christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: poetry

Something so wild and new in this feeling – a review of Sarah Doyle’s new collection

The title poem of Sarah Doyle’s audacious and brilliantly conceived new collection says it all. Reading these collage poems, drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, there’s something absolutely remarkable about seeing her luminous words for the first time presented as poetry.

Using cut-up techniques, elements of found poetry, and applying her own sensibilities as an unusually accomplished poet herself, Sarah has given us these words afresh. She has freed them from history, and the straitjacket of prose, stitching together disparate lines and observations from different days, months and even years into finely honed and coherent poems. Working thematically – for example bringing together Dorothy’s reflections on the moon, birds, the sky – Sarah has crafted individual pieces that catch the light in new and unexpected ways.   

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, where Dorothy Wordsworth lived with her brother, William (collage by Christopher James)

Sarah’s source materials are the journals Dorothy kept between 1798 and 1803, of her life with William Wordsworth. Dorothy records their intimate, symbiotic relationship, where she casts herself almost as a midwife for his poems, copying down his stanzas and sharing her own nature writings for him to use and rework – including one of her finest pieces of writing on encountering a blazing belt of daffodils that ‘tossed and reeled and danced/and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind’. She records her and her brother’s comings and goings in often amusing and revealing detail, documenting their visitors, walks and moods, spanning their crucial time in Dove Cottage, Grasmere. 

Anyone familiar with these journals, will know that the weather (particularly the incessant rain) and William’s predisposition to ‘compose’ (or fail to compose) on any given day, form the chief preoccupations. She has a powerful sense of empathy, both with her companions and surroundings, and indeed her moods closely reflect the weather and those around her, soaring to moments of epiphany and bliss, but spiralling just as easily into melancholia.

‘A heart unequally divided’ is a sonnet built around Dorothy’s struggle with a depression, and captures these oppositions particularly well. It begins with the assertion: ‘My heart was so full that I could hardly speak.’ She takes herself on a solitary walk to the lake: ‘I sate a long time upon/a stone at the margin of the lake, and after a flood/ of tears my heart was easier.’ The catharsis she experiences in nature goes some way to mend her heart, even if she cannot banish her demons for good. As a sonnet, it works perfectly – a focused, compressed and continuous narrative that allows us a glimpse of her soul through a rich sensory experience (she hears ‘the weltering on the shores’ almost like the sound of her own sobbing). Part of the pain it seems, is a sense of her own unfulfilled potential, alongside unspecified, unrequited feelings, perhaps unknown even to herself.   

Almost all of Dorothy’s writing is rooted in nature, and this manifests itself in her phrasemaking in the most astonishing ways; she is constantly open to the colour and variety of the wild that meets them almost at their door. With a magpie’s eye, Sarah collects some of her most vivid and surprising phrases, and with careful use of line break, form and rhyme delivers them memorably.

‘Among the mossy stones’ is almost a parallel piece or version of Wordsworth’s Daffodils: ‘…and at last, under the boughs/of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore.’ And later: ‘Some rested/their heads upon these stones, as on/ a pillow for weariness.’  There is a tenderness to it, and sense of Dorothy’s own weariness too in the face of all this beauty; as if she would never be capable of capturing or mirroring nature’s bounty. Yet paradoxically, this is almost the closest she got to a sort of poetic perfection – only for it to eclipsed by the dazzle of her brother’s showboating reflections on the same scene. Her wonderful phrase: ‘ever glancing, ever changing’ could describe the light, the rain and these poems too.   

Sarah’s use of concrete (or visual) poetry is especially strong. ‘Snow in the night and still snowing’ is full of gaping white space between the words, which drift down like flakes, the lines collecting more densely at the foot of the page; form perfectly reflecting the meaning. Scouring the journals for different observations on snow, Sarah piles phrase on phrase, each compounding the next – from ‘the occasional dropping of the snow from the holly boughs’ to ‘the brooms waved gently with the weight of snow.’ The cumulative effect is incredibly powerful: repetition with variation, almost like Monet’s water lilies or van Gogh’s sunflowers. The individual phrases continue to work in their own way as vivid, dynamic images – all the more redolent for their filmic sense of movement – like a photograph taken on an iPhone where you see a second’s movement before the still image itself.  

‘When the rain’ is another tour de force in the same manner – the phrases flooding down the page in a twisting spiral; the word rain itself running like a spine through the poem (as I heard one reader astutely describe it). Indeed, the almost comical quantity of rain that falls on William and Dorothy seems to make the very pages of the journal damp; yet it’s this very liquidity, slipperiness and the luminous reflections of the rain that most accurately describe Dorothy (and Sarah’s) style – with images and colours running and flowing together to create something fresh and new.    

Sarah’s trick in this collection is to make herself invisible; yet her poetic intelligence is constantly at work, feeling the weight of each line – like snow on a branch. She is alert to rhymes and half rhymes, repetition and rhythm. The space she gives these poems to breath is almost her greatest gift to Dorothy, clearing space for us to see the lines more clearly and quiet for them to sing out.  

There is a sense here too of a wrong being righted. Dorothy has been cast as a spinster, a hanger-on, an also-ran of the Lakeland poets, and latterly, even a gooseberry in William Wordsworth’s marriage to Mary. While many have praised her as a diarist, few have truly made a claim for her as a poet in her own right. These pieces make a compelling case to the contrary.

Whether Dorothy herself limited her poetic ambitions to serve her brother, his muse and reputation, or whether she felt the constrained by society and convention, we will never know. However we do at least get a sense here of what she might have achieved. To compare William and Dorothy’s work is perhaps unfair – but there is arguably a lightness and freshness about her writing that’s missing from her brother’s; an instinctive, intuitive grasp of nature’s hold on us. She is unshackled from the stuffy strictures of form William adhered to, and untroubled by his public expectations.       

Indeed, this book is a double achievement: first for Sarah for seeing the poems within the prose and working them into such fluent and complete pieces; and second to Dorothy herself for what is in effect, her long-delayed debut collection. What a wonderful thing it would be to see both their names together on the Forward Prize shortlist for best debut? You can imagine Dorothy bashfully ascending the steps to the stage in her black gown, cheeks flushed as she collects her cheque. And, yet, you feel, she would still spend most of her acceptance speech praising her brother. Bravo to Sarah on such an original and daring venture.   

He ‘swam for love, as I swam for glory’ – On poetry and wild swimming

I burst up out of the sea and steal a breath from the sky. My head is ringing with the cold as I paddle, seal-like, parallel to the shore. It’s a chilly Sunday in May, and I’m at Covehithe, a remote beach on the Suffolk coast. Behind me are woods, wildflowers and wheat fields pin-pricked with poppies. Before me is a yellowish sea, beneath stacks of grey cloud. But the sky is bright and I feel awake, properly, awake for the first time in months.

Tankers balance on the horizon, and four miles distant, the pier and lighthouse at Southwold print themselves against the clouds. Covehithe, has the unenviable claim of possessing the fastest eroding shoreline in Britain, almost visibly crumbling into the sea. The road leading down to the sand ends in mid-air like something from a Road Runner cartoon.

It has another, delightfully absurd claim to fame. It’s where the Monty Python sketch: ‘The first man to jump the English Channel’ was filmed. Needless to say, it’s an absurd joy. But thankfully it hasn’t brought hordes to these shores. There’s barely a soul abroad, and people are outnumbered by the upended tree stumps that litter the beach like discarded wooden crowns, worn smooth by the wind.

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I’ve only heard about this place from a friend of a friend. My only companions are dog walkers, a couple out rambling and a lone photographer waiting for the light. The only amenity is a plastic bin at the start of a footpath that leads along the edge of a field and down to the decaying shore. In short, it’s hidden gem, and the perfect place to lose yourself in the exquisite pleasures of poetry and wild swimming.

