#23: ‘Let us escape these attics’

This post was originally commissioned by the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network. Its subject is a poem from last year’s anthology of winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. It’s written for a slightly younger audience than the rest of the content on the blog, and along with the usual analysis, offers a commentary on the process behind the approach I take here.

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When I analyse a poem, one of the first things I do is look for similarities and differences. Firstly, similarities within the poem (a pattern of rhyme, rhythm, repetition); differences between sections, tones of voice and types of language; and especially, similarities between things we might not expect to be similar, and differences between things we might not expect to be different.

This essentially comes down to the relationship between form and content: is the poem visibly, audibly, ordered or disordered? Are the things it speaks about? And is there a tension between the two – a dark, upsetting subject in a neat, clean couplet? Or a happy memory shattered into pieces, scattered across the page? These are the kind of choices that make a poem a poem, rather than the raw material of ideas or emotion from which it springs. The word ‘poet’ literally means ‘one who makes’; a poet is a ‘maker’ as much as a thinker, and that’s why it’s important to attend to form, even if there is no obvious formal structure.

Daughters

by Phoebe Stuckes

Enough of pulling off high heels to run
Or else waiting alone in unclaimed ugliness.

No more crying out for guitar heroes
Or going back to old loves for the safety.

Let us build bonfires of those unanswered prayers
Let us learn how to leave with clean and empty hearts
Let us escape these attics still mad, still drunk, still raving
Let us vacate these badly lit odd little towns
Let us want none of what anchored our mothers
Let us never evolve to be good or beautiful
Let us spit and snarl and rattle the hatches
Let us never be conquered
Let us no longer keep keys in our knuckles
Let us run into the streets hungry, fervent, ablaze.

You
Are a mighty thing
A captive animal, woken with a taste for blood.
Feed it,

You Amazon, you Gloria, you Swiss army knife of a woman.

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It’s never a bad idea to look at first words or last words – where the poem (or each individual line) is coming from, and where it’s going. Looking at Stuckes’s opening, I can see two oppositions, built around the word ‘or’: “Enough… Or else”; “No more… Or”. But in each case the alternative to the first option isn’t preferable either; neither ‘or’ is better that what went before. These undesirable oppositions offer a sense of entrapment, of restricted possibility, which inscribes in grammar what the poem is already saying about the limited roles in which society places women. I picked out words suggesting roles defined by relationships which supply a need for protection (“old loves”, “safety”, “crying”, “heroes”, “run”) and decorative fashion (“high heels”) versus “ugliness” (and isn’t “unclaimed” an unsettling, sinister word to apply to a person rather than say, an Amazon Prime delivery?) Against this sense of initial limitation, Stuckes sets two adverbs – “Enough” and “No more”. I’m interested by the force of those words: utterly certain and totalising, they have a scope and a weight which the options they reject do not.

It’s hard to ignore the series of lines beginning “Let us” in the middle of the poem, and when I checked back-and-forth I realised that the first four lines didn’t have any pronouns at all. As such, they seemed to speak for everyone – not the traditional ‘I’ of the writer (which is never used), the “you” addressed or the community of “us” which Stuckes builds, but somehow arriving from nowhere like a proclamation from on high. By contrast, something about the four ‘You’s at the end of the poem seemed to me like an important shift, particularly as two of them begin a line and one is allowed to stand wholly unaccompanied, with a capital letter, which reminded me of how God is often addressed in Christian texts. One major structural pattern that therefore interested me in the poem was that there was a progression from an impersonal, general way of speaking about female experience, to a direct address, a finger pointing out of the white space, to ‘You’ as a reader.

So how does Stuckes get there? By sheer volume, I decided that the “Let us” section was probably doing something important, and its repetition of the first-person plural “us” was clearly central to its aim. I wanted to work out it what it reminded me of, and having a suspicion based on its length, I counted the lines: as well as all beginning the same way, there were ten of them. Given that their contents serve as advice on how a group of people should live, this struck me as strongly reminiscent of the Ten Commandments. The repeated use of the verb phrase “Let us” also led me to the ‘Let us pray’ of a Church liturgy, and so I started hunting for other elements in the poem that had a religious resonance.

