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Review of Strata Smith and the Anthropocene by John Freeman

Strata Smith and the Anthropocene by John Freeman

Published by The Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-909443-85-3    £6.

Review by Mandy Pannett

johnfreemanbookNow here’s an intriguing title to conjure with – who is this Strata Smith with the dare-devil name that makes me think of Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee? What is this weighty-sounding Leviathan of an Anthropocene? What kind of a book is this?

Superficially, it is a slim booklet of thirty-seven pages divided into thirteen passages each one concerned with an aspect of geology. William Smith and his famous map of 1815 forefronts the narrative as the dilemmas and questions induced by the Anthropocene, (the human-influenced epoch of present geological time), provide  a constant background. This is the apparent content but, if one digs deeper as if into layers of rock, there is more. Much more.

My immediate pleasure in Strata Smith comes from the multi-faceted writing which moves in and out of the subject connecting threads and thoughts. We have biography interspersed with personal anecdote, poetry, philosophical questions, fascinating information on fossils and rocks, digressions into social history, quotes from writers ranging from Shelley to Bill Bryson – a huge variety of style and subject matter in a short space.

‘Green is the colour William Smith chose to represent chalk on his 1815 map, ’ says John Freeman at the beginning of the first section Smith Honoured. To me it feels as if this mention of green with all its political and literary connotations provides the keynote  for  the thirteen passages. There is springtime in this era that man is creating, a growth of catkins, celandines, daisies; colours of red and green are vivid on trees and there is an ‘intensifying light’ in life itself that is determined to survive, that will outlive ‘us, and all our sources of pollution’. (Springtime in the Anthropocene’). Yet there is always menace and ignorance, an earth that is ‘bruised’ with a ‘cut lip, swollen cheek’, the dread of being wiped out so that today’s geological time will be just one more ‘layer’ marking ‘the sixth mass extinction’.

The ‘horizon of the Anthropocene’ is grim and John Freeman makes no pretence of hiding the grimness. But this is an author who knows his craft exceptionally well, can treat a heavy subject with lightness, is able to make the abstract vivid and detailed. What I particularly like is the awareness that there are no simple answers and we are ‘a collective too numerous for any definitive narrative.’ (Mapping the Collective). I love the metaphor that is used of interactive maps in Paris Metro stations where the pattern of direction may be changed with the touch of a button. In the same way opinions and viewpoints change, says John Freeman, and ‘the trouble is there are so many’.

Strata Smith and the Anthropocene is profound and thought-provoking but also a joy to read in the way it touches on interactions, small significances, understandings that grow ‘from inklings to hunches, to theories to be tested, to almost complete certainties by stages.’ (Smith Obstructed).
I highly recommend it.

Mandy Pannett

John Freeman’s new collection, What Possessed Me, was published by Worple Press in September, 2016. It is his first verse collection since A Suite for Summer (also from Worple), in 2007. White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems was published by Contraband Books in 2013.  Earlier collections include The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions), and Landscape with Portraits (Redbeck). Recent magazine appearances include The Rialto, London Grip and Tears in the Fence, which also recently printed his essay on the poetry of Jim Burns.

An interview with John Freeman in which he discusses ‘Strata Smith and the Anthropocene’ may be read here http://sentinelquarterly.com/2016/05/john-freeman-interviewed-by-mandy-pannett/

 

John Freeman interviewed by Mandy Pannett

Thanks for this interview, John. Good to talk to you. I’ve just been re-reading the poems you have in the current issue of Sentinel Literary Quarterly where you are the featured poet. I feel they convey a powerful sense of Place, like so many of your poems do. Is this important to you? I particularly love the reflective lines in ‘Gardener’s Friend ‘ where you say to the robin who is watching you dig ‘Isn’t it a strange thing … to be alive and conscious, and not know why?’ Do you feel a strong connection with landscape, inner and outer?

