Poems by fifty late and living poets: Fleur Adcock, Simon Armitage, Matthew Arnold, WH Auden, Charles Baudelaire, Bob Beagrie (tr. John Lucas), Peter Bennett, William Blake, Steve Blyth, Edward Boland, Alison Brackenbury, George Gordon Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Clare, Frances Cornford, Emily Dickinson, Josephine Dickinson, Maura Dooley, Carol Ann Duffy, Erin E. Elder, Martin Espada, Elaine Feinstein, Linda France, Wilfred Gibson, Karen Jane Glenn, WS Graham, Ivor Gurney, Atar Hadari, Thomas Hardy, John Harrison, Mark Haworth-Booth, Robert Herrick, Tobias Hill, Lynda Hull, John Keats, Tom Kelly, Philip Larkin, Michael Longley, Marilyn Longstaff, James Macfarlan, Gary Ming, Kenn Mitchell, Walter de la Mare, Andrew Marvell, Alan Morrison, Graham Mort, Paul Muldoon, Mark Murphy, Pascale Petit, Sylvia Plath, Miklos Radnoti, Tom Rawling, Neill Rollinson, Jane Routh, Peter Sansom, Vernon Scannell, Derek Sellers, Jean Sprackland, Anne Stevenson, Matthew Sweeney, Matthew Tate, Alfred Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas, Sarah Wardle, Gilbert White, William Wordsworth, Lynn Wycherley, WB Yeats
With so many contemporary poetry anthologies attempting to define a zeitgeist aesthetic of today via a relative handful of ‘academy’ graduates, it is heartening to read an anthology which takes a more diverse sweep of voices and styles to emphasize the timelessness of certain poetic themes. The Night Shift is an ambitious anthology – beautifully produced by Nottingham-based press Five Leaves in A5 hardback – themed around ‘night’, and comprised of three sections: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (night shift work), ‘In The Forests of the Night’ (nocturnal animal kingdom), and ‘The Crumpled Duvet’ (insomnia). This is not therefore an anthology with a literary agenda; politically, there is a certain welcome left-wing sensibility at work, particularly in the first section, but this is par for the course with radical presses such as Five Leaves; this is essentially an anthology in the original sense of the word, a collecting together of poems across the literary canon, past and present, all linked by theme of ‘night’. There is a thoughtful Foreword by Welsh broadcaster John Humphrys, and three introductions by the editors to their respective sections.
The first section, edited by poet and Smokestack editor Andy Croft, the most political of the three, focuses on the Morlock-like workers of night shifts. Kicking off appropriately enough with W.H. Auden’s classic ‘Night Mail’, famously recorded peripatetically for a GPO film in 1936 on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ has its fair share of vignettes and monologues from Linda France’s prostitute in ‘Accounting’ and Linda Hull’s ‘Night Waitress’, who is
in the morning’s insinuations
collecting in the crevices of the buildings
in wrinkles, in every fault
of this frail machinery.
Marilyn Longstaff colourfully evokes the perennial pub-crawl in ‘Pub-Booming’; Wilfred Gibson, in ‘Fire’, sublimely describes the journey of a night train chugging through an industrial landscape:
By hovels of men who labour till they die
With iron and fire that never sleeps,
We plunged into pitchy night among huge heaps –
Then once again that red glare lit the sky
And high above the highest hill of slag
I saw Prometheus hanging from a crag.
Bob Beagrie’s ‘Nosferatu’ baldly intones to a visceral Noughties' generation: 'Live it up mortal children. Party. Shop. Copulate./
Blinkered to the touch of your stone cold fate.' Karen Jane Glenn’s ‘Night Shift’ rhythmically lists all manner of night workers in Audenesque style: '...the dawn-obsessed, the checkers of watches,/ nurses slipping into unlit rooms...'. After a small extract from the very end of a long work of my own about my father’s time as a night security guard (‘Release’ from Clocking-in for the Witching Hour, recently published in full in Keir Hardie Street, Smokestack), the section finishes on ‘The Fore Shift’ by Matthew Tate, which seems to be inflected to a Scottish brogue – ‘by the light of lamp or can’les’ – a poem about the early coal shift, where the dark of the put is its own night. This poem ends resonantly:
Fore shift visions need not haunt them,
Nor the pit’s grim danger daunt them;
Oh, ‘twas kind of fate to plant them
Where they could so safely bloom!
