Alan Morrison on
Two Historically Rooted Smokestack
by Keith Howden
(Smokestack Books, 65pp, 2012)
Oswald’s Book of Hours
by Steve Ely
(Smokestack Books, 85pp, 2013)
The subject of Keith Howden’s Jolly Roger is anything but a jolly one: its thematic 54 12-lined semi-rhyming verses are accompaniments to Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death, a series of 34 stunningly detailed, polemical 16th century woodcuts which transformed the traditional farandole-leading mediaeval figure of ‘Death’ into a moral interventionist and humanistic dispenser of justice in line with the new religious and social attitudes roiled up during the Reformation. The woodcuts, reproduced above each poem (bar the supplemental five verses at the end of the book), are in the fashion of the German Gothic School. The ‘Roger’ of the title is Howden’s contemporary sobriquet for the Devil, an oddly morally didactic, symbolic motif, seemingly fused with the figure of ‘Death’ throughout, and more a scholarly Manichean demiurge than the Fallen Angel –very much a Renaissance Prince of Darkness.
While in terms of its ekphrastic theme and ostensibly uniformed presentation Jolly Roger might initially appear rather formulaic, close reading of many of the verses reveals some striking lyrical flourishes and highly accomplished command of rhyme; and though occasionally there are lapses into tongue-in-cheek plays on modern day phrases and memes, much of the register of the verses is suitably macabre, and, in terms of tone and subject, vaguely reminiscent of John Donne, or even John Keats.
Sometimes these arguable antagonisms of the darkly comical and the gloomily Romantic commingle in the same poem:
Roger the Lodger craves your infidel
and passionate embrace, your wanton kisses,
but throbs his music for a darker queen.
There are sad songs among the cypresses
when Jolly Roger beats his tambourine’.
(‘The Newly Married Lady’)
It’s important of course to remember that mediaeval through Renaissance and Reformation verse –Chaucer, Langland, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, Marvell et al– often played much on sexual innuendo and puns (Chaucer, for instance, could sometimes be almost prurient), and so Howden’s approach is in no way anachronistic to the time and medium he pseudo-pastiches here. Even if, at times, the Gothic quotient reminds one as much of Roger Corman and Vincent Price as of Edgar Allen Poe; and the insistence on bouts of rib-tickling throughout the verses so as to add a spice of light relief in a generally sepulchral narrative can occasionally impress more the atmosphere of the Gatti’s-in-The-Arches music hall than The Tomb of Ligeia. Though Howden’s poems are ultimately more rib-rattling than rib-tickling:
…Nagelring and Morglay
rattled my ribs but couldn’t bring my bones
to barbecue. Your blade’s as blunt as a toy.
Hollywood’s pansies mime with sharper ones…’
This verse, ‘The Nobleman’, is wrought with erudite allusions to various magic swords –phallic symbolisms of ‘magical’ potency– of European mythologies, from Arthurian and Anglo-Saxon through Germanic to Nordic: ‘…Angurvadal,/ and Avondight, Balmung and Glorious/ zorroed to bayonet me’. Howden’s swashbuckling verbing of ‘zorroed’ is certainly original, though perhaps should be capitalised?
In ‘The Miser’, Howden begins with an arresting if slightly opaque aphorism on cupidity:
‘Money conceals itself in saws. Is Love of cash
really the root of all evil (when it’s not half
the weed religion grows)?...
For me personally, this is slightly undermined by a following line which –again, seemingly to wire-in more modern-minded readers– quotes ‘Money can’t buy you love’. But then, unexpectedly, Howden follows with another more surefooted trope: ‘(when it lets you stuff/ such succulent counterfeits)?’ It seems rather ironic that two of the lines in ‘The Miser’ which are to my mind the most interesting and imaginative in the verse are both in parentheses.
‘The Preacher’ is perhaps one of the most impressive and accomplished verses in Jolly Roger –and I excerpt its first eight lines:
‘Who built the skidding planets? Who lit the sun?
Who seeded sky with all the little stars?
Who made your God? Who cares? Not me, for one.
Plague is among you. Within these cloisters
and aspirant columns, do you feel its osmosis
blistering within you? The syringe and prick
of faith won’t immunise. Soon, these stone trellises
will crumble, slates splinter, rotten beams crack,
and from your pulpit, dust to dust will be
my usual advocate…
Of particular note here is Howden’s seemingly effortless command of rhythm, half-rhyme, assonance and alliteration: ‘prick’, ‘slates splinter’ and ‘pulpit’ give a spitting effect fitting the agnostic criticism of the tone, while ‘dust to dust’ and ‘usual advocate’ provide a wonderful run of ‘u’ and ‘d’ sounds. Similarly sharp on alliteration and sibilance is ‘The Judge’:
… This is a case
arcane and echoic in its argument,
hermetic in its niceties. But your decease
invalidates your verdict. I am innocent…
It’s actually not a common thing today to see such unadulterated Latinate acrobatics in poetry; but it has its place, and certainly Howden has chosen an appropriate place for its deployment (not all contemporary British poetry has to be bogged down in Gaelicisms or Anglo-Saxonisms). In ‘The Duchess’, we get a finishing trope which riffs on a famous quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, while proffering an audacious eye-rhyme:
…But tragedy’s a counterfeit
to bloat their hubris. The world’s a comic stage,
and all their self-aggrandisement deceit’.
The last line almost seems to rhythmically evoke Prospero’s ‘And our little life is rounded in a sleep’ from The Tempest, though this may simply be my imagination. Keeping with Shakespeare for a moment, I don’t think it hyperbolic to remark that Howden’s poems have their ‘Shakespearean moments’ –as in ‘The Child’:
‘You think the thrush is innocent? Then try
to call it. It flies away. It knows the universe
conspires against its life. See how the holly
points spears against the world. The leaf infers
the fait that waits the unprotected. …
Why do you value innocence and complain
its unimportant loss? And what defensive wall
can you believe it mortars or merits? Your whole
creation boils in blood, exists only within
the fief of death. build and the storm will haul
it down. Do not parcel your hope in children’.
The final line of this poem is a masterly aphorism, both in meaning and choice of words. The earlier part of the poem, sharply parabolic, has some of the qualities of what William Empson termed ‘Covert Pastoral’ (polemical poetry communicated through the rustic picturesque; see Some Versions of Pastoral, 'Proletarian Literature', W. Empson, 1935). Still in a Shakespearean mode of thought, ‘The Drunkard’ might be a depiction of both Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch rolled into one (and under the table of course) –the pun of the second line works particularly well:
‘Well, Sir, if spew were gold, you would be rich,
Though carats to carrots is how it looks from here.
If spew were faith, such hagiographies retch
–this agape of meat and wine– would pretty sure
promote you belching Canon. If spew were art, I
might well regard this esemplastic
explosion of colour as something Saatchi
could advertise to greatness and enthusiastic
saccharin reckon superb. …
The final five verses of Jolly Roger are unaccompanied by Holbein woodcuts, presumably because the 34 have run out by this point –and these last poems really serve as a kind of wrapping up on the overall narrative thrust of the book as a whole, while also returning us more to the ‘here and now’, though newly shadowed within the frame of ‘Rogerian’ choreography. ‘Memento Mori’ is a deft rhyming verse:
…your Mass assumes its capital. I inhabit
the lift’s robot lips, the monotone that says
‘Your door is closing’. You will hear my dialect,
waiting alone in some darkened station,
that blur from another platform’s tannoy broaching
your ears with its message that the last train
to nowhere you can imagine is now approaching’.
‘Dead Seas’ is a rather irreverent and sardonic dialectical materialist snipe at Christianity, particularly its parabolic aspects; the casualised phraseology of some of its lines feel to me a little too nudging in their disdain, as well as veering into Life of Brian biblical pub-speak: ‘They told some story/ of how their mate, with bits of bread and sprats/ netted five thousand’. But the poem ends in a more thoughtful vein:
…But fishermen’s tales
are fishermen’s tales. Sprats swell to mackerels
and mackerels bloat to aeroplanes or whales,
swarming the mind’s seas with their parables.’
The polemic here appears to employ metaphors for the contagious growth of rumours, Chinese whispers, even gossip and outright lies, and it’s ironic, though no doubt deliberately so, that Howden impeaches the permeations of parables as ambiguous ballasts for moral codes through his own similarly parabolic method. It’s also important for us to remember that all ‘Prophets’ used parables and metaphors to put across their creeds: from Solon, Socrates and Christ all the way to Karl Marx (the ‘poet of commodities’ as Edmund Wilson depicted him in To the Finland Station (1940)).
‘Tardis’ is a whimsical verse which doesn’t seem to completely fit in the collection –even if it is, by definition, Dimensionally Transcendental (forgive the joke!). But, amid its whimsy, it does contain an aphorismic flourish, which almost reads as if re-imagining Doctor Who produced and written by Jean Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut:
your bottle holding the last blue smoke aroma
of lost love’s cigarette. For the real losers,
our shelves are groaning with nostalgia…
As both a lifelong ‘fan’ (I prefer the term ‘appreciator’) of vintage Doctor Who (though emphatically not the frenetic and tonally confused modern series) and, unfortunately, a smoker, I’ve often imagined what it would be like to have a smoking Doctor; and seeing as the character is in many ways Sherlock Holmes in space, a sporadically imbibed pipe –or even a spot of drug addiction– shouldn’t be entirely taboo.
‘Actuary’ features the evocatively named tarot reader Madame Sosostris from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and includes an imaginative half-rhyme:
I am in the hand you are dealt and your future
is augured in my bones. So go and grope
your divination from some sad Sosostris:
you will pay her in vain. Whatever you do
–no matter how you try to play the ostrich–…
Certainly Howden, I would assume, is something of a general sceptic with regards to any supernatural ‘pretensions’, cartomancy no exception. Finally, the last verse in the book, ‘Semtex’, closes Jolly Roger on something of a controlled explosion. Here I find the linking of fundamentalist terrorism with misinterpreted religious doctrines one of Howden’s more challenging and thought-provoking polemics; indeed, the emphasis on ‘words’ as potential weapons in themselves is quite unnerving, and reminds us of the etymology of Grimoire (magic book), derived from the Middle English/Old French ‘grammarie’, from which ‘grammar’ also derives –hence reemphasising the ‘magical’ ingredients once believed to inhabit language (when spoken), and, in turn, the Romantic sense of the incantatory quality of poetry.
