Alan Morrison on
(Smokestack Books, 2016)
To and Fro the Finland Station
Andrew Willoughby’s Between Stations is a bravura book-length poem spanning 48 pages and, geographically speaking, from Teesside to Siberia via Helsinki, Finland, and, more symbolically, the Finland Station, accompanied by ‘a raggle-taggle bunch of Finnish travelling poets’. One is immediately swept up on this dialectical train journey-cum-pilgrimage of the left-wing Muse by the poetic thrust of Willoughby’s blank verse that powers forwards at full linguistic throttle:
From Middlesbrough to Saltburn past Coatham Marshes
as early winter comes sweeping in today from Siberia.
Restless snow flurries start to obscure looming shapes –
the final historical remains of ironworks, steel mills,
stranded black locomotives that pulled the smelt in pigs
from weary morning to never-dark childhood night,
to be converted into steel that still spans the globe.
There’s a deft use of alliteration that bristles through some striking descriptions:
Abandoned buildings, that still spew out smoke
in my attic-stored adolescent sketch books,
haunt the eye like shells of bombed cathedrals.
This was all marshland once; hidden slag-heaps
lie under grass covered bumps lining the sides
of trickling inlets of the Tees with its metal cranes:
intricate insect totems poke their heads at the North Sea.
Willoughby dishes up some marvellous imagery:
no resistance then could stop the North’s razing
and now no entreaty too could save the Salamander
in the lone blast furnace: the fiery heart – last survivor
of the hundreds that lined the river banks an age ago,
making this the land of dragons with satsuma skies
welcoming the Welshmen who came to Eston mines,
There’s a stream-of-consciousness sense to Willoughby’s breathlessly peripatetic poetry as it puts up Baltic and Russian images to startle the eye like pine trees or signal posts speeding by:
conjured up the masses transported past those trees,
and compromised poets punished for incorrect lines
looking over the steppes to the edge of the forest,
looking for the Baba Yaga’s chicken legged house –
oh to be caught in it running away into the pines!
Hungry skinny witches preferred to slow gulags.
The assonantal effects of the following passage are particularly striking:
In Turku I ate karhunliha, the flesh of my familiar:
bumbled and stumbled like a half mad circus bruin
sleeping down in the cellar of my old friend’s house,
drank through panic attacks, began to meet the cast
of the northbound trip, that endless locomotive hurtling.
As are the alliterative effects in the trope: ‘the ice broke on the/ Aurajoki that Easter morning and the black icy lump/ broke inside me, but the healing was incomplete’. This poetry is no less explosive when providing necessary exposition:
a lost poet with flowing hair offered to take me to Siberia
for Fenn-Ugrian congress of course I growled an affirmative.
In this little hometown train carriage I ponder my choices
wonder if it was random chance or some norn-woven web
that always said solid blonde Kalle and wild wanderer Esa
were meant to be the poles at the extremes of my journey
Willoughby’s absolute immersion in the tectonics of poetic language never lets up in its finger-licking alliterative feast: ‘the drinkers of fire and milk, salt sucker truth seekers/ suspended but still moving in the eye of Blake’s eternity/ in the land of strong vodka’. The sceneries and settings shift almost dreamlike giving the disorienting timeless sense of travel, and there are some captivating passages on the poet’s native Teesside and surrounds:
We are all proud of the Dorman Long signs on tracks,
girders and bridges studied on travels, that confirm for us
that these towns have made their mark though we know
too well that blood and sacrifice paid for our identity tags:
legends of fallen lads pushed down into the furnace smelt
by their own grim fathers to end their molten sufferings,
400 men and boys crushed and broken in our mines,
with their cathedral height shafts and heavy rock falls.
Who are we now without our steel? Nationalist graffiti
sprayed on house walls and the distant flag of St George
planted at the top of the iron drained hills…
There’s also some fascinating historical back-story to England’s North-East as signposted by the Viking-originated place names: ‘…from Odin’s Berg
to Roseberry Topping, sacrificial mound to summer idyll,
the ferric seam magnetised them: haphazard pilgrims
Celts and Saxons, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Scots and Geordies
Yorkshire folk, Norfolk exiles, Christian, Sikh, Jew and Muslim.
Willoughby maps a polemical landscape, not simply picturesque –of his Thatcherism-gutted native industrial heartlands: ‘…we dolefully mourn work’s gradual withdrawal here,/ count the cost in benefits and workless agony of dead fires’ –the word ‘dolefully’ would seem to be a deliberate choice of wording for ‘dole’. The poet is episodically preoccupied by the still sore wound of a removed tumour on his neck, and the image of the wound resurfaces every so often as a marker for mortality (maybe thanatophobia –fear of death– is a more common symptom of the disorientation of travel than I’d previously thought!):
I don’t want to think of the sinister totem birds of Den Haag
that haunted me horrendously after the death of my mother,
and flapped towards me again as I waited for the removal
of the ominous neck lump I sensed must be a malignancy,
and spread its wings over our marriage bed as seas raged
That passage almost seems to hinge on the g-alliterations –‘Haag’, ‘malignancy’, ‘wings’, ‘marriage’, ‘raged’. Much of this poem is a kind of internal monologue –here, the poet asks himself questions as to whether all is chance or somehow predestined, including those he has met on his travels, and also ponders on the possibility of a predetermination in names:
That night you threw dice that came up Khanty Mansisk
You’d been drinking away the days with Esa Hirvonen,
pondering the significance of his name: why would
Jesus of the Elk have been sent to you as a compadre
if you weren’t meant to see something in the wilds?