I found a reference to “unanswered prayers”, and wondered if the whole poem might therefore be a different kind of prayer, for an action to be carried out by a group of people taking matters into their own hands rather than requesting answers from a higher power. Having already considered the Commandments, I thought “Let us” had a very different spin to it than ‘Thou shalt not’, and wondered what exactly ‘we’ were being urged to do. Looking at the verbs used in this section, I saw that while some were very directly physical – “spit”, “snarl”, and a use of “run” which seemed far more invested with positivity and ownership than the same word in the first line – many were abstract and intellectual concepts, such as “want” and “learn”. Some suggested things to be done right away – an escape, a bonfire – some referred to longer processes, and some insisted “never”, “none”, with the full force of rejection. I noticed that I didn’t want to pause as I read through the list, and realised that Stuckes had mostly chosen to leave out full stops.

Because the last line of the poem was so striking, I wanted to work out what had led up to it in my experience as a reader. I felt like the sense of drive created by the absence of punctuation, coupled with the diversity of the actions, was central to that experience. Stuckes, in the middle section, seemed to be exploring forms of rebellion in a wide range of areas of life – and for me, the combination of variety and danger seemed to connect to the weaponised, resourceful and multi-faceted femininity suggested by the final image: “you Swiss army knife of a woman”. This single spiky metaphor felt to me like the crystallisation of Stuckes’s ideas and techniques. It also does exactly what some of the best metaphors do, which is to find something very similar in two very different things, and to reshape your idea of each; but its conclusive complexity was unlocked for me by focusing on the many smaller differences and similarities which I noticed along the way.

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#20: ‘imposed fruit’

Penny Boxall is a poet whose work has interested me since I first encountered it in The Salt Book of Younger Poets, and I was pleased to discover at the reading she gave at last week’s Poetry Book Fair that she now has a debut collection, Ship of the Line, forthcoming in February from Eyewear. So today on the Scallop-Shell I’m excited to have an exclusive: ‘Pentimenti’, a cleverly-constructed poem which suggests that, whatever traces an artist might try to conceal, the work always reveals more than intended.

Pentimenti
by Penny Boxall

The artist regrets, regrets on top of varnish,
                                                              erases his old certainties with fresh paint.
He lays on new strokes that will surely flake
                                                              and fail because they have no other thing
to cling to, but he can’t bear the work as it is.
                                                              In time the ghost of his intention will shine
through, his mistakes will find their way.
                                                              The sudden trees will not successfully obscure
the lounging naked nymphs he planted there before.
                                                              A baby’s face will triumph through imposed fruit,
and the misjudged hand, lying in the woman’s lap,
                                                              will betray its excess fingers, given time.
There is no room for error. He must make
                                                              his first try better than his last mistake.

*

‘Pentimenti’ is a term taken from art criticism which denotes ‘an alteration in a painting, evidenced by traces of previous work’; the second layer of paint masking the first attempt which cannot be erased. It’s a creative palimpsest of build-up and overlay, and the structure of Boxall’s poem echoes its subject, each odd-numbered line extending a few characters into the space occupied by the line below.

That is, if we read the work as fourteen separate textual units; the frequency of enjambment (often used to carry over a single extended clause, one complete grammatical thought – as, for example, in the final sentence) might suggest seven long lines, each with a ‘drop’ in the centre breaking up the text. We have the choice, as readers, between seeing the perfection of a sonnet and the inevitable messiness of overextension – a choice wholly appropriate to a poem, which stages the emergence of disparate and divergent elements from what initially looks like unity.

Boxall begins with a repetition – ‘regrets, regrets’, which not only introduces the theme of ineffective repentance present in her title’s Italian roots, but also the consequences of alteration. ‘Erasure’ is impossible, but once the ‘old certainties’ of the original have been supplanted each new version is as slippery as the ‘varnish’ on which it balances, doomed to an eternal incompleteness which no amount of artistry can supply.