Howden’s juxtaposition of this old-world superstition as to the ‘power’ of ‘words’ to produce actual effects on the world around us (the cognitive vestiges of which, according to some psychological theorists, survive as a form of ‘magical thinking’ in some obsessive-compulsive pathologies) with the roots of religious atrocities in the worm of a ‘Word’, is quite profound. The poem is dextrously composed, as are many in this volume, and again makes good use of alliteration and sibilance, as well as sense-impression –I excerpt the poem in full:
‘I am the bone to which all other bones
have bent. I am plastic. My grammar is
I will. Words wear my terrorist explosives
and I have primed a fissile tongue to fuse
religions, to make gods and oppose them other.
I chew lexicons to put the slime behind
and melt the world’s solid shape. My lips stutter
sin’s documentaries, tell each episode
of salvation’s soap. I scream outrage
at time’s unhearing amphitheatre. I will.
Language within a world that lacks language
moulds me the semtex architect of hell.’
This is bravura verse, as powerfully compact as a blob of semtex; and Howden’s ultimate message here remains ambiguous since, while ostensibly it appears he is criticising the hortatory ambiguities of religion for –deliberately or not– engineering in more literal-minded ‘believers’ destructive, even homocidal, behaviours, we’re also aware that this is meant to be the voice of ‘Death’, or of ‘Jolly Roger’, hence the implication would seem to be that religion has long been the plaything of a meddling demiurge intent on poisoning the well of true faith and leading the world to believe that religion is really the root of all evil and destructive acts (rather than materialistic greed). It’s certainly a potent poem to end the book on, particularly in these days of fulminating fundamentalists.
All in all, Keith Howden’s Jolly Roger is an accomplished and philosophically sharp collection, and its abundant aphorisms alone make it a worthy addition to the Smokestack catalogue.
From the 16th century all the way back to the 7th and the reign of Oswald, Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria (635-642 AD), lesser known rival of St. George for the patron sainthood of England, and, as far as Steve Ely is concerned in his hagiographic Oswald’s Book of Hours, the de facto or default shadow-patron saint of England, canonised by ‘the people’ (whom he apparently championed) following his ‘martyrdom’ at the hands of Mercian pagans. Oswald was much documented by Bede for his Christian evangelism. Oswald’s defeat of the pagan Mercian King Penda at the battle of Heavenfield in 634 proved a pyrrhic victory: the embittered Mercians eventually defeated his armies near Oswestry in 642, where Oswald was killed and dismembered.
Ely is perhaps tapping into the historical nostalgia once popular particularly among the Puritan social radicals of the mid-seventeenth century –the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists etc. –which cited an ‘Anglo-Saxon Golden Age’ as the near-mythical example of a more egalitarian England which was brutally truncated by the Norman Yoke post-1066, leading into Feudalism and, a little later on, legends of a Saxon resurgence, as with Robin Hood. But Ely’s nostalgia, partly cultivated from a very rooted sense of ancestral place (he is from the very Saxon-Nordic-sounding Osgoldcross wapentake in Yorkshire), is also a Catholic one, which explains the very noticeable juxtaposition of Saxon Old English vocabularies with Mediaeval Latin throughout the book.
And before turning to the poetry itself, the particularly striking cover of the book is worth noting: Le Livre de Chasse by Gaston Phébus, a Mediaeval painting depicting the pursuit of a hare by a pack of lithe leaping hounds, followed by some crop-headed Norman-like nobles on horses –a riot of greens, purples and blues which work particularly well against Smokestack’s grey grounding. Having a 14th century painting on the cover of a book mostly depicting vicissitudes of the 7th century might seem pretty anachronistic, but one presumes Ely’s intention is to symbolise the flight of an Old Saxon English heritage (e.g. the hare) from the hot pursuit of a Plantagenet dynastic feudalism. In any case, Ely’s book takes in a much broader time span of periods, from the 7th century up to the late 20th, in what is a kind of immanent dialectical materialist (though not atheistic) take on the struggles of identity and authenticity throughout the ages.
The opening poem of the collection –and the first of many with a Latin title– ‘Kalendarium’ is an introductory monologue spoken by King Oswald, presented almost in a kind of stream-of-consciousness, all in lower case, rather like an overly eloquent Saxon text message. What is immediately clear is Ely’s considerable vocabulary and feel for some of the turn of phrase and nomenclature of –presumably– 6th century Saxon English. Here are some excerpts from the poem which particularly struck me in terms of description and evocation:
…apples and white bread and frankish grape-wine,
fumes curling from the jar like dawn-mist rising over the stank,
…aethelfrith, my father, who was pagan and barbarian
and took me to hunt the eofor in the water-waste of haethfelt,
where i leapt from my mount in the birth-scrub
in a tumult of pigshriek, yelping greyhounds, aluntes snarling…
These stanzas have the gutsy sinuousness of Anglo-Saxon English and at times remind one of Beowulf. I do still puzzle, however, at the insistence of complete lower case, even when it comes to proper nouns. One feels at times as if actually reading semi-translated Anglo-Saxon poetry:
…the hare has no season, yet after candlemas,
some say she cannot be taken, for then she cometh
into her heart and is quick with leverets.
… for ice-bit hours we rode the world,
flushing nought but bustards. then, with daylight closing to vespers,
the cry went up and we flushed a solitary hare.
the houndes uncoupled she ran them in great circles, as is her wont,
across field and common, into copse and bankings,
the houndes giving mouth and making good gallop…
There are beautiful and striking images throughout this muscularly rhythmic piece: ‘green-leaved beech-boughs,/ the warm sonne speared to the bluebell floor’ and ‘i had much pleasure of birdsong and the daffodil sonne-light/ and the leafs and croppes of lententime’. And the deluge of imagery is rich with alliteration: ‘foulmart, ermine and miniver’. My only slight qualm –which isn’t an actual criticism– is with what can sometimes read like listings of Saxon names and terms rather than an integration of them into the narrative for descriptive effect, a quality which for me echoes some forms of currently ‘fashionable’ rusticated verse (Alice Oswald springs to mind for instance, and not just for her name). ‘Kalendarium’ closes on its most polemical note, which emphasises the proto-socialist attitude of Oswald:
having kneeled the churls at sword-edge,
i demanded they account for their arrogance
in stealing a deer from the forest of oswald their king.
they bowed their heads and none dare speak,
until the boldest saith, ‘sir, is no synne for an englisc-manne
to take a deer from his own landis forest.’
and i could not fault him…
The next section, ‘Godpsel’, begins with a quote from a poem in what appears to be Anglo-Saxon English, titled ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’. There follow four verse tributes to a somewhat disparate quartet, each title beginning with the Latin phrase ‘Incipit eungelium secundum’ followed by the name of the historical subject or speaker. To just provide an elucidation of the purpose of these Latin introductions, they allude to the mediaeval tradition of a Book of Hours, as explained by Ely in a Note at the end of the book:
In the medieval period, wealthy pious who wished to pray the Divine Office commissioned their own personal ‘Books of Hours’. Often exquisitely illustrated, these books contained a range of devotions –prayers, psalms, antiphons, texts from the Old and New Testaments and so on– to be prayed or sung at the canonical hours: matins, lauds, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers and compline.
These prose poems are presented in narrow fully justified columns, thin strips of text like those in the Bible or old illuminated manuscripts (presumably the analogy here), and still today, of course, in some newspapers and magazines. Each sentence is numbered, which gives a methodical impression of statements, and the lines are suitably staccato (not a quality that particularly appeals to me in poetry if I’m to be honest, but here it seems to serve a purpose). ‘Incipit euangelium secundum Aethelstan Rex’ contains some quite striking lines/clauses:
3. And did I not gather the bones of
saints, holy blood and holy thorn, establish
chapel and chantry for munuc and nunne?
This verse is thick with historical exposition, but remarkably well communicated, so it never reads dryly:
The kingdom was Godwine’s, rihtcynnes
Englisc, father, and Harald, his son. 7. But
enough of this prattle; to business. My
Counsel is Alfred’s…
One notes here that Ely uses sentence case, in contrast to ‘Kalendarium’’s lower case. However, the first letters of each line are in lower case (unless starting with a new sentence). This is standard prosodic practice in most contemporary poetry, though I’ve never fully understood why: to me, personally, sticking to the rules of standard English prose (i.e. capitalisation only of first letters of sentences) in verse simply gives more the impression of prose than poetry, and it’s difficult not to wonder whether the general abandonment of capitalising the first letter of each line in poetry (as was fairly standard up until the twentieth century) has not in its own small way symbiotically contributed to the increasing ‘prosy-ness’ of poetry over the past seventy years or so.
While some early Modernists started to drop into lower case verse, even for the start of sentences –ee cummings being perhaps the prime seminal exponent of this typographical fetish– one also recalls that much of T.S. Eliot’s earlier and most experimental verse still tended to have sentence case lines (I’m thinking of The Waste Land, bar the more stream-of-consciousness parts of ‘III. The Fire Sermon’; while similar can be said for much of Ezra Pound’s oeuvre). Perhaps a Classical or Augustan ‘lag’, but to my mind, capitalised lines lend poetry a greater medium-emphasis and stylistic distinction, helping it to keep a very clear blue water between itself and prose (and I also further argue that perhaps the two greatest works of ‘prose poetry’ in English are James Joyce’s Ulysses and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood –while I struggle to recall any actual de facto ‘prose poems’ that, for me, employ language as powerfully and hypnotically as those two works).
‘Incipit euangelium secundum Wat Tyler’ depicts the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, a period more in keeping with that of the book’s cover painting. This is a monologue from beyond the grave from Tyler, recalling his betrayal by the duplicitous boy king Richard (II) Plantagenet at Mile End when, both armies assembled opposite each other, Tyler and his cohorts were, as Ely puts it, ‘flattered and fell for the King’s flim-flam’ (a mooted ‘truce’ and capitulation to some of the demands of the people’s army) and Tyler himself knocked off his horse with a fatal blow by one of Richard’s henchmen.
This piece is written in a casual modern vernacular –its’ opening reminiscent of the informal tone of Peter Street’s satirical poems which give voice to the political personalities of various shrubs of the plant world. Sometimes the alliteration slightly trips over itself: ‘a purpled pisser into their plutocrat pisspot’ (wouldn’t ‘plutocratic’ have worked better there?). Why the preoccupation with expletives here? Personally I find the overtly alliterative pile-up of these 'p'-expletives rather pointless. Nevertheless, while they may seem anachronistic, they actually aren’t: Anglo-Saxon English was nothing if not ‘earthy’ and ‘colourful’, while English throughout the ages –bar the Puritan hiatus of the Cromwellian period, and prior to being ‘gentrified’ during the 19th century– was ever prone to the scatological (particularly post-Restoration and through the 18th century, something satirised in part by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.
