From my Poetry Bookshelf – Tiger – Cliff Forshaw

In addition to books on my poetry bookshelf, I also have a lot of pamphlets, including this one by Cliff Forshaw, published by Happenstance Press in 2011.

Pamphlets are a great way for poets who haven’t had a collection in print to pull together an initial selection of work, or for other writers to create a smaller thematic collection of poems.

Tiger falls into the latter category. It is 22 pages long, and themed around the now-extinct Tasmanian Tiger. I ordered this, partly due to an interest in the subject, and also due to wanting to see what the Happenstance Press publications were like, since I was planning on submitting a pamphlet’s work of work myself.

This, like the other Happenstance press pamphlets I own, (I haven’t ordered any for some time, but will do at some point when funds permit), is very elegantly put together, with a crisp and clean layout.

Tiger comes out of a writer-in-residence period in Hobart in 2004, (memo to self to check whether the Tasmanian Writers Centre are still offering these!), and starts with the following poem;

Loop
62 seconds of the extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger on film. 

Within the box, it growls, it twists,
scowls through its repertoire of tricks,
ignores the camera — or gurns up close, turns 
again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.

It paces out its trap of light; one hundred reps 
while hindquarters zither bars of sun;
claws cage’s mesh, hangs stretched
as if to take the measure of itself.

You saw. You see. And what we’ve got is what was shot:
short clips, fragments caught and stitched 
together in a loop of black and white.

Nine lives? Not quite. It’s down. It’s out. 
It’s on its feet and born again. Like a repetition 
compulsion, like… like reincarnated light.

You can watch Forshaw introducing and reading the poem on YouTube, shared by The Poetry Archive, through the following link;

There’s also a Guardian article which goes into this particular poem in detail here;

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/22/poem-of-the-week-cliff-forshaw

and you can watch the clip that inspired Loop here;

It’s one of the strongest poems in the pamphlet, and the one that has been shared the most online – presumably as a result of the Guardian choosing it as one of their poems of the week.

The second poem, Barcode, brings us up to date with the Tasmanian Tiger’s contemporary relevance;

Barcode
 
Extinct, this creature’s everywhere
from CD sleeves to bottled beer.
With trademark stripes, it zebras out
between the gums’ abstracted light.
They’ve even tigered my hired Mazda’s plate.
Everything’s branded. Tasmania – your natural state.

Now you see them. Now they’re gone.
Did this tiger’s go-faster stripes
aid recognition in the loping pack?
 
Eucalypts, eucalypts at speed,
late sun flickers through those trees:
at the tarmac’s edge, off-cuts of fur, strange weeds.
 
Billboards, stores along the newly-metalled road:
ironic ads, that hide’s barcode.

I’ll not reproduce anything else from Tiger, as it is still available for sale from Happenstance Press here;

https://www.happenstancepress.com/index.php/shop/product/24-tiger-cliff-forshaw/category_pathway-14

The other poems, also mostly in the form of sonnets, expand on the themes of man’s interaction with this now mythical ghost of an animal. There are poems about museum specimens, roadkill, shadows glimpsed beyond headlights, and a jaunty final poem which connects the Tiger with another long-dead Tasmanian, actor Errol Flynn – I’m not 100% sure about this last poem – I can understand the desire to lighten the sequence, but I wonder about how it fits with the rest of the poems. But that’s a minor quibble and more a reflection on my personal taste.

Both Barcode and Loop , which have been shared elsewhere online, are also available in Vandemonian, a full length collection about the inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land, (an earlier name for Tasmania), which was published by Arc in 2013. I don’t own it yet.

For more detail on Cliff Forshaw and his work (he is both a writer and painter), go to http://www.cliff-forshaw.co.uk

As for Happenstance, you can see their current range of collections here;

https://www.happenstancepress.com

You’ll not see anything from me there – my submission was, rightly, rejected. It was disjointed and simply not good enough. Most of the poems I submitted needed serious editing, and that’s being kind. Only one, (Bird in Hand – which you can find elsewhere in this blog), made it into my first collection.

But what I did receive from Helena Nelson, who owns and runs Happenstance Press, was a very thoughtful and detailed rejection letter, with notes on most of the poems I had submitted. She summarised by saying that there ‘was something there’ with my writing, but I was ‘trying too hard’.

If you happen to stumble across my blog Helena, then thank you. Your rejection letter had a lot of influence on a writer who was still trying to find a voice, even back in 2011/12.

