Terrors of the Dark Island
When Tom Chivers was interviewed by Will Barrett of the Poetry School in 2015 he was asked about his collection Dark Islands (Test Centre) and suggested in reply that it contained work completed since the end of the first decade of the century:
Dark Islands contains poems written over the past six years (since my debut collection How to Build a City came out). As such it’s not governed by any one defining theme; however, I hope that readers will discern a network of interconnecting ideas and motifs: bank collapse, urban geology, magic, ritual, the island as a stand-in for the body. The book also tests out—in various askew ways—the idea of faith; or, rather, what I call a ‘dodgy faith in the truth’. Can we find a centre, a still point, in this whirlpool of voices?
Dark Islands is an intriguing and often disturbing sequence of poems which is clearly revealed as the work of a London poet haunted by landscapes, hidden histories and constant movement. If Graham Swift’s Waterland is one of the influences upon Chivers’s early work the shifting phantasmagorias of Paul Auster seem to lean through this new volume of ‘night-work’. Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things opens with a dystopian vision of the future of the city:
These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, wind then stillness, a stretch of bitter cold, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.
Another significant influence lurking behind this work is, of course, Charles Dickens and this becomes immediately evident in poem xix of Dark Islands:
blue linen shirt peppered
with unanticipated rainfall
on Tanner Street and river
so near first one then
two pedestrians with broken limbs
whilst architects and secretaries
close little windows on the dock
or Neckinger perhaps a shanty Venice
Holy Trinity is shut adrift
in its own isle and so
I’m thinking of my body
in the rookery a garden
across another fire station
apathetic bulldog in a dip
wild flowering from boundary wall
a purple especially
who is that crouching
in the highway and slipping
by the fenceline between
the dark water and the wall
I do not call it bank
no sewer here please
as armed police are shuttled
downstream by speedboat
only one looks south their
helmets are so very black
who is that frying onion
throwing balls into the Thames
closing windows racing
scooters thru the island
like it’s never even there
Jacob’s island becomes the last hiding place for Bill Sykes and it was described by Henry Mayhew in the Morning Chronicle of 1849 as the ‘very capital of cholera’ and the ‘Venice of drains’. The description given by Dickens in Chapter L of Oliver Twist suggests the more eerie and nightmarish qualities of the place:
Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists, at the present day, the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.
Dickens stresses that in order to even find this place the ‘visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of water-side people’. Once at Jacob’s Island the visitor will discover that the ‘warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are no more; the doors are falling into the streets’. The world of phantasmagoria weaves its way through Chivers’s poem as the pedestrians ‘with broken limbs’ appear with Baudelairean menace and the subterranean river Neckinger winds on, ‘a shanty Venice’. The air of menace in the poem comes into focus again with the figure (s) ‘crouching’ and ‘slipping’ as well as the police, ‘armed’, being ‘shuttled downstream’. The evocation of this world concludes with senses: the smell of frying onions, the sound of scooters’, but they cannot be located in this shifting world because, after all, it is ‘like it’s never even there’.
The bleak humour which acts as a backdrop to Tom Chivers’s visceral sense of language can be noted from an early email in the Nine Arches Press volume, The Terrors:
Will, take out your field notebook. Make a tryst in blood. Employ your canines. Watch a shank of lamb slip off the bone as a woman stepping from her dress. This steaming viand, in its scrambled mess of lentils (puy), requires your total 100% concentration. I give you ‘The Huntsman’s Supper’, or some other peasant chic moniker.
Ian Brinton 15th June 2015.