Reviews of Farley, Hill, Garfitt

reviewer

*****

Paul Farley’s The Mizzy reviewed by Roy Marshall

The Mizzy by Paul Farley. Picador. £14.99. ISBN: 978-1529009798

Ever since his first collection The Boy from The Chemist is Here to See You appeared in1998, Paul Farley’s work has been concerned with remaking versions of his childhood world, its places and its inhabitants. These preoccupations are once again to the fore in The Mizzy, a collection that displays all of Farley’s celebrated characteristics, namely, dry humour, great technical skill, a wonderful ear for the music of language, and an ability to coin surprising and inventive images. The book begins with ‘Starling’ which might be read as a poem in which the poet and the bird are one and the same:

All I’ve ever done with my life
is follow the average course of the crowd
and witter on about my hole in the wall
the place where I’m from…’

If interpreted in this way, the poem could partly be seen as mildly ridiculing the author’s life choices and poetic obsessions and partly as expressing gratitude to the reader (or publisher) ‘for allowing one starling a voice’. These ideas might be enough for most poets to explore in a short poem, but the final lines take another tack:

but if I ‘brood in my hole in the wall’
and ‘keep one eye on the summer stars
viewed as from the bottom of a well’
well, that’s only you in your human dark.

This ‘extra’ twist might leave a reader feeling a little lost; who is the ‘quotation’ from and who is voicing it? Who is the ‘you’ and who is the ‘I’ in this poem? Perhaps they are all one and the same. While Farley’s technique never fails to impress, some readers might find that
a number of the poems in this collection leave them wondering who is who and what is what.

In ‘Poker’, the description of a pack of cards and the journeys it has made are undeniably beautiful; the cards are ‘dark-edged with mammal sweat’ and ‘shuffled to a soft pliancy, greased with lanolin’. Farley’s easy musicality and way with a cliché are in evidence:

and it might be a pack of lies
or it might be sleight of hand,
and you can’t tell which is bluff

because words are a good disguise
for holding nothing. I’ve found
that nothing is more than enough

Again, it may not be obvious to a reader what this last ‘twist’ means. One interpretation might be that stories are unreliable, and that any narrator is not to be trusted.
In ‘The Mystery,’ a funfair is deeply embedded in the speaker’s consciousness, and although the big wheel ‘still turns inside me’ the thing itself, like so much in this book, ‘has long since gone for scrap.’ The voice in the poem moves between ‘I’ ‘you’ ‘we’ and ‘he’,
and the reader needs to be attentive in order to keep up. The poem seems to highlight how the switch between having an awareness of being intensely alive, and awareness that all such moments are fleeting, can occur very abruptly. Numerous other pieces (‘The Green Man’, ‘The Ship in the Park’, ‘Swing’) revisit childhood with similar blend of celebration and sadness at its loss.

A poet writing their fifth collection undoubtedly faces greater challenges than one starting out, namely, how to return to themes and obsessions in ways that make the work new and interesting for both themselves and their readers. Farley approaches from oblique and multiple angles, sometimes taking ambiguous routes around and through his themes in order to conflate and conjoin ideas, and in doing so he often manages to cast what might be reductively described as ‘nostalgic’ subjects into new and vibrant patterns. Readers might find the more complex poems intriguing and rewarding or alternatively, frustratingly opaque and difficult to follow. This is certainly a substantial collection and there is plenty to explore and ponder in these sixty-two pieces.

Farley’s poems are largely depopulated. Instead of humans, objects, places and creatures are representations of vanishing worlds and their inhabitants, and a means by which themes and concepts such as identity, home, love, death, and memory are explored. ‘Atlas’ might be interpreted as a jokey description of a young person’s discovery of the altering effects of alcohol, swigged on the sly. The drinks listed are ‘Clan Dew’ (a rather downmarket and now largely forgotten blend of British wine and malt whiskey) and another now less than popular drinks cabinet staple of that era, Bristol Cream sherry. References to consumer products such as Sunblest bread and Golden Wonder crisps orientate the reader and reference a now vanishing, or already vanished past. Mundane objects (a cash point machine in ‘Hole in a Wall) places and situations (a public library in ‘Glade’) are expertly evoked and in some instances, memorialised.