And that brings me to my final point. Poetry publishers need support. They need people to buy books, pamphlets and magazines. Without this they cease to exist. So if you haven’t bought any books for a while, or subscribed to a magazine, then please bear this in mind! Small-press independent publishers of poetry in particular need our support right now.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – John Kinsella – Armour

The Australian poet, John Kinsella, has written over thirty books. I only have Armour, which was published in the UK by Picador on 2011. My copy arrived as part of the Poetry Book Society membership I had at the time. The back blurb states that Armour is a beautifully various work, one of sharp ecological and social critique – but also one of meticulous invocation and quiet astonishment, whose atmosphere will haunt the reader long after they close the book.

Many of these poems are of rural Australian life, of man’s interaction with nature. They speak of environmental change, but not in an in-your-face polemical way. The first part of Easterlies, a three poem sequence, reads;

We fear the brouhaha of mood
and tones of inaction, to decamp,
to extract myths from country
and myths hard let go from reading

a vicarious sense of being,
of having come from wherever
myths implant. Dust stings.
We are blinded by howlers.

The long seeding grasses
suddenly dry. Shaken empty.
From whips to whispers. Exhausted.
Freshwater snakes huddling,

desiccated at the riverbed.
Toads, deep buried, vulnerable
to evaporation. Scattering
of salt deposits.

To call upwind
is to singe lips and perish,
no matter how loving
your speech:

we must hope,
fire-risk, a cold lunch
read on the table.
Grit in our mouths. Fire.

When writing about nature, Kinsella often uses scientific terms – as an example, Owl, which as with the excerpt above comes from Armour ;

Owl

Massive owl in redgum surprised
in heavy moonlight by my passing:
a barn or boobook, quite different
though even a grey-white glow
could not illuminate identity.

So I went back to the place today;
a thin dead branch, not much more than a twig,
that took your eerie weight, phantom bird.
And below, an answer. A component
of the algorithm: a freshly dug mousehole.

A vengeful or indifferent or hungry bird
perched in calculation? Whatever the answer,
I went again tonight to see if your hunting
took you there: opportunistic or logical.
And clouds sweeping over the harsh moon,

what weight their stains would bear.
But you were not there; and why should you be?
It’s spring and the mice are opening gateways
everywhere: a vast burrowing and surfacing,
the small weight of their bodies adding up.

I found a critique of the language online – you can read it here;

I can see where the writer is coming from, but my take is slightly different – I suspect that this is partially about a conscious rejection of anthropromorphic language, and about trying to root the poetry into something more solid, more calculated, a different kind of real. Having said this, some of these lines do jump out -‘A component of the algorithm’ , ‘perched in calculation’ , ‘opportunistic or logical’. But maybe that’s the point?

There are poems of family – such as Yellow , a brilliant poem that starts off with his son coming home from school angry because he has been put into ‘Yellow Faction’ that catches alight in a completely different direction (you’ll have to buy the book to find out!), and three poems about different kinds of armour – a knight’s suit, a metal horse, and Durer’s drawing of a Rhinoceros.

There is also an Elegy for Dave McComb, the singer of Perth-based band The Triffids, who died far too young (aged 36). The Triffids were a highly regarded band that failed to get the breakthrough they deserved. McComb’s writing often encapsulated the space and dust of Western Australia, particularly in Born Sandy Devotional, probably their best album, although Calenture runs it close.

Anyway, I digress. an Elegy ends with the following four stanzas;

Staving off inevitables,
we watch from ashen tables,
sing higher than Norfolk pines,
this gifting us, this turning

inside out, an aubade
to sunset, horizon’s loud
cicatrice, as soothing as a road
torn wide open:

travel jars the mind
and that’s the sign
of the times, the crowd
standing still in flight,

to look out on morning:
good morning, good morning:
and I am reminded
how to know, to listen.

Within this poem there are references to McComb’s music, which you would not get unless you were a fan of The Triffids, the Black-eyed Susans or McComb’s later solo work. I’m sure there are plenty of other references in other poems that I haven’t picked up on – including those where scientific language has been used, as a counterpoint to the comments by Charles Whalley in the post I shared earlier.

As for why I pick up this book fairly often? I took Armour on a family holiday to France. I was going through a pretty challenging time, but whenever I sat down with it I was transported to another place on the other side of the world, that I have never visited, and probably never now will. Perhaps that’s why I keep going back to it.