As such, the adverb ‘surely’ applies paradoxically to a state of structural instability, and because the artist ‘can’t bear’ his own work, he introduces new elements which the work itself is unable to physically bear. Boxall seems not to declare priority – each alteration is an inevitable failure, but the alternative is a series of intractable ‘mistakes’. There’s a depressing sense of entropy, or perhaps predestination, embodied by the future-tense modal verbs – ‘will […] flake/and fail’, ‘will shine/through’. ‘Time’ appears twice as the agent of this unmasking, the Great Revealer, and ‘ghost’, ‘betray’ and ‘triumph’ cumulatively suggest something like the haunting of Macbeth, unable to suppress the tell-tale signs of former errors of judgement (to put it lightly.)

Luckily in Boxall’s poem no one is being murdered in their bed, but there is a gentle implied criticism of some of the artist’s decisions – the ‘lounging naked nymphs’ which he wishes to ‘obscure’ suggesting a kind of hasty shame, the hand ‘lying in the woman’s lap’ perhaps also gesturing towards a ‘misjudged’ or misplaced eroticism. These particularly male ‘error’s are indicative of a certain human frailty which the poem charitably acknowledges, and for which more classical conceptions of the role of art do not have room.

This tussle, between the creator’s flawed personality and the supposed timeless wholeness of an artwork, informs the increasing formality of register – ‘The sudden trees will not successfully obscure…’; ‘A baby’s face will triumph through imposed fruit’ – as all agency is stripped away, to be replaced by a remorseless and impersonal narration. We can see, in miniature, the judgement of Romantic individualism against stringent classical standards.

Which is not to say that this is a judgemental poem: it does, admittedly, end with the word ‘mistake’, and ‘He must make..’ speaks of an impossible uphill struggle. A ‘first try’ cannot exist simultaneously with a ‘last mistake’, at least on the same canvas, and so in some sense the battle is already lost; can any ‘try’ in this context, however distinct from previous errors, ever be the ‘first’? But in this very awareness of impossibility, Boxall hints at the power of art to speak for a flawed humanity which, if not capable of perfection, can always fail again and fail better.

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#19: ‘Oh Tickle.’

Last Saturday saw the Poetry Book Fair in London’s Conway Hall. The Fair brought a veritable menagerie of independent publishing talent together under one off, from the big beasts to the small and curious creatures. One such publisher was Sidekick Books – I picked up Riotous, a collection of sonnets by founder-editors Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving, themed around the animals in a Tropical Zoo at Hounslow Urban Farm, whose website currently leads with the delightful headline THE WAIT IS OVER, OUR DONKEY MAGGIE HAS FINALLY GIVEN BIRTH TO A BEAUTIFUL FOAL. Irving’s poem ‘Military Macaw’ is one of many highlights in a bright and beautiful hand-bound modern bestiary which playfully tests the limits of anthropomorphism.

Military Macaw
by Kirsten Irving

Oh Tickle. Horn claws shackled to my flesh,
your grass and fuchsia uniform worn fine
around your middle, in a greying sash,
you’re part-lieutenant, part-sad Valentine.
For 15 years you’ve nursed her memory;
her small-skulled nuzzle, posture like a prow,
you two pressed close in cameraderie;
bright skittles, or two apples on a bough.
Her name was never LouLou; that was theirs,
and yours was different too, though ‘Tickle’ does,
and we’re not her, not one of us who offers
our limb to you, yet still you come to us.
At leaving time, you scratch and peck so fierce
and squawk her name, and hope somehow she hears.

*

Most poetry about animals is zoopsychological guesswork. Macaws might mimic human speech, but they don’t know what they’re saying, and this tantalising suggestion of kinship aside, they share in the opacity of their fellow subjects in the animal kingdom. Being like us and not like us, the impenetrable mystery of the inner lives of other species is a fruitful source of human creativity. Riotous features multiple mentions of its chosen creatures’ eyes, the windows to that shuttered inner world, but there’s no soul-gazing here. Instead we start with a name: the cutesy ‘Tickle’, apostrophised by Irving with what reads half as tenderness, half as commiseration.

