Embodying delight (some formulae)

Alan Gillis, Hawks and Doves, The Gallery Press, 79pp; Fiona Sampson, Common Prayer, Carcanet, 74pp; Lynne Wycherley, North Flight, Shoestring Press, 70pp.

There are a number of now quite stately premisses on which we still rely when we come to read most poems. Yeats’ belief that a poem is a ‘quarrel with the self’, for instance, was predicated on a quite different and decidedly more stable notion of ‘self’ than that encountered in the work of Alan Gillis. Pound’s dictum to ‘make it new’ makes less sense in a world barely aware of anything more ancient than the last lustrum, and Lynne Wycherley’s appeal to a diverse range of old masters and natural phenomena is partly an enquiry into what ‘it’ might be. Even Rilke’s still-astonishing demand ‘you must change your life’ must now be set against a plethora of volumes claiming to show how to do just that, in which spiritual change is considered from much the same viewpoint as dietary fad. Against such a background, Fiona Sampson’s work sets out to renovate the very terms for such acts of alteration.

In their different ways, then, these authors require us to review our ideas in order to appreciate their work fully. We are aware, of course, that there are many poems which demand we abandon these premisses altogether, but their authors often seem to have emphasised this to a degree which negates an even older notion, Wordsworth’s conviction that a poem ‘must give pleasure.’ Thankfully, the quality of these three poets’ work enables us to regard such reviewing as part of the normal pleasure of reading a poem. (‘Pleasure’ itself, unlike ‘self’ or ‘new’ or ‘change’, remains sui generis, but I will gesture towards it in passing.)

Alan Gillis’s work plays an important role in the continued development of Northern Irish writing, which has given rise to a new generation of fine poets including Colette Bryce and Sinead Morrissey. Like them, Gillis has managed the astonishing feat of persuading us it is an entirely natural aspect of his writing to display something of the formal subtlety of Muldoon, the extraordinary vocabulary of Heaney, and the fine-grained sensibility of Mahon.

His poetry principally engages with this distinguished heritage by displaying a type of virtuosic verbosity. This sounds like a criticism, but instead I am trying to depict an entirely admirable excess, a dextrous rhetoric within which language carries all before it, as in the almost medieval tour de force where he produces questionable synonym after synonym for the male member:

my d’Artagnan, my explorer of the canyon,

my saxophone, my knick-knack-paddy-whack, my dog and my bone,

my saucisson, my saveloy, my knackwurst, my donger,

my Pinocchio’s nose growing longer and longer,

my high and flighty piccolo, my ‘just popped out to say hello’,

The most interesting and drastic effect of this eloquence is to overwhelm any coherent portrait of the speaker, who passes from the pose of ordinary man through ludicrously boastful Priapus, past ironised caricature and back to still anonymous male without gaining or shedding any insight into the purpose of his copious naming.

Such figures, simultaneously filled with and defeated by language, populate this volume, like the speaker of ‘Home and Away’ who finds a way to insert ‘fuckin’ into every line, but leaves it to the reader to consider why such dextrous profanity is necessary. Often anonymous, sometimes gathered into couples or family groups, they inhabit or revisit a Belfast and its hinterland in which the racy particulars of slang have completely intermingled with the idiolects of advertising and technology, where ‘branny-faced boys’ must deal with ‘polytetrafluoroethylene’. The results are extremely lyrical explosions of estrangement:

I had left that town of darkness

full of a darkness of my own

so many times this time I took

forever going over the green-rocked

hills’ drop and climb with my Civic’s

windows open, chasing the valley fall’s

blue slopes and fern banks, gilt and diesel

clouds towards Belfast’s open terminals.

This collection attempts to use voice to depict a landscape rather than portray an individual. It shows a culture which is simultaneously localised and globalised, continuously emerging from crisis without ever escaping it, a culture, as one title has it, ‘On a Weekend Break in a Political Vacuum’. Such a voice necessarily focusses on the brutal and the funny more than on the sylvan and the tender, and there are moments where you long for less ‘clabber’ and ‘clunt’ (though this will not occur to you in the middle of ‘Bob the Builder is a Dickhead’, the speech of a veritable anti-Polonius to a no doubt stunned son). But at no point do you doubt that such supersaturated richness of speech amounts to anything less than a consistent and stunning picture of a paradigmatic city.

It might be possible to argue that, while Alan Gillis absorbs contemporaneity as an obvious and unavoidable constituent of Northern Irish life, Lynne Wycherley opposes it with another notion of northernness. The title of her second collection, North Flight, echoes Douglas Dunn’s crucial volume of cultural relocation, Northlight, and this points to some of its central concerns. Dunn’s move to Fife signalled a renewed, subtly spiritual, and largely pastoral engagement with his Scottishness, and Wycherley’s travelling also has the air of pilgrimage to a purer sort of realm.

Her writing constantly looks for new ways to leave its point of origin, the Fens, whether turning to the past to re-examine John Clare’s relationship with the place, or, more frequently, heading north into the imaginative territories of the Scottish islands and Scandinavia and Iceland. In this there is something of ‘flight’ as an escape, as well as a migration. But ‘north’ as a goal is held to with clarity of eye as well as the passion of a vision, as in ‘Blue Hare of Hoy’:

Ears that would sense you

before you shaved air, a shape in flight

from your breathing. By Stany Hamars

it showed its quick heel. Only love

could prove so elusive or race

such light on a shattered hill.