In the most vivid poems, Farley creates surreal or hyper-real evocations of a moment or moments of perception, where past and present collapse into each other and the emotional power of memory flames into life. ‘Glorious Goodwood’ is a particularly fine example of this, when the world reveals itself, in the words of MacNeice, to be ‘incorrigibly plural’, and ‘crazier and more of it than we think’.

Birds have always featured in Farley’s work, and The Mizzy (a nickname for the Mistle Thrush) has an even higher avian headcount than previous collections. For Farley, a bird poem is seldom just a poem about a bird. In the sublime ‘Robin’, the bird is celebrated for its distinctive characteristics and focused purity of action. ‘Moorhen’ is a eulogy to the humble and shy creature that, the poem highlights, is descended from a dinosaur and so predates us. Other bird poems explore environmental loss and extinction. In an age of climate change and decline in the natural world, it would be surprising if a poet of Farley’s sensitivity merely wrote descriptive pieces un-shadowed by the spectre of loss.

‘Sloth’ explores a sense of culpability, acknowledging that the speaker of the poem has taken his eye ‘off the ball’, becoming distracted from ‘what matters’ and distanced from interaction with a disappearing environment, seduced, as much through inattention as anything else, by what is instant, facile, virtual and disposable.

In ‘Mistle Thrush’, which begins ‘The first park is the fastest park,’ a series of statements and images speed past in a mixture of concrete and abstract language. This makes for a poem full of interest and texture, but perhaps the piece isn’t entirely cohesive or satisfying in the way that some of the closely focused poems are. It may be that Farley is trying to capture a sense of being engulfed by the speed of change, a sense of his resulting confusion or disorientation. Perhaps he is also exploring the overwhelming ‘newness’ of childhood experience and contrasting this with adult ‘certainties.’ If this stylistic approach doesn’t appeal, the collection also contains ‘Sparrowhawk’ in which Farley’s skill and focus enables him to carry off an idea with the ruthlessly efficiency of the bird in the poem’s title.

Many of the poems in The Mizzy evoke those moments when we become aware of the wonder of being alive, but most of these moments are shadowed by a sense of loss, pathos, sadness and anger. Farley’s visits to earlier lives are accompanied by acknowledgment of the disappearance of the worlds in which those lives were lived. The complex and ambiguous nature of some of these poems might make them too elusive for some, but other readers may find reward in repeated readings.

If Farley is from a generation and background not overly given to open displays of emotion, then many of these poems convey the heat and chill of those feelings without overtly expressing them. In ‘Long-Eared Owl’ the ‘indigestible bones of a difficult year’ are regurgitated. The word (or perhaps more accurately the sound) ‘urgh’, is positioned at the beginning of the poem’s recollections, as though physical effort is involved in recalling memories, and these ultimately go much further back in time than ‘a difficult year’, with the speaker retching his way through leaving and returning home, and in the process, leaving and returning to his former selves. In this collection Farley has gone closer to and deeper into his past than before. Behind what might at first appear to be a certain type of scrupulously controlled, semi-detached, mildly humorous, deadpan Englishness, torrents of emotion rage and are occasionally allowed to break through.

Roy Marshall‘s poetry has been widely pubished in journals. He has published two full collections with Shoestring Press. Most recently Shoestrring Press has also published After Montale, his versions of thirty poems by Eugenio Montale.

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*****

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin reviewed by William Bedford.

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill, £20. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-882952-2.

Eliot’s claim in ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ ‘that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult’, always struck me as paradoxical. As a sixteen-year-old, the imagery and music of The Waste Land captured my imagination immediately, though I had little notion of what the poem was ‘about’. The famous Notes which he did his best to dismiss as page-fillers confused the issue, but Geoffrey Hill’s advice to readers of The Book of Baruch – ‘Trust that its true being is song’ (47) – seems to suggest that perhaps too much fuss has been made about Hill’s difficulty over the years.