Though it’s another, pulling in a different direction, which determines our initial filters – the species name, ‘Military Macaw’, frames Irving’s visual presentation of the bird – the ‘uniform’ and ‘sash’ of a lovelorn ‘part-lieutenant’, whose late partner evokes the ‘prow’ of a naval vessel and who together shared the ‘cameraderie’ of a close-knit unit. Until the very end of the poem, Tickle is only spoken to and spoken about, his loss vicariously mourned. This version of the macaw is created by and bound to its observer – ‘shackled to my flesh’ – who parcels her interpretation into ‘part’s.

The missing LouLou is a further flight of fancy from the perch of empirical bird-fact: dead fifteen years before the speaker enters the scene, her lovingly-recreated ‘posture’ can only be an imaginative construct. It might be due to this necessary invention that Irving’s sound devices are most concentrated in the description of the couple side-by-side: three lines full of doubled letters – ts, ls, zs, the alliterative cs and ps – conjure up this inseparable pair, and the l-sound flutters all the way through ‘small-skulled nuzzle’, ‘skittles’, ‘apples’, ‘like’ and ‘close’, preparing us for our introduction to ‘LouLou’ herself.

Irving’s paean to this avian affection sets things up for the poem’s volta; giving these lovers their due requires honesty, so in three plain and paralleled phrases (‘her name was never LouLou […] yours was different too […] and we’re not her’) the speaker sweeps away all traces of rose-tinted sentiment to admit the mere fact of absence, and our own inability to understand how it might be processed by beings whose experience of the world remains utterly beyond our grasp. Shut out from their presumed internal forms of communication, what each empathising visitor ‘offers’ must be as tentative as that word itself held out over a line-break; Tickle’s continued willingness to engage (‘yet still you come to us’) under these circumstances elicits a quiet, puzzled wonder.

‘Leaving time’, at which the poem ends, is another wholly human construction; it’s a fair bet that Tickle will be staying put, and the prospect of a new abandonment produces such agitation that for the first time in the sonnet, the macaw finds his own voice, an eruption of sound which is here indissociable from violence. We can’t know, of course, if it’s ‘her name’ he’s squawking, or if macaws have a concept of ‘hope’ – but compared to the impossibility of LouLou’s hearing, these practicalities seem like mere quibbles.

Using animal comparisons to help us understand our own behaviour has a long tradition: the medieval art historian Michael Camille, in Image on the Edge, seems convinced that cartoon monkeys appear so frequently in manuscript illuminations because ‘the ape came to signify the dubious status of representation itself, le singe being an anagram for le signe – the sign.’ But we don’t need to go that far to realise that Irving’s reading of Tickle the macaw’s response to loss has a lot to show us about our own.

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#18: ‘Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.’

In the poetry world over the last few days, a single topic has dominated the discussion. With the death of Seamus Heaney, even the mainstream media has been paying attention to the role of poetry. As is the case for many of us, Heaney’s appearance in the AQA anthology played a crucial part in my introduction to contemporary poetry, and while as an adult I’ve only rarely returned to his work, it would seem strange this week to talk about anyone else. The last line of ‘Storm on the Island’ has stayed with me since I last read it, maybe seven years ago; a stoic presentation of human fragility and the strength of spirit which holds us together.

Storm on the Island
by Seamus Heaney

We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
The wizened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so as you can see, there are no stacks
Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full
Blast: you know what I mean – leaves and branches
Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale
So that you can listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too.
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.
You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo.
We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

*

Community and continuity are the materials from which Heaney constructs his sense of a human defence against the fury of the elements. In a poem which could justifiably evoke a terrifying, hopeless exposure, it’s this surprising solidity which allows us to believe that the speaker will ride out the storm. In fact, for the first six lines, there is no storm at all; instead, Heaney concentrates on building up an island capable of withstanding its assault.

‘We are prepared’ – this is no isolated scrabble, but a plural voice in the present tense, and the caesura which follows provides a space in which to absorb that certainty. The first two lines, packed tight with unassuming monosyllables (‘build’, ‘squat’, ‘sink’, ‘walls’), convey a calm and a rootedness which will carry us through to the weather’s first appearance. Alliteration and half-rhyme (‘roof’/’rock’, ‘squat’/’slate’) function like joists that hold these sturdy lines together, and the simple, physical, present-tense verbs establish a group of people who know exactly what they’re doing – the implication being, what they’ve always done.