Why had you met Kalle the storyteller outside the Alko
that time if you weren’t meant to need his rocky strength
and his absurd wit to temper your wild flights of fancy?
The k-alliteration, serendipitous or not, is particularly striking: ‘Khanty Mansisk’, ‘drinking’, ‘Elk’, ‘Kalle’, ‘Alko’, ‘rocky’. The poet concludes that ‘predestination is not a belief I can easily sign up to./ There is only the present’; contemplating his wound and how he ‘got the diagnosis of three death spots,/ dark multiple headed dragon I foresaw and faced down’, he contemplates free will and chance as opposed to predestination, that he could have chosen to have ‘ignored my wife’s concerns and let the lump further ripen’. This passage concludes on a striking affirmation of what used to be rather patronisingly termed ‘self-improvement’ from this poet’s point of view as an autodidact from a working-class Northern background:
I could have been Billy Liar and stayed unsafe at home;
(That film made as many choices as On the Road for me
I’d never be the one to turn down the trip with Julie Christie.)
My heads packed full of this stuff: on a red brick estate
it’s all you can build your eventual escape routes from;
the lucky detritus of art and culture fallen from the table,
just enough inspiration to keep going, to see it through –
the loneliness of the long distance poet, Sisu in Finnish
tempered by poetry, comedy, punk, flashy shards of rock’n’roll.
Willoughby’s travelling verse than swerves into the sinuous Ginsbergesque as he describes Esa, one of his Finnish companions:
The kind of man who’d invite you to go to Siberia
in a post festival downtown downbeat shady green bar
after three days of binging on black underworld potions,
caught in the surging ebb and flow of his runo days
with malt whisky and beer chasers beginning to kick in
with the growling literary conversation never diminished;
your slowed down Boro gabble, his ponderous deep drawl:
One almost gets the feel of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh sort of scenario:
…as we sink into the sea green
light of another day in the shady bar world discussing
the necessary relationship of ugliness to beauty
the hidden tenderness in the works of Charles Bukowski
I particularly like the close to this passage with its parochial touch back to the poet’s home and its local phrases and sayings:
Once it’s said there’s no going back: the Teesside iron
in the backbone will sustain you far away from home:
chant now – the smoke in the lungs and the fire in the bones,
the smoke in the lungs and the fire in the bones
the smoke in the lungs and the fire in the bones.
Before describing the rest of his Finnish fellow-travellers, Willoughby itemises his cultural companions, books and a cassette tape:
I selected my companions from our new home randomly –
light travelling was desirable so only a slim volume of
Songs of Innocence and Experience (unillustrated)
a basic (useless) Russian Guide and Thubron’s In Siberia
made it in my back pack with a tape of Blonde on Blonde
and my ancient battered walkman…
Finally, stuffed in my back pocket a crumpled print out
of Ob-Ugrian folk songs in poorly rhymed translations
The alliterative effect heightens kinetically with the locomotion:
day and night in clanking train heading through the Urals
on the platzenkartz upper bunk I doze on, killing time,
as the steppes take over from suburban settlements
while William Blake sings ‘weep ‘weep in my back pocket,
There then follows a comparison to the Hammer film set on a train to Hell, and Peter Cushing morphs into Osip Mandelstam on the page. The alliterations and rhythms of the lines are infectious: ‘with Kyril the curly haired convivial soft pornographer/ breaking out his private stash of black label vodka’. The gushing language delights in itself, pouring forth image after image:
Ash clung to Esa’s Christ beard, making him a grey Pompeii
figure whilst we guffawed and snorted beer from our lout-snouts
he sat still and bewildered with man of constant sorrow eyes
hanging on to his lace thin dignity, as we pulled into Moscow
the waitress handing him a napkin with no hint of a smile;
a Russian Veronica clothed in the palest hue of the sky
offering him only stern succour as I contemplate Vlad Lenin,
avoid Kalle’s eye, attempt to wipe off my conspirator’s grin.
Willoughby is deft at description and the use of sense-impression, as in this passage:
In the Moscow station in the new free market Russia
in the gaze of the marble eyes of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov
an old, old man slowly dropped his wooden stick
in the neon room looking over at the newly ironic statue,
how it clattered harshly on the cold marble cafeteria floor
as we drank hot watery coffee on arrival from Petersburg!
Willoughby occasionally surprises us with internal and end-line rhymes which contribute to the melodic almost singsong sense of the poem as a whole: ‘…my thumb and finger/ caressed the St Christopher mother gave me long ago/ as we passed the heroes’ murals of the Moscow Metro’. Willoughby was brought up Roman Catholic, something he evokes with the nostalgia of an agnostic –or perhaps a ‘lapsed’ Catholic:
I remembered the Sunday candles and those stations
of the cross carried out in Lent, how the depths of her in prayer
silently threading the rosary beads through work worn hands
The poet sums up Catholicism for him as ‘the religion that still haunts me’. One assumes, with mentions of ‘meditation’ and ‘satori’ the poet has since experimented with some form of Buddhism. Sense impressions permeate this poem –particularly olfactory ones, and smell is arguably the most memory-inducing:
At South Bank I get the smell of incense in my nostrils
instead of the pungent sulphur stench of brimstone
from the shut-down, silent coke ovens so familiar here.
