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
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.
fine poems they are too: subtly intelligent, beautifully honed, wearing their
learning lightly or, rather, as an ingredient in historical imaginings:
can be difficult.
so, had I begun with that line
the days of Eadfrith, Cuthbert, Bede,
wouldn’t have got this far yet.
I’d be still
pricking vellum for my initial
B; letting the plump O’s
out over the page, and its long stem
further and further down the edge
a mare’s tail, like kelp, like candlewax,
some thick, round ,
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’:
a gathering together, it would seem,
the scattered shards of that First Eden,
rhetorical landscape does not preserve
what’s pretty hence the sundew
upset Ruskin so, and the deadly dewlap
the Pitcher Plant, some kinds of which, it’s said,
and digest small reptiles, even rats
‘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
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
with the soil frozen so hard stones
like molars you could hone
scythe on my front garden this morning:
for all that, six or seven green
of snowdrops have somehow slid themselves
with not a mark on them.
deceivers. We look out for them
after time, as though they were a part
that world of renewal and return;
hope whereof last year she interlaced
winter-fingers with their pale heads
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 an area heavily populated
the aged and infirm
that the local church
a funeral almost every day.
is quite interesting
the black cars slide up,
tidily dressed mourners gather,
the church door swing open,
pause on my way to the shops,
make notes about what I see,
the vicar, observing my presence,
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’:
friend has a new lover, she says,
left-wing Parisian intellectual,
I say I didn’t know there were
of them left these days.
I’m already dreaming: café tables,
about art and literature,
manifestos over drinks
plans for new publications
she continues, he used to be
friend of Guy Debord and that crowd,
now he’s in advertising, and makes
and lots of money.
spectacles cloud over with despair,
that is solid melts into air.
order another pint, and listen
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
words, words, and nothing doing?
flesh, my dear, my poppet!
any dumplings stewing
soul! No roast to top it!
the horse of passion gallops
wildly daily too
perhaps the solid wallops
the loins aren’t good enough for you.
that steeple-chase with Cupid.
child, in fact I fear
might end up knocked half-stupid:
a savage beast, my dear.
I’d say your health demands
of my kind who linger
and on with shrivelled glands,
can hardly raise a finger.
by all means unbosom
our hearts are hand in glove,
your health will surely blossom
such sanitary love.
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
or even not inhumane
such a time in such a place,
my only theme that matters. How
release from the bloodless there of then
here the power the peace of now
the entire responsibility,
obscure frightening free
each small soul…
‘Then and Now’ is an important debut as well as a promise of riches to come.
Matt Simpson 2003