Winter Migrants, Tom Pickard, Carcanet, 2016, 74pp, £9.99 (paperback)
Quennets, Philip Terry, Carcanet, 2016, 135pp, £12.99 (paperback)
Tom Pickard’s Winter Migrants begins with ‘Lark and Merlin’, which won the Bess Hokin prize in 2011. A sequence of lyrics, so precise that they evoke the ‘scalpel song’ of the wren described by Pickard, boldly moves between hawthorns, oral sex, a café scene and descriptions of the weather. The following, taken from the sequence, recounts:
stumble over shuffling roofs
shake his sleep who dreams
a lost love
The wind frequently finds itself in Pickard’s lyrics – it becomes a background, a force and a space to inhabit – seeming sometimes to evoke the sixteenth-century apostrophe: ‘Christ, that my love were in my arms / And I in my bed again!’ Although, in the ‘Prologue’ to ‘Fiends Fell Journals’, the stamina of this parallel becomes less certain as it suggests a more contemporary context:
When my lover became my enemy
I made a bed amongst winds
and drove the old road
till my heart crashed.
Where’s the bypass?
Pickard’s humour flits in and out of Winter Migrants. At times, it is as though this humour seeks to outwit lyric poignancy. Elsewhere, unadulterated pleasure is taken in the landscape. The wind guides sound in Pickard’s description of ‘the blizzards blown out, / snow blowers go below / sun-white Watch Hill’, whilst other natural bodies lead intensely acoustic and imagistic formations: take a ‘swallow’s glittering chitter’ or ‘the swell of a reclining woman / backlit by sun sunk / behind the skunk hills’. Pickard’s propulsive approach to vowels here can’t help but echo the work of one of his greatest influences: Basil Bunting.
Whilst humour might be seen to undermine the lyric through bathos or irony, elsewhere it seems to be a feature of the different environments Pickard represents. Haibun-like in its combination of diary entries, poems and fragments of song, ‘Fiends Fell Journals’ finds Pickard describing home and family, reflecting upon his writing and conversations from, say, the café kitchen in which he works: ‘“Tom, do you need more muffin?”/ “Only as much as I can get.”’ The shift between inconsequential and rhapsodic episodes in these poems is made with surprising ease, and the way in which certain poems appear to be self-reflexive of such shifts, even more arresting. Expressing the latter in ‘Reading Creeley’s ‘Histoire de Florida’, Pickard writes:
Sightseers in a lay-by
seek discernible facts
from a dissembling landscape,
like midday sun on the fleece of sheep
that lie and watch them drink
from polystyrene cups
filled from flasks, and photograph.
For a moment, ‘photograph’ seems at once noun and verb – object and process – an unsteady framing of this misleading landscape in which any action (the lying, the drinking, the photographing) oscillates between the sun, the sheep and the sightseers. A quick change to the almost-palindrome of a ‘low owl’ that ‘blows in, easy / as a breath of thistle’ conveys complexity in its figurative richness that contrasts the stated simplicity of the movement. Plunged into night, the speaker appears to become a creature in the moon’s ‘headlights’, and evoking Creeley’s own themes, concludes with ‘The dead don’t remember us’.
Death, however, occupies far less of a place in Winter Migrants than sex. Occasionally sharing qualities with the work of Frederick Seidel, Pickard’s expression demonstrates a mannered bluntness and is likely to produce a similar cringe in the reader. ‘Miss Syncopation’, a poem that imagines what it would be like to have sex to Bach, ‘bebop? byrd?’, describes
what she craved
was hard rock
ready to roll
he flopped a soft lob
she pounced – a cat
at a carpet scratch
and blew him to insomnia
Pickard’s work has, and continues to, challenge what he calls ‘polite poetries’ and ‘the southern tart’ who ‘write[s] aboot/her scented farts’, yet rather than this poem’s crude physicality, it is the metaphor in ‘Miss Syncopation’ that is likely to raise an eyebrow as it struggles to cohere. The ‘carpet scratch’ returns the opportunity of mistaking verb for noun, but does so with no effect apart from possible confusion. In turn, the metaphor illuminates little but possible frenzy (depending on how one’s cat approaches its post), though perhaps this clumsiness is deliberate as Pickard goes on to ask what sex would be like with ‘scriabin’s whole / atonal hole?’