For twenty years I’ve pursued the twin passions of poetry and outdoor swimming. My first poem to appear in a respectable journal was (unimaginatively titled) ‘The Swimmer’ back in 2000. I’ve kept that first thin volume ever since as proof of my ‘year zero.’ But it’s book ended by one of my most recent poems: ‘The Archbishops at the Lido’ which won first prize in the Crabbe/Suffolk Poetry Competition 2019. In between, I must have written and read hundreds of poems whose chief preoccupations are tides, water, swimming and memory.

By the time Matthew Arnold stumbled down to ‘Dover Beach’ to see that ‘the tide is full, the moon lies fair’ an immense poetic body of work had swelled on water, the sea and swimming. The rhythms of water and poetry are so interwoven, and so closely connected to the body’s own rhythms. The sense of complete immersion you feel when reading or writing a poem is so similar to that feeling of swimming in cold water. The exhilaration; that sense of intense connection and absolute focus is uncannily alike.

I know of at least one workshop that deliberately links the two endeavours – inviting poets to plunge into the iron-grey waves of the North Sea, before handing them a pencil and paper. There’s something about the body’s reaction to cold water – a simultaneous closing and opening of neural pathways that inspires a breathless immediacy. It can so often produce something fresh and original on the page, utterly charged with energy. The body and mind are in shock and behave in radically different ways.

Of course I’m not the first to make the connection between poetry and swimming. There’s a sensational episode in one of our earliest poems, Beowulf, where we find our hero locked in an absurd swimming contest with his childhood friend, Breca, the Bronding. They were to swim for seven days and seven nights clad in full armour, (‘battle-sark braided, brilliantly gilded’) and nothing can separate them: ‘While swimming the sea-floods, sword-blade unscabbarded/Boldly we brandished, our bodies expected/To shield from the sharks.’

It’s a classic piece of mead-hall boasting: ‘Then we two companions stayed in the ocean/Five nights together, till the currents did part us/The weltering waters, weathers the bleakest.’

And yet there’s more; he must fight off the creatures of the deep: ‘To the bottom then dragged me/A hateful fiend-scather, seized me and held me/Grim in his grapple’ until it can be disposed of by ‘My obedient blade’ and ‘by means of my hand-blow.’

Inspired by the same primal urge, albeit without the armour and sea monsters, Walt Whitman plunges in with his ‘Poem of Joys’, an ecstatic panegyric on the visceral physicality of the natural world. He marvels at ‘the swiftness and balance of fishes’. Stumbling over cuttlefish shells of exclamation marks to get to the water’s edge, he sings: ‘O to bathe in a good place along shore!/To splash the water! to walk ankle-deep—to race naked along the shore.’

So many writers and poets use swimming as a means of regeneration; a way of replenishing the well.

While living in Deia, Majorca, Robert Graves rarely went a day without his sea swim to reinvigorate body and mind. It helped him channel his energies and refresh his spirits.

Even the games-dodging, chain-smoking John Betjeman, was drawn into the water. It’s well worth seeking out the delightfully silly piece of footage on YouTube, of the Poet Laureate learning to surf in Cornwall. ‘I don’t know anything so exciting as getting a perfect surf,’ he claims, ‘timing’s one’s shoot off from the waves, riding along on the crest and coming far in shore.’ His sense of freedom and delight is self-evident. He returns to the sea repeatedly in his poetry. In ‘A Bay in Anglesey’, he watches it: ‘filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free/ The sweet susurration of incoming sea.’

Anne Ridler’s poem Bathing in the Windrush is an evocative and elemental piece – a halcyon meditation on children swimming. They inhabit two worlds – one of the earth, the other of the water: ‘Smiling above the water’s brim/The daylight creatures/Trail their moonshine limbs below.’ Once in the water, they become subsumed – a part of nature again – at once more graceful, more animal and they ‘move like swanbeams through the yielding/pool.’ It’s as if nature has claimed them for its own, and in return grants them the gifts of lightness and felicity. She concludes: ‘These are like symbols, where half seen/The meaning swims, and drawn to the surface dies.’ It is as if a spell is cast in the water itself; once we return to the mundane world, the spell is broken and we lose that miraculous sense of buoyancy.

There is a darker sensibility in Eliot’s Death by Water sequence in ‘The Waste Land:’ lamenting: ‘As he rose and fell/He passed the stages of his age and youth/Entering the whirlpool.’ The water changes us, but it’s a reminder than we ourselves are little more than water and dust. Entering the water brings risk. It is sometimes a baptism, sometimes a rebirth, sometimes a death.

Into this canon, it feels churlish not to admit Michael Stipe’s oblique lyricism in REM’s beautiful and beguiling, Nightswimming. It’s a song of memory, regret and the luminous moment. He perfectly captures the illicit thrill of night swimming: The fear of getting caught/Of recklessness and water/They cannot see me naked. Water and memory stir together. The moon, ‘low tonight’ creates forces and ebbtides of its own, acting on us in ways we cannot resist. Yet the luminous moment dims with the fading memory: ‘These things they go away/replaced by everyday.’

Carl Phillips’ sensuous poem ‘Swimming’ explores similar territory: ‘I love the nights here,’ he asserts. ‘I love the jetty’s black ghost-finger, how it calms the harbour.’ The water represents childish fears too:  ‘An old map from when this place was first settled shows monsters everywhere. But it’s worth the risk: ‘I dive in, and they rise like faithfulness/itself, watery pallbearers heading seaward, and/I the raft they steady. It seems there’s no turning back.’

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It’s a heady mixture of fear, tempered with adventure and reward. Sea swimming is at once a return. It comes at a cost and a shock. It’s a reminder that we are part of the world and its rhythms – not above it or outside it.  When we are held in the water we give ourselves back to nature; we surrender the autonomy afforded by evolution;  it’s at once a regression and a reminder of our fragility. It impels us to live life more intensely, to value ourselves more, each other and the world.

Roger Deakin, the great swimmer and nature writer has practically inspired a tradition all of his own. Judy O’Kane’s meditative tribute ‘Waterlog,’ after Deakin’s book of the same name, is a rich and densely layered study on the man’s life and work, marveling at how close he got to the essence of things. She pictures him mid-swim at frog’s-eye level in the waters that circled his Elizabethan home in Suffolk: ‘He’s circling the moat, his forearm/gliding through the weight of the water/fluid, fluent, and I float in his wake.’ Crucially, she makes the explicit link between the rhythms of water and writing: ‘Everywhere liquids move in rhythms/he says, his pen never lifting/ from the page.

Deakin’s own writing frequently reaches the pitch of poetry itself. His prose is rich with metaphor and simile and freshly-minted phrase-making. As he lolls in the waters off the Suffolk coast, he sees ‘the giant puffball of Sizewell B’ while the shore itself disappears in the rising swell. He swims beneath ‘an orange sickle of a new moon’ which hangs ‘in a deep mauve sky.’

Meanwhile Louise Gluck’s poem, Pond begins in darkness, but glints into focus:  ‘Night covers the pond with its wing/Under the ringed moon I can make out/your face swimming among minnows/ and the small echoing stars.’ The night creates an alchemy of its own: ‘In the night air/the surface of the pond is metal.’ Water and the powers of darkness have a transformative effect.

Perhaps the last word should go to Byron, and his poem, Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydo. He compares himself (at least at the outset) unfavourably with Leander, that fabled swimmer and lover of Greek legend who nightly swan across Hellespont (The Darndelles) to woo Hero, even in ‘dark December.’ He begins: ‘For me, degenerate modern wretch/Though in the genial month of May/My dripping limbs I faintly stretch/And think I’ve done a feat today.’ But he confesses his exploits cannot be compared with brave – or foolish – Leander’s: ‘But since he cross’d the rapid tide/According to the doubtful story/To woo, — and — Lord knows what beside/And swam for Love, as I for Glory/Twere hard to say who fared the best:/Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you!/He lost his labour, I my jest;/For he was drown’d, and I’ve the ague.’