Negation helps – ‘never’, ‘no stacks’ – by briskly dismissing what the island-dwellers do not have, the speaker stresses the endurance of what they do. While any other rural community might welcome hay, its absence here is framed as positive – a ‘trouble’ they are lucky to avoid. At this point, we might want to ask who the voice is addressing – ‘as you can see’ and ‘you know what I mean’ suggest a presence on the ground, to whom the facts are being diligently explained. From the fact he is explicitly denied it twice, we might assume the listener is seeking ‘company’.

If so, the people on the island and their rough-hewn houses are the only welcoming ‘shelter’ to be found; in these extreme circumstances, human companionship seems to be the only element which will not turn against you like the formerly ‘tame cat’ or the untrustworthy, oxymoronic comfort of the waves. Indeed, the impact of the storm can be mitigated by imagining its sounds as human too – a ‘tragic chorus’ which, in its shared lamenting, permits each resident to forget the personal danger posed by ‘the thing you fear’, in a skewed version of art’s transcendence. ‘Be not afeared’, Caliban tells the Milanese visitors in Shakespeare’s Tempest, and his island’s ‘twangling instruments‘ lie behind Heaney’s reassuring noises. 

Assonance intensifies as the poem reaches its conclusion (‘it’, ‘hits’, ‘spit’, ‘sit’, ‘wind’, ‘invisibly’), the barrage of sounds emphasising the natural ‘salvo’. Picking up from the earlier explosions of the sea, ‘strafes’, ‘salvo’ and ‘bombarded’ lend the weather a military brutality, but the weapons used are wind and space and emptiness. In resistance to this unholy alliance of force and absence, the plural voice returns after twelve lines of fragmented ‘you’ and ‘I’ – ‘we just sit tight’, ‘we are bombarded’. Even the object of fear is shared, and in that sharing, despite its scale, reduced to the ‘nothing’ the speaker knows it to be. ‘Nothing’ here balances between the howling void and the shrug of insignificance. As King Lear puts it (himself no stranger to suffering at the hands of the weather) ‘nothing will come of nothing’; but Heaney’s poem, in squaring up to it, mounts the only possible defence.

*

I saw Heaney read last summer, at the South Bank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus event, and perhaps only now can I appreciate what a privilege that was. He didn’t read this poem, though he did perform ‘Digging’, for which I imagine many in the room were grateful.

Custom dictates that the Scallop-Shell alternates the gender of its featured writers from one week to the next. Having made an exception given the circumstances, I’m expecting next to cover two female poets in a row before resuming the usual cycle.

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#17: ‘the song/of a slant moon’

Having spent the last week at the Edinburgh Fringe, I wanted to write about a Scottish poet; and who better than Roddy Lumsden, a writer and editor who has taught and published many of the poets featured on this blog to date, myself included. From Lumsden’s 2009 collection Third Wish Wasted, ‘Between the Penny Dropping and the Penny Landing’ takes a typically slanted look at the vagaries of chance and fate.

Between the Penny Dropping and the Penny Landing

by Roddy Lumsden

The things we want most we will never have.

We learned this when we overheard the song
of a slant moon which wraps the land below,
which courts significance in every corner,
spreads the blueshift, ekes the silver rose

and finds the coin, mid-fall, which will decide
the night for us: the half-chance sounding lower
than a cat step or a spinning leaf or raindrops
meeting on a skylight. Moonlight hones

the bidden street. While the penny spins,
pale beams catch on a lost key in a nest,
roll over roofs and drop into the alley,
and we are shadows in that alley. Only

when I used up all my nos did I say yes.

*

It seems strange, that a poem about the toss of a coin should begin with such certainty. Lumsden bluntly declares a lesson learned about the frustration of desire, the moral of the story announced before its events are even set in motion. There’s a sense of predetermination here, supported by the steady iambic rhythm, which is at odds with the proverbial evocation of randomness and probability – but who is ‘we’ here, and how generally does the line apply?