Broadly, yes to these questions.  Through most of our evolutionary history we lived in the wild, the open air, part of the natural world and not apart from it. Our psychic well-being depends on keeping in touch with that heritage. In our modern world that requires conscious choice and activity. To be out of doors, in however humanly modified an environment, offers refreshment, stimulus, food for perception and imagination. It is good to have places that are familiar, some of which are like ‘centres of the world’ to us, and to visit new places, and new kinds of place. It’s like making friends. Each new friendship reveals something you have not known before, or not known so well, and the same is true with landscapes, cities, villages, gardens, and of course, interiors.

As for that robin, and other robins, they do seem to seek a relationship with people in a way that other birds don’t, and to want more than freshly turned soil or food on the bird table. Like us, they seem to have an ache of consciousness. How should we think about the fact that we are here? Of course there are many different answers, some compatible with others, some not. In the tradition of ‘honest doubt’ that unites agnostics and many religious believers, the answers are often tentative, sometimes accompanied by what Thomas Gray calls ‘trembling hope.’ I think most conscious beings carry the burden of this mystery. And people with certainty in this area are often more or less frightening.

You have a new collection coming out this year, from Worple. Can you tell us something about it? Title? Will it be prose poems as in ‘Wings’ or a range of forms and styles?

There are a few prose poems, but this collection is mainly verse. I hope readers will find it both unified and varied in style, approach, mood and subject.

It’s called What Possessed Me. That’s also the title of one poem in it, which is about how, in my teens, for no reason I could have articulated at the time, I took it into my head one spring holiday to go on an absurdly long cycle-ride. On my return my mother didn’t actually say ‘what on earth possessed you to do such a thing?’ but that was what she evidently felt. As my father understood, it was a rite of passage. ‘He wanted to prove himself,’ he said, and it was news to me. But when I put the collection together I saw that several other poems in it were also about being possessed. ‘Something led me to…’ and other words to that effect are a recurrent motif, though it is not always so explicit. And I think of poetic inspiration as a kind of possession. I find the poem resists my having too deliberate a plan of what I want it to be. If I have a topic in my mind I often have to placate the muse by writing something else before I get to it, something I have no idea I am going to write when I pick up my pen. That can free me up to find the right way in to my pre-conceived agenda. Sometimes the unplanned piece is better than the planned one, sometimes not. The whole collection is a record of some of what has possessed me.

After you have a collection published and are beginning to think about working towards a new one, do you let the poems just ‘happen’ or do you consciously have a possible theme in mind? I have tried the latter myself and it doesn’t work for long – I go off on tangents and end up with a hotch-potch of pieces. I know other poets, though, who are able to be disciplined enough to keep an overall theme in mind. Do you have a ‘method’ or does it differ from book to book?

Like you, I admire those who can successfully build a structured collection. I’m a big fan of a relatively unknown but senior American poet, Henry Lyman, who has recently published his first substantial collection, The Land Has Its Say. Each poem in its five sections works autonomously but they build into a structure you can stand in like a cathedral. I admire – and, generally, do otherwise. I write the next individual poem I want to write. I often become aware of emerging themes.  In recent years I have begun to think more often in terms of the sequence, though never abandoning the one-off piece. There is a sequence at the end of White Wings which you could say was governed by Place, though also by Time – the framework was a fortnight spent in North Norfolk. In the new collection there is a sequence about a short stay in Athens, and another about visits to the cathedral at Llandaff and the green space between it and the river Taff, where I have walked often over many years.

In 2014 I was invited by Michael McKimm along with other poets to contribute to the Worple anthology, Map, which was published in 2015 to celebrate 200 years since the appearance of the first ever geological map of a whole country, the essentially single-handed work of William Smith. The invitation stimulated me to find out about Smith and about geology, to reread Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, and to relate what I was reading to journalism I was encountering about climate change. The result is what I call a sequence, but you might call it a hotch-potch – maybe your own hotch-potch is more of a sequence than you think, Mandy! – which is due to be published as a separate small book called Strata Smith and the Anthropocene by Knives, Forks and Spoons later this year.

Following on from this question, it would be good to know your thoughts on ways of ordering a poetry collection. Poets are often anxious about this – whether to order poems by theme, at random, lighter pieces leading to ‘heavier’ etc etc. I know you gave me an invaluable piece of advice when I was working on Poems for a Liminal Age and wasn’t sure how to assemble all the poems to make them truly meaningful – you said ‘think of it as a series of rooms with one leading naturally into another’. Is this how you work or, again, do you try different ways?

