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July 22, 2010

Rebounding Flowerheads

Highlands

For Thomas A. Clark, walking is a form of poetry, a personal rite for writing. The Hundred Thousand Places is a single poem that steps through the Scottish wilds over the space of a day. It moves forward through subtle quartets, the pauses between them invisibilized by a blank page: a cloud coming across the vision. And inner- and outer vision are really what this poet offers in gently-sculpted, clear-eyed variations:

the rock in the water

breaking the full

weight of the flow

produces melody

the rock by the water

broken by bracken

tormentil and heather

releases colour

Solvitur ambulando—it is solved by walking; and the world is a series of connected and out of the ordinary problems that might be solved only by moving through them. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, ‘Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world’. For Thomas A. Clark, walking doesn’t solve anything in any final way; it explores and perhaps resolves in part the problem of our ultimate loneliness. The short poems that make up the whole poem possess a strict sense of precision inherited from Ian Hamilton Finlay: a summation of perception and connection which could be carved on a granite slab in Little Sparta:

from rock

heather

from astringency

colour

I’m sure Clark would agree with Solnit’s statement that ‘A lone walker is both present and detached, more than an audience but less than a participant. Walking assuages or legitimizes this alienation.’ Thomas A. Clark’s lovely and somewhat lonely poem releases many valuable visions and a deep sense for the music of the natural world. I also think the poetry explores a form of legitimized alienation, something ‘more than an audience’ and ‘less than a participant’; and is more honest to itself and its readers for doing so.

Like Thomas A. Clark’s book, Frances Presley’s Lines of Sight takes many a wild walk through the natural landscape, this time in the South-West of England. Similarly Lines of Sight reads as though it were written as a whole book, so scrupulously have the sections and poems been woven and riven together. Richly impressive are the poems from ‘Stones settings and longstones’, a highly kynaesthetic sequence inspired by the Neolithic stone monuments on Exmoor. Prose poems, concrete poems and free verse are madly and delightfully mixed with arresting artistic control and design making them almost slippery when quoted out of context:

Not against wind

we have won wind

the house is standing against

abutting the hillside

                          abetting

buttery butts

the water but

cannot save austral ia

              this sliver of stone

compressed

glivers

revested

                          from ‘Buttery stone’

The prehistoric stone monuments on Exmoor are evocative and strange: geometric arrangements of sandstone slabs in quiet combes; willowy standing stones on open moor; and stone rows, one of which was recently discovered. The geometric and highly patterned orchestration of Presley’s book feels as if it arose from being composed on a moor then pressed letter by letter into the earth. Her work was fresh to me and I found it a highly pleasant revelation, at once thoroughly alert and judged yet delightfully manic and far-reaching in its wildness, risks and resultant freedoms.

Janet Sutherland prefers a pared back, uncluttered free verse for the poems in Hangman’s Acre. The understated tones and hewn forms create a careful performance (there’s a judgement to be made for poems whose proximity to pain and death is pretty well face to face). But Sutherland’s poems do not gloom or mope; and like the poets above Sutherland is a gifted and observant nature writer:

the voice of the chainsaw echoes in

valleys  smoke hangs high and drifts

the terraces are held against the mountain

by the dead and the living  their hands

their muscles  the salt of their skin

at dusk the mountains shift to grey

layers of rock are smoke and mist

and the sound of the chainsaw stops

just this spade and this pick scraping

making the little difference   and underfoot

the cloudy cyclamen and by the side

the dark-leaved aromatic myrtle

from ‘Underfoot’

There are many delicacies in such an approach: deftness of image, delays of space. Of course, Elizabeth Bishop’s attentiveness of voice hangs over this whole collection but the influence is one of tone. I can’t help but admire the fact this poet can yield such music, movement and scent from a rebounding flowerhead and a slown down spondee-sprung myrtle.

the poetEiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has been publishing excellent collections since 1972. Her selected poems were recently co-published by Gallery and Faber. The Sun Fish is to my mind Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s best single volume. It contains an impressive number of outstanding poems including ‘The Witch in the Wardrobe’, ‘On Lacking the Killer Instinct’, ‘The Door’, ‘Ascribed’, ‘Calendar Custom’ and the title poem. Any reader new to this poet would do well to begin with these poems and to read them out loud, taking aural delight in the rhyme-patterns and stanza break in ‘The Door’ for example, quoted here in whole:

When the door opened the lively conversation

Beyond it paused very briefly and then pushed on;

There were sounds of departure, a railway station,

Everyone talking with such hurried animation

The voices could hardly be told apart until one

Rang in a sudden silence: ‘The word when, that’s where you start —

Then they all shouted goodbye, the trains began to tug and slide;

Joyfully they called while the railways pulled them apart

And the door discreetly closed and turned from a celestial arch

Into merely a door, leaving us cold on the outside

‘The Door’

Read alongside her Selected Poems, The Sun Fish provides a completely convincing case for Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s international reputation. Given that The Sun Fish reached the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist, I hope it makes her work much better known in the United Kingdom.

David Morley

Books discussed:

The Hundred Thousand Places, Thomas A. Clark, Carcanet Press, pb., 96 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-84777-005-9

Lines of Sight, Frances Presley, Shearsman Books, pb., 116 pp., £12.99, ISBN 978-1-84861-039-2

Hangman’s Acre, Janet Sutherland, Shearsman Books, pb., 90 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-84861-074-3

The Sun Fish, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Gallery Books, pb., 64 pp., €11.95, ISBN 978-1-85235-482-4

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this essay first appeared.


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