As the poem continues Lumsden narrows down the field of reference, suggesting two people out beneath the stars whose evening could go either way. Having started with something definite – the act of learning – we move on to a series of ‘half-chance’s where things teeter on their edges, from the ‘slant moon’ which itself obliquely approaches an evasive significance, to the leaf and coin it finds, each suspended in unsustainable motion. The street is ‘hone[d]’ by moonlight – reduced to a thinner, sharper version of itself, and the human characters are replaced by their own ‘shadows’, something inbetween and imprecise.

And the rhymes, too, slant and shift: the sonnet structure implies a form which sound-similarities bear out, but do we associate ‘hones’ with ‘rose’, or ‘hones’ with ‘spins’ and ‘rose’ with ‘below’? Are ‘corner’ and ‘lower’ a pair, or a mere resemblance? Connections come into focus, and dance away again like the central spinning penny whose ‘fall’ Lumsden prolongs for a full nine lines, never quite announcing its result.

The extended space of the spin opens up a liminal urban landscape whose very uncertainty allows romance, in the form of courting, moonlit ‘meeting’ and a thoroughfare ‘bidden’ like a summoned lover. The penny’s circulation defers decision, so that the eye can ‘catch’ on these separate images and ideas like the beams on the key in the poem’s fourth stanza. But just as an item – the key – starts to come into focus, the formerly expansive verbs (‘spreads’, ‘ekes’, ‘wraps’) speak of a more certain downward movement: ‘catch’, ‘roll’, ‘drop’. The possibilities are beginning to be closed off.

Lumsden, however, keeps us in suspense, with a final sentence which splits its declaration across both line- and stanza-breaks. The poem comes to earth in a space more clearly defined than any so far, though the characters are still outside, the lost key and the nest both gesturing towards a home that neither person in the narrative seems to have to go to. And just as the alley as a location is a chosen space which excludes all other options, and the use of ‘I’ shuts down the generalities of the previous pronouns, the narrator indicates the vast range of alternative possibilities – ‘all my nos’ – he has discarded before settling on his final choice.

The probability of a coin landing on each of its two sides is ostensibly equal, but the unequal distribution of ‘nos’ and ‘yes’es playfully undermines whatever else the poem might seem to say about the workings of chance. Although it begins with a seeming sureness, it’s hard to tell if the poem ends in favour of fate or of free will; the speaker having had just long enough to be able to make the right choice after all the wrong ones. But it’s by suspending all of these choices in the air that the poem finds the time it needs to convert a negative sentiment into something positive; even if, like Joyce, Lumsden conserves his ‘yes’ for the very last moment possible.

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#16: ‘Her French was wasted/in the north.’

First, I’m sorry that the update schedule recently has been less than regular – I’ve been travelling, and until the end of August I might not be able to post as often as usual. With that in mind, here’s a poem which also touches on travel. In Helen Mort’s ‘Miss Heath’, a literal state of being out-of-place sheds light on an emotional journey towards adulthood, refracted through a subject who would surely appreciate the poem’s impeccable poise.

Miss Heath

At seventy, our dance mistress
could still perform
a perfect pas des chats.

Her French was wasted
in the north. We stood in line
repeating parr-durr-shat

or sniggered
as she waited in the wings,
her right hand beating time

against her hip, her eyes
avoiding ours. She never
made the stage.

It took me twenty years
to understand. Alone tonight
and far from home

in shoes that pinch my toes
until they bleed, my back
held ballerina straight,

I wait as she did, too afraid
to walk into a bar
where everyone’s a stranger,

see her glide
across the city night
to meet me, tall and white

and slim. A step behind,
she clicks her fingers. Elegant,
she counts me in.

*

Between Mort’s pamphlet a pint for the ghost, and its forthcoming appearance in her debut book Division Street, ‘Miss Heath’ seems to have lost part of its title. I knew it as ‘a chaser for miss heath’, and that element of tribute, of raising a glass, is no less central to the poem. A chaser is, after all, a follow-up, which alters or complicates an initial flavour. It’s a palate-cleanser for initial bitterness. Similarly, Mort’s comments on Miss Heath’s ‘perfect’ abilities soon shift into a portrait of a sad and lonely figure, isolated from the crowd of younger girls who stand rigidly ‘in line’ before their old-fashioned ‘mistress’, flattening her sophistication into inadvertent scatology, leaving the strong taste which is necessary to set up the poem’s valedictory ending.