I am glad you found what I said helpful, Mandy. Yes, I think quite hard about the collection as a composition, about how it will read to someone willing to progress through it from the first page to the last, though like many readers I often browse here and there in a new book before I settle down to read it in sequence. I try to give my collections a forward momentum like a story, and I hope each one has a cumulative effect, so that the reader has arrived somewhere and been changed by the time they read the last page. But there are choices to be made, which are not always easy. Should you group poems by theme, or mix them up? Are you a Gertrude Jekyll, or do you prefer Great Dixter? Should an earlier poem about some recent event come before or after a new poem about a childhood memory? In principle, in both cases, either way might work. I hope the poems you have accepted for Sentinel Literary Quarterly are an example of such a sequence, with a development and correspondences between the poems. I did not expect you would publish all six, but I could not help selecting and arranging them to be read as group.

 Finally, how do you feel about the role of the writer in society? Should a poet consider himself/herself as an agent for change and focus on contemporary issues that feel important? There is another viewpoint, of course, that the purpose of poetry is to entertain and offer some respite from the cares of the world. It would be good to hear your thoughts on this. I know you have done a lot of research into the work of Shelley who would often go in all guns blazing. How do you think he might view the poet’s role today?

I would like to unpack the terms of your question a bit. I do think a poet is an agent for change just in the measure that she or he is a good or, I would rather say, a genuine poet. Focusing on contemporary issues is only one way to do this, though an important one. There is not an either/or between that focus and being an entertainer, or as some would say, merely an entertainer. Offering ‘respite from the cares of the world’ is a valid middle term in that opposition, and could be put more strongly: a vision of what life can be at its best may refresh the spirit and refocus our energies. We are reminded by it of what we value, and in that light we are better able to discern what we wish to oppose, and what is wrong with it. This is getting closer to my idea of how a poet can be an agent for change without directly focusing on, say, politics in the broadest sense, including the politics of climate change, which is inseparable from the politics of social justice, though these are certainly concerns of mine.  My writing about landscape and wild life is, I hope, a way of sharing my sense that these things matter and are worth defending. More generally, I am drawn to celebrate in my writing the positive moments in the flux of experience, the epiphanies, whether in the natural, the human, or the cultural world. The more we dwell on things, good or bad, the larger they become in our lives.

I have no doubt Shelley would be a fully ‘committed’ poet if he were living today, striving to make a difference. At the same time, he was aware of the pitfalls. Political poetry can be dreary, self-righteous, hectoring, ignorant, or all of these things. If you are going to engage with public affairs, you had better take some trouble to understand them. And artistic talent does not always go with political wisdom. Shelley knew this, but the poetry he  took the most trouble to get published, together with his essays and plays, has in it, in a borrowed phrase he applies to himself,  ‘a passion for reforming the world.’ He wrote sometimes in a very direct way, such as in A Masque of Anarchy, his response to the Peterloo massacre, and the sonnets ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘England in 1819.’ These poems are deservedly popular, but he also wrote in a more esoteric form, as in Prometheus Unbound, which is both poetically and politically as subtle as it is powerful.  He knew that the audience for work like this would be small, but he hoped it would be an influential and dynamic audience.

Shelley’s way of approaching a poetry of commitment was to contrast the hell of how things are with a vision of the heaven of how they may be in the future, if only we can overcame our inertia and pessimism to bring about change. He wrote several long poems with this pattern, starting with Queen Mab, though you can see it also in all the poems I have mentioned. The depiction of an earthly heaven, of a possible utopia, was as important as the exposure of current injustices, cruelties and absurdities. I would say, with Shelley, that to present an image of life as it should be, whether in a future utopia or as we find it in more accessible privileged moments, such as a walk on a sunny day, is to remind us of why we should resist the forces of darkness that surround us, and motivate us with the knowledge that something better is possible. To depict such moments is in itself ‘to be an agent of change.’  This is especially true when the culture around us, whether popular or rarefied, seems to prefer to dwell on the pathological, the extreme, the violent and the sensational, and to reject what for convenience we can call the real world in favour of various forms of endlessly elaborated fantasy.

