Roger Elkin: The Leading Question

Roger Elkin lives in the Staffordshire Moorlands. His poems have won numerous prizes in national and international Poetry Competitions, the Sylvia Plath Award for Poems about Women and the Howard Sergeant Memorial Award for Services to Poetry (1987).

He organized the Leek Arts Festival International Poetry Competition (1982-1992), was the co-editor of Prospice, the international literary quarterly, (issues 17-25) and editor of Envoi 1991-2006.

Roger has also published thirteen collections, among which are: Fixing Things (2011),  Bird in the Hand (2012), Marking Time (2013), Chance Meetings (2014) and Sheer Poetry (2020). His most recent collection, The Leading Question was published by the High Window Press in 2021.

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elkin pic

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THE LEADING QUESTION

The poems in Roger’s most recent collection are part of an extensive sequence entitled That F Word which explores aspects of the Great Irish Famine (1845-51) including the arrival of blight, pestilence, evictions, forced emigration, and coffin ships. The sequence grew out of a visit by Roger Elkin to the Co Roscommon Mahon/Hartland Estate of Strokestown Park House, home to the Irish National Famine Museum.

Some of the poems included in The Leading Question place events into a wider context linking them with more recent famine, genocide and holocaust; and probing a variety of moral, philosophical and political issues, primarily pivoting on the reliability of historical truth and artistic integrity, and asking whether the events were concerned with issues such as class, colonialism, religious bigotry, economic mismanagement or ecological disaster.

Introducing a sample of these poems in publication, Don Paterson wrote:
“Roger Elkin’s poems burst with sharply observed andwell-chosen detail, and are simply very interesting”.

Reviewing them in Envoi, Will Daunt commented:
“There is a stunning energy behind the characterization of the protagonist and the rendering of his various encounters with the consequences of the famine. The hunger-driven thrill of the kill is wound through ‘Taking Sheep’, where the drive to survive compels a brutal humanity … The same shrewdly-extended syntax achieves a different kind of grimness … where Dan takes an old friend on his final journey to the ‘Famine pit’ …”

You can read here an extract from interview in which Roger discusses further aspects of The Leading Question with Mandy Pannett. This interview first appeared
in Sentinel Poetry. (Ed.)

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HOLDING

this potato, flat in the hand,
its shape filling the palm-bowl,
fully: rounded, smooth pebble-like;

clutching this, firm in the hand,
its smooth curves fitting the curve
of skin between palm and fingers;

bending fingers and thumb, curving
over its smooth skin; the whole stone
of it lying flat, weighty, comfortable

becomes flint tool, to use, clutched,
and cutting: at ground, at land, at twig, at wood,
at limb, stripping flesh from vein, from bone:

handled so, kindles an atavistic ritual:
the bond between stone and curving hand
bound up in the rhythm of living:

earthxxxstonexxx bonexxxhistory

and the curve holding it all together

the holding of this potato.

NOTE:“Nearly a stone of the root was taken into the stomach of the Irish labourer per diem.”
W.R. Wilde, ‘The Food of the Irish’, Dublin University Magazine, 1854, xl111, page 131

WORDS …

Who will set down their narrative
these land-bound Irish poor denied the right of literacy,
forbidden their own schools by the Penal Code, their clerics
hunted down for sport, their look-outs on the priest-stones
gagged and bound, their tongues stopped from telling …

Who will record their story …

Their existence is as lists of figures, flat statistics,
mathematical calculations, emanating from across the sea
in Commission and Enquiry, Census and Report –
so that numbers and totals are more conspicuous than names;
size of tenancy more relevant than the tenant’s identity;
amount of property more important than ownership;
medical records citing incidence, type and frequency of disease –
typhus, relapsing-fever, yellow-fever, flux, scurvy, dysentery –
more highly rated than patient names …

Peel, Russell, Palmerston,
and the landed Anglo-Irish, like the Mahon family,
have their histories and biographies, even their mythologies …

but who will name the names of these land-bound poor,
who will set down their narratives …

*

ERADICATING THE ROT

“To eradicate the rot, mix equal parts
of oil of vitriol and manganese dioxide,
add to salt,
and apply to the diseased areas.”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxFreeman’s Journal, December 17th, 1845

From where would cottiers
living in rundales and clachans
get these ingredients?

