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NORTHERN LIGHTS: REVIEW BY MATT SIMPSON


THE ROAD TO THE GUNPOWDER HOUSE
by Neil Curry, 86pp, £7.95, Enitharmon Press, 26B Caversham Road, London NW5 2DU
TAKE IT EASY
by Jim Burns, 40pp, £5.95, Redbeck Press, 24 Aireville Road, Frizinghall, Bradford BD9 4HH
THEN AND NOW
by W.D. Jackson, 140pp, £7.99, Menard Press, 8 The Oaks, Woodside Avenue, London N12 8AR

Neil Curry is an accomplished poet. His first collection, Ships in Bottles
, came out in 1988 and was a PBS ‘Recommendation’. It was followed four years later by Walking to Santiago, which contains, among other fine poems, an impressive sequence describing a 500-mile walk along the Pilgrim Road to Santiago de Compostella. A year later came his stunning retelling of the final part of Homer’s Odyssey, entitled The Bending of the Bow. Curry is also known for his translations of Euripides and for editing the Faber Collected Poems of the distinguished Cumbrian poet, Norman Nicholson, who died in 1987.

One can detect, more sharply than in his previous work perhaps, the avuncular presence of Norman Nicholson in this new collection. Curry has for many years lived in Ulverston, some half-a-dozen miles (as the crow flies) from Nicholson’s Millom. Both poets share a preoccupation with the natural world, with coastal scenery, the flora and fauna of West Cumbria. Both have a sharp eye for telling detail and for the kind of imagery, (Coleridge’s ‘best words’) that makes it come alive. Both see with a trained poet’s eye and recreate what they see with a poet’s sensibility. Both respond to particular topographies, celebrate and love the same patch of ground. Both are ‘quiet’ (i.e. not strident like the street-cred kids) meditative poets. Curry reminds me of Nicholson when he writes for example things like ‘new ferns with their heads curled / as tight a croziers’ or ‘A peregrine, coming like a small black / anchor flung across the sky’ or ‘Today a hermit-crab had left / a needlepoint of tracks / in the sand’. This is the sort of almost-homely comparison-making that causes Nicholson’s work to be so vivid.

It is only fair to say, however, that Curry’s geographical range is wider. Of Nicholson’s (confined for most of his life to Millom because of TB), Alan Ross once wrote: ‘Nicholson, probably wisely, has decided to work a narrow seam very deeply rather than extend his range more shallowly.’ This is not to imply that Curry spreads thinly. Quite the contrary. It simply means he, unlike Nicholson, has been able to travel. There are poems in this new collection that take their cue from places other than Cumbria ­ Spain, Italy, America ­ and, within the UK, places like Chelsea, Holy Island, Whitby. It would not be right to think of Curry as ‘provincial’ (I use inverted commas to suggest the way this word was sometimes, quite unjustly, used of Nicholson). My suggestion that Nicholson is a presiding presence must not be read as meaning that Curry superficially imitates
his fellow Cumbrian. There is nothing superficial about it: the influence is fully absorbed. Curry’s poems stand on their own two feet. It is more a matter of hommage.
And fine poems they are too: subtly intelligent, beautifully honed, wearing their learning lightly or, rather, as an ingredient in historical imaginings:

              Beginnings can be difficult.
              Even so, had I begun with that line
              in the days of Eadfrith, Cuthbert, Bede,
              I wouldn’t have got this far yet.
           I’d be still pricking vellum for my initial
              B
; letting the plump O’s of it
              billow out over the page, and its long stem
              fall further and further down the edge
              like a mare’s tail, like kelp, like candlewax,
              like some thick, round             , midwinter icicle.

                           [from ‘Tidelines’]

It would be impossible to deny the fineness of such writing ­ you find it consistently so throughout the collection.


And there are poems about human impact on landscape. Section II of the collection is comprised of poems about gardens, which the blurb rightly describe as ‘Marvell-like’:

              Being a gathering together, it would seem,
              of the scattered shards of that First Eden,
              this rhetorical landscape does not preserve
              only what’s pretty ­ hence the sundew
              that upset Ruskin so, and the deadly dewlap
              of the Pitcher Plant, some kinds of which, it’s said,
              trap and digest small reptiles, even rats ­

                           [from ‘In the Chelsea Physic Garden]

The above passage also illustrates the rightness of the blurb’s observation that this new collection ‘has a colloquial ease that suits the poet’s narrative tendency.’

The collection ends with an elegaic fourteen-poem sequence based upon the Stations of the Cross, in which Curry contemplates the loss-through-death of four people close to him. The writing here is quietly, intensely moving. Let me quote one of the poems (each comprising two six line stanzas) in full. This is ‘Three’:

              What with the soil frozen so hard ­ stones
              impacted like molars ­ you could hone
              a scythe on my front garden this morning:
              yet for all that, six or seven green
              spathes of snowdrops have somehow slid themselves
              through with not a mark on them.

              Delicate deceivers. We look out for them
              time after time, as though they were a part
              of that world of renewal and return;
              in hope whereof last year she interlaced
              his winter-fingers with their pale heads
              to carry through with him into the dark.

This is beautiful stuff. Anyone with a serious interest in poetry should possess this book.

Jim Burns is a more prolific writer than Curry. Thirty-two other books are listed in ‘Take It Easy’. He’s been writing now for over forty years. And not only is he a poet, he is also a writer on jazz and an authority on the American ‘Beats’ ­ his essays collected under the title ‘Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals’ published by Trent Books in 2000 is likely to be a source-book for a long time to come.