The thickets of description pile on hypnotically as alliteration bristles on the tongue:
on the Smith’s Dock Road, looking for clues in the overgrowth
from the wild undergrowth bursting through broken fences,
in the graffiti on the junkyard wall, in a discarded worker’s glove,
a red tall poppy, swirls of barbed wire and an old circus poster
contemplate the wabi-sabi Buddha orange of worker’s glove
I photographed against the dusty path where wildflowers
poked through the fence from the old steelworks’ verge
dangling over the five fingers that have no need for hands
Baudelaire’s Terrain Vague reversed; industry receding
the opposite of mineral and gas rich Siberian hinterlands.
Willoughby has a very filmic eye and this is played on impressively in the following phantasmagorical passage when scenes from the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin merge into Abba circa ’76 and then back to contemporary Russia:
Ville our reluctant leader calls us all to the Uralic train
as Sergei Eisenstein whispers in my ear: check out this montage –
of the steps from Potemkin to the old, old man’s bleary eyes
opening to Agnetha and Anni-Frid still Top of the Pops
provoking from him a long heartfelt sigh, cut to them
singing the volga boat song and segueing into a chorus
of Money Money Money as next cut screens frozen homeless,
with their beards of frost and their winter hearts stopped,
getting zipped into bags in morgues in a few months’ time
now the state has stopped cradling them in unwieldy paws,
next the attendants discuss the exploding Chechen widows:
End-rhymes become more frequent:
the topic of today lingering in the near future day-mare feature
as we move sharply between the metallic tracks and lines
I try to show Sergei my forefathers in the trip’s foundations
looking at the sleepers for the tell tale Dorman Long signs
before we are transported by this otherworldly locomotive
over the distant mountains to where the golden lady shines.
I particularly like the p-alliteration in the following trope: ‘Ville tells us of a recent spate of deaths of drinkers/ who imbibed a concoction of paint thinner and cheap perfume,/ and to beware of accepting any random stranger’s hip flask,/ lest it turn us all bad potato blind…’ –‘paint’, ‘cheap’, ‘perfume’, ‘accepting’, ‘hip’, ‘potato’. But if that’s infectious, the more culturally acclimatised k-alliterations of the following lines are positively intoxicating: ‘The track and train’s rattle sounds just like balalaika music,/ Kalle and Esa start singing Kalinka, Kalinka, Kalinka Moloko!’ and the ks continue stalk through the lines with ‘walkman’, ‘Siberski Korona’, ‘flasks’ and the strikingly Dylan Thomas-esque phrase ‘all kalinking day’. With ‘Korona’ and the later image ‘milk guzzlers’ I’m –no doubt irrelevantly– reminded of the Korova Milk Bar in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and the fact that the Droogs’ idiolect, ‘Nadsat’, is basically Russian-corrupted English.
Some passages are absolutely hypnotic in terms of description, images, sense impressions –particularly olfactory and gustatory– rhythm, alliteration, and serendipitous internal and sometimes end-of-line rhymes (to my mind blank verse with occasional accidental rhymes as and when they turn up naturally is the most effective form for long narrative poems):
Through my half-cut pupils the carriage matron’s Brezhnev’s wife
beetle browed, sitting stern and lumpen by the hot water boiler,
that sacred fountain of the long distance economy carriage.
Her pungent coffee masks the smell of ripe feet dangling,
protruding from the rows of public bunks that line aisles
of the carriage all down both sides in clusters of eight.
One travelling group, of an unidentifiable ethnicity,
exudes strangely the sweet sharp smell of Spanish lemons,
And there’s a real sense of humanity and earthiness, replete with the stream-of-consciousness style, quite Joycean in juxtapositions of the scatological with the high cultural:
filling my mind with black Goya visions as I clutch my cock
and try to piss straight into the stinking toilet’s hole
misquoting: the dream of reason brings forth monsters
as though the mantra will protect my threatened soul;
I’m worried about the silent man who breathes smoke
from out of the cancer hole in his prison tattooed neck
who stands between the carriages in a nicotine cloud
with the stare of one with absolutely nothing left to lose,
I’m glad I don’t know the meaning of his jailhouse tattoos
We switch back ‘Towards Redcar’ where ‘a skipped heartbeat makes you fear the fear’, and that ‘fear’, I sense, is the fear of death which for some of us, especially poets, is ever-present in mind; there’s a sense that here the poet is trying to calm his beating heart and beating mind, as if trying to abate a panic attack by meditative techniques of focusing: ‘employ breathing strategies, empty the dark spots/ out through the palms of your hands’. This experience reminds the poet of his brush with a near-fatal cancer some time before, and how back then he learnt to focus on the moment:
deal with the now, carve out a little non-thinking time, focus
your eyes away from lines of pine after shrinking pine, realise
the train full of poets is one of the memories used to survive
when your head swam with the implications of part of you
already being dead inside, that eternity was there in every journey
if you used imagination’s key to open up one of the spots in time,
There then comes a wonderful flourish of ghostly nostalgia for the poet’s native derelict industrial home:
Outside the window the dead forms of the steelworks’ buildings,
that haunt you because they are more vivid in your mind’s eye,
play their own music made of many layers of voices of forgotten men
who worked hard shifts inside to keep their children fed and alive,
but you cannot pick out any word to help a single voice survive.