How would the poor
drum up money for such expensive chemicals?

How wise was it to advise
this domestic manufacture of chlorine gas?

Though would later gain Government approval,
and with equally devastating consequences,
when visited on those unwitting sods
labouring to their suffocation
under palls of mustard gas
in the trenches and pits
of Flanders fields…

(Social Darwinism apart,
it’s always the poor who’re first to witness
History repeating itself.)

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THE LEADING QUESTION

Not whether this is matter of legality –
a question of who owns what –
so much taken when so little existed:
a plunder of sorts

Not a problem of economics –
the issue of supply and demand:
satisfying the market,
selling at the best profit margin

Not logistics – the trouble of transporting
so much, so far, through hostile crowds;
the need for armed guards, patrol boats,
the cost

Not ethics – whose need is greater –
whether it’s right to feed some folks
while others are consigned to death –
a question of choosing good or bad –
one set of lives over another

Not these, but the riddle
of where history ends and literature begins

and whether any poetry can be found
in this lading bill for Maiden City
sailing from Dublin that first Famine winter

209 pigs xxxxx 24 bags oats xxxxxxxxxx26 barrels of coarse meat
5 calves xxx xx43 bags wheat xxxxxxxx11 pounds bacon
7 sheep xxxx338 bags oatmeal xxxxx550 firkins butter
28 pigs xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx56 kegs butter
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx237 barrels butter
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx3 tierces lard
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx83 boxes of eggs and butter
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx1 hogshead ale
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx47 bags potatoes *
Yes. Correctly read:
poetry a-plenty:

xxxxxxxx47 bags potatoes

exported that first Famine winter.

NOTE: Details taken from Bills of Entry, Ireland to Liverpool, 20 December 1846, Merseyside Maritime Museum Archive

*

TASK WORK

“The works should be unproductive so as to impose limits on the applications for employment-schemes”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxC. E. Trevelyan, Memorandum of August 1st, 1846

They gave them stonewalling: repairing
fallen walls, and making routings of new;
squaring off fields and building boundaries
round acres of barren grass-land
that walled nothing in but grass.

Gave them low hills to lower, meadows
to level, hollows to fill, rivers to dig deeper,
canals and ditches to cut, land-drains to lay.

Gave them lines on their maps: “meal” roads
going nowhere, through wastelands,
via mountain and bog, roads bringing
nothing to no-one, and not meant to be driven,
so mostly unfinished, and unusable if,
all built for three pence per day with
two splats of stirabout’s wetted yellow maize
eaten off spades wiped twice on grass.

They gave them breaking stone
for packing potholes in coach-roads:
tons done by hand, mothers and children
at penny-ha’pence a day, squatting
as knocking rock against rock.

Gave them chippings in baskets and creels,
women reeling at barrow-wheeling
till abandoning stone-piles by roadsides
their own funeral pyres.

Gave them labour – heavy and hard.
And harder as winter dug in, under bitter winds,
black ice and snow, with hungrier folk spraunged
on haunches waiting for neighbours to fall.

They gave them task work
with pellagra, marasmus, starvation
to stake out their claim.
Never reckoned it might cost them their lives.

Gave them stone. Gave stone.

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2 thoughts on “Roger Elkin: The Leading Question

  1. My late husband, John Turner, and I were friends of Roger Elkin and his wife, way back in 1999 or so. We lost touch when we moved to Scotland, but I wonder if he remembers us? Is he still running the Leek Arts Poetry competition? I would love to hear from him. I wonder if you would be kind enough to pass on my e-mail address? It would be great to hear from him. Thank you in anticipation.
    Kath Turner

    Like

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