightlessness, shadows bigger than their own bigness
on the wall, an eyebrow for a cheek bone, ribs like sandbars
working Southport’s shoreline. She is Joan of Arc ablaze,
headlights – a waterless wave returning them
breathless to spines of books, underwear, an open drawer.
When they face each other, for they do face each other,
she can hear the coastal breakers detonate in his kneecap;
nets of darkness disturb her breasts in a hollowed-out whelk shell
of pelvis and hips. She laughs at laughter: a sea within a sea,
his fragile head, an unfired pot. She circles the Weetabix.
Marmalade and metaphysics, a funhouse face underside
of a teaspoon. How will they live in separate exiles
of multi-storey fibreglass with piebald trees in parking lots
after this? He asks her about the prostate gland. She talks of Tao:
the Watercourse Way. They walk the bouncing planks, pass
lifebelts, the Model Railway, the narratives of the Heritage Cafe,
to that place where what has happened hasn’t happened yet.
'Do I Still Exist If You Don't See Me?' is more typical of Sawyer's style, a clipped and perfectly shaped descriptive poem with some sublime aphoristic flourishes:
She slips inside her skin
behind the flowered paper
her grey silhouette window-lit.
How the sun must warm her back.
She takes a finger-grip
rips-off the head at the chin,
disembowels herself with light
Who was the first to erase
the other? That just-breath summer,
when she faded ghost-like
into bare walls and floorboards,
as if the lens’s long exposure
could return her to wood and stone,
resist even death as her ceiling
dripped monochrome celluloid.
...She can’t recall
his face, her stolen cycle, hesitates
above the neon veins of Manhattan,
clothes-lines on hot asphalt roofs,
a foot poised, stepping through her
own motion. Smudged
by a nape of salt rain, a sill of cats.
On both sides of the camera now
undressing in one winding spiral
like she used to peel an orange
so she can furl herself together later
around him as he sleeps
knowing that if he wakes
before she becomes whole, she dies,
the sun-fried window,
white on white.
'Oak' is a sublime personification of the eponymous tree dripping with gorgeous images:
Outreaching the strangled light, bound
for the island of roots that are wings,
my main limb like a whole tree
hovering above creatures on their road
to where? A blur of fowl detonates
the surface silence, my beard tremulous
in the pond’s sky-dream.
I am Jehovah of the acorn, host of lace lice,
star moult, hairy-legged shuddering.
I milk the sun of centuries,
process gases by personal chemistry.
Separate from the earth, I marvel
Slowdown – I want to say – you host
your own ghosts? I love, I drink
my strangeness in all-year-round words.
That crackclick’s my arthritic neck,
but enough of me, they’re young clouds
with no final shape. Fake sadness,
real sadness, knuckle jointed, bottlebutted,
hollowed out underneath.
Taproots tug at my crown. …
...Palate of new-born blue,
coffee, cask and leather brown,
chlorophyll, bleached grey under
a wooden bench in loving memory.
A child’s boot, my shadow on a face,
I’m falling from the page.
Midges loop back on themselves, write
on their writing. Rhododendron
flowers, upside down at island’s edge,
undulating faces – brothers, sisters
of truculent gods. Red plastic hearts
on Rustlings Road, dragonflies batting
on a pediment. Words from my canopy.
'Memoir' is similarly rich with description:
At my parents, Christmas, I looked
for that boy where I no longer exist.
Key, still in the yellow backdoor,
smell of wet dog by the fridge...
Man-o-war masts of smog – gilded
by sodium, torn on aerials – unfurling
the ship’s prow figure-head
of Brenda Scoefield, pedalling into low
definition silhouette, her grimace
set in millstone...
Surreal, dreamlike elements resurface: 'I escaped, died, went to Fazakerely,/ leaving behind elbows of mist,/ foreheads of salt, spaces for others/ to inhabit'. The phantasmagorical looms large in Sawyer's oeuvre. At times the heaping of images and aural associations are tangible:
...a gate stump, a cheeky nutmeg
by the coal truck, a rolling barrel
of scuffs, charges, kicks and curses
several feet from disturbing the peace
in every directionless riot of travel.
A kettle boils, the acousmatic voice
of the apocalypse, Big Dora, boomclang-
squeaking like a boxcar axle
pledging an imminent reckoning
for the price of bacon bones, five
Woodbine and the Wembley ball’s
thunder-clap on her window pane.
One, of oak-moss smeared denim,
white milk below the bough’s skin,
swinging on a fraying rope, shaking
stiffness out of branches. One,
of the swishy hips-first walk
and take-the-piss upper-crust drawl
and lisp. One, lying in hiding
on the washhouse, staring
at celestial insect-bites of light.
One, is my brother needing help
with his reading and writing.
My penance is a house of books.
There's tributes paid to televisual 'cathode glow' nostalgias, Till Death Us Do Part, and cinema, with another reference to Zulu. Then the poet appears to speculate on the nature of an afterlife: 'Do they live in another street/ after this one. Who calls them in/ at night. Do they return as people/ who see themselves as absent?' There are some disarming tropes throughout: 'Under a lamppost a couple armin-/ arm, the girl’s smile-inside/ or is it a runnel of vapour, a tear?'
Mrs Livesley, harmless enough
swinging her cotton-string mop
cleaning her lamp-post out front
all she is into the act, declaiming
into the gums of the wind:
Don’t think ah don’t bloody know
what yah sayin’ ‘t’ other side
of curtains ’cause ah bloody do.
