Jeffrey Loffman reviews David Hughes, Matthew Clegg and Jane Routh

2-9781908853547whitesilence-s1navigators-jacket-2-26-april-2015

 

Three poets whose poetry contains a sense of place and being where edges, historic, water- flowed or rock faced allow us readers to engage with themes worthy of the time and effort required.

Those of us who are moved by rock’s edges will empathise with David Hughes in his posthumous collection, EX LIBRIS. Losing a friend on a rock-face, as any grief, startles and sears. Encouraging others in writing and poetry, as teacher, friend and support is a life well lived. This is the poetry that comes from this life.

Hughes’s poems are gifts to others, often dedicated to them – none more so than his climbing companion and friend, Barry Daniel, who was killed while leading an expedition of students on the Austerdalsein. His befriending of Young Dave, and the prison letters and poems composed as a response to the process of forgiveness and response to Young Dave’s attack on him are another element, and this not without the down-to-earth humour that eschews sentimentality –

Perfection, where all things are fixed and true?

It doesn’t sound the kind of heaven to strike

you dumb with wonder; you’d have nowt to do

You’d much prefer a heaven where gods might hike

on sponsored walks that you could organize –

to build a climbing wall, or something like.

Valediction

 

The skill of a shorter breath-based, structured stress lines vary. Sustained line lengths also form a part, as in East of Ypres, Sanctuary Road

 

November night in Sanctuary Wood: the broken Old

Contemptibles

have re-assembled in the low ridge lee, where field-gun

shrapnel

tears the year’s last foliage from trees that splinter, till it

seems there’ll never be

a spring sprung green again. Soldiers, sleeping shallow

under leaf-mould

and while ‘Soldiers, sleeping shallow’ may have too many sibilants the musicality of consonantal cluster and internal rhyme pressed against the length of the line catches the breath enacting a struggle fitting for it subject, Ypres. This horror at the outrage of war is all too timely now –

 

 

Seven of the players down by Armistice Day –

And even the slender boy in the Umpire’s coat,

Yes, even the Umpire lost his cheerful name

By the end of the War by being Jolly dead.

Summer 1913

 

A touch of Sorley. It’s the details observed which register the value of true friendship and an evocation a reader can really engage with hearing ‘stories to tell ‘ accessible, lyrical and felt.

my own life

at the cwm’s rim

or on the steep

escarpment’s sudden edge.

Becoming competent, having the scenery mapped,

began to guide others.

I’d like to take you all the way.

Prepared Early

 

Poetry Business prize-winner Jane Routh gives us an historical edge, ice-packed in THE WHITE SILENCE. Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to discover the North-West Passage was a Victorian equivalent of someone today landing on Mars. In such enterprises the apocryphal has an ineluctable place…. but each poem has its own view, like walking around a mountain and taking in a different vista. Here are thirteen pages of sustained, accessible and accomplished lyricism that goes beyond the fossilized past.

 

Even if there were a passage, Scoresby carped

So what? – You’d have to overwinter in the ice:

it would still be faster round the Cape.

And safer. But William Scoresby

was a whaler. Of no account.

[Franklin, in prospect]

 

It reaches a frozen present. A possible discovery if only the missing jigsaw piece could be found, the cold dread of how failure looms with time passing by.

 

 

Wake up, Sir John, and shape yourself.

wherever they buried you, hacking

the permafrost, break out: its soft now.

Your passage is dark and open water.

[Franklin, cryogenically preserved]

Jane Routh’s previously published collections included themes about our relationship with the environment and how we manage in it. In ‘Lancashire Life [23.10.14]’ she writes “ I have been interested in memory for a long time…. our memories do not record facts but explanations for our lives….”

 

What they charted was the nineteenth century’s

flatteries, friendships and obligations

– a sea for Beaufort, an island for Banks –

 

as if rock and ice and vastness

had no reality without their names;

as if the landscape did not know itself.

[On reaching the Arctic map]

 

This investigation is an explanation of confronting ‘the white silence’, ‘the grip of ice’, the ice that will not let go and questions of being itself may abound from such confrontations.

 

The titles give a hint – ‘Franklin, in prospect, ’’Three Photographs, 1845’, ‘On reading the Arctic map’, ’Franklin, ice-bound’, ’Franklin, in retrospect’, ‘Franklin, the evidence’, ‘Franklin, cryogenically preserved’, ’Sir John Richardson’, ‘Franklin, a postscript’, ‘And afterwards’. Only recently were the ships discovered. The mystery of ends provides such a resonance, consider Mallory, Irvine or ‘Titus’ Oates. Tackled chronologically to looking back from now provides evocations which poetry, Empsonian-like, can create.