The posthumous The Book of Baruch – 271 numbered rather than titled poems – seems to me a return to the Hill of the seven collections from Canaan to A Treatise of Civil Power. There have been changes of opinion – ‘In the impending referendum I shall vote to remain, Canaan notwithstanding, in which I derided the Maastricht Treaty as an international corporate fraud’ (240) – but the often tedious obscurity of ‘The Daybooks’ brought together at the end of Broken Hierarchies has gone.

The Gnosticism of the title holds that material creation is evil, in a world full of false prophets. ‘True gnosis is obsessed with small alien details of fact’ (81), more akin to chronicles – say the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – than history which ‘is not mere chronicles’ (78). But if this is history Hill is creating, it comes across as ‘aggressively recondite’ (111) in Hill’s familiar voice, ‘our grand old sing-along land’ (78). ‘East End music hall kvetch’ (6) this might be, where the poet says of himself ‘I speak as a fool’ (22), an ‘old duffer’ (20), who has ‘always been a name-dropper’ (62). In old age, he is furious in our ‘Unsteepled’ land (10) where his Toryism of Coleridge and Ruskin is as long forgotten as the religion his steeples signify.

The political anger is both deeper and less simplistic than some critics have noticed. As mentioned above, the poet admits to changing his mind about Maastricht, whilst remembering a time ‘long ago’ when ‘I fell to praising the Easter Rising’ (64). What he sees now ‘is an England of rotten boroughs and Hobbits maudits’ (240), where Margaret Thatcher is accorded a rare ‘full state funeral’ (196) and ‘White youths provoke riot to declare themselves patriots’ (ibid). After the shock of Brexit, we are left with a ‘big-bummed Britannia in her tracksuit’ (271) where this High Tory can say ‘Corbyn must win’ (186).

In such a state, it is not surprising that Hill’s imagination returns to Milton and Cromwell, and there are repeated echoes of John Clare’s experience of the greed-driven enclosures which destroyed at least one old England. Slightly more surprising is Hill’s suggestion that ‘it is vital that we resurrect Brecht’ (124), who ‘sold out his intellectual and moral pedigree for what he could get’ (ibid), making him ‘all the more a fit object of study’ (ibid) in a period of ‘piecemeal self-betrayal like snot on a fingernail’ (ibid). We can certainly hear the writer who admired Swift in his denunciation of the condition of current British poetry, ‘much like that of semi-derelict Pitcairn or abandoned South American whaling station’ (205).

When I started reading The Book of Baruch, I thought this was going to be a Parnassian return, in Hopkins’s sense of ‘competent but uninspired poetry’ – late Wordsworth or Tennyson – continuing everything that I felt had gone wrong after A Treatise of Civil Power. But Hill was predictably there before me: ‘In truth he is a Parnassian and a sassy man’ (73) he tells us, deconstructing the Parnassian with that lively ‘sassy’. In vigorous ‘wind-burled, wryed at the neck’ (27) language, Hill proves emphatically that ‘Sentiment flourishes’ (26), the poet’s duty – as Mallarmé and Eliot saw – ‘to purify the language of the tribe’ still alive.

William Bedford’s poetry has appeared Agenda, The Dark Horse, The Frogmore Papers, Encounter, The John Clare Society Journal, London Magazine, The New Statesman, Poetry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tablet, Temenos, The Warwick Review, The Washington Times and many others. Red Squirrel Press published The Fen Dancing in March 2014 and The Bread Horse in October 2015. He won first prize in the 2014 London Magazine International Poetry Competition. Dempsey & Windle published Chagall’s Circus in April 2019.

