Two events, one past and one to come: on Monday 4th April I was fortunate enough to hear Gemma Jackson read from her recently published sequence of poems, Delineate, in the Templeman Library at the University of Kent. On Thursday 12th May I intend going to the launch in Bath of Linda Saunders’s Worple publication, A Touch on the Remote. Both of these collections of poems deal with loss, its historical and geographical context, and the bridging quality of language that can make anguish appear both in its immediacy and in its more lasting ache. I wish that I had known of these two publications when I wrote about the phantom limb syndrome for Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Clegg’s neurological issue of Litmus in 2014…my loss!
Gemma Jackson is just completing her third year of a course in Creative Writing at the university and Delineate is her first chapbook publication whereas Linda Saunders has already published three volumes of poetry and been included in the New Women Poets anthology from Bloodaxe. Gemma Jackson’s work jumps off the page and stage in the manner of performance poetry but it also possesses a reflective quality which haunts one long after the performance is over. The opening piece catches the tone immediately: ‘I was just a little girl why didn’t you / stop me little girl stop why stop just / stop stop stop just j us t stop I was I / I iiiiii’. This fumbling towards expression brought back to me Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Pearl Alone’:
‘In good moments
I say smash down the chalkboard:
let it stay black.
Shake my chained tongue, I’ll fake a growl – a – a – a – a – a ’
MacSweeney was concerned with giving utterance to the trapped mind and Jackson gives voice to the stratum spinosum which can appear as a stain of ‘Human / whispering on hems’.
Linda Saunders’ forthcoming book from Worple Press is divided into four sequences, ‘Listening to Stone’, ‘A Touch on the Remote’, ‘Inflections of the Light’ and ‘The Sculptor’s House’. The epigraph, standing as an introduction to these linked sections, is from Ezra Pound’s version of Li Po’s ‘Taking Leave of a Friend’ and it opens with the words ‘…Mind like a floating wide cloud’ in which the word ‘wide’ is suggestive perhaps of the distance envisaged in John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning’. In Donne’s poem the geographical sense of distance between two lovers can be bridged by contemplating the use of mathematical instruments, ‘stiff twin compasses’, or by the width of hammered gold beaten ‘to airy thinness’. In the language of Saunders’ ‘Thin Air’ this palpability of absence becomes
‘It’s the utter thinness
of what or who has gone,
the air less thick with presence –’
It is not by mere chance that another voice behind these poems should be that of Basil Bunting whose Briggflatts closes with the statement
‘Fifty years a letter unanswered;
a visit postponed for fifty years.
She has been with me for fifty years.
Starlight quivers. I had day enough.
For love uninterrupted night.’
One of the most effective of these poems of loss is in the title sequence in which the poet seeks ways of touching an absent son ‘across the latitudes / and lapse of years’. The very consonantal emphasis on the ‘t’ in the first noun is softened into a resolution of absence felt in the cadence of ‘lapse’ and the stretching out of time in ‘years’, a word so close to both ‘tears’ and ‘yearns’. The poem I am thinking of is titled ‘Twice as Far = Twice as Fast’. After referring to the Big Bang theory of universal expansion the poem asserts that
‘It’s only that space is growing.
All the atoms remain the same,
but are moved farther apart
by space ballooning outwards.’
The conclusion is that ‘as distance increases so does the speed // of parting’.
As if nodding to Bunting’s stonemason who had scorned ‘Words!’ on the ground that ‘Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write’, Linda Saunders places steps of stone throughout her four sequences: from the opening, ‘Underfoot, it’s limestone’, to the concluding poem titled ‘Stepping Stones’ we are lead with deft confidence through a terrain that is receding. Pound’s epigraph closes with the words
‘Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance,
Our horses neigh to each other
As we are departing.’
Linda Saunders’ ends her volume with a child who finds the ‘foot-shapes of stone’ and wonders ‘Where will they go?’ A question to which the notes at the end of Gemma Jackson’s sequence give one type of answer: note to page 19, ‘6570 – the number of days in 18 years’.
Ian Brinton 5th April 2016