Poems for Nancy Nielsen

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Nancy Nielsen

The poet and environmentalist, Nancy Nielsen, died on May 23rd, 2016, after a lengthy period of declining health. Her partner for many years, Alan Brooks, has recently published a collection of poems, maybe someday, written during the last months of her illness and the two years following, and is putting together a collection of Nancy’s poems for future publication.

SomedayI was fortunate enough to visit Alan and Nancy a number of times in their secluded cabin on the shores of Straight Bay, in Lubec, Maine, and remember with pleasure evenings when, after supper, we sat around and read poems, our own and others’, and, if we were very lucky, Alan could be persuaded to fetch his guitar down from the attic and give us a song or two.  

Alan & Nancy
Alan & Nancy

 

 

What follows is a poem of Nancy’s, sent as a New Year card; a poem of mine, published in  a slightly different version in Out of Silence, and two poems of Alan’s from maybe sunday,

Uphill

 

The Light This Morning
for Nancy Nielsen

The light this morning is touching everything
the poet says, and I imagine you
standing tall again
no longer numbed or navvied
by pain,
letting loose the dogs
then stepping with them
into the pool of early morning,
the dew on the grass
fresh around your feet

I see you
walking in this early light
bending to your garden
setting things to rights,
these moments before
the day itself is up and going

A bird starts up from the trees
and you turn back towards the house
the cool of the kitchen
smell of coffee newly ground
the small clear crack of shell
as the eggs are loosed into the bowl
apples sliced straight into the butter
foaming ready in the pan
flour, a dusting of sugar, cinnamon:
Apple Schmarren

The taste of it;
the cabin encircled, almost, by trees;
the clearing into which we walked
and you walked out to greet us
the light around us touching everything

Your poet’s eye
your gaze
your stubborn hardiness and grace.

 

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Nancy and her dog, Skeeter

At Your Graveside

Even here
faint skirl of gulls from the flats –
ache of a yellowleg’s cry from the marsh:
end end end end end summer’s ending

The sky today holds everything
we ever asked of it.
Encircled by goldenrod,
late hydrangeas,

I say your name over and over –
you, who are now in this earth and of it.
Leaf shadows play
among first leaves falling.

Coyote Came In The Night

Coyote came in the night. I was gone.
Coyote, surely you know
we moved away years ago?
Surely you watched us leave –
felt our sadness –
saw us, a rare once in awhile,
return by day for an hour or two
and mostly me, alone, and then
and then, and then
only me alone?

She would have smiled, Coyote,
to see by first light that you’d visited –
come right to the back door –
and that you’d eaten of our fallen apples.
You sang to her often
and she called you Wise One,
Trickster, Brother,
sometimes even Friend.

Soon I will be here, Coyote,
both day and night. Come to me then
not as a tradesman or servant.
Our house is too humble for that.
Come to the front door as honoured guest.
Sing to me in the crisp nights of Fall
as a reveler, and in the longest nights
as a caroler singing
beyond this world’s grief
of joy.

 

 

 

Nancy and Alan in the garden, 2003 #2 copy
Nancy & Alan

“You Did It! You Did It!” Two poems for Roland Kirk

 

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A fascinating piece about Roland Kirk in Richard Williams’ always interesting blog, thebluemoment.com sent my back to these two poems of mine, which I used to read in and around Nottingham with a fine little band led by tenor player/flautist Mel Thorpe, the exchanges between voice and flute giving Mel the chance to give his best humming, whistling, growling impression of Kirk at his most fiery.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?

What would you say of a man who can play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
gourd, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?
Would you say he was missing you?

 

YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT!

It was Roland Kirk, wasn’t it?
Who played all those instruments?
I saw him. St. Pancras Town Hall.
Nineteen sixty-four.

The same year, at the old Marquee,
I saw Henry ‘Red’ Allen,
face swollen like sad fruit,
sing “I’ve Got the World on a String”
in a high almost falsetto moan.

Rahassan Roland Kirk,
on stage in this cold country,
cramming his mouth with saxophones,
harmonica, reed trumpet, piccolo and clarinet,
exultant, black and blind.

“You did it! You did it!
You did it! You did it!”

