Magic and Accident
Ellen Cranitch on some independent poetic talents.
Michael Murphy, Collected Poems, Shoestring
Chris Emery, Departure, Salt
Graham Mort, Cusp, Seren
Peter Daniels, Counting Eggs, Mulfran
Lucy Hamilton, Stalker, Shearsman
It’s rare to open a volume of poetry and instantly know not only that this is what poetry is, but also that this is what poetry is for. I never knew or had read the work of Michael Murphy who died in 2009 of a brain tumour aged just 43 but his Collected Poems is a seminal book which speaks with profound particularity about love in the imminent presence of death – whether and how it endures and poetry’s role in this.
The landmark status of the book derives from the rich overlay provided by editorial structure, preface and introduction. Love is writ large in these eloquent commentaries by Murphy’s widow Deryn Rees-Jones and George Szirtes. The book’s triumph, however, is that it should arise from those so close to him yet remain so clear-eyed, allowing the voice of the poems so pure an acoustic they speak to us and for themselves with an almost uncanny immediacy of encounter. The poems speak from a frontier few of us so knowingly inhabit, with wit, lucidity, honesty and lyric grace.
Poems from three collections feature. They are filled with motifs of wildflowers, soil – especially turf – and light. Themes include exile, love for close family and friends and for the city of Liverpool. There are also some wonderful, epigrammatic translations of the Hungarian poet, Attila József.
The love poems linger for their delicacy and directness such as ‘When All This Is Over,’ with its beautiful, liquid lines:
When all this is over, shall
I meet one fine morning
in the raw December air
to travel north for the solstice
Shadowsof ourselves, drifting down
an alleyway of hazel, alder, birch,…
In this poem Murphy imagines a ‘pilgrim quartz’ carried by a river; that notion of a traveller, a pilgrim, runs through these intimate poems, probing perhaps how some kind of continued dialogue may occur after death, as well as facing up to how any communication can always slip between our fingers. These poems know with sometimes unbearably acute insight what it is to inhabit your own mortality, the luminous sobriety of the voice markedly different to the rhetorical one of Shakespeare’s early Sonnets or the febrile imaginings of Keats.
Yet joy and humour also pervade the book. A sense of discovery and a deft assurance characterise the two opening poems which also have darker undertows. The pleasure of ‘Glaucus to Scylla’ based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses XIII derives from its sheer sonic beauty ‘…a strand / between green meadows and the glitter / and wrack of the amethyst tide…’ its long unfurling clauses and its throwaway colloquialisms with their sprinkling of contemporary details and asides. The poem revels in original riffs – a list of brilliantly different fish, for example, or the depiction of the world in vividly local scenes, and, as the first poem in the book, forms a fresh and surprising introduction to the work. You can see why Murphy was drawn to this particular Ovidian transformation which pivots around the eating of ‘caespes’ or turf, a word and idea constantly revisited in his poetry. Although the story contains the famous lines about enduring love uttered by the mortal-turned-sea-god Glaucus to the nymph, Scylla:
…I swear, leaves will grow in the sea,
or seaweed sprout on the mountain ash,
sooner than my love change.
It’s typical of Murphy to play such moments down, through context or a willing embrace of bathos; this is evident in the way the lines in which Glaucus tells Scylla about his, ‘immortal longings’ are instantly deflated by those which follow ‘…You know / the sort of things poets croon and whine about’.
The haunting poem ‘Turf’, which depicts an early morning encounter between father and son, moves between a Liverpool bedroom where the poet lies and a farm in Mayo. There’s a limber delicacy, a surreptitious swivelling of point of view as Felix, the poet’s small son, tiptoes in and out of his father’s bedroom and places broken toys on ‘the altar / of my chest’ – seeking to mend by destroying them. It’s characteristic of Murphy to come at uncomfortable terrain – whatever dark emotions a child may feel with a dying father – from so tangential a perspective. The intimate drama exploring themes of complicity, of a gentle deception born of love, silently negotiated between father and son, is extremely moving but accompanied also by a characteristic streak of wit as father sneaks a peek at the toys, and a complex, transfigurative end when he guides his son into ‘a turf-dark shed in Mayo’.
