Roger Elkin has won over sixty-two Firsts in (inter)national Competitions, the Sylvia Plath Award for Poems about Women, and the Howard Sergeant Memorial Award for Services to Poetry (1987). His twelve collections include Fixing Things (2011), Marking Time (2013), Chance Meetings (2014), Sheer Poetry (2020) and The Leading Question, which was published in 2021 by The High Window Press. (2021). He was also, during the years 1991-2006, the editor of the long-established poetry magazine, Envoi. Commenting on his work, Don Paterson has said: ‘Roger Elkin’s poems burst with sharply observed and well-chosen detail, and are simply very interesting.’
SAM THORLEY, HIS RECKONINGS
A short story-line is recorded by Edmund Burke, in The Annual Register of World Events, A View of the History, Politicks and Literature of the Year, volume 20, page 184:
‘At Chester Lent Assizes, April 1777, one Samuel Thorley, a butcher’s follower and occasional grave-digger, for the wilful murder of Ann Smith, a ballad-singer, about 22 years of age. By the Howty brook, Priesty Fields, Astbury, he decoyed her, lay with her, murdered her, cut her to pieces, and did eat part of her. The circumstances are too shocking to relate. He was convicted, and has since been hung in chains.
Roger Elkin writes
‘The poems featured below are extracts from a seventy-eight page sequence, entitled Not Fiction. The title has its provenance in Peter Reading’s assertion that: ‘Verse is not Fiction / ask any Librarian’. Albeit with large helpings of poetical and historical licence, the sequence is based on actual events. It is in two distinct parts. Part I is a thirty page prose-poem narrative of the events of Wednesday 20th to Sunday 24th November 1776 as experienced by various historical charachters, including one Elkin, who played a minor, but significant, part in the story. Part II, entitled Sam Thorley, His Reckonings, consists of twenty-six poems exploring the landscape, work-background, employment skills and natural elements from the point of view of the male protagonist.
Of particular attraction to me, as author, was the fact that the characters and events happened within a ten mile radius of where I live on Biddulph Moor. The protagonist came from Leek; the action took place in Priesty Fields near Astbury; and the ballad singer performed regularly in the hostelries of Congleton.’
Roger Elkin: Five Poems from Sam Thorley, His Reckonings
OF CUTS OF BUTCHERY
Trawling the slaughterhouse.
The harness of carcases bigger
than a man. Sides of cows over
the shoulder. And haunches
of pork, their alabaster skin,
their magnolia-pink flesh. And mutton,
more handable, and redder.
Sheep brains, a drained grey mess,
giving, and succulent.
Succulent, too, their kidney liveries,
their chains of office, guts, silver-shimmering,
and lights left dripping from hanging hooks,
or running through fingers.
The kinship of blood,
Its finger-stickiness, its ingraining
of nails, carmine-hard and black-lined.
And sucking blood’s slipperiness,
the tang of metal, smell of metal.
Raw meat between teeth, its threads,
its veins, the sucked blood,
slick of lips, smack of the back
of the hand as swiping down apron
its splatter of spurt.
All this privy to the cleaver’s majesty.
Its thwack, and slice. Its chop.
OF HEIFERS, OF STIRKS
These young ones, the new-blooded,
this moil of stirring, boulders in their flanks,
heads jostling and tossing, their snorts, their blorting,
nostrils flaring, breath jetted out.
Unpredictable their milling,
their wheeling, this way, that
or the sudden baulk, forwards, back
as if making a feint, taking a rush for it,
but are trapped in their own panic,
so stop, four-square, stockstill
eyes ablaze, agogic, as though scared
of being trampled in their own gateway scrum.
Once freed from their logjam
how they ripple, sashaying
their kingdoms of meat
between skeins of spittle and shit
clip-clopping across gravel’s echoing emptiness
as if they know flesh becomes them.
Aware even of the puddling blood
that drips, drips
so are walking carcases, the living dead.
These heifers and stirks,
the young ones, and these younger ones,
the frisky picture-book calves.
How their mothers blort at their parting,
their spilt blood, the flesh in the teeth.
How they blort. Blort.
OF THE KNIFE’S SUPREMACY
My familiar, ghosting every motion,
always by my side, to hand
as if tied to my lifeblood,
its blood bang.
Knows my hold,
warms to my fingers, my thumb.
Makes my hand bend to its purposes.
Holding it makes me man.
Its blade mirror-bright,
has the fineness of hair,
glinting as it turns.
Its edge, the keenness of pain.
Its point knows only slicing.
And twist. Twist.
This scion of the cleaver
has earned me my living,
brought me death.
Has a womanly smile,
how I rise.
OF NETTLES AND NETTLEBEDS
A sentinel elegance
in fields, in graveyards,
down by Howty brook.
With tresses of lemon seed-heads
beneath laddering leaves
they’re outrider islands
nursing their stinging filaments
in tangs of spur on stem, on leaf:
such delicate weaponry
against fingers, against hands, skin.
Have learnt to hurt.
have their attacking comeback,
greener, leaner and staking out
over new ground.
No way to make inroads
but to lop. Chop.
Cutting’s the answer. Ask them:
they know I’m a cut above others,
have perfected the art.
So, take the knife.
Flash it, slashing.
And splice, slice, chop, lop.
Know I don’t sting.
But cut. Cut.
OF DEATH AND THE VISITATIONS OF DEATH
Gravestones name a living,
own the dead.
Shaping out the chisellings of sound,
of dates, names tracing their being
in the cutaway stone, the rhythms of words.
They tell me beloved, and loving.
Tell me late, gone, died.
I traced once the outline
of skin, of loving.
I know of this.
Digging, you come across beloved,
come across death’s friend
the saddleback worm gliding towards nothingness,
reducing all to slime.
Flesh becomes water, becomes grass.
Bones only remain.
I have visited the betrayals of moss
and the lichen scabs mapping the unvisited.
How they show uncaring.
The spade is my friend.
His cut is clean. Is fearless.
I have lived near to death.
Have met him head on.
Have borrowed my grin
from the skull’s rictus.
Nothing there is to life
except grinning, except death.
They tell me beloved and loving.
Tell me death.