Daring us to turn our backs,
stop our ears, our hearts,
deny the blood wherever it leads us:
the whoop and siren call
of flutes and whistles,
spiralling music, unconfined.

 

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Poem for World Poetry Day

THE U.S. BOTANICAL GARDENS WASHINGTON D.C.

The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue
of that morning’s watering,
green hose resting
slack between the leaves.

We would come here, safe,
afternoons, and sit, not touching,
humidity in the 90s
and helicopters hovering
a block beyond the Hill.

Though you are here no longer
I reach out to touch your arm,
trace the sweat, the way it beads
around the curve of your skin

From the display of medicinal
herbs, I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart.

And when we meet, a year
from now, by chance, the
departure lounge at Heathrow,
the platform at Gare du Nord,
that harbour front café, and,
uncertain whether or not to kiss me,
you hold out, instead your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies
I have long carried, in the knowledge
that, nurtured, love flowers in the darkest place.

from ASLANT Poetry / John Harvey – Photography / Molly E. Boiling
(Shoestring Press, 2019)

You can see a selection of Molly’s photographs here …

February Poem : “What Would You Say?”

What would you say of a man who could play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
found, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?

Would you say he was missing you?

I wrote this, the nucleus of it, in the early 1990s, when I was a participant in the Community of Writers Poetry Week at Squaw Valley in Northern California; a residential seven days in which we were set the task of writing a new poem every day, said poem to be collected in the early hours of the following morning, so as to be workshopped in the group sessions which began around eleven, eleven thirty, under the guidance of one of the tutors – Sharon Olds or Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, perhaps, or Brenda Hillman. No lightweights at Squaw.

There was some discussion amongst the participants, I remember, about the fact that most of my poems were quite strongly tied to a narrative [not so surprising, given the day job] and why didn’t I take advantage of the situation and try to write something that, instead, centrally, of telling a story, was driven by language, words and the sounds of words?

I tried. Floundered and tried again. Finally managed, on my second visit to Squaw Valley, a five line poem called Out of Silence, which became the title poem in my New & Selected Poems some twenty years later. And before that, the poem above, which succeeds, I think, in being about sounds, about words; but which is also a kind of story. A mystery. A puzzle. A puzzle to which the answer, as anyone who follows jazz will know, is the blind, multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk.

You can hear me reading the poem here, along with the band Second Nature, and with some marvellous flute playing by Mel Thorpe, giving it his best Roland Kirk.

Hopefully, and with a little patience, here goes …

It was 20 years ago today …

SD

Last Thursday, October 17th, a significant posse of poets gathered in the upstairs room of The Wheatsheaf pub in Fitzrovia (once the haunt of Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and other notables) to celebrate the achievements of Slow Dancer Press and mark twenty years since it closed its metaphorical doors. They came, the poets, not just from the metropolis and various parts of the UK, but, in the case of the redoubtable Norbert Hirschhorn, from the further reaches of USA. Well, Minnesota.

The full line-up was as follows: Matthew Caley, Jill Dawson, Sue Dymoke, Rebecca Goss, Norbert Hirschhorn, Libby Houston, Peter Sansom, Ruth Valentine, Jackie Wills and Tamar Yoseloff. All read and reminisced a little, in a number of cases thanking Slow Dancer for publishing them at a crucial time in their writing lives. Liz Simcock sang and played and both Simon Armitage and Kirsty Gunn, sadly unable to attend, sent recorded messages.

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The assembled company of poets (those who didn’t have early trains to catch) From the left, Matthew Caley, Libby Houston, Ruth Valentine, Tamar Yoseloff, Yours Truly, Sue Dymoke, Norbert Hirschhorn, Rebecca Goss, Jackie Wills

The genesis of the press – which in its twenty years published 45 pamphlet collections, 13 books of poetry and 9 of fiction, in addition to 30 issues of Slow Dancer magazine [details here …. } – lay in the Arvon Foundation centre at Totleigh Barton in Devon, which was where I first met Slow Dancer’s co-founder and American editor, Alan Brooks, and the idea of publishing our own magazine was formed. It was also where I met the inimitable Libby Houston, who, both through her work and in person, was an early and lasting inspiration. How good it was to hear her reading again on Thursday!

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Libby reading; me listening. Photo: Sue Dymoke
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Liz Simcock. Photo: Sue Dymoke

Happy days!

