The Fen Dancing, William Bedford, Red Squirrel Press, 2014, 70pp, £7.99 (paperback)
Sleeping Keys, Jean Sprackland, Jonathan Cape, 2013, 52pp, £10 (paperback)
Division Street, Helen Mort, Chatto & Windus, 2013, 64pp, £12 (paperback)
A poet, novelist and critic who has also tried his hand at drama and writ- ten several books for children, William Bedford might be considered the epitome of that slightly démodé term, ‘a man of letters’. However, he first started publishing poetry in his teens and one suspects that like Hardy, po- etry has always been his first love. Collecting Bottle Tops: Selected Poems, 1960-2008 (Poetry Salzburg 2009) drew upon five earlier pamphlets and full collections, but contained a considerable number of poems written in his sixties. The Fen Dancing is now further testimony to this late efflo- rescence. In ‘The Way You Should’, his prefatory poem dedicated to the memory of his father, he re-invents Wallace Stevens’s image of the snow- man and establishes an elegiac mood. With a poignant simplicity, Bedford evokes the passage of time and his own loss tinged, perhaps, with a sense of guilt: ‘I wish I’d stayed and talked a little longer, / the way you should with strangers passing by.’
‘The Fen Dancing’ is the first in a sequence of masterly poems that explore Bedford’s ancestral roots in rural Lincolnshire. It is a beautifully sustained narrative crackling with the buzz and burr of dialect: ‘children skreeking to the beck’; ‘horses shrouded by a gadder of flies’; ‘winter’s crizzling grind.’ ‘Kirkby Green: 1914’ is a vivid portrayal of a lost way of life set against the backdrop of impending catastrophe. Equally impressive are several other virtuoso performances. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, a subtle tribute to the figure of Robert Frost, is a powerful elegy for a workman who fell to his death in the ‘Winter of forty-seven’ because he liked to sleep in barns. ‘Sheep-Washing’ and ‘The Ford’ are genre studies in which Bedford’s brilliant accumula- tion of detail animates his rural vignettes. ‘In ‘The Potato Gatherers’ he describes Irish migrants working the land with ‘Van Gogh faces in a Van Gogh barn’ and underlines the polarity between a Methodist minister’s stern non-conformism and the benighted Catholicism of transient labour- ers: ‘“Decent folk don’t pray on their knees. / or out of doors like cattle.”’
Evoking his world of ‘fog and witchcraft’, ‘apple-scrumping wars’ and ‘love in open fields’, the poet self-consciously assumes, in a way that is reminiscent of that fine Irish poet John Montague, his role of annalist and custodian of his family’s history. ‘Nobody likes to forget things’, says Bed- ford, quoting his father; while in ‘Ghosts’, a poem dedicated the memory of his grandfather John Fantom Bedford, the poet’s responsibility to serve his ancestral Lares is made even more explicit:
I like the sound of Fantom
I like the steady fall of fine snow.
In another country graveyard,
far from the rattling guns and dreams of girls,
you wait for me to write this poem.
And tell you where your story began
Like Heaney, Bedford is always true to his roots and his own lived experi- ence, placing it in a context that goes back to the First World War and be- yond. Aware, however, that there are those who may question the validity of indulging in what they dismiss as nostalgia, he also untangles the threads of his own formative years and beyond to those of his children. In ‘All We Want’ the scene moves to the suburbs where the routines and rituals are dif- ferent and it is the poet’s ‘turn to do the nursery run.’ In ‘Where Have All the Birds Flown?’ it is nonetheless made clear that even your own children are no bulwark against the passage of time:
I used to know where we were going.
Lit candles to scare the night.
Cast spells over the poisoned apples.
Now I cannot turn the pages.
The empty nest
has emptied the nest of meaning.
In ‘Family Trees’ the poet proclaims, with another nod to Wallace Stevens, that ‘Imagining is the only way I survive.’ Whether he is invoking his fam- ily ghosts or the literary heroes who have shaped him, William Bedford speaks directly in verse that is uncluttered and musical. Always authentic, always poignant, these are poems in which the images are as bright and numinous as ‘the gold lettering on the carrier cart […] My family name etched into timeless sunlight.’