It’s a delightful piece of self-deprecating humour – but how classic of Byron to make himself the victor in the end, feeling every bit the adventurer, but escaping with little more than a cold. It betrays that giddy sense of the heroic (mixed with the slightly hare-brained) that every wild swimmer feels as they stand shivering on the shore, post-swim, wondering where they might find nearest mug of hot tea.

Christopher James has won the National Poetry Competition, as well as the Bridport, Ledbury, Oxford Brooks and other poetry prizes. His new novel Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Beer Barons is available for pre-order and latest collection, The Penguin Diaries is out now. 

Knives out: a review of The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart

I’ve been looking forward to reviewing Matthew Stewart’s long overdue debut collection. With a title like a 1950s crime fiction potboiler, and a blood-red cover, there’s the promise of mystery and mortality in store.

Those elements are certainly present in this fine book, but the set-up is something of a ruse. The themes, in fact, are squarely domestic. Family, home and work are the chief preoccupations of this honest, absorbing sequence, and yet each is explored with an astonishing intimacy.


The Knives of Villalejo

Stewart divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade. And if some of these poems have been slow in gestation, then like a good wine, they have aged well. The book is full of polarities: between work and home, past and present, England and Spain, life and death, appearance and reality and these opposing currents provide the book with its emotional tension.

Stewart creates unpredictable landscapes. Often, innocuous, domestic scenes can lurch into something much darker. Sooner or Later begins in a ‘spare-room wardrobe’ where something lives amongst ‘forgotten gifts/ and out-of-favour shirts.’

Maybe tonight, maybe

next year, a sudden call

will bring it centre stage,

rushed to the dry cleaners.

It’s structured like an Anglo-Saxon riddle; then comes the pay-off: ‘There’s not a hope/of dodging the dark suit.’

This ability to wrong foot the reader, to lull them into a sense of quiet domesticity, only to pull the rug with a dramatic turn or arresting image, is Stewart’s trump card. And yet there is a never a sense of smugness or conceit in this. It’s a reminder that this is what life is like – light can give way to dark in a matter of moments; banality can slide into tragedy, bliss into despair.

There is a feeling here of life intensely lived; a sense sharpened by the certainty of death. Rather than something to be feared, however, our mortality appears to enhance each pleasure: each sip of wine and each carefully prepared meal. Stewart shares something of Larkin’s acute awareness of death (‘All streets in time are visited’) but without the same paranoid sense of self-preservation.

Stewart is especially adept in the kitchen. There is a ritualistic delight in Artes Culinarias: the ‘skinning and sluicing’ and the lamb stew for which ‘you peeled, you scraped, you sliced all morning long.’ Yet this isn’t Saturday Kitchen; in Stewart’s spry, multi-layered poems, there’s always something else going on. Here there’s a sense of the poet reflecting while these rituals are enacted – memories, worries and temptations reveal themselves. I especially liked the pay off in the final section: Guisantes al vino tinto, where an exquisite dish is meticulously prepared with ‘a long dollop of wine and just-shucked peas’. It appears to be an act of love and generosity. In fact, there are

memories of an old lover stirring:

This is still her dish and far more daring

than sly rummages for battered photos

especially now I’m serving it for you.

There is a clear link between sexuality, sensuality, food and wine, and yet it is never explicitly made. It’s a book full of allusions, hints and shadows. There’s as much left unsaid in the sparseness of the language.

The poem The 23rd is as heart-breaking as it is brief. A single stanza long, it is a dignified tribute to a loved one, and says everything about how grief must necessarily live in a world that carries on regardless. The date ‘casually loiters in the fourth line of April, pretending not to stalk me.’ The personification of death, sly and insidious, is brutally effective. So too is the caesura in the final line where there is a fear that the poet might forget: ‘As if I ever could.’ The fact I’ve written more in this paragraph and said so much less than the poem itself, tells you just how good Stewart is. I’ve only resisted reproducing the whole poem to encourage you to read the book for yourself.

Stewart’s poems are as precisely measured as the dishes themselves. The language has a deceptively simplicity, a distilled clarity, just as the most delicious food and drink relies on simple ingredients.

But Stewart has a gift too for the original simile and metaphor and it’s in these moments when you feel a re-invigoration of language and re-imagining of a familiar world:

….two rosaries

lie coiled on a sunlit table

like dozing, sated rattlesnakes.

This is as good as anything that’s being written right now. Aside from the freshness of the image itself, there’s a subtext of religion, culture and guilt all at play. Elsewhere, a pencil is ‘perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife.’

The title poem is one of the finest pieces in the book, and again plays into the themes of domesticity, ritual and mortality. The Knives of Villalejo are put to work each day in every kitchen, and are ‘blunted by the cloying dough of fresh bread.’ This magnificent iambic line, with its layers of clinging consonants and springy vowels, sets up a densely worked piece. Over time, the blades become ‘speckled with rust’ while the handles become ‘darkened.’ Then comes the village grinder, like the reaper himself, who ‘pushes his bike from door to door/he knows them well and whets them in seconds.’ But nothing lasts forever (not least our ourselves) until one day:

…they judder halfway through a stroke

and snap like over-sharpened lives.’

There’s a sense of danger, and an intimation of death but the poem is also a rich celebration of life.

Finally, it would wrong not to mention Last chance, part of a longer sequence called Speech Recognition. The voice is that of a neglected book, gathering dust in a charity shop:

I’m stick on a wonky trestle table

between a video tape of the Smurfs

and the 1989 Good Food Guide

The book has a simple plea: ‘I only want a single pair of hands/to stretch my spine and open me at last.’ Let this not be the fate of this important book.

It’s a flawless performance, at once funny, elegiac and deeply felt; and totally representative of this spare, deeply enjoyable collection that does not pretend to offer answers, but only questions and consolations. This is a generous and accomplished collection at once refreshing in its simplicity, nourishing in its intensity, and intoxicating in its emotional pitch. Enjoy with a glass of Rioja.

The First Canal Boat in Space

Like a lolly stick balanced on the Ariane,

we clung to the sink, clutching the Davy lamp,

waiting to be flipped to the heavens.

During powered ascent, we stowed the pot plants

and lashed our bicycles to the taff-rail.

On a slow boat to Pluto, we dreamt of cowslip,

heather and The Black Lion at Froghall.

Safely in orbit we stayed below decks,

sipping tea and singing space shanties.

We survived on air trapped in the bilge.

 

A coil of wet rope on the prow,

we bumped through the cosmos, drifting

through wormholes, navigating each

like a series of locks. The stars were like

phosphorescence in the water.

Rudderless, we woke to find our tiller

floating above the deck. We retrieved a chart

from the monkey box and found a safe berth

on Phobos, the small moon of Mars,

our boat-hook finding purchase in a crater.

 

Losing power at Neptune, we traced

the problem to a blockage in the remote greaser,

flicking open the quick release weed hatch.

Now leaking oil we prepared for re-entry,

securing the saucepans and Toby Jugs.

Parachute deployed, we splashed down in the marina

at Great Haywood, sending shockwaves

down the Trent and Mersey. On the rescue boat,

there was loose talk of ticker tape parades,

and the front cover of Canal Boat Monthly.

Is it possible to retire from poetry?