 

Imagine ice.

Imagine cold.

Imagine a ship held fast all winter long.

 

Start again: you have to remember

its an Arctic winter: no daylight.

How to picture such darkness?

[Franklin, ice-bound]

 

The structure varies but each poem has its place. We are gathered into this world where close observation and asides (e.g. the place of Richardson!) draws us in.

 

It’s a story

the local people always told: one listing

then down, in deep water off King William Island.

 

And that’s enough: what we want is the other

terror, something we can’t know,

Something greater that resists us –

a white silence we can’t fathom, that compels

imagination, to conceive its questions.

 

(O Lord, give us back our ice.)

[Franklin, a postscript]

Matthew Clegg’s THE NAVIGATORS sense of place – as magnetic as north – connects through time, flows as water. Forms vary from sonnet to free verse, tidal undulations that have observations life affords us. An aggregate of ‘minute particulars’ that being alive may be seen as extraordinary.

 

I get so close

to thinking I’m locked

out of this life,

when openly

its glittering

off the sheen

of the highest

greenest leaves

and the miracle

is a lake, a sea,

lifted into the arms

of the trees

by a faith

that can only

take hold

in this light.

[The Lake in the Trees]

 

The three sections of the book lead us, perhaps, to the last songs Orpheus sang, a lost paradigm, – of the resilience that place allows us. The lost song is not just of remembrance, but of clear and astonishing presence – across time.

 

If there were stars

I can’t remember –

only that you sat

behind me, close,

your arms pillion

around my chest

as we rode

dark space

before us

[Two Fugitives]

 

There is an Odyssey here that starts in Lakeland and ends towards Ravenscar.

 

you return

from

the storm

and desire

is the

taste

and tang

of tingling

electrons

ferried

by rain

and caught

on

your skin

[The Tang]

 

The Trig Points sequence is a set of 27 haikus that Clegg describes as ‘triangulations’ – to a loved one, a loved place and time in all its tenses. When successful, the nuance of phrasing, of rhythm in short-breath (sometimes single word) lines married with the accumulation of particulars build a striking and felt image such as Phineus:

 

When a blind man panics

He can’t flail his arms.

He must haul his breath

From the well of his gut

Until the harpies in his ribs

Stop flapping and clawing

And his fingers unfurl

Spiders from his fists

 

The second section, ‘The Navigators’, has the accent of ordinary folk and the (The Sink Hole) memories of Matthew’s grandfather’s boat, ‘Jasmine’. How Grandad was loved, built ‘Jasmine’, the journeys upon it, and the transformative learning and mixed emotions on mortality and growing when it had to be sold.

 

Clock-tick, birdsong, cars.

my palate wakes from last night:

whisky, wood, smoke, stars…..

 

A leaf turns over

its green days on the stem, leaps –

pioneers the air…

 

Where mud is deepest

the traces of man and beast

are one and the same

 

Matthew Clegg is “interested in the drama of the human heart in time”. We need to forage the path beset by the laws of change and mutability, as the realization of what different phases of life requires of us infuses these poems. For there are times when we must each of us dwell on such things.

 

You may think of your life

poised at the steer of a barge

where canal steps down to the Don

and lock gates unlatch and infold.

Imagine the trip in your blood:

As you gaze at river ahead

And the cautious nose of your barge

Sniffs then drifts into the flow

You feel the current take grip.

The barge is plugged into a mains

So all you can from this point

Is solder your fist to the steer

And amp up your savvy to match.

[When They Next Make You Redundant]

Finally, to a place beyond the Whalebone and Staithes to a rich edgeland. The compass points and prompts reflection. Matthew Clegg has not held back as a poet, nor should the reader in engaging with ‘The Navigators’. Appreciation should also be extended to Longbarrow. Wayleave and Valley Presses who are excellent examples of publishers with an increasingly impressive catalogue focusing on high quality productions.

 

You can order the books here:

Ex Libris David Hughes: http://www.valleypressuk.com/book/2/ex_libris

The Navigators Matthew Clegg: https://longbarrowpress.com/current-publications/matthew-clegg/

The White Silence  Jane Routh: http://www.wayleavepress.co.uk/?page_id=324&doing_wp_cron=1474647811.9356279373168945312500

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