The panic is corroborated:
You didn’t know how to keep the fear beast from his feast
on the fast skips of the life pump in the days of the diner,
chess was not your game as you got another vodka down
on top of some fried eggs hoping the panic would subside
Then the ghost of Mayakovsky distracts Willoughby ‘from atop a dainty doily dressed table’. Willoughby lands back with a bump in his native Redcar, on a train terrorised by well-lubricated football supporters whose team has just lost a match:
Redcar: a bunch of rowdy auld lads stumble off singing,
bring me back to the now with a sudden whiff of danger
as they start to terrorise all my fellow passengers,
full of bitter and cheap shots stirred up by football failure
Willoughby notes how the shared supporting of a football team ‘doesn’t always lead to solidarity but bloodshed,/ still carry terrace rhythms in my head: a bass-line armoury’. There then ensues a beautifully judged passage hinged with g- and c-alliterations and filled with brilliantly observed descriptions:
A Middlesbrough granny talks soft to her grandchild
trying to pull her frightened eyes off the ageing man-boys
from the fading frontline gang, she’s too long in the tooth
to tell them to mind their ps and qs and the conductor’s
staying well away to live to collect tickets on another day.
when they’re gone she visibly relaxes, her stiff shoulders
lose the weight and the little girl talks about snowmen
while I remember the long years that passed by before
my daughter and I got to build one, when my weekend
and a snowfall at last coincided: will we use old coal Dad?
Yes we’ll use coal love, carrots for a nose and carbon for eyes.
I recall my other protection on the platzencartz plunge:
the little blue photo album with precious pieces of frozen time
when my magical gift and me would Saturday adventure
along the shores and up the hills to rock pools and bilberries.
Here the ‘frozen time’ of old photographs and memories nicely echoes the poet’s previous attempt to palliate a panic attack by meditatively focusing on ‘spots in time’.
Between Stations is, at times, highly didactic, very much verse-travelogue; this didacticism is never overbearing but always fascinating and much of it is, after all, verbalised by Willoughby’s travelling companions:
On the bunk below me a white haired babushka lies in bed
her little granddaughter sleeping opposite. Above, Kalle says
be careful getting down now don’t dangle your balls man
over the narrow, hard bunk’s raised edge, we are like
strange trolls living above this innocent little family.
It’s interesting the fearsome figures of Russian mythology
and old folk tales may well be of Fenn-Ugric ethnicity
have you noticed how my classic Finnish upturned nose
is like a troll or elfs? And it’s not difficult to see with his
long blonde hair hanging free how my mate’s daughter
awoke once with two Finn bards in her house and told me
she thought the king of the elves and the king of the fairies
were crashing on their Middlesbrough living room floor.
There’s a lusciously alliterative trope in ‘stopping by on the way to fitful sleep notices the little one/ carefully hides his pocket bottle and speaks softly’. Willoughby’s reveries, however, often have a harder edge of social realism, as in the following:
Reading songs of innocence I hear William singing gaily
about the joy of the frolicking lamb and am carried off
into a dream world where the children aren’t shoved down
mines and up chimneys and shot in school gymnasiums
or beaten at checkpoints…
Some startling alliterative effect in the following flourish:
I see the bruise darkening on the babushka’s battered brow
as she inspects my wee attempts at human credentials
the little girl feeding ducks, the little girl in daddy’s arms
amongst the grandiose gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey,
In the next passage Willoughby goes full tilt into contemporary polemic on the parlous state of British society and how after years of remorseless Tory austerity the poorer communities are returning to pre-welfare state Thirties-style ghettoes with all the social diseases associated with the slums of that period (and the recent shocking blaze that engulfed Grenfell Tower, a council tower block housing 600 of the poorest residents in the richest borough of Kensington, West London, was hugely symbolic of structural urban neglect in those areas not yet ‘gentrified’ –ironically, the recent refurbishing involving zinc cladding on the outside of the tower actually caught light and carried the flames higher and all over the edifice):
how we once made so much wealth but have health rates
like some parts of the third world, how malnutrition and rickets
are returning, TB’s not dead and homelessness is growing
This is not hyperbole, it is indeed true that tuberculosis is coming back significantly in poorer communities due to too many people being packed in close proximity in properties partitioned into ‘rabbit hutch’ flats and bedsits in our cities where the tubercule bacilli bacteria can germinate and thrive. There is again some effective use of naturally falling rhyme:
They are driving the workers out of the city with house prices.
William Blake said that brothels are built of bricks of religion
and that all the prisons are constructed with bricks of law
and now this is what we have all been working for
Willoughby’s polemic cranks up to a steepening pitch of justifiable fury –a poetically controlled tirade against Tory-driven austerity cuts and social cleansing –or ‘gentrification’ as some euphemise it– and it’s particularly heartening to read another poet specifically calling out the fiscal and rhetorical attacks on the unemployed, sick and disabled (which I have written about at length in my latest Smokestack collection Tan Raptures):
clearing out the capitals driving the suffering out of sight
with invisible bricks of economy, deaf to the howls of the sick,
disabled and dying stripped of benefits by sanctimonious pricks
pontificating on shirkers, scroungers and hard working families
and tossing thousands more on the rigged market’s scrapheap.
Is this deep rage within me what gripped Lenin’s gut the day he
jumped out of the moving Tampere train to stay free? How can it
serve our small city with its existential motto Erimus: we shall be?
The narrative swerves back to historical and post-industrial Teesside in another of the poet’s masterfully alliterative and assonantal displays dripping with polemic:
I begin to reflect again how some of those who lost their lives
to the iron from our own haunted hills that line this short route
held hopes once that Bolshevik ideals could free them too,
from their meagre existence in this boomtown hinterland;
near-slaves to the devouring Victorian furnace fires,
always kept in debt to the mine-owner’s company stores,
their iron masters expanded into gross giants on profits
made from the world’s desire for hard but malleable metal.
