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Uncertain Measures by Aidan Semmens (Shearsman), What The Ground Holds by Rosie Jackson (Poetry Salzburg)

Uncertain Measures by Aidan Semmens (Shearsman), What The Ground Holds by Rosie Jackson (Poetry Salzburg)

In the fifth issue of Perfect Bound (1978), the Cambridge journal that Aidan Semmens edited with Peter Robinson, I find the following lines of a prose poem;

‘The remarkable amount of flotsam in the river could be small craft that have sunk. The water is only slightly ruffled by the breeze. It is so straight it could be a canal, with regular lines of trees along the sharp, precise banks.’

We could be casting a sideways glance at the opening of Our Mutual Friend or, as I prefer to think, we could be gazing at a landscape which anticipates the ‘ritual’ one with which this new Shearsman collection opens:

‘our origin myths are not set in stone
but gradually shift
in emphasis and tone from
generation to regeneration
mutating settling encrusted
with efflorescence of ore’

The obsession that Dickens had with the past ensured that bodies never remained underground for long and even in the late Great Expectations the sound of the returning Magwitch’s footstep can be heard on the bottom stair. Palimpsest-like Semmens’s earlier working out of perspective concerning an industrial landscape peers up at the reader through a new development and this newness bears an eerie reflection of a world that we might expect to discover in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

down a winding path
in a shadowy scene
a woman and a man are pushing
a wagon loaded with industrial implements

(‘The Vanishing of Workers’ Settlement #3’)

However, the power of this poetry does not rest satisfied with imagery and threading its way through the texture of the verse are comments which hang together to provide analysis:

‘things have been falling apart
since the onset of modernity
fragmentation as the condition of knowledge
the extortion of desire extraction of obedience’

The myths of Demeter and Persephone seem recently to have become archetypes of the buried self and the emergence of newness from the controlling overlord of consciousness is seen as a regeneration that works; unlike that of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is there with vividness in David Almond’s novel Skellig:

‘She took wrong turnings, banged her head against the rocks. Sometimes she gave up in despair and just lay weeping in the pitch darkness. But she struggled on. She waded through icy underground streams. She fought through bedrock and clay and iron ore and coal, through fossils of ancient creatures, the skeletons of dinosaurs, the buried remains of ancient cities. She burrowed past the tangled roots of great trees. She was torn and bleeding but she kept telling herself to move onward and upward. She told herself that soon she’d see the light of the sun again and feel the warmth of the world again.’

It is there in the opening lines of Rosie Jackson’s ‘Persephone’:

‘I can’t tell you the terror of being down there.
All those miles of earth on top of me—
the stench, the dark—
and him on top
paddling my thin body like a piece of dough.’

However, here the focus is on the rape, the invasion, the claustrophobic sense of proximity to a body which has been imposed upon you. Perhaps it is no accident that the word ‘paddling’ echoes the sexually obsessive Leontes in The Winter’s Tale when he imagines the supposed adultery of his wife with his oldest friend in terms of ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’. The emphasis upon rape is taken up in the second poem of the volume, ‘Persephone Blames the Dress’, where the silk of the garment seems to be a co-conspirator in the downfall of the girl. Not only does the material fall to the floor ‘like water seeking some underground pool’ but the moment Persephone puts it on the thunderous steps of a Classical Bromion can be heard and the victim is being hunted down: she ‘started’, ‘slipped’, disappeared between toppled birches’. The silk ‘snagged as I pulled the neck down’ and the stanza concludes with the ‘sound of something tearing.’
Rosie Jackson’s chapbook is titled What the Ground Holds and it could, of course, be seen as what the ground does not hold: Persephone returns. The collection also features Lazarus who ‘longs for light, just a slither / from the far side of that impossible stone’ and Orpheus who slips ‘easily through those seedy chinks / that lead downwards’ towards a Eurydice who will be forever barred from return. Most importantly, and to my mind successfully, there is ‘Visiting the Underworld, 1964’ in which the poet rattles down with her father ‘to these tunnels of hot darkness’. Within the confines of this workplace ‘we kneel on all fours / feeling our way, getting a taste / of what real men do’.

Some years ago, in Tears 45, Jackson had written ‘The absence of the lost one is subsumed into the present of the poem, as if the very act of the poem’s utterance reverses or undoes death, even as it laments it.’ I suspect that a reading of ‘Poems 1912-13, Veteris vestigia flammae’ may not quite support this.

Ian Brinton October 30th 2014

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