‘Aslant’ in review …

ASLANT COVER10

Aslant by John Harvey (poetry) and Molly E. Boiling (photography). £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524099

Review from THE HIGH WINDOW by Robin Thomas https://thehighwindowpress.com

John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.   Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:

soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes
and make their way through the quiet streets
to early morning mass

It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged.  It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going.  Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something. This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.

Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’.  There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners.  Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:

… an angular arpeggio
which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance

Meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable.  The poem ends with the two threads brought together:

[a] final double handed chord, so sudden,
so emphatic, that the crowd, almost as one,
catches its breath and even Frank O’Hara
is stunned into silence.

The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.

To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem.  In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:

the light oscillating
on the water’s surface
patterning across the painter’s canvas

There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:

then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting
small shells like keepsakes tight
in the palm of your hand.

It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.

There are many good things in these poems:  memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:

… I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand;
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.

These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).

I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style.  Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.

The photos by Molly E.Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art.  They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.

 

Autumn Newsletter

EVENTS/READINGS

Inspire Poetry Festival
Monday, 23rd September, 7pm
Beeston Library
ASLANT BUT STILL STANDING … JOHN HARVEY AT 80

Tuesday, 24th September, 6.30pm
Worksop Library
POETRY CAFE WITH JOHN HARVEY AT 80: A CELEBRATION

Tickets for both events … www.inspireculture.org.uk/poetry-festival

Inspire

Lumen Poetry
Tuesday, 15th October, 7pm
Lumen, 88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RT
Shoestring Press Poets: John Harvey, Paul McLoughlin, Merryn Williams

Slow Dancer Press Anniversary Celebration
Thursday, 17th October, 7pm
The Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place, London W1T 1JB
To mark 20 years since Slow Dancer Press ceased publication, an evening of readings by a selection of Slow Dancer poets – from Matthew Caley to Tamar Yoseloff with plenty more in between.

Space is limited and advanced booking strongly advised – all tickets are free.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/slow-dancer-press-20th-anniversary-celebration-tickets-70624312219

Murder Under the Mistletoe 2019
Thursday, 5th December, 6.30 – 8.00pm
Heffers, Cambridge
Festive drinks, readings by “a selection of hand-picked crime authors”, plus a quiz from Richard, Heffers’ crime fiction expert in residence.

https://heffersbookshop.business.site/posts/6168421664518806733?hl=en

PUBLICATIONS

BLUE WATCH
Troika Books, October 2019

An adventure story for 12-16 year olds (and others!) set during the London Blitz and dedicated to the memory of my father, who served in the Fire Brigade throughout WW2.

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Getting to Grips with “Aslant”

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.

This is how it begins …

As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that  robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.

Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”

Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”

And he concludes his review thus …

… this is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.

You can read Thomas Ovan’s review in full here …

And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from contacts@centralbooks.com.    or  from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk. You can even buy it on Amazon.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

Poem for My Father

My father died thirty five years ago this week – June 17th, 1984. He was 78, two years younger than I am now: somehow it doesn’t seem right.

Here he is …

Early JBH.IMG.jpeg

And here’s a poem from Out of Silence that I wrote about him …

Sunsets

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit I‘d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

Simon Armitage: Poet Laureate

Somewhere in the mid-80s it would have been and I’d been invited up from Nottingham, where I was then living, to take part in a series of readings at the Central Library in Huddersfield that were being organised by Peter Sansom, he of The Poetry Business, Smith/Doorstop and The North. This during that brief envelope of time when the Today Programme was seriously asking if it was true Huddersfield was the poetry capital of Great Britain. Being the visitor, I got to read last, with two young poets I had yet to meet – Simon Armitage and Craig Smith – forming the undercard. And let’s take a moment here to realise I’m relying on a somewhat faulty memory, but the basic facts are as they are.

I was particularly struck by one of Armitage’s poems called ‘Greenhouse’ and, at the end of the evening, thinking, I suppose that he might be quite pleased, asked him if I could publish it in the next issue of Slow Dancer magazine. Sorry, he said, but it’s just been taken by the Times Literary Supplement. That’s great, I said, trying to make it sound enthusiastic rather than  grudging – here was someone who was going somewhere and without my help.

