This is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging collection
which tips its cap towards the traditions of British landscape poetry while
also exploring the limits of language in a playful and somewhat unorthodox
fashion. Totterdell's book is one which is filled with information and with
learning but his constant questioning of the relation between what we know -
or think we know - and our 'actual' encounters with nature and the great outdoors
is constantly stimulating and, dare I suggest it, life-affirming.
Mark Totterdell is skilled in the traditional forms of rhyme and meter and
can also produce poetry which works in an orderly progressive fashion,
producing an 'argument' which includes thesis, antithesis and synthesis, even
where the conclusion is not entirely expected. There's a neatness to this
kind of poem - and it's not the only kind he writes! - which could prove
overly schematic in a less accomplished writer but I thoroughly enjoyed
reading these 'wayward polemics' because they more often than not suggest an
'openness' to experience even where the formal device implies closure. Take
these extracts - from the beginning and end of the poem - from 'Devil's Coach
Horse', for example:
Coach Horse crossed my path today,
one inch of
I bent and
placed a finger in its way;
it arced into
a horseshoe in defence
up onto my finger tip.
I flung it
onto the ground instinctively,
mandibles might have on me.
...........................Watch it break free and run
the vast mute years it ran its course
ever thus was represented,
or any coach
was drawn by any horse,
or any devil
ever was invented.
There's an echo of D.H. Lawrence hovering over this aspect of Totterdell's
work, an influence perhaps more strongly located in the poem 'Two Adders'
where the concluding stanza combines an emotional response to 'the other'
with a commentary on the limits of 'human interpretation' in a smoothly
articulated sentence which makes its point while leaving space for the
Look at them
now in their long-evolved perfection,
with whatever metaphors you like,
but can't you
recalibrate your cultured mind
that old instinctive urge to strike?
I also enjoyed the sensual immediacy of Totterdell's work, as exemplified in
'Himalayan Balsam' where the protagonist is searching for an olfactory
analogy suitable to the occasion:
but persuasive fragrance,
down by the
riverside, penetrates your nostrils,
beeline for the brain that teases it
with ... bubblegum?
Another literary point of reference might well be Edward Thomas and there are
two poems here which seem, intriguingly, to refer to Thomas' most famous poem
in an oblique and unexpected manner. 'Strop' (page 41) goes like this:
It wasn't June but August,
the poet was
willow-herb had gone to seed,
meadowsweet turned sour,
and all the
regiments of birds
demobbed, and gone
to ground, to
skulk in undergrowth,
There may also be an 'echo' of Yeats here though I'm less sure of this and
the poem's tone is both unexpected and refreshingly ambivalent.
'Portslade' (page 42) begins like this - 'No, I've not visited Portslade, /
the name's not one I remember, unless ....'
A recurring theme throughout this book appears to be the unknowable
relationship between 'man' and 'other animals' and Totterdell's commentaries
on the nature of language here are both entertaining in an amusing fashion
and enquiring in a slightly provocative sense, as in 'Pet Shop', for example,
where we get 'That craved connection only goes one way.', followed by:
are we supposed to make of this?
white cockatoo unlocks her beak
black tongue, plants on her gaoler's nose
and tender-looking kiss.
(from 'Pet Shop')
Probably the best example of this kind of 'argument' is 'Black and White', a
poem which packs it in, in its two short stanzas, satisfyingly taut and
apparently transparent but suggesting a more complex relationship between
language and its perception of the 'out there' than you could reasonably
expect in a poem of this length, brief enough to quote here in full:
It's all down
here in black and white,
will have to reconcile
these words conceal
lines. Up past the light
architecture, in the bright
unselfconscious white gulls whirl,
wings cutting, as they wheel,
that minds have tied so tight.
Poetry of this quality makes you wonder why Totterdell isn't better known
within the mainstream of British poetry as I've seen far lesser poems than
this highly praised in the national press. His exploration of the relationship
between people and his planet's co-inhabitants has something of the intellectual
power to be found in Helen Macdonald's prize-winning prose work, H is for
Hawk - Macdonald herself being a superb
and still relatively unacknowledged poet.
I've only skimmed the surface of This Patter of Traces and feel sure that it's a collection I'll look at
again. I probably haven't given a strong enough sense of the range of
Totterdell's writing in relation to 'the natural world' and certainly haven't
attended enough to his use of unusual vocabulary. The poems I've responded to
most immediately are those which contest our often clichˇd reporting of 'the
world out there' and which imply strangeness but also suggest that by looking
beneath the stones and wandering off 'the beaten track' we're likely to be
much better rewarded, even when the rewards imply complexity and may add to
Kingfisher and the Dipper
Down by the
river, all the poets gather
for a glimpse
of the flashy kingfisher,
over their flame
the brown and white dipper
walking under water,
Stimulating, erudite and unpretentious. Great stuff.
© Steve Spence