The opportunity for this kind of nitpicking becomes less viable when metaphor emerges, rather than when it is self-consciously administered, in Pickard’s depictions of sex and the body. Returning to the journal entries, ‘5 February’ records:
‘I woke refreshed with sunlight on the bed and a horn in my hand – conscious of solitude in a way that’s new. There was a taste of spring this morning but I’m unable to attribute that to the bright weather or the stiff cock.
a thirty-mile-an-hour wind
clouds shift, shiver out the sun
a slanting sheet of sleet
driven over the fells from the east
With its blend of Spring, nature and sex, such writing echoes yet further sixteenth-century lyricism –that of Robert Herrick. Yet, what feels new about Pickard’s approach is the way sex doesn’t pronounce itself as the main subject of the work, but filters through its themes to create an atmosphere in which the landscape is both explicitly and implicitly eroticised. As ‘5 February’ concludes with another prose section – ‘A storm cock sang in Alston, but in this place, a thousand feet higher, spring comes more cautiously, strung in wind. It brings snipes, curlews, pipits and a shower of lark song’– it is difficult not to read it as a strangely sensual anthropomorphism. This continues throughout the collection, concluding in Pickard’s poems on the estuary in which ‘Waders wait / to lead the tide in, / eat the tide out.’ As with his previous volumes of poetry, Winter Migrants further attests to Pickard’s impressive poetic range and flexibility in tone. By turns sensitive and scrutinising, landscapes are brought to the fore through an investigation of lyric brevity and its application to the modern day, making this collection a testament to the relationship between poetry and song.
Exploring an Oulipian form, Philip Terry’s Quennets brings with it a very different sense of poetic discipline, and yet, wholly attentive to environments, Terry’s collection remains thematically comparable to Pickard’s poetry. The quennet is no new departure for Terry, who has not only based previous collections on constraints associated with Oulipo, but also translated Raymond Queneau’s original quennets in another Carcanet volume, Elementary Morality. In his notes, Terry explains that the quennet consists of a certain number of lines (‘one more line than a sonnet’), syllables and noun-adjective pairs. Turning to any poem in ‘Elemental Estuaries’, the first section of Quennets, affords a demonstration of this formula, yet the following example also exhibits the potential richness in choosing this form.
Red Andros Red Charmer Red Camelot
Red Crusader White Siskin White Shadowfax White Avocet
Blue Merlin Blue Lucky Dip Blue Vinney
on the marsh
on the estuary
Percussive masts Pink sail lofts Persistent scraping Private members
Tolkien, Dorset cheese, and what could be the names of particular floral species just as easily as they could be the names of racing greyhounds, emerge from this poetic union jack. This retina-blinding mix of cultural reference frames a more straightforward Constable-like landscape seems paralleled by the host of associations evoked by Terry’s precise, imagistic language. Indeed, there’s gratification to be had in the way these poems hold a conversation with Williams’s ‘red wheelbarrow’ and Thomas A. Clark’s more recent distillations of environments, just as they speak to the conceptual art of Hamish Fulton and Richard Long.
As ‘Elemental Estuaries’ records ten estuaries visited on five occasions each, it is perhaps unsurprising that not all fifty poems match the previous example’s striking nature. Whilst the sections of the quennet are intended to depict the horizon, the mid-ground and foreground, and suggest the ‘receding flatnesses’ of fenlands, there’s a risk that these quennets become flat themselves. Variations on a ‘narrow path’, ‘windy track’, ‘still creek’, ‘clipped hedge’ and ‘industrial waste’ make for an accurate record of the landscape, but not particularly stimulating reading. It is Terry’s unusual marrying of nouns and adjectives, as well as his rhymes and subtle metaphors, that will likely sustain more impatient readers through this repetition. ‘Chocolate marsh’ and ‘snacking crow’ evokes the cutesy flare seen in the work of many young British poets today, whilst ‘offshore crow’ destabilises common phrases so that, for an instant, thought on offshore construction and banking investments collide with the simple image of a crow. Wonderfully underplayed, another quennet concludes with:
Broken twig White sail Shark’s tooth
The carefully conceived interaction between a sail and a shark’s tooth comes to the fore, whilst ‘white male’ productively troubles these waters further. Given the earlier description of sailing masts, perhaps this rhyme hints at the way privilege presents itself in the landscape. Might this be a subtle reference to Kathleen Jamie’s criticism of Robert Macfarlane as ‘A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male’ in his nature writing classic, The Wild Places?