Is it possible to retire from poetry? Not in the sense of having made enough money from it to retreat to a cottage in Cornwall, because that would be absurd. They used to say only three people made money from poetry: Heaney, Harrison and Hughes. No, I mean in the sense of hanging up your poetic boxing gloves and stepping out of the ring without so much as a glance back at the blood on the canvas.

After all, it happens all the time in the world of sport and the arts. Is there a poetic equivalent of the former ballet dancer with a television career and a work-out video? Not that I can think of. In truth, there are few gigs for the retired poet. Not much in the way of punditry, and memoirs have a niche audience. Of course there is always teaching and criticism but this is usually small beer. And younger poets might take a dim view of a creative writing teacher who is no longer producing the goods. No, most poets stumble ever onwards with a slim collection every few years, often with diminishing returns, as they put further distance between the moment they burst onto the scene as the enfant terrible bearing a clutch of dazzling poems.

Is it a poet’s duty to go on until they can no longer raise the lid of a laptop? There is no shortage of poets who continued to write at the top of their game, and many arguably got better, including Heaney, Walcott and notably, Clive James. Others re-tread old ground or circle in a sort of holding position, reliably producing the same book over and over. Some, you feel have had their moment in the sun.

I’m a typical poet in mid-career, with some early glory (Bridport, 2002) a big win (National Poetry Competition, 2008) and some later success (Oxford Brooks, 2016). But in between there have been plenty of fallow years, quite a few read-to-three-people appearances (including one best-forgotten grey Sunday in Loughborough) and at present I’m starting to feel something akin to poetic fatigue – not writer’s block exactly, just a lack of enthusiasm to enter this year’s round of competitions, work towards another collection or send out to magazines.

It all feels eerily familiar. Then I remembered an encounter with a poet while I was an bright-eyed undergraduate at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was a softly spoken, bearded fellow called George, who wrote lyrical nature poetry with a luminous edge, set against the desolate landscapes of Northumbria. He had been published in plenty of reputable magazines, had a good local reputation and a well-reviewed collection behind him. I was sent along by my poetry editor, Ben Rice, (later, author of the virtuoso novella Pobby and Dingan) to snaffle a poem for the university magazine, pigeonhole (no capital letter, of course).

Duly, I bowled up outside the Lit and Phil Society on the Westgate Road, cherry-cheeked from the numbing Tyneside winter. I listened attentively, then, heart pounding, hectored the poet for a poem. Without hesitation he handed over a sheaf of papers and said: ‘Take your pick.’ He astonished me further by telling me he was ‘retiring from poetry.’

I didn’t think such a thing was possible, and even now, I am not entirely certain that it is. He was around the same age I am today (42) and to my eighteen-year-old self it seemed an absurd waste of talent. When I asked him his reasons, he was hesitant in his reply. Clearly he didn’t want to put off a young Turk like me from making his way in poetry, but eventually he gave this explanation: ‘Too many poems in the world, too much disappointment, too little reward and too much else to do.’

Elaborating, he told me he wanted to make the transition back from writer to reader. I’m paraphrasing now, but he said he could never entirely enjoy other people’s work without the nagging sense that he was either in some sort of competition with them (even if they had died a thousand years ago) or that he was in some sense neglecting his own duty to write. When I asked him his plans, he simply shrugged: ‘Just to go back to a normal life I suppose. Read. Go for walks. Go to cinema. Spend time with the family.’

Back to a normal life! Who wanted that? That way, only obscurity and banality lay. They sounded like the words of defeated man. Yet he did not seem bitter in the least. In fact, as he handed over his tattered A4 pages, he had a certain serenity about him. He asked about my own writing and wished me luck with it. He was looking down the other lens of the telescope. I asked for his address to send on his author’s copy, but he shook his head and smiled. ‘No need.’  This was no melodramatic Ziggy Stardust-esque exit from the stage. This was measured, considered retirement.

At the time, of course, I couldn’t relate at all. After all, what could be more important than getting into print and elbowing your way into the literary world? We were being taught by (and liked to think we were hanging out with) Sean O’Brien, W.N. Herbert and Desmond Graham. One of the Merseybeat poets had ventured up the year before, drunk a bottle of wine and snogged a student in the back of a taxi. To me, these figures represented everything I wanted to be – published, feted, and making a living from the written word.

Naturally, I wore the same kind of long navy blue ‘cousin coat’ that O’Brien made famous in his poem of the same name. It had practical as well as poetic qualities, being the only defence against the biting Geordie winter. My abiding memory of the year was trudging in my trench coat and polar neck across the town moor to Castle Leazes, the decidedly unpoetic brick halls of residence where I composed my early efforts.

I put the encounter out of my mind and continued to haunt the poetry scene – watching Brendan Cleary blaze away in the pubs (one part Ed Byrne, one part Lord Byron) touting The Irish Card, his first collection for Bloodaxe.  For an ill-fated, disorganised spell, I even took over the helm of the student poetry magazine alongside musician and fellow poet, Darren Giddings. He was a mature student in circumstances as impecunious as my own, with holes in his shoes and an M&S credit card that kept him in frozen lasagne and reasonable Cabernet Sauvignon. He had already found his poetic voice not to mention put out a proper single, and was someone else to look up to as well as sink pints with at the Trent House. In the same year, 1993, I would watch, slightly star-struck, as the white bearded Jon Silken, legendary editor of Stand, ghosted out of the Robinson Library with a pile of books under his arm.

I embarked on my poetry career in earnest, inveigling my way onto the Creative Writing MA at UEA to be taught by future laureate Andrew Motion, who would murmur a ‘well said’ with quiet intensity whenever we produced a promising phrase. There were other encounters: Hugo Williams, dashing, and always mildly provocative, who read stylish, faintly erotic poems about nurses. Childishly, we boycotted one of his sessions after he criticised a fellow poet’s work, saying that he ‘thought the metaphor had died with Eliot’ (referring presumably to the evening spread out against the sky, ‘like a patient etherized upon a table.’) I was later the grateful recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, handed to me by novelist Ian McEwan, who advised us not to allow the cash disappears down the tills at the supermarket, but instead to buy something that would nourish the soul, like a Picasso sketch. I spent it on a new washing machine.

But now, this meeting with the mild mannered, northern poet has come back to haunt me. Was there something in George’s decision that makes a terrible sort of sense? Perhaps there comes a time when you have written all the poems you are supposed to write. Maybe you arrive at a moment when you realise you best stuff is behind you and that there has been a falling off in quality? And think of the benefits. Imagine not having to worry about where the next idea for a poem is coming from? Imagine not having to stuff money into PayPal for all those speculative competition entries.

Another sobering moment came when old mucker, Darren, sent me a thick manuscript of his poems, stating that they were otherwise destined for the waste paper basket. Having previously given up poetry in a spell of disillusionment, this time he had packed it in for good like a 20 a day Marlborough habit but again without anger or regret, simply acknowledging that he did not have the time or inclination to continue. A box of back issues of Poetry Review followed in the post. These in turn were followed by a bundle of once coveted poetry collections with the message that he had kept the ones he liked and no longer had the space or time to devote to these. It was a typical act of generosity, but at the back of my mind I also felt there was some small betrayal of his gift and calling. But who am I to judge?

I spent 2017 pursuing poetry with a reasonable level of success – a few inspired moments producing a handful poems worth keeping and some placing in good competitions. I was longlisted for the National Poetry Competition 2016 (always announced a year late) and shortlisted for both the Wells and Winchester competitions. Still easily lured at the prospect of success, I motored down the M4 and sat in the audience listening to other people’s names being read out, returning home without a cheque or travel expenses to show for my trouble. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the readings. Meeting up with the other poets and talking a bit of poetry shop brings its own rewards, and any fool can tell you that poetry is generally an unprofitable and somewhat trying business.