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*****

Roger Garfitt’s The Action reviewed by Stephen Claughton

The Action by Roger Garfitt. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1-784107-71-0

The Action is Roger Garfitt’s first collection since Carcanet published his Selected Poems in 2000 and it has been worth waiting for. His early poems belonged very much to the rural world of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, but although influenced by them, Garfitt had first-hand experience from summers spent on his grandparents’ farm in Norfolk and later living on the Surrey farm bought by his barrister father (see his highly-acclaimed memoir, The Horseman’s Word. In his new book, the countryside remains an important source of inspiration, although the foxes, hares and cattle have given way mostly to wildflowers. One group of flower poems near the beginning shares the theme of renewal, while a later group — like his sequence of butterfly poems — celebrates the flowers in their own right

Although there’s a nod in ‘Lesser Celandine’ to Wordsworth’s poem ‘To the Same Flower’, these are not literary flowers, but real, live specimens. What saves them from wilting under Garfitt’s intense scrutiny is the use of imagery that places them in the wider world: the lesser celandines subsist ‘like cottagers on their flitch of bacon / on the sugars stored in the long fingers / of the roots’; snowdrops have ‘Quaker heads bowed / in patience’; daffodils are ‘horses heads / of gold’. Tellingly, the world to which they are compared is older than ours and more closely attuned to nature. The flowers may fire off associations, but they remain themselves, as in ‘Dandelion’:

Not the lion-toothed leaves
but the flower’s lion heart,
its unruly sun

that rises
where it shouldn’t, universal scamp,
urchin energy

where we move from dent-de-lion to Coeur-de-lion to Larkin’s ‘Solar’, while at the same time recalling the way dandelions flower close to the ground before rising on their stalks prior to seeding. And when he writes of ‘that wingbeat of green / the petticoats show / when the stiff skirts / lift at last (‘Snowdrop’) or how the violets ‘cup open, greedy / as the Sheela-na-Gig’ (‘The Touch’), Garfitt reminds us that what flowers are really about is sex.

The book opens with a poem, ‘Ladywell’, which celebrates a spring that ‘busies up out of the summer night / the moment we turn off the TV’. It was ‘the Mesolithic // for survival’ and as important to the Romans as to Mediaeval monks. It is — in the nature of springs — unstoppable:

what ravels

under the siltstone arch will pass
the Atlantic through the harebell
and still not rest.

The idea of continuance is questioned in another ‘broad-sweep’ poem, ‘An Innocent’, which is about ‘The frog by the coal bunker’. It speaks of:

a suppleness in the air
off the Atlantic

frogs have sheltered in
since the meltwaters dispersed
the Gulf Stream steadied

and the frost lifted the frost
of strange pollen of pale
tundra flowers

and deals with the way frogs breathe through their skins. The refence at the end to ‘cloud cover where // a fungus might form’ is a reminder of the skin-eating, chytrid fungus that has wiped out 90 amphibian species in the last 50 years.

Equally topical is Garfitt’s Brexit poem, although the B-word isn’t mentioned. ‘The Hedger’s Mittens’ is written in memory of a countryman, who when his leather mittens became too stiff would ‘bury them in the ground / for a spell, put them back to Old England…’ The poet doesn’t share the old man’s rooted patriotism: ‘I was left to wonder at the depth of that trust // where I felt only an absence, the absence of / all those young men Kitchener had pointed / the finger at’. Instead he invokes the war poets, ‘Voices raised out of the cross-grain of England, / out of the questioning that won our common ground’. It’s a poem that speaks out against the dangers not just of nationalism, but of all violently-held opinions. The poet doesn’t ‘disavow that old man and his gentle trust’, but wants to ‘enlist’ Owen, Sassoon and Gurney, ‘as England turns ungentle once more.’ It’s not so much mittens being buried here as a hatchet.

He adopts a similarly nuanced approach (‘the play of water in a walled garden / and one facet glancing off another’) in other poems about war, notably the four unrhymed sonnets about the English and Spanish civil wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. In ‘IED’, a soldier:

… crouches, choosing where to angle
the cutters, as if he and his fathers before him
were not hardwired into the blindness of this place,
the agency that brought down the visionary King
just another throw in the Great Game, and his own death,
if he fails to read the signs, a secondary
of Empire, like the child bride brutalised
in the cellar, or the woman whose crime was to be raped.

