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Rod Madocks

"Passing The Story Down The Line" by Robert Etty, pub. Shoestring Press. 106pp. £10.00

Goethe once memorably asserted, Ein alter mann ist stets ein Kȍnig Lear – ‘an ageing man is always a King Lear’. I first came across the comment in my teens. Ever a magpie for a striking phrase, I liked the notion and sometimes quoted it when I thought folk from the older generation were acting in one deluded way or another. However, I did not fully understand what the phrase really meant until I became an alter mann myself.  Only now do I realise that you re-enact Lear each day by impulsively trying to assert the self in the face of your own impending annihilation. As an older man, I seem to be always furiously wrestling with my sense of identity even as the importance of the self begins to fade. What are the other habits of the alter mann or ȁlterer frau? You think of your childhood a lot, your blood is no longer in its heyday, you notice the steady sure movement of plants, the drift of seasons and clouds, you mark your losses and enjoy slow-cooked literature like the poems of Robert Etty.

His new collection from Shoestring Press Passing The Story Down The Line contains the sort of calm, wise, rueful poems that we have come to expect from Etty. His poems are aware of the passingness of all things. His is a mature late voice. I’ve asked myself if Etty’s poems will only really appeal to the older person. They are certainly English in an old-fashioned way.  They have that English quality that the writer Samantha Harvey has identified —a “strangled” lightly-worn determination to tell the truth about the nature of things but in an indirect humorous or slanting way. Etty possesses the same English quality of indirectness as his beneficent voice reflects on both beauty and loss with the same equanimity. Etty is also English in his refusal to leave his patch of fenny Lincolnshire. He might be out of tune with our globalised times but I also hope there still are young people somewhere pressing their toes into their own patch of sovereign earth and getting to know it to its core. I imagine Etty to have the same sort of attitude as the painter Lucian Freud who when asked why he never went on holiday replied, “My travels nowadays are never outward always inward.”  Etty also likes to travel downward. There are many poems about  graves, pits and holes in the ground —“cavities boots seem drawn to ….pitfall traps” (“Holes In The Ground”) . The poet might seem to notice everything about the physical landscape but the dead seem always to be lurking just below the surface and memories come bubbling up. Etty’s flat fields and copses are both real and symbolic places. The dead conjure warnings hopes and reminders from all the rural cemeteries that the poet passes. His oblique poems are emblemata nudging us to remember that rodent time is ever gnawing at us. The weapons he deploys to keep oblivion at bay are memory and a honed consciousness.

My favourite poem in the collection is a sonnet called “January 14th” where, prompted by glimpsing “an oval, oceaned moon /behind the fourth ash tree’s rained-on boughs” the poet resolves to henceforth look intently at all the ash trees he encounters.  Neighbours and family are conjured up but he seems essentially to be alone. The people that Etty vividly pictures are also both physical and emblematic presences. They are winners and losers, those who stayed on in their farmhouses and cottages and those who skipped out or became exhausted by poverty, loneliness and the struggle with nature. Often their presences are tutelary. Like the poem ‘London’ where his neighbour Raymond who has never been to London (Raymond says of the place “ ‘What the hell should I do if I went?’”) Raymond might not have left Lincolnshire but he can precisely identify in memory every tree in a rural lane that the poet mentions: “”’Hornbeam’ he is saying before I finished/ ‘Then four biggish ash, some deep pink dog roses/the old wild apple the wasps nest under….’” In the poem “Winter Eclipse in the Coop Carpark”, an unexpected burst of winter sunshine renders his neighbours “haloed and semi-translucent”. Etty gently debunks their fleeting transfiguration as they return to their everyday selves. His acquaintance “Alan Alcock / who’s no more unearthly than average,/ but whose radiant hair and breath had been putting/ a different complexion on matters/ … ‘All right?’ he  asks me, demystified now yet still/ not quite what he used to be,” Etty will never be explicit yet great events moil somewhere off stage and greater incertitudes lurk below the surface of his rural landscape. Et in arcadia ego means in Etty’s case that ‘I (death) am also in Lincolnshire.’ However he is never self- important nor portentous. His poems are leavened by humour as the poet strolls his little world hymning empty days filled with the strange fruit of small events.

Etty world is bound about by the processes of agriculture which flail and erode yet also build the land back up. In Etty country everything is always on the point of giving way to something else. The fields are reclaimed places which, like memory, you are always on the point of losing. The sea is ever present in his landscapes, barely mentioned yet implied , just on the horizon portended by the gulls over the watery fields, a whispering Grand Néant at back of all things. Etty’s poetic persona is that of the archetypal  retired man pottering away his long days preternaturally observant, noting the quiet unloading of life after the kids have gone yet also he is  a transfigurative artistic hero with a lone steely determination to hone his voice.

Literary ghosts stalk Etty s poems. He’s obviously learned from Edward Thomas to be a visitor in a landscape enthralled by the intensity of the moment. He quotes from Housman’s lines about “heartless witless nature” and we find in his verse  echoes of Thomas Hardy’s implacable natural world and cliff-like grief . Maybe a touch of George Crabbe is also there in his shrewd unsentimental narratives of ordinary lives. I think Etty has produced 8 collections. I possess most of them. His voice is deepening and becoming more tragic over time. His best poem remains “A Lincolnshire Whirlwind 1936” from his 2013 Shoestring Press collection "A Hook in the Milkshed" , a masterpiece of compression and heart-stopping emotion that should find a place in a national best poem anthology.

So, are Etty’s poems for and by ein alter mann?  Yes  they surely are and yet also I like to think that they are truly poems for everyone.


Copyright © Rod Madocks, 2018