If ever you needed a poet to demonstrate that poetry doesn’t need to be fanciful Jim Burns is your man. There’s always been a Northern blunt straightforwardness about his work. And it’s genuine, no theatrical put-on. Pretension, arty-fartiness, any kind of posing are anathema to Jim. There is no striving for effect, no wish to impress, just simply a concern to tell you something as honestly as possible. And he does it every time, demonstrating that straightforwardness makes poems too. Take this example called ‘Getting On In Life’:

              Living in an area heavily populated
              with the aged and infirm
              means that the local church
              has a funeral almost every day.

              It is quite interesting
              watching the black cars slide up,
              the tidily dressed mourners gather,
              and the church door swing open,

              I pause on my way to the shops,
              and make notes about what I see,
              while the vicar, observing my presence,
              gives me a long, thoughtful look.

The language is plain, matter-of-fact ­ even people squeamish about poetry, thinking it a posh kind of utterance and not for them couldn’t complain about that. It doesn’t eschew common parlance ­ even to the point of cliché (what else is cliché but truth with the edges worn down?). Look at the prosaic opening, the unassuming verbs (‘means that…’ ‘swing open’, ‘I pause’), the connective ‘while’; notice the offhand ‘It is quite interesting’, ‘I pause on my way to the shops’. What Jim Burns is doing here is refusing to dress up a common occurrence in borrowed robes. This is no Larkinesque pretence of bloke-iness: this is the poetry of someone who keeps his eye open and his ear cocked talking sensibly at the bar over a pint or two; it’s the poetry of the common man’s ordinary life as it is lived today …and I wish that more of them read it. This book is a sobering read, the perfect antidote to clever-cleverness, falsifying dreams, silly pretence. Take this poem called ‘The World Is Illusion’:

              Her friend has a new lover, she says,
              a left-wing Parisian intellectual,
              and I say I didn’t know there were
              any of them left these days.

              But I’m already dreaming: café tables,
              conversations about art and literature,
              radical manifestos over drinks
              and plans for new publications

              Yes, she continues, he used to be
              a friend of Guy Debord and that crowd,
              and now he’s in advertising, and makes
              lots and lots of money.

              My spectacles cloud over with despair,
              all that is solid melts into air.
              I order another pint, and listen
              to the barman talking about football.

Burns doesn’t exempt himself from disillusionment: like Larkin, counts himself among the less deceived.

Great stuff, Jim! Long may you continue to help keep our feet on the ground.

‘Then and Now’ is, as far as I know, W.D. Jackson’s first collection. If this is the case, then it is an ambitious and impressive one. Jackson is a new poet from Liverpool ­ though he lives and works in Germany ­ another name to add to the growing list of good new poets the city can now boast of, like Deryn Rees Jones, Michael Murphy, Jean Sprackland, writers who, I hope, will give a new meaning to the faded soubriquet ‘Liverpool Poets’.

Jackson is a thoroughly intellectual poet and ‘Then and Now’ must be read right through as a whole. Poems feed into one another, so that, as with Eliot’s allusiveness in ‘The Waste Land’, the whole, as something rich and strange, becomes greater than its individual parts.

I used the word ‘ambitious’ advisedly since the blurb tells us that the present book, though ‘self-contained’, is simply one ‘instalment of an extended work-in-progress on the subject of history and individual freedom.’ So if you like your poetry demanding and are prepared to use your wits rather than be passive, this is for you. It trades in metaphysical speculations and sardonic generalising about the state of things in the world and intersperses engrossing original writing on this with spirited and dextrously handled translations of the German poet, Heine. As well as being an integral part of the book’s ‘argument’, these are triumphs, to say the least, of expert rhyming. They bring to mind the rhyming skills of George Szirtes (who says modern poets can’t or won’t rhyme?) For example (Jackson prints his translations in italics) take this:

              Words, words, words, and nothing doing?
              Never flesh, my dear, my poppet! ­
              Never any dumplings stewing ­
              Always soul! No roast to top it!

              But the horse of passion gallops
              Pretty wildly ­ daily too ­
              And perhaps the solid wallops
              Of the loins aren’t good enough for you.

              In that steeple-chase with Cupid.
              Gentle child, in fact I fear
              You might end up knocked half-stupid:
              Love’s a savage beast, my dear.

              Yes, I’d say your health demands
              Lovers of my kind who linger
              On and on with shrivelled glands,
              Who can hardly raise a finger.

              Therefore by all means unbosom
              Till our hearts are hand in glove,
              For your health will surely blossom
              On such sanitary love.

                           [‘Worte! Worte! Keine Taten’]

This, like the book as a whole, is a tour de force. It has the gleeful savagery of Byron at his best.

It is a long and complex book (one in which notes are thought necessary) but one that rewards the reader’s required effort. If its ‘position’ could be summed up it might be in the following lines from ‘Author’s Prologue’:

              How to remain
              Human ­ or even not inhumane ­
              At such a time in such a place,
              Is my only theme that matters. How
              To release from the bloodless there of then
              The here ­ the power ­ the peace of now
              Is the entire responsibility,
              Burden and opportunity
              Absurd ­ obscure ­ frightening ­ free
              Of each small soul…

‘Then and Now’ is an important debut as well as a promise of riches to come.

              © Matt Simpson 2003