Alan Morrison on

Bob Beagrie


(Smokestack Books, 2016)


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Bob Beagrie’s Leásungspell has to be one of the most linguistically ambitious long poems published in quite some time, being composed in what its author describes as ‘a heteroglossic hybrid of Old English, Modern English and Northumbrian, Yorkshire and Cleveland Dialects’. A guide to the pronunciation of the ten vowel-sounds used and five extra consonants is studiously provided to help the reader navigate the strange text, which calls to mind Anglo-Saxon tinged with Chaucerian English; as well as a compendious Glossary of names and terms; and an audio link at usefully provides an aural sense of the pronunciations – all at the back of the book.

Such historically rooted, demotic-esoteric, linguistic-hybrid verse seems at the moment to be carving out its own niche in contemporary English poetry, and Smokestack Books has been quick to champion it, both in Beagrie, and also Steve Ely whose Oswald’s Book of Hours, Englaland and, most recently, Incendium Amoris delve the Anglo-Saxon demotic, something that seems to be cementing itself almost as his style-signature. But Beagrie’s Leásungspell, unapologetically, takes this type of linguistic experiment to its nth degree.

Not being sufficiently qualified in Old English –or North-Eastern dialect– it’s almost impossible for me to critically review the main body of the text of Leásungspell, mainly because my grasp of the text is significantly limited by its linguistic abstruseness –at least, on first and second glances, that is; and though I did appreciate at least the hinted-at sounds of the poem’s singing lines, my comprehension of it, in the main, is too vague to be able to analyse it (which is a bit of a pity: an approach whereby the text could have been written and published both in its pseudo-Old English and in modern English would, I’d have thought, have made a bit more sense). To illustrate this problem, here is the opening to the main body of the poem:

Huisht, lads, haad ya gobs

the lǽgens namd this Dunum Sinus

touh this fayer dai tar beo sliht segn

o’ thor mihtig stone burg wid the byh scimerian

gelic a sylfur scutel, blinden the eye

as God’s awn leoht, te sceaw me the gan

fram the Horne o’ Heortness stician streahtan

te the wafe-swell lic a beald hope fore firmnesse.

’touh in triewd I fele alyhtnys

te be ootsyde its fritgeard; an’ the festeran

stenc o’ mislice spellion widin

the flocc o’ God’s giefan scipo.

Mi arende beo hard ’touh nadinc ofermicel,

fram sculdor te lyfted fingors in faerness,

but thri dais trec at most, ’touh frecendlic –

la so ficol, fyl o’ hydden pliht,

beset wid demon an’ haden

But what I can comment on are the modern English Prologue and Epilogue of the main poem. The ‘Prologue: Hallowed Ground’, subtitled ‘A walk with Andy Willoughby to Anish Kapoor’s Temenos’, is a page’s worth of muscularly rhythmic rhyming verse in long rangy lines dripping with gorgeous images and infectious alliteration:

We are two grown-up-lost-boys gone awandering over the border

To mooch about the claggy bones of this town’s birth and boom

Trudging the cold, bleak wasteland of post-industrial disorder,

Under weatherworn stone faces staring stoically as from a tomb.

Industry’s bustle has ebbed to a trickle of warehouses, scrap yard

Desolate wharfs, gantries, rotting remains of the first coal staithes.

And here, again, the alliteration and assonance work brilliantly:

The Captain Cook, The Glass Barrel, The Lord Byron, The Ship –

(The town’s oldest pub where sea captains sat in the cabin out back

handing sailors their pay packets). Though there’s not one drip

From a working pump today. …

Beagrie displays a painterly talent for description:

Piles of coal hemmed in by sleepers stacked in khaki uniforms

(dreaming of Carboniferous forests). No one lives here anymore.

Vulcan Street, past the ground chosen by Bolkow and Vaughan

For the first iron works and their salt well, Middlesbrough pottery;

We ask how many corpses have washed up on these tidal banks

And reach the spirit cage, worm hole, a piece of divine jewellery,

The sense of place here is impeccable, the descriptions pile up hypnotically, and alliteration and assonance continue to do their work tantalising teeth and tongue:

I’m swamped by the impression that it has always been there,

Pre-dating these empty docks, the railway lines and the site

Of the farmstead before the sprawl, even the muttered prayer

Of Hilda’s monk crossing the Tees to Streonshalh, and the hills

It holds in its lens; as if the negative space of its organic form –

(An airborne specimen of phytoplankton) applied its patient will

To be caught in the net, pegged into being by a crown of thorns,

Staking out a sacred space where gods, ghosts and monsters dwell.

