BORDER CROSSINGS by Christopher
[88pp, £7.95, Katabasis, 10 St Martin's
Close, London, NW1 0HR]
SILENTLY ON THE TIDE by Pete
[86pp, $19.95 Australian, Walleah Press, Hobart, Tasmania]
Christopher Hampton is the author of Socialism in a
Crippled World (Penguin 1981) and not to
be confused with the well-known writer for stage and screen of that name. He
is a formidable poet who has produced in Border Crossings a set of extraordinarily impressive poems, writing
that straightaway demands respect for its assuredness of tone, its
deeply-thoughtful and passionate commitment, its honest and courageous
political plain-speaking. The collection published prior to Border
Crossings was called Against
the Current, the title of which clearly
indicates the stance Hampton takes towards subjects generally eschewed by
most British poets writing today, and taken resolutely on by him in the face
of great odds and complexity. He writes, with enviable directness, of 'the
tragedies of history' and of clinging to a hope of bringing 'back light/to a
darkened and damaged universe.' This collection demonstrates that poetry
really can after all take on global politics without descending into rant or
It begins with questions about language, the difficulties of trying to 'make
words witnesses'. Its first poem 'The Right Words' transfixes you immediately
with its gravitas; you know you are not being offered anything glib; its
quietly measured tone ensures the proper kind of attentiveness which this
kind of poetry demands, while at the same time providing a radical and
necessary antidote to 'spin':
disciplined passion's the secret;
speaks and strikes and takes the strain
outside the frame and makes it sing;
till even the
abstracts are part of the song.
The diction and the rhythms have a meditative poise that immediately sets the
tone and prepares you for what is to come; and yet the poems are about
uncertainty, doubt, an almost despair that poetry is not able to cope with
the matters in hand - the 'what it is/comes out of the unutterable':
learnt from scratch to serve
causes, used and unused,
the worn and
at you in the womb -
whisper, a vibration
that you have
to make speak sense,
even if to
no-one but yourself.
'What it Means to Speak']
Yet you know the attempt will not be shirked, the issues will be confronted
with honesty and proper seriousness; we will be required to think and feel
deeply ourselves, even if the poet is
an atheist in an empty church
voices in a fruitless search
I can make no more of what I see,
quest balked by this complexity,
what these tentative groping words betray.
There are moments of seeming consolation, moments in gardens among trees,
Marvell's 'green thought in a green shade', but even here the questioning
goes on ('the doubts that come by stealthÉthe questions that by-pass those
who wait'), the weight of history is still felt, the nightingale is seen as
the violated Philomel, Hampton's feeling his is a voice crying in the
wilderness. History is not only a narrative of horror and betrayal; it
carries an injunction of loyalty to the memory of the countless millions
engaged in the common struggle for a better life, upon whose backs
'individuals abusing power / Ébuild positions for themselves'.
As Eliot once said, history is now. And for many of us our 'now' is the now
of betrayed Socialism, a selling-out to the capitalists, to money-values; it
is the now of conflicting ideologies in which 'missiles, bombs and mines/are
seedlings for democracy' and 'terrorist certainty / Émurders in the name of
God'; it is the now of people made acquiescent by the too-easy provision of
commodities (let them eat cake) served up to all of us as consumers with the
illusion of choice. It is not for nothing that Tony Booth, Tony's Blair's
father-in-law and an old style Socialist, called his autobiography What's
Hampton finds positives also in a beautiful and moving poem about his dying
mother, in which he is able to sense
from a lifetime
things that last -
the unsayable, survive.
'What Remains Unsaid']
The things discussed so far come in the first section entitled Into
the New Millennium: there remain two
others, Speaking for the Future and
Out of the Past.
Speaking for the Future contains poems
about people and places: the preoccupations are still the same. Neruda's
Chile 'Standing up in socialist/and open challenge to the profiteers and
fascist/rulers', Heine who
knew no new
could ever be
much more than a dream
believed it could be won
the Greek poet Kazantzakis producing a body of work 'to challenge all that's
settled,/speaking for the future/from the weathered silences of Crete'.
The final section, Out of the Past,
gives space to voices from the past, allowing them to speak to us in our now,
'on the threshold of the unforeseeable/questioning and teasing all our values
out.' In the end it bring us back to language, the 'faltering words, that
would speak / if they could, the difficult music of truth' and, despite
'armed democracy' and 'this money-system / which determines how the course
will run', there just about remains the hope we might get back 'the power to get
things done' and 'make resources work for
the social wealth.'