There is always an important place for a poetry of direct intervention, though it is hard to bring off as well as Shelley did in the context of post-revolutionary Europe, or as Yeats did in the very particular context of Anglo-Irish history. My Strata Smith and the Anthropocene has a polemical edge, which comes from my sense of urgency about our collective destructiveness, not only towards the climate but towards other species as well as members of our own. In the later sections of What Possessed Me there is a hint of more overt political and social commentary than in my earlier collections. In some of the poems still in draft which may eventually appear in a future collection, this trend continues.

I must add that I was inspired at setting out, not only by Shelley and Wordsworth and other poets of the English-language pantheon, but by modern poets who had a clear oppositional stance to prevailing norms, and conveyed a conviction about how things should be, though their convictions were far from identical: among them were George Oppen, John Riley and Jim Burns. Each of these shone a light on what they deplored around them, and made it possible to see what their own vision of a better world would be like. Each of them, like Shelley, not only wrote but lived – in Jim Burns’s case, he still lives – in the light of their beliefs. I try to do the same.

Lots of thanks, John, for this interview, and for all your poems.

It’s been a pleasure and a privilege, Mandy. Thank you for prompting me to think aloud by providing such good and sympathetic questions.

 

Featured Poet – John Freeman – Six Poems

John Freeman

Sunset on the River
I didn’t think about the light until you
told me this path along the river Lea
was where you used to run with your friend Jan.
It was one of your centres of the world.
My hand closed over the camera I’d slipped
into my jacket and forgotten about,
and I took photographs of you, smiling,
with the houseboats and the lock behind you.
Then the evening sunlight slanted almost
horizontally across the land and lit
the bare slim trees, with their slanting branches
lifted like skinny arms of eager children
tinged green and golden with the rising sap,
and now spectacularly more golden.
I took one more picture of that light, rising
it would be as true to say as falling
on the trees and your hair and smiling face.
We walked on, keeping an eye on the time,
and the moment merged with the flow of moments,
until we saw the pictures properly,
days later, on the screen. I was surprised
how well that golden light had been recorded,
which at the time I didn’t dare expect.
In fact it looked an even deeper colour,
and for a moment I thought it was better
than being there had been, until I realised
that good as they are, and I’m glad I took them,
the pictures lack not only the fresh air,
the context of the walk, the sense of presence,
but the brightness of the living daylight,
which is both softer and more powerful.      

Seagulls at Play
The clifftop path takes a big step sideways
above a rocky cove beset by gulls.
It’s a breezy morning. We stand and watch
as the birds angle wings to rise and circle,
float on invisible currents up and down.
They seem to be doing it for the fun of it,
children running from swings to roundabouts,
but silently, without haste, gracefully,
like pensive adult skaters on a lake.
It becomes clear the summit of the cliff
must be the top of a steady flow of air
funnelled up and round by the rocky sides
until the wider space where we are standing
slackens the pressure as a loosened string
might let a bundle of sticks fall sideways.
I see one gull – I’m sure it’s the same one –
spiral to the spot where I’ve been standing,
position itself, lift its tail towards me,
showing the neat soles of two webbed feet
as if to be inspected, and glide off,
disappear from sight, and in a minute
come back and do it all again, climbing
unseen steps to slide down after pausing
at the top to ready itself and savour
the anticipation, then letting go.
I savour it too, those lifted tail feathers,
the trim pink feet lined up like tiny shoes.
And off, and down, and circling up and back.
All the other gulls are banking, wheeling,
their long and elegantly tapered wings
creating silent rhythms on the sky
above the sparkling sea, turquoise and purple.
As I watch them at eye-level sailing
so nonchalantly, without visible means,
for a moment I think I could step forward,
holding my arms out wide, and be like them.  