I have produced five collections, including Farewell to the Earth (Arc, 2011) and The Fool (Templar, 2014) and have been included twice in The Forward Book of Poetry (always next to Clive James, to my delight). But it was my last book, The Penguin Diaries (Templar, 2017) that really took its toll.

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I set myself the onerous challenge of producing a sonnet for every member of Captain Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic. Despite a memorable launch at Keats House in Hampstead last January, it gained just a single review and has disappeared like Captain Oates himself in the blizzard of new poetry. I genuinely felt it was among the best work I had done. Again, I say this without a trace of bitterness – it is incumbent on the poet to market their own work. I didn’t spend enough time sending out individual poems to magazines or books out for review. I was too busy at the day job, or rattling away on other writing projects (a play about John Betjeman and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche). But thinking about the hours that went into it, it is impossible not feel the disappointment – and at least the small temptation to throw in the proverbial towel.

But of course I haven’t. I got an idea for another poem and wrote it. I visited the Seamus Heaney museum, HomePlace, the stunning, honey-wood shrine to the great man in Bellaghy with his effortless assonance printed a foot high on the walls. I’ve sent out to another rash of competitions and will wait like the other ten thousand hopefuls for the announcement of the winner of the National Poetry Competition, hoping that lightening might just strike twice, as it did for Jo Shapcott and Ian Duhig.

Indeed I wonder whether twenty years’-retired George was tempted to swap the carriage clock for a MacBook Air; whether he succumbed to the temptation to write again, and enter? Can you really turn your back on something like poetry, that intoxicating madness in which, ‘inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric?’ (Plato).

 

The 65 men who sailed South with Scott

‘We are very near the end, but have not, and will not lose our good cheer.’ Captain Scott, March 1912.

I recently wrote a collection of 65 sonnets commemorating Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic (The Terra Nova expedition, 1910-1913). The book is called The Penguin Diaries (published by Templar, 2017) and there is one sonnet for each man who sailed south with him, 59 of whom returned. During the writing process I found, surprisingly, that there was no single place I could find a complete set of biographies for these gallant and occasionally foolhardy gentlemen. I have therefore written and collected these brief biographies here. I would be glad to correct any inaccuracies. The evocative image below was taken on Scott’s birthday, June 1911 aboard the Terra Nova by Herbert Ponting; sledging flags are hung above the table and Captain Oates is pictured standing on the left.

Shore Parties

ROBERT FALCON SCOTT Captain, C.V.O., R.N. (The “Owner,” “The Boss”). Born in Devonport, England in 1868. Joined the Royal Navy in 1881 aged only 13, later serving as Torpedo Officer on HMS Vulcan. Previously led the Discovery expedition (1901-1904) where he set a new record for furthest south with Shackleton and Wilson. Married to the sculptor Kathleen Scott. Died aged 43 on his return from the South Pole in March 1912.

EDWARD R.G.R. EVANS  Lieut. R.N. (“Teddy”). Born in London, England in 1880. Second in command. Suffered from scurvy on return from the pole, saved by Lashly and Crean. Later served with distinction in the First World War as a destroyer captain and won further honours. Wrote South with Scott, his account of the expedition.

VICTOR L.A. CAMPBELL Lieut. R.N. (“The Wicked Mate”). Born in Brighton, England in 1875. Led the Northern Party, compelled to winter in an ice cave on Inexpressible Island. Led a miraculous journey on foot back to Cape Evans across 200 miles of unstable sea ice. Decorated during the First World War and died in Newfoundland, 1956.

HENRY R. BOWERS Lieut. Royal Indian Marines (“Birdie”). Born in Greenock, Scotland in 1883. Served in Burma and Ceylon as part of the Royal Indian Marine Service. Took part in the Winter Journey as well as the Polar Party. Highly practical, hardy and dependable. Died with Scott and Wilson in March 1912 on return from the pole.

LAWRENCE E.G. OATES Captain 6th Inniskilling Dragoons (“Titus,” “Soldier”). Born London, England in 1880. Educated at Eton and South Lynn School Eastbourne. Served in the Second Boer War; injured by a gunshot wound to the leg. Contributed £1,000 towards cost of the expedition. Expert with horses and ponies. Crippled with frostbite and in an effort to save his comrades, walked to his death in the snow with the words: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

G. MURRAY LEVICK Surgeon R.N. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1876. Worked as both as doctor and biologist; member of the Northern party; keen photographer and spent time observing the Adelie penguins, recording his findings in his book, Antarctic Penguins, controversial because of its account of their sexual proclivities. His notebook was discovered in 2013 outside the hut at Cape Evans.

EDWARD L. ATKINSON Surgeon R.N., Parasitologist (“Atch”). Born in the Windward Isles, in the West Indies, 1881. Educated at Snaresbrook and St Thomas’ Hospital London. Took charge of the base at Cape Evans in the absence of Scott and Campbell. Launched rescue attempts for both Northern Party and Scott’s Polar parties. Discovered Scott’s tent in November 1912. Later served on Western Front, fought at the Somme and received DSO. Died aged 47 and buried at sea.

Scientific Staff

EDWARD ADRIAN WILSONB.A., M.B. (Cantab.) Chief of the Scientific Staff, and Zoologist (“Uncle Bill”). Born Cheltenham, England, 1872. Artist, naturalist and member of the Discovery expedition (1901-1904). Led the Winter Journey to collect Emperor Penguin eggs. Member of the Polar party, reaching the pole on 18 January 1912, dying on the return journey. Scott’s closest friend and highly regarded by all.

GEORGE C. SIMPSON D.Sc., Meteorologist (“Sunny Jim.”) Born Derby, England, 1878. Educated at Owens College Manchester and University of Gottingen. Specialised in atmospheric electricity. Conducted balloon and weather experiments while on the Terra Nova expedition. Became Director of the Meteorological Office in 1920, knighted 1935 and died 1965.

T. GRIFFITH TAYLOR B.A., B.Sc., B.E., Geologist (“Grif”). Born Walthamstow, England, 1880. Emigrated to Serbia, then Australia as a child, returning to England to take up a scholarship at Cambridge. Led successful mapping and geological surveys as part of the Terra Nova expedition. Died aged 82 in Sydney.

EDWARD W. NELSON Biologist (“Marie,” “Bronte”). Born 1883 and specialised as an invertebrate zoologist; conducted tidal experiments at Cape Evans. Later fought in Gallipoli and on the Western Front during the First World War. Committed suicide by self-injection aged 39 in 1923.

FRANK DEBENHAM B.A., B.Sc., Geologist (“Deb.”). Born Bowral, Australia. Studied English, philosophy and geology at university. Took part in the Western Journey during the Terra Nova expedition. Entered Cambridge University on his return in 1913. Fought in France and Salonika during the First World War. Awarded OBE in 1919 and founded the Scott Polar Institute in 1920. Died Cambridge 1965.

CHARLES S. WRIGHT B.A., Physicist. Born Toronto 1887. Studied physics at University of Toronto. Initially rejected by Scott but walked from Cambridge with Griffith Taylor to petition for his place. Conducted experiments on ground radiation and ice formation while part of the Terra Nova expedition. Served in France during the First World War. Died in British Columbia, Canada aged 88 in 1975.

RAYMOND E. PRIESTLEY Geologist. Born Bredon’s Norton, England in 1886. Studied at University College, Bristol and served as a geologist on Shackleton’s Nimrod’s Expedition (1907-1909). Took part in the Western Party. Won the Military Cross in France during the First World War. Co-founded Scott Polar Institute with Frank Debenham and became a Fellow of Clare College. Died aged 87 in Cheltenham, Gloucester.

