Versions of England: Review by Penny Boxall
‘Englaland’ by Steve Ely, ‘Bones of Birds’ by Jo Colley and ‘The Midlands’ by Tony Wiliams
Review by Penny Boxall
The title of Steve Ely’s Englaland suggests the off-kilter, a world we think we know but which makes us double back on ourselves to glimpse it again. Something isn’t quite right: Lala-Land has forced itself on trusted Blighty, imbedding its cuckoo repetition. We can’t shake the feeling that this has all happened before; and, as Ely shows us, it has.
This title aptly introduces the tone of the collection, an assured and unsettling series of vignettes in which the past is imposed, ghost-like, onto the still-developing image of the present. Panic – that common currency of animals – can ‘whirr [the] legs bionic’ in the past as much as in the present.
Characters walk out of the scene in one century and into another, suddenly alienated. Sometimes it is the scene itself that is the constant while the players are deviously switched – and the character becomes the alien. Page 23 has the ancient soldiers ‘breath[ing] black water’ as they ford a river in defeat: the closing line, ‘I dropped to my knees and lied in order to live’, is echoed on page 24, where the ‘big lads pinned me down… I bargained to save my skin’. Here, though, it’s some bruising and midget gems at stake – not the threat of a spear sent hurtling through the body. Again, in poem XV of the first series, ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’, soldiers stash spoils in a Holy Well ash; turn the page and nasty, familiar kids are after some obscure loot of their own in the same woods. The effect is of one stage successfully hosting two plays: the babes in the wood wander off, and the baddies burst in to occupy the spot vacated only moments before.
This idea – that there is no such thing as an absolute present – is visible as a vein throughout, from the William Faulkner epigraph (‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’) to the exacting closer of the first section, in which the poet, while reading the Pocket Guide to British Birds, notes that ‘Larks rose from the corn and thundered their exult vision: this land lives and its dead cannot die.’ Ely’s precision here is admirable and striking – ‘exult vision’ is clear as eyedrops, and contains in it the collection’s resident strangeness.
While many of these poems make room for beauty, violence, in this Englaland, is a given. Skulls are smashed with alarming ease; it’s every man for himself (in a world notably bereft of women). Take the section ‘Scum of the Earth’, a one-act play which imagines a second English civil war. The language, like a hastily-grabbed weapon, is spring-loaded:
Peashooters and stink bombs, cattys and claysticks,
Air Bomb Repeaters and knock-a-door run…
This language of fury, however mock or petulant, is also lyrical. Ely has been described as Ted Hughes on the rampage; at points such as this he is more like Hughes in a huff.
The most convincing and engaging movements are those in which the personal is conjured – even if, in some cases, this personal slant is an invented one. In ‘Reverend John Harnett Jennings’ Ely draws an intriguing portrait of the Victorian missionary, only to lampoon it in the final stanza:
‘…Reverend Jennings, forgive me my maybe slanderous fancy: odds are, you were a decent man; a saint, scholar, hale-cleric-well-met. Whatever you were, cold in your clays – your life belongs to me.’
For all Ely’s evident love of history, he is not afraid to trample it – to impose himself, as we all must, in order to understand it, and to spellbinding effect.
Jo Colley, too, inhabits the past. Bones of Birds is about flight – from ‘old ladies have the bones of birds’, in which the eponymous women slip from life as easily as a bird drops into the air, to a sustained section on women pilots in the early twentieth century. The opening poem plays a blinder:
with what relief they cast off
the foot binds
the apron strings
the ties that tethered
jettison pies, irons, plans,
the gentle drift
up up and away
come at last
but elsewhere the prosody is less taut, and in some cases almost workaday, deflating some of the individual poems. For this reason, the volume is better enjoyed as the sum of its parts than the parts themselves. The proofreading also leaves something to be desired, with errata and inconsistencies not uncommon.
However, this does not undermine many resonant moments, as in ‘The smell of petrol’: the speaker, having just escaped from a burning plane, lies recovering with her fellow combatants; the image of a gift from infantry boys of ‘strawberries, huge and ripe, / resplendent on a dish of leaves’ is painstakingly – and painfully – evoked with a brilliant clarity. ‘I can see them now. The green and the red’, says the speaker, and with that the strawberries are presented in our own hands.