In spite of this conversational style, there are still the occasional arresting descriptions: Richard described as ‘apple-cheeked’, for instance. Tyler describes how trustingly, or naively, he ‘swaggered before them like a drunken churl’ and ‘paid with my life and the jubilee of the commons’. Towards its close the piece tilts into some of the more noticeable contemporary polemic –via juxtaposition– in the book:
yet there is a fourth thing: pray for the
intercession of Ball: 11. His spirit is the
strength of England, for he will fire the
fieldfolk and seek to destroy those who
live on their labour without themselves
working: 12. Baron and banker, lawyer
and lord, cleric and king. 13. From Eden
were all men created alike, according to
God’s will and in His image; and the
bondage of the many comes from the
arrogance and grasping of the few…
John Ball was the Lollard priest who played a prominent role in the Peasant’s Revolt, which he survived, unlike Tyler, hence the expressed hope here that he will continue to generate at least a psychical or attitudinal insurgency against the feudal system. There then comes a prophecy which could as well presage the future Gunpowder Plot, or, metaphorically, something more contemporary, as King Oswald’s ghost is rhetorically summoned in the ‘His country needs him now’ sense that King Arthur’s normally is:
Sainted King Oswald, heed well my
lesson. When your moment arrives, seize
it: lead the fyrd of your people to palace of
Westminster and hesitate not to treat it
with fire; 16. And doubt not that your
people, should you ever oppress them or
lead them astray, will turn upon your
Northumbrian tower, with springole and
trebuchet, block, scaffold and hatchet.
The last two lines, which evoke civil revolution through the blunt instruments of associated objects of retribution is very typical of the ‘show, don’t tell’ ethos of much contemporary poetry –and in some respects this works to make a point almost without making a point: a partial authorial neutrality is tentatively maintained so the poet doesn’t come across as too ‘preachy’, ‘hortatory’ or ‘sententious’. But the only trouble I have with this all too commonplace approach in poetry today is that the ‘show’ aspect can often become an end in itself until the ‘tell’ is only remotely implied, if not, sometimes, subordinated to faint murmur. So we end up with just ‘show’ of nothing in particular; with a ‘whimper’ rather than a ‘bang’, to paraphrase Eliot.
The hardest thing to accomplish effectively in poetry is the communication of a political stance without it coming across as clumsily tub-thumping. As Alan Bold put it in his Introduction to the Penguin Book of Socialist Poetry (1970) –if one substitutes ‘political’ for ‘socialist’: ‘It is necessary for the socialist poet to have more impressive technical equipment than his apolitical contemporaries because his task is that much more important’. Hence, post-Thirties, poets have been petrified by their own opinions. Arguably, over the decades, some of those more politically minded poets have perhaps focused on the ‘technical equipment’ so much so as to almost neuter, through encryption, any polemical point being made. Or, ironically, and in contradistinction to the often politically cogent but poetically simplistic nature of ‘protest poetry’, the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach invariably results in a specialisation of expression at the expense of any specialisation in polemical point being communicated, to the extent that the ‘political message’ becomes more simplistic, and in many cases trite or banal.
In the worst scenarios, which we occasionally encounter through attempts at being a bit more ‘political’ by some higher profile poets who epitomise ‘mainstream understatement’ to the point of not only unoriginal ‘message’ but also unremarkable use of language, we get ‘poetry’ which is neither politically nor poetically engaging (but which, inexplicably, somehow seems to get away with its own inoffensive nebulousness). ‘Poetic understatement’ is another phrase we might use to signpost the ‘show, don’t tell’ edict. Having said all this, at least Ely’s imaginative engagement with language gives his more de rigueur moments of ‘understatement’ a linguistic lift which distinguishes them against the more blandly expressed platitudes of the mainstream.
With ‘Incipit eungelium secundum Scouse McLaughlin’, we move into darker territory. The eponymous McLaughlin was a Paratrooper during the Falkland’s Crisis of 1982 who, along with other Paras since nick-named ‘The Green-Eyed Boys’, after taking Mount Longdon from the Argentinians. According to an account written later through the retrospect of post-traumatic stress by one of the soldiers who witnessed the Guignol, Corporal Vincent Bramley (Excursion to Hell, 1993), some of his comrades shot and bayoneted the surrendered Argentinians, as well as some alleged American mercenaries among their ranks. Most gruesome of all, Bramley witnessed the mutilation of some of the Argentinian corpses and his fellow squaddie Stuart ‘Scouse’ McLaughlin cut off the ears of the dead as ‘trophies’, in macabre homage to notorious American atrocities in the Vietnam. McLaughlin was later killed in action, sustaining a particularly gruesome wound which apparently exposed his spine and lungs.
Ely’s fourth and final ‘Incipit eungelium secundum’ is a difficult read (the easily offended may blanch at phrases like ‘bayoneting spics’), being an imagined posthumous statement of McLaughlin’s, but it makes some important polemical points on the brutality and brutalisation of war, which pits human beings in scenarios antipathetic to the sensitivities evolved as a species, so that ‘animal instincts’ are over-stimulated –indeed, exploited by politicians– to the detriment of psychical susceptibilities, and those soldiers who degenerate into the venting of even more primal behaviours, are rather hypocritically condemned by the deskbound politicians and war commanders, vicarious warmongers who are effectively soldiers’ puppeteers (hence Grand Guignol is not an inappropriate metaphor to use for war).
While it is perfectly right to condemn such acts (i.e. war atrocities), it is also important to condemn war altogether, which can trigger such uber-barbarities; and, difficult though it is, to extend some element of clemency towards the protagonists. This piece works up to a compelling Kipling-pastiche post-mortem on political and military hypocrisy:
… 10. Then the shell hit it,
Goodnight Vienna. They screwed me out
of my posthumous VC on account of the
lugs, but God knows his own. …
… 12. And that’s
about the shape of it: plucky Tommy
Atkins, (Gawd bless ’im) vs Booze
Britain and the Inter City Firm. 13. It’s like they
say up here; Daemon et Deus inversus.
two sides of the same coin: you can’t have
one without the other. 14. And the next
time the shit hits the fan, who you gonna
call? The Independent? The Groucho
Club? Alderley-fucking-Edge? 15.
Oswald, King and Saint, I know one thing
and one thing only: the rabble is the
blood-pulse of England. Never forget it.
The next section, comprising just two short poems, is very Catholically titled ‘Prayers to the Virgin’ –such aspects, along with the use of Latin, remind me of the late Sebastian Barker’s oeuvre, particularly his Damnatio Memoriae (Eintharmon, 2004), and Erotics of God (2005; also Smokestack); the more stream-of-consciousness Thomist Modernism of David Jones –The Anathemata– also comes to mind.
‘Obsecro te’ (essentially, ‘I beg a favour of you’, or a ‘pardon’) depicts another soliloquised verse-ventriloquism, this time through the mouth of English Protestant martyr Thomas Haukes, one of the countless fatalities during the persecutory reign of Catholic Queen (‘Bloody’) Mary Tudor; as the introductory preamble notes, Haukes was burnt at the stake on 9 June 1555. This choice of tribute to a Protestant rather than Catholic martyr serves to emphasize that Ely’s Catholicism is in no way blinkered to its own historical faults and felonies. The poem begins in Latin: ‘Obsecro te regina Maria’. This is one of the most eloquently expressed poems in the book, rich in Tudor-era evocation, with some luscious turns of phrase and pastoral lyricism:
… Catkins break from quickening willow,
and spring’s green titmice dart and cheep;
conies creep under doilied blackthorns
and from the kingcup-meadow, the hot fitch prowls…
Lines such as ‘Blood rises with the sun that on my springtime smiles’ wouldn’t be out of place in a Shakespearean sonnet; while ‘England’s verdant Word’, and much of the above excerpt, are faintly Marvellian, not to say also Wordsworthian and Keatsian. What is essentially Haukes’ plea for clemency from Mary Tudor becomes more hortatory towards its close:
Lady, the people will be turbulent
in tongue and in tract, the virtue and virility
of the race; wisdom, therefore, is to suffer
dissent and in no ways suppress. Let a table
be prepared beneath the blossoming crab-tree
and there come together your querulous breed,
to commune in beer and loaves of barley:
fyrd-food, the bread of our fathers.
This is a moving plea for conscientious amnesty, as well as for an armistice between denominations of the same root-religion. ‘O intermerata’ is not, as one might initially presume, a flipside of the coin, starting as it does with a quote from a prophecy made by Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Nun of Kent’, to Henry VIII in 1532, imploring him to ‘Forsake Anne Boleyn’ and ‘take back’ his ‘wife Catherine’ (of Aragon), lest the king incur divine wrath and be struck down in his prime, leaving the crown prematurely to an unprepared Mary, daughter of Henry and Catherine (of Aragon). Barton was later burnt at the stake. But the actual content of the poem appears to be more a poetic impeachment of Catholic Mary Tudor’s subsequent ‘Bloody’ reign. It begins, again, with a plea in Latin, ‘O intemerata et virgo Maria’, and hurtles full throttle into another virtuosic cascade of evocatively descriptive image and sense-impression, albeit perhaps needlessly scatological at times:
…now mottled as a throstle’s breast
or the coat of a wall-eyed Romney sheep-dog.
twice-sullied: by Spain’s rotten sperm,
begetter of gut-ghosts and flatulence only,
yeasting your womb with the crown-prince of farts;
and divine right’s Cain-brand, the red-merle rash
of poxy guilt congenital from your sire.
Against the English people, turning your head
to the Alcazar and to Rome. You wore
his crown indeed, ever your father’s daughter;
for kings and queens will burn: Tyburn’s stake,
the pyres of purgatory –the incendiary torches
of the fishwives of Kent, shrieking through the halls
of Hampton Court palace.
The phrase ‘gut-ghosts’ alludes to Mary Tudor’s sporadic phantom pregnancies –here the alliteration with ‘Begetter’ is notable, as is that of ‘poxy guilt congenital’, lending the poem a very guttural and visceral quality.
