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  ‘WE WRITE OUR PRESENCE ON THE SHORE’

FROM A CLIFF
by Andy Brown, 58pp, £6.95, Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden, Lancs. OL14 6DA

CIRCUMNAVIGATION by Jane Routh, 60pp, £6.95, Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Bryam Arcade, Westagate, Huddersfield HD1 1ND
As their titles indicate, both these collections inhabit the territory where land and sea meet. Andy Brown lays claim to that territory by structuring this, his third book, in three parts – ‘Land’, ‘Sea’ and ‘Shifting Tides’ – while Jane Routh, in her first, prize-winning collection, does so more obliquely, beginning with a sequence called ‘Signal Flags’ based around sailing, moving on through poems rooted in woods and hills, and ending in the landscape of Northwest Scotland, back to the sea and the forced sea voyages of the clearances.

For both poets, land and sea are interwoven, interdependent. Brown writes of places where ‘the sea and shoreline fuse’ (The Water Cycle’); in ‘On the Bluff’, ‘the water & land appear the same thing / ...a pale light bluriing two worlds / in a tone of forgiveness, like two hands linked’. Routh, on a more physical level, writes of the effects of a storm in the
Atlantic: ‘In two weeks’ time it will rattle my doors / and break the tops off  young ash trees / still heavy with this season’s growth.’ (‘TANGO’) Brown sees us all as living in this littoral space, our salty tears ‘relics of our origins at sea’ (‘Two Miniatures’) and our lives spent in ‘becoming someone else, like rocks in rising tide’ (‘Cavatina’). For Routh, there seems less of an amorphous movement between land and sea, more of a split; the landbund figure watching the one at sea is a recurring image, as in ‘GOLF’ – ‘No word for this longing to be at sea, / watching from the shattered cliffs.’

The idea of absence in the language is taken further in ‘PAPA’, a poem about a sailor’s glossary  that contains words in five languages for things like ‘mastheads’, ‘calamine lotion’, ‘neap tide’, but ‘What’s missing is the word for home / absence distance loss and separation / remembrance even love’. But even when words exist, they can fail: the poem ‘Accounts’ talks about the impossibility of writing down every memory. Brown echoes this - even if we do record and name, there’s still the uncertainty of words, and the sheer weight of them: ‘names, names, falling on the head / as so much rain falls.’ (‘Shakkei’) This act of  naming can be used powerfully, though, as in Brown’s  tour de force ‘Devon Apples’, which lists and personifies the names of cider apples (‘Blue Sweet...Jacob’s Strawberry...Reynold’s Peach’); and in Routh’s elegaic poem ‘Graveyard’, which mingles gravestone inscriptions with the names of flowers and trees, so that when you reach the final word, ‘sacred’, it seems to encompass both the natural world and its dead inhabitants.

Brown, in ‘Some kind of sea light’, explores the impossibility of naming colour, how ‘we use words to paper over // the joins between things – not that / things are joined but held apart’; and how those words ‘oscillate’, ‘until a pattern is formed – ships in a sudden and luminous calm.’ This seems a metaphor for the poet’s work – and perhaps the only thing possible in the face of the dleuge of language. The poem ends beautifully, on a sea image which also incorporates the poet’s quest for the nature of language and ideas: ‘You know, I like boats. I see / sea-green and it’s the deep I want.’

This longing for ‘the deep’ can at its best give Brown’s poetry a welcome depth and seriousness. He is a poet in love with ideas, but as he himself admits, ‘ideas become confused’, and they sometimes do here, muddying the lucidity of the poems, taking an image further than it needs to go, worrying at it until the poem becomes tangled up in it. As Brown says in ‘How old is the light?’, ‘The key / to understanding the complex lies /  in singling out the stars by eye. // Come close to the sun...’and mostly he achieves this, coming close in to the natural world, exploring through it the complexity of life, whether in watery delciate seascapes, or in the Hopkinesque language of ‘A poem of gifts’, which, with its rich vocabulary (‘dewlaps’, ‘jabber’, ‘dibber’, ‘the whole gamut and hex of spring’...) wonderfully celebrates ‘the hoop of love / that rolls on / with no beginning and no end’.

Routh too comes at ideas through the natural world, making it fresh through new images: ‘the sea / is blue and the wrack below the high tide line / so bright you’d think that islands rust in water’ (‘ALPHA’). It’s through landscape too that she finds a way into the history she writes  about so movingly but unsentimentally in the closing poems of the book. In ‘One of these places’, for example, she imagines the lives that existed, even though there are ‘No graves, no marks: wind has scoured every stone / for leftovers and the mortar leached out long ago.’ And in an echo of this image of eradication, there is in ‘Old Ardtornish III ‘ a mirror ‘so blebbed and pitted / I could be a shadow passing over lichen.’

Routh’s lines, like those quoted above, have an unforced rhythm and are beautifully measured (‘the white sand of Uig still in the soles of my shoes’, she writes, or ‘The lilies had lasted, and a few dark roses’). This is the assured, original voice of a poet who can give her  poems a charge of energy by taking risks with language, as in the ending of  (the rather blandly titled) ‘Somewhere’, ‘I’m there too, wearing the same green dress / and these shoes, but watch me: I float. I sing.’ The word ‘float’ here opens up the poem, giving it a mysterious quality, going beyond what’s literal or expected. When occasionally the poems lack this imaginative risk-taking,, they can seem a bit flat; and one or two poems rather fizzle out at the end, sometimes through a lack of punctuation, intended to reinforce what the language is saying, but instead drawing too much attention to the effect. But these are quibbles about an almost faultless first collection. We should take the poet’s own advive, ‘watch me: / I float. I sing’: a poet to keep on watching.


          © Elizabeth Burns 2003