Here we are in the world of the 17th century reformers, post English civil war, of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, of Leon Rosselson’s 20th century song of the same title, covered by Billy Bragg at a later date. Simon Jenner in a mood of democratic revival, generated by hope of a renewed radicalism in the Labour Party, has framed a series of poems based around the writings of Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers whose failed attempt at setting up a democratic commune at St. George’s Hill in 1649 has inspired a multitude of radical movements ever since. These 36 poems are a mix of inspired experimentation, rich historical materials and intellectual curiosity typical of this poet’s considerable output. Winstanley is a great read but one to be taken slowly, with relish, where careful re-reading will improve the response. There’s also plenty of emotional content as this is not a dry academic tome.
Orient voice arrival alluvial days
land washed stiff by brute plunderers
where the jute factor wears freedom
duck egg blue springs with the calyx of April
a yoke thrown at St George’s Hill, as Fludd says
each stamen births a star.
The occident of the oppressor sets to the west
of men gilding the common treasury of earth
turning rowan where the histories of wrong
occlude in darkness where all, all shall rise,
yeasted with themselves, all, some at the shadowed
cusp of the minute hand on midnight
fleer and flesh salvation.
True levellers of all property I see feast
on light, God’s nakedness restored in the fork
of good works. Brothers, sisters of this
blinding fall to innocence, fasting, prayers
for the corn I once spent to market,
shallots, light July rain.
Jenner says in his introduction that ‘I found the cussed extremes of faith and conflict released a wild permission, a go-for-broke linguistic immanence’ and you certainly get the feeling of a modern mind relating to an earlier time and finding common ground and a sense of possibility within the encounter. Here there is utopian hopefulness but grounded in hard reality and a wonderful evocation of the physical aspects relating to food production and a sense of harvest. These poems combine political ideas with emotional intensity, are rich in detail and remain relevant in terms of our current predicaments. I’m reminded stylistically and in terms of historical reconstruction of the poetry of both Geoffrey Hill and Steve Ely.
March whitens. A new year’s gift lies fallow.
Come out of stark, landlords, parsons,
Set down in our singing torn-through houses.
Your souls crunch tenantless as our bodies.
Your soldiers drop us bright pence as fellows
some flinch to birch as dogs wail hymning persons;
ride God’s last year in on bloodied horses.
We’ve stamped today’s alto wail of babies.
It’s been said that in England we had the revolution too early and that the aftermath of the civil war led to further tyranny before the monarchy was returned and ‘the natural order’ maintained. Yet such attempts at democratisation, foiled by the forces that took to arms in the first place and would brook no dissidence from those seeking a wider franchise, are worth recalling in our equally difficult times.
The cerements of our endeavours rise up waxed
gusts of others’ breath ripple and distort
the sheeted shining cloth sigh letters
the words are ranted but inhabited for good
the time is minted from the original
the ripest enthuse just his elbow wit
the wits pared with a jack-knife on a table for print
the visions’ crude halo holds a nimbus for truth
the preacher rails in Atlantic vocables
the few take seed, the many spindrift
we’re wombed in what they’ll bring of our freedom
our treasury’s blowing in a dust cloud of famine
it lands too tare too thinly scattered but it alights
it’s broadcast through the seeded months of our successors
it sings its craft orient, stings the face of the new world.
Reading these poems has made me eager to go back to writings from the period which include of course Milton and Marvell as well as the rantings of Abiezer Coppe about whom the irrepressible Leon Rosselson wrote – ‘Abiezer Coppe/he did away with sin/my body is my god, he said/and heaven lies within.’ To get the best from Simon Jenner’s short collection it’s necessary to read around the subject and I’m sure the scholarship has moved on since I last read Christopher Hill. Yet it’s a period of great interest and these poems have reawakened mine.
Steve Spence 17th May 2022