Friday, 30 August 2013


Two Lorries                  (6th & 7th verses) 

Of motes and engine-revs, but which lorry
Was it now? Young Agnew’s or that other,
Heavier, deadlier one, set to explode
In a time beyond her time in Magherafelt…
So tally bags and sweet-talk darkness, coalman.
Listen to the rain spit in new ashes

As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
Then reappear from your lorry as my mother’s
Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.         

What to say?  I’ve typed out ‘Two Lorries’ and will change the verse above each day for a week (not tomorrow, it’s late now) – because I feel like holding a wake, and the poem’s got seven verses.  I’ve written myself a reminder, MAGHERAFELT, but doubt I’ll forget because the world has changed with Seamus Heaney’s death.   

There is no choice about the seven.  The course is set and the poem has to fulfil it.  Sestinas are good for thoughts, and coal deliveries, that go round and round; here, Heaney makes the form good for inevitability too.  The past turns into the future, because it must, and then the two get confused and synthesised into something universal.   

Why this poem?  It could have been many others.  There’s the coalman and the mother; there’s the lorry, the coal, the ashes, the dust, the folded coal-bags, the bus and its route, the black-leaded stove... and then the turn, the second lorry emerging from the first and enacting the way routine life is suddenly slammed aside when something terrible happens, even though in this case the two scenes are decades apart... and then that synthesis.  The way film underlies the poem, the glamour of wishes or the film-like nature of unbelievably terrible events.  The way the Troubles underlie it.  Black and white, underworld lorryman and angel, death and dream. 

There’s the lively and varied syntax, the delight in language, its crunchiness (hardly any Latinate words), the way Heaney throws himself straight at this often dire form and plays around, one of the six end-words coming out in several different ways as a sort of descant, a couple of others changing only under the pressure of the horror; the impossible-for-non-natives-to-pronounce place name anchoring the whole thing; such humour with the dexterity.

Seamus Heaney reads the whole poem at the Poetry Archive, and the text's there too.  Oh, such a voice.

He may not have been highly innovative or experimental, but his work contains that deep fusion of the age-old with the new that is so rare.  This from Michael Schmidt in PN Review 212 (not about SH) fits perfectly: “Inherence, the poet occupying the poem rather than vacating it by means of irony or fragmentation”.  

There’s a great passage from Heaney himself, from his Nobel lectures quoted on Robert Peake’s blog: ”.. in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself”. 

Wandering along fuchsia-studded lanes in Kerry or West Cork, I’ve recalled another favourite poem, ‘The Peninsula’, and fantasised about meeting Heaney round the next bend – not because I’d want to ask him about his poetry or tap the depth and width of his learning, but just to exchange remarks on the day, the weather, the view.  I think I’ll still imagine that, next time I’m there.    

The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog.

Photo from Poetry Society
The Irish Writing Blog's put up a compilation of essays on Seamus Heaney.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Communion by Jacob Sam-La Rose

One of this summer’s poetry treats was CBe’s pop-up bookshop in the Portobello Road.  I browsed for a while and thought about one of my first poetry experiences a block further up the road, where a childhood friend had lived.  Occasionally I’d stay the night which we’d spend reading from a book of ballads she had – large enough to seem inexhaustible to us, from Sohrab and Rustum to Sir Patrick Spens – and scaring each other with our own stories.  She usually outscared me.   

Flipped Eye had a stand in the shop, and I got Jacob Sam-La Rose’s pamphlet, Communion.  I wanted it the moment I opened it and started reading… some poetry decisions are easy. 

                                         I don’t know
the smell of his sweat, or if our fingers
look alike. I didn’t learn to drink
by draining whatever wine he might have left
or sharing an ice cold can. He never
wrestled me down, so I never grew up
to return the favour. 

That’s from ‘Never’: one of the best poems (it ends beautifully), but they all share the same intense, personal tone, lyrical ease and seemingly effortless lineation.  Although I knew that Sam-La Rose has since had a first collection from Bloodaxe, Breaking Silence, I was taken aback to find that Communion was published in 2006.  It’s taken me this long to catch up with such a good poet, and then only with his first pamphlet.  This is from ‘My Mother’s Guitar’:

      I wish I’d learned to play, to hold
the chords she held, catch something of her
voice. The keys turn easily,

tightening the strings back into life
but my fingers don’t know how to make
her music. Instead, I write it all down.

Growing up in south-east London is the background to many poems.  The city is there as an atmosphere, a setting for the experiences of youth, rather than for itself.  There’s also an undercurrent, as in that last quote, of themes of origin and belonging; Sam-La Rose is of Guyanan ancestry.  

Some of the poems mix dream and reality, and several take place at night.  Most have relationships, close or fleeting, real or imagined, at their heart, and plunge the reader into their moment – on a crammed dance-floor, in church (making the light reflect from a watch onto the arched ceiling), right next to a massive speaker on a carnival float, or playing basketball.  Five basketball-themed poems take up the middle of the book; this is from the last one, ‘The Brothers of Ladywell Fields’:

                     My feet stutter

on the tarmac. Maybe the brothers
can read my steps, smell a fall

rising from my skin like sweat.
I know too well the raucous clang  

of a near miss on the rim, the way
a smooth arc can turn ugly at the end,

and all that air still remains.

There are several prose poems, including the church one; prose poems in a pamphlet tend (I think) not to be up to standard, but these are good.  I could go on… about the poem that starts “The girl on front desk in reception will probably keep the baby”, the one that contains a dream about an algebra lesson, or the one about a sleepwalking cousin who now “serves a time defined by walls”.  This is a book where each poem enhances every other.   

Of course I now want to read the full collection, which came out after a 5-year gap.  Judging from Sam-La Rose’s poems at the Poetry Archive and the ones he reads on Bloodaxe’s website, it won’t disappoint, and will fill out some of the themes of identity begun in Communion.  (It was also shortlisted for the Forward and Aldeburgh first collection prizes last year.)

‘Won’t disappoint’ may sound rather grudging, in the circumstances.  Here I confess to a fear that I sometimes have after much enjoying a pamphlet: that the full collection that follows might disappoint; might be less concentrated and more diffuse, harder to take in and digest.  Not that these things are bad in themselves, but they may make for a less intense and immediately satisfying experience.  And the full collection will certainly be two to three times the price, and harder to slip in a pocket. 

But this is one I must get my hands on.