I didn’t manage to travel as much as I wanted to when I was younger, getting caught up in work, a career and everything else that goes around it. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been a sucker for poetry, and music, that evokes a certain place.

You can find Armour at Bookshop.org – it’s on my poetry bookshelf with other books I rate, including some previously written about and others that I have yet to comment on.

https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/richardwilliamspoetry

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post. Any comments appreciated!

I’ll finish, why not, with a link to one of The Triffid’s best songs;

Saying Goodbye to the Wild Geese

I’m lucky to live within a five minute cycle to the sea. Living in Portsmouth, it doesn’t matter where you are, you are always within a 5 to ten minute bike ride from salt water. It’s one of the benefits of living on Portsea Island, along with the lack of hills.

With the sea comes wildlife that you wouldn’t otherwise expect from the most densely populated city in the UK. Families of seals. The occasional porpoise. A wide range of seabirds, including some that are very rare elsewhere.

If you are out on the South Hampshire coast between October and March you are likely to encounter flocks of Brent Geese. They’ve gone now, back to their summer grounds in the tundra of northern Siberia. With such a long migration, this small (Britain’s smallest) and rather unassuming goose is perhaps the most remarkable we have in the UK.

Their feeding grounds here are under significant pressure – here in Portsmouth from the ridiculous decision to allow a company to lay an energy pipeline right through an important wildlife area, to other plans to build housing on wasteland to the west of the island.

I’ve been in touch with my local councillor on the latter matter – his response was actually very good – full of detail as to the realities of the situation faced by Portsmouth City Council. The financial penalties that local governments get for non fulfilment of central government set housing targets are severe. So what does a cash-strapped council do in such circumstances? What really can they do?

Meanwhile, our Prime Minister pontificates on Earth Day. I couldn’t be bothered to watch his speech. This is the man who wanted to destroy green space and mature trees for a vanity-project garden bridge. Whilst this was just a local planning issue it shows where his priorities lie. There are plenty of other examples of his hypocrisy and contempt for the environment. The man is an utter disgrace.

But we carry on. We carry on hoping, that despite the negligence, corruption and greed around the world, that things will change, that there still is time.

I think there is, just.

I’ll finish this post with a poem that first appeared on the One Hand Clapping website last October. Take care everyone, and good luck.

Reclaiming

This runt-scrap of land.
This pith of earth.
Half-soil,
half-salt,
all howling sky.
For now this silt’s still ours.

A concrete sea wall;
impervious,
half-toil,
half-hope.
Already dissolved
in the future’s slewing surge.

Today the light is fragile blue,
foreground a smear of sea.
Brent geese flying in
from what remains of the Arctic.
Where do we go from here?

Two Gardens

Two new poems online in 48 hours … next up is a poem on the Pens of the Earth website – and also on Star & Crescent, the Portsmouth based independent news site – it’s one of a series of poems and prose pieces by local writers on the environment, but with a positive, hopeful outlook.

Mine isn’t exactly cheery, but there is hope.

There is always hope.

I hope you like it

Ashes

I shouldn’t be writing a blog post today.

I had managed to secure tickets in this year’s ballot for the first day of the test series against the West Indies at Lords, where I have never been for a match before. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. But it was something I had been so looking forward to. Especially as today is my 26th wedding anniversary.

Oh how I miss live sport, live music, live theatre, comedy, musicals. I don’t think the so-called leaders we have in this country at the moment realise how important these are. They certainly don’t appear to care, judging by their response so far to the desperate state most theatres and arts organisations are in at the moment. But then why should I be surprised? On purely financial terms, the arts are one of the most significant economic sectors for the UK, ( far more than say fishing). We are, or we were, global leaders in many fields. Yet arts organisations, and businesses involved in arts related fields, (such as computer gaming), which rely on freedom of movement and international collaboration have been pretty much ignored by government since Brexit.

Let alone the benefits to society, to our mental and physical health.

Did I mention Brexit? I remember going in to work the day after (24 June 2016) to be met by a few smug comments (everyone knew where my thoughts lay on this issue). Around 70% of the people I worked with at the time voted for Brexit. Four years on and with no deal more and more likely, (whether by design or ineptitude it is irrelevant), I wonder how many of them would vote for the version of Brexit we are going to get as opposed to that of the campaign lies of Cummings and co. ?