This is a deeply-caring and honest poet. Every politician should be obliged
to read this compelling collection of poems and sit a test on it. It is one
of those collections one immediately wants to share with everyone. It's a
book I feel I've been waiting for.
Those who may have read Matthew Kneale's stunning novel, English
Passengers will know something of the
flavour of Tasmania and its history. And so will those who have read Nicholas
Shakespeare's engaging travel-book, In Tasmania, where they will have come across the name Pete
Hay. There he is quoted as a writer 'who believes Tasmania has never made an
authentic accommodation with its past' and as saying 'That past has the
stature of a dark family secret.' Kneale's novel, Shakespeare's travel book
and Hay's Silently on the Tide
set about exploring some of the dark secrets embedded in the turbulent
history of the two hundred years of their island settlement - the brutality
with which convicts shipped out from Britain were treated, the almost total
extinction of the indigenous population, the island's violent politics, the fearful
exploitation of its natural resources - in order to fulfil an obligation,
what Joyce imagined as creating 'the uncreated conscience' of the race.
A lot of fine poetry comes out of Australia and Tasmania has its share, its
most notable poet being Gwen Harwood. Among others well worth reading are Tim
Thorne, Andrew Peek, Barney Roberts and Pete Hay.
A geographer, Hay has an intimate knowledge of the island's topography and a
passionate concern for its welfare. In 'Nailing Pooranater' he is scathing
about proposals to erect a cable car on The Mountain:
this edict of the oddly wise.
thing of stars and snow and thunder
has to go. We
will tread it under.
Clap it in
irons. Put out its wildering eyes.
i.e. treat it as the convicts were in places like the infamous Port Arthur
penal establishment. Hay knows about rivers, lakes, mountains, trees, birds,
animals, weathers; he has the eye of someone used to being out there in the
field. In a poem for the scientist, James Kirkpatrick, the 'scientist becomes
poet' while out with Hay exploring a mountain moorland: 'There is poetry,
indeed - its impetuous passion - / at the quick of his science.' Hay too has
a generous helping of that impetuous passion
But Silently on the Tide is
mostly concerned with recreating some of the historical events which have
spawned an 'age of data and dead hills' and which are a matter of bad
conscience, despite 'resurgent botany' and attempts to sanitise the
'violated, unwanted past'.
Here hell is
emphatically as any warts-cleansing,
praise-the-lording soul saver could ever wish.
the Gordon River Cruise']
The language is gritty in an effort to get below surfaces, to smell 'the acid
stench of rotting, bristling life'. A poem featuring William Paterson, one of
(if I remember correctly) the island's early lieutenant-governors and after
whom the city of Launceston was formerly named, is followed by a 'Coda'
allowing Paterson his own voice and saying of the poet;
and I become
I will not
have it, this spurious life
of a literary
I spurn a
I will plague
the poet. Snag his every turn.
I was wag/prude quick/slow easy/hard,
no-one to tell, now the real of it.
But I lived
one shortened life,
and am owed
Like Hampton, Hay's poetry is one of 'disciplined passion', and political -
though his is conveyed largely through narrative; it too has a profound
sympathy for the underdog; again like Hampton it has the ability to find
consolation in the small and unexpected. 'Sheoaks' ends with the lines:
Beyond the sheoaks
is short, browsed grass
and the shit
of living animals
little gold suns of the guinea flower.
His diction has a toughness to it: it is spiky, sparky, gritty, almost
elemental, in keeping with the landscape and the people who have ranged over
it and exploited it. His forms are, for want of a better word, organic. The
book ends with four pages of Notes - 'Ruminatory Afterthoughts' - which
address the reader in a characteristically witty non-nonsense voice.
Should anyone be asking why they should be bothering with poetry from such a
distance that is trying to sort out its own particular history, well there
are two simple answers: (1) Tasmanian history is an integral part of our history, part of our connection with the larger
matter of Australian history, so vividly documented in Robert Hughes's
magnificent The Fatal Shore, and
therefore on our consciences too (2) it is honest-to-goodness poetry.
Finally, I wish to recommend two other books that have recently come my way.
These are Modern Women Poets
from Bloodaxe edited by Deryn Rees-Jones (416pp, £9.95) which is packed with
good things and intended to accompany her shortly-to-be- published book of
essays, Consorting With Angels.
The other is Alive in Cumbria -
clever witty poems written by Chris Pilling to go with magnificent
photographs by Stuart Holmes (64pp, £10, South Col Press).