Then the poet meditates on the fates of many in the community and there is a kind of recapitulation to the previous musings on the spirit world:
One, threw herself under a train,
smiled as she put out the empties.
Some of cancer, of drink, of time
which is a fog-bound street from
another point of view. Actually,
all that was an hour ago.
Can’t see them now for shadows
that self-divide and re-converge,
gaps between the living and dead
we pour through, finding our own
shape, guided by sibilant echoes,
distances, the glimmer of a cheek.
Like lungs of air we cannot hold
on to them for long.
The poem closes on a haunting, lingering ending:
Outnumbered by their own ghosts,
inseparable from sea smoke
out running the wind, oblivious
to the murmured vespers
of other roads, not caring
which side-street of knock-about
they are born or die on, too busy
twisting blood on the ball,
setting fire to their lives
to heed the rat run’s engines
as the centuries begin.
The alliteration of 'engines' and 'centuries begin' is beautifully judged. 'This Lightening Never Ends' is a brilliant elegy to Republican Spanish autodidact poet Miguel Hernandez who died of tuberculosis at just 31 in 1942 whilst in captivity under Franco's victorious regime -he had been spared the death penalty by the intervention of poet-diplomat Neruda, then Chilean ambassador to Spain -I excerpt this exceptional poem in full:
How you couldn’t write for the people unless you were with them.
Mouthfuls of sun from the raw-knuckled foothills; ballads of milk
you learned with your ear to the she-goat. How for you – work,
love and water, were a fig tree in a field.
Blood rose like a hood to darken the wind: rhythms of heart’s fists,
angry balls and lightening teeth of the gored bull’s soliloquy,
volcanically snorted for the low-lamp houses, gangrenous trenches
and in damp columns of prison air, you tried to dream with rats
in your hair. Bring poetry to me in the blood of onions. Defender
of laughter and wounds that spill like inkwells on hushed trains.
Show me how to lower roots that seek the heart with no master
in the shipwrecked flower beds and widowed balconies of Spain;
climb two trees and whistle two nightingales for Miguel Hernandez.
'Meeting Karl Marx in the Sheaf View' finds Sawyer imagining bumping into the seminal figure in his local pub:
I see you walk through the door
minutes before pumps-off,
an Airedale scuffling
from under a table
to snap at your boot lace
as you march past the Tory rags
on the paper stand.
Pints, shorts, shouts: dices
clatter, rocket laughter
your frockcoat buttons
in the wrong eyelets
as you order a drink at the bar.
I want to ask you about being alone,
besieged in your study
by bills from the butchers,
the apothecary, a table
covered with oil cloth, manuscripts,
cups with chipped rims,
two volumed door stoppers
and three legged chairs,
the one with four for visitors.
The title poem is a long drip of imagery and descriptions of the poet's local Sheffield haunts:
The city is dripping
cameras, my pocket
is damp with ink,
I taste it on my mouth.
with October’s blood
in the gardens
on Princess Street.
Words wear a blue dress
swing an axe, poison
an innocent girl, stagger
naked along Rose Street
past the Kenilworth Inn
barrell into Milnes Bar,
the ‘Little Kremlin’
looking for Stella… up
Midlothian Road finding
neon lips and thighs,
hollows of collar bones,
and the voice
of a broken axle
at the crossroads:
an unmade hammock
of a man, swaying
before oncoming traffic
inviting drivers to cross
plough into the Cameo
where they’re showing
I Daniel Blake
The Girl on the Train
Eight Days a Week
and on the Meadows
a new poem is born
purple and trembling
at busker’s junction.
Then suddenly we descend into the outright surreal:
A pigeon lands bearing
the soul of Queen Mary.
Shoeless singing, candle-
lit in a Spanish accent:
under pointillist canopy
of pancake leaves from
falling on a hard curve
of forehead, as if cures
to an excess of knowing.
On the next page
the Codfather Chip shop
and Summerhouse minus
its horse sculpture facade
a classroom drifting
in a most peculiar way.
It’s now the b-side
of a vinyl record
the balanced off-balance
of the unmarked day.
In Blackett Lane
that lone cat sits
like a cold flame,
offering no explanations,
knowing the limits
of her necessity.
Perhaps this is the poet's phantasmagorical Under Milk Wood. The final poem, 'Untitled', is an ekphrastic poem in response to a painting by Keith Piper:
His cheeks are the furrowed earth
and his lips are the patience of endless rain
and his soldier’s face is a mother’s heart
and his bones are everywhere you dig
and his hair is lush grass rising like incense
and his street smells of pomegranate, bread
and his leaves are bitter, his roots are sweet
and his pulse is the beat of pagoda bells
one thousand thoughts in the banana groves
It's astonishing to find that this is Stephen Sawyer's debut collection since his poetic expertise throughout bespeaks a more experienced pen. To my mind this must be one of the most accomplished debut collections from any poet in quite some time and deserves to be read and relished for its beauty of phrase and aphorism, and sheer linguistic gusto.
There Will Be No Miracles Here is above all a triumph of imagination over circumstance, a veritable tapestry of intricate depiction of Northern working-class life, which echoes the work of Ken Loach and Keith Waterhouse. It is yet another collection which emphasises the vital importance of Smokestack Books as prime champion of contemporary poetry as social document. Highly recommended.
Alan Morrison © 2019