They walked up and out to listen to radicals like Shepard,
defied bosses’ orders and sticks of the company guards while
long lines, many made like these below me from Teesside steel,
were laid into wilderness across the steppes and the great plains
opening for cheap whisky, smallpox and free enterprise –
The polemic then departs for America and its disenfranchised native inhabitants many of whom are still, unbelievably, hemmed in reservations:
swathes cut through peoples with suspect theologies:
Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Apache, Crow,
Manifest Destiny on its iron horse brought death to buffalo.
And it is here that industry, something missed for its gutting by Thatcherism in the Eighties which resulted in destroying mining and manufacturing communities in the poet’s native Teesside and heaping unemployment on its population, is here, in the context of Russia and America seen as something oppositely exploitative and destructive in itself:
In Siberia, our exported steel made alliance with slaughter
on a high speed locomotive named Historical Necessity –
ideology hid the relentless reaping of modernisation,
futurists praised machine, speed and sleek locomotion
as shamanic bones grew stark in the hidden graves,
steppe roamers were ‘encouraged’ into mines and factories,
Cossacks were commanded to swap horses for shining tractors,
roads and tracks advanced to the circle of the Arctic,
Khanty and Mansi seers joined Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse
in the broken circles of the ghost dancers’ hoop,
those lost caretakers, not owners, of the precious land
where nature’s spirit groans now beneath the whip hand
of all those who only believe in ever-growing production,
don’t know Blake’s wisdom of a world that can’t be measured.
The v- and k-alliterations in the following passage give the lines a real kick:
Esa Hirvonen starts twitching in nocturnal vodka withdrawal
he has fallen through a holy lovi again and become a bat
shapeshifter flittering and skittering through inky night air
serenaded by monk spirit with matching wild man beard
he turned himself into back on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg
and became, in the dining car, half jokingly…
Willougby’s soundtrack of the mind has now moved on from 1976 to ’78:
with a clutch of formidable Fenn-Ugrian/Ruski mammas
shaking his let-down tumbling prophet’s hair apocalyptically
to the unlikely flashing disco’s unrequested Boney M track
blaring out ‘Ra Ra Rasputin lover of the Russian Queen’
On a liquid diet of ‘shots and bottles’, Esa is alcoholic with delirium tremens:
in Udmurtia he heard the voices of the Fenn Ugrian dead
before he met his fox familiar in a mushroom style vision,
last night I saw his limbs twitching under bunk blankets
and swear he started drinking again in his sleep to stop it
his pocket vodka medicine response…
A game of chess is played as the scenery grows vaster, described beautifully: ‘as the vast steppes roll by in visions of endless grass/ and the incredible shrinking Northern birches glow silver/ in the sluggish rising sun’s autumnal morning light’. Once more, Willoughby’s guiding ghosts from the writing-desk in the sky join him: ‘I hear poor Osip applauding and/ Mayakovsky snort approval/ as he brings down my helpless king to the level of a pawn/ Old Blakie refuses advice…’. Willoughby again reminisces on his native Teesside:
…all Teessiders know that their worst fears
are realised as the spaces in between are now black not tangerine
from the furnace and the flare stacks, the shade that had faded to pale
since fiery childhood nights…
The closing paragraph of this passage is a particularly striking example of the many prosodic and linguistic ingredients that mingle to make the winning Willoughby goulash of language: heightened alliteration, assonance and sibilance, rhythmic impetus (often sprung rhythm), rangy lines, strong images:
Now from this little train’s window I note inky blackness, see spaces
between the stars and try not to calculate the distance from birth
to death thinking instead of Jesus of the Elk suffering on the tracks
when we disembarked at stops to stretch our legs and purchase sausage
from women of indeterminate age with each hard year etched on them.
Not to mention an occasional, serendipitous use of subtle internal rhyme: note the chiming of ‘sausage’ and ‘age’ –even, partially, ‘purchase’ and ‘sausage’– and the ‘women’ and ‘them’ of the last line. The poem as a whole begins to reach its peak awareness or epiphany around this point –the i-assonance is striking in the first line of the following excerpt, while the more blatant end-rhymes of the third and fourth lines is notable:
Slicing the salami with a Swiss army knife to take with watery tea
brewed up with the carriage matron’s rationed slow trickle
we talk about things that haunt us: the things we cannot change
the soldiers dead from his army service, the lovers out of range;
We now learn that ‘Esa has done his national service, hard to imagine him in uniform,’ and that there are ‘things he’d seen but had never been able to write a poem about.
Esa sometimes carries a weight upon him that can’t be shared
that disappears in his flaring electric glow when he hits the stage,
the aspect of the poet that cannot be seen in words on the page.
Again, the end-rhymes are notable, all the more so because they happen so seldom. Willoughby now begins to meditate on the posterity of the poet that is in the ink in the print on the page of his books –assuming he is a published poet!– and his name inscribed on the spine as a clothbound headstone, as it were, the creative itch to somehow outlast oneself, but this posterity, even fantasised immortality, comes as well through one’s words living on in the minds of other men afterwards:
The page is all that’s left of you whispers Osip Mandelstam
even if you left them only in the heads of others to be saved,
I think I have left and lost far too many in the recesses of my head
whilst working in thankless jobs or pissing it all up the wall
but the moment of the poet in the poem is eternal says Blake
Osip Mandelstam’s optimistic aphorism omits only the unthinkable problem of all humankind’s possible eventual extinction, which would of course preclude even the long-term –but not infinite– consolation for the mortal that his poetry or other writing might somehow last forever through the minds of future humans; this impossible projection jettisons the possibility that ultimately what has been passed on can no more be passed on once the last human passes on. Perhaps Blake’s more transcendental, spiritualistic aphorism is more hopeful in its Swedenborgian flexibility of hinted afterlives, even if it risks a slip into solipsism which Osip Mandelstam almost avoids in his: Mandelstam’s glimpse of posterity is dependent on other people, Blake’s is self-dependent.