The ‘Epilogue: Transported’ comprises 15 non-rhyming quatrains, but even though there are no end-rhymes here, the meter and sprung rhythm lend a cadence which feels a little like near-rhyme on the ear –here are the first three stanzas:

Reaching the top you grip upon a metal rail

Knees atremble on the Shimmering Way

Eyes fixed, resist the glance down at the drop,

The cross hatch shadow over slate grey water.

This bridge is a moment spanning a century

Suspending cloud from each blue girder

And a yellow gondola strung on steel sinews

Running the stream of traffic from bank to bank.

Ride the spine of the diplodocus skeleton

Frozen mid-munch on the weeds and sludge

Of muddy flats, silvered by sunshine at low tide;

On one side the marshes, wetlands to Seal Sands,

Beagrie’s intimate descriptions of the place in question are nicely couched, while the end-of-stanza enjambments lend a continuous fluidic quality to the poem as a whole, rather like the running water of the river depicted:

The tangle of chemical plants, then on to Seaton.

On the other the urban sprawl of terraced houses

Town centre, church spires, looming tower blocks

And the distant, hooked peak of Odinsberg –

So maybe today this bridge has become Bifrost

Connecting us to the mead hall of a one eyed

Pagan god, a raven perched on each shoulder,

Watching a longboat glide up the steel river

To plunder the hamlets of Norton and Sockburn

To nail a Saxon skin to the door of their kirk,

Hack off a Christian head or two for goblets,

And you, as ripe for picking as a Bramble

The ‘Pagan god, a raven perched on each shoulder’ is an explicit reference to the Nordic leading god Odin (Woden in Anglo-Saxon), as, of course, previously cited in the place name ‘Odinsberg’.

There is the occasional internal rhyme which adds to the poem’s cadences:

In mid-September; who once pricked a finger,

Who stubbed a bare toe and swore, who fell

Off a wall or out of a tree, who let a secret slip,

Who tossed a smooth pebble into the sea,

Beagrie intriguingly juxtaposes modern remembrances and associations with the ancient:

Who declared, ‘I’ll love you forever!’ and meant it,

Who remembers the childish fear of the dark,

Who was once lost in a supermarket, who once

Spat ‘Who the hell cares?’ and refused to try,

Who over-did it at a party, threw up on the carpet,

Who once refused to admit ‘I’m sorry’ and then

Cried yourself to sleep; now stand wondering

If all this feeling is real, or just the blue-print

There then comes some poignant, deeply moving social comment on those working-class lives turned self-destructive:

On threads that catch their belly roars, that churn

Your guts, and bring to mind the suicides

Who’ve faced the drop without a hope

Of bouncing back, and workmen who’d haul

Heavy bikes up the steep flights of steps

On bitter mornings to save a precious penny,

While industry’s flames set the sky ablaze,

Rumbling like a war machine through dreams

In that last verse the short and long ‘i’ assonances really do power the lines, as do the long ‘a’ assonances, which continue into the next verse, as do short ‘a’ assonances, one supposing that, this being a Northern poet and not a Southern poet, ‘past’ and ‘Blast’ are probably to be pronounced with the short rather than longer ‘a’-sound and so echoing ‘lads’, ‘lasses’ and ‘flash’:

Of local lads and lasses. Today the sleepless

River takes your thoughts away, past the mothballed

Blast furnace and out to sea, with the white flash

Of a gull’s wings as it banks in an effortless arc

The closing lines of the ‘Epilogue’ have a wonderfully haunted, wistful quality:

Beneath your uncertain feet, as if it is the Herald

And you the Witness to this expanding moment –

Caught mid-point upon the Rainbow Bridge,

Listening with pricked ears to the tell-tale creak

Of tectonics; of terrains – of histories, scraping

Against one another, and holding your breath,

Like you did climbing the stairs, late at night,

Hours after the time you’d promised to be home.

This is probably the shortest poetry review I’ve written yet, but the reason is, as aforementioned, the linguistic near-impenetrability of the main text which precludes close critical analysis, in part due to my own shortcomings in comprehending its Old English. For those who have read and grasped much of the 14th century English of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, or, better still, the works of Chaucer, perhaps, with close and patient application, and with the assistance of Beagrie’s Grants for the Arts-funded audio accompaniment, all may be illumined, and appreciated for its author’s palpable and extraordinary linguistic application.

Alan Morrison © 2017