For the Record: Review by John Foggin
‘Skipper’ by Christy Ducker, ‘Humphrey Coningsby’ by Jonathan Davidson, and ‘Talking to the dead’ by Gordon Hodgeon
Review by John Foggin
For the record, at poetry readings it’s the tune I hear first. The words come after. It’s the rhythm, the space of vowels, the textures of consonants. It’s the authentic accent, the distinctive voice. Sometimes words read at leisure don’t live up to the memory of the voices, but not so with these three collections.
Christy Ducker’s voice has the rising inflexions of Northumbria, the dance of its dialect, its crisp consonants … and so does her poetry. Four clear themes run through Skipper, her first full collection: the way a love affair and a marriage might, wonderfully, be the same thing; the transformations of childbirth and motherhood; the indignities of hospitals, and of surgery; the elusiveness of historical truth.
The tone of Skipper is set in the first two poems. ‘And’ proclaims its surprised delight at the birth of her son
and I am astonished
by the way you smell of bloody bread
And I know the glee
at the indignant heaving bellows of your belly
The one word ‘glee’, and the nailed-down rightness of ‘bloody bread’, that iron and yeast, tell you right away that you’re in safe hands. The second poem, ‘Skeletons’ sets the reader up for her explorations of the collusiveness of ‘History’ and its ethical claims. Considering that you might trace your stock back to the owners of, or traders in, slaves, she asks
At what point do we say There. It stops there
and decide to forgive …?
I like the qualified answer, that ‘perhaps’, when she considers the case of her husband’s family ‘who used to duck witches’, or of her mother-in-law’s ivory box. Because this is love, and this is family, and because this man rescued her from drowning:
Perhaps it’s the point at which I might learn
to love the present flesh that softens bone.
It may seem wilful, or rueful, that ‘perhaps’. Or, perhaps a considered weighing up of moral balances. But listen to the way the distinct ‘t’ sounds determine the pace of the first line, the way the consonants soften in the second. This is a rich collection; there are poems of boatyards, watch-houses, groundings, harbours, drowned valleys and the bad art of hospital wards and corridors. But I’ll concentrate on the way Skipper opens out into a sequence about Grace Darling, the Victorian lighthouse keeper, who the poet says she found to be unexpectedly ‘eccentric, scientifically expert, and fiercely literary’.
There’s a salutary entrée to the sequence in ‘Meet the Victorians’ where she admits how she went to the story of Grace Darling with feminist/revisionist intentions,
Expecting a sermon, but finding an orgy
of sorts, I realise I’ve packed the wrong things
to deal with a raucous Queen Victoria, a playful Darwin and all the dubious affairs of the Victorian underworld, for instance. So how does she deal with the ‘fiercely literate’ Grace? The solution turns out to be simple and brilliant. Twenty-seven poems chart Grace’s life through her gradual mastery of numeracy and literacy. In ‘Grace Darling learns to count’ each numeral becomes a mnemonic and an ideogram of her island and its landscape. ‘2 is … / a plane for wood … / it’s the cold squat of yesterday’s iron’ and ‘10 is your mother at her spinning wheel’. It’s a beautiful idea which is sustained through the twenty-six poems of ‘Grace Darling’s A.B.C.’, a poem of three precisely weighted regular quatrains for each letter. Ducker plays with the graphics of the letters: ‘A is the point of intention / she sees at the tip of her pen’ which is also a tool to carve out her alphabet. O, memorably, is the coins she earns from salvage
flat as the faces of drowned men
she pulls from the sea like moons
E is ‘the flight of three small steps / she climbs to reach the lantern room’ and also the letter ‘that warms all vowels’. In these regular eight-syllabled lines she explores the letters’ shapes, their assonance and consonance and weaves them into a story of Grace’s growing into womanhood and difficult celebrity. Ducker also reminds me of the way museums seem to sentimentalise embroidered samplers; she makes you remember poor light, sore fingers, the physical work that underlies achieved literacy. Every poem is full of unobtrusive slant rhymes and assonance, of surprising true images. My favourite?
U is the round-bottomed coble
she punts across the page to write
‘our Universe, or keep ‘us’ afloat
but you can take your pick. If I was allowed just one word to describe Ducker’s writing in this collection it would be canny; a Northumbrian word, weathered and layered and rich as the patched hull of the boat on the book’s cover.
Unlike Ducker, the hero of Jonathan Davidson’s Humphrey Coningsby has no problems at all with history and its misdirections. He’s been dead 400 years and he can elide its seasons without compunction as he half-smiles from his tomb, smooth, glazed and comfortable as a Toby jug.
Like Chaucer’s knight he’s travel-stained and battle worn. That’s as far as it goes with Humphrey, this polymath, polyglot, boorish, cynical – occasionally tender, sometimes sentimental – mercenary. He’s no ‘verray parfit gentil knyght’, that’s for sure. He has little patience with bringing ‘warring factions to a parley’ (‘Talks about talks’). ‘Go to it, then, he says’ and they do. ‘The Siege of Strigonium’ finds him declaring with a curious kind of told-you-so satisfaction:
This is more like it. I’ve seen men
burning like torches, oiled like
fresh kebabs, dancing into the river.