By the point of coming to the next section, ‘Hours of the Virgin’, some readers may begin to feel themselves saturated in Catholic nomenclature and somewhat overcome by a perhaps unintentional bouquet of obscurantism (forgive my own obscurantism –I mean to say: a lot of Latin and Catholic terms and allusions). I’m a Catholic myself (and a socialist, so have at least two things in common with Ely), but felt fairly at sea with much of the Catholic esotericism of the book, not least the Latin, and while reviewing it, had to look up many terms and allusions on the internet due to the absence of any explanatory footnotes. Future online searches may become even more confused when Latin terms crop up under The Recusant and its very different namesake run by the conservative Catholic Society of St. Pius X (SSPX)! The latter Society would to some extent approve Ely’s very erudite Episcopalian collection, particularly the eruptions of Latin throughout, as the SSPX campaigns, among other things, for retaining Latin in Catholic Masses (Ely’s book should also find favour the slightly more socially enlightened Tablet).
‘Matins: Annunciation’ contains some nice descriptions but for me gets a bit too staccato, like a list of images:
Packing the van in drenched Jack Pyke:
Lazerlight lamp-kit, slip-leads, dogs.
the long drive east to the ditch-cut flatlands.
Sleet strafing down. Wind howling in the hawthorns.
halogen beam. Green-eyes in hedge bottoms.
Transfixed conies. Dogs running down the beam…
And so on. Apparently ‘Jack Pyke’ is the brand name of a camouflage-style cagoule often associated with hunting. ‘Lauds: Visitation’ seems to confirm the subject is (nocturnal?) hunting. Again, the impression is of a list of descriptive images as yet towards no clear purpose, well-written though they are:
… Then the bridlepath
to Clayton in may-flower dawn, thrushes pealing
from the hedgerows like the clamour of church bells
on Sunday morning. My bobbery pack before me;
plummers and whippets, Hancock lurchers,
flushing partridge from the bracken…
Etc. ‘Prime Nativity’ seems to be about a litter of puppies, but the contents are anything but an Andrex advert:
… The black dog was runty,
kept falling off the tit. I gave it the weekend
before drowning it in the sink…
Now that is blunt! Ted Hughes meets Irvine Welsh. ‘Tierce: Annunciation to the Shepherds’ is even bleaker, and seems suddenly to be the inner-monologue of a ‘Scouse’ McLaughlin-type veteran (hence the repeat again of ‘green-eyed’, an allusion to the ‘Green-Eyed Boys’?) with his sights set on ovine quarry:
…determined to show them what green-eyed means.
Nine in the morning, pissed out of our heads
from the all-night lock in. What was I thinking?
But I’d done it all my life, rabbits, hares,
deer and what have you; why not a sheep?
Fuck the farmers. So I pulled over
at the turning place, ran one down in the heather
and cut its throat with my Fairburn-sykes.
Allahu akbhar. Anyway, the farmer called the bizzies…
Then this rather crude anecdote almost veers into Droog-like pidgin a la Clockwork Orange: ‘turns out some nosey gwilum/ had seen me weaving my Hilux’ (though, granted, Hilux is a type of trailer-car –but gwilum? It sounds Welsh, but reminds me of the Droogism ‘gulliver’ in how it’s deployed). However, what is thought-provoking, especially in light of the horrific decapitation of a British serviceman in Woolwich in May 2013 (and all the more chilling since presumably Ely had written this prior to that horrendous event?), with ‘Allahu akbhar’ (‘God is the Greatest’ –though I don’t think ‘akbhar’ normally has an ‘h’ in it), following the description of the garrotting of a sheep, presumably an allusion to the ubiquitous sacrificial cry most commonly associated today with Islamist extremists and/or suicide bombers; and here too the ovine victim seems biblically symbolic i.e. ‘lamb to the slaughter’.
‘Sext: Adoration of the Magi’ depicts hare-coursing –as of course depicted, in medieval form, on the book’s cover; for me personally, any lyrical flourishes here (‘The barley shook/ and he vanished, rippling the crop like wind’) is undermined by the pretty off-putting topic, and a fairly needless quote from a Showaddywaddy lyric made no more interesting –or relevant?– by its simple repetition of ‘re-member, re-re-member…’ etc., and which recurs a second time further down in the poem.
‘None: Presentation in the Temple’ sets the scene evocatively with some ornithological details:
Dappled shade of Kirkby churchyard,
Whitsun, seventy-six. Beyond the walls,
sky cloudless brilliant blue; big sun burning down.
Bucolic cool within; turtles purring
from the breathing limes, swallows and martins
flicking between the graves, polyphon blackbird
But then tilts back into ‘Ted Hughes-on-the-rampage’ mode with a kid ‘commando crawling/ between the graves’, who, ‘pulling back fronds/ of camouflage burdock’, reveals his ‘dump of feathery corpses’. One detects a pattern here –and it’s about to rupture into a crescendo: ‘Vespers: Massacre of the Innocents’ depicts a Parson hunting and slaughtering a ‘buck’ (a deer or rabbit isn’t clear, but presumably a deer) –this piece is perhaps the most descriptively impressive of the sequence, but is still quite unnerving and unsavoury reading; here hunting seems to serve as a metaphor for warfare and also, perhaps, those not too distant spates of random mass shootings in some rural English settings:
…then the blood-freezing bok of angry twelve bore.
The Parson came whimpering back.
he led me through the oxlips to her body
by the five bar gate. Her ribcage was shattered.
Each dying breath belched blood. Somewhere in the blur
angry voices were gaining. Knuckles bleeding white
on the shotgun stock…
One presumes from ‘her’ that the maimed beast is a doe. ‘Compline: Coronation of the Virgin’ veers back into more visceral evocations again and is all the blunter for its staccato macho-speak –I know that Ely is trying to evoke certain uncultivated attitudes that no doubt he feels at best ambivalent towards, but for me this doesn’t make for particularly involving poetic fare. Nor am I too clear on the point of the juxtapositions of types of Church service with types of hunting. The first few lines struck me in terms of compact images:
Blue-merle bitch; five-eighths greyhound, quarter collie,
one eighth bull. All legal quarry, and then some;
rabbit, walked-up or lamped…
Some of the slang-like vernacular, such as ‘lamped’ (presumably ‘punched’?), works well as sense-impression –but the blunt and truncated phrase ‘and then some’ is for me off-putting in a poem, especially so near its beginning.
The next section, ‘Hours of the Cross’, is heralded with a quote form an Old English demotic poem ‘A Geste of Robyn Hode’. But flip the page over and we’re back into Latin again with the poem title ‘Patris sapienta’. Then we swing back into Old English with what is either a continuation from ‘Robyn Hode’ or Ely’s own pastiche. The poem itself swings in and out of what one presumes to be a form of Anglo-Saxon or Old English, of a Germanic kind, so presumably pre-Norman English at any rate. If I’m honest, I find the constant use of these ‘Anglo-Saxonisms’ more fatiguing than intriguing after a while, so that the reading sometimes weighs heavily.
In this particular poem, too, the Saxonic semantics are rendered even more daunting by an inexplicable return to the blanket lower case text of the book’s opening poem (even more inexplicable when proper nouns crop up), which can trigger in me something of a ‘poetic migraine’, something I normally suffer from when ploughing through more abstruse ‘experimental’ or ‘Modernistic’ contemporary poetries. There’s no doubting the erudition here, the feel for Anglo-Saxon language and memes –as in this excerpt:
when brother fights brother,
fellowship fails. tautology
of the weak. tostig’s cain-brand,
the oathbreaker dead
and lamech inherits the earth.
hereward, eadric, wulfric;
but the atheling spirit bled out
at senlac and stamford bridge.
And then, a little later, the Anglo-Saxon English gets even more impregnable:
ic geseach on swefne a manne
of our cynne, blynded of eie
and lopped of foot, in beggary
at my skel on watlynge street.
And so on. At this juncture I suppose I just inwardly ask: Is this going anywhere? There’s much depiction, evocation –but to what end? This isn’t something peculiar to this collection, or to Ely’s oeuvre: it’s a reflexive quality I find in much mainstream verse, to which my instinctive response is often, ‘Ok –And…?’ It’s an irony of poetic fashion today that while too thorough an engagement with language is often frowned upon as somehow verbose or linguistically indulgent (and if poets can’t indulge in language then who can?), the same rule suddenly evaporates when it comes to chewing on the cuds of ancient or medieval verbiage. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s the impression I tend to get in the main.
If one was to be particularly needling one might ask what exactly it is about such etymologically tinged poetry that so appeals to the otherwise more pedestrian and prosaic tastes of mainstream prize panels? Is it the mystique of not quite understanding what they’re reading? If so, then surely they should be equally intrigued by the plethora of experimental poetics thrust at them every year, which, in the main, they seemingly ignore. The likeliest conclusion is that work such as Ely’s, whether understood or not, has sufficient guts and energy in its use of language to intrigue enough to warrant a second reading, and then perhaps a third. Nevertheless, as argued earlier, this still doesn’t explain the inexplicable neglect of so many other similarly linguistically engaging poets.
‘Hours of the Holy Spirit’ is a more interesting poem which, in contrast to ‘Patris sapienta’, draws one in almost immediately –perhaps in part because it’s more conventionally presented in blank verse quatrains. It begins with a quote from what appears to be an Old English Bible translation from the Acts of the Apostles –though ‘Hooli Goost’ evokes more Gaelic or Scots; it is then followed by an indented and italicised slice of what one presumes is Anglo-Saxon verse, whether original or not is unclear, but of particular note is the last verse which mentions William Langland’s ‘Peres Ploughman’ and instructs him ‘go to his werk and chastise wel/ Hobbe the Robbere’. Then the poem proper begins, in Modern English. Here Ely enjoys his encyclopaedic catalogue of historical radicals, and makes good sport with alliteration and assonance:
Note well our trueman Cyril Atkinson
who defied Norwood’s shotgun
and Rooke’s barbed wire to walk Barnsdale’s
dirt-roads open for the people.
And our brother Aaron Wilkinson,
who from our own spilled blood and expropriate
soil, wrote his History of South Kirkby
in priceless Silvine notebooks.
Billy Whitehurst of Hickleton Main
who terrorised Hansen and the Daily Mail
with elbows, head-butts and bare-knuckle
bar fights, for the greater glory of Thurnsca.
I particularly admire the use of language in the following stanzas:
Hatfield’s Dave Douglass –red-ragger, siccarius,
man of rough letters, anarcho-syndicalist,
hewer of coal –who would yet destroy the lords
of this realm, their crops and judges and lawyers.
