HOME-BODIES

READING A RIVER: NEW & SELECTED POEMS
by Simon Curtis
[66pp, 8.95, Shoestring Press]
DANCING OUT OF THE DARK SIDE by Glyn Hughes
[60pp, 8.95, Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Avenue, Beeston, Nottingham, NG9 1BS]

There was a time I was made to believe poetry and verse were separate creatures: poetry the real stuff; verse mechanical. The world was and still is full of writers of ('occasional') verse, dealing in conventional themes, sentiment rather than feeling, following a set of inherited and unquestioned assumptions about the nature of poetry and, more often than not, producing bad imitations of earlier writers. People in general, if asked, would consider this species of writing 'proper poetry', its practitioners in particular who tend to complain that 'modern' poetry is high-falutin' and some kind of betrayal of the largely undefined 'tradition' they think they are honouring. You see it in submissions to poetry competitions and it can be guaranteed to be there in many a writers' workshop. Undoubtedly this opposition persists and, in a general way, can still be useful descriptively - poetry the real stuff and verse mechanical - though in deploying it one has to beware of snobbery either way.

This easy formula falls apart, however, when you look closely and realise there are writers following traditional ways and means, writers employing the disciplines of verse (in the sense of verse-forms) with such consummate seeming ease that to say they are not producing the real stuff is simply crass. It is also to deny the potency of a particularly English tradition, centuries old, whose key features may be thought of as a quiet modesty, a perceptiveness and sensitivity to landscape and the natural world, a elegiac observing of changes to it, finding integrity in artistic expression. It is a poetry of celebration, loss and consolation. Openly available in the Georgian Poets, popular at the beginning of the last century, it went underground as a result of the poetics of the Modernist new kids on the block. When it resurfaces in writers like Simon Curtis, it runs the risk of being overlooked. Reading a River
is a book not to be overlooked. There are too many pleasures to be had from reading it.

It has been said that technique is the ease of the master. There are just three poems in this collection which don't rhyme or, at least, rhyme in a formally patterned way. The rest - couplets, triplets, quatrains, sonnets etc. - all follow their necessary trajectories with a deceptive naturalness. Nothing feels forced. As a New and Selected, it presents poems written over some thirty years and feels like a gathering in, a summation.

Curtis is a Northerner (he was born in Burnley and worked for many years in Manchester). Like so many Northerners, he is a home-body who makes occasional ventures out into the wider world, open to new experiences but governed by ties of emotion and loyalty to 'home'. He has what Norman Nicholson valued in himself, a 'certain home-bred gumption.' He ends one of his sonnets with the line 'You make of where you live the best you can.' Like Hardy - as a 'man who noticed such things' - (Curtis for a while edited
The Hardy Journal), he is happy to notice and celebrate simple things (for example two boys with a blue sledge walking up a street in the snow, a 'rugged and blue-shadowed fellside ridge'), to light up the ordinary, and to lament change and loss, and look for and find consolations ('That change is certain, is a truth as old/As truths the sheepfold stood for, and now sold.') There are poems responding to landscape, of landscape despoiled but with Nature quietly fighting back, poems in which human figures in the landscape give it special meaning, and there are poems about friendship, caring, and death. Here is a particularly poignant piece about caring for an elderly ill mother:

     However on earth can I tell you
     The snowdrops you planed years since,
     In their white and silent dozens,
     Are in flower once again by the quince -
     To distress you into recalling
     The home we insisted you leave?
     Is it best, the, not to tell you?
     Or is not-to-distress to deceive?
          ['Back Home...]

If this doesn't serve as a taster nothing will. Sadly, there isn't scope here to do justice to all the pleasures to be had from this book - for instance, Curtis's gentle satire, his wit, his quiet irony, his ventures in Australia, . The blurb simply hopes readers will enjoy the poems. Well, here is one who does. What he does splendidly is summed up in the last two lines of 'Weymouth Nightingale'

     So much floods back to mind, of worth, of loss,
     Of time that's gone, and debt of thanks I owe.