Such glimpses and freedoms are familiar to us from other travellers like Pauline Stainer or, more recently, Jen Hadfield, and it is in the relationship Wycherley weaves between the pure ‘there’ of the north and the impure southern ‘here’ that her work attains depth. Her intense empathy with Clare finds voice in the poem on Glinton Steeple, which ‘speaks the south’ and draws the empassioned cry, ‘A spine — ray — sliver of white. Physician/do not heal my eyes: I need love’s splintered sight.’

This ‘splintered sight’ is particularly effective in the personae and bird and animal poems which intersperse the collection, in which displaced, longing or watching individuals are seen with moving insight, from the Arctic fox which, even from a photograph, ‘weighs my bones/with his old man’s eyes’, to the portrait of Darwin, equally isolated from faith and family:

Dear God, mute ghost: I would not

give Him up, but events orphan me.

I see Annie: her face is closed.

Emma, I am lonelier than you know.

The north becomes in this analysis, an corollary for the isolation within, and such poems feel more lived than pieces addressed to the Orkney poets, Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir. In these the depiction of an unproblematically ‘good’ place or person seems a little too bare. Though perhaps the issue is more one of echoing: the elegy for Mackay Brown and the image of Muir in the bone factory re-explore themes more powerfully presented in their own writing, so these poems feel like they’re handling a received iconography. (Of course it is not required of icon painters that they be original, only that they match or surpass the spirituality of their original models.)

The collection reaches a genuine epiphany when in ‘Among Arctic Flora’ the poet recognises a common plant from her background, and therefore from Clare’s, amongst all the  ‘hard purity’ of Iceland:

I stoop with John  Clare:

brown seeds our hands remember


pouched in hearts.

Tacker-weed, Pickpocket,

Poor Shepherd’s Purse.

That communion of the shared gesture, the body’s experience of its own emotional history and how it echoes and sometimes touches the history of others, is explored over and over again in Fiona Sampson’s latest collection, Common Prayer. Alternating between short intense sonnets and more meditative pieces with stepped, careful lines, more reminiscent of later John Burnside than Carlos Williams, she gradually draws the reader into a series of subtle perceptual negotiations. If Gillis’s models are mostly Irish and Wycherley’s sometimes Scottish, then Sampson combines an entirely English voice with an awareness of the Eastern European, the Mediterranean, even the central Asian. The result is a poetry of extraordinary openness, to influence as well as to experience.

Just how carefully Sampson builds from the senses is evident in ‘The Looking Glass,’ where metaphoric readings are teased out of the simplest yet most surprising observation:

the grain in glass

is a secret mark of grace —

you look through it,

see something flawless, thickening to white

only at the cut

This reflecting on the nature of what reflects and what doesn’t recurs throughout the book, leading to the strange kiss through glass in ‘At the Sex Frontier’:

…your face

comes puckering up,

so that I lean across the shiny space between us

towards the image of me

floating in you

This thoroughly MacNiecean play with mirrors exposes the loneliness of the self especially at night, looking through ‘a pane of deeper dark in darkness’. The loved ones of these poems, whether lovers or relatives, whether present or absent, whether longed for or not, are frequently seen as quite apart from the self. These poems aren’t simply looking for union with the other, but attempt to articulate the unlikely terms in which communion is still possible.

Love in this context is juxtaposed most intensely not with Death, its most obvious old partner, but with Illness, which creates the terrifyingly acute perspective of ‘The Plunge’ where, as the unidentified ‘you’ ‘[telescopes] into your black centre’, the I is left to conclude ‘We’re going to the very edge,/to the darkness/where windows float their little boats.’ Here the ancient ‘love-feast’ or moment of agape is reduced to a solitary saline drip.

In this and its partner piece, ‘Scenes from the Miracle Cabinet’, we see how Sampson has articulated from the simple terms ‘glass’ and ‘love’ and ‘darkness’ an intense formula describing how we emerge from the ordinary experiences of our lives into moments of change and groundlessness, the realm in which our senses cannot prepare us for what they reveal, and we must have recourse to ‘common prayer’.

Just as the domestic in her work keeps yielding up the foreign, even the alien, these powerful sections are echoed by poems either set abroad or imagining the worlds of other cultures. ‘Blood Lyrics’ from the (possibly fictitious) Tokharian explore  communion through the trope of being consumed by the loved one. A poem on her beloved Beethoven’s Opus 131 opens ‘ One hundred and thirty one approaches/to the problem of God’, confirming that art, whether in the creation or the experiencing, is the commonest form of prayer.

All these themes come together in ‘Fog-bound’, a final contemplation both of the limits of the senses and the urgent needs of the sensibility:

the unknown is always arriving,

a continual rescuing flow round you

and on:


fog’s oozy bloom,

the pages of books —

Between them these three writers define some of the territory we hope to find illuminated by ‘the pages of books’. We know there is a difference between a real blast and just bluster, between an intense simplicity and the fall into simplification, between the possibility of a soul and a solipsism of the self. We expect the poet to take on the challenge of defining this kind of difference, and to embody it in the poem. We don’t require that their answers avoid difficulty, but we couldn’t read them if they were unable to deliver delight. These particular poets do embody, they don’t avoid, and they can deliver. That makes them different enough to deserve, maybe even to demand, our full attention.

(First published in Poetry London, Autumn 07)


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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