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Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

‘Hushings’ is the second group of poems published here and yet again one is struck by the immaculate presentation achieved by Brian Lewis’s Longbarrow Press. It is precisely this care and attention to detail that justifies this Northern Press’s reputation as one of the finest and most professional of the Independent Poetry Presses active at the moment.

There is a quiet and witty intelligence which threads its way through these eighteen poems: the most serious themes of truth and justice are meditated upon within a world of approaching darkness. Writing about humour in Janus: a summing up (1978) Arthur Koestler had suggested that ‘Comedy and tragedy, laughter and weeping, mark the extremes of a continuous spectrum’ and here
just below the surface of Peter Riley’s quiet reflections upon movement and change there lurks the wry smile that can open a poem with an echo of a joke:

‘Two buzzards wheeling over the top of the woods
and one of them says to the other, What
do you see down there, brother,
with your little eye?’

The opening of that second line creates the picture of the joke as it might be shared perhaps in the Hare & Hounds, a pub near Hebden Bridge which appears a few times throughout this collection. However, the reference to a game of ‘I spy’ echoes also the world of childhood which also glimmers just below the surface of these lyrical and elegiac responses to landscape. I am reminded here of Basil Bunting’s comments about music made in an interview with Hugh Kenner for National Public Radio in early 1980 when he suggested that music ‘is organized in various ways, and one of the inventions…was the notion of a sonata, where two themes which at first appear quite separate, and all the better if they’re strongly contrasted…gradually alter and weave together until at the end of your movement you’ve forgotten they are two themes, it’s all one.’ When writing Briggflatts Bunting had perhaps Scarlatti’s B minor fugato sonata (L. 33) in his mind from the outset and the eighteenth century composer’s readiness to modulate between the light and shade of major and minor informs the shift from the spirit of spring which opens the first section and the more sombre note of death and betrayal which soon follows.

In his notes at the end of this new collection of poems Riley tells us that ‘hushings are places where limestone has been exposed and broken for extraction of ore, or for burning into lime, by unleashing a rush of water down a hillside from a reservoir on higher ground’. The eighteen twelve-line poems in the group offer the reader that sense of movement, the rippling effect which Bunting echoed from his knowledge of the Scarlatti sonata, and their sound is ‘always water running over stone’. Movement brings different perspectives and the first of these hushings places the poet’s childhood on the steps of Banks Lane Council School in 1945:

‘a first step into the nation, to be followed
by 68 years starred and scarred with gains and losses
and gates opening upward and pits closing down.’

The landscape here is one of ‘widening regard’ and a realisation that in

‘all this land, this nothing-much, there are
hidden values, seeds waiting to announce themselves
as cotton grass and bugle.’

The wit I was referring to earlier lies bleakly in a comment which appears only two lines above this faith in ‘hidden values’:

‘…Here we wait, as if waiting
for the return of truthful politics.’

And in poem xvi the modulation of the music gives us the ‘end of the chorus’ which is also the ‘end of public truth’.

These poems are in no way infected with rural sentimentality and they are closer to the photographs of Don McCullin in which the images provide their own commentary: they are archways through which the poet can contemplate an intelligent awareness of who he is in relation to the geographical world around him and in relation to a past which disappears down the stone steps:

‘down the stone, down the air, down the darkness
singing Dove sei, amato bene? viewing bright below
everything we have.’

Ian Brinton, 11th June 2019

http//:www.longbarrowpress.com

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

The Footing Anthology (Longbarrow Press, 2013)

The Footing Anthology (Longbarrow Press, 2013)

An anthology of poems by Angelina Ayers, James Caruth, Mark Goodwin, Rob Hindle, Andrew Hirst, Chris Jones, Fay Musselwhite.