We did publish him later, of course, with poems in Slow Dancer 19/20 (1987) and 22 (1989), as well as a pamphlet, The Walking Horses (1988) – his third – which included ‘Greenhouse’, so I sort of got my way in the end. And it’s now clear I was right about him being a poet who was going somewhere … as did David Belbin, whose perceptive appreciation of Armitage’s work was published in Slow Dancer 23 (1990) and I’m grateful to him for permission to reproduce it here …

SD 23

THE POETRY OF SIMON ARMITAGE
David Belbin

And to think that we once wrote poetry
about the distance between stars, and how
for small things the skin on a surface
of water is almost impregnable.

‘A Place to Love.’

The second half of the eighties has seen a new generation of small press magazines invent itself: The Wide Skirt, The Echo Room , The North and (the late) Harry’s Hand, presenting a distinctly new group of poets. They’re 25-35, mostly male, and mostly live within ten miles of Huddersfield. They go to Peter Sansom’s poetry workshops and none vote Tory,  or get  published in magazines run by the London Litcrit mafia. Instead, they’ve set up their own alternative version (with, of course, the generous assistance of Yorkshire Arts).

Despite a lot of hard work and rather more poetic talent than Faber and Faber have dug out in the last decade or two, none of the Huddersfield Mafia have managed to make any kind of national impact. Until now. Simon Armitage, at 26, the youngest of these new Northern poets, has just published his first collection (Zoom! Bloodaxe. £4.95). Despite not being feted in any of the publications that Blake Morrison’s friends get reviewed in, Zoom! was the PBS Autumn choice and even got shortlisted for the Whitbread. This kind of success is not so much rare as unheard of. Simon also won a major Gregory award in 1988, appeared last year on radios 3 and 4. If he keeps going at this rate, he should get a South Bank Show special while the 90s are still young.

What makes Simon’s evident success surprising isn’t his age or origins (born in Huddersfield, returned there after university), but that his style is so uncompromisingly original (unlike, say, Wendy Cope, the best-selling new poet of the 80’s). Which doesn’t mean inaccessible:

I can half hear you, John, half see you fumble
with a car battery, a two two air rifle
two wires and a headlamp. You and that shivering dog
going as two silhouettes above Warrington.

His style is conversational. Cars appear in a lot of the poems. There’s always a sense of humour somewhere near the surface, but it’s hard to pin down: equal measures  of irony and compassion are directed at his quirky subjects.

None of the poetry in ‘Zoom!’ could have been written by anyone else. What makes the voice so distinct is best summed up in his own words:

It’s often a narrative or yarn, a build up of images and links pebbledashed with a mix of idiom, slang and cliche… although real life is the main ingredient of these poems, they are seasoned with a generous pinch of verisimilitude.

PBS Bulletin, Autumn 1989

Some influences are apparent: like many of the new Northern poets he’s more in tune with the relaxed rhythms and wide ranging subject matter of post-war U.S. poets than their drier, more formal English counterparts. Frank O’Hara gets a namecheck and William Carlos Williams is hanging around somewhere. Ian McMillan’s quirky surrealism might be a more local inspiration. Like McMillan, Armitage’s poems work as well, or better, when read aloud. They share a love for the memorable punchline: ‘no fish: no birds: no shit.’ (‘The Peruvian Anchovy Industry’.) Or ‘My cock’s a kipper’ (‘Bus Talk’).

Armitage also acknowledges influences from rock: it’s easy to identify the tone of David Byrne’s (Talking Heads) deadpan lyrics about Urban American life in aspects of Simon’s style. ‘Don’t Sing’ uses the title of Paddy McAloon’s meditation on Graham Greene (recorded by Prefab Sprout) to tell an absurd yet poignant war story.

