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Steve Spence

"Silent Year" by Alasdair Paterson, pub. Flarestack Poets, 32 pages £6.00

 

This new pamphlet from Alasdair Paterson is in two sections, the first, In A Silent Year, is to do with the experience of the first year after the death of a loved one and the second, shorter, is a series of reflections on WW1. There is a relation between the two, in terms of a sense of loss and of an elegiac quality but I also detect in part 2, a hinting at a more direct and personal continuity. Those of us who grew up in the forties and fifties have the aftermath of WW2 as an inevitable backdrop but the First World War also continues to have its sway. My father, for example, who was born in 1918 and died in 2002 used to talk about people he knew as a child who had been in the trenches and talked about the ongoing health problems relating to having been gassed. These snippets are dim in my memory now but they remain nonetheless, as stories I vaguely recall from childhood.

Writing about bereavement can be very difficult and I often think, especially in the case of poetry, that it may be best done as a sort of therapeutic aid and to be shared, if at all, with close friends and family. There is a lot of ‘bad poetry’ written about this subject which gets shared more publically and perhaps oughtn’t to be though I’m aware that I’m opening myself up to criticism by saying this. Denise Riley managed it extremely well in her much praised poetry about the death of her son and I also feel that Alasdair Paterson, writing about the loss of his wife, deals with the subject well. He’s a poet who writes about things which are personal to him, sometimes obliquely and sometimes more directly but these poems hit the mark insofar as it’s ever possible to do so.

From ‘Pindrop’ we get this: ‘Now I’m left here / to think about it. / And I will, and I will,
/ the moment silence / stops breaking in on everything’. The idea of ‘silence breaking in on everything’ is stunning but you know exactly what he means. Once there was another voice, an expectation of a response, a shared mutual language, whether banter or on a specific subject –
Art History, for example – built up over a lifetime of shared experience, now there is only the conversation within one’s own mind, memory and, yes, a silence which is oppressive and continuing.

In ‘Palmer’s Cornfields’ we are in the world of Art History, as Paterson recalls times spent in art galleries – ‘I miss / your hand on my / sleeve, a soft tuition.’ These poems build up a sense of a relationship, of intimacy and of differing but complementary personalities, explored here through a description of a Samuel Palmer painting – ‘under that alchemic moon / by the cornfield’s kiln / of fired-up red and gold.’ In ‘Life Class’ we get:  ‘No humdrum full-on set-up for you, / but slant akimbos; / cold shoulders: / a thrawn angle to wrong-foot / yourself and coax the abstract / into the measure of all things.’ Reflections on a shared past are also built up around travel:

     That Time of Year

     Calling to mind
     a misty city you’re meant
     to see and then die.

     And now you can count
     how many you went there with
     are dead.

     The calendar rolls on, though:
     those pencilled plans,
     those single bookings.

     Leaves on the line.

I guess ‘a misty city’ is probably Venice or possibly Vienna, evoking Thomas Mann, Daphne du Maurier and maybe Leonard Cohen as well. There’s a very melancholy feel to this piece, as with other poems here, for example, ‘Snowglobes’, where the atmosphere is chilled both by the Christmas Toy and by the inability to communicate and by the silence. ‘Bleak House’, despite its title, hinting playfully at Dickens, has its moments of warmth via remembered shared moments while ‘House Zero’ is a powerful poem made up of short three-line stanzas which include some wonderful imagery among the sad reflective tone and the narrative hinting at illness, culminating in the final stanza – ‘Last breath / become forever / the last word.’ The final poem in the sequence ‘Camino’ feels like a resolution, where ‘silence’ has ended and life becomes possible again:

     Then the world
     pin-pricked its way back.
     A bird, several, a village of birds.
     Dragonflies buzzing the reed-bed towers.
     Fish that hit their own bullseyes.
     A leaf smacked down like a challenge.

     I stood there and listened
     until a voice came.

     And we walked on.

Séances (1919) is a sequence of six poems, again to do with ‘silence’ and related to WW1 and its aftermath.

     1.

     Fields wore
     that threadbare livery.
     Minutes tumbled
     plump as metaphor.

     The beaters remembered
     they should doff their caps.

     What they’d seen, though.
     Who was missing.
     What was expected
     of them, after all.

     They remembered.

This appears to be a social commentary based on ‘changed attitudes’ in the years after the end of the war. ‘..threadbare livery’ suggests the poverty of equipment and clothing due to the economic ruin and devastation caused by the war while ‘the beaters remembered / they should doff their caps’ possibly implies that a return to order and hierarchy won’t be quite so easy – does everyone still believe they know their place? It’s hard to be sure but the ambiguity here is intriguing and has resonance in ‘The Royal Mile’, the penultimate poem in the first section, which, uncharacteristically
in that sequence has a suggestion of political militancy with its ‘pecking orders / and disorders’ and the final couplet – ‘Read the signs there: Paterson’t Land. / And that’s true. It’s my mile too.’ In 3. I detect a hint towards Eric Bogle with – ‘And did they tell you what was coming to you? / Did they know themselves, at the starting gun?’ – or perhaps even the musical satire evident in ‘Oh What A Lovely War’. The poem that really does it for me though in this sequence is 4. