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City Trappings (Housing Heath or Wood) by Peter Larkin (Veer Books)

City Trappings (Housing Heath or Wood) by Peter Larkin (Veer Books)

The menacing satirical quality of George Cruikshank’s 1829 print of ‘London Going Out of Town or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ may well have reflected the view the artist saw from the windows of his house in Myddelton Terrace in Islington as extensive building works were in progress in the Camden and Islington area. St Paul’s Cathedral appears amid the smoke from chimneys on the left of the drawing and a variety of inanimate things come to life in an invasion of the rural surroundings. Haystacks are seen fleeing from the discharge of bricks as from a muzzle-loading mortar and the whimsicality of having the workmen, who are digging up the ground and tearing up the trees, possess heads made from beermugs does little to soften the impact of such invasive development.
The ‘Note’ at the beginning of Peter Larkin’s disturbingly powerful 21 poems recently published by Veer Books gives a clear account of the area of his focus:

‘These poems arise from an ambivalent fascination with new perceptions of the urban environment and wildlife, especially in terms of remaining pockets of ‘trapped’ or encapsulated countryside…’

The direction of Cruikshank’s invading army of bricks and mortar might suggest the partial urbanisation of Hampstead Heath during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and if so it is worth contemplating the poetry of response to this move. Leigh Hunt went to live there and his house became a centre for the leading literary figures of the day: both Coleridge and Crabbe visited there at about the same time as Cruikshank’s apocalyptic satirical vision. As Larkin goes on to say in his introductory comment these pockets of ‘trapped’ countryside are ‘often survivals of deer parks or chases which were never intensively farmed but are just large enough to drop containment on the far side of their horizon’. The growth of these ‘pockets’ of ‘encapsulated’ rural freedom may well have led to the formation in 1882 of the National Footpath Preservation Society whose main aim was to protect the commons from entire absorption by private landlords and railway companies. The city-dweller started to take his Sunday morning walking-tour and this became so popular that the subsequent decline in church attendance led to the Convocation of Canterbury meeting to discuss the “Sunday question”.
Section 3 of Peter Larkin’s sequence of poems sets a scene for ‘Population prescience’ and ‘con / fined deferral’ and the question is asked about the emergence of that which is not to be repressed:

‘….if emergence
is entrenched core, which
urban valve emulates
the flow?’

The first of the three epigraphs to the sequence comes from J.H. Prynne’s ‘In the Long Run, to be Stranded’ from The White Stones (1969):

‘called the city and the deep
blunting damage of hope’

Prynne’s city is an inalienable whole within which we live and the echo of damage is felt in Larkin’s section 4:

‘urban in-hollowing, full exposure to lateral concern is the
trapping itself: horizons glide and raise accordingly

nostalgia implode supplies a rind to content, at this point the
urban handle does turn: we are tipped for zones horizoning
us by event, by disconvention post-immaculate but purely
on implanted spot’

As Larkin looks at what might be perceived as ‘a universally normative urban inclusiveness’ he also wonders ‘how much idyll is untransferable’; that verbal echo of a nineteenth-century reminder of a long-gone world evoked by Theocritus casts its own shadow as we look at the second of the epigraphs to the poem. Christina Rossetti’s lines ‘And other eyes than ours / Were made to look on flowers’ can be juxtaposed with the prose section 7 in which we encounter ‘a green gap is a gate to walking the entrapment’ and the city ‘conspires protection under its feet / initial urban running ahead into the domain…’. In this world which is being explored by the poet of the Twenty-first Century Nature is ‘only portable / through a mesh of local / variation’. It might be worth recalling here another nineteenth-century voice, that of Richard Jefferies who published his Nature Near London in 1883 one year after the setting up of that footpath society:

‘Though my preconceived ideas were overthrown by the presence of so much that was beautiful and interesting close to London, yet in course of time I came to understand what was at first a dim sense of something wanting. In the shadiest lane, in the still pinewoods, on the hills of purple heath, after brief contemplation there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving…This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetized me…’.

Peter Larkin’s near-microscopic focus upon what he sees allows us to become aware of what might lie behind his ‘ambivalent fascination’ and the final poem offers us a ‘heath’ which is ‘prying into its lyrical tent’

‘where urbanisation dives
for no human help, spell
out the survival nodes

coalescent emergency ribbons
a green inference: less of ours
in the more to be given’

The pun on the word ‘spell’ opens up a conclusion which suggests that the ‘City Trappings’ do not solely represent imprisonment and the third of the epigraphs has a direct voice from Peter Riley which it would be foolish to ignore:

‘We’ll evict ourselves when we need to’

Ian Brinton 17th August 2016

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2 responses »

  1. Another irresistible review Ian, my copy on order.

    Reply

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