Willoughby’s ruminations tilt into the misty realms of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, as he contemplates the possibility that creative talent, poetic talent, inspiration, something divined in the imagination, is not necessarily the unique product of an individual’s mind (or soul), but is something channelled through them, perhaps from spirit guides, meaning the poet, writer, artist, musician, creative –is not so much an inventive genius as an amanuensis or medium; this is something numerous creative minds, especially poets, have speculated on in various periods, perhaps less so in our more secular age, but it’s certainly something I’ve often contemplated much myself, and have expressed in some of my own poetry, and share with Willoughby a very strong inner-sense that there is some truth in it (interestingly, like Willoughby, I’m was also raised a Roman Catholic, am also, as an adult, a ‘lapsed Catholic’ socialist, and also have Scandinavian affinities –in my case, in relation to Sweden). After all, the original meaning of the term inspiration is to inspirit, to put the spirit into something; it’s only because we live in a more secular age that this underlying definition is neglected. This tilt into mysticism implies a plurality of meanings in the poem’s title: the stations the poet is between while writing it can be interpreted metaphysically as Birth and Death or Heaven and Hell as much as literally/geographically Helsinki and Novosibirsk; suddenly we’re travelling light on the Swedenborgian Express.
From the mystical to the chthonic, the earthy, the physical, in another brilliantly descriptive, alliteratively bristling passage:
a spine-jarring bus from Pityak to Khanty Mansisk –
take a piss stop on rough roads, empty tins of tasteless beer
purchased at a station cafe by brave comrades Kalle and Aki,
look out over devastated cut down Taiga, and endless steppes at
the vast dark space lit by myriad oil, furnace and gas fires,
those familiar orange skies in a science fiction landscape
that also feel homely only to those of us from Middlesbrough,
as men transform open plains to get at buried, revered remnants:
prehistoric fauna is alchemical black gold and coal paid for in blood.
Esa reaches down and casually hands you a fossil from the floor;
quartz, shale and fragments of old bones scattered round our boots:
wonder how far you’d have to wander off this pockmarked road
The poet’s associations flit from Siberia to industrially derelict Saltburn –where he reminisces on ‘The last shift …witnessed’– and to Finland, apparently itself fairly rich in iron and steel as the poet’s native Teesside:
But I know it’s still iron and steel that somehow connects me to words:
in Finland the first time with a group of poets Kalle invited us to stay
at the site of an iron age fort at Voipaala; when I first opened Kalevala,
it was at Runo 10: the origin of iron, where the shaman Vainamoinen
must find the spell to stop the blood flowing fast from close to the bone,
the wound an axe has made, seeks the roots of the problem in the stone.
Remember the realisation as you got off the first Siberia train and Kalle
pointed out the Dorman Long sign on the railway sleeper? Recognition
that the tracks that bore you here really were from your hometown…
The poet and his fellow Finnish verse-revellers spend some time ‘in the nearby dance hall the DJ puts on Bony M and Jesus of the Elk/ is really transformed into my dream of disco Rasputin’; the ‘raggy-arsed poets’ are then ‘…joined by Mikhael –/ the translator kodiak bear man with black beard who looks/ like he should be carrying a machine gun in a violin case’. Willoughby’s philosophical ruminations abound: ‘I ponder all the secrets
I can never know, the truths or lies of past broken relationships,
the family matters taken to the grave with grandparents schooled
in the sudden shift of subject and the use of the tight pursed lip,
The poet notes ‘unsteady weather has torn/ the roof off the building just around the corner and the rumble grows/ ominously for yet another bombing, yet another war on terror’. This passage grows more phantasmagorical as the magical becomes the grimly imaginable rigged with reminders of mortality:
every minute of the one journey will get emptied of the sacred joy
of old Blakie’s imagination, every grain of sand a suspect device
not the tiny gate way to the infinite, the touchstone of eternity,
But the poet remains defiantly poetic, spiritualistic:
…the eternal rocking of the raging white horse winter sea,
I begin to rethink the meaning of the motto we shall be, we shall be
remember the day I looked out over ten thousand miles of steppes
into the taiga on the horizon and felt Blake’s Tyger looking back at me.
As if in a dreamlike trance the poet contemplates the destination of his trip:
The whole conference feels like a dream I had on the Siberian train:
I wonder if all of everything since is still part of the fantasia arising
from the rattle of the tracks outside Pityak, it’s time soon to hold a stone
in the palm of the hand gathered from Saltburn’s old smuggler’s shore
so its heft can outweigh memory…
Then he recalls details:
…I remember meeting Riina Katajavuori again
in the elevator on the morning of Fenn Ugric conference, me and her,
after the toasts of the night before, missing our children with her baby
only recently born, we measured our distances in the same non-language
and that they ‘talked about the natural etymology of our names/ how hers translates as juniper mountain and mine by the willows’. A badly hungover Willoughby attempts to deliver his talk at the conference:
At the packed lecture theatre everybody’s mood went giddy but mine –
I had a new name: Willaboo Andy, Chairman of the British Delegation.