HERBERT G. PONTING F.R.G.S., Camera Artist. Born Salisbury, England in 1870, moved to California and worked in mining and fruit farming. Took up photography and travelled extensively in Asia, publishing in London periodicals. Professional photographer on the Terra Nova expedition. Published his photography in The Great White South and then produced The Great White Silence from his cine-footage. Died London 1935.

CECIL H. MEARES Chief Dog Handler on the Terra Nova expedition. Born County Kilkenny, Ireland. Travelled extensively, fought in the Russo-Japanese and Boer war. Chose dogs and white ponies for the expedition, following Scott’s orders. Returned north in winter 1912, declaring himself unavailable for work two months prior to departure. Joined Royal Flying Corps during First World War and later lived in Canada.

BERNARD C. DAY Motor Engineer. Born 1884 Leicestershire, England. Took part in Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909. Later joined the Terra Nova expedition as a motor engineer, returning after the first year. Awarded the Polar Medal and settled in Australia.

APSLEY CHERRY-GARRARD B.A., Asst. Zoologist (“Cherry”). Born Bedford, England 1886. Educated Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford. Joined Terra Nova expedition through friendship with Edward Wilson. Youngest member of the expedition, taking part in the Winter Journey, Polar Journey and Search Journey, spending three years in Antarctica. Wrote the acclaimed account The Worst Journey in the World. Died 1959 in London.

TRYGGVE GRAN Sub.-Lieut. Norwegian N.R., B.A., Ski Expert. Born Bergen, Norway in 1888 and educated in Switzerland. Took part in the Western Party and also part of the party that found Scott’s tent in November 1912. Used Scott’s skis to travel back to Cape Evans. Member of the Royal Flying Corps during First World War. Died in Grimstad, 1980 Norway aged 91.

Men

W. LASHLY C. Stoker, R.N. Born 1867 in Hambledon, England. Worked on motor sledges as part of the shore party, then switched to man-hauling. Member of the Polar party, returning with Crean and Edward Evans, helping save the latter when he became ill with scurvy. Served in the Navy during First World War and later as a customs officer. Died 1940.

W.W. ARCHER Chief Steward, late R.N. Took over from Clissold as cook on the Terra Nova expedition after Clissold suffered a fall. After the Second World War he retired from the Royal Navy and set up a catering business in London.

THOMAS CLISSOLD Cook, late R.N. Previously served on HMS Harrier; took part in the depot laying journey in December 1911 – January 1912. Replaced by Archer as cook after a fall from an iceberg while posing for a photograph. Later settled in New Zealand.

EDGAR EVANS Petty Officer, R.N. Born in 1876 in Middleton, Rhossili, Wales. Educated at St Helen’s Boys’ School before joining the Royal Navy. Served with Scott on the HMS Majestic. Admired by Scott for his size and strength and for being ‘a giant worker’ he was chosen at the last minute to join the polar party. Died in 1912 returning from the pole after suffering a serious head injury sustained in a crevasse fall.

ROBERT FORDE Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Moviddy, Ireland in 1875. Joined Royal Navy in 1891 and volunteered to take part in the Terra Nova expedition aged 35. Involved in two depot laying expeditions and member of the Western Party. Left the expedition early in 1911 after suffering severe frost bite to his hand. Served in WWI on various ships and promoted to Chief Petty Officer. Retired to Cobh (Queenstown) Ireland and died 1959.

THOMAS CREAN Petty Officer, R.N. Born 1877 near Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland.  Enlisted in Royal Navy aged 15 and took part in three major polar expeditions, including Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions with Scott and later Endurance with Ernest Shackleton. Renowned for his courage and fortitude he was a member of Scott’s last supporting party in 1911, returning with Lashly and ‘Teddy’ Evans. When Evans became incapacitated, he made a 35 mile solo trek across the ice back to Hut Point to get help. Returned to the navy, then retired in 1920 to Ireland, where he opened a pub called the South Pole Inn.

THOMAS S. WILLIAMSON Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Sunderland in 1877, joined Royal Navy and served on HMS Pactolus before joining the Discovery, then Terra Nova Expeditions. Survived a killer whale attack along with Ponting and Leese.

PATRICK KEOHANE Petty Officer, R.N. Born Courtmacsherry, County Cork, Ireland 1879. Served with Teddy Evans on HMS Talbot. Took part in the Southern Journey, turning back at head of the Beardmore Glacier at 85° 15’ South in December 1911. Member of the Search Party, finding the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in November 1912. Later joined coast guard, re-joined Navy during World War II and died Plymouth, England, 1950.

GEORGE P. ABBOTT Petty Officer, R.N. Previously served on HMS Talbot. Part of the Northern Party who wintered in Cape Adair and on Inexpressible Island. Served in the Royal Navy during the First World War and died 1923.

FRANK V. BROWNING Petty Officer, 2nd Class, R.N. Born Stockland, Devon 1882 and joined the Navy in 1900, aged 18. Served on HMS Talbot; member of the Northern Party, acting as cook. Known for his cheerfulness and resilience despite serious illness while on Inexpressible Island, only just making it back to Cape Evans. Served in First World War, retiring in 1922, dying of double pneumonia in 1930 aged just 48.

HARRY DICKASON Able Seaman, R.N. Born Bristol, England in 1885. Served on HSM Defiance before Terra Nova. Member of the Northern Party. Died 1943.

F.J. HOOPER Steward, late R.N. Born 1891, England. Originally a steward aboard Terra Nova, he later became a member of the shore party, and search party, discovering the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Also part of the group involved in the second ascent of Mount Erebus. Died in England in 1955.

ANTON OMELCHENKO Groom. Born Bat’ki, Russia, 1883, Russia. Died in 1932 in the USSR.

DEMETRI GEROF Dog Driver. Born in Sakhalin, Siberia in 1888. Chosen by Mears when he went to Nikolayevesk to obtain the dogs for the expedition. Moved to England, then New Zealand after the expedition, before returning to Nikolayevesk to work as a gold miner, dying in 1932.

Ship’s Party

HARRY L. L. PENNELL Lieutenant, R.N. Born 1882, he spent most of the Terra Nova expedition in New Zealand, making only brief visits to Antarctica to bring supplies and remove crew members. Later served on HMS Queen Mary as Commander and died during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.

HENRY E. DE P. RENNICK Lieutenant. R.N. Died while serving on the Hoguo, torpedoed by a German submarine in September 1914.

WILFRED M. BRUCE Lieutenant, R.N.R. Born in Scotland, he was the officer in charge of zoological work on the Terra Nova. He is also notable for being Captain Scott’s brother in law.

FRANCIS R. H. DRAKE Assistant Paymaster, R.N. (Retired), Secretary and Meteorologist in ship. No known relation to his more famous namesake.

DENNIS G. LILLIE M.A., Biologist in ship. Born 1884 and educated in Cambridge he was much admired aboard the Terra Nova, not only for his drawing skills of marine and bird life, but also for his accomplished caricatures. Served as military bacteriologist during the First World War. Suffered from poor mental health and was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, London in 1918.  He never fully recovered and died 1963.

JAMES R. DENNISTOUN In charge of mules in ship. Born 1883 in Canterbury, New Zealand. Educated at Malvern College, England. Found early fame as a climber before joining Terra Nova in 1912 for no pay, looking after Himalayan mules. Served in North Irish Horse during the First World War before joining the Royal Flying Corps as a bomb thrower. Died of wounds in August 1916 after being shot down over Germany.  A

ALFRED B. CHEETHAM R.N.R., Boatswain. Born Liverpool, 1867 and later based in Hull, England. Began a career in the Merchant Navy before making his first trip to Antarctica as part of the Discovery expedition, arriving on the relief ship, Morning. During the Terra Nova expedition, he volunteered to join the search for Scott but was turned down on account of his 13 children. He was later a member of Shackleton’s Nimrod and Endurance expeditions. Died in August 1918 when the SS Prunelle was torpedoed in the North Sea.