…Don’t let the screaming
put you off your suppers, my Lords.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this man with the sardonic voice who’s seen it all and killed a good deal of it. This pamphlet-length collection is bookended by two poems that both admit they don’t know what to make of him. ‘A neighbour’s description’ is simple and simply baffled. ‘we always took him for a strange one’ admits one from his manor of Neem Sollars in South Shropshire. ‘I wasn’t his friend. No one was’, but the ambivalence is there at the end. ‘Still, we honoured him, you had to.’ The last poem ‘Found near the body of Humphrey Coningsby’ is more frank about his anonymity and mystery. It takes the form of a crime scene inventory of all his scant possessions. Item: ‘sharp sticks but blunt’. Typically we’re presented with a contradiction, a paradox. It’s a clever piece of irony, of the kind Davidson does so well, because in earlier poems Coningsby seems to have returned to England to find he doesn’t know it and without the horse he borrowed from his neighbour. One woman understood him though. In ‘Meeting the sultan’s daughter’ she knows how he needs to be made sweet, and cooled of his fever, and only then:
did she in her
own sad Eden lie on me like a coverlet
or shroud and make fun with my mortality.
Nothing’s simple or unalloyed where Eden is ‘sad’, but Coningsby’s love for Mahomet’s daughter (is she the same one?) finds a voice in ‘Coningsby in love’, the one purely lyrical poem in the sequence, and ‘he dances / his feathers lifting in the desert air’. Otherwise, he finds Troy a slum, complains about the absence of a WiFi signal, crashes a hire car in Bohemia, has his bike stolen from a layby on the B17 in Warwickshire and when, in ‘Coningsby returns to England, the last time’, he comes ‘home’ he finds, like Woody Guthrie, he has no home in the world anymore:
wrong about this country, it is
too green. Where are the camels
and the shaggy goats?’
I was sold on this collection at first hearing. It was the voice first – dry, witty and with impeccable comic timing and an ear for the deflationary punch line; then it was the geographical sweep and reference, that reminded me why I like Umberto Eco. In the end it was the complexity of this apparently world-weary man who presents a blandly unreadable face from his tomb. This is a great piece of dramatic writing and it’s no surprise that it has been adapted for Radio 4.
Humphrey can look back on his life from the absolute assurance of death. There’s no such comfort for Gordon Hodgeon as he looks back on his, and into his future. Hodgeon grew up in Leigh in the coalfields of the Lancashire plain, where ‘hair’ rhymes with ‘burr’ and ‘fur’ and, because I know him, I can hear the warm vowels and softened consonants that he has never lost after living most of his adult life in Teesside (or Cleveland as I still say). But you’ll have to imagine them, because about five years ago he was completely paralysed, and some months ago, lost the power of speech. Hodgeon should be better known outside the North-East. Talking to the Dead is his sixth collection. Because he can’t pick up a pen or speak, it was written by the slow business of blinking at a Dynavox computer screen, letter by letter. You’ll find moments of bleakness in Talking to the Dead. You’ll not find a scintilla of self-pity, but a good deal of rueful wit and dry humour. Above all you’ll find poems that are wise and beautifully crafted.
The title of the first poem, ‘I walked out this morning’ offers the resonance of centuries of folksongs and ballads, but also the flatly observed fact of waking in a bed where you spend your life, a bed you can’t leave:
I walked out his morning
from the jigsaw jumble of
dreams and memories
and found a man in my bed
with a fly on his nose.
Only his weeping eyes could move.
The absolute nature of helplessness is there in the image of a fly that can’t be brushed away. It recurs in ‘Thunderflies’ which describes the tiny flies that swarm in hot, close summer days. ‘My carer has to remove each one’. Instantly he’s back in teenage summers, stooking sheaves, waiting for thunder, a bit of wind. The contrast with the (assumed) fit and sun-tanned past is poignant. ‘Those days are lost, / most of their people dead’. The fly will have the last word in ‘I, said the Fly’. The poet has been wishing for the end of summer, for the flies to be gone. Ah, says the fly:
We shall return, always,
the world requires us.
We shall assist you, save you,
we shall see you through.
In the meantime, Hodgeon goes on setting his affairs in order in these clear-eyed, clear-spoken poems. He itemises without sentiment all the kit that keeps him going: stomach peg, catheter, trachi, stoma ‘everything / the modern combi boiler / requires, plus annual maintenance’, and reflects on the fact that all of them have a sell-by date. As we all do. He makes his peace with his father
I would seek forgiveness if I thought you could
respond from your damp grave, you can’t, that’s understood.
So I will sing for you, keen in my shattered glass of voice
for what won’t change
and peace with Granddad George: ‘I let you down, still you raise me up’. To his wife, Julia, (in another nursing home and with advanced Parkinson’s Disease) ‘on the whole’ he says, we’ll ‘rest on what we have, I think it’s love’. In ‘Solstice’, he delights in the gift of grandchildren: ‘All the house is children’s laughter … /… It is hard to imagine these children older’. ‘Totentanz’ buzzes with an undimmed political as well as personal sense of history. He’ll have none of the pomp of barons, queens, factory owners and all the rest. His ‘plan is to join with / the anonymous dead’ and all his unrecorded ancestors. There’s so much in this collection, and much of it makes me weep at the same time as it makes me glad to be alive. In ‘Wild Westerly’ he joins with a roll call of his favourite poets to proclaim
… we wonder, love, cry freedom, rage.
The living talk to the living in singing words
which outlive their makers.
And so they do. And so they do.