It’s a bit like the people I know who voted against electoral reform because they wanted a better type of electoral reform than that which was on offer on the ballot paper. Maybe vote differently next time, in what, 40 years or so?

Four years on from the referendum and I remain deeply saddened by its’ impact on the direction in which this country appears to be going.

I so hope that this part of this post ages badly and that Brexit, and the type of deal we end up with works out well. But I just don’t think our politicians are in any way competent enough for the task, which would be incredibly challenging even without Covid-19. Anyway, rant over.

But that’s where live music, theatre, musicals, comedy and sport events come in. They are such a useful pressure release, such a great way to feel alive, to escape from the monotonies and frustrations of everyday life. I miss them terribly.

But here we are.

If you have got this far then apologies for the rant. I’m just feeling grumpy because I’m missing the cricket. And it’s hot outside. And next door have got builders in their garden so I can’t properly relax.

We are were we are.

Still, this gives me an excuse to share another poem. This one originally appeared on the Places of Poetry website. A good poem shouldn’t need additional notes. The ones for this follow afterwards…

Ashes

It’s deepening now this evening blue,
counting stars as they pinprick through,
darkness sweeps in sure footing lost,
this trellised fence a horizon’s seam,
the sky so earthed in shaky dreams.

On my wi-fi playlist the same song replays,
pour another drink as our days decay,
to a long hot summer of a water ban,
stubble scorched grass in Victoria Park,
football and cricket and back before dark

Pete Fran Chris Ade and sometimes Steve,
final score then evening chorus so time to leave,
and walking home along Somerset Road,
and shadows locking arms on the final climb,
a row of elm and am I running low on time.

Scuffed leather skin a stitch half picked out,
sleight-of-hand spinning a googly of doubt,
corner creased photo in a battered tin box,
the energy of youth in our seventies clothes,
two months away from the Damned’s New Rose.

I could open the bowling at the County Ground,
or play the keyboards in a prog rock band,
when empty shops circle the market square,
shuttered ambitions are left fly-posted again;
I had my hopes, I guess we all did then.

This failing light too weak to forestall
will my kids ever hear a cuckoo’s call;
another cold beer as the silence grows,
no song thrush, skylark or nightingale;
the last ball bowled now we’re burning the bails.

Notes: The Victoria Park of this poem is in my home town of Frome in Somerset, not the one in the centre of Portsmouth. I used to spend much of my time growing up playing football and cricket there in pretty much all weathers, (with Pete, Fran, Chris, Ade and sometimes Steve). Not something that kids seem to as much nowadays.

The Damned’s New Rose is generally recognised as being the first punk single. It’s obviously a metaphor here of change, of growing up. A moment in time after which everything was different.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the Frome of my youth was pretty run down – there were a lot of empty shops in the town centre – it’s a much more vibrant place these days.

The English Elms of my walk home, (sadly no more following the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease) and the final stanza are all, of course, references to a much greater change that we are in the middle of, against which the chaos of Brexit and my woes of missing a cricket match at Lords due to a global health pandemic pale into utter insignificance.

When was the last time you heard a Cuckoo’s call?

Not the Dark Side of the Moon

Last Friday I went to a show at the Winchester Discovery Centre Planetarium. Described as an epic fulldome experience, now featuring newly revamped graphics, it was an opportunity to listen to Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon , from start to end.

Some of the graphics hadn’t aged well, but despite this, it was still a very enjoyable experience, and something I’d like to repeat with other albums. The same band’s Wish You Were Here would be good, (and is showing at the Discovery Centre), or maybe some 1970s electronica – Phaedra by Tangerine Dream would be an obvious, if short ( it’s only 37 minutes long), option, as would Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre, or perhaps something by Vangelis.

1973. I was 8 when The Dark Side of the Moon came out, and I didn’t really listen to it until a number of years later. Our household was a predominantly classical music stronghold at that time, (with the exception of my sister’s Queen, Elton John and 10cc collection *). One thing that struck me on Friday was just how good an album it is. A massive seller that actually justifies the hype. I’d not listened to it all the way through for a very long time. With Spotify / Apple Music etc, how often do any of us listen to music in the order it was intended to be listened to?

I tend to listen to playlists on shuffle mode rather than albums, add songs rather than albums to my music archive, and chop and change with newly discovered artists all the time. Tastes obviously change, and I rarely relisten to most bands I used to play constantly, (except for the odd song), let alone go back to whole albums.