Brian Plummer, the sainted person
of Harlington maggot-farm, entering the dumps
of coal-soiled cities, finding truth in rat-holes,
the pits of conies, Charlie’s reeking earth.
I have to admit I’m not really sure who most of these figures are, though perhaps the point of the poem is to draw attention to them. A quick look on the internet elucidated some of the names: Billy Whitehurst was a footballer; Brian Plummer, a Welsh writer; and, curiously, Cyril Atkinson comes up as a past Conservative MP, though perhaps Ely is alluding to a different Cyril Atkinson (a rambler perhaps?). While these character vignettes, or potted biographies, are reasonably intriguing and well-phrased, I still feel that in the end they should add up to something, to some particular polemical point –perhaps there is one there, but I was unable to fathom it myself.
‘Septem psalmi paenitentiales’ is a series of poems, all with Latin titles, which are each imagined confessions and/or statements by John Nevison, a Restoration-era highwayman, who was nicknamed “Swift Nick” by Charles II. These thin strips of verse (prose poems really) are in a fairly contemporary and casual vernacular, which led to my disengagement with them, particularly when sudden bursts of distinctly modern expletives crop up –though it’s probably unfair to scoop one such ‘colourful’ line out of context, I must be a prude, since I can see no purpose that a nonsensical phrase like ‘I was jumping/ bollock-naked like a twat’ serves in any verse which intends to be taken seriously. Somehow period images such as ‘flintlocks’ and ‘cocked-pistols’ take on whole new meanings. For me, this section is playing to the younger galleries of readers, though I’m sure many of them won’t be engaged to any greater extent simply due to more graphic use of language.
‘Hours of the Dead’ is really one long verse cut up into sections, as indicated by the absence of any individual titles. Each begins with an italicised preamble relating to one John Schepe, though it is unclear who he exactly is/was (and even Googling the name drew a blank!). The first piece is rich in vocabulary and arresting description, though seems ultimately another of Ely’s compact lists of images –here it is in full:
A child in the graveyard pulling femurs
from the earth; Mortain and Maerleswin,
the rickety pins of serfs. Turf tumescent
and studded with daisies, rooting from the dead.
Headstones rotting under bowed laburnums,
the riven sandstone sundial. Surnames
in copperplate; Atte-Hall, Stillingfleet, Warde.
A clambering idiot, smearing mistletoe
on poplars, stealing seeds from the hoary crabtree.
Owl pellets and stale confetti. The packed-lunch
vista over Mappleyard to Frickley,
examining our treasure: a bag of old bones,
decades of flaccid bellis perennis,
the star-pipped flesh of crabs.
One also notes Ely’s firmly rooted sense of place, which is characteristic of the book as a whole, and, a somewhat rootless Southerner myself (born in the South-East, brought up in the South-West, and back in the South-East since my mid-twenties) I envy such Northern rootedness. On the other hand, I also find it has limitations of interest for those completely unfamiliar with the locality in question (is it the poet’s native West Riding or Oswald’s Northumbria?). The parochial is fairly common in contemporary poetry, and echoes the topophilic propensities of late Forties and early Fifties poets, such as Dylan and R.S. Thomas (Wales), Norman Nicholson (Cumbria), Edwin Morgan (Scotland) et al.
The next verse starts off with a curious italicised quote (or pastiche?) which seems to convey an egalitarian sentiment: ‘Bread and cheese, small beer; the mad cantor’s/ levelling stipend, worthy to receive’. The first few lines are earthily evocative with a Nordic flavour (‘huscarls’ or ‘housecarls’ were Scandinavian ‘non-servile manservants’ or thanes/henchmen of Viking lords and kings) –here the juxtapositions of ancient and modern imageries work well:
Under the golf course, the dead of England lie;
beneath the steel mill, their vernacular graves.
Rolling and turning in tectonic earth,
drifting turfward in turbulent methane,
the sphenoids of huscarls reveal in the borders
of the Whitehill Estate…
For me, this is one the most effective and successful openings in the book, drawing the reader in through evocation and with the sense of a polemical trajectory; the language is instantly engaging, and the phrase ‘vernacular graves’ is particularly striking. The verse then moves into more modern/contemporary memes and images, depicting some sort of pub night. Then we’re back with the Falklands ‘Green-Eyed Boys’ again circa 1982:
Jase Burt, Neil Grose, Ian Scrivens,
zipped into body-bags on the scoured slopes
of Longden. And the Funboy Three
… singing to the tune
of the drunken sailor: What shall we do
with the Argentinians, erlie in the morning?
Bomb, bomb, bomb the bastards…
So there’s a real sense of time warp in this verse –the pop-group allusion to ‘Funboy Three’ a rather chilling link back to the three ‘Green-Eyed Boys’; while Longden is strangely miss-spelt here, with an ‘e’ instead of an ‘o’. The next verse begins with: ‘Athelstan’s guilt offering, for Earls and Kings,/ his own unsainted soul. For the blood of Christ/ was insufficient on Weondune’s hazelled field’. So far so good. What we have next is a compact mythologizing of a geographical area –seemingly in Yorkshire, so presumably the poet’s native West Riding?– with a time-shifting deluge of allusions to places, events and local people:
What picnic at the Sheepwash, damp-arsed
among kingcups and Yorkshire fog,
chomping bread and jam. …
the arable water tasted like much
and organophosphates. A Wimpey’s expedition;
between Kirkby and Hemsworth, where
the farmers of Limphill and Hague Hall farms
used to dip their sheep in the stream. It’s not
only maps, but one sweltering Sunday
in the miners’ strike, Arthur Wakefield
stopped there to thumb a lift to the Alpha.
It’s where Flick Spencer used to watter his dogs,
Michelle Appleyard her horse. Stu Priestley raced
Ness there and back from Buck’s Farm,
and Crazy Horse Hampton lost it on the curve,
flinging Millsy face first from his helmetless
pillion, into the sodium lamp-post:
broken in the silts of the funerary waters.
It is indeed like a potted proletarian local history, apparently set mostly at the time of the Miners’ Strike, and has a sort of modern folkloric quality. It is, again, staccato, anecdotal, a listing of events and characters, and the ‘miner’s strike’, de-capitalised (I’d normally instinctively capitalise it due to its significance), feels a bit ‘thrown in’ here, almost like a sound-bite, though presumably in this context it’s about the setting of time and place and the poem is not specifically about the strike itself. It’s also curious that ‘yorkshire’ is de-capitalised too, not to say ironic given its pivotal place. My problem with pieces like this, no matter how well composed they are, is that they’re such specific individualised nostalgic associations that, at least without a bit more fleshing out, they’re like glimpsing someone’s memories by bullet points.
The next verse begins with the italicised lines: ‘Sometimes the sword. For John Schepe’s floc/ is fled to the ravenings of wolfish men./ Middle-earth shrunk to food and devouring:/ Past and future –silent birthblind dreams’. Nicely written but difficult to get a handle of. The verse itself, again, is a cascade of imagery, often gorgeously descriptive and alliterative, but ultimately only partially revealing of anything in particular other than random memories:
Transitions of the Virgin in Hampole Wood:
milky galanthus and snowbright anemones
drifting under bare-bone oaks; equinoctal
narcissi, funnelling the sun; sky-belled
hyacinthus. The immemorial robings
of Barnsdale, unwitnessed by Richard Rolle…
Maybe Ely is attempting a kind of Under Milk Wood of the North here, a free-flowing onrush of breathless images and microscopic descriptions –rather like peering into a provincial rock-pool. His etymological command of language, particularly of obscure root-words, as rich in Anglo-Saxon as it is in Latin, is beyond question; but the purposes of such a poetic aren't. Not in any fundamental prosodic sense, but simply in terms of trying to grasp some overall message or point. Certainly the next verse –which proffers the resonant phrase ‘amnesiac graves’ in its italicised preamble– moves even more robustly into Dylan Thomas-esque mode, and, indeed, there is something of the almost euphoric nostalgia of his ‘Fern Hill’ about some of the lines:
Spirituous mists are chilling the outside air.
A mournful puit, a curlew’s severed plaint,
a loon’s sinister atmospherics
at Camp Crystal Lake. Turn off the light.
Sit in silence by the window and listen
through the stare of your black doppelganger,
as springtide darkness presses against the glaze.
A blackbird’s alarums, the frantic ticking of robins –
cat-yowl, maybe, clawed-paws flipping the lid
of the tit-box? Sally forth in carpet slippers,
brandishing yard-brush. Blackbirds and robins erupt –
and haloed in the moon on the herringbone aerial:
athena noctua, presaging death in this suburb.
These ghosts are drawn from my own fuming blood.
That last image is particularly compelling. For a moment I’d assumed ‘herringbone’ was a portmanteau a la Thomas, but it’s actually the name of a type of V-shaped twilled cloth; nevertheless, the singing assonantal line ‘haloed in the moon on the herringbone aerial’ is, to my mind, worthy of Dylan Thomas, while the wonderfully alliterative ‘As springtide darkness presses against the glaze’ is beautifully wrought, and evocative of Wordsworth or Coleridge.
Another thought occurs to me the more I read these verses: does there have to be any particular point being made? Well, no, there doesn’t have to be –there has been much poetry, of all periods, that has had its phantasmagorical ambiguity, being seemingly a build-up of impressions, an aggregate of images; not least among the Romantics. If one thinks of Ely’s poems more as impressionistic, than polemical or parabolic (though there are aspects of both in some of his poems), then it works on its own terms.
The following verse, for me, is of most note for its italicised preamble than the majority of the actual poem: ‘To hedgerow crones, pulling the screaming mandrake,/ bloodwine and breadbody John Schepe brings./ For God made for you herb and unguent brockfat/ and stowed them in our apotek woods’. Much of the poem itself is prosaically written and anecdotal, more prose than poetry. However, there are two lyrical flourishes, one in the middle, and at the end:
… Why not his name
on a marble slab in the native soil
of our Carr Lane cemetery?…
… in your exile
on Horcum, there unmourned by the lonely
curlew, on the bee-less purple moor.
Next we have what seems to be an anecdote of military brutality set in the Napoleonic Wars, which is marvellously verbal and polished of composition:
… William Rockliff,
driver James Crammond and gunner John Butterworth
of the Royal Horse Artillery got royal for tuppence
on Flemish gin. …
made a raft, and arming themselves with clubs,
they sailed forth that midnight to bash out their brains.
At dawn, the boot-and-saddle sounded, calling them
to the front, bleary and stinking like otters;
where Crammond’s head was shattered with grapeshot,
and Butterworth blown to pieces by his own cannon.