‘In The Forests of the Night’ focuses on the nocturnal animal world, beginning with Peter Bennett’s Hughesian ‘Moon Fox’: 'His going is a sudden itch/.../ his brush the sickle’s opposite.' William Blake’s ‘Tyger’ is inevitably included here, along with an extract from John Clare’s ‘Badger’, and ‘Hares At Play’: 'Through well known beaten paths each nimbling hare/ Struts quick as fear – and seeks its hidden lair.' Josephine Dickinson’s ‘How We Got Home’ is a sublime contribution:
. ..Was it perhaps
an injured rabitting? No, this creature...
...in the water, breathed and began its seamless passing.
‘Rainy Midnight’ by composer-poet Ivor Gurney is another standout contribution:
Long shines the line of wet lamps dark in gleaming,
The trees so still felt yet as strength not used,
February chills April, the cattle are housed,
And nights grief from the higher things comes streaming.
The trade is all gone, the elver-fishers gone
To string their lights 'long Severn like a wet Fair.
If it were fine the elvers would swim clear,
Clothes sodden, the out-of-work stay on.
Michael Longley’s ‘The Eel-Trap’ is a short but vividly figurative lyric:
I lie awake and my mind goes out to the otter
That might be drowning in the eel-trap:
Falters as I follow you to the other lake
Below sleep, the brown trout sipping at the stars.
In this diverse section, many poems by famous vintage voices – Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and ‘An August Midnight’, WB Yeats’ ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Mower Among the Glow-Worms’, John Keats’ masterful ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ –rub shoulders with many well-known and lesser known contemporary poets – Paul Muldoon, Jean Sprackland, Anne Stevenson and Pascale Petit sharing pages with Neil Rollinson, Jane Routh, Lynn Wycherley. This sense of inclusivity gives this anthology a singularly levelling feel.
The third and final section, ‘The Crumpled Duvet, features a formidable combo of old and new poems about sleeplessness, including probably one of the best thanatophobic poems ever written, Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ – here’s its penultimate verse:
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ is also present, as is a germane canto from Byron’s Don Juan, the iconic opening passage from Dylan Thomas’s nocturnal dreamscape Under Milk Wood, a suitable lyric from the prolific recluse Emily Dickinson, and a sublime four-line epigram by Francis Cornford called ‘City Evening’:
This is the hour when night says to the streets:
‘I am coming’; and the light is so strange
The heart expects adventure in everything it meets;
Even the past to change.
There’s a very typical, superbly expressed poem by Sylvia Plath, ‘Insomnia’, which to my mind is one of her greatest pieces, though oddly this is the first time I’ve come across it – here’s the third of its five sublime stanzas:
He is immune to pills: red, purple, blue --
How they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!
Those sugary planets whose influence won for him
A life baptized in no-life for a while,
And the sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby.
Now the pills are worn-out and silly, like classical gods.
Their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good.
Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and a very moody excerpt from Tennyson’s In Memoriam makes appearances – here’s the last striking stanza from the latter:
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
‘A Child’s Sleep’ is one of Carol Ann Duffy’s better poems by far, and is presumably an earlier one of hers. WS Graham’s ‘The Night City’ is an interesting little piece, its lyrical ending particularly sublime:
Midnight. I hear the moon
Light chiming on St Paul's.
The City is empty. Night
Watchmen are drinking their tea.
The Fire had burnt out.
The Plague's pits had closed
And gone into literature.
Between the big buildings
I sat like a flea crouched
In the stopped works of a watch.
A little more tongue-in-cheek is Vernon Scannell’s ‘A Numinous Event’, which movingly tells of a moment hearing God’s voice, only to end rather flippantly: 'I must confess/ I might have been at least a little pissed.' Peter Sansom’s ‘Sheffield by Night’ is eminently quotable, littered with very contemporary picturesque detail:
I sweat up Paradise Street that was Workhouse Road
and out under green-lit trees of the cathedral
then over new tramtracks that Dad would know
as far as the Cutler’s Hall and HSBC.
This is a beguiling and beautifully put together anthology of poems from the late and the living, the great and the yet-to-be classified, the well known and the more recently emerging; the scope and breadth of The Night Shift is worthy of a wide readership – perhaps use in school curriculums too? – and makes one look forward to more thematic titles from the ever unconventional Five Leaves. This book is an absolute must for all those night shift workers out there, and every nocturnal poet who seeks late night inspiration from their fellow travellers; this is an intelligently selected anthology of numerous memorable and sublime poems that have been done justice by exceptional production standards.
Alan Morrison © 2010