Urban/Rural


Remains of a Future City, Zoe Skoulding, (64pp, 7.99, Seren)
Messenger. New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, Ellen Bryant Voigt
(238pp, 8.99, Norton)


An epigraph from Blixa Bargeld foreshadows the poems in Zoe Skoulding's book: 'the new temples are already cracked / future ruins'. And on the face of it, 'future ruins' are what she gives us, not only naming 'Building Site', but also enacting on the page the unfinished and chaotic business of such places:

     Between the buildings
                                           trees reach down
             to languages     
                                           of soil and worms,
                                                          leaves gloss argots of glass and steel

I've great admiration for writers who, as Zoe Skoulding does here, address a single theme throughout a book. I enjoy the way in which various 'zones' of a city are suggested to her as titles by a particular source - Ivan Chtcheglov's manifesto translated by Christopher Gray as Formula for a New City. 'The Sinister Quarter', 'The Death Quarter', 'The Useful Quarter': it must have been great fun inventing these poems. In this last

     Needing Packets of nails
     adhesive
     grout
                   it's here we come
                   to shop fronts the same now for thirty years
                   blistered letters spelling out the family name
     sheets of wood hammered on the counter
                    where the formica wore off
     from the weight of advice

Fun too, to invent shapes for such poems: 'Tower' is a tall, thin poem with small balconies; 'The Old Walls' is a solid poem, coursed like brickwork. Five 'Columns' are a solid block of text running down (or I should say up?) the centre of the page. And entertaining also, to generate poems by navigating a place with the 'wrong' map to hand, as in 'Forest with A to Z of Cardiff':

                          I bring gridlock
     with me and the forest
                          falls in line between

     nowhere and nowhere

But the poems address more than an urban landscape; they also reference their own making, as in this slice out of the third of the 'Columns'

                             headlines   grow  a  point  size
                             fiction  holds  us  in  alignment
                             our views are justified despite
                             uneven   spacing   leaves   fall

If cities are constructed from bricks, poems are constructed from words - and this parallel is elegantly made in 'Reconstruction', a poem which appears to be talking about re-building when it opens

     The days you forget how the bricks
     were piled up all over again,
     their edges just where they were before
     as if nothing had happened

but by the third stanza has shifted to words, using form in a house-that-Jack-built way to reconstruct the poem - and add extensions stanza by stanza:

     The words fell down
     and nobody knew what happened
     to the places that bricks
     were not the edges of. Making them again
     meant bricking up the way things were before,
     so that nothing could ever be different.


I admire these poems more and more as I appreciate their manoeuvres and ambiguities. This is in a completely different way from how I respond to Ellen Bryant Voigt's writing in Messenger. The opening poem 'The Hen' (from 1976), describing a chicken being killed, itself points to that difference. Of the decapitated and pulsing body, she writes

     ...I knew it was this
     that held life, gave life
     and not the head with its hard contemplative eye.

- so I'll say it was with a contemplative eye that I was reading
Remains of a Future City, whereas Messenger gets me in the pulsing body. Of course I'd expect to be drawn to poems with a rural setting, poems about fields and farmers and animals, and there are plenty of these for me to enjoy: 'Why isn't he out in the fields, our common passion?' she asks of her sleeping father in 'The Visit'. It's not the subject matter that holds me (and anyway the range is far greater: piano playing and teaching are recurrent themes; snakes, too) but the writing. 'Grace' is one of the words on the back cover that seems to me to have it right. But now I have to say what it is I think constitutes that 'grace'.

It's twofold. First, there's both elegance and flow in the language. You can pick up the book at random and read it aloud and not falter. Let me test this, with a random dip (and the book is well-made for dipping, opening easily, with lots of white space) - 'Talking the Fire Out, 5':

     Who can distinguish knowledge
     and belief? Against
     the dangers in your own house,
     you take up every weapon -
                                                          Listen:
     my father killed a copperhead
     with a switch. Out fishing,
     coming on it by the pond, knowing
     the exact angle and trusting it,
     he flicked the weed against its back
     as he had often cast his lean line
     over secretive waters.

It's interesting that I only needed to glance once at the text to be able to type it out - it sounds natural.

Secondly, the writing's pared down. I don't mean minimal - rather, stripped back to what is essential, so
that is what fills the space of a poem. It's the fierce honesty of the writing that strikes me in 'Lesson' - a more recent poem from Shadow of Heaven about her mother, seen over a long period of time. It opens

     Whenever my mother, who taught
     small children forty years,
     asked a question, she
     already knew the answer.
     'Would you like to' meant
     you would....

and moves forward in time to a crisis, when the daughter acknowledges her own tactic for dealing with her mother and says

     I...
     made my face a freshly
     whitewashed wall: let her
     write, again, whatever
     she wanted there.

The voice is objective and unsparingly open - poems of rural life don't in any way idealise it. 'The Farmer' shows his strengths are also his limitation: 'everything he knows is practical', which is stifling for his wife. 'The Trust' is a particularly haunting poem: after neighbours' lambs have been killed, in his own dog's mouth a farmer finds

     wound around the base of the back teeth - squat molars
     the paws can't reach to clean - small coils of wool,
     fine and stiff, like threads from his own jacket.

The farmer has to shoot his own dog. The poem's as unsentimental as it is exact, rich in details where it needs to be (the 'evidence' round the teeth) but driving unflinchingly forward to the dog, 'his best companion in the field for seven years', being shot. The last 6 lines of the poem however are given over to understanding what happens in dogs such as this: the event's distressing, but there's much more to it than that.

Although she opens the 1987 collection
The Lotus Flowers with a poem about teaching, 'The Last Class', like this

     Put this in you notebooks:
     All verse is occasional verse.

and although many poems
are occasioned by significant events and moments and family memories, Ellen Bryant Voigt has also undertaken longer sequences of poems, including the 1995 book-length Kyrie. Several voices speak in these poems (some through letters, prayers or incantations) to build up a sense of the 1918 pandemic in which 'You wiped a fever-brow, you burned the cloth. / You scrubbed a sickroom floor, you burned the mop.'

A sequence, 'Variations: at the piano' from the previous book also takes a long perspective. Its final couplet is striking (I keep coming across striking phrases that make me stop and savour them):

     Digging a hole to where the past is buried,
     one covers the living grass on either side.

What's so remarkable is that this writing doesn't in any way cover over the 'living grass'. So it's unsurprising (turning again to the cover) to find Ellen Bryant Voigt has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

                Jane Routh 2009