WILLIAM WILLIAMS Chief Engine Room Artificer, R.N., Engineer. After taking part in the British Antarctica Expedition he settled in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, joining his brother, the Reverend Henry Williams.

WILLIAM A. HORTON Engine Room Artificer, 3rd Class, R.N., 2nd Engineer. Returned with the Terra Nova to Cardiff in 1913.

FRANCIS E. C. DAVIES Leading Shipwright, R.N. Carved the cross left in memory of those who lost their lives returning from the pole in 1912. Also played a significant role in saving Terra Nova during the storm on its journey south at the start of the expedition. Served in the navy during the First World War and continued in service until 1920. Settled in Plymouth, later returning his Polar Medal to the King.

FREDERICK PARSONS Petty Officer, R.N. Born in Allington, near Bridport, Dorset in 1870. Member of the ship’s company on the Terra Nova expedition not joining the shore party. Served on submarines during the First World War before starting a successful business repairing shoes in Plymouth. Died 1970 aged 91.

WILLIAM L. HEALD Late Petty Officer, R. N. Previously took part in the Discovery Expedition (1901-04) saving the life of Farrar who was suffering from scurvy. Heald Island, Antarctica is named after him.

ARTHUR S. BAILEY Petty Officer, 2nd Class, R.N. Serving in the Royal Navy when he was asked to join the British Antarctic Expedition, Arthur Samuel Bailey was a member of the shore party and later awarded a Polar Medal.

ALBERT BALSON Leading Seaman, R.N. Born Allington near Bridport 1885. Entered Royal Navy in 1900. Joined HMS Powerful in 1911, before transferring to Terra Nova at Lyttleton. Later took part in the Gallipoli landing during the First World War. Later worked as a salvage diver, employed for many years collecting gold from the ship, Laurentic. Also decorated for gallantry for diffusing a bomb in 1941 during air attacks in Portland Harbour. Died 1950 in Dorset, aged 65.

JOSEPH LEESE Able Seaman, R.N. Staffordshire born, he was later to recall the terrible storm that the Terra Nova encountered on its journey south. In Antarctica he was almost the victim of a killer whale attack when the creatures attempted to break up the ice he was standing on to reach the dogs. Settled in his home county after naval service.

JOHN HUGH MATHER Petty Officer, R.N.V.R. Born 1887, Stroud Green, London. Assisted with clerical work and taxonomy. After the Terra Nova adventure, became a naval commander during the First World War and took part in a successful campaign against the Bolsheviks in Arctic Russia. Died 1957 in Farnborough, England.

ROBERT OLIPHANT Able Seaman. Born Strathmiglo, Fife, Scotland, 1883, joining for the first part of the expedition. Died just after the First World War in 1919.

THOMAS F. MCLEOD Able Seaman. Born Glasgow, Scotland 1873, later moving to Stornoway as a child. Joined British Merchant navy aged 14. Later served with Shackleton on both the Endurance and Quest expeditions. Later emigrated to Kingston, Ontario in Canada where he was employed as a school caretaker and night-watchman. Died in 1960 aged 87.

MORTIMER MCCARTHY Able Seaman. Born Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland in 1878; served on Terra Nova during its three voyages to Antarctica from New Zealand between 1910 and 1913, later settling in New Zealand.

WILLIAM KNOWLES  Able Seaman. Born in Liverpool, 1877, later emigrating to Lyttleton, New Zealand. Took part in the second and third voyages of Terra Nova to Antarctica, helping to build the cross on Observation Hill. Served on HMS Philomel during the First World War and was killed in 1915 while part of a landing party near Alexandretta following an ambush by Turkish troops in 1915.

CHARLES WILLIAMS Able Seaman. Born in Lyttleton, New Zealand 1881. Joined the navy in 1900. Played a key role in saving the Terra Nova during the storm on its journey south in 1910, cutting a hole in the bulkhead to reach the pump. Served on ships during the First World War with Commander Edward Evans, distinguishing himself during the altercation between the German SMS G42 and HMS Broke. He returned to New Zealand and was lost at sea in 1919.

JAMES SKELTON Able Seaman. Settled in Cardiff, working on the docks after service in the Royal Navy during the First World War.

WILLIAM MCDONALD Able Seaman. There is a report in a New Zealand newspaper of a concert given for the departing crew of the Terra Nova, with the detail that Angus McDonald sang at the event.

JAMES PATON Able Seaman. Born Scotland 1869. Served on the Morning, a relief ship to the Discovery expedition. Later took part in Shackleton’s Nimrod and Aurora expeditions. Lost while travelling to South America in 1917 or 1918, possibly after hitting a mine.

ROBERT BRISSENDEN Leading Stoker, R.N. Drowned in August 1912 in Elslie Bay, while employed surveying Admiralty Bay. There was a suspicion of drink being involved in his death, although this was refuted by those with him the night he drowned.

EDWARD A. MCKENZIE Leading Stoker, R.N. One of five stokers on the Terra Nova during the expedition, McEnzie is now famous for the pair of Wolsey unshrinkable mittens he wore on the expedition and are now preserved for posterity.

WILLIAM BURTON Leading Stoker, R.N. Born 1888, died 1988 in his 100th year, making him the last member of the expedition to die. Returned to Antarctica later in life with McDonald and Mortimer.

BERNARD J. STONE Leading Stoker, R.N. Was awarded a Bronze Polar medal on 24 July 1913 by King George V.

ANGUS MCDONALD Fireman. Born West Calder, West Lothian in 1871. Notable for being one of three members of the expedition to return to Antarctica at the invitation of the Americans.

THOMAS MCGILLON  Fireman. Sailed with Shackleton on the Nimrod (1907-1909) surviving several near fatal accidents before joining the British Antarctic Expedition.

CHARLES LAMMASFireman. Born Bethnal Green, London, 1883, the son of a carpenter. Lived in Canterbury, New Zealand most of his life and died in Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand in 1941.

W.H. NEALE Steward and member of the ship’s party. On the Terra Nova, he was responsible for waking the crew, serving food as well as attending to the officers in the afterguard (or mess).

 

Seasons of the Moon: Review of Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló

I had the privilege of meeting Josep Lluís Aguiló at a poetry festival this year and I can testify that he is as remarkable in person as he is on the page, in equal parts challenging and inquisitive, funny, considerate and startling. He is also fiercely proud of his native Mallorca, still fascinated by its landscapes and mysteries. His work has an integrity, vigour and lightness of touch to it that is missing from so much contemporary poetry.

His latest collection, Lunarium is shot through with a sort of magical lyricism, occasionally surreal in the manner of Borges but with an originality all its own. While the harbours and sands of Mallorca are a constant presence, the imagination is the primary landscape. The opening poem, The Rules of the Labyrinth, is a rubric for the book and his brand of poetry; we are set on ‘paths that make us walk ever further from the centre.’ But there is a crucial detail: ‘they are paved with dark desire.’ Sexuality is an undercurrent throughout these poems.  

lunarium

There are several poems about poetry, or at least language, which is something that never offends me. I Have Lost a Few Lines is an ingenious, deftly comic piece about how lines slip away from the poet: ‘They are like shy animals/sometimes they pass right over me.’ They also escape by other means: ‘…some spirituous liquor has ruined them/or the visitor from Porlock.’ It is adroit piece of work about the elusive nature of the perfect line; the bon mot.

There is humour in abundance throughout, albeit as dark as it comes; I particularly enjoyed The Rights of the Dead, where the dead appear to unionise, organising themselves ‘into associations to establish their rights and preferences.’ While some prefer the ‘permanence of buried coffins’ others wish to be ‘quartered and placed on high/mountains so that birds may devour them.’

