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Ken Head: Five Poems from Prospero’s Bowl

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Ken Head (1944-2020)

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I take the opportunity today to publish a long-overdue tribute to Ken Head who was not only a very fine poet but also wonderfully courteous and unassuming man. If his poetry has not received the recognition it so self-evidently deserves this is because Ken was always more concerned to develop the quality of his writing rather than chasing worldly success. I first got to know Ken when after an inordinately long fallow period that had lasted for two decades I had started writing again and brought out a collection of my own poems called Work Horses. Much to my surprise it received an enthusiastic review in Helen Ivory’s popular ezine Ink Sweat and Tears. A positive review is, of course, always welcome but, more importantly, this was clearly a reviewer who ‘got me’ and whose idea of poetry was very similar to my own. This became even clearer to me when I was able to return the compliment by reviewing Ken’s Prospero’s Bowl (Oversteps Books, 2013), which I believe was Ken’s only full length collction.

Then, a couple of years later, when I met Ken at a poetry reading organised by Agenda in Cambridge, we got on like a house on fire. Over the years, I published a couple of batches of Ken’s poems in The High Window. On both occasions they had to be dragged out of him because ‘I might not like them’ or ‘they might not be good enough.’ Sadly, on my third request for some new work, I received a reply from his wife Margaret letting me know that Ken had passed away. So here follows my review of Ken’s collection, Prospero’s Bowl, followed by five poems taken from it. In due course, I will take the opportunity to publish some more of Ken’s published and unpublished poems.

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ReviewPoems

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Ken Head: Prospero’s Bowl.

Although Ken Head’s poems have appeared widely in print magazines, online and in various chapbooks, Prospero’s Bowl is a long overdue full collection. In ‘Passing Through’, its opening poem, Head’s strengths as a poet are immediately apparent. Within the compass of a blank sonnet, a form he frequently uses to good effect, we accompany the poem’s protagonist on an early morning walk. Matter of fact and self-effacing, its opening lines set the scene with a minimum of fuss: ‘In the morning early he walked down / the mountainside from the old village.’ Soon, however, we are drawn on as precisely observed details accumulate:

The narrow donkey track, winding serpentine
and stony across the slope of the land,
kept the glitter of the sea below dark cliffs
always in his eyes. He breathed in thyme
and the scent of fresh-cut grass where men
with scythes, who nodded quiet greetings
as he passed, had cleared the path while
he was still asleep.

Mirroring the twists and turns of the narrow path, Head’s sinuous syntax is also sustained by its musicality and the rhythms of his language. Reading the poem aloud, one admires its cadences and the texture of its sounds: the contrast between long and short vowels, the repetition of sibilants and liquids. Frequently inspired by landscapes at home and abroad, many of the poems in Prospero’s Bowl meditate upon mankind’s relationship with the natural world; and this is a theme which gives the poet plenty of scope to indulge his philosophical bent and to create a poetry of perception that is, at times, reminiscent of the work of that fine and somewhat undervalued poet Charles Tomlinson. In ‘By Haweswater’ Head captures aural impressions and beautifully evokes the quality of a silence: ‘That there’s no voice, not even birdsong, is what he notices, / that the silence remains untouched by any of the noise / he carries with him.’ In this poem, consisting of  two capacious stanzas composed in long loping lines of anything up to sixteen syllables, Head’s technical skill is impressive, but even more so is a Wordsworthian reflectiveness as he moves beyond the limits of mere observation:

Years ago, he wouldn’t have, but time’s more powerful now
and landscapes like this, so filled with emptiness,
as mysterious as death. No compromise, they say, keep moving.

 The stoicism that is hinted at here is given further expression in ‘Stepping Off’, a tour de force consisting of three fifteen line stanzas depicting a bleak landscape shrouded in fog, a harsh world where men have struggled to survive:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxMaking and mending,
hauling supplies, turning backbreaking
labour into food, must all have been grist
to the mill in the battle against failure
of belief, a deal with the gods that might make
the world more knowable, less pitilessly
harsh.

