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When Henry Williamson wrote his collection of fifteen novels, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight he was looking back on a world gone by. Some of the early fiction in the sequence dealt with his own First World War experiences in the Machine Gun Corps and later, in 1917, the Bedfordshire Regiment. The language Williamson uses is often unashamedly nostalgic reflecting the views of a young man brought up in Brockley, South East London, who yearns for the more leisured spaces of rural England. That language, that Orphic turn of the head, is a record of loss and I am reminded of Geoffrey Ward’s words from PN Review 192 (March-April 2010):
In the beginning was the word. Trouble being, the word was always late for the event.
Words can describe, evoke, suggest, delineate, propose, haunt—do all manner of things—except be the thing or feeling or concept to which they refer. The verbal sign, while conjuring in the ear or on the page a simulacrum, (perhaps a beautiful, a crafted and convincing replicant, but a simulacrum nonetheless) can never be other than: a word. This is not a problem in everyday transactions, and indeed our development of language is possibly our greatest and our defining achievement. We certainly handle words better than we handle each other or the non-human world. But living in particular spaces, whereby the hieroglyphs that spell ‘save the planet’ are not the same thing as a saved planet, the injunction ‘pass the salt’ no guarantee of approaching salinity, there is, built into writing, a certain lateness. There is something of death in all its usages.
One of the early poems in Stephen Watts’s Ancient Sunlight, recently published by Enitharmon, suggests something about the act of writing poetry itself in his ‘A Little Message to my Friend Rumi’:
I am writing you this because I don’t want to lose
I am writing you this because I want to be insane.
Everything amounts to the same. There is no best
or better answer. All of language
is a disadvantage.
On the front cover of this delightful collection there is a comment by Iain Sinclair: ‘Integrity and clarity of address illuminate every line of these poems.’ These are poems to return to time and again partly for their quiet acceptance of the inevitability of time’s movements and partly for their poignant awareness of those temporal seismic shifts, shifts which invariably leave an echo, a scent, a lingering in the air that the poet can attempt to hold for a moment.
It is too long since you were with us, though I know
you never left. Even so
in these years lacking alchemy & language all of us
feel bereft, feel we need the conjure of your poetry
your verve, its jest
So many of these poems appear as ‘pilgrims and holy wanderers from / the nomad world.’ Read them; keep them; read them again and then sit, quietly, reflecting on the fragility of a language that can weave the ghostly return of a world long gone. The names of streets, areas, cities rise up within these pages and Stephen Watts, conjuror, gives us Brick Lane, Broslehan Street, Lamb Street, Prague, Frith Street Kraków, Soho Square and Moravian Hills. And then I reflect upon the memory that Geoffrey Ward had already written an earlier version of those words at the beginning of this short review. In 1989 he had published a piece in the issue of Archeus devoted to the work of Andrew Crozier:
Language is doomed to unpunctuality, words chasing, describing, shadowing a reality they can do anything but actually be. But if words miss their goal they pursue in the meantime their own life in the mouth or on the page, powerful figures of speech that predate our individual use of them, constraining or permitting meanings always aslant or surplus to requirements.
As if to hold those words of Sinclair firmly on the front cover the words on the back, by Robert MacFarlane, close this volume with generous accuracy:
‘I am moved and fascinated by Stephen Watt’s poetry in ways I find hard to explain and extraordinarily powerful to experience. He is among the most fine and subtle writers I know on the relations of landscape and mind.’
Ian Brinton 9th August 2014