In fact, one finds oneself wishing for more instances of this zoom capacity on Colley’s lens. When it is engaged it lights on surprising things, as in ‘Amy Johnson’s Pigskin Bag’. We watch the bag survive the sea-crash that Johnson cannot: ‘Time on your side, you float, oblivious / as another weaker vessel sinks’. The attention to detail brings clever things to the table: the bag has done its ‘time on its side’; and it is also now, extemporal, no longer a possession or a useful object in the conventional sense.
We’re treated to another moment of innovation in ‘Tidying up’, in which the speaker is forced to crash a plane:
skin stretched hard over bone,
my life as a cartoon flashing by,
I drew myself a door.
This image is startling, high-calibre, and rings true. It is one of the collection’s best.
In common with the other collections, Tony Williams’ The Midlands draws deep from the veins of England. The eponymous, opening poem mesmerises with its oblique, bumping rhythm in its sweep over the middle counties:
They are crying for conkers and tennis balls lost in the woods
for mortgage advisors, for money itself
to the price of one pint of their sulphuric bitter,
which also they cry for and cry for at length in the night.
People are the authors of this landscape: a lake gathers in the imprint of a boot, a cliff is stolen and the searchers ‘dust the cliff with the cliff’s own dust’; or else it is the landscape which moulds its people – they must ‘learn by the ache in their knees / each swell of the fields that contained them’.
Here is a poet you can trust: many of the poems have the reassuring stellar quality of the “competition winner”. Just reading the list of contents shows how many titles are strikingly odd (‘Dear Rhino, Love from Hippo’); in other places the strangeness presents itself more slowly under the pretence of an ordinary title:
The original enamel bath had been ripped out.
I clattered my ladder up to the top floor,
where the landing was narrower,
and met the ghost of a boy who lived up there…
In this poem, the presence of the ghost is real and unmistakable – a constant area of unease behind the stripped fittings. The ghosts whisper, but the decorator can’t ‘get the[ir] gist’ as he goes about renovating the house, ripping out enamel baths, stripping wallpaper:
and when one patch the size of my fist
showed in torn layers the colours of a chaffinch,
I sat on the edge of the jacuzzi and wept.
There are two hauntings here: the ghosts themselves; and the house, which under treatment becomes a landscape of its own, with its own nature-coloured palette (‘the colours of a chaffinch’). The essential poem at the heart of this could be by Wordsworth: the Romantic impulse – to preserve and treasure the past – is the same. What makes Williams’ poem so successful is his reducing the scale and domesticizing of it: the impact literally hits home.
Williams is often preoccupied with the lost. In ‘The Snail of Masson’, a quest for the snail of the title takes the speaker and his companion into a darkling landscape trailed with silvery slime: ‘spittle where a spark / might survive the murk’. The triple-milled stanzas have each line take the rhyme and softly mutate it: hill becomes snail becomes metal, lanes to turns to tunes. It’s playful and also slightly unsettling, and by the close of the poem teeters between prayer and curse:
Or does hell’s sellotape
spell by sly ellipse
a curse of earth’s collapse:
each footfall through the crust
to sound the starless worst,
echo, and be lost?
Gradually there is a feeling of the landscape’s being emptied of its familiar characters, to stand silent and dark, like Blake’s ‘Echoing Green’: where ‘sport [is] no more seen / on the darkening green’. Williams’ Midlands hold his many lives briefly, and outlive them all.
ENGLALAND by Steve Ely, 200pp, £8.95,
Smokestack Books, 1 Lake Terrace, Grewelthorpe, Ripon, HG4 3BU
BONES OF BIRDS by Jo Colley, 78pp, £7.95,
Smokestack Books, 1 Lake Terrace, Grewelthorpe, Ripon, HG4 3BU
THE MIDLANDS by Tony Williams, 88pp, £8.99,
Nine Arches Press, Nine Arches Press, PO Box 6269, Rugby, CV21 9NL