Dancing Out of the Dark Side
is Glyn Hughes's first collection of poems in twenty-five years. His Love on the Moor and Neighbours were sources of real pleasure. This late collection in no way disappoints. It is full of strong, thoughtful, vivid poems. In those twenty-five years Hughes has been engaged in writing prize-winning novels, autobiographical works and writing for radio. He too is a Northerner, a Yorkshireman, whose knowledge of Pennine landscapes is deeply rooted and much respected. And he also is a venturer into the wider world - having spent some years in Greece - while at the same time remaining at heart a Northern home-body. And he too is in search of things to celebrate and be grateful for, while, at the same time, being troubled and questioning what separates and destroys - change, loss, age, class, ownership, and trying to feel at-one with his world and yet conscious of separation. In 'Dead End' he asks

     What does it give us, the past?
     Massage for our sentiments?
     Fantasies to match the cast of our minds
     Props for an England of privilege and habit
     expressed so softly that we hardly noticed
     (snobbery masked as humility) until some thrust
     out of Ireland, Africa or our appalled North says
     we had enough, wake from your daze?

The answer and the consolations lie, again, in friendship and the making of art.

In the opening poem 'Green' we see Hughes wanting 'to paint the everywhere pouring green' (lovely phrase) and for fifteen lines we have a veritable paean. The ecstasy, however, is brought down to earth with the lines:

              I came out of the fields
     a green man covered in a cling of seeds
     rubbed off the hedgerows. Not quite sane
     and awkward in the pubs on summer evenings.
     With my smeared paintings
     wanting to be a peasant
     as Van Gogh tried to be a priest:
     a tunnel, a narrow gate mistaken for a way.

Hughes's poems are more fluid than those of Curtis and yet this does not deny them authority. His is a good honest voice, probing into the heart of things and conscious of both the light and the dark it contains within it - as with landscape, relationships, history. He can, like D.H. Lawrence, be dazzled by Mediterranean light and flowers:

     Wave after wave came. I could not work,
     but every day had to go out and look
     and worship what had come
     to amaze us before it passed on
     in spasms, northwards.
          [from 'Watercolours']

At the same time there is always darkness...not the province of Lawrence's 'dark gods'...but something that is more sinister than awe-inspiringly mysterious:

     Everyone who lives here shuns the dark sides
     of valleys where the sun never shines,
     where only the poor go
     for a life stunted by hopelessness.
          ['Dancing Out of the Dark Side']

This is the opening of a love poem which ends:

     I, the partner without melody or dance
     and exhausted by my dark side stare
     at the side that has the sun from her face
     and in the toss of her hair.

This contrast of light and dark permeates the collection: darkness in the landscape, in some of the loners and tight-minded folk who inhabit and haunt it, in its history. A hill farmer 'indulges what he believes are illegal pleasures' listening to short-wave broadcasts

     with no speech of his own but a
     growl like stones down a scree
     rolling through silence
     into darkness...
          [from 'Death of an Unwanted Farmer']

I am minded of similar contrasts of dark and dazzle in the last collection,
Sea to the West, Norman Nicholson published, and I was pleased to see Nicholson quoted on the back of this book commending Hughes's poems with the on-target words 'The poems slowly heave and daringly glow with a kind of persistent, stubborn life.'

That said, a hint of the at-oneness and the joy Hughes seems in search of may be found in 'Carpe Diem':

     The mind can tell itself:
     keep this or that in its cave,
     your dark thoughts will be there when you want them,
     but not joy, always.
     For now, to sit dappled in the shade
     of a blossoming tree is to be graced and blest.

Or in 'Old Man'

     Until the end of sunset the chestnut tree
     clutched a ray of light to its heart

     and the old man always sat under it, as if he felt
     that holding a light within the surrounding dark
     showed the proper way to depart.

Hughes is now seventy. I hope he continues to snatch at happiness and have many more years under the poetry tree clutching a ray of light to his heart.


                Matt Simpson 2005