In other words, we are the problem, British agents having brought down King Amanullah Khan, whose reforms (a footnote tells us) would have transformed Afghanistan in the 1920’s, and the soldier himself is another potential victim of Empire.

Although several of the poems are about war, the Paul Nash lithograph on the cover isn’t one of his war pictures and the action of the title poem doesn’t refer to military action, but rather to the bowling of his brother-in-law, a cricketing builder, and how it was evoked by the vigour with which he plastered a room in the poet’s house. It’s a moving poem about regular journeys made across country to visit the dying man. In other elegiac poems, people are remembered through images (‘Two Photographs’) or objects (the crafting a double harp) or in the case of Garfitt’s late wife, the poet Frances Horovitz, simply a gesture. The poem, ‘Outside’, begins:

You take off your gloves, spread your fingers
to the air. Anonymous for a moment,
let yourself be turned into a bay tree.

By transforming her gesture into an image — of Daphne, metamorphosed into a bay tree to escape Apollo — the poet also preserves his wife’s memory from death. It’s the most effective of the mythological allusions in the book.

‘The High Cut’ about a ploughman (one of the poems written during his residency at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm) reminds us that another of Garfitt’s influences is Hopkins with his love of ‘all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’:

Drawn like blades of earth, the ridges catch light
out of a dull sky. Half-crouched, his arms wide
to the plough handles, a man stalks them as they shear
from the mouldboard. Every other pace
he halts the horses, takes a long spanner
from his back pocket and tightens the outrigging
of press wheel and boats, keels of metal that he draws
on chains, furrow-sharpeners that ride in his wake.

Garfitt is scrupulous in his choice of words: the way that the Ladywell ‘busies up … birling’; or ‘the changle of a [horse’s] bit’ in ‘Daffodils’ (made up, but nevertheless just right). Some of it is to do with scientific accuracy: flowers powered by ‘sugars’ rather than just sap; spring flowers gathering energy from ‘the darker bands / in the spectrum’; ‘a pulse / of electrolytes across / the membrane’ of a frog’s skin; or, less convincingly, a buttercup species ‘so prone to change it can only be rooted / in a quantum universe’. There’s an interest in words themselves: plastering a wall ‘until it was sheer on the / original sense and shone’. Sometimes he creates images with single words: the ‘bracketing warmth of the wall’; or the description in the dedicatory poem to his wife, Margaret:

of those long, stage-crossing strides
you could never quite suppress, even
on the tut-tut-tut of the library floor.

His images rely less on ‘Martian’, visual parallels than on the quality of things. In ‘The Hackle’, he describes a cadet soldier:

All five foot of him stretches up to the hackle
on his beret, the white plume tipped with red
that bloods him as a Fusilier
and might be his avatar.

What better way of saying that the boy’s a featherweight?

In ‘The Other Company’, writing poetry is compared to catching a bus. (Certainly, both involve a lot of waiting around.) When the poem-bus turns up, it’s usually one ‘built of misgivings, // whose engine labours / under a rattle of flaps, // whose exhaust is a spew / of midnight oil,’ but ‘Once in a month of Sundays’ there arrives:

…the well-tempered bus
riveted with light,

the bus that pulls in
out of nowhere,

with just one seat left
on the long bench.

The ‘long bench’ evokes the idea of the poet being received into the company of heroes rather than just a bus company. The same images same appear more explicitly in ‘The Space’, the final poem in the book, which is about a poetry group.

Just before the end, there are some poems about jazz. (Garfitt himself performs poetry with a jazz group.) He writes about Lester Young, Miles Davis (twice) and Charles Mingus not with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Larkin’s ‘For Sidney Bechet’, but more deliberatively and obliquely. Garfitt isn’t an obscure poet, but like all good poems his need to be read with due care and attention. As this book demonstrates, it is an investment that pays off.

Stephen Claughton’s poems have appeared widely in print and online. His first pamphlet, The War with Hannibal, was published by Poetry Salzburg in October 2019. A second pamphlet, The 3-D Clock, containing poems about his late mother’s dementia, is due out from Dempsey & Windle in February 2020.

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*****

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