I wonder how many people still actually listen to albums the whole way through. As a percentage of the music listening public, not many I would have thought. It’s as if a whole way of appreciating a particular art form has been lost. Do contemporary musicians pay as much attention to track listing I wonder? Is it another symptom of our reduced attention span and contemporary society’s desire for instant, rather than delayed, gratification?

On Saturday I decided to listen to (and properly listen to, as opposed to putting it on in the background whilst I did the washing up) , my favourite Pink Floyd album, the one I grew up with – Animals – which came out in January 1977. What a birthday present for a 12 year old boy! I’d not played it in one sitting for at least 25 years, probably longer. Lyrically, it is such an angry, nihilistic album – as much of a statement on society as The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen -which of course came out in the same year.

Both Animals and Never Mind the Bollocks are as relevant now as they were 42 years ago, perhaps even more so with where society is headed in the early 21st century. Whether we can avert what seems to be an impending world of environmental, political and societal chaos, who knows. However, what I do know is that, for me, some days the best temporary antidote to all this worry is loud guitar music and a vitriolic howl into the dark.

* Please note this post originally referenced my sister’s David Cassidy collection. I have subsequently been corrected on this statement, as I now understand that no David Cassidy records were owned (let alone collected) in our household. The article has now been amended to reflect the much cooler and more sophisticated musical taste that my sister had at that time…I can only apologise for any offence and associated damage to musical credibility that this false statement may have created.

The Domestication of Ghosts

After yesterday’s rant about HS2 I thought it about time I added a new poem. This fits in quite nicely as a follow-on post, as it has an environmental theme to it. It also ties in with #FolkloreThursday , as was the case with my post last Thursday about Stinking Cleg, a Portsmouth ghost.

This poem references many of the Black Dog myths of Britain, and one that is green ( the Cu-Sith or fairy dog of Scottish & Irish folklore). It’s good fun to read as a performance piece on a wet and windy autumn or winter night. Of course the poem has another message, that we are never that far from the past, no matter how contemporary and ‘civilized’ our society seems, and long-term any battle between nature and man will only be won by one side, and that isn’t us!

Anyway, the poem.

The Domestication of Ghosts

Back then, all this was forest.
A time when shadows had names;
Barguest, Black Shuck, Yell Hound.
We revered them, feared them,
we knew their teeth were real.

Barricade doors, huddle close,
fires spit sparks against the dark.
Church Grim, Gwyllgi, Gyrath;
shape-shifting ghosts in mist
these long dank nights of fear.

Red eyes the size of saucers,
soft-padding through untamed land.
Moddey Dhoo, Skirker, Capelthwaite;
at crossroads on unmarked lanes,
portents of early death.

Now names have lost all power,
shadows softened in sodium.
Padfoot, Gabble Retchets, Cu Sith
no more now than distant words,
just static on a screen.

But one day will come a storm,
your dog will howl all night,
the spectral hounds of Annwn
will shiver down your spine,
you’ll feel their teeth are real.

Back Then, All This Was Forest

So HS2 goes ahead. I can only weep in despair at the absurdity of it. When improvements to local services are desperately needed we end up spending £100bn + on a white elephant in order to shave 20 minutes off the train times from Birmingham to London.

It’s much trumpeted environmental benefits will be cancelled out by the associated CO2 costs in construction. In addition any anticipated CO2 benefits will be further reduced due to the speed these trains will be going and the impact on aerodynamic drag from tunnels, cuttings etc. Then there is the question of connectivity issues with local transport networks, increased car use to get to HS2 stations and so on. Oh and have I mentioned that the new turbo-prop engines used on short flight routes are much more energy efficient than the jets that HS2 is compared to even now, let alone after the inevitable overruns and additional cost implications.

And then there is the more obvious, local environmental impact. HS2 will destroy or irreparably damage five internationally protected wildlife sites, 693 local wildlife sites, 108 ancient woodlands and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interest, according to the most comprehensive survey of its impact on wildlife.

Swaths of other irreplaceable natural habitat will be lost to the new high-speed line, with endangered wildlife such as willow tit, white-clawed crayfish and dingy skipper butterfly at risk of local extinction. Source Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/15/hs2-will-destroy-or-damage-hundreds-of-uk-wildlife-sites-report

Still at least we have people in charge with a good track record when it comes to public transport infrastructure projects.

Oh wait.