Jean Sprackland’s new collection Sleeping Keys, her fourth, makes an interesting comparison with Bedford’s The Fen Dancing. In marked contrast to the latter’s historical sweep and the big skies of Lincolnshire, Sprackland’s poems are circumscribed and intimate. Originally from Burton-on-Trent, the title poem of her second collection, Hard Water, is, like many of Bedford’s, rooted in a recognizable locale:
I tried the soft stuff on holiday in Wales,
a mania of teadrinking and hairwashing,
excitable soap which never rinsed away,
but I loved coming home to this.
Flat. Straight. Like the vowels,
like the straight talk: hey up me duck.
However, with the poems of Sleeping Keys and its predecessor, Tilt, the winner of the 2007 Costa Prize, we see that increasingly she has espoused an astringent lyricism. In her latest collection she focuses in on every nook and cranny of that highly charged and frequently ambiguous term home in poems that are meticulously crafted and informed by various dichotomies:
freedom and entrapment; flight and return; the internal and the external worlds.
In ‘Opening a Chimney’ she hints at the possibility of tentative renewal and a reconnection with the outside: ‘Opening a chimney / lets in the world. / It was a stopped throat / but now voices travel through.’ In ‘Clearing the Drain’, a poem whose title might at first glance seem less than promising, there is the same impulse but with a greater sense of exhilaration: ‘She pic- tures it, / the bright redemptive rush, knifing through // the clag and fur of decay.’ Sometimes, however, our desire to break loose is undermined by a lack of courage. In ‘October’ there is at first a rush of excitement bordering perhaps on recklessness:
Skies, big skies, careening over in the wind;
great shoals of cloud pitching and jostling
in their rush to be anywhere other than here.
But lacking the confidence to stake everything on an uncertain future, the poem’s protagonist makes do with an unsatisfactory present:
So you would take your chances, risk it all…
You stand for a moment with the keys in your hand
feeling the pull of the sky and the moment passing.
Several poems hint at the price that has to be paid for this failure by creat- ing an atmosphere of claustrophobia and stagnation. ‘Homemaking’ starts with ‘How simple the act of slicing bread’ but then moves on to the gro- tesque image of caged mice in a ‘scruffy old zoo’ who make homes for themselves by eating their way through stale bread:
Here in the kitchen I stand with the knife in one hand
and the loaf in the other, remembering
that ruined street of bread houses,
their desperate smell under the high-watt bulbs.
‘Houseplants’ depicts a vacated interior in which all that remains is some languishing vegetation: ‘now / wasting the long days spinning cobwebs / and squandering their brown leaves.’ In ‘It Occurs to My Mother that She Might Be Dead’, one of the most moving poems in the collection, there is an implied feminist agenda: ‘She’s been stripping beds, gathering sheets for the wash, / a thing she’s done each week since she was fifteen.’ Having previously tried to reassure her mother that she isn’t in fact dead, the daughter finds herself, decades later, asking the same question: ‘How would I know? / … And now / I stand with my arms full of sheets, and sup- pose I’m alive.’
Much of the work included here is informed by a marital breakdown but takes a radically different approach from that of a more ‘confessional’ writer such as Sharon Olds, whose recent collection, Stag’s Leap, covers similar territory. In Sprackland’s poems experience is viewed at a slight distance and then distilled to its essence, endowing it with a poised symbolic reso- nance. In the laconically titled poem ‘In’ a mother and her screaming in- fant, ‘electric with hunger’, can’t gain access to their new home because of a ‘muddle with keys’. Having seen the awfulness of their situation in a few deft lines, we then watch as the police force access and the mother and child are finally ‘in’:
She hadn’t reckoned on resistance. Happiness, then,
is not some delicate gift, but a locked and stubborn thing
you have to break open. Now for a sleepless might
of rain and wind before the making good.
