The Ebb and Flow


the storm berm
, Andy Brown (21pp, 4, tall-lighthouse)


Once you've lived near the sea it is very hard to live, or want to live, anywhere else isn't it? Now, if you find yourself in the predicament of having to live somewhere else, life can be easier. You don't even need that conch shell. Because Andy Brown has done something pretty special:

                                                      Our fathers
     watch anchor buoys in line across the spines
     of wave-crests; an armada of seagulls
     resolving cliffs by soaring.
          [Song of the Lifeboat Men's Daughters]

An old friend who grew up on the Cornish coast is convinced that if the sea were music it would be in the key of E minor. If so, that makes this very much an E minor collection. But that's not to say that the storm berm
lacks variety. It doesn't: it ranges from prose poetry to intricate formal schemes all within twenty pages. Which reminds me: this is a beautifully produced book too. The paper is of good quality, the layout and font give the poems plenty of breathing space, and the cover is simple and striking. Well done tall-lighthouse. It's a nice object to have around as well as, I think, an exceptional collection of poems.

I've already noted, by quotation admittedly and without exactly telling
you, the lyrical quality of this poetry; the ebb and flow of short and long vowels elongating towards the ends of lines like waves about to break; the imaginative use of words - 'resolving cliffs by soaring' is one of those 'of course!' moments for which poets are paid (or ought to be); the sense of lineage 'Our fathers watch achor buoys...' - you can't get away from the fact that if you're writing about the sea you're not the first, so you may as well admit it; and the sinewy muscularity of flexing internal rhymes - 'anchor buoys in line across the spines' - conjuring mental images of wave after wave. And that's three and a half lines from the first poem in the book.

And the rest of the collection lives up to the promise of the opening. The sea's changeability is captured, no 'captured' is wrong and works against the spirit of the book - perhaps: witnessed, by skilful formal and thematic interplay. That the sea as trickster is portrayed in a prose poem is sly; after all it's the trickster form (the 'do you believe in ghosts' of poetry; despite its now-long history still subversive and controversial), each verse of Odysseus
beginning: 'The ocean denied knowing anything...' And I admit to being impressed by a writer who's not frightened to hark back to classical mythology, and who does so secure in the knowledge that there's something fresh to be said. 

For me the storm berm
is especially interesting because I see in the work of Andy Brown the co-existence of two kinds of poetry, poetry that stems from very different (some would argue incompatible) traditions. There is more than a touch of Ted Hughes about some of the sounds that Andy Brown makes. I was reminded more than once of that Hughes line from 'Wind': 'A black backed gull bent like an iron bar slowly.' And that is no bad thing (in fact if I could only be allowed to remember one line of poetry it might even be that one). But there's also the influence of writers such as Lee Harwood, which manifests in a delight in the present-ness of things, in simple listing, in the lights and shades of not-knowing, and in acknowledging that words can only go so far before the reader fills in the gaps with his or her own experience:

     The sea is just the sea until
     it changes, a cross between
     a sunrise and a friend...

     ...those beginnings on the borderline
     between the things we know
     and think we know.

That relaxed delivery and acknowledgement that sometimes 'the sea is just the sea' are a world away from Hughes, and firmly in Harwood territory.  And I guess this is where things could get sticky.  I think you can argue that Hughes and Harwood represent the real extremes of post-war English poetry (Larkin aside: however good he was, and nobody could argue against his skill, perhaps he had little influence on the way
in which people write poems - there is little in his work that is novel besides an attitude).  Is it possible to reconcile such extremes?

On the one hand you have Hughes, the self-described poet as shaman, claiming for poetry a power rooted in the precise placing of words, believing words to be capable of summoning the daemon of a poetic scenario in exactly the same way as a renaissance magician would summon a spirit by the recitation of precise formulae in the correct ritual context.  So for Hughes it is all about the words.   As a form of sympathetic magic (the concept that events on one plane of existence may cause changes on another - a concept that, in Western traditions at least, has its origins in the collision of the Platonic theory of Forms and Medieval ideas of Angelic and Demonic hierarchies) poems are capable of affecting and influencing the soul.  Words are, because of their potential to instigate a universal magical sympathy, more important, in a sense more real, than the events they describe.  Essentially Hughes' theory represents a hierarchy, from words to poet to reader: words have their intrinsic power and the poet works his magic on the reader by means of his mastery of that power.

On the other hand, on the back cover of Landscapes
Lee Harwood writes: 'I care obsessively about caring. I hate or distrust all things that begin with capital letters...  The poem is always unfinished and open ended and only complete (and then only in a way) when read by someone else... The important telegram torn in half and only one half given to the reader to fill in the missing half... The reader fills in the blanks with his own memories and imaginations so each reader creates a different poem from the basic foundations the writer gives him.'

It is interesting that Harwood writes 'imaginations' rather than 'imagination'. It implies plurality and flux, not a fixed thing called 'The Imagination' which can be used as a kind of mental appliance to channel spiritual or magical energy from one plane to another. No magical primers here. 'People of the world, relax.'

Sometimes Harwood's poems leave the reader dangling, they end without finishing, suggesting that there is only so much of which words are capable. Words are not 'magical' in this kind of poetry: a democratic act of tentative communication is
; a poem is an exchange in which the poet suggests, instigates, describes, baffles, makes connections and confusions, but does not prescribe. The miracle is in the un-hierarchical overlap between reader and writer: that sympathy (as distinct from magical 'sympathy') exists at all is a beautiful accident of shared experience. Words on their own are not enough; they are ultimately an inadequate tool for communication, their effectiveness reliant on an innate desire in people to find commonalities, or explore differences, of experience.       

And Andy Brown, it seems to me, sits somewhere between these two traditions, his poetry embodying the tension between the pull of Hughes' reliance on magic words in sympathetically evocative combinations of traditional alliteration, rhythm and (on occasion) rhyme, and Harwood's recognition that there is always something missing, that words can never go far enough; words in themselves cannot 'care' or be of abstract magical value without correlative shared experiences. However much they are capable of creating sympathy words need the people uttering them, and the reasons those people have for doing so.  In 'Prayer (Compline: 9 pm) / Another Sea Poem', it seems to me that something of the tension between the above modes of poetic expression is pithily articulated:

     We pick up
                         a nubbin of rock
     and speed it off the surface -
     each leap
                   halving the distance
     to infinity, where
                   our token tumbles on,

     like a mermaid sounding
                   the depths
                               of her own paradox.

I don't really know whether it's possible to resolve such tensions, and I can't be sure that Andy Brown is even attempting to.  But I feel that they are implicit in this short book, and important in attempting to understand it.  Certainly Andy Brown does not shy away from the very different challenges posed by the traditions in which he works.   And this is a challenging book for a certain kind of reader too, one who perhaps thinks he knows on which side of the poetic fence he belongs.  What is incontrovertible is that this is a clever book and a beautiful book, that it exhibits mastery of diverse forms and styles, and that I enjoy the experience of reading poetry like this from 'A Ship in a Bottle':

     Inside each bottle he hangs the sunlit rim of the
           sea, curving from the distant whine and crash
           of breakers to headlands of quiet anchorage
           topped by a sailor's chapel.  Inside each
           chapel, a team of sailors praying.  Above the
           gravestones in the quiet yard, prayer-birds stir
           their wing tips in an act of ocean wondering.
           Inside the graves of the drowned, the
           Prehistoric sea rinses the bones.


                    Nathan Thompson 2008