However overwhelmingly, these poems are an affirmation of life and love; a reminder that life is fleeting and we must make the most of the now: ‘We are drowning in a sea of time./Tomorrow we will be older.’ It is unashamedly romantic stuff. ‘Maybe we’ll never/ again have the energy have the energy to make love with the night on each other.

Josep’s poetry is perhaps, more passionate than most English poets would allow, without losing any of the complexity of allusion or technique. It is a reminder why poetry in translation is more important than ever; surround yourself with people who look and sound like yourself and you will find within your echo chamber a deadening of the language and a paucity of emotional range; it takes you to a dangerously reductive place. Anna Crowe’s magnificent translation allows Josep to show us a brighter, more luminous world of possibility and language. We owe Arc, and Tony Ward, the adventurous publisher of this and so many other important work from beyond our own shores, a debt of gratitude.

Josep’s poem, Poetry, perhaps makes the most compelling case for the poet’s right to ambiguity and a mercurial spirit of independence. He defies an easy definition of poetry: ‘They want us to explain, in a single headline the soul of wine … and all the shades of turquoise in the sea of Ithaca.’ Poetry, he concludes, is not what you read on the page, it is ‘what is left inside us/long after forgetting this poem.’

Fervent, accomplished and infused with the rhythms of the sea as well as the heart, Lunarium is a book to jolt you into life and appreciate the miracle of existence. It is a poet’s manifesto too: his role is to ‘paint, in the void that has been given to you/the burning desperate words.’   

 

 

Happyland – In Broadstairs with The Ghost of Charles Dickens

Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, my wife and I celebrated our 40th birthdays in Broadstairs, Kent. That is not to suggest that they sent us away as a deliberate ploy to avoid spending the day with us! It was a literary birthday present of the best possible kind.

For those who don’t know it, (and I’m loath to make it more popular than it already is) Broadstairs is a glorious sun-drenched spot, bursting with pubs, bookshops, more pubs, ice cream parlors, fish restaurants and a great surfing beach.

viking-bay-broadstairs

We stayed in Bleak House, the imposing, fort like construction over looking Viking Bay where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield. As an extra treat, we slept in Dickens’ own bed, which was reputedly also slept in by both Queen Victoria, and ‘Mr Slash’ from Guns and Roses, although we assume not at the same time.

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After 5pm, we also had Dickens’ study, in the next room, all to ourselves. While my wife was powdering her nose, and draining the complimentary sherry, I went in and sat in the dark at the great man’s desk looking out at the moon over the bay.

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Behind me on the walls were yellowing posters, play bills, manuscripts, pince-nez, paper knives and other assorted Dickens paraphernalia. It was perfectly quiet except for the distant brushing of the waves on the beach. Suddenly the door closed and the latch dropped with a loud click. The temperature seemed to plummet and I fully expected to feel Dickens’ hand on my shoulder.

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That night there were fireworks over the beach, a 1920s flapper party going on in the function room below and the whole episode inspired this silly jazz-age number which I send out by way of a thank you to the delightful hotel staff, for the pals who subbed our memorable trip and to Charles Dickens for the inspiration. Gawd bless him!

Happyland

In Bloom: The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre by Mark Fiddes

A punk energy and an impish sense of fun suffuses this fine new collection from Mark Fiddes. His preoccupations range from the state of the nation to the state of the nation’s pavements in (see The Existence of Dog for more on this). At its centre is the predicament of a revolutionary who finds himself in suburbia, sprayed with ‘Nespresso’ and ‘junk mail.’ He feels, like a Shakespearean fool, that it is his duty to subvert, to out hypocrisy, absurdity and social injustice, albeit with an oblique detachment and stylish intensity.

Chelsea

The title poem sets out the stall, a polite tirade at the money that is threatening the spirit of the Chelsea Flower Show. It begins with a great gag: ‘The butterflies get in for free/like the Queen, ex officio,’ the pay off skilfully executed with the line break. Anger is too strong a word for it, but he rallies against the Prada ha-ha’ in ‘a cash-scented glade.’ The images and brand names come one after another, like the butterflies themselves, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of colour (following Hugo William’s maxim that ‘poems should be full of things.’ The cumulative effect is dizzying – as rich and gaudy as the overpaid guests themselves. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a comic tour de force of considerable panache.

At fourteen poems, this pamphlet has a sonnet-like brevity, but is equally compressed with wit and wonder. The conceits are thrillingly apposite and refreshingly original; his wife attempts to stack ‘metallic capsules of coffee/which tumble like command modules.’ A commuter meanwhile darts ‘as a trout over stones smoothed/by decades to a favoured spot.’ There is a MacNeice like air of unreality to the everyday; as if familiarity has rendered it strange and absurd. A dog is ‘more photocopy than dog,’ resembling a ‘Braque cut-out on whipcord.’ At this flower show, high and low culture frequently collide, Fiddes mixing the mythic with the mundane; Orpheus and Rembrandt rub shoulders with George Clooney and Hello Kitty.

At its centre is a beautiful and affecting poem about a father, Sons of the Golden Section. The man is a painter working in ‘a kingdom of turpentine’ who possesses similar anti-establishment views, always ‘marching/against the latest Dunsinane.’ It is about perfection and imperfection and the poem itself has a painterly quality to it. The father is drawn as a magician, a creator, a mythic figure almost, but he has human frailties too, which are now only appreciated as the son grows older himself. He admires his technique as one craftsman to another:

‘He works paint with palette knives
as if colour like a growing thing,
needed pruning and deadheading’

It is a marvelous poem, filled with reflections, parallels, love and fear.

Equally powerful is Have We Won Yet?, an Afghanistan veteran’s hollow rumination on an ill conceived war. His own sense of bewilderment and disillusionment becomes a critique of his home country:

In the terrible clatter of cups and saucers
he hears the chipped symphony of England
officially at peace with everything except itself.

The poem is full of ironies; he notices that the flowers (is he also at guest at the Chelsea Flower Show Massacre?) are the same as the ones that grow in Kandahar; the crippled soldier remembers how he pressed a flower for his Gran ‘in a copy of Men’s Fitness.’

But this collection is never po-faced. Just when it threatens to take itself too seriously, it lapses into absurdity. Ruminations on war, religion and family are the tempered with the levity of This is Not A Scam or Solo Doloroso. The Pontiff and his entourage in A Page of Revelation are portrayed like a kind of holy Mafia ‘in a miracle of flash bulbs with ‘spiritual muscle on either side.’

Elsewhere the poetry is without politics or polemics: ‘From Siberia’ has a simple grace to it, a little reminiscent in tone and construction to John Burnside’s dark lyricism: ‘these geese trail/winter like needles pulling/thread through sailcloth.’

Ultimately, like the flower show itself, the pleasure is not to be found in a single piece, but in the effect of the whole on the eye (and in this case the ear too). He uses the flower show as a metaphor for England: ‘more Abstract Expressionist than picturesque.’ Its ‘reckless foliage’ is hidden beneath ‘a patchwork flag’

There is so much to enjoy in The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre that to quote from it excessively would be to do Fiddes an injustice. Purchase a copy of this intelligent, immaculately tended collection and you will find yourself in the company of a tour guide at once wickedly cynical, bleakly funny and always colourful.

Solstice

On the shortest, darkest, coldest day
We pulled on our winter socks
Under frozen skies of grey
We saw the flash of a winter fox.

As we walked out into the cold
And stepped on ice and dreamt of snow
We thought of Christmases of old
The holly and the mistletoe.

And for a while we saw the sun
Its rays like wings for all to see
Above the Earth when day was done
Like the angel on the Christmas tree.

Winter sun