Moving beyond the confines of musty interiors with dusty plants and figu- rines, the poky cupboards and sheds hoarding the remnants of a past life, the poet comes to the conclusion in ‘The New Order’ that ‘you have two choices’, exhorting us in ‘Footings’ not to ‘grieve for our fallen houses.’ Sleeping Keys is a shimmering collection to which the reader returns with increasing pleasure. It gives ample proof that Sprackland has lost none of ability to depict and transcend the actuality of situations and objects.
Helen Mort’s Division Street is a much anticipated debut collection from a poet who first gained recognition as a frequent winner of the Foyle Young Poet Award and was a recipient in 2007 of an Eric Gregory Award. Some of the poems from two earlier pamphlets, the shape of every box (Tall Light- house 2007) and a pint for the ghost (Tall Lighthouse 2009) have been reprinted here alongside new work that shows Mort carefully refining her art. Like Bedford’s, her work is rooted in a specific locale. In her case it is the Sheffield of her birth and nearby Chesterfield where she grew up. Like Sprackland’s, however, it is also defined by polarities. These are empha- sised by a title that is named after a real street in Sheffield, an epigraph from Robert Louis Stevenson expressing ‘a profound duplicity of life’, and a cover image depicting the confrontation at Orgreave during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, a conflict which, thirty years later, we have seen again re- cently still defines a fault line in our society.
In ‘The French for Death’ Mort presents herself as a northern ingénue wait- ing with her family on the quay at Dieppe. At the heart of the poem there is a contrast between the strangeness of a foreign language and the culture it represents, symbolized here by a French official’s attempt to pronounce her family name and her father repeating it in ‘Oldham’s finest gutteral’. The French language appears elsewhere as a dividing line between a famil- iar heartland and the wider world of culture and higher education. ‘Miss Heath’ is an effecting portrayal of an elderly dance mistress who ‘At sev- enty… / could still perform / a perfect pas de chat’. However, when the poet claims that her teacher’s French ‘was wasted / in the north’, she runs the risk of over-egging her cake. There are surely some people in the north who have a basic grasp of the language and plenty in the south who do not.
Nonetheless, there is no denying Mort’s skill in evoking the streets, pubs and post-industrial landscape she grew up in. In ‘Fur’ she is watching snow falling:
Snow wants my childhood for itself.
It wants to claim the Blacksmith’s Arms,
digest the Calow Fish Bar whole. Snow’s tongue
has found the crevices of Eastwood Park.
It licks the war memorial, weighs down the trees…
However, she is perhaps at her best when describing flesh and blood char- acters such as the comedian Arthur Clifford Baines aka ‘Stainless Stephen’ in a poem named for him:
He’s dressed up to the nines
in stainless shoes, a plated vest,
two spoons for a bow tie. A fork
to comb his sleek, black hair.
He says: I’m aimless comma
brainless comma Stainless Stephen
ordering my chips full stop
In ‘North of Everywhere’, a beautifully crafted sequence of four brief po- ems, in which the poet is inspired by the landscape of the Shetlands, she hints at a desire to move beyond social stereotypes and redefine ‘the north’ in more existential terms, creating images of personal growth and authen- ticity. In ‘I Hermaness’ she writes that ‘my body was a compass needle / guiding me past every place / I’d once called North;’ while in ‘Westing’ ‘an otter mines the water, / gets a single truth from it.’ In the collection’s central sequence, ‘Scab’, public and private mythologies merge as the poet conflates the legacy of the Miners’ Strike, a conflict that began in the year before she was born, and her arrival at a Cambridge college. However, in the collection’s title poem ‘division’ becomes synonymous with an act of separation and is seen in more directly personal terms:
You brought me here to break it off
one muggy Tuesday. A brewing storm,
the pigeons sleek with rain.
My black umbrella flexed its wings.
Elsewhere the concept is embodied in ‘the telltale line’ of the pregnancy testing kit in ‘Take Notes’ or in the myth of ‘The Judgment of Solomon’: ‘They pressed the knife / into my parting // and I cleaved / like orange- flesh’. In Division Street Helen Mort’s poems delineate public and pri- vate domains. At home in the world of ‘Oldham’s Burning Sands’, where ‘people sing the sweetest when they’re drunk’, they explore also that less clearly defined terrain where ‘Our silences become the better part of us.’