In the early decades of the nineteenth century the civil engineer and geologist William Smith produced his maps giving a stratigraphic table for the rocks of Britain. As Michael McKimm tells us there are about 400 copies of this map, produced between 1815 and the 1830s, and one hangs on display in the entrance hall of the Geological Society of London. Two hundred years on from Smith’s Delineation of the Strata this anthology responds to that recognition of the way we relate to what lies beneath us in terms of both geological structure and historical fabric; it is an anthology of poems dealing with that world about which Charles Olson wrote in 1950 when he declared that ‘whatever you have to say, leave / the roots on, let them / dangle // And the dirt //Just to make clear / where they come from.’ As the editor puts it:
Their poems illustrate not only the vibrancy and variety of contemporary poetry but also poetry’s unique ability to take on uncharted territory with vision, to make connections…
The anthology contains a wide range of poems and I just highlight one or two as a taster of the delights to be found in this little volume from one of our very best small publishers.
John Freeman has four entries here and I am struck by the way in which ‘Strata Smith’ reminds me of early Dorn or Olson. I am thinking here of the early Dorn historical metanarrative, ‘Relics from a Polar Cairn’, which the American Black Mountaineer had sent to Gordon Taylor in December 1953 before it was published in Cid Corman’s Origin 13 in the summer of 1954. Comments on the poem appear in the second of my Black Mountain in England sequence of articles I did for PN Review ten years ago. Freeman’s poem opens up with that conversational informality which helps to reconstruct a scene:
We don’t know what they ate or drank. Three men
in a private room on a June evening,
the glass and china cleared from the table.
One man spoke, a second wrote, having ruled
a horizontal and four verticals
on a very large sheet of paper. The one
dictating went through, in order, with names
some of which he had improvised himself,
the twenty-three layers of various stuff,
including chalk, sand, clay and fuller’s earth,
always in the same sequence underground.
Each man took a copy before they parted.
This scene is placed for us, reconstructed along lines that might have stepped out of the pages of a narrative by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and it is only by allowing the movement of the sentence to take us gently forward that we are able to register the stunning importance of the word ‘always’ heading that penultimate line. This map will change history. As Freeman puts it in the second section, ‘Nobody had ever seen this before. / There had been no understanding of what lay, / lies, beneath their feet and ours.’ The movement outwards from the local to the vast, as in some of those early Snyder poems based upon his experiences in Yosemite, is expansive as the poem concludes with days that ‘were getting longer and longer’:
that time of year when it seems light will go on
filling the whole world more and more brightly.
The anthology is too rich for me to give an account of each poem but there are delights from the well-known names of Philip Gross, Peter Robinson, John Greening, Anthony Wilson, Elizabeth Cook, Andrew Motion as well as so many more. Andy Brown, the editor of the very fine Kelvin Corcoran Reader The Writing Occurs as Song, (Shearsman 2014), gives us fossils as ‘a haunting from the underlying past’ and Helen Mort, the organiser of the recent John Riley Symposium in Leeds merges a past with a present in which she wishes to stay ‘until the very end’:
feeling the earth
move under me,
Get this important anthology from http://www.worplepress.co.uk
Peter Carpenter has got it right again!
Ian Brinton 10th May 2015