Smith Doorstop published ‘Human Geography’ in 1986. It includes ‘Lamping’, quoted above, amongst other equally distinctive poems and several with a rawer approach. By the time it was reprinted two years later, the false starts had been cut — only seven of the original seventeen remain. Some of the cut poems are good, but one gets the sense that Armitage is prolific and has plenty to choose from. Youth isn’t far behind in these poems. ‘Dykes’, despite its predictable puns, somehow links dams with maybe lesbians in wry, revealing couplets:

Later I discovered
She was only pointing to an overflow culvert.
Although we were close, she knew a closer, deeper circle
Which, at seventeen, I found undetectable
And many of her stories held no water
Especially those involving Susan, Gill or Sandra

‘The Distance Between Stars’, which Wide Skirt published the following year, is the best of Simon’s three pamphlets. His style has fully arrived. Bookended with poems on astronomical themes, ‘The Distance…’ moves from the mysterious to the mundane, leaving you never quite sure which is which. Many poems take the form of monologues. These are closer to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads than to Carol Ann Duffy’s Thrown Voices and range from the bleak, bitter Antarctic narrative “Bylot Island’ to the jokey, condescending mechanic in ‘Very Simply Topping Up the Brake Fluid’. The latter poem manages to convey the broken rhythms of a continuously interrupted monologue, while reading with verve and a rhythmic swing which may be as difficult to write as It is easy to read:

…gently does it, that’s it. Try not to spill it, it’s
corrosive: rusts, you know, and fill it till it’s
level with the notch on the clutch reservoir.
Lovely.

Yet the fact that these poems are accessible doesn’t mean that they’re light. Armitage carries emotion confidently, unafraid to confront sentiment. ‘Gone’ reminds me of Larkin’s ‘Home is so sad’,

Not the bed, empty, that’s
one thing. But her watch, still ticking
and the loop of one, blonde hair
caught in her hairbrush. Ihat’s another.

This ability to let a detail stand starkly in representation of death; the stern laconic phrase which conveys intense emotion: these are the work of a mature, and possibly major poet.

Armitage’s last pamphlet was ‘The Walking Horses (Slow Dancer 1988) which is a consistent, but more varied set than ‘..Stars’. Its major poems are his longest monologue so far, “All Beer and Skittles’ , a cynically comic account of the sacking of a sometime plumber, and ‘Screenplay’, a more speculative, tender, visual poem that could not have been written by many of his peers.

Horses

That said, there are qualities that he shares with other new Northern poets: humour, arrogance, awkward sensitivity laced with a generous measure of self doubt, also, a sometimes fussy referential habit (whether to places or people} – Armitage takes all these, but transcends them, making something more original. This was overwhelming apparent later in 1988, when a revised, extended edition of his first book introduced many of the remaining poems to be found in ‘Zoom!’

                        The bears in Yosemite Park
are swaggering home, legged up with fishing line
 and polythene and above the grind of his skidoo
a ranger curses the politics of skinny dipping.

This is life.

Armitage avoids fixed rhythms, attaining a conversational shamble of deceptive pace: walking a kind of metrical highwire. His poems can be read many times and retain their freshness. I recall the excitement of reading ‘Zoom’ for the first time, in issue four of ‘The North’: (The exclamation mark, incidentally, was added later, evidently at Bloodaxe’s insistence) the boldness of the metaphor could have been overbearingly arrogant in almost anyone else’s hands, yet it works as a magical, comic, surreal, and finally quite humble account of the creative process.

The book ‘Zoom!’ (Bloodaxe, 4.95) is a fat first volume which is worth buying even if you’ve got all the pamphlets discussed above, and indispensable if you haven’t. Many of the newest poems seem grittier, more compassionate than his earlier work. His probation worker job may partly account for this, emerging as subject matter in poems like ‘Social Inquiry Report’, ‘Eighties, Nineties’ and ‘The Stuff’. But then some of the final poems in the collection are even harder to classify than any of those I’ve tried to discuss earlier: more wilfully obscure and cynical, yet wistful in tone. And among them, reminding us of his background in Oceanography, is one of the most striking poems about ecology that I’ve read, ‘Remembering the East Coast’.

At conference
how they roared at the chairman’s address,
his much told fable
of the bald patents clerk
who resigned his post circa 1850
explaining ‘Everything we need
is now invented.’
But alone I am with him; dipping the quill,
crossing the t of his signature,
blotting the I’s
of his oddball opinion.

‘Zoom!’ is only a beginning, but a dazzling one, from a poet who’s already past words like ‘promise’ and ‘potential . Finally, it leaves you with the same impulses as all good art: it leaves you wanting more and it keeps you guessing. Give Simon Armitage a test drive.