‘Turf’s’ power lies in what it achieves with place and time. The farm in Mayo is as present, as real, as the English bedroom. Moreover, the writer’s mind does not travel back to past memories; rather, it is translated across, as past and present become equal. As Murphy puts it in another poem, (‘Below the River: Variations’), this is, ‘a shift elsewhere’, into a lucid actuality. The poem’s very deliberate refashioning of time is achieved through urgent tense glides from future to present, and in the abrupt breaking-up of clauses and lines. Both compel the reader to accept the poem’s chronological terms:
Between the fields the sky is growing
Light. There are no clouds. Not yet.
And then there are. And then
the flying shadows of the starlings skim
the white-washed walls…
Later, I will peek when he is out the room.
But not yet. Now I am in Mayo
This memorable book contains work you will want to return to.
The work in Chris Emery’s third collection, The Departure, potently revivifies the charged connection between poem and reader; there’s a heightened emphasis on the relationship between the poetic ‘I’, the speaker, and the reader who is addressed. We’re not just reeled in but somehow rendered extra alert to the fact we’re being reeled in, to these poems’ dystopic, surreally exuberant world. Studded with richly strange images and ideas, the poems, like the church bells which ‘invert the town’ (‘Sunday Fathers’), are often skewed and unsettling – hat-stands, ‘wrists of ice’; snails, ‘death’s pale eccentrics’.
The collection exhibits a range of poetic styles and subjects, moving through compressed narratives to sonnets and taking inspiration from the personal and the political, contemporary culture and historical events. The language of film and its motifs recur, raising questions about viewpoint and identity. In the seductively fluent ‘Carl’s Job’, the reader is made complicit in a macabrely humorous game as each line undercuts, with delicious frisson, the assumptions of the one before.
Subject matter can be bleak, revisiting themes such as ageing, death and the mundaneity of much life experience; and there’s an insistent, anti-Romantic examination of the relationship between art and life. Some poems are leavened by pithily aphoristic lines: “a world…with sod all else to do and more time for it.” (‘Sunday Fathers’). However a more profound redemption is offered in ‘The Departure’ with its contention that art does and will continue to arise from ‘a small life lived in ordinary boredoms’. In contrast to the several personae poems, a very personal note is struck in this powerfully oratorical piece as it arrives at what feels a hard-won truth that, ‘All art is loss…Our charge / is to cherish the risen extent of it,’.
On occasions an unresolved tension persists as to whether a piece sits better as poetry or prose particularly when the layout is stanzaic but the language rather dense and denotative. And there can be a structural over-reliance on the series of accumulated statements; I’d have welcomed more syntactic variety in some of the poems’ development. However, in the spare stanzas of ‘Lost Brother’, the electric arena constituting the relationship between speaker and reader which is such a primary concern of these poems operates to maximum impact as living addresses the closest of their dead; the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ resolving into a poignant encounter as ‘my life draws in to your permanent night’. Here all the colours of this original poetic voice sing out.
Water and fire course through Graham Mort’s eighth collection, Cusp. In the virtuosic monologue, ‘Electricity,’ the new, terraced verse structure finds its purest incarnation, as electricity, the speaker, zigzags from line to line with fizzing alacrity delighting in its myriad manifestations. The poem crackles with life. Sometimes it is haranguing in tone as it attacks homo sapiens for the fuzziness of its assumptions, ‘Listen, Listen…’; other times it’s soberly moving:
….(I am)…. A million
chemical subtleties of thought that flush
into those gaps blanks interstices I linger
in then reach across to make your life worth
living to make your living life I’m the past
and its future that childhood flux your
mother’s smell of lavender talc and sweat
that lies half-kindled in memory…
It’s the unerring sensitivity to sound evident in all of Mort’s poems which enables him to weave scientific vocabulary so effortlessly into verse – as, for example, in the way the plosive ‘k’ in ‘chemical subtleties’, is picked up in ‘flux’, ‘talc’ and ‘kindled’, acting to unify thought at the level of sound. Mort’s work has always been notable for its formal rigour and scrupulous attention to the line. Themes apparent in previous collections such as the natural landscape and the stuff of work, are once more in evidence but are joined now by a focus on mortality and a more marked philosophical questing – for example in the numerous references to the nature of time. However, the confident melding of the cerebral and the lyric, so reminiscent of the work of R S Thomas, remains a constant.