The verse goes on to describe how only Rockliff, ‘veteran of Seringapatam/ and Salamanca, survived to bodge chairs/ in the officer’s mess at Clichy,/ a pause on the march to Paris’, dying at the then-ripe old age of 88, ‘Campaign medal pinned to his chest’, buried at ‘St. Mary’s hearth,/ Smeaton, a hero of Waterloo’. In spite of its presentation, however, these lines, accomplishedly written as they are, are disputably more poetic prose than full-blown poetry; though this is nothing untypical of much contemporary verse, where an unnecessary insistence on sticking to the full grammatical presentation of prose tends to result in prose-with-enjambments; as opposed to more compacted poetic structure, where the more routine grammatical rules of prose, such as conjunctive clauses and definite and indefinite articles are, where possible, and without compromising clarity, skipped (often a way of doing this is to simply replace them with dashes). For instance, the above lines might have been written thus:
made a raft –arming themselves with clubs,
they sailed forth, midnight, to bash out their brains.
Dawn: boot-and-saddle sounded, calling
Bleary and stinking otters to the front;
Crammond’s head –shattered with grapeshot;
Butterworth –blown to bits by his own cannon.
Admittedly the suggested changes here are slight, and the personification of the men as otters, rather than simply a comparison to otters, audacious. But much contemporary poetry is keen on emphasizing similes with ‘like’, which, again, echoes more prose than poetry. Until perhaps a couple of decades ago or so, there had been a long-standing trend among poets to emphasize metaphor and personification more implicitly by avoiding ‘like’ as much as possible, so that similes (descriptive comparisons) merged more into complete metaphors (transformations). One famous line which exemplifies this is from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1920): ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes’. Here the fog is described, or personified, as a cat rubbing itself against a window, and this is implicit in the associations of the description, it is not spelt out, and is presented more as a ‘transmogrification of a moggy’, rather than as a more prosaic simile/comparison, i.e: ‘The yellow fog that like a cat rubs itself against…’ etc.
The problem with employing the structure of prose in poetry is that, perhaps inescapably, the poetry then morphs into prose –even if, as with Ely’s, a descriptively rich or ‘poetic’ prose. I’m trying to make a more general point here, and it is certainly not best exemplified by this poem, which still retains many poetical aspects.
The final verse in this section reveals in italics at the beginning the grisly fate of the sill un-elucidated ‘John Schepe’: ‘…head on a spike at Micklegate Bar,/ dribbling maggots, preaching yet’. This is a particularly macabre image of defiance post-decapitation, Schepe’s corpse having apparently been left to rot where it feel rather than being properly buried. Like the previous verse, this is a brilliantly compact-descriptive poem, and closes the sequence at a more polemical pitch, serving as a poetic statement of class defiance against perennial social oppression:
In my nihilism and solipsism and bravura
low esteem, I told them, throw my corpse
over the back wall for the dogs and magpies.
No church or memorial, just nettles
growing lush through the bleached bones of my ribcage
in a ditch of garden rubbish; I sneaked in
through the back door unnoticed, and I'll leave
the same way; a nothing of life to be matched
by a nothing of death. The workers have no country,
no bloodline to their people or their past.
A starveling present and a cockaigne future:
you only live once! But I'm a changed man
in my people and my land. Heaven or hell
will do what they will. I've lived my life
and confessed my sins. So bury me in our earth
at the plague church at Frickley, east of the gate,
south of the gas gun, under the Virgins
dessicate hawthorns. Like Depledge and Speight,
Rockliff and Jennings, my stone will tell my story.
Scarlok and the millers son, lurking by the Skel
on Watlynge Street, clutching their daggers.
My only criticism is of the rather overemphasized opening line, which for me reads a little adolescently –I’d have thought ‘solipsism’ would have done on its own, and ‘bravura low esteem’ seems almost oxymoronic: is it possible to have ‘a florid’ or ‘brilliant’ sense of ‘low esteem’? Or does Ely mean ‘bravura’ as in a highly technical musical passage? If so, it still makes little sense. But that’s my only real quibble with this otherwise among the most aesthetically pleasing and purposeful verses in the volume (which makes the clumsy opening line all the more irksomely placed). Lines 6 to 9 have the aphorismic resonance of a Donne sonnet. ‘Cockaigne’ (also spelt ‘cockayne’) is employed suitably here, both in terms of its being a specifically medieval name for a mythical ‘land of plenty’, and also as a perfect metaphor or motif for the phantom ‘future’ of the landless working classes of whom Ely is writing.
In this time of new enclosures and clearances instigated by a new ruling landed class in the flimsy guise of democratically mandated ministers, through the rapacious welfare cuts, bedroom tax and general ‘gentrification’ (i.e. ‘social cleansing’) programme, dismantled welfare state and epidemic rupture of underemployed and working poor, lines such as ‘The workers have no country,/ no bloodline to their people or their past./ A starveling present and a cockaigne future:/ you only live once!’ have an even more powerful resonance in austerity-shattered 2014 than arguably at any other time since, well, the mid-Eighties, when Thatcherism stamped its lasting mark on the nation after its literal and symbolic –though not moral– ‘triumph’ over the miners (the last rearguard of working-class resistance). For if the working class and ‘lumpenproletariat’ of the past had ‘no country’, today’s generation of ‘have-nots’ now barely even have their own front doors.
This Tory-led Government is wielding the Thatcherite hatchet and permanently traumatising the social map so that the landless and dispossessed classes lose not only a sense of country but a sense of any community or stake in society whatsoever. But far from simply ‘finishing the job’ of Thatcherism, it is, even more ambitiously (in the worst sense of the word), hurtling us back to the Austerity Thirties of Stanley Baldwin’s similarly extreme right-wing National Government, which today’s has demonstrably used as a template. In attitudinal senses, we are going back to Victorian times. At certain levels, and much more audaciously, the Tory elites seem to be reasserting some sort of ancient aristocratic autocracy by essentially pauperising vast sections of the working classes to the level of a near-destitute ‘slave class’ –rather like mediaeval feudalism, except without the one single consolation of noblesse oblige.
And this is glaringly symbolised by the three ‘top Tories’ in power at this time, David Cameron, ‘George’ Gideon (Baronet-in-waiting) Osborne and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, all three of whom are hereditary multi-propertied millionaires and lower aristocracy. Moreover, our current prime minister and London Mayor are both distant cousins of one another, and of the Queen, being both descendants of past British monarchs: Cameron is a direct (illegitimate) descendent of William IV, while his ‘cousin Boris’ is descended from both James I (Stuart) and George II (Hanover). So the three biggest positions of power in the land, monarch, prime minister and Mayor of London, are all mutually related by blue blood. Against such an absurdly anachronistic backdrop, which is implicitly a mockery of our so-called ‘parliamentary democracy’, the feudal-flavoured tapestry spun by Ely in Oswald’s Book of Hours is, disturbingly, more relevant to our times than one might initially realise.
And these are, in part, some of the core aspects polemically explored by the likes of Jon Cruddas MP, Labour’s current head of policy review, and by the now aborted ‘Blue’ Labour project: to somehow find a way of culturally ‘repatriating’ a rootless and uprooted British (‘native’) working class. It’s also of course the rhetorical stomping ground of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, now depressingly popular (and populist), intent on exploiting such working-class cultural anomies and alchemising them into votes for a party which is uber-Thatcherite, even more to the Right of the currently neo-Malthusian Tories, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, borderline racist, and in all fiscal senses, antipathetic to the working class. It’s also deeply ironic, uncanny in some ways, and relevant to the geographical ground of this volume under review, that in the recent local elections, practically the whole of South Yorkshire went purple! And I’d be surprised if Ely wasn’t already composing some sort of poetic response to this UKIP-isation of the lower part of his own West Riding.
The final section of the book is somewhat audaciously titled ‘Memorials of the Saints’: ostensible hagiographies, one detects a sardonic or ironic touch, depending on each subject. The first choice is perhaps the most contentious (though not from my personal point of view), ‘Arthur Scargill’, and indeed, 2014 being the anniversary of the start of the Miners’ Strike, certainly much of Ely’s book is commemoratively relevant, even though the book was published in 2013, and presumably written the previous year. But this poem, one of the best-written and composed in the book in my opinion, is more a depiction of the miners themselves than the eponymous militant NUM champion, who is only really brought into it in the last three lines. The poem begins with a panegyric on manual workers of various types then focuses in on the collier. I excerpt this poem in full:
The lowest of the low and low-paid,
the primary men; farmhands, quarrymen, colliers.
Crude men, of appetite and violence, mumblers,
white-knucklers, averters of eyes. Beast of burden,
their lives lived out in the rhythm
of the Coal Board’s seasons: days and afters,
Henry Halls, neets reg. Larks orbiting the wheel
and the cold gate falling. Crushed torsos under splintered
chocks, amputations on the maingate rip,
blood-streaked phlegm hocked-up. Surface to the land
of cockaigne: egg and chips, beer and the bookies.
You brought them health and Palma de Mallorca,
Cortinas on the drive and kids in college,
reading Marx and Mao and The Wealth of Nations.
This last part of the poem, which finally brings in Scargill, is ambivalent in its portrayal, seemingly satirising the NUM leader’s contributions to the working-class struggle with its allusions to cars and package holidays, and its juxtaposition of Marx with the famous laissez-faire evangelising work by Adam Smith, which was more a sourcebook for Thatcherism than the left-wing militancy that attempted to countervail it (this mixed-message encomium is perhaps more befitting the conspicuously consuming closet-‘Trotskyite’/Militant Tendency ‘entryist’ and deputy leader of Liverpool’s Labour-run Council (1983-86), Derek Hatton, than Arthur Scargill).
At a poetic level, this is an exceptionally evocative poem with customary compact-description. The second and third lines are brilliantly evocative of certain working-class traits; while ‘cockaigne’ and ‘egg and chips’ in the eleventh line is poignantly emblematic of a certain type of British ‘working-class’ sensibility. These symbols, combined with ‘beer and the bookies’, remind us how the sharp curve towards intellectual self-betterment among all classes encouraged during the more culturally progressive post-war social consensus (1945-1975) –and galvanised by the outreach of the Open University and the pale blue Pelican range of sociological literature– was abruptly truncated by Thatcherism, which replaced it with a new climate of philistinism, one-upmanship and rampant materialism. Thus the lapse in the working classes from a growing desire for acquisition of knowledge –up until then parsimoniously rationed them– to a visceral material acquisitiveness.