Equally impressive is ‘Something to Measure against’, a study of poor villagers who eke out their living in a parched landscape where water has to be rationed: ‘No water now / until late afternoon and nothing to be done / but study patience’; while in ‘Along Ashwell Road’, where he describes some woodland, ‘shawled … /  in separation like a gypsy woman’, the harshness of nature is expressed in a more demotic terms: ‘bleak as buggery on windy nights.’

Having from the outset shown his ability to encapsulate a landscape or scene, Head proceeds, as his collection unfolds, to widen his historical scope and geographical range. ‘Iron in the Soul’, a sequence of six unrhymed sonnets, has an epigraph taken from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead: ‘ History could make a stone weep’. In its opening section we are presented with a landscape in summer and the fair weather walkers who treat it with scant regard: ‘At the top, they leave the litter from their picnics / and piles of dog crap inside plastic bags,’ Soon, however, we find ourselves in a less familiar world where a warrior is ‘testing the new grip / on his battle axe’, a place where ‘thick, white fog’ does not merely make high ground uninviting for hikers but gives cover to raiders.  The sixth and final section is an eloquent peroration on death and transience behind which one senses, perhaps, the ghost of Ecclesiastes.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWhat we sweated to make
of oak, with iron and stone to bind it fast
against the years, lasted not much longer
than a leaf will feed a moth.

‘Staying Power’ the collection’s second major sequence, consisting this time of ten sonnets, is set in Singapore’s Chinatown.  Here the poet’s eye roves like the lens of a photojournalist’s camera. As elsewhere in the collection there is again a realization that the present is always informed by what lies behind it, that ‘memories don’t vanish like graffiti / under coats of paint. In ‘2: Shadow Play’ Head evokes a past that seems colourful, almost lurid: ‘opium fortunes / lost in fires, the gold, the gambling dens, young girls shipped over in boatloads / to work the brothels.’ However, in ‘3: Chinese Whispers’ we are enjoined not to romanticise the past: ‘Don’t let all that tourist bullshit fool you, / there are still hungry ghosts in every house.’

In this collection there are so many fine poems that in the space available one can only finish by mentioning a few more personal favourites: ‘Canal: 2011’ with its ‘silty ghosts / of the men who died digging it’; ‘Inside the Frame’ a marvellously sustained meditation on an interior by Benito Barrueta’; or the skilful reportage of ‘Compliance’ and ‘On The Road from Nam Dinh’, his poem in memory of Robert Capa. Prospero’s Bowl is a richly textured and deeply satisfying collection. Like the artefact for which it is named, it is finely crafted, inspired, and has deep roots in history and the natural world.

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Ken Head: Five Poems from Prospero’s Bowl

PASSING THROUGH

In the morning early he walked down
the mountainside from the old village.
The narrow donkey track, winding serpentine
and stony across the slope of the land,
kept the glitter of the sea below dark cliffs
always in his eyes. He breathed in thyme
and the scent of fresh-cut grass where men
with scythes, who nodded quiet greetings
as he passed, had cleared the path while
he was still asleep and were resting then
in the dusty shade of ancient olive trees.
The spirit of the place hung in the air
like bee-filled midday heat and welcomed him,
a visiting stranger from another world.

BY HAWESWATER

That there’s no voice, not even birdsong, is what he notices,
that the silence remains untouched by any of the noise
he carries with him. Between the crunch of his boot soles
over stony ground and the pattern of his breathing,
he listens for it as he would the sound of waves along a beach
or wind through trees. Out of habit, he imagines the hubbub
he comes from, the journey he’s made, the roaring torrent
of the motorways he’s driven on, all there beyond the skyline.
The track he chooses cuts across the slope as if it knows the way.
Here and there, it forks, down to the lake, as cold and still
as a slab of polished jet, on past blocks of fenced-off conifers
where only shadows move behind the wire, uphill to the snow.
By a rock as big as a house he pauses, takes a break.
Years ago, he wouldn’t have, but time’s more powerful now
and landscapes like this, so filled with emptiness,
as mysterious as death. No compromise, they say, keep moving.