Much of the melancholy in these lines stems from their declarative simplicity: the bluntness of ‘or sniggered’ as an unruly rebuff to the time-keeper’s attempts to maintain control, the lesson concluding with a stark awareness that ‘She never/made the stage’. Just as Miss Heath’s eyes avoid her pupils’, the section of the poem set in the ballet class deliberately falls short of elegance – there are no metaphors, no adjectives, just mechanical verbs suggesting the preparations for a performance on which the curtain never goes up.

In fact, the lesson is never called a lesson, perhaps because, as Mort stresses, the learning happened so much later: ‘It took me twenty years/to understand.’ But more than half of the poem is given over to the growing recognition of Miss Heath’s importance, and the more Mort keeps the details vague (‘far from home’, explaining neither where nor why), the more her example takes on a totemic, transferable power. Wherever she is now, Mort’s speaker is the one who is ‘alone’, keeping her distance from a world of strangers. The toe-pinching shoes she wears have nothing to do with dancing; this self-inflicted pain is now an adult choice, not a child’s obligation. There’s no suggestion that this young girl has grown up to make the stage herself (except, perhaps, as a poet), and even the ‘ballerina’ posture she has retained is not itself enough to propel her confidently onward.

The beauty of the last two stanzas is in how the image, or the ghost, of the dance mistress arrives unbidden; twenty years on from their first awkward encounter, the figure who was once exiled to the wings takes on all the grace and fluency her tuition was supposed to represent. Her stately ‘glide’ is mirrored in the language, as the vowel-sounds (‘glide’, ‘night’, ‘white’, ‘behind’) synchronise for the first time in the text. Her physical poise (‘tall and white//and slim’) seems to transcend her age, and her position – ‘A step behind’ – is at once that of an outmoded straggler and an attentive mentor, gently gesturing forward. Within the world of the poem, it’s not too late to recognise her elegance, and Mort ends with a touching suggestion: Miss Heath’s persistence in her stranded situation was once ridiculous, but it has now, however belatedly, given her student the strength to begin.

*

Helen Mort won the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition a frankly fearsome number of times, and was the youngest ever poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust. She read at the winners’ event in my own first year as an FYP, and her first collection is coming out on Chatto & Windus. I once interviewed her for French radio about her role judging the Foyle’s competition, which you can hear here if you so desire.

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#15: ‘Where’s/the actual carnival?’

Although The Scallop-Shell mostly exists to talk about whole poems, a writer caught my attention this week who has very little short work online. Paul Abbott’s ‘Notting Hill Carnival‘ features in A Tower Miscellany, an anthology of poems by young writers associated with the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize. The playful formalism of this opening extract points towards the concerns of the whole text: it presents both a mass of sensory stimuli, and a mind searching for meaning in them all, with a vivid sense of place which emerges partly from looking in all the wrong ones.

from Notting Hill Carnival

by Paul Abbott

August bank holiday in Notting Hill,
Stuck in a two-thirds empty sushi bar,
I drink the cheapest soup dish on the menu
And discuss tactics: entry points, how far,
To walk or haggle, Who’s Who. Then the bill
Comes, and I pay. Pay cash, says Jimmy, then you
Won’t waste your cash on beer
. We all decide
Vaguely to join the one-way crowd outside,

And it begins, this packed conveyor belt
Of costumes, crowded streets, and creditcards.
Scaffolded billboards boast of low gun-crime,
And the Olympic Games. In strewn frontyards
A hustling local sells canned drinks: a melt
Of watered-down Bacardi, ice, and lime.
Above the press, a greying pigeon skirls
Through the tall air. Indifferent teenage girls