Gardener’s Friend
There’s a robin in our garden again,
hopping close whenever we’re out there working.
This one’s different from the one last year
which increasingly seemed to be trying
to say something urgent as if time was short,
but kept his dignity like a dying prince.
This year’s is more artlessly confiding,
like a child putting his hand into yours.
The feathers on his back are ruffled-looking.
He’s not so young that he doesn’t seem to ask
that aching question the other seemed to ask,
without being able to say what it is,
leaving us with the responsibility
of having a pain brought to us to heal,
just the confiding question and the ache.
All we can do, and we do it separately,
comparing notes afterwards, finding we’ve each
responded in the same way, is talk to him
as if he understood, reassuringly,
about what’s happening and what we’re doing.
He hopped up on a dead gooseberry bush
I was digging out and looked at me sideways.
Isn’t it a strange thing, I said to him,
pausing from pushing the garden fork in
and levering the stem out by the roots,
to be alive and conscious, and not know why?
He’d helped me see that we had that in common.

Churches in Toulouse
There is a height in stone that seems to rise
above not trouble so much as the meanness
of trouble, its accidental quality.
I thought nothing could transmute my grieving
so well as the lofty Romanesque arches
of the vast Basilica Saint Sernin,
especially the way the semi-circles
spanning the nave are echoed by the glimpsed
smaller arches along the corridored
clerestory, as the rising and falling
of voices must have echoed on all that
labyrinthine stone before winding at last
through the labyrinth of the ear and spirit,
or as water finds ways round and over rocks
in a broad stream in the Pyrenees. I thought
no space could rise above the illusion
of accident, disfiguring sorrow,
so well as those heights – plainchant, mountain, river,
Romanesque – but it’s neither the Garonne
I think of today, nor the Basilica;
it’s a museum that was once a convent
in the same city, its uncluttered ceiling
delicately crossed at the curved centre
by ribs of gold brought to a focus, crowned
by a single elegant knot like a thought,
a compassionate comprehensive thought
that resolves everything without reaching
for resolution, fusing height with depth,
acceptance altering what will not alter.    

The Real Thing
You’re perfectly fine now – well, like me, still
recovering from our strenuous week,
but fine compared with how you seemed to be
yesterday morning when I heard you call
help me, please, and I thought maybe a spider
needed removing, or something was stuck,
or would take two people to shift. From your voice
I couldn’t tell it was anything more,
and that you spoke undemonstratively
because you were on the point of passing out.
Which you did, eventually, after sighing,
groaning oh dear and looking strangely white,
by which time I was sitting next to you.
When you fainted finally I missed it,
hoping you were gathering your forces,
wondering whether you might be dying,
wishing I’d never not been nice to you.
Later the doctor, who was reassuring,
you told me, said it had been a true faint
and I wondered what a false faint might be,
but it was satisfying somehow to have
the authenticity of yours confirmed.
You said that when you opened your eyes at last
you were grateful to find me there with you,
which was, as I said then, and say again,
a feeling very much reciprocated.

A Good Home
She was smiling from the start, almost speechless,
gradually more able to respond
to our cheerfulness and our reminders.
Our acted-out brightness didn’t feel false,
just the appropriate way of being,
like a whole-body wave from side to side
painting the sky, so as to be seen
by someone on a hilltop opposite.
Transfixed by my part in the pantomime
a neat elderly gentleman, looking well,
stood in the spacious, bright refectory
a few feet away, framed by a high arch,
seeming, I thought, wistful, as if excluded,
and wanting to join in. I smiled at him,
not really surprised when his expression
didn’t change. That questioning blankness
must have become his permanent address.
We carried on warming our friend to life,
and her smiles crested as laughter. Friends’ names,
more than half forgotten, triumphed in her mouth.
A motherly nurse came and spoke with us.
Another approached the melancholy man,
asked him if he’d like to sit down and led him
patiently to a table behind me.
Meanwhile our conversation was ending.
It was time to go, but we left uplifted –
our friend was being so well looked after.
It’s true that she won’t stay that stimulated.
The most normally intelligent thing she said
was when we first arrived and asked her whether
we could sit with her a while. She laughed. ‘All day!’

John Freeman’s collections include White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems (Contraband Books),  A Suite for Summer (Worple Press), and The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions). A new collection is due from Worple in the autumn of 2016.