There was a Union Jack on the stage, I was a panel member
representing the whole nation: the Finns laughed in the audience
till they fell off their chairs, as I sat there, hungover-dishevelled-desperate
for a morning beer, trying to not draw attention to myself, bluffing it
I thought as I hit the panel’s translation button…
as the tiny diesel train slowly moves towards the off-white Pease bricks
of Saltburn’s Victorian railway arches, a town built on industrial profit
by one of the sons of the first masters of rail, steam, iron and coal,
The poet returns to the image of the ‘The Golden Woman’ depicted by the shaman of the Khanty, a reindeer-herding people of Western Siberia, and this leitmotif manifests very much as Willoughby’s own White Goddess Muse; we then get a surreal trope: Under ‘the memorial to her power we pose and cavort, find some craic/ about flying saucers and desire for Amazonian goddesses from outer space’ (note the Irish term ‘craic’ which means a bit of gossip or enjoyable conversation and is also commonly used in Northumberland, particularly Newcastle, as well as, presumably, Teesside). Willoughby’s reverie then swerves through female icons of Catholicism and Christianity through to the secular, proletarian women of Soviet-era poster art who, in their hard-working sinuous depictions, are Amazonian:
but secretly I looked at the serenity the artist put in the image of her face
remembered Fatima, Bernadette and Lourdes and revolved old thoughts
about the female power of the universe, remember how it’s easier to pray
to or via a woman’s image, think about the sensitive eyes of Jesus Christ
in renaissance paintings and tacky memes and the masculinity of Soviet
propaganda where strong worker women bulge with muscle and purpose
equipped with biceps and iron will, drive tractors and smash fascism,
Willoughby then muses on the creative, moon-driven femininity in himself as a poet in an almost Romantic lyrical flourish:
She’s still on my mind the golden woman, the idea she’s in all women,
all the women I have known and failed, the woman I love now back home
and in me too if I learn to listen, in the forests and by the running streams.
I particularly like the following trope with its wonderful deployment of alliteration and o-assonance: ‘small wooden dwellings for the workers and the people of the Steppes/ no longer roaming nomads: houses contain and sanitise, homogenise/ the cultures, bring small comforts…’. Next, ‘a drive to the hill where the Ob and Irtisch rivers meet far below, making one mighty stream to flow into the circle of the Arctic’ yet a sense that, in spite of the vast distance from his native North-East England, the Siberian landscape has geological similarities: ‘so far from home but on another iron leyline,/ this was ferric country, the mines below my feet like the ones from home’.
Willoughby brilliantly communicates the sense of vertiginous disorientation and existential angst of the sensitive mind while travelling:
Stalin gave the native people ‘productive’ lives beneath us in vast caverns
and the monument is a grotesque tribute to their former nomadic lives.
There’s a glass lift in it, we ride it to the top like an inverted miners’ cage,
at the top I look out, not to the inviting North Sea of child memory,
not to the seven sisters of local legend or the purple heather tint of moors,
but to the endless flat plains of bogland and steppes, ten thousand miles
and a million years of something stretched to nothing understood,
to the point of insanity by sheer vastness of the plains, endless horizons.
Infinity is as incomprehensible and terrifying a concept as is oblivion, and the splintering effect of the mind in travel can heighten the death-sense to a vertigo (I know, I’ve always experienced this myself when travelling abroad). And this is a Kierkegaardian vertigo, the Danish philosopher’s ‘dizziness of freedom’ –anxiety. The poet mentally returns to his native Cleveland for some historical commentary:
At Marske with its ancient Viking name you can see from the train to the sea;
I have looked for hours at the waves, it’s a Cleveland boy’s common dream
to glean ideas of adventure, James Cook grew up here, before the iron seam
Willoughby then turns his historical eye back to Siberia:
In Siberia I thought how men below had not so long ago roamed the wild
what a soul cage they entered to keep up with the plan for a new world!
I knew as I looked across the plains too the foolishness of Napoleon
and of Hitler, here in Eurasia a thousand battalions could die in winter
west of the Urals they empty the cities and hide in this vast unknown
waiting for their allies: the ice and snow giants, to deal a devastating blow.
The poet’s episodic thanatophobia rumbles towards full-blown panic again:
I felt the panic rising and breathed deep to get myself under some control,
a man could disappear here, brushed out of time like Blake’s little fly
in a space like this it’s easy to see how millions of humans could die:
But then Willoughby reminds himself:
fear is overcome with love and common feeling, connection with
Russia, with Siberia, with the teachers and the myriad dead below
this moment, where terror became an ecstasy I cannot describe,
I stored away and used to fight for life on the sandy winter beach,
And the poet resolves:
Eternity is in a million blades of grass, heaven in a chunk of ironstone
in our hands, not utopian, there are none so blind who will not see
we do not own the land, we cannot claim it as private or public property
we are made of it and return to it and all that’s left is infinite energy,
There is an inner-silence which the poet takes with him back from the vast, ego-shrinking wilderness of the Siberian steppes:
and the silence is the treasure that I brought down and took back home
to be examined without language in the precious moments of being alone
to be carried carefully, returned to in the minutes before words form
in emergencies of health and faith, in moments of overflow of facts,
retreated to when confronted with Brecht’s wrongly named Bestial Acts.
One’s reminded here of the concept of an ‘oceanic consciousness’, something of which many thinkers and writers have written, coined by Romain Rolland as ‘oceanic feeling’ to mean the fragmentation of the individual ego and its immersion in a universal awareness, a religious or meditative state, something which the writer Arthur Koestler alluded with a sense of peace as he planned his very calm suicide.