Lounge in the packed heat. We keep walking. Where’s
The actual carnival?
I ask, as out
Of sight, down Portobello Road, a float
Trawls sullenly away through a tired shout
Of casual-clothed spectators. Shrugs and stares
Follow, uselessly. Noise sticks in my throat.
I think the carnival is further down,
Says Jimmy, so we push on further down[…]

*

‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ This line by Yeats (a crucial poet for Tower judge Peter McDonald) seems to hover behind Abbott’s wanderings. The poem’s speaker is a tourist and flaneur, seeking a definitive experience which will transform the ‘packed conveyor belt’ of human lives from a ‘one-way crowd’, an undifferentiated ‘tired shout’, into one singular and tangible event, ‘the actual carnival’. Sticking with the early twentieth century, the plain-spoken, compressed diction (‘strewn frontyards’, ‘casual-clothed spectators’) and conversational enjambments gesture to the lighter side of Auden. But there’s a shade of Eliot in the impulse for this faceless human drift to coalesce into the still point to which all its motion tends, prolonged by the speaker’s own relentless searching: ‘we keep walking.’

From the start, the voice is separate, ‘stuck’ (‘I drink’… ‘I pay’), taking a friend’s advice on proper conduct for an event so novel and enormous it requires the ‘tactics’ and ‘entry points’ of a military campaign. Though technically he’s on the inside looking out (the bar is ‘two-thirds empty’; the crowd is ‘outside’), the sentiment is that of an outsider looking in. When ‘it begins’, a unified event is suggested, but everywhere the speaker goes he encounters plurals: ‘costumes’, ‘girls’, the imprecision of unpalatable noise. There are other ‘spectators’ too, who also shrug and stare (‘uselessly’, though we might ask, to whom?) But even these are ‘out of sight’; the quest appears to be for anyone or anything who stops just looking long enough to be looked at.

Abbott’s early focus on rules and details seems at odds with the emerging desire to blend in, to join a crowd which finds itself reflected in the ‘melt’ of Caribbean punch. Here, too, there’s a tension between general and specific – the ‘hustling local’ is a single figure, but he operates ‘in strewn frontyards’, seemingly everywhere at once. And maybe there’s a comment here on the inherent danger of making an individual an archetype; later Abbott writes: ‘The strangers I ignored/were the whole show.’ And if the strangers are a ‘show’, distinguished partly by their ‘parodies of ethnic food’, then they seem ‘saleable’ as much as the billboards promising the highly-branded Olympic Games. Perhaps the tendency to look for an aesthetic whole is what frustrates the possibility of real connection.

The rarity of end-stopped lines contributes to the feeling of restless exploration – caesuras stop us in mid-line, followed by new sentences which hustle us along, so much that even stanza-breaks aren’t really breaks. The pigeon is the only figure in the poem which manages to exist ‘above the press’, granted the privilege of a comprehensive view – the human characters are always among, between, or just around the corner from the action. Jimmy, with his uncertainty, takes on the attributes of a Virgilian guide, persuading the group to ‘push on further down’, but the identical rhyme declares this change will bring more of the same.

As the poem continues, Abbott moves onwards through a ‘carnival/That isn’t there’ towards a ‘moral’ which is not a moral, followed as it is by the renewed desire to ‘discover something final’. But finality is not the purpose of a carnival; it’s a time of reversal, instability and flux, all things the poem reveals while trying its hardest to avoid them. You can see how it develops here, closing with an image which reminds me of ‘The Whitsun Weddings‘. As in Larkin’s poem, transcendence can’t be sought, and shouldn’t seem hard-won. Its power is in surprise.

*

The Christopher Tower Prize is a themed competition for poets aged 16-18 which since 1999 has offered winners both a palpable sense of achievement and real cash money. They were kind enough, in 2008, to commend one of my own early poems, a slightly gauche collision of Catholicism and oral sex (always good to start as you mean to go on.) This year’s winners, on the theme ‘The Details’, were announced in April. I’m not sure if Paul Abbott was a winner or a Tower summer school participant, and I’m not sure if he’s still writing now, but Clutag Press brought out his debut pamphlet ‘Flood’ in 2008, and I doubt I’m the only person hoping for a second edition.

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