Today, in 2014, the centenary of the first publication of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, we’ve now almost come full circle and arrived back at an almost identical state of affairs for working-class culture, conditions and aspirations as those very same ones depicted by Tressell among painters-and-decorators in the Hastings of 1906 (the actual year in which he wrote the novel): poverty wages, extremely thin union protections, virtually extinct full employment rights and health and safety laws, and, of course, the modern scourge of zero-hours contracts, ultimate con-trick of a capitalist system whereby a burgeoning surplus workforce is used as leverage to keep wages down and as a means to threaten easily-replaced employees with dismissal if they protest too much. Noonan (Tressell’s real name) must be reeling in his grave to realise that a century on, after an oasis of thirty years or so when workers’ conditions were rapidly and enormously improved, the subsequent thirty-five years would see a systemic unravelling of all those vital post-war achievements so that we end up back where we started –almost as if Keir Hardie had never even secured that first Labour seat in Parliament, let alone Attlee’s welfare state ever been constructed.
The next poem, ‘Wayne Johnson’, is as dextrously written as ‘Arthur Scargill’, though I’m not clear as to who the eponymous subject is but presume he is a personal acquaintance of Ely’s (?). This is one of this poet’s most distinctive features, and also a tribute to an unusual poetic egalitarianism: his mythologizing of some of his own contemporaries, irrespective of any claims to fame, or even in part precisely because of that lack. Having said that, it’s quickly clear that this ‘Wayne’ character is something of a local hard-nut, a rougher-upper, a prolific Yahoo, and hence no doubt known for all the wrong reasons locally. Again, I excerpt the poem in full:
He’ll see you in the tunnel or the car park.
Your orbital sockets will crack like wood,
you’ll be spitting out teeth like tic-tacs.
Get ready for his bite in the gristle of your ear,
his chawing in the cartilage of your nose.
He’s a good lad though: shake hands mate?
Two gallon in the club and a thousand stories:
sparked out pikeys, shit-scared half-backs,
turds floating in the bath; swung elbows
and cracked patellas, greensticked tib and fib.
Careful what you say, though, because he’ll flip
like that; he’ll do you in the bogs or outside
the fish shop, leave you paramedicked
in the street. Are we glad he’s on our side!
Both these poems remind me of the similarly anecdotal, sharply descriptive and highly polished character depictions of David Swann’s The Privilege of Rain (Waterloo Press), a collection of poems about numerous inmates of a prison; while in terms of lyrical pithiness and Northern-centred political topics, I’m also reminded of Ian Parks’ The Exile’s House (also Waterloo), which also included the poem ‘Orgreave’, a recollection of the most notorious pitched battle of the Miners’ Strike (a subject which is also currently being dramatised in a play by another writer).
‘Dismas, the good thief’ is a less linguistically involved verse, but is quite sublime in its depiction of the sainted ‘thief’ (or of a contemporary equivalent) who was, along with another ‘criminal’, crucified next to Christ, Who forgave both felons their sins and promised them before the day was out they would be with him in Paradise (perhaps something for our current Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to reflect on since his despicable banning of books brought as gifts for prisoners from visitors, and his Judge Jeffrys-style penal emphasis on retribution and punishment rather than rehabilitation). This poem is mostly quite tongue-in-cheek and ironic, even slightly irreverent, but closes on quite a profound note, which suggest what might be –at least, pre-Grayling!– a contemporary rehabilitative punishment for this modern day Dismas:
… the alternative being
social work and poor-you counselling,
from the Howard League for Penal Reform.
But for the serial thefts from ASDA
and Weavers, the Allied Supplies break-ins,
the gang-assaults, arsons, recreation ground rapes:
today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.
This is hard-hitting stuff at the moral level, juxtaposing as it does the diametrical opposites of sociopathic criminality and Christian salvation, of brutal violence and unconditional rehabilitation. But that is, essentially, the essence of Christianity, even if our current Tory lords and masters would have us believe the faith they also purport to uphold is much more to do with damnation and the blood and thunder rapid-response to ‘sin’ of the Old Testament Jehovah. This is a very challenging poem in terms of its incipient polemic, which seems to suggest to us that the absolutes of evil and good are flipsides, and rather than cancelling each other out, sometimes peculiarly complement one another (even in the same personality).
‘John Ball’ is a superb little tribute to the radical Lollard priest who accompanied Wat Tyler in the Peasant’s Revolt –I also wonder on reading this piece whether John Schepe, here spelt ‘Johon Schepe’, was another name for Ball perhaps…?
Wycliffe’s words and Langland’s gave the Englisc
back their tongue. Manor french and church latin,
cut-off in the throat, battening behind
the buttresses of keeps and cathedrals,
parsing and declining. Johon Schepe
proclaims his hedgerow gospel, singing
from the furze like a yellowhammer
there were no lords in Eden’s commune.
scythes sharpened on whetstones…
But why on earth the proper nouns ‘french’ and ‘church latin’ are de-capitalised is a mystery, especially since ‘Englisc’ and ‘Johon Schepe’ are capitalised!
Next we have an encomium to highwayman John Nevison (‘Swift Nick’), who also featured in an earlier poem. In spite of its historical subject, this verse is written in modern vernacular, and hence is the least arresting linguistically. ‘Joseph the Dreamer’ reads pretty much like a potted biography of the surrogate father of Christ, though part of its point seems to be to emphasize the sketchiness of many biblical figures, and none more so than Joseph, who indeed does mysteriously vanish from events pretty much once the Nativity is out of the way, when the figure of Mary becomes resoundingly significant (which also interestingly emphasizes the matriarchal qualities to original Christianity):
… Joseph the joiner,
line of David, husband of Mary,
the bland paternal surrogate of our Lord;
written out of the script by chapter three.
‘Michael the Archangel’ appears to be a poem-swipe at prominent scientific (or ‘rationalist’) atheists, and is another exceptionally descriptive piece, bristling with alliteration and dripping with symbolism:
…bored in the bones of Barnsdale, before breaking
to the light in a winter-wheat field,
east of the Ea Beck bridge. Soon, rags were tied
to streamside trees and silver sown
in the muck’s bright mirror. An underground
tradition, like midrash or the cult of the saints,
bubbling forth like a rolling boil:
one harrowing hell with the corpse
of Moses, under the guns of Randi
and Dawkins, the canons of the Church.
The only issue with such compact, almost staccato, pieces as these is that one only feels they get a glimpse of certain images and insights but are not able to get a proper grip on the point or message being conveyed, as there’s just not quite enough meat on the bone to flesh it out into a full meal. ‘Mary Magdalene’ is of a similar formula, again, intriguingly written, if a little oblique in places:
Vain Belias, Carnivean the lewd
and Berith of strife. And four more conjured
drom the babbling world or via the Enochian keys.
A whore, allegedly, replete with vices,
snared in her sordid quotidian –
I confess to getting lost in that last sentence. But there are some interesting contemporary juxtapositions which follow:
… Primark, nails and extensions,
Loose Women’s eternal hen-night,
the wild-dog savaging of librarians
The last four lines are beautifully wrought with an assonance of o-sounds and some poignant imagery –although the overall point being made by the poem remains rather obscure:
Sudden death falling like a midseason sale;
rosier preens in grief, shops for roadside flowers:
you witnessing by the ghostless body,
in the slab-cold luminous tomb.
On legion levels the biblical figure of Mary Magdalene is one of the most fascinating and contentious, especially in terms of the nature of her relationship to Jesus; but also in terms of male perception of female identity, and religious misogyny, which is quite endemic to the Judaic Old Testament, but arguably almost absent from the New Testament –and Magdalene is herself testament to that. There are also revisionist historical theories today that Magdalene might well have been a prominent apostolic representative of Christ’s teachings, that there is evidence she was selected by Christ as an emissary for his teachings, among archaeological finds showing depictions of female priests in some recently excavated Christian catacombs.
Magdalene was also of course one of the few to both witness the Crucifixion and the emptied tomb afterwards (as depicted at the end of Ely’s poem), as well as having played a part in the preparation of Jesus’ body for internment in the tomb. In many senses she is the implied ‘13th disciple’ of Christ; while some historians argue she was also, effectively, His ‘wife’. Magdalene has perennially been the target of more misogynistic biblical scholarship, and in many ways is the earliest personification of feminine individuality as asserted against patriarchal dogma.
‘Paul’ is another deftly written poem with a tangible use of language, imagery and symbolism, and great deployment of alliterative effect, again with the g-sounds:
…The God-fearing goyim of the Roman galut
knelt at his supper, giving thanks
for their foreskins, pork and prawns
and life everlasting…
It is composed as an epistle itself, addressed to the eponymous apostle:
… Those reputed
to be pillars murmured against you,
spreading slanders in the synagogues.
But you held your line, in tract and epistle
and to Kephas face to face…
Then, suddenly, in the closing lines, a modern-day localised juxtaposition (?) abruptly thrusts up, somewhat throwing the reader:
… Christ and him crucified.
rain or shine, from Antioch to Cadiz –
with Big Jeff and Gaz Hutsby, shouting Socialist Worker!
under the clock at South Elmsall Market.
At least, it threw me, anyway: it seems one has to employ an awful lot of hermeneutic muscle to piece together what Ely’s point is here –other than the rather barebones juxtaposition of Christianity with its secular equivalent, Socialism. The eponymous ‘Richard Rolle’ of the following poem was a prolific 14th century Christian writer, poet and hermit who settled in a Cistercian nunnery in Hampole Yorkshire –he was also a Christian mystic, and many of his theological ideas were criticised by his contemporaries, including the anonymous writer of the The Cloud of Unknowing, a work of Christian mysticism of the same period. I excerpt the poem in full:
Deep Dale, set back from the high road,
a cell of wildwood stone. Lenten sunlight
squinting through oak boughs, dappling shadow.
Grass snakes unfurling from last year’s bracken,
frayed heads of narcissi gone over;
stitchwort and bluebell, yellow archangel,
now coming into their kingdom.
On the earth path from Hampole
comes big-bosomed Margaret, bearing bread, beer
and shitbucket. Gledes mewing overhead.
Willow-wren tight in her feathery cave.
Dwale in the leaf litter, a woodcock’s liquid eye.
And ringing through Barnsdale’s sultry forest,
the nightingale’s hot sweet song.
