Tag Archives: Nick Cooke

Two Poems by Nick Cooke

Eclipsed

Don’t mind me as I glide past on my scooter,
one foot in the air, an arabesque stagily held
against the traction of reality
while you trudge on, lost to reverie.

I wear long shorts and a fishnet vest.
You’re in grey slacks and burgundy brogues
and I’d lay odds there are braces underneath
that tweed jacket with Frankenstein shoulders.

I’m sure you can hear and hope you
enjoy my music pulsating forth
from the cables plugged into my skull.
Good luck with your glorified silence.

We inhabit different spheres, right enough,
and though I feel you mock me,
even if you choose not to regard me,
I have an advanced diploma in indifference

and will invite you kindly to self-copulate
should you dispute my rights over more than half
the dusty pavement. No, I know you won’t –
you’re far too busy not minding me

to suspend your plodding fixation,
your superstitious paving stone stare;
to glance up where the aura might blind you.

 
Animal Kingdom

my face in ecstasy
aped by you
amid giggles
and hand over mouth
too late
and I doubt we can go
on with that between us
a strangled fox
caught in the ripple of a mirror
unless we love
without animalising ourselves
even minimally
in which purest of dreams
we have some hope
but with lips mashed
and buried heads
it’s like music with no beat
no driving pulse
and I do not think I
can live like that

so instead
let us seek a medium
which if not happy
at least can smile content
in the teeth of compromise
and allow for the odd
half grunt and grimace
on either side
without sacrifice
of respect or favour
and in moderate degree
may even embrace
perspiration and sighs

 

 
Nick Cooke has had several poems published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly, along with the anthologies Poems For a Liminal Age and To Kingdom Come, and other outlets including Agenda, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The High Window Journal, Dream Catcher, Poetry Space, I am not a silent poet and Nutshells & Nuggets. His poem ‘Tanis’ won the Wax Poetry and Art contest (April 2016) and ‘Process’ was Highly Commended in the Segora Poetry Competition (July 2015). He is currently working on his first collection.
He has also written several novels and a collection of stories which so far remain unpublished, as well as around twenty stage plays and eight film scripts.

Welcome to America – a short story by Nick Cooke

NICK COOKE

WELCOME TO AMERICA

A short story

Rolf had looked forward to meeting Cousin Ingrid. His mother had always said what a clever girl she was – never lower than fourth in her high school years, twice second, and once, in her penultimate year, top of the whole class. His mother had gained this information not directly from Cousin Ruth, who was in contact so seldom, but through Cousin Josef, who had some years earlier persuaded Cousin Ruth to send him copies of all her daughter’s report cards.

            As she walked towards him, Rolf thought how well Cousin Ingrid looked, with her short blond hair, and her figure so solid and sturdy. He put out his hand, and was surprised to find her squeezing him around the shoulders and slapping his back in much the way a man might do. She even wanted to carry his case, but that he could not allow. “An old-fashioned gentleman, huh?” she said, putting her hands on her hips and drawling her words a little. “What you got in there anyhow?” she asked, observing him strain with the weight of the case. “Look like you came for the whole semester, not just a weekend.”

“I always carry my encyclopaedia and guide books,” Rolf replied with a hint of pride. “In case I have difficulty sleeping.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, slowly, looking closely at his face. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

            Cousin Ingrid had an automobile parked in the station forecourt. Rolf was very surprised that college students were permitted automobiles on the premises. How much freer things were here in the United States. And wilder too, at times. For instance, Rolf was much struck by the way Ingrid threw things. She began by throwing open the automobile door so hard the hinges buckled. Then she showed her almost unnatural strength by picking up his case with ease and tossing it onto the back seat. The instant they were both inside, she flung her seatbelt on, hurled the gearstick forward, and propelled them out into the traffic, seemingly indifferent to the blaring of horns. And threw so many questions at Rolf he felt his head spinning before they had even reached the campus. How was he finding Philly? How was Mom? Was the house as messy as ever? Wasn’t he hot wearing that necktie in this weather? Oh, by the way, she hoped he wouldn’t mind sharing a room with a friend of hers, just down the hall, a guy named Jim. And what was all this Cousin bullshit?

            On this last question she looked round at him for the first time and laughed, not the cruel kind of laugh he had heard so often, but a sort of friendly dog’s bark that was like a second question in itself. He straightened his tie and simply said he had been taught it was respectful to give family members their full title.

            “So what’s your Mom call you – ‘Son Rolf’?” said Ingrid, more sharply this time. But then she smiled, punched him lightly on the shoulder and added, “Anyway, you needn’t bother Cousining me, I won’t take it amiss, okay?” Rolf nodded and after a silence asked who Jim was.

            “Oh, Jim Dodd, he’s a friend, on the soccer team I run. Kind of what we call a jock. You know, the big sporty type. You like sport, Rolf?”

            Rolf stared despondently through the rather dirty windshield. He saw his mother, her grey hair tied in a neat bun, standing in the scullery, holding the huge steam iron that was her pride and joy and had been in the household since the days of her grandmother. Her smile, such a rare event in itself, was made almost ghostly by the gusts of steam, as she prepared to tackle Rolf’s school sports jerseys, which she would do with meticulous care, refusing the help of housemaids, as if polishing the armour of some heroic husband on the eve of battle. This picture then gave way to a montage of ball games, with people shouting at Rolf to catch it, or stop it, or hold it, and him invariably dropping it, or missing it or losing it; and his surname being mocked with bellowing sneers of frustration and contempt. The school was an enormous private institution, situated on the outskirts of a city many miles from his town, where no-one either knew or cared about his family’s local pre-eminence. Once, when he had been forced to play goalkeeper, someone had swung themselves up onto the crossbar above him, undone their flies and urinated on his head. The same boy later approached him with a grin, made as if to embrace him, and proceeded to sink his teeth into Rolf’s arm. The bite went right through his jersey, leaving teeth-marks in the skin for days.

            Soon after those marks finally faded he began refusing to join in the games of his classmates. One morning, he painted his whole face bright red, using a watercolour set he had been given for Christmas. Terrified it was scarlet fever, his father had rushed him to the doctor’s; and Rolf would never forget the silence as the doctor took a long look at his face, shook his head, took out some cotton wool, dampened it under the tap, and mopped the paint off in slow downward strokes.

            Ingrid was shaking his shoulder and gently repeating her question. By then they were turning through the campus gates. Rolf struggled to regain control, thinking that he should take his medication earlier than usual today.

            That evening, Ingrid, Rolf and Jim went to see a film at a cinema in downtown Ithaca. Rolf sat in the darkness listening to the others laughing – Ingrid more loudly and freely even than the rest. Sometimes Jim put his arm round her shoulder and whispered in her ear. At one point, when he seemed to be attempting to tickle her, she caused several people to look round in amusement by shrieking with laughter, upsetting at least two boxes of popcorn, and giving him a firm slap on the thigh. Rolf wondered how an audience in his own country would react to people shouting out and slapping each other. He pictured his mother whirling round with a huge Shhh! and a glare of disapproval. And how would Ingrid and Jim have responded to that? In this sort of mood he could see them opening their popcorn boxes and pouring the whole lot over her furious face.

            When Cousin Ingrid had introduced them that evening, Jim had been very friendly to Rolf. “Hey Rolf, how ya doing, enjoying the States?” he had said, flashing his huge smile, almost crushing Rolf’s hand in his. Then, before Rolf could reply, he had chased Ingrid down the residence corridor, picked her up in one arm and held her over his shoulder like a trophy while she drummed her fists into his back. During the movie, Rolf had thought of a list of questions to ask Jim when they got back to his room, about his studies and family, but he did not get the chance. Jim had no sooner turned the key in the lock of his door than he was saying goodnight. “Listen,” he whispered. “Don’t bother with the couch, take my bed – the linen’s clean on today. See you in the morning, okay?” And Rolf had lain down on the tiny bed, staring at the ceiling, loosening his tie. For many minutes he thought that Jim might be joking, and would suddenly burst in, having tiptoed back down the hall and waited his moment by the door. An hour passed, two hours, and eventually Rolf, his headache gradually clearing, fell asleep, though he did not dare remove his clothes. He had been watching the shadows on the walls and wondering what Cousin Ruth would make of these sleeping arrangements. To say nothing of his mother. He must take care not to mention this part of his visit when recounting it to family members.

            There were no curtains on Jim’s windows and Rolf woke at dawn. In the distance he imagined he heard someone moaning. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, got up and walked to the window. The room looked onto a playing field. He heard the moaning again, low but unmistakeable, like a distant engine. He was not a complete innocent, he knew what such things meant. He had read about them, illicitly, and gaining no pleasure from the transgression, in the wrong sorts of magazine, the ones he often found discarded at train stations and in public toilets. Now, torn between listening to the moans and trying to blot them out by humming, he wondered, not for the first time, if this was how he himself had been produced. From some casual union of young people caught up in all the laughing and shouting. In the milieu of his parents, casual union of any kind seemed unlikely, but he had once overheard his parents – or perhaps he should say Mathilde and Otto – mentioning that he had been born in the depths of the countryside, a wild and permissive place, inhabited by very low people. He had visions of a nocturnal festival deep in the valleys, a whole community gathered round a huge bonfire, in commemoration of some seasonal milestone. He saw torchlight, and dancing, and sturdy young milkmaids dragging drunken stable lads towards the hayloft…

And then he saw the days after he failed his final exams, the period before the cruel looks and the barbed remarks, when his parents, especially Mathilde, were simply stunned –too stunned, it seemed, to react. Their only son, not merely exposed as an inadequate, but the sole pupil in his class to be thus adjudged! Some days later he was sent to the doctor, the same elderly gentleman with horn-rimmed spectacles and silver hair, who had wiped the paint from his face all those years before, and who now referred him to a specialist. The specialist ran some tests and diagnosed his condition as “a progressively worsening displacement from reality and a failure to cope with the demands of normal social interaction”. As he withdrew into himself and his room, Matilde took every opportunity to remind him that had it not been for his father’s influence in the town, the doctor would have entered the diagnosis on his medical records, with incalculable consequences for his future. Meanwhile she gave it out around the town that her son was deep in study for a forthcoming engineering apprenticeship that his father had arranged in the United States, where he would be staying with her emigrée cousin, the well-known actress and director, Ruth Markham.

            One night, hearing Otto’s voice in the hall below, Rolf had emerged from his room, gone downstairs and announced that he wished to contact the agency and begin a search for his real parents. Otto, who had just returned from work and still had his favourite velvet-lapelled overcoat over his left elbow, lifted his free hand and dealt Rolf a ferocious smack across the face. Rolf found himself lying face down on the hall floor. As he stared at its chequered marble tiles, his cheek smarting, his mind burning, he wished he had never been born, either in the countryside or here; and when Matilde helped him to his feet, he started screaming at the top of his voice and kicked her in the shins. She gave a yelp of shock, and jumped out of range, before Otto, flinging the overcoat aside, called Rolf a fucking crazy little bastard and punched him hard in the ribs. This time no-one helped him up, so he lay there until the doctor appeared and gave him a sedative.

