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Steps by Mark Goodwin (Longbarrow Press)

Steps by Mark Goodwin (Longbarrow Press)

In his introduction to The Footing (Longbarrow Press 2013) Brian Lewis referred to Mark Goodwin’s ‘coastal epic’ From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny as being ‘shortened and reshaped for this collection’. In late September last year I put a blog review of that remarkable anthology of poems on the Tears website and it gives me considerable pleasure now to follow it up with a few reflections on Mark Goodwin’s 2014 volume, Steps. This beautifully produced volume includes the full version of that ‘coastal epic’, running to some seventy pages, as well as some fine meditative verse that owes a considerable debt to the poet’s reading of the American Gary Snyder. Indeed it is no surprise that the collection should open with an epigraph from Snyder’s essay ‘Blue Mountains Constantly Walking’: ‘If you doubt mountains walking you do not know your own walking’. And the major presence of the American poet took me back to an interview he had given for the small magazine, Road Apple, in 1969 in which he asserted that

‘teaching should begin with what the local forces are…You should really know what the complete natural world of your region is and know what all its interactions are and how you are interacting with it yourself. This is just part of the work of becoming who you are, where you are.’

Some of Snyder’s cleanest and sharpest ‘digging’ appeared in his early volume, Riprap (Origin Press 1959) where the title (defined as ‘a cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock/to make a trail for horses in the mountains’) becomes itself a definition of poetry. The clear edges of the cobbles take one, line by line, into a world of extraordinary clarity where a sense of ‘then’ and ‘now’ is interwoven. Mark Goodwin’s opening poem in Steps is titled ‘Walk’ and it opens with an imperative
‘Put
a foot on a rock. Choose

one route through millions of pebbles. Follow
clearly seen, sometimes pain-filled paths, or abandon
people’s spoor & artefact. Wander.’

The coastal epic concerning a ‘Walk in a North Cornwall’ begins with a clear association between the act of walking and that of writing a poem:

‘if you are reading
this walk imaginatively
rather than actually
walking it then there is
only one certainty

this is a poem’

Step by step, pebble by pebble, the words are placed on the page and the reader moves along this path of personal self-awareness, this trail of individual response to a landscape. As with Snyder’s ‘Riprap’ (‘Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks.’) the imperative acts as a guide and Goodwin is the map-reader:

‘a map
and you’re reading
a me reading that and

that’s a perhaps

under our feet now
are path-pebbles’

The indefinite article registers the poet’s concern for making clear that this journey is an individual one; it is not to be confused with the guide-book mentality of making assumptions about priorities. In a landscape very different from the North Devon coast of England Snyder’s sense of place had been defined early for him whilst working for a trail crew high up in the West Coast’s Yosemite Park:

‘I found myself doing three months of long, hard physical labour, out on the trails every day, living more or less in isolation, twenty-five miles from the nearest road. We never went out. We just stayed in there working on those trails week after week. At the beginning, I found myself straining against it, trying to exercise my mind as I usually exercise it. I was reading Milton and I had some other reading, and I was trying to go out on the trails during the day and think about things in a serious, intellectual way, while doing my work. And it was frustrating, although I had done the same thing before, on many jobs. Finally, I gave up trying to carry on an intellectual interior life separate from the work, and I said the hell with it, I’ll just work. And instead of losing something, I got something much greater. By just working, I found myself being completely there, having the whole mountain inside of me, and finally having a whole language inside of me that became one with the rocks and with the trees. And that was where I first learned the possibility of being one with what you were doing…’.

Mark Goodwin’s journey is one of personal discovery. It contains a sense of objectivity with references to places and maps (‘OS Explorer Map 111 / Bude, Boscastle & Tintagel / 1:25 000 scale / Edition—B1 / Revised for significant change 2003 / Revised for selected change 2005 / pertinent six-figure & eight-figure grid-references / & cardinal headings are given throughout’) but the poem is one of an individual response to landscape and it charts a healing process as individuals are met and ‘my soul’s body’ is given ‘back to me’. In keeping with this care of approach Steps concludes with a section ‘A bout A’:

‘Dear Ear,

Often my poetry about lANDscAPE re()(f)uses the (or even a) definite article—a/the use of either ‘A’ or ‘a’ re(veals)inforces how land’s cape is cons tructed, is multiple & layered, and is only dist(rict)inct to ‘a’ person in ‘a’ moment…’

Ian Brinton 29th October 2015

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