In July 1979 Charles Tomlinson composed ‘The Flood’ recording the night which first took away ‘My trust in stone’. The waters which invaded the Tomlinson’s home at Ozleworth filled in the spaces as opposed to delineating them and the poet vainly erected structures to channel the water back to its origins:
Sacks, full of a mush of soil
Dug in the rain, and bagged each threshold.’
However, for some types of flood these measures are ineffectual and the poet who had tried on D.H. Lawrence’s hat when he was staying at Kiowa Ranch in New Mexico might have recalled a moment from one of that earlier writer’s essays:
‘The individual is like a deep pool, or tarn, in the mountains, fed from beneath by unseen springs, and having no obvious inlet or outlet.’
(‘Love was once a little boy’)
What Tomlinson discovered as his trust in stone was questioned was that there appeared to him a ‘vertigo of sunbeams’ reflected off the water onto the ceiling next morning. No surface was safe from swaying and that seeming permanence of the immovable appeared as ‘malleable as clay’.
The intriguing and magical world of Claire Trévien’s poems has a playfulness about it as the stone circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany appear in company with the language of the internet. It leaves one with a sense of ‘shaking hands with a ghost’: ‘They say that each time you blink / a stone will hide behind another’. In this shifting reality ‘men cut / and paste, becoming slighter’ and the result is that ‘Their arms are full of peepholes’.
Another figure of twentieth-century poetry whose awareness of the transient nature of a stone’s stability was Ken Smith whose ‘The Stone Poems’ sequence brings before us ‘stone on the move’:
‘Some arrive strangely by night
or happen as comets do. In New England
frost forces them out….
And some lie continually
in the field’s road
finding their ways back
into bleak malevolent creatures
wanting to sit in open fields.’
In Trévien’s world ‘Some places rehearse the same / landscape over and over’ and ‘Stromatolites / timehop to the Precambrian’. These stone beds suggest permanence but the poet scrolls ‘through the same living skin’ to ‘find your comments ossified’. I am left wondering about the tone of this last word: is there a questioning offered to Richard Fortey, author of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Life has Left Behind, which might suggest that the book itself is by no means as permanent as its detailed title might lead one to imagine? As Trévien suggests ‘Tracks are left for the next / caretaker’: those marks may be fossil tracks but ‘We used to think / the earth was as old as a cooling-off period’ and now ‘I’ve changed my mind’. The delicate humour behind these shifting perspectives is playfully endorsed by a technique which the poet refers to in her ‘Notes’ at the end of the volume:
‘Several of the poems have been created using a technique I’ve not found a name for, which involves taking a word, slicing it in two and placing it on either end of the line.’
In ‘Expiry Date’, the poem dedicated to Richard Fortey, the first line reveals itself as opening with ‘Some’ and closing with ‘same’; the seeming permanence of selection and repetition is emphasised for us with the opening two letters and the two which close the line. The eighth line is more mischievous as the opening two letters give us ‘ha’ (‘have….’) and the closing two are ‘ts’ (‘…lists’).
The six poems which make up the ‘Arran Sequence’ weave a witty dance with these ideas of form:
‘Start on the first page, the scone-
coloured path to the croft’s collapsed slates.’
The reminder of ‘St…one’ is softly juxtaposed with the steady workings of time and those collapsed slates prefigure an image of ‘fern tentacles’ which
‘steer through bricks, a chimney of nettles gone
As the boundaries of Time move around…the ‘Track Changes’ and cars which park ‘on the hardboiled / tarmac’ do not know ‘how quickly it’ll give out’ to leave us ‘footnoted history and an unwritten dance’.
Basil Bunting’s elegiac firmness of statement from the first section of ‘Briggflatts’ is seen as soluble. When he wrote that ‘Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write’ he was asserting a permanence which is cast now into a different perspective. Tomlinson found stone too unyielding for a poet taking stock of himself and within his Gloucestershire Noah’s Ark in 1979 he found a new way of seeing, quiet in tone, waiting patiently ‘upon the weather’s mercies’. I think that he would have admired and valued these new poems by Claire Trévien.
Ian Brinton 8th August 2016