(www.longbarrowpress.com)

The introduction by Brian Lewis sets the scene for this highly attractive anthology of poems which is the ‘result of a long-term engagement with the ideas and practices of walking; an engagement that, in many cases, starts at home.’ Brian reflects upon the idea attributed to Wordsworth that walking is not simply a mode of travelling, but of being. This reflection immediately made me think of the piece from Lyrical Ballads 1798, ‘Old Man Travelling, Animal Tranquillity and Decay, a Sketch’ which concludes with the lines

‘—I asked him whither he was bound, and what
The object of his journey; he replied
“Sir! I am going many miles to take
“A last leave of my son, a mariner,
“Who from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,
“And there is dying in an hospital.”’

From Isabella Fenwick’s note, dictated to her by the poet in 1843, there is a suggestion that this poem was ‘an overflowing from the old Cumberland Beggar’ and that phrase ‘overflowing’ seems particularly pertinent to this beautifully produced volume from Longbarrow Press in which ‘Familiar ways are made unfamiliar by acts of attention to hitherto unseen details.’

In James Caruth’s poem ‘Procession’ there is a Wordsworthian moment in which the current scene is juxtaposed with the more distant world in which ‘Somewhere, important events are taking place’. Running throughout these poems there is a thread which links a sharply perceived moment with the world of distant wars. ‘Close of Play’ has a newspaper front page which lies on a pub table:

‘The front page of a discarded newspaper
flaps open on a picture of young faces
in desert fatigues, blank eyes staring
below headlines of zones, and new offensives.’

In ‘Memorial’ ‘another day ends in Helmand / as two young men kick the desert / from their boots, stare at a camera lens / and think of home as a village like this.’ There are echoes here of course of poems written during the 1914-18 War and both Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney spring to mind. Gurney’s ‘Crickley Hill’ concludes

‘You hills of home, woodlands, white roads and inns
That star and line our darling land, still keep
Memory of us; for when first day begins
We think of you and dream in the first sleep
Of you and yours—
Trees, bare rocks, flowers
Daring the blast on Crickley’s distant steep.’

Close to the end of this collection there is Rob Hindle’s ‘Nether Edge’ with its echoes of another great walker, Thomas Hardy:

‘Allotments terrace the edge,
the climb fenced with privet and old doors.
Light clings here, setting fires in the glass.
The soil beds are mounded with carpets
or left bare for frosts to crack them.

There is nothing here that bombs
would make a difference. All those houses
wrecked, lives spilled into the street
like seeds; but this low-rent fallowland
persists, all ruin and renewal.’

This is a wonderfully uplifting anthology of poems; there is a sense of continuity which reaches back into history and landscape. Fay Musselwhite’s ‘Path Kill’ focuses on returns as ‘Woodlouse and fly families later, / flat stacked in fraying layers / dog-eared rug-matted black / leaf-like in leaves, secret / in bramble and buttercup, ransacked, leaching back.’ The purposeful human connotation in ‘flat stacked’ is poised above a word of parting and growth (‘leaves’) before concluding with the present participle, ‘leaching’, in which the dissolution involved in an agricultural process is juxtaposed against the image of ‘Woodlouse’, ‘secret’ and ‘back’. It is as if we are being presented with a vulnerability overcome by a tenacity.

This is a poetry of inscription and record and a frost ‘will crust this nave / for stone years, bone years, well-deep years’ (Chris Jones, ‘The Doom or Last Judgement’)

Reading through this anthology prompted me to turn back to that 1973 book by Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry:

‘Hardy’s feeling for topography and locality, as somehow conditioning the human lives lived under their influence more powerfully than any theory available to him or to us can allow for, is something that can and does persist, as a tradition, quite athwart the evident discontinuities, between him and us, in the way that artistic form, and specifically poetic form, is conceived.’

These lines immediately precede Davie’s focus on some of the early poems of J.H. Prynne and glancing at these comments I rooted out that early piece of criticism by Prynne, a review of Samuel Hynes’s book The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry, which appeared in Victorian Studies 5, 1961-2:

‘…the deliberate identification of “style” with “tone”, as a means of substantiating the poet’s self-effacement in favour of the real particular world, is well pointed up.’

Ian Brinton 25th September 2014

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