Rivers and lakes feature prominently – real, transformed; English, African; still and in flux; their language, skies, fauna and changing light; water as ‘a lens’, and water, repeatedly, as utterance. Two of the most winning are the tautly lyric, ‘Metalwork,’ and the tender and lucid ‘Callum at Loweswater':
…Three years old
his idea is deeper than a lake’s rank sediments and
new as gold.
‘Metalwork’ deftly weaves a pair of metaphors through the poem – water as worked metal and as speech – and sculpts its line-breaks dexterously across the architecture of the stepped verse:
something else: lamentation
hope, the river falling into
its own brass throat.
It also contains an arresting evocation of a heron in which the disjointed weight of both subject and syntax are made to mirror one other:
Now it’s seen me, the heron
will unweld: all elbows and knee
joints, it ratchets the uncouth
contraption of itself into a
nickel-plated sky. Flight
seems a doubtful art, each
inventing height; everything
The image feels as though it could stand for the struggle behind every creative act.
The outstanding poem in Peter Daniels’ first full-length collection, Counting Eggs, is the prize-winning ‘Shoreditch Orchid’. The piece demonstrates his quietly singular vision. It’s there in the contrary title – a preoccupation with how urban rubs up against natural world, and a dogged though never dogmatic probing of our moral responsibility with respect to that: the issue of ‘the land we live on and how we fit on it’ (‘Cable Car’). The voice is humane, drawn to the marginal, the uncelebrated, seen in the Chinese TV stations instantly switched to in San Francisco or in the poet’s touching address to the Shoreditch Orchid as ‘quiet and true’.
Refusing to adopt any overly simplistic ecological stance, Daniels’ notion of what constitutes our environment is bracingly inclusive incorporating not just animals and plants but lampposts, pumps, money, and – notably and with great warmth – buses. Humans are attended to because in an ordinary act – a soldier at breakfast, policeman at a cashpoint, woman crossing the road – the poetry gently unearths the absurdity of our lives, and at its best, casts the most commonplace of actions in a new light.
Although at times Daniels’ combination of plain diction with esoteric symbolism can result in a weakening of the acuity of both, the book’s strength lies in a welcome cohesiveness due to the intimate relationship between dominant theme and poetic style. Juxtapositions of natural with civilised give rise to oppositional turns of phrase – ‘Shoreditch Orchid’, and ‘meadow streets’, for example – which develop into a consistent trope: ‘old modern’, ‘fixture removal’ (‘Shoreditch Orchid’). Each unpunctuated pair, initially registered as a contradiction, finds a poetic resolution in an embracing of diversity, a recognition of necessary coexistence.
When you turn to a book of prose poetry after so many conventional poems, certain differences leap out at you – notably the way in which words can suddenly collapse into their more denotative, less connotative, meanings; related to this, how the inclusion of adjectives in the prose poem is unproblematic, a quiet, seamless thing. And finally, the subdued role of the lyric ‘I’ – how we almost cease to register it, moving with fluid ease into the poem’s consciousness. It’s invigorating to turn to Lucy Hamilton’s book of prose poems, Stalker, with their sentence, rather than line, units, and emphatic brevity. The book has a lean elegance. Each compact piece sits on the page with its sea of white space beneath it, allowing the glimpsed instant formed from a lucid image, the emotional contours of a prose cadence, to linger. The writing is succinct and probing – despite the sinister voyeurisms which form part of its subject matter – in the voice of an outsider, drawn to other outsiders such as the Parisian ‘Clochard’ or tramp:
He’s here again, his body like a winter lizard clinging to the
grille over the metro vent, …
With obliquity and a lightness of touch, the work explores difficult experiences such as bereavement, embracing dualism as its perspective – interrogating black through white and life through death – this particular vision taking its impulse from the idea of the ‘twin’ – Hamilton is one. A quizzical humour plays out through the on-going dialogues with Rilke, Van Gogh, and Steinbeck. The pieces are characterised by well-turned prose cadences such as the following about a chair being thrown in a classroom during teaching:
outside the door says it happened by magic or accident. Believing
magic and knowing accident I extract a promise…
and limpid images like the depiction of an old woman’s hand,
the skin sacrament thin.
(‘In a Street off Echo Square’).
Hamilton’s keen curiosity about language and its etymology, consistent receptivity to place and her skilful interplay between ghosts and dream-worlds and lived life, are all abiding pleasures of the work.