            Ever since then, he has been on his best behaviour. SLQ

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein. Reviewed by Nick Cooke

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein
978-1-90685662-5  Oversteps Books 51 pp  February 2016   £8.00
‘You ain’t been blue; no, no, no.
You ain’t been blue,
Till you’ve had that mood indigo.
That feelin’ goes stealin’ down to my shoes
While I sit and sigh, “Go ‘long blues”’

So goes the first verse of the Duke Ellington number providing the title for Wendy Klein’s third collection. If it suggests deep gloom as the prevailing mood of the book, the impression would be false, as this is primarily a joyous if ambivalent celebration of the lives of the author’s close relatives, in particular her father, a schoolteacher who never realised his youthful literary ambitions and lived largely in ‘his own head where he swears he’s forever stalked/by the same-old mean-old who-am-I blues’ (‘Who-am-I Blues’).  The title poem establishes the context rather more accurately, as Klein recalls that point in her childhood (or more likely, adolescence) when she was ‘too old to tickle’ and her father decided to take her back, narratorially speaking, to his youth in the New York City of the jazz age. Through a typically astounding act of compression, in which 26 lines cover a whole era in her father’s life as if a whole novel were flashing before our eyes, Klein takes us through a time when, ‘hanging out with other chorus boys back-stage Broadway’, his ‘bottom got pinched…by guys you guessed might be too young/to shave’, to ‘wild parties in Greenwich Village,/fuggy dance halls in Harlem’, finally reaching his memories of Ellington’s music, putting on an old 78 of the song and dancing his daughter around to it. The memory is illustrative of Klein’s technique in being as multi-sensual as it is vividly detailed:

 
……….You take me round the waist, count out the beats,
……….hum the tune in my ear, your aftershave still strong

……….despite the five o’clock shadow on your cheeks, your chin,
……….as we move around the floor avoiding chairs,

……….a hooked rug, the coffee table, the glass with your second or
……….third Jim Beam on the rocks, waiting nearby.

This passage epitomises the central section of the book, dominated by two-line-stanza, ghazal-style pieces all based around photos, memories and tales of her father, where the lines and sentences are invariably long and flowing. Klein is remarkably adept at maintaining the grace and rhythm of extended, reflective sentences, which are especially well-suited to the poignant, often elegiac tone of these poems. Possibly the best and most dramatic of a highly impressive bunch is ‘My Father Nearly Half-way Through’, where the final sentence is ten-and-a-bit lines long, taking us ‘from the years of his recovery’ after the death of  Klein’s mother, through his frustrated attempts at writing fiction, ‘crouched in front of a typewriter’, culminating in the revelation of a key new relationship, where the concertina-d closing section enacts a child’s-eye view of the speed with which the ‘new mother’ is installed (to the accuracy of which I can personally attest, being also a child of re-married parents:

………..until he emerges with Ruby, my would-be new mother
……….on his arm, on the beach, in his bed (shhh – don’t tell),

……….in his kitchen frying bacon, on a swing in the park, me on her
……….lap, Ruby in a flowery summer dress, in our lives to stay.

In case we anticipate a wicked-step-mother scenario, however, subsequent poems establish anything but, as the warm-hearted if conventional Ruby ‘shoulders the domestic side’, which includes the brunt of childcare duties. ‘Seen From Below’ pictures the family on a camping trip ‘in the high Sierras’, with ‘Ruby and I/wrestling with the tent in the dark -/me a scrap of an eight year old, holding the centre pole/upright’. Though Klein is rarely laconic, she is almost always economical in her own way: how much, in terms of enlightening the reader as to the burgeoning relationship, can be read into the simple phrase ‘Ruby and I’.

 
Throughout the book Klein exhibits an almost miraculous eye for the telling detail in a photo or anecdote, to the point where if she every tires of poetry she could surely perform admirably as a researcher on Who Do You Think You Are? In ‘Spit and Polish’ I admired the clever avoidance of cliché as she describes her sixteen-year-old father, then a cadet, as having a trouser-crease that was ‘meat-cleaver keen’ (the obvious choice would have been ‘sharp’). The observations that follow fuse the imaginative with the emotionally sensitive, as Klein explores the confinements, and by implication the underlying fear, of the young man’s new metier: ‘the braid on his jacket/dissects his narrow chest, squeezes his ribcage, restricts/his breath’. The implication is spelt out directly a few lines later:

 
……………………His lips are compressed as tight as his uniform,
……….as if he has finally been taught to keep his mouth shut.

In ‘My Father insists on Laugharne’, there is a nice subtlety through which the ghost of Dylan Thomas, evoked in references to Fern Hill and Under Milk Wood – school texts that Klein’s father is trying to teach to an unresponsive student – implicitly hangs over the whole collection, through a poem that is not actually mentioned. The man at the centre of so much of the book never fulfilled his ambitions but kept plugging away at them, including his piano-playing, even though he never showed any talent at it: ‘you had to hurry;/knew you had to make the best of what was left.’ (‘My Father in a Street in Seville’) We sense that the man did not go gentle into that good night. And in the final poem to mention him, ‘My Father as the Picture in the Attic’, the suspicion is confirmed to the extent that we  learn he showed his diehard spirit to the end, by keeping on driving until his licence had to be revoked, for his own safety. But lest the last glimpse be a sad one, this poem has earlier celebrated happier times by capturing his comically young and women-pleasing appearance in middle-age – he was once asked for ID by a cashier fooled by his ‘full head of hair, the crew cut/so convincingly youthful’, when 45 years old.

 
Although some readers might feel that Klein would have been well advised to focus her book entirely on her father’s fascinating and touching story, rather than dedicating the second half largely to other concerns, I felt the collection was enriched by the subsequent shifts in tone, style and form. ‘Friar Mendel’s Children’ is a delightfully witty look at the relevance of the famous geneticist’s work to his own family, while ‘Tracking the wolf’ reveals a sparseness of diction that belies the earlier verbal abundance, as it slips into the stylistic groove of Cormac McCarthy and half-subverts, half-reveres the mythology of fairy-tale and fable:
……….blood-marred
……… the bone  the boy the poet
……….who against reason
……….will take the wolf’s side
……….not knowing
……….what everyone must surely know

……….that no one can ever
……….save the wolf
……….that the wolf cannot be saved

‘The people of Sahel consider rain’ displays an unexpected Hopkins influence, with marked use of alliteration and a daring form of sprung rhythm which is in effect only a slight intensification of what could be called Klein’s default ghazal-esque tempo:
……….…the way it would steal from the sky,
……….gather speed, shimmer like silver needles,

……….the way it would feel on the face, the hands, its patter;
……….how it could carve creeks on dust covered backs,

……….on legs and arms that cracked with the lack of it, and mouths
……….pinch-parched, thirst unslaked by the slick of it…

‘Freeze-frame’ is a wonderful vignette comprising captured moments of heightened emotion, based on Anna Karenina, or rather the Vivien Leigh film thereof. Again all the senses are invoked in an almost Keatsian way:

 
……….and you almost believe you hear bells a troika
……….the jangle of harness
……….the snap and whistle of a lithe whip  savour
……….the tang of ardent kisses
……….secreted in the musky furs that shroud the lovers
……….who huddle there red with cold
……….and kisses as they race across frozen
……….fields to their fatal destinations
……….a battlefield or a ballroom…

Perhaps most memorably of all, ‘Nothing to declare’ provides a return to the characteristically compressed narration of the two-line stanza-form, but updates it, so to speak, by bringing the story up to the present, and showing how, through her own poetic skill, the author has in a sense fulfilled her father’s literary dreams. Returning home from a family holiday, Klein has nothing to declare to the customs official at the airport, but in fact has much in terms of memories and images, which only a poet or an artist can ‘declare’ in the fullest sense:

………………………………..Nothing to declare

……….but the soft rain outside last night, or the five of us –
……….two generations gathered around a table

……….sharing crême brulée and pivotal memories.
……….The eldest tells why she never eats onions;

……….how when she was forced to, she vomited;
……….her sister relates the tale of being small…

The poem’s ending encapsulates so many of this splendid collection’s qualities, exuding a warmth and lucidity through both the surface meaning of its words and their deeper associations:

……….Nothing to declare but yesterday’s sun, warming
……….their backs as they scrambled over oak-leaf carpets

……….their long, strong legs, their laughter, their coats
……….swirling through the dappled light.

Skins by Reuben Woolley. Reviewed by Nick Cooke

Skins by Reuben Woolley (Hesterglock Press, 2016)
ISBN 978-1-326549-97-8     pp 54        £7.50 

 
Reuben Woolley’s instantly recognisable poems, always in cummingsesque lower case and often broken up in both layout and syntax, could be said to resemble pieces of shrapnel scattered across a particularly scarred battlefield. Indeed, the opening poem in skins appears to enact the devastating effects of the bombs it mentions, as well as conveying a tension between destruction and counterbalancing hope, via first an image of hand-holding, survival-seeking solidarity and then a characteristically neat wordplay, with ‘shells’ suggestive of both explosions and potential birth:

 
 ……………& fire doesn’t welcome
  
………………they’re hiding
………………from blades & bombs
…………….. see fear
 ……………  come down dark hills

 ……………  hold hands
……………  .for survival …………….hoping
 …………..  .for a better god &
 ……………..wooden doors
…………… ..are no protection ……hear
 ………….. ”the first shells break

 …………..  & isis
…………..   was the name of a river

 

However, for me the most useful analogy when looking at Woolley’s work overall would be a radio with poor reception. Listeners are aware they are being presented with important material, but have to struggle to catch every word, with much lost and left to conjecture.  Can we be sure we have heard the most vital elements in the poet’s message, or only clues as to the true meaning? The act of reading becomes a mystery, a jigsaw puzzle – one might almost say a game, were the themes and the tone not so hauntingly near the emotional and psychological knuckle.

 
Woolley is the energetic and politically committed founder and editor of two vibrant poetry websites, I am not a silent poet and the recently inaugurated The Curly Mind, which features experimental and avant garde work. In skins he focusses specifically on the current refugee crisis, and it is typical of the man’s spirit and generosity that he is donating all profits from the book’s sales to CalAid, an organisation dedicated to meeting the basic needs of displaced people.

 
The horrific realities of war, in the era of ISIS and similar organisations, are a constant if tersely-worded concern. They include sexual exploitation and commercialisation of minors, as explored in ‘detonator’:

 
……………a girl
……………a weapon
……………of mass destruction
……………this is how
……………to win a war.children
……………come cheap

……………girls cheaper

Just in case that message is not quite clear enough, it is driven home in the next poem, ‘they said’, where the age-old value of education is seen as having been undone by a new, completely amoral code of priorities, and the sexual degradation is underlined by deliberately pornographic spelling:

 
……………this light of books
……………is untaught you
……………on dusty ground.new
……………lessons are written
……………in cum & blood
……………& smiles are foreign now

However, we are soon reminded that the young victims of this aspect of modern reality were not in fact born to be chattels or objects of abusive gratification, but human beings who, though marginalised with even less power than their uprooted (or very possibly dead) parents, and whose suffering is often too much to bear for the average TV news viewer, have overflowing memories and past lives, just like other children. In ‘heroes’, Woolley’s wordplay centres on ‘brimming’, which suggests both tears and abundance:

 
……………so much
……………went missing today

……………& on the edges
……………the children.huddled

……………whole stories brimming
……………in their eyes

……………mute the tv
……………let me read through dust

 

In ‘dark eyes any time’, the chilling conclusion summons up a poet who may well be a key influence on Woolley, as it recalls (if in a context that signals contradiction as well as homage) the end of ‘The Hollow Men’:

 
……………the children don’t cry
……………& dogs
……………………..don’t whimper

 

They don’t cry, or whimper, one assumes, because they are dead. We are certainly inhabiting a real wasteland, as barren as anything in Eliot’s post-World-War-One terrain, and one reflected in Woolley’s layout, as well as his even-sparser-than-usual language and the use of shocked repetition:

 
……………the empty

…………………………eyes
…………………………& holes
…………………………………….gouged
………….crumbs
…………………………& dust
………….& dust       & holes

 

Much of the book’s second half centres on drowning, not merely the physical horror involved, but all the levels of obliteration denoted by the specific instances of drowning as a would-be refugee. There’s another echo of Eliot – a double one, not only of ‘The Hollow Men’ but also the ‘clangs/The bell’ of ‘The Dry Salvages’ – in ‘lampedusa’, where the idea of drowning (though dimly hinted by the title) only comes in at the last minute and is couched in harrowing euphemism:

 
……………in the waves
……………the shadows

……………i hear the hollow bell

……………& shall we go
……………& meet them at the tolling

……………no flowers
……………no floating

‘waves’ spells out the theme, while echoing the earlier poem and making the ‘fl-’ alliteration still more poignantly commemorative:

 

 

……………i take the sea
……………when i move  ……………always
……………on the edge of drowning
……………shuffling steps
……………these drifting bones
……………speak in salt
……………i’ll sail again
……………in high wind spray
……………leave

…………   no flowers floating
……………are not ghosts here

 

And a few poems on, Woolley becomes still more direct, naming a poem ‘drowning’ which begins ‘here/they breathe water/till darkness comes’. But again there is a glimmer of renewed hope in the next piece, ‘dark water’, which ends

………………………………………….a phrase
……………painting pictures
……………in water ……….flow
……………in dark rivers i don’t
……………fully

 

……………understand   ……….i swim
……………cross-current
………………………………not drowning
……………not always

 

There are survivors, even if so many are lost. A later piece, ‘crossings’, attempts to weigh up the tallies (perhaps a little too baldly, making this one of the less effective):

 

……………we’ll take our children
……………& sail
……………………..& some
……………survive

……………walk  ……….long
……………& unwanted
……………………………..waiting
……………unfairly
………………………….& some
……………will drink salt
……………………………& sink
……………unfairly

 

However, any slight wavering of technique on Woolley’s part is soon rectified, and the book’s later poems confirm its dignified power and the memorable effect of so much of its imagery:

 

…………………………& here
……………the dark scarecrow

……………in the empty field
……………where hands rose
……………like harrowed wheat          (‘targeted’)

 
……………i could say this otherwise
…………………………………the dead
……………are only slightly buried.we dream
……………of orbits & hurtling stars
……………………walk
……………quietly
……………& think it all a different way    (‘tired eyes blink in daylight’)

 

That final passage, once again redolent of Eliot (the ‘That was a way of putting it’ section of ‘East Coker’), and possibly also of Larkin (‘see it all again in different terms’ from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’), encourages different viewpoints of the subject-matter, in a way that implies Woolley, as passionate as he may be about the issues, does not want to come across as dogmatic or manipulatively polemical. What he has essentially done is present the images that strike him as key, and invite us to make of them what we will. Ultimately he is an imagist/symbolist, in a tradition extending back as far as Eliot and Pound’s own poetic mentor, Jules Laforgue, and this book is a worthy addition to that branch of the modernist canon.

Two Poetry Collections by Helen Moore. Review by Nick Cooke.

Hedge Fund & Other Living Margins by Helen Moore (Shearsman Books, 2012)
ISBN 978-1-84861-201-2     pp 89    £8.95

Ecozoa by Helen Moore (Permanent Publications, 2015)
ISBN 978-1-85623-227-2     pp 84    £9.95

Review by Nick Cooke
With Northern England devastated by floods that most experts attribute to climate change, and fracking recently granted the full government go-ahead despite vociferous opposition, it’s perhaps surprising that there are not more British poets following Helen Moore’s example and attaching the prefix ‘eco-’ to their job descriptions. Perhaps she will in time be joined in her mission by similarly committed warrior-writers. Her two collections amount to nothing less than a literary declaration of war on the forces threatening our planet’s future; indeed, the depth, breadth and growing intensity of her coverage of related issues suggests that Hedge Fund & Other Living Margins (2012) and Ecozoa (2015) can be read as a modern equivalent of the Iliad, with perhaps an Odyssey yet to follow.

 
Reflecting on the relations between the two books is in broad terms a matter of comparing and contrasting the relative subtlety of Hedge Fund with the more urgent, full-on directness of Ecozoa. It’s almost as if Moore consciously wished to begin by using the full range of irony and wordplay of which she is undoubtedly capable, but when the world failed to respond sufficiently to her gentle promptings, she then felt compelled to spell things out still more plainly. The first book’s approach is typified from the off in the title poem, which plays on the double meaning of ‘hedge’ by having its account of natural processes, and unnatural practices such as fox-hunting, juxtaposed with a precis of how money markets work, literally in the margin of the pages:

……..Money markets usually lie
……..at the core of the financial
……..system, functioning quietly

………………………………………Colonies of Snails,
………………………………………feathers, crush of brittle
………………………………………lime – a Song Thrush
………………………………………sings up its midden.

………………………………………Startled mouths –
………………………………………White Dead Nettles flowers
………………………………………open where a shot Fox
………………………………………crept to die; here lies
………………………………………minus an eye.

‘Lie’ in relation to the markets clearly has a double meaning, which the book will go on to explore, while its use in the phrase ‘here lies’ – as though the fox had been given an actual funeral –  is the first example of many where Moore deliberately humanises the experiences of suffering animals. Meanwhile, the litany of animal and plant names, many of them capitalised in acknowledgement of Blake, expands throughout the collection so that by the end it would seem many hundreds have had a mention – a war of attrition in which the jargon of the City is countered by the natural lexicon Moore is so expert in. The poem appears to end with an opening-skirmish victory for the City, because linguistically the world of business and the markets takes over Moore’s attention. However, this proves illusory as in reality the finale reminds us how fragile those markets can be, and in recent times have been:

 ……………………………………………………..Random execution,
………………………………..the insane-making crunch,
 ……………………………….while the contractor sits
………………………………..muffled in his cab,
………………………………..on the wheel his hands
………………………………..stiff as supermarket quotas…

……share values in free-fall,
 …..as investors predict their own
 …..dwindling margins and returns.

Later poems are more mournful of what has been lost in the battle, notably ‘The Fallen’, where that ‘here lies’ is picked up as a refrain introducing each short stanza of remembrance, with each ‘fallen’ wildflower species urged to rest in peace, and ‘Ice, an Elegy’, where Moore’s propensity for humanisation touches the disappearing world of caps and bergs:

……………………………………The Ice Queen is leaving –
………………………………… ..all around her ancient kingdom
………………………………… ..is cracking up…
……………………………………each day her belly calves
……………………………………desperate bergs of ice. Bereft, these tongues
……………………………………curl and shrink as they sense their mother
 …………………………………..spent – her skin once tinted blue,
……………………………………now deathly pale.

 The cliché’ ‘deathly pale’ suggests that at this early stage Moore still has ground to cover as a technician, but occasional blemishes of diction are outweighed by the passion in her message, and specifically the way that in both books the hopeful sense of a future where sense will be seen and pernicious policies reversed in time constantly peeps through the laments for the victims of climate change. In ‘Pantoum of Planting Seeds’, for instance, ‘these smallest things’ – the seeds – contain ‘a potency waiting to be sown’:

 …………………………Dull and dry as peppercorns
………………………….and yet in dormancy they breathe,
 …………………………potency waiting to unfold,
………………………….sensing fertile sun and soil.

‘In Good Hands’ traces the evolution of an ecologically aware consciousness that if magnified into a powerful body of opinion will constitute the basis for huge faith in the future. Its ending celebrates personal growth grounded in this soil of wonder and awareness as the poet-as-child protagonist is visited by a female persona who would seem to be Mother Nature:

 …………………………Her fingers interlock
………………………… to form the church without the steeple.
 …………………………In our Earth everything fits together just so.

………………………….Wide-eyed I stared at their craggy surface
 …………………………that settled back into her lap
 …………………………as if in silent prayer. In good hands
………………………….I learned to cherish every living being.

Towards the end of Hedge Fund this optimistic strain finds its central symbol and source of nourishment on the ideal energy source of the future:

 ………………………..Coiling up the kitchen-blind, I coax the Sun
 ………………………..through every angle on its East to South axis –
 ………………………. tilt my face upwards like a leaf,
…………………………drawing radiance into each particle and cell…

 …………….…I consider the Sun’s constancy, the fiery corona…………
 ………………………                      ..                   then my spirit rises out
 ……………………….over the rooftops, soars higher than the late Swifts

 ……………………….upward through moist layers of gas…
………………….. ….….seeking the troposphere, the stratosphere,
 ………………………where jets scar the Earth’s aura. (‘Sacré Coeur’)

And in ‘Climbing out of a Dog Eat Dog World’, Moore anticipates the more turkey-talking style of her second book as she makes the poet’s responsibility, both as a witness and a voice of hope, absolutely clear:

 ……………………….What can a poet do? Bear witness; be a conscience, perhaps?
 ……………………….Sometimes I feel such agony to see what ignorance and greed

………………………..are snuffing out. Yet somehow I find the inner rungs to climb
………………………..from despair.. Hand over hand, there’s always something

 ……………………….to learn….

………………………..Now I notice when my heart has closed. Only the heart breaks
 ……………………….patterns of fear.

If her heart may seem to some to be a little too much on her sleeve at such moments, Moore takes care to temper the starry-eyed impression by ending her first collection in a watchful, more cautiously positive mood. ‘Today, of All Days’, begins

 ……………………..Today a Hare leaps from the shadows of a thicket;
………………………I’m its silent, motionless observer,
…………………… ..its ear-erect alertness, its wide eyeball watch.

While this appears an interesting amendment of previous links between the animal and human worlds, as if Moore were stating their ultimate separation – she is the observer, not the hare itself – the poem goes on to explore the extent to which the two in fact are or can be truly connected:

  ……………………Today the Oak’s roots support me;
 …………………….through its cleft and curly leaves I breathe,
……………………..knotted arms crowning my dependence.

The final verse implies a coalescence, a melting together of human and natural arenas, at minuscule level:

 …………………….Today thousands of Mycelia connect me
……………………..By sugared strands invisibly through the soil;
 …………………….I fruit browny-white; deliquesce here, there, nowhere.

Perhaps ‘fruit’ as an apparent verb does not quite work as Moore might have hoped, indicating again that for all the quality of Hedge Fund, at that early point in her career there remained room for improvement in some of her phrasing. However, all in all, the book is an inspiring and at times astonishing debut which demonstrates her many qualities and establishes the basis of her considerable promise as a writer.

*

That promise is certainly fulfilled in Ecozoa, described by John Kinsella as ‘a summoning-up of all animals, plants, rocks and soil to have their say as humans dissolve the planet, as the State rides roughshod over the rights of humans and environment’. I’m not sure whether he realises the irony of ‘humans’ appearing in that sentence as both villains and victims, but this version of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ is very much to the point, and Kinsella certainly hits the mark when he pinpoints Moore’s even more impassioned stance (compared to Hedge Fund), through his choice of verbs when describing what she does in the book – ‘intones, invokes, implores and damns’. The verbs almost suggest the power and authority of a deity, which in turn brings in the title’s allusion to Blake’s poem ‘Vala or the Four Zoas’, and its concept of post-Miltonic divine conflict, here re-interpreted by Moore in the context of an epic modern battle against the forces of eco-oppression. As Moore admits in her footnotes, Blake’s mythology is complex, and readers may be slightly perplexed by the way in which her presentation of the four zoas (godlike personifications of life-forces) places Urizen as the embodiment of ‘reason’, in the sense of scientific materialism, which she sees as the potential destroyer of the other three zoas – Tharmas (the body), Luvah (the heart) and Urthona (the imagination) – when the Blake poem actually ends with a celebratory prediction of science’s victory over religion in the industrial age of reason:

……………………………………………….The war of swords departed now,
 ……………….The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns.
……………………………… (‘Vala or the Four Zoas,’ Night the Ninth, ll. 834-5)

Be that as it may, the invoking of Blake, and Moore’s visionary style for most of the book, undoubtedly do summon up the blood in the manner she intends, and make for some memorable and often tub-thumping passages. These lines from ‘Kali Exorcism’, for instance, initially parody a famous Lady Macbeth soliloquy, and then expose an ongoing list of concealed but inhuman crimes, where Moore develops her skill in humanising animal experience by picturing vivisection labs as prisons:

……………………….Come, dark goddess, tear off veils of rhetoric that conceal
 ………………………war-mongering deeds in cloaks of respectability; help us
……………………….hear deeper than the pre-emptive strikes, the collateral damage

 ……………………….ventriloquized by our complicit media,
 ……………………….and demand plain language to describe victims of torture,
………………………..rape and murder in the wars they report.