CANAL: 2011

There will be an after to be remembered …
U. A. Fanthorpe: Canal: 1977

All morning, he’s been discovering the towpath
between two waterways, the canal, silent
and still under tangled trees, keeping its story
to itself along with the silty ghosts
of the men who died digging it, and the river,
not much more than a trickle over stones
this time of year, its banks thick with nettles,
fireweed and the post-industrial wreckage
he’s seen before in places no one uses
any more for sweating profit out of labour:
closed-down mills, tall-chimneyed factories,
an industrial waste disposal plant, tanks
overgrown with weeds, a row of cottages
too small to swing a cat, teetering dark
and narrow over the river, homes once,
but with roofs stripped now to make it hard
for squatters, and a nameless pub, The Shannon
& Chesapeake, maybe, The Old Malt Shovel,
The Jack House or The Swan With Two Necks,
finally up for sale. No more local trade
round here, you see. Physical graffiti
fenced off with razor wire and boarded up,
spelling out as clear as day what history means

SOMETHING TO MEASURE AGAINST

He follows in single file behind the village elders,
step by step up the rocky track, their sticks
tapping the way between banks of dusty bushes,
to the plateau at the top of the mountain
where the cistern is that gives water to homes
on his side of the island. Still early summer,
but already forty-plus before noon
and water’s being rationed. Standing with them
as they unlock the observation manhole
and stare down into the dark to check the level,
their old men’s leathery faces give nothing away,
except to show they understand how serious this is.
So why in God’s name choose to live in a place
where the sun burns everything to dust and the fields
are full of stones? Even goats don’t thrive here!
He already has his answers to these questions,
but stayed up all night watching shooting stars,
seeing how much whiter his house walls are
by moonlight than in the glare of the sun
and trying to explain them to himself again.
He remembers a story he must’ve read
somewhere about a child so impatient to know
if the seedlings he’s planted are growing
that each day he pulls them up by the roots to check.
In his garden, too parched to enjoy before sunset,
which is when he’ll eat, with mosquito coils
burning under the table, fruit fallen from trees
so blackened they might’ve been scorched by fire
lies drenched in its own sweet juices, rotting
slowly, a sticky feast that stains the ground
with landscapes only ants know how to travel.
Wasps festoon the air, sunlight’s so fierce it scalds,
the cicadas’ midday shrieking sounds demented,
like the rage of ghosts from home. No water now
until late afternoon and nothing to be done
but study patience. Nothing. A harder paradise

INSIDE THE FRAME
In the museum, a woman is studying Studio Interior,
a painting by Benito Barrueta
She has been gazing into it for a long time.

It has the feel of a room that isn’t used,
a space given over to dusty sunlight,
the dried-out husks of summer insects
along the window sill. Nothing challenges
the shadow-lines of easel, desk and chair
across the floor. A door left open
to let in laughter, movement, household
noise, a naked model, would be out of place.
The room’s pristine, a humble harmony
of neat and unpretentious details.
There are no glasses, bottles, overflowing
ashtrays or plates of uneaten food,
no rumpled bed, no painter’s technicolour
mess of dripping, squeezed-out tubes.
The life lived here is sober, still, meticulous
and hidden. Even the mirror’s blank.
So, in the end, you work with what you have,
short brush-strokes that reference objects,
a rocking-chair, a footstool, paintings
in ornate, gilded frames around the walls,
a palette of finely graduated ochres,
greys with undertones of light that filter
through the window and negotiate the floor,
the ceiling, the air itself, thickening
shadows here, sharpening brightness there,
until, at last, the image settles,
becomes all at once clear and present
in a moment that feels suspended out of time.

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