There are some breathtaking ‘Elyian’ tropes here, especially the Keatsian ‘Lenten sunlight/ Squinting through oak boughs, dappling shadow’. Again, there’s an intensity of floral imagery fairly typical of Ely, and, combined with the compact aphorismic style, reminds me to some degree of the similarly rural and religiously inclined poetry of Sussex poet Tim Beech: both poets, I think, share a kind of Empsonian ‘Covert Pastoral’ sensibility. But ultimately this poem and other poems in this sequence seem, in spite of biographical and historical details, more impressionistic than expository exercises.
The eponymous historical figure of the next poem, ‘Robert Aske’, was a 16th century lawyer who opposed Henry VIII’s ground-razing Dissolution of the Monastries and headed the Pilgrimage of Grace which played its part in the counter-Reformation rebellion in York. Aske was tried for treason, convicted, thrown in the tower, and then hanged in chains (‘gibbeted’), as a result. However, Ely’s depiction in the seventh and eighth lines implies that Aske was beheaded –though the following trope going into the ninth line fits more with the image of hanging:
Cinquefoil and creeping tormentil
watered in the win of five rivers struck
from the bread of his temple: Derwent, Aire,
Went, Ea and Skell. Heavy horse and hobnails,
tramping over bridges, camped under banners
at Cheswold’s starry gate. Pierced by blades,
blood and water came forth: his lopped head
rolled like a cannonball. They flew him
like a flag from the from the walls of Clifford’s Tower
and scattered his bones for the kites,
swarming over stones at Hampole and Roche,
packing ox-carts with pewter and plate.
Skipper’s gold on five-leaf grass, All Saints
graveyard, Aughton: oblier de noy.
This is another beautifully phrased poem, rich in sense-impression, image and description, and with some virtuosic alliterations; also, the use of symbolism echoes the Thomism of David Jones. There is a sense that Ely is in part writing for the already initiated, as if he’s presuming some modicum of knowledge of medieval Yorkshire/Northern history and Catholic doctrine and nomenclature (replete with a rudimentary grasp of Latin) among his readers. If not, then some explanatory footnotes really would have helped an awful lot, and the absence of any real elucidations throughout much of the book (bar a couple of pages of Notes at the back, mostly biographical in relation to Oswald) could be perceived as obscurantist.
Ironically, too, as the 17th century Puritans accused Archbishop Laud’s Anglo-Catholic dogma of mystification through its insistence on the use of Latin in Church services (and its symbolic separation of priest from congregation by raised altar), which common worshippers could not understand, Ely’s use of –and clear fascination with– Latin sans English translation arguably goes slightly against the grain of the kind of English religious-egalitarianism which rejected ‘Laudianism’. Perhaps that’s to be expected from an essentially Catholic poetics.
That’s not to say of course that Roman Catholicism, at its root-level, isn’t in its own way fundamentally egalitarian; indeed, in spite of some common perceptions, it is in many ethical senses more communitarian-minded than Anglicanism, and the emphasis on Confession through a priestly intermediary emphasises the sense of Catholicism as a community of worship –‘Catholic’, from the Greek katholikismos, means ‘according to the whole’– to which its members are held spiritually accountable –as opposed to the emphasis on ‘individual conscience’ of Protestantism. (The political ramifications of these denominational differences are explored in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930)). And in some senses Latin in itself is perceived in Catholicism as a fundamentally binding and universal ‘sacred language’, almost a kind of substitute-Glossolalia (or default-Tongues), which in theory should unite all nationalities of Catholic through a mutually understood lexicon of worship.
Almost inevitably we have an encomium to the most iconic folkloric figure of English egalitarianism, Robin Hood, here spelt –presumably in Old or Middle English– ‘Robenhode’. For me, this is perhaps the most exceptionally phrased of all the poems in the book, with some sumptuous descriptions and alliterations, particularly with c- and m-sounds –I excerpt it in full:
Death by venesection. She dosed you
with feverfew then cut across the cords.
Chamomile kept it flowing, first the thick blood,
then the thin. In the dark before dawn
your breathing grew shallow and rattled
in your throat, as you whispered your houzle
into John Littles ear, him raging to fire
and sword. In Marys name, you stayed his hand,
bade him help you bend the bow.
You bled out by cock-crow, your lard-white,
unsumped body crimsoning Roger’s couch.
The arrow earthed in Barnsdale, and water
came forth. There drinks the fox from his own
cupped hand, under the keeper’s gun.
The trope ‘unsumped body crimsoning Roger’s couch’ is particularly striking. The poem obviously depicts the death of Robin Hood, ‘venesection’ means ‘taking blood’ (called phlebotomy today), while the evocatively named ‘feverfew’ is a herb which used to be used for migraines; and of course Robin’s apothecary is Maid Marian (this scene is depicted touchingly in Richard Lester’s 1976 film Robin and Marian, although embellished by screenwriter James Goldman for greater tragic effect with the herbal draft given to Robin as ‘medicine’ being a poison, which Marian also sips, realising Robin will not properly recover, and not wishing to live without him). According to Ely, then, the arrow Robin shot through a window in Nottingham travelled a fair far way to pitch down in Barsndale, Yorkshire.
Fittingly, the final poem of the section, and of the book as a whole, is ‘Oswald’, which commemorates the memory of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Saint of the North’, while juxtaposing a grimmer modern day depiction of the hope-corrupted, nihilistic and consumerist junk culture that’s swamped Oswald’s old stomping ground over 1,500 years later:
At the appointed time, the chief men
of each parish rode Caesars streets
to assemble at Pomfret s thyng.
From Castleford, Kirkby, eremitic Wragby
and a dozen others. Around your market-rood,
blurred by metathesis –Osgoldcross–
the jeers and raised voices of the open air witan,
overlooked by the Old Town Hall.
Today we dream by Giles the hermit,
buying rhubarb and Spanish and Reebok Classics,
steak slices from Greggs and SIM-less phones;
glassing each other on the Red Lions carpets,
or keeping the faith at the Northern Soul night
at the Ancient Borough Arms.
The symbolic use of various commercial brand names and commodities as anti-sacraments of contemporary consumerism is particularly effective and resonant, closing the book on a sour dystopian note, lifted only by a neon allusion to ‘Northern Soul’, very much a music style infused with hope in its defiantly upbeat tempo. So, perhaps, there is still some hope for us along as we have ‘soul’.
This book was short listed for both the Ted Hughes Award and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection –a considerable accomplishment considering its sinuous engagement with language, which usually tends to preclude mainstream recognition. In short, it was heartening to see, for once, poetry so muscularly verbal and metaphorically rich receive high profile notice from a postmodernist hegemony which normally proscribes such qualities.
But by the same token, it makes it all the more inexplicable that so many similarly charged poetries –including numerous others from Smokestack’s own stable– still remain in the background and far from the glare of broader recognition (such as Keith Howden’s Jolly Roger, for instance, which in many ways is on a par with Ely’s Oswald). Judging by the highly acquired tastes of contemporary poetic ‘fashion’, however, one can see such neglect as a tacit back-handed compliment. Though it may sound curmudgeonly, when a book is short listed for multiple prizes, and thrust up as a ‘radical’ collection by the rather staid Poetry Review, I approach it more sceptically. I am however glad to say that on this occasion I think the book in question is certainly as deserving –if not more so– of high praise as most other currently acclaimed volumes.
Not of course that the collection isn’t ‘radical’ in terms of many of its subjects and themes –which it undeniably is. But its politics is fairly well-camouflaged, and perhaps perceptibly less challenging or contentious given its' framing within almost entirely historical contexts: even references to ‘Arthur Scargill’ and the Miners’ Stike are, technically, historical, and thus more commemorative than polemical. (This was to some extent also the case with Helen Mort’s prize-winning and multiple short listed debut collection Division Street (Chatto & Windus), critically praised for practically every distinction bar that of being particularly political, in spite of the ‘vibe’ given off by its provocative cover image (of a miner in a fake police helmet squaring up to one of Maggie’s coppers) and confrontational title, and a couple of vicariously reflective poems on the Miners’ Strike, which drew to its scarring climax in the year of the poet’s birth (1985). Though this very vicariousness reflects, of course, just how scarring that vicissitude was, that its legacy has filtered down to the next generation’s consciousness and identity).
To my reading, there doesn’t seem to be any specific contemporary polemical comment in Oswald’s Book of Hours; and the sporadic juxtapositions of symbol and imagery between Oswald’s time and our own for me come across as more implicit than explicit (‘understatement’ again) –as gestures or possibilities as opposed to components of a fully mapped-out mythopoeia. There is in the volume, however, an aura of folkloric nostalgia for a more immanent common cause, and in this sense too a psychical link into a seam of chiliastic Catholicism referenced throughout (more a dialectical immaterialist take on social history). There are adumbrations and hints of a trans-historical narrative, but for me they remain sketched rather than detailed, broadly left open to interpretation by the reader. And perhaps this subordination of political comment to a more impressionistic purpose is in part why the apolitical mainstream, clearly impressed by the book’s technical accomplishments, felt able to accommodate it.
This is not a criticism of the volume, simply a speculation as to its efficacious formula in terms of managing to appeal to a broad church of tastes and views, to both left-wing fringe and conservative-mainstream (a ‘formula’ shared by a small crop of poets of a similar generation, Ian Duhig and Ian Parks among them). One might diagnose in Ely’s oeuvre a certain stony forthrightness and authorial detachment of tone (read Duhig again), which to some extent fits the flintier Northern tilt of fashionable contemporary poetry (one thinks of much of Bloodaxe’s stable, for example); and in these respects Oswald’s Book of Hours is perhaps more ‘mainstream-adaptable’ than some of the more cussedly radical and stylistically non-conformist Smokestack collections.
Ultimately, though Oswald’s Book of Hours is, in the main, a highly accomplished collection, I feel much more could have been made of its themes in terms of communicating a more fundamental polemic on contemporary times by means of more explicit juxtapositions. Its dialectical qualities comes across as quite fractured, and in some ways, in spite of its rather stretched thematic aspects, the book works best being read more for certain remarkable parts than for its sum total –so in these senses it is very much a ‘collection’, as opposed to a splintered epic work. But it is reassuring (to a degree) that such erudite poetry, unembarrassed by verbal riches, has gained such high profile recognition. It is definitely one of the better collections to be singled out for mainstream plaudits for quite some time, and maybe, just maybe, it’s a promising sign of a much-needed critical renaissance in a poetry scene that’s been far too complacent for far too long.
Alan Morrison © 2014