……………………….Wild one, let your third eye reflect our distancing tactics –
 ……………………….how we blind ourselves with science, mutely condone prisons
 ……………………….where animals are tested with nerve agents, toxins, explosives.

As mentioned, this book does often deal in plainer, sometimes more expletive language than its predecessor, and in arguably its most striking and imaginative tour de force it extends its directness and specificity to naming guilty names. The prize-winning ‘Earth Justice’ traces the mock ecocide trial of September 2011 in which the celebrated crusading barrister Michael Mansfield, who has described Moore’s poem as an ‘epic masterpiece’, proved that it is legally possible to prosecute companies for crimes against the environment, pointing the finger at several individual perpetrators. However, the collection is far from one-note or unrelentingly polemical. Notably, it incorporates many flashes of humour, albeit usually of the rueful variety, such as Moore’s reflection on how product-naming language has changed our response to words like ‘jaguar’, ‘apple’ and ‘blackberry’, in ‘apples are not the only gadgets’, and the curse placed on frackers, strongly intimating erectile dysfunction, in ‘I call on the spirit of Owen’:

 …………..And may the frackers’ drills go soft, their stock & shares evaporate!

Perhaps the finest piece of all, ‘A History of the British Empire in a Single Object’, looks at the topic from a different angle by tracing the origins of every component of a Victorian rocking-chair owned by the poet. On this occasion Moore briefly turns the finger of accusation on her own previous tendency to overlook the sources of different types of wood:

……………………Had I at any moment considered
……………………Mahogany as tree

……………………………………….a glittering crown which rose above
……………………gargantuan forest skirts? How it began as minute heliotrope
……………………hooked up to the light?
……………………How in dry season Mahoganies
……………………would shed their glossy leaves,
……………………baring pugilistic fruit-fists
……………………that were tanned and leathered –
……………………trade winds pummelling out their seeds
……………………spinning them away

……………………to wait for germinating rains?

I particularly enjoyed Moore’s expansion of the stiff-upper-lip imperial image, which links in with her view of Urizen as a head-centric and therefore only partly-human figure. There’s also a nice pun on the modern, Van-Morrisonesque sense of ‘rock the souls’ (viz. ‘Into the Mystic’) alongside the gentler image of Moore in her antique chair:

……………………………..In this metamorphic chair,
……………………from which a Captain’s wife might have come to extol
 …………………..their crinolined infant, I rock the souls of all those generations
……………………consumed by duty –
 …………………..Governor-Generals functioning from the collar-up;
……………………officers’ hearts locked in strong-boxes,
 …………………..tear-ducts dry as husks.

*

Despite the necessarily frequent discouraging moments and images, what links Moore’s two books, overall, is the vein of optimism, already pointed up in Hedge Fund and possibly even broader in Ecozoa, where the title itself suggests an ultimately triumphant new ‘zoa’, and many poems conclude in the spirit of an imagined future victory over Urizen. ‘Spaced Out’, in particular, anticipates a form of new Eden:

…………………One century on ……….we thrive in woody folds
 ………………..flowering fields and Gorse-clad dunes.
…………………Look, our forests have been replanted and the seas
………………………………………………………………….are gradually receding…

The next poem, ‘Prayer to the Critically Endangered South China Tyger’, implies that Blake’s spirit can be revived:

 …………………………………………………… …grant us the fierce desire
 ……………………….to hunt a bright vision for tomorrow…

……………………….Ah! And teach us to rewild ourselves!

This is followed by a fascinating look at Henry VIII in a very new light, ‘Succession, Hampton Court Palace’, which develops the theme of a coming reversion:

………………………..that long imagined future where the chainsaw dies
 ……………………….in the man’s hands, and at Harry’s former seat,
 ……………………….wilderness is finally revived?

Ultimately, the only way of accelerating this desired outcome, Moore suggests in her penultimate poem, ‘A Natural Curriculum’, is through green-shaded education, and as Wordsworth put it in the quote at the top, to achieve this you must ‘let Nature be your teacher’:

 ……………………………………………………………..Worm, our top

 ……………………..recycler, who teaches zero waste in Nature….

 ……………………..Hedges constitute our school, each wood
 ……………………..a state-of-the-earth project – that fallen trunk
 ……………………..the perfect beam for learning balance.

‘Hedges’, of course, takes us back to her first book and the wordplay there. She has reclaimed it again at the end of her second. Where she goes with her third will presumably be to a large extent determined by forthcoming events and developments in the ecological sphere. There might be a couple of foretastes of that in two poems from Ecozoa ‘“This is not a dirty protest!”’, covering an anti-fracking protest in which the poet appears to have been arrested along with several friends, and ‘Ark Rains, from Aberdeen to Zennor’, which focusses on what is commonly reported as ‘freak’ flooding. While waiting we can reflect on John Kinsella’s fully justified description of Ecozoa as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and on the clear fact that that journey is very far from over.

Review of Georges Perec is My Hero by Caron Freeborn

Title: Georges Perec is My Hero

Author: Caron Freeborn

Publisher: Circaidy Gregory Press, 2015
ISBN 978-1-906451-65-3

pp 99

Price: £7.99 here

Reviewer: Nick Cooke

51LLcaaLsFL._SL210_[1] Even a cursory reading of Caron Freeborn’s poetic debut will establish some of her many remarkable qualities, chief among them perhaps being her ear for dialogue, her gift for the rhythms of the speaking voice, and an amazingly fluid touch with set forms such as sonnets. Further exploration reveals another key feature – the one that arguably binds this collection together above all others – in her ability to present miniature but always gripping stories of characters caught up in and struggling to contend with the messy and sometimes murderous business of real life as she knows it. From a working-class background, based in Basildon, Essex, she became a fiction writer, publishing two novels in the Noughties, before deciding her true literary metier lay with poetry, and although her previous life as a full-length storyteller may be all in the past now, several of its sub-crafts have undoubtedly lived on.

In almost every poem, fascinating glimpses of characters are given without any pretence that the whole truth of their lives can or should be revealed, any more than in reality we ever know every detail of people’s existence. Freeborn has too much honesty and integrity to try to sell us pat answers to the questions she implicitly asks, and part of the pleasure in re-reading her collection is the effort we willingly make to try to work it all out for ourselves.

The most obvious example is ‘The people in my street’, printed in landscape to encompass views of both sides of the disadvantaged-area street in question, with each house the subject of a mini-story about its inhabitants as seen by a curtain-twitching but perceptive and compassionate neighbour. Others go into more detail, such as ‘Reality Bites’. This poem’s opening reminds me of a technique much favoured in the modern language teaching arena, known as guided discovery, where students are asked to imagine a story based on three apparently disparate phrases or images, between which they have to find connections. In this case Freeborn’s entry to her dramatic monologue is as arresting as any suspense film:

‘I didn’t choose this life. Others did. No
really – it tells you here: theatrical
light (pro), Aer Lingus flights to Dublin (two),
Viagra (large). That’s quantity, not size
I think.’

Despite the poem’s near-three-page length, we never can be quite sure we’ve found the solution to the ongoing puzzle, but it would appear to be the one proposed by Sally, an inquisitive friend of the speaker, as is apparently confirmed when the speaker says, of Sally, ‘Was her solved it.’ Pressed by desperate circumstances into an unconventional career choice, the speaker apparently makes and stars in minimalist porn films in Ireland:

‘I handed over the pills to the two
waiting men (one a scrawny little
thing, not promising, one much burlier)
and I lie on the floor, my legs open,
a virgin bride. Must say, not all it’s cracked
up to be, this porn, this sex, this life. Ah
well.’

The way the phrasal verb ‘cracked up’ is itself cracked up by the overrun line suggests that the character herself is only just holding herself together in the face of the reality she tries to laugh off. And the other split phrase ‘Ah/well’ has us hearing the first word as the start of a scream, only just suppressed by the way it peters out into another commonplace expression. These are typical of Freeborn’s ability to conjure complexity from minimal resources.

A passage in the middle of the poem acts as a key not only to this piece but Freeborn’s work overall:

‘Some lives, you can
see how they’re put together. Though sometimes,
that together doesn’t amount to much
when you pin pattern along chalk lines.’

And the ending comes as what Larkin called ‘a sharp, tender shock’, when the focus shifts to Sally herself, and a life we only partly glimpse:

‘Sally died not long after
that. Never did take her to see my porn film.
They say it’s the things you don’t do that you’ll
regret.’

Once again the enjambments have meaning. ‘After/that’ captures a dignified hesitation, a reluctance to spell out what ‘that’ actually entails, as the deep-down-sensitive speaker attempts to distance herself from her own squalor, while ‘you’ll/regret’ gives special force to the verb, driving home just how much of life is about regretting inaction. And there’s a stolid irony in that ‘Never did’ – as if the film in question were the kind of thing you’d find in a high street cinema. (It very much reminded me of the final line in Tom Waits’ song ‘Frank’s Wild Years’: ‘Never could stand that dog.’) But the most telling moment of pathos comes right at the start, in the characteristically pithy: ‘Others did.’ All too often Freeborn’s characters have little or no control over their own destinies, and operate within constraints they may not even be fully aware of.

Arguably, Freeborn writes best of these constraints when she imposes restrictions of her own on her style. It’s here that the collection’s title comes into full play, because although Freeborn is quoted by editor Mandy Pannett as explaining her choice in terms of ‘Perec’s questions about how we give common things a meaning, how we rescue the details from the assault of the Big Stuff’, we also associate Perec with his own experiments in the sphere of formal constraint, for instance in novels written without the use of a given vowel. Freeborn doesn’t go to quite those Oulipian lengths, but she does frequently turn her versatile hand to set poetic forms. There is a wonderful villanelle entitled ‘Covenant’ in which the key line wittily shifts from ‘just one small kiss’ to ‘one small just kiss’, and, even more impressively, a splendid sestina, one with clear literary/parodic significance (‘My last duchess’), in which she respects all the rhyming intricacies and repetitions of the 39-line form, while maintaining the Browningesque spoken rhythms with her usual dexterity. However, the form Freeborn has truly mastered and shaped to her own often breathtaking ends is the sonnet. The collection ends with a preponderance of these, as though she were consciously returning home after a season abroad among a range of other verse forms. ‘At the Salon’ is a classic instance:

‘Little Kelly shaved my mother’s head. Jew
turned Nazi. Comedic version: small, fat
with panic, veins threaded round imagined
stares, appalled. Kelly’s fingers first
to touch the skin. And my mother: Oh mate,
I’m bald.’

The warm-hearted but sharp-edged humour, both the mother’s and her own, is central to Freeborn’s attitude, as it was in a poem about her father (‘If my dad were here’) earlier in the book:

‘He wouldn’t take my kids to see the
circus: no animal should be made to do
tricks, bleeding disgrace, way it bowed down
to the fat fella. And you couldn’t smoke.

People pretend – look, got to make him right –
to like poems – up their own backsides – bored
to buggery. Fact. They’d like a good spy.’

Although it is rarely safe to assume that references in Freeborn’s work reflect her own life rather than that of a character/persona, in this case the details and opinions do appear to be based on her actual, late dad. Without ever descending to clich‚s of the ‘heart of gold’ and ‘salt of the earth’ variety, she does insist on ending this one with further filial praise and pride:

‘If my dad were here,
he’d tell me no one should own a little
piece of England, and he’d buy a drink for
the poor old sod who, shame, look at them shakes,
couldn’t buy one for himself.’