As the poet returns to his native Teesside he reminisces once more on its haunting industrial past:
It’s quiet here on the coast now with no notes in our Teesside Requiem
no roar from the fire’s furnace, no steady note of a steelworks hum,
we all mumble our mantra the smoke in the lungs the fire in the bones:
we used to build ships, we used to make steel, we worked the blue stone,
There then comes an inspirited, uplifting and defiant spiritualistic-cum-socialistic train of thought, nicely complemented by naturally falling end-rhymes:
want to tell the people everywhere; consider this word: bountiful
it doesn’t mean you should start counting and hoarding what can’t be kept
its meaning is all encompassing, can only be brought about by sharing all,
dream of a new international thinking, cause the corporations to fall.
As the ‘voices rant and babble online, in parliaments, on television’, the poet’s thoughts are elevated far above the everyday murmurings of consumer capitalism, and as they often do, drift onto a stream of thought punctuated by Catholicism:
I have no intention of joining any party that seeks to control me
and will not start to let form or decorum make me watch my words.
I dismount the shabby Teesside train recalling Advent and Lent:
old rituals observed in a childhood shifted out of synch with time,
While the Protestant denominations were ever more pragmatic and practical in their applications of Christian teaching to industrial purpose:
industrialists funded temperance and Methodist churches
on our expanding ferric frontier to keep the workers sober,
washed and so called civilised for the rigours of the daily grind.
Then comes a beautifully observed depiction of a Catholic childhood in the North-East of England and a bittersweet meditation on the doubt-filled and guilt-ridden residues left in lapsed Catholic adulthood:
Hungry Irish held onto Catholicism to suffer beautifully in,
left redemption urges in the weave and weft of my words,
left echoes of a rapidly ageing moral world in my time line.
We all know, began Father Brennan’s shut-eyed Easter sermon,
that men and boys unlike women do not cry, no, they do not cry.
Candles dripped wax tears onto fingernails to be peeled off:
counting the tedious minutes as Christ was led to crucifixion.
Reflect how the church was still full then back in the early seventies
benches lined with shipbuilders, process workers, factory girls and wives.
Again, in the following passage, brilliant uses of alliteration, assonance and sense-impression really bring the scenes to life:
On the way back from Siberia as winter’s first bite gripped the bones
I saw a holy moment of my own that will always give me hope
in Pityak Market we wandered, ate shazlik more rat than chicken,
laughed at Finn Rock star image in the ramshackle men’s toilets
wondering if whoever put it up could see the homo-erotic allure
in the bare chest stance of Ville Valo…
The haunted, mystical, dipsomaniac poet Esa is here depicted through the eyes of some children almost like a kind of clowning magician or Pied Piper:
…his pocket bottle’s lit him up
his hair is matted like Rasputin’s though he’s off stage the blue lights on
he wanders off up a dim path to the outer stalls where he seeks a gift
for a lady he may have a chance with back in Moscow, a mob of urchins
in his wake, we worry he won’t return, lose sight of him, as the tension
hits its height he reappears with children leading him by the sleeve,
he mimes, they laugh, he goofs around with his purple poet’s hat
they are are all lit up by his inner radiance. For the first time I believe
that its possible that love might save this glowing suffering man.
Esa is certainly one of the most colourful characters I’ve come across in a narrative poem. Perhaps inevitably, a spot of sickness ensues towards the last lap of the return journey: ‘Rita’s bad water gives Kalle and me a type/ of evil dysentery on the last limping leg back to the Finland Station/ while Esa and Aki get robbed by bad policemen in St Petersburg’.
Finally we come to the closing passage of this immersive, impressive and accomplished long poem, a fitting final flourish –philosophical, polemical, spiritual, mournful, hopeful– which really needs to be excerpted in full to appreciate:
I sit until the last passenger disembarks onto the concrete platform,
only minutes have passed on the mobile phone’s luminous face
but we are stretched and torn in a chasm between past and present
round here too – between the age of steel and ships receding,
and an Empire falling, the advent of microchips and hypermarkets.
Cyberspace, Worldwide Web, Social Networks whirl a maelstrom,
full of claim and counterclaim, truth, lies, hate and propaganda;
the shock of my own fifty years spanning such a shift in epochs!
Shocking that this information age and cheap budget airline travel,
that sets you free from time to time, year on year, to write and wander,
has done nothing much for those people still eking out their lives
in this sprawling post-industrial landscape, despite its weird wonders.
All the money made here has left us is its lingering remnants:
in the eerie moonscape of the last smouldering slag-heap
thin shades of pale smoke trace lines in a star-filled sky,
the dead blast furnace no longer dyes the night faint amber,
meanwhile out on the salt marshes a dirty winged swan
dips his curved neck in cold water to scrape for survival;
whilst out in Siberia one of the last tigers makes a slow kill.
I soft finger the scar on my neck, contemplate life and radiation
then take a long slow sip from a hip flask; between stations.
Andy Willoughby’s Between Stations really is a delight to read, a heartfelt and deep-thinking work taking in not only Blake, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein and Mandelstam, but also echoing the likes of Nordic thinkers Kierkegaard and Swedenborg; an extraordinary verse-travelogue of the soul, which takes us vast distances of landscape and thought, and tackles the vaster themes of life, friendship, love, anxiety and death with great poetic technique and courage. Highly recommended.
Alan Morrison © 2017