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The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The distrust that William Carlos Williams had of the poetry of T.S. Eliot is well known and for confirmation one could certainly turn up that letter Williams sent to James Laughlin in March 1939 in which he damned the American ex-pat with the faint praise of being ‘a cultured gentleman’ before going on to add ‘and cultured gentlemen are always likely to undersell the market’:

‘I’m glad you like his verse but I’m warning you, the only reason it doesn’t smell is that it’s synthetic…He can write. Granted. But—it’s like walking into a church to me. I can’t do it without a bad feeling at the pit of my stomach: nothing has been learned there since the simplicities were prevented from becoming multiform by arrest of growth…’

But we had been made aware of Williams’ distrust long before. In fact from Spring and All onwards! A couple of pages before ‘By the road to the contagious hospital’ there is the prose note ‘If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity…’. Maybe it’s that word ‘integrity’ that prompts me think of both Williams and Gerard Manley Hopkins when I read the introductory poem to this fine first collection put out by Shearsman: ‘Sempervivum’.

‘Long-living plant, that flowers on the ground and
spawns in circles round itself, whose low and quiet
center stores a gravity not surpassed by
stone, down to the pith,’

As the stones from a sonnet by Hopkins ‘ring’ and the ‘weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’ in ‘Spring’ so do the houseleeks of Erica McAlpine ‘put forth into these leaves’ a sense of energy that feeds on ‘both drought and faith’. The resurgence of life that Williams captures in that roadside to the contagious hospital can be felt throughout this sensitive and uplifting volume of poems. Both poet and reader are immersed within this energy and we can recognise that ‘it’s in our power / to spend the whole afternoon drinking our fill / of sun (soaking now through the canvas over /us)’ confirming us in the feeling that ‘These are the Happiest Days’.
When George Oppen referred to the ‘isolation of the actual’ in Of Being Numerous he was thinking of rooms and ‘what they look out on’ and basements, ‘the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks in the concrete, such solitude as we know’. McAlpine reminds us that ‘life is brief’ and therefore brings sharply into focus the immediacy of what is involved in being ‘The Country Gambler’:

‘You’ll find me in the clover patch from August
to October, detangling tangled stem from stem,
inspecting each one over, knowing three
seems four when two stems meet and send a leaf
from under, or if they cross along the neck then
six can be the number. And some are tall,
and bent with rain, and overtop the grass,
while others, tiny, clump their leaves in bunches
thick as moss.’

If there is a tone of Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall here there is also that of John Clare whose ‘Clock a Clay’ (ladybird) makes its home in a ‘pale green pillar topt wi’flowers’ which bends at the wild wind’s breath ‘Till I touch the grass beneath’. In the hunt for a four-leaved clover ‘shade can turn the leafage blond’ and wind ‘can push the petal-ends to ground’, making them ‘hard to sort’. With another sly glance at an English poet there is perhaps here a tone of Edward Thomas’s searching for the seemingly long-lost possibility of Eden and Erica McAlpine agrees with Thomas that ‘I wouldn’t cut the searching short’. After all, ‘Nothing’s better than the luck you find’.

I have merely scratched at the surface of these poems and I firmly recommend that you order a copy now; they represent a significant beginning of a serious poetic talent.

Ian Brinton 22nd April 2016

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