There’s real beauty and subtlety in the father’s ‘them shakes’ as against his daughter’s studied use of the subjunctive in the first line (and poem title): she’s not likely to have used that ‘were’ back in the old days, before she became a poet. And her father’s combination of unforced generosity and down-to-earth scorn for literary pretension later earns a place in one of his daughter’s best sonnets, ‘Leigh-on-Sea’, good and typical enough to be worth quoting in full:

‘I always want to make a metaphor. Read
the literal into touch; find a shore
against my ruin; bore my friends’ smart eyes
with blind psychotic need until they plead:
Give us the drill, lovely – Have a drink – Lie
among the washed-up dead – Shut it dear or
leave. Ssh- You know I cast my net to catch
a shoal of unlike things. There. That’s agreed.

My dad built boats and took us out to fish
for tiny souls and pinched-tight pinkish crabs
and rocks of many winkles, stuff like that
greenpopped seaweed you can eat. Used to wish
Dad liked poetry, not just salted dabs.
Sometimes a sand flat is just that: sand, flat.’

Incidentally, although Freeborn is not a poet who over-uses direct literary allusions, as if wary of her father’s disapproval from beyond the grave, that ‘shore/against my ruin’ is not only time she invokes that most literarily allusive of poems, ‘The Waste Land’. In ‘At the Theatre’, the line ‘Hurry up please, it’s time’, in the midst of the expletive-ridden resentful fury of a patronised proletarian theatre-goer, tacitly acknowledges that few poets have so consistently drawn on the real language of the working class as Freeborn does, but at least Eliot (rather less well placed than her in terms of social origin) had a stab at it in ‘A Game of Chess’. And in another sonnet, ‘Remedial/Recovery’ it is ‘Four Quartets’ which provides a key source for a tale of artistic frustration:

‘Your brother was born without a tale:
In his beginning was my end. You flew
past us, though I stabbed you with my pen
trying to pin you to the page. I failed.
Schlepped into form, unbrushed, unkissed, askew,
afoot. Prose slips through my fingers like wine.’

As Eliot said, ‘That was a way of putting it, not very satisfactory’ – though possibly more satisfactory to us than the poet, who is so ruthlessly critical a self-reviser that she is bound to end up less than fully satisfied with what she produces. On another level, though, she specifies ‘prose’, as though in valediction to her previous literary genre. Suddenly the sextet’s past tenses, particularly the one which changes the Eliot quote itself (‘In my beginning is my end’), take on new meaning from the personalised context.

Touching and often heart-wrenching as the poems on her parents are, even more centrally Freebornian are those where the speaker is self-evidently a persona and one well out of the ordinary run of life – except that maybe it isn’t quite so far removed as we might like to think. Here’s the opening of yet another sonnet, ‘Life Lessons’:

‘My sons smoke contemplatively, gazing
at the hooker they’ve just killed. Awesome. Proud
of their achievement, they loudly call me
from roast chicken and potatoes and raised
bread dough. Look Mum! I’m amazed, and say so. ‘

If this recalls Tamara, the mother of the mutilating rapists in Titus Andronicus, the culinary allusions take on added meaning. But does the prostitute murder satirise some supposedly acceptable, certainly commercially successful video game – and if so, is that a million miles from what we already have? Again no simple answers are given, and there’s another degree of mystery, in that the contemplatively smoking sons are later revealed as only eight and nine years old.

‘I tuck them up at night,
well-versed in burps and bears and bellicose
giants. Stroke their tangled hair, line up their
teddies in size order, give chase to fright,
lie about heaven. Well done, boys. I choke.’

We are now closer to Violet Kray than Shakespeare, in terms of a mother who dotes on her boys, no matter what. We can’t avoid our hearts going out to the character, even as we recoil from whatever it is that’s so toxic going on under the surface of her life.

I find that Freeborn is at her most compelling when she deals with this fusion of the human and the inhumane, precisely because she hints at such a thin dividing line between them. In perhaps the most hilarious of her poems, ‘Twenty things I’ll never tell you’, she makes sure to stifle the reader’s laughs at the very end:

‘I hate cut flowers though you present them on Fridays;
Last December, I kissed your boss at the Christmas do;
Your mother’s beginning to stink of wee;
It’s gross, the way you eat biscuits sideways..

16) I’m not sure I love our child. Our Lou;
17) I wish she didn’t have Down Syndrome;
18) I wish I hadn’t pinched her last week. And before;
19) I once killed a man in Acapulco;
20) No, it wasn’t Acapulco, it was Basildon.

Is that ‘pinched’ as in ‘painfully squeezed’, or ‘stolen’? The finale is the more chilling because of Basildon being Freeborn’s home town and the subject of several marvellous photos in the book by Steve Armitage. It may be rather easier to ‘go loco’ there than in the more glamorous Mexican location. However, the spirit of Freeborn’s parents, among other figures, hovers over every page as if to provide a counter-balance: the book, for all its depiction of life at its sleaziest and most horrific, is never entirely bleak.

Freeborn is now at work on a blank verse novella, which will presumably continue her unstated mission to preserve the novelist within the poet. To which one can only respond, in a rush of enthused anticipation, ‘La romanciere est morte; vive la poete!’

‘Giant Ribbing’ Part 2 of an Essay on Philip Larkin by Nick Cooke

One poem attempts the audacious feat of uniting two facets of Larkin, or at least of his poetic persona. ‘Wants’ (1950) combines the quotability of the much-anthologised popular favourite, with the rift-loading allusiveness of a poet operating well below the surface. Here the implied reference-point is neither Eliot nor Pound but another representative, if a half-generation younger, of the era against which Larkin purported to react. The 1954 Betjeman review appears to slight William Empson when Larkin brackets Seven Types and Some Versions with other (in his and Betjeman’s view) unappealing modernist icons. But ‘Wants’, in its rather portentous villanelle-like refrains, certainly calls up the Empson of ‘Missing Dates’ and ‘Aubade’ (a title which Larkin later used himself), and the poem is undoubtedly shot through with ambiguity:

‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff –
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death –
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.’

If read as if through the mouth of an everyman figure, this seems depressing indeed, but not if it’s Larkin talking as a poet. From that perspective the poem becomes an artfully tense parable of freedom and control.

Symptoms of depression and disconnection in ordinary people, wishing to be alone and desiring oblivion are different matters for a poet. The soliloquy-type nature of the poem recalls Hamlet, and ‘the wish to be alone’ sums up the condition that such a character needs in order to process his thoughts. Moreover ‘the wish to be’ calls into play ‘To be or not to be,’ so that the phrase gets inwardly separated from ‘alone’, as in ‘only the desire to be’ (rather than not to be). So an affirmation of life resides within an apparent negation. The next three lines then provide a context for the repeated first line. They convey a progression from the hectic social life of youth, through the fumbling business of sex, to family life, as though being alone in its artistic sense should follow on ‘beyond all this’ from the establishment of a secure domestic scenario – the real business of mature life. A kind of gloss on emotion recollected in tranquillity? Or a parody of Jacques’ famous speech in As You Like It?

The second stanza looks at life from a slightly different standpoint. Having heard Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy in the first line of the first stanza, we are unlikely to miss the echo of Milton at the equivalent point of the second – ‘Lethe, the river of oblivion rolls/Her watery labyrinth’. The allusion invokes a state of forgetfulness, rather than the blankness of death, and reminds us that ‘oblivion’ can signal a number of states, ranging in levels of drama, including drunkenness and even just deep sleep (as at the end of Ian McEwan’s Saturday: ‘He closes his eyes. This time there’ll be no trouble falling towards oblivion, there’s nothing can stop him now.’) And Larkin’s later work will reveal another yet context, in ‘The Old Fools’ (1973):

‘At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here.’

Birth, in other words. With one phrase, the ravishingly positive ‘million-petalled flower’, Larkin undercuts his own apparently unanswerable bleakness, as he so often does. The negativity of which he is often accused is never as simple or cut-and-dried as it may appear. It is hard not to share the spirit – though we may baulk at the relative crudity of – Ian Hamilton’s comment, later reported by Larkin himself:

‘Ian Hamilton once said that whenever I said anything I gave a little twist to show that I didn’t really mean it. People say I’m very negative, and I suppose I am, but the impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done… Perhaps my negation is my subject-matter: it doesn’t seem like negation to me, but like daffodils to Wordsworth.’

In keeping with his propensity to shift perspectives, to give a little but telling twist, the intervening three lines of ‘Wants’ portray another, sharper view of the first stanza’s concerns. ‘Artful tensions of the calendar’ implies that the invitation-cards symbolising an ostensibly impressive social life often represent the stressful pressures later satirised in ‘Vers de Société’. The unbridled passion of primitive sex is glimpsed in ‘fertility rites’, but not before a lid has been put on in the form of ‘tabled’. The phrase suggests a comically contradictory routine agenda of carnal matters – incredible sex 2.4 times per week, perhaps. Meanwhile, we try to protect our families against the worst of death by taking out policies and trying to forget about it – our only forms of control. Only artists are free of these obsessions with control, able to imagine and escape to different types of oblivion, yet the fact that ‘Wants’ is a highly controlled, and controlling, form of poem casts ironic light on what they tend to do with that freedom. The poem is similar to an Empsonian villanelle, but fundamentally different. Far from shifting about within the stanzas, the repeated refrains serve as immutably encasing bulwarks or frames for the lines within. Some form of stasis, even sterility, appears to hold sway even as the creative life is surreptitiously celebrated.

Worries about lack of creativity had surfaced less than a fortnight before the writing of ‘Wants’, in ‘Spring’:

‘Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.’

Note the subtle transformation of a negative (the echo of Keats’ ‘And no birds sing’ in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’) into a positive, soon confirmed by the appearance of the sun. Larkin may have decried the Modernists’ reliance on allusions to past writers, but he is capable of the odd transformational back-reference himself. Yet it transpires that this is only done to contrast the productive beauty of nature with the speaker’s own ugly sterility, so the inversion is itself promptly re-inverted. Larkin never allows us to feel she we have got his measure; in his own unique way he likes to keep us on our interpretative toes.

‘Spring’ is another poem to be retrospectively enriched by a far better-known later work which it helps to shed light on – ‘Dockery and Son’ (1962). As is true of so much of Larkin’s death-dealing, this poem’s ostensible starkness of outlook has more in common with ‘The Waste Land’ than Gray’s ‘Elegy’. It recounts how Larkin, revisiting Oxford twenty years after his time as an undergraduate there, learns that a contemporary’s son is now up. In considering how the young Dockery could have become a father at such an age, he explores themes of eternity and inheritance before concluding with a passage of eminent Larkinesque quotability, one which the poet stated he intended as a deliberate jolt, and which comes at first sight as a near non sequitur. ‘Innate assumptions’ about being convinced we ‘should be added to do’ are

‘More a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it; looked back on, they rear
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying
For Dockery a son, for me nothing.
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.’

In fact the last four lines, in whose brutal truthfulness Larkin took open pride, are far from an irrelevance. They are the harsh patronage that he feels is all he has to hand on, the ‘indigestible sterility’ he wrote of more than a decade earlier. Yet there is, as so often, a twist to the poem’s tail. Death appears to have the last word, but the denial of complete disappearance, the slight qualification of ‘it goes,/And leaves…’, , is enough to suggest a limit to its extinguishing power. Similarly, ‘Whether or not we use it’ reflects critically on the previous line: if life were truly only boredom and fear, in what sense would we able to use it? For Dockery, the perspective would be entirely different, because he has a child, and he is immersed in using his life far more fruitfully than the speaker/Larkin persona. Thus the apparent baldness of the closing lines actually reflect the Larkin persona’s miserable envy, rather than any attempt at objective truth. The subject of the finale is not death itself, but Larkin’s sour perception of life, or at least the mood that the Oxford visit creates. It’s another angle of the Berkeleyan principle, reality as perceived by the far from disinterested subject.