In later quennets, fragments of social commentary that conjure what Michael Symmonds Roberts and Paul Farley call ‘edgelands’ become more explicit. Whilst these more self-conscious fragments provoke sensation, it is unclear what these gestures seek to accomplish otherwise. Take, for example:
sift the mudflats
a hand tightens
It’s hard not to read this sudden close-up with its cool, objective tone as a detail that exploits subject matter for its shock-factor. Another quennet that brings into view a ‘postmodern town’, ‘dandelion clock’, ‘walking runner’, similarly creates a jolt through uneasy neologism: ‘Asda lung’. Evoking black lung or miner’s lung, Terry’s ‘Asda lung’ feels somewhat of a gimmick. Moving on, however, to the second section of Quennets, it is possible to dismiss these details as minor glitches.Indeed, in ‘Mauerweg’, Terry demonstrates a sensitive, thought-provoking approach to the political, social and physical boundaries associated with the Berlin Wall.
Based on a series of walks taken over a two-year period around the Berlin Wall Trail, or ‘Mauerweg’, Terry’s work takes on a more meditative tone. Suggestive of psychogeographic explorations of urban environments – his notes specifically reference W.G. Sebald and Iain Sinclair – these quennets dazzle in their juxtaposition of quiet bewilderment, ghostly encounter, historical narrative and anecdote. Memorable for their unsettling nature and their ability to prompt the reader into a second reading, one might flick to Terry’s depiction of the wall ‘forever crossing the river, that most natural of boundaries’, or his lyrical engagement with sound over sight: ‘Bird song. Gun shot. The wind in the trees. / How different these sounds now, and when the wall once stood’. Through italicisation and grammatical uncertainty comes an unsettling of the boundaries associated with language and meaning. During these explorations there are humorous moments, as when Terry depicts ‘Weight-watchers, in brightly coloured buildings’ before repeating ‘lengthy stretch’: a phrase that, in other quennets, seems to reference the walk itself. Such moments appear alongside the uncanny: ‘The cock of a former Stasi officer lengthens as he steps into the blue movie booth’.
The relevance of ‘Mauerweg’ in terms of contemporary politics, of the metaphorical and literal boundaries both around and within Europe doesn’t need much explanation. Equally, written in 2007-2009, there’s no attempt on Terry’s part to make ‘Mauerweg’ a comment on current affairs. Rather, over the sequence of poems, clusters of associations begin to build. The quennet’s noun and adjective pairings poignantly describe ‘Forest abuse. Guard rail. Smooth tower. Asylum seekers’. With specific references to Michael Bitten and Willi Block and their fatal escapes from East to West Berlin, other lines similarly stand out for their timeless quality. Take, for instance, ‘The ratio of cyclists to walkers is 10:1. It’s the same as the ratio of attempted escapes to successful ones’. ‘Mauerweg’ and the third section of Quennets, ‘Waterlog’ share this collage-like quality in which the present rewrites the past. Regarding the latter, this becomes a chief intention for Terry who retraces the journeys recorded by W.G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, consciously correcting his erroneous accounts of the landscape he travels. One begins with ‘Silver birch/Embedded tyre/Scots Pine’ and goes on to revise Sebald’s depiction of Edward Fitzgerald’s home: ‘The White House – / not destroyed / by a / doodlebug / just plain / old dry / rot’.
Landscape, culture and nation are subjects threading together the three sections of this collection. A more obviously unifying quality, however, is the fact that all the poems are quennets. In the notes, Terry explains that Queneau’s original form was ‘too playful’ for relaying Cold War enclosure and so the form was “adapted” into ‘a wall-like block of prose’. Likewise, another adaption was needed in order to represent the coastlines in ‘Waterlog’. However, in each case, adaption simply seems to mean changing the page’s margins. Terry’s brief comparison of the quennet to a sonnet suggests that dedication to a form does not mean a monomaniacal adherence to its structural particularities. Subtle departures in subject matter certainly find the quennet behaving differently, but it’s a missed opportunity not to have experimented further with the form. ‘The problem, when you see the constraint’, explained Oulipian Georges Perec, ‘is that you no longer see anything else’. Whilst repetition might be an encouraged practice in Oulipo, and Quennets clearly offers a rich and crucial contribution to connect otherwise disparate practices in nature writing, experimental ecopoetics and land art, it is difficult to completely dismiss the old adage of quality over quantity.
Isabel Galleymore’s first pamphlet is Dazzle Ship (Worple Press). In 2016 she won the Basil Bunting Prize and the Jane Martin Poetry Prize. Her work has featured in Poetry, Poetry London and Poetry Review. She is currently undertaking a residency in the Peruvian Amazon.