A much earlier piece on death, ‘Going’ (1946), is yet another instance of a poem given an interpretative key by a lesser known work, this time one written in 1950 but not included in The Less Deceived. ‘”Who called love conquering”’ appears to answer its own question in the last stanza:

‘And tiny curled greeds

Grapple the sun down
By three o’clock
When the dire cloak of dark
Stiffens the town.’

If we had thought the answer something other than Christ, surely the reference to darkness at three o’clock alerts us to the probability? If so, the ‘cloak’ reference will stir memories of ‘Going’:

‘There is an evening coming in,
Across the fields, one never seen before,
That lights no lamps.

Silken it seems at a distance, yet
When it is drawn up over the knees and breast
It brings no comfort.’

Using the later poem as a gloss, why is the evening ‘one never seen before’? Possibly because on Good Friday the sky went dark at the moment of Christ’s death, three o’clock. Following this tack, the garment in the second stanza would seem to suggest Christ’s shroud, and the final lines of the poem can be read in terms of the dead Messiah, as, with swollen and numbed hands, he is taken down from the cross (‘tree’ in Biblical parlance):

‘Where has the tree gone, that locked
Earth to the sky? What is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?

What loads my hands down?’

Like so many of Larkin’s poems about mortality, ‘Going’ spikes death’s guns by appearing to admit its unimpeachable victory, while implying a counter-argument. In this case, he invokes the ability of Christ to defeat death not only in the sense of imminent resurrection, but simply by talking through and over it – a miracle monologue. Though not a Christian, the ever-resourceful Larkin is willing to call upon the power of Christ, apocryphal or not, in order to question death’s dominion. Any enemy of death is a friend of his, whether or not they actually are the Messiah.

It may seem something of a hop from the poem generally recognised as Larkin’s first mature effort to the final piece in his last published collection, High Windows. But ‘The Explosion’ (1970) tackles several of the same themes, including religion. Written in response to a song Larkin heard about a mining disaster, it appears to reach an overtly optimistic conclusion when a nest of eggs, earlier found and hidden by a miner about to be killed, is recovered ‘unbroken’ in the last line. Larkin himself, in his 1981 interview with John Haffenden, referred to ‘a vision of immortality at the end’. No surprise that the bird is a lark – Larkin, it would seem, surreptitiously hopes that his own poetic eggs will outlive him, and thus that ‘Dockery and Son’s’ embittered legacy of sterility has found its antidote. Except that the ‘vision of immortality’ is indeed that – only a vision. Following an italicized fragment from a funeral service, the poem makes subtly but unmistakably clear that the eggs are only shown to be unbroken in some kind of momentary if intense mirage, one presumably inspired by a combination of frenzied grief and the power of the prayer itself:

‘The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face –

Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed –
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,

One showing the eggs unbroken.’

Larkin’s ostensibly sincere claim to an image of immortality may indeed have been so: the qualifications of ‘for a second’, ‘larger than in life’, ‘somehow’ and even the illusion-implying effect of the sun shining behind the men, may have been unconscious. Given the meticulous care with which his poems were invariably produced, though, this seems unlikely. That care is entirely consistent with the double-edged connotations of ‘vision’. It is indeed ironic that where previous poems have concluded by twisting round on themselves in the very teeth of death, what turned out to be Larkin’s swansong piece appears to do the opposite. However, this ultimate slipperiness represents a fitting climax to a career in which hardly anything can be taken at face value.

Nick Cooke’s poems have been published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly, the Dream Catcher magazine and the anthology ‘Poems For a Liminal Age’, as well as the Agenda journal online supplement and websites Poetry Space and I am not a Silent Poet. His poem ‘Process’ was Highly Commended in the Segora Poetry Competition (July 2015). He has also had four poems accepted for To Kingdom Come, an anthology to be published in 2016 on the theme of political killing. He is currently working on his first collection. In addition to poetry he has had reviews and articles accepted by SLQ, the literary quarterly ‘Arete’ and the forthcoming literary journal ‘The ‘High Window’.

Larkin’s ‘Giant Ribbing’ by Nick Cooke

As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Larkin’s death (on 2 December), followed by the unveiling of his Westminster Abbey floor stone next year, it leaves a sad taste in the reflective mouth to consider the posthumous (though self-inflicted) harm to his reputation in the past three decades. Andrew Motion’s revelations of Larkin’s ‘other side’ – the always perplexing and disturbing descent of a brilliant mind into reactionary crassness – have made Larkinland a place where few can now claim they venture without at least a smidgeon of discomfort, even shame. To some, the clear evidence from his own letters and the testimony of several who knew him that Larkin held racist and xenophobic views is enough to disqualify him from serious artistic consideration, and we might even expect a degree of right-minded protest in December 2016 when the stone is ready for its appearance. Others might argue that the blemish to his name simply adds to the already quite substantial roster of contradictions in Larkin’s life and work. He was a racist, it would seem, who listened to nothing but black music all his life, and a misogynist who not only wrote one of the most powerful exposés of sexual violence in twentieth-century literature, but named a collection after one of its lines. Vituperatively misanthropic in his letters, he was capable of a poem like ‘The Mower’, which advocates reciprocal kindness in a way no reader could ever forget. Without seeking to condone or explain his more regrettable utterances, this piece will adopt an approach to him which might best perhaps be described as open-eyed yet forbearing, just as A.N. Wilson did in the recent ‘Return to Larkinland’ TV documentary, where for all the reverential treatment of the poetry, no punches were pulled by the presenter regarding his late friend’s manifest faults. If we did take a letter-of-the-law stance on Larkin, and consign him to whichever dustbin we thought most appropriate, we would be depriving ourselves of one of the last century’s great poetic contributors. Or to reduce it to an increasingly commonplace metaphor, the baby is well worth saving, even though we would gladly be rid of the ill-smelling bathwater.

Proceeding on this basis, I will be arguing that among the many interesting complexities in Larkin’s career was an ambivalent attitude to the issue of a poet’s identification with any one acknowledged approach or school. On the surface, most of Larkin’s critical pronouncements cast him as a sworn enemy of modernism, the harbinger of clear-eyed common sense and simplicity of message. Though never the most comfortable member of the so-called Movement of the 1950s, he does claim allegiance to a line of thought that is broadly speaking associated with more clear-cut Movement poets and critics such as Donald Davie, one which goes back as far as Johnson and Gray, runs through Hardy (his all-time idol) and arrives at Betjeman and early Auden via Rupert Brooke. One of his many reviews of Betjeman voices what appears to be his own embattled credo through that of its subject:

‘…for him, the modern poetic revolution has just not happened; there has been no symbolism, no Ezra Pound, no objective correlative, no rediscovery of myth, no Seven Types or Some Versions […] – his poems are written in the strong unregenerate belief that poetry is a simple matter of trying to construct a verbal device that will preserve and reproduce any given feeling or set of feelings indefinitely, and that nothing is to be gained by questioning an emotion once it has been experienced.’ (1954)

But what might seem a partisan tack is not always held with full conviction. Larkin was actually quite ambivalent about the modernists. His double-edged attack on Pound’s Cantos typifies a deep-rooted uncertainty:

‘Comprehension and appreciation will depend on the reader’s knowledge and liking of what Mr Pound is doing in this long twentieth-century poetic curiosity, the ultimate (and immediate) value of which I personally think very small. However, the numerous splinters of rhetoric, the sardonic asides and the evocative images of this historical kaleidoscope are sufficiently fascinating to suggest that those who think otherwise may well be right.’ (March 1957)

Later, discussing his editorship of The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, he is more open in giving the poetic revolutionaries their due. Despite his interest in individual Georgian poets he feels forced to concede that ‘as a class…their language was stale. It was Eliot and Yeats, and perhaps even Pound, who sharpened up the language.’ He had been more positive about Georgian poetry in a 1959 review which speculates on ‘what would have happened to the course of English poetry if Owen, Thomas, Rosenberg and the rest had not been killed.’ Far from being ‘an outgrown shallow pastoral playfulness’, Georgian poetry ‘represented a robust zestful upsurge of realism – a movement into which the young D.H. Lawrence, for instance, fitted quite naturally.’ That Larkin should see Lawrence in terms of a transition from the Georgian scene to the modernist era implicitly counsels us to be sceptical when encountering his blunter critiques of Lawrence’s more eminent contemporaries. He goes on:

‘No doubt poetry, like every other branch of art, was bound to go through a period of Modernismus, and certainly there could have been much worse exemplars than Mr Eliot, but it would have been interesting to observe the continental impact refracted through stronger native talents than for the most part survived.’

This in turn implies that if Brooke et al. had survived, they would perforce have become modernists of some sort: the ‘continental impact’ meant that however zestful the previous upsurge of realism had been, it could only have been a foretaste of what the Great War would later foist upon contemporary culture. Modernism, in other words, wasn’t entirely the cultural blip Larkin sometimes suggests he thought it was. And it is certainly fair to say that Larkin’s poetry isn’t as emotionally straightforward as the comments on Betjeman might suggest it would probably be. Just as his critical work admits the occasional doubt concerning his primary beliefs, there remains another strand to his poetic oeuvre, a more complex and restless one that has no problem seeing what is to be gained by ‘questioning an emotion’.

It’s a strand that Larkin began to explore seriously in 1950, the year in which he turned 28. Before then most of his work had been dominated first by the early-Yeatsian influences of his first collection, The North Ship (1946), and later by his predilection for the allegorical possibilities of sunlight and darkness, in the unpublished manuscript In the Grip of Light (1947). In September 1950, his move to Belfast to become sub-librarian of Queen’s University gave him ‘the best writing conditions I ever had’. Several of the many poems he wrote there drew upon the city’s maritime proximity, and one, ‘Absences’, delves into his inner self through a description of a particularly rough sea, before raising its sights to the heavens:

‘Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.

Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’

As Larkin made clear in his comments on the poem, it deals with his own absence from scenes of natural beauty or drama: ‘I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there.’ But even as the starlit skies are invoked, suggesting a global view of events that the poet can never really have even when he is present, the congruence of ‘riddled’ and ‘ribbing’ counsels us to look for other levels of interpretation. This form of jesting with words, turning them over like multi-sided stones, is certainly closer to the world of Eliot and Pound than of Betjeman. Should we be in any doubt about this half-concealed confession of literary gamesmanship, ‘Next, Please’ – another poem dominated by the sea, albeit a metaphorical one – has Larkin and his readers ‘Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,/Sparking armada of promises draw near…’ Why not simply a cliff, which would sound much more natural? ‘Bluff’ exudes a self-referentiality that both unsettles and amuses.

The scene is indeed a giant ribbing, a huge tease, if seen from the perspective of the stars. Like Troilus looking down on the earth from his lofty sphere, the stars are the only true witnesses of everything that happens. Are they (remembering the American meaning of ‘lit-up’) drunk on power? The multiple suggestions ebb and flow, shift and sift away, like the tides themselves.

Larkin’s playfulness is at its most brilliant when it is intensely serious. The line of which ‘giant ribbing’ forms the centre contains a beautiful mimesis of erosion in which ‘shift’ becomes ‘sift’ – itself both a shifting and a sifting, a slow mutation and a selection. And the final line typifies the way in which, although he claimed that Eliotic allusion to other writers’ poems was likely to alienate less well-read readers, his propensity to refer to his own work forms a key part of its organic texture. ‘Such attics cleared of me!’ cannot but recall ‘Deceptions’, written in January and effectively the title poem of The Less Deceived, where a Victorian drug-rapist is summarily exposed:

‘I would not dare
Console you if I could…
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic.’

That memorable finale has already hung heavy over the end of ‘No Road’, a poem written a month before ‘Absences’, in October 1950, where the speaker describes his own wavering efforts to sever all connections with a lover he knows he has outgrown:

‘A little longer,
And time will be the stronger,

Drafting a world where no such road will run
From you to me;
To watch that world come up like a cold sun,
Rewarding others, is my liberty.
Not to prevent it is my will’s fulfilment.
Willing it, my ailment.’

Fulfilment, apparently offered as an antonym to ailment, comes over more like a synonym, when we read ‘Deceptions’. With ‘Absences’, the inevitable comparison sparked by the re-appearance of ‘attic’ (in the collection the poems are only two pages apart) means that in the reader’s mind a sense of desolation hangs about the image of scenes not directly witnessed by the poet. Is it the absence of himself from the scene, or of the scene from himself, that underlies the desolation? In these terms the poem picks up the philosophical issue that so engaged Berkeley and his fellow Idealists two centuries earlier, and provided a backdrop to the ‘shifting’ from Augustan to Romantic sensibility, where ‘sifting’ – selecting what elements of the natural scene to depict, rather than proffering a generic or composite view – became a key artistic principle.

The issue preoccupies Larkin in other poems. ‘Latest Face’ (February 1951) describes a beautiful woman whose power over him is modified in part by the title’s implicitly reductive metonymy, but more so by his realisation that her beauty can only exist in and through his appreciative perception of it:

‘Latest face, so effortless
Your great arrival at my eyes
No one standing near could guess
Your beauty had no home till then…

Admirer, and admired embrace
On a useless level, where
I contain your current grace,
You my judgment…’

He envisages a scenario where ‘denial of you’ could equate to a killing, because the woman’s power is so dependent on recognition:

‘Is your power actual – can
Denial of you duck and run,
Stay out of sight and double round,
Leap from the sun with mask and brand
And murder and not understand?’

In the sonnet ‘Spring’, he adduces a corollary between his own undesirability and his ability to appreciate the season he calls ‘earth’s most multiple, excited daughter’. Only by being rejected by beauty – and therefore craving more than a normal fair share of its boons – can a poet truly celebrate it:

‘And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.’

This link between the naively desirable and the rejected yet paradoxically empowered desirer is central to Larkin’s poems about women. ‘Deceptions’ in particular is a decisive moment in his development. We can’t mistake the pointed factuality of the final comparison between attacker and victim. ‘You would hardly care/That you were less deceived…’ – no hint there of a subjectivising qualification, of the desperate vagueness portrayed at the start of ‘Ignorance’ (‘Strange to know nothing, never to be sure/Of what is true or right or real,/ But forced to qualify or so I feel…’) Larkin is spelling out that – to an obviously circumscribed extent – he knows what he’s talking about. The rape is seen as the ultimate extreme of masturbation, and one has a half-unnerving, half-touching sense that the poet’s isolationist sexuality gives him a valuable insight into the mind of the rapist. Should the more private elements of biographical knowledge inform our view of a writer’s work? ‘Deceptions’, I would contend, shows that Andrew Motion’s exposure of Larkin’s extensive interest in pornography, and his sheepish admission that the purpose of such material was ‘to wank to, or with, or at’ it, alters our perception of his work for the better.

Of course, partial empathy by no means implies sympathy or forgiveness. Just as the poem’s tone is anything but ‘stumbling’ and ‘breathless’, and its overall effect is far from ‘desolate’, so the act of unsolicited testimony distances Larkin from the pervert he nails at the very instant that the two appear to be linked. For this alone it would have been a great poem, even without the justly famous achievements of the first stanza. There we have been treated to a sublime instance of urban pathetic fallacy, as every carriage passing by evokes the wedding that the ruined girl knows is a lost dream for her: ‘the brisk brief/Worry of wheels along the street outside/Where bridal London looks the other way’. Her torment is captured in one of Larkin’s most daring similes, which unites the shameful sense of being on display with the impotent thought of revenge:

‘All the unhurried day
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.’

With these, the poem has a strong case to be adjudged Larkin’s best of all, the one in which depth of feeling is most closely commensurate with acuteness of observation.

‘Deceptions’ has many links with his later work, forming a touchstone for many of his poems about sex. That unmistakably in-the-know aspect of Larkin’s stance on sexual deviance informs the vengeance that he takes on the ‘bosomy English rose’ of ‘Wild Oats’ (1962). She may have laughed at him, but he keeps her snaps in his wallet, through two decades of presumably unlimited onanistic table-turning. In this, consciously or otherwise, he represents fallible modern man as rendered iconic by Prufrock or Mauberley; we may not approve of him, but we feel for his pained isolation. Almost as if Larkin anticipated feminist objections, however, he went on to offer another view of female images a few months later. The billboard beauty of ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ is now the underdog, abused with what appears to be gratuitous humour as well as violence, until the author of the vandalism is exposed in a neat juxtaposition which says much about the unlifelike size of the genitals he drew:

‘Huge tits and a fissured crotch
Were well scored in, and the space
Between her thighs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls’

Autographed Titch Thomas

Vandalism had earlier been purely internal, in ‘If, My Darling’ (May 1950). Justifiably one of Larkin’s favourite among his own oeuvre, this nightmare-fantasy venture invites both the poet’s lover and the reader into the murky world of his own head. There amid ‘the creep of varying light,/Monkey-brown, fish-grey’, she would ‘remark

‘The unwholesome floor, as it might be the skin of a grave,
From which ascends an adhesive sense of betrayal,
A Grecian statue kicked in the privates, money,
A swill-tub of finer feelings.’

An upsurge of realism, indeed. What makes this a particularly well-aimed kick in the balls is the fact that a statue has no balls, not in the real flesh-and-blood sense anyway. ‘Latest Face’ makes a similar point by posing the part-wistful, part-withering question: ‘Will/The statue of your beauty walk?’ And the Grecian statue’s balls are not even ‘privates’ in the literal sense, because they are always exposed to the viewer, just as Larkin is now exposing his supposedly beautiful mind to his girlfriend – presumably she imagines it so or she would not want to ‘jump, like Alice, with floating skirt into my head’. Nothing is what it seems, even ‘finer feelings’ are revealed as ‘swill’. The key to this self-savagery comes in the conclusion. There Larkin makes an implied confession about his true inner life, one that he might not make in the bluff (and bluffing) world of interviews with critics:

‘But most of all

She’d be stopping her ears against the incessant recital
Intoned by reality, larded with technical terms,
Each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal:

For the skirl of that bulletin unpicks the world like a knot
And to hear how the past is past and the future neuter
Might knock my darling off her unpriceable pivot.’

This is the very opposite of a Hardyesque or Betjemanian lucidity or simplicity of thought. It is far more like the complex tortuousness of a modernist, one chained up in his own constant contradictions. Yet Larkin believes the torture to be productive, that it ‘unpicks the world like a knot’, even if the resultant truth is not something his darling would find enticing. ‘Unpriceable pivot’ tells us that what he values in his girlfriend, what he in fact finds priceless, is the sense of control and balance embodied by a pivot – a pivotal re-casting of the cliché of a pedestal, where men are traditionally inclined to place their loves. A more predictable poet would have ended with something that could be paraphrased as ‘Might knock me off my darling’s unpriceable pedestal.’ But in Larkin’s world it is the naïve who suffer most. The knowingly worldly may be the more deceived, but they find ways of insulating themselves against the worst of the pain – even at the cost of self-brutalisation. However, lest we take the mood too seriously, that ‘skirl’, the high shrill sound produced by a bagpipe, is later contextualised by its high-spirited re-appearance at a self-punning moment in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’:

‘And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails…

Mycenae. Poem by Nick Cooke

MYCENAE

Speaking sooth, I would have preferred
to linger awhile in my warlike juices,
the stench of our deeds in every pore;

but you are not a queen
beside whom one could lie equably
reeking of battlefield and mortal curses.

Thus do I sit, in a marble tub,
sponging the wounds that sting more now
than when engraved by Dardanian steel,

and watch as you draw near, a purple towel
held out like the robe I left behind
for harness and breastplate, as I left

my crown for a helmet forged in the furnace
of Hephaestus – or so I joked with you,
the night we parted. Now we are as one,

my body yours to wrap in silk,
if so you choose, for a wife must say
which sheets will adorn the bridal bed

and this night shall be our second such
prime meeting of expectant hearts.
No matter what has befallen us,

whatever glinting passion haunts your eyes –
now close enough to stare at and be lost –
I command you take me as your king

even before your husband. And in that light
you will respect me. You will honour
the ashen Cassandra and her maidens;

the arms you spread, as though to taunt a bull,
will take in all I have performed in our name.
Meanwhile I rise from my own filth, entreating

slow purgation, and lose myself
to your violet cloak of pardon
where I choke out my tears. In blood.

In addition to his poems on the Sentinel Literary Quarterly site, Nick Cooke has had work published in Dream Catcher magazine and the anthology Poems For a Liminal Age, as well as the Agenda journal online supplement and websites such as Poetry Space and I am not a silent poet. His poem ‘Process’ was Highly Commended in the Segora Poetry Competition (July 2015). He has also had four poems accepted for To Kingdom Come, an anthology to be published in 2016 on the theme of political killing. He is currently working on his first collection.’

The Mask by Anthony Costello. Review by Nick Cooke.

The Mask The Mask by Anthony Costello (Lapwing Publications, 2014)
ISBN 978-1-909252-79-0.

A review by Nick Cooke

To enter the world of The Mask is to take part in a treasure hunt, a search that is both inward- and outward-bound. Among Costello’s many talents is the way that right from the start he fills us with the desire to know him better, so we can unlock the secrets of his evidently myriad mind. We soon realise that this means having to turn away from the direct scope of his book, and follow up on all the clues he leaves, most of them in the form of the names, mainly of other poets, which appear at the head of almost every piece. Thus Gregory Corso puts in an immediate appearance at the top of the opening poem, ‘Written on the Eve of My Fiftieth Birthday’, and the allusion makes us consider links between Costello and the beat poet boy-wonder, who among many fascinating life-details, spent much of his adolescence in prisons, where he learnt to avoid gang-rape by using dazzling wit and humour to ingratiate himself with inmates, and went on to lead an existence that gave new meaning to the word “itinerant”. Costello would not claim a direct parallel, despite his own varied past as a sheet-metal worker, gardener, teacher and voyager, but the searing honesty of his self-introductory confession is lent added poignancy by the implied comparison:

“49 & divorced. No children. Is there time?
A girlfriend died and there my baby died.
I don’t act the fool no more – so I have few friends.
What happened to the old Anthony they say.
They don’t like it when I talk about body dysmorphia and dying.
They can all go to Glastonbury.”

Costello cuts through the niceties with a notable rejection of small talk as he launches into his debut collection. That “Is there time?”- perhaps referring to the individualistic, even self-absorbed life of a generic writer and traveller, or to Costello’s own future parental possibilities, or both – is typical of the shifts in focus and perspective that occur, always between poems, but very often within them, and multiple times over at that. Costello’s voice, tone, diction, theme, are all in constant flux, every change handled with consummate skill and authority. Should we ever make the error of thinking we have his measure, and can predict the next move, he makes a point of wriggling free from all presuppositions, and presenting yet another piece in the increasingly engrossing puzzle of his own world-view.

With his onetime, fairweather friends in Glastonbury (a new version of Coventry, as far as he’s concerned), he follows up this first citing of what is perhaps his key theme – isolation, willing or otherwise – by introducing its close associate, spiritual awareness:

“I like to think fate had it I tipped the tin.
The answer lies in this immodest declaration:
I am a good example of soul…..

I love poetry because it makes me love
Myself and others more…it gives me life.
Of all the dreams that die in me
This one ‘burns like the sun’;
It might not make every day bearable
Or help me with people
Or improve my behaviour toward society
‘But it does tell me my soul has a shadow’.”

With that the extraordinary, almost Donne-like exordium ends, but the soul, of which he soon proves himself to be a good example indeed, stays centre stage, as the heading of the next poem reads: Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates. At this point the reader commences the requisite Googling – or at least this one did – and discovers that the gates in question refer to poet Hirshfield’s “soul doors”, various angles of the specifically spiritual connection that she sees poetry as being unique in making, to which Costello now adds a tenth.

“What if what you see

maidens cleaning your wounds
a hero’s welcome
the village rising to greet you in Technicolor

is not within
is over the horizon, is out of bounds” .

We are challenged to think about how far our accepted world of perception actually goes and whether the soul, if we acknowledge and fully utilise it, can take us further in the realm of seeing than our limited ordinary senses. But there’s nothing New-Agey about Costello’s means of philosophical enquiry; he is muscular and lithe as you can be, not an ounce of fat or an airy truism on him:

“What if the view you have been asked to consider
is black and white:
a town a precinct a café a table and coffee

and no-one looks at your face
and nobody knows your name”.

One answer might be that you would feel isolated, even lonely, but to Costello’s emerging mind this can be turned on its head and transformed into spiritual empowerment. Suddenly we are in Wordsworth territory, and the poet is viewed as someone who is alone, both perforce and by an act of will. It can be a great thing to be an ignored observer. However, there is an alternative/additional reading embedded within the poem, because he is also saying, “Being black and white, i.e. dull, colourless, monotonous, non-spiritual, makes you anonymous; if you want to make an impression you need to unlock your imagination and dream of the village greeting you like a movie star in glorious Technicolour….” The paradoxical suggestion appears to be that cutting yourself off is relative, no one can or wants to be truly alone, not if they want to live fully, but you have to be prepared for a largely solo flight if you want to be a poet. The reward could ultimately be the opposite of hermit-like status, because poets can be as heroic as wounded soldiers.

Two poems on, in ‘Winter’ is Robert Hayden, the black American poet who ended up suffering isolation of a particular form, due to his religious beliefs leading him towards a commitment to “unity of humanity”, which precluded embracing black separatism, and so earned him the contempt of more politically confrontational writers in the 1960s. The poem, however, is about Costello’s parents, in childhood and since, and ends with a very different kind of alone-ness:

“I know I’m loved by you, and Dad, loved,
but I am content with my life of solitude.”

Does the nod to Hayden mean Costello feels himself to be persecuted by his own kind, as was the American? That would be a banal reading, but there is presumably some truth in it. The poem certainly asks us to reflect on what it means to be out in the cold:

“In the unheated bedroom, the damp room
above the passageway, I had embraced
cold as a friend, a way to independence;
Dad’s ‘I’ll lock ya out t’ouse’ punishment

diluted. I can now walk barefoot
on ice and snow, endurance feats,
and I don’t need jumpers at this time of Year.”

Hayden didn’t need jumpers either, the corollary would seem to be, because he too learnt to walk scantily clad, having been locked out of the house of Negro/Civil Rights solidarity, but still feeling himself to be in the right, and embracing the cold of rejection as his own way to independence. A poet needs courage and integrity, so must be prepared for solitude, and its corollary, spiritual and physical toughening up, with which he will come to be “content”, if not exactly happy.

Next up is one of the finest poems of an extremely fine collection, ‘Crazy Ghazal,’ the title referring to a form of lyric poem Middle Eastern and Indian literature and music, with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love. This one does not rhyme (perhaps that’s why it’s ‘crazy’) and is not strictly on love, but it has some beautiful and highly musical lines that bespeak a love of poetry and all it can bring:

“Far away a song never before heard,
Is limbering up, holding the arc of long submissions,

A prisoner cleans out the inside of a melon
As if teeth and tongue were born for nothing else,

They call life a thing of distilled essence
As if a novel could be reduced to an alphabet,

Water runs into the mouth of bigger water
All is lost, even the reason you were there.”

Yet for all the euphonic pleasure it brings – a touch of Tennyson in that “Far away…” – the poem ends with what another reviewer (Paul Goring in Sabotage Reviews) rightly saw as a key line. Costello’s spiritual and poetic quest has moments of lyrical beauty, just as did Wordsworth, but it is in essence grittily sensuous:

“If left with only garlic I would be happy,
Happy to keep the peel under my fingernails.”

In ‘Written in a Hospital Waiting Room’, Costello confronts the untimely death of his friend and writing partner Anita Marsh in the context of an Alice Oswald poem, ‘Walking past a rose this June morning’. The final verse mentions the spirit, this time in close relation to the heart, and there’s an interesting play on ‘How’ as both a question word and an intensive:

“Now blow your breath into the air.
How visible is it? Can you trace a rose there?
How determined is the spirit of the heart,
The truth around its centre. How determined
Everything whirling around us. Stop.
Is my rose at the centre? How hard it is to follow Alice.
How unforgettable Anita. Her heart a rose.”

“How determined” of course combines resilience with fate – just how strong is the heart and the world, and how pre-ordained are their respective spirit and movements? In “Everything whirling” we hear Wordsworth once again, in elegiac mood for Lucy –

“No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees” –

but in Anita’s case there are no rocks and stones, only hearts, as though Costello is so hemmed in by grief that he can look no further into the natural world than the immediate surroundings of her body and soul.

In the rest of the book Costello makes less frequent direct references to matters spiritual or issues of isolation, but I would argue that that’s because he doesn’t need to, having established these as dominant themes so early on. We read all that follows through the dual prism, so that the shifting and writhing between one style and another, from one persona to the next, comes across as a manifestation of the poet’s restless soul seeking out his true settling point, in what sometimes resembles a desperate game, and on other occasions is more like genuinely playful enjoyment of one’s own distinctness, however painful that might sometimes prove. Just as a mask’s primary function is to hide, so it also has the purpose of entertainment.

So Part Two, entitled Inhabitations (the other parts, in another glimpse of Costello in intellectually provocative but playful mood, are Imitations, Inhabitations and Ruminations) opens with ‘Identity’, where we delve into another of the poet’s areas of keen interest, the wold of cinema. The Invisible Man is the lead role here; his bandages are constantly being swapped for other objects belonging to other film characters in a bizarre comedy of onion-like layering and re-layering:

“The Last of the Mohicans swaps Buffalo Bill’s
The Man in the Iron Mask’s The Invisible Man’s bandages
for The Invisible Man’s The Man in the Iron Mask’s iron mask…”

This is followed by ‘Who Da Ya Fink Ya Are,’ narrated with sleight-of-hand charm and verve by a chameleon-like African male persona who is linguistically between various worlds just as he is physically between various countries:

“I aint gotta problem wiv my Bafana lin
Or my Comoros and Mayotte mince pies
Come to fink of it my long upright
Somalian nose pleases me no end
I’m ear to ear all Madagascarn, mate,
Get it!? The cake-ole’s Cameroon…”

He is the ultimate refugee whose sense of identity, presumably even to himself, has become so slippery it makes the Invisible Man look easily recognisable.

A few poems on we are on stage at a mid-1950s lecture by Heisenberg, not the code-name of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but the real ‘uncertainty principle’ deal featuring in Michael Frayn’s famous play, Copenhagen. The piece, reminiscent of Browning in its fluid and comic unreliable-monologist’s style, begins and ends with the legendary physicist’s premise (and conclusion) that

“What we observe is not nature itself
But nature exposed to our method of questioning”,

itself a useful take on Costello’s own poetic viewpoint. He is similarly locked into uncertainty by the power of his own questioning skills. And Heisenberg’s shadow is cast over one of the less agonisingly playful pieces, three pages later. ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’, alluding to a thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, relating to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, posits a theoretical cat that may be simultaneously alive or dead, a state known as quantum superposition:

“I could play with what you call ‘Universe’
With one paw, treat it like a bone, a morsel;
Jump out of this box and scratch out your eyes,
Have a caterwauling screech fit for a Queen’s dignity
Violated, imprisoned, deemed powerless, unwise”.

It’s indeed unwise to assume that a creature deemed powerless might not scratch out your eyes, and in another sense this particular cat has become immensely powerful by virtue of the experiment’s fame. In its central play between life and death, the poem leads us to ask whether and in what way Costello also considers himself alive and dead at the same time. The collection’s opening piece has told us that the “old Anthony” has gone for ever, effectively dead, but a new one has been born, partly out of grief and loss but partly also because poets naturally regenerate and reinvent themselves. The “body dysmorphia” his friends don’t like him talking about is actually revealed to be not simply physical change, possibly decay, but a different form of spiritual and psychological shape-shifting.

A darker side of this undercurrent emerges a little later on, in one of the book’s most chilling poems, ‘Jack’, with its heading William Blake, Jack the Ripper. Rarely can the poet/artist’s mind have been so closely associated with psychopathy, as Jack moves towards the scene of his crimes with Blake acting as a form of mentally diseased pied piper:

“I leave the stench of Soho
And follow the scent of Blake’s sick rose
Thru midnight streets.
I chart a course bequeath’d by Wren
and follow my nose East…smoke and meat.
I will take the image of God
But clothing shall be my cruelty.
Weak in courage is strong in cunning.
I step out of a Hansom Cab. And smell the air.”

That ending dimly suggests the end of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ – “And I eat men like air” – and the entirely healthy rose of the poem about Anita Marsh (via Alice Oswald) seems a long way away.

In being compelled by the nature of selectivity to omit many poems from one’s critical gaze, it almost seems as if a sin were being committed, so rich, multi-levelled and stimulating is almost every piece here. I will therefore skip regretfully over nuggets of ever-varying shapes and sizes inspired by the likes of Charlotte Bronte, John Cage, Stanley Spencer, Mark Rothko and J.G. Ballard, along with characters such as the waiter turned porn star whose ‘English meat’ was devoured by a Latin American MILF, and a remarkable alphabet-based poem consisting of a catalogue of firms and products that together make up ‘i-America’. But I cannot and will not conclude without picking out two more of the collection’s other high points. First, ‘Water-Lily – Wat Na Luang’, referring to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, where Costello shows himself in the guise suggested earlier by ‘Crazy Ghazal’, an accomplished lyrical poet capable of heart-stopping beauty:

“in reams of gold a water-hovering haze of precipitation
forming a circle around the palette of green leaves,
the nature of supplication in the flower, the pink hands
of the lake as ‘here and now’ as the powder in the sky
and a novice’s gift of poetry for dharma Luangphor Thornbai,
a walking meditation of faith and wisdom awakening,
a glimmer of non-suffering in the jungle of mind.”

Perhaps the last line is less than felicitous, showing us that Costello, by his own humble admission, has not yet achieved consistent mastery of his craft, but the preceding passage combines a gift for musicality with a rare level of philosophical inquisitiveness in a way that is beyond the average “novice”.

Secondly, ‘Fate’, the closing piece, which tries to wrap things up while being acutely aware of the likely inadequacy of the attempt, given the richness and complexity of the preceding 69 pages. This time, though neither is named, the initial inspiration might be the Yeats of ‘Long Legged Fly,’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and possibly ‘An Irish Airman’, later superseded by the Eliot of ‘Four Quartets’:

“Somewhere a child is playing with a stick
and a ball, for a minute or an hour
of a lifetime as she imagines it
knowing of nothing that is to come,
reading into the clouds only the clouds’
rapid movement, her matchless game….”

“….for what is hope but the inkling of desire,
that we are alone
and ‘strangers to ourselves’,
the gift is that we came this far
and that listening
is the meaning of silence

what of the rituals and affiliations
and allegiance of belief? And what
of the allegiance to renunciation?”

Faith and renunciation; doubt and belief; fate and free will. The book ends, in one way, where it started, but we have moved from the intensely, chest-baringly personal, to the same or similar questions and paradoxes being aired on a more objective philosophical plane. The way this last poem goes from a child’s view (or view of a child) to a more adult perspective perhaps suggests that Costello feels he has undergone a similar process during the journey traced by the book. At any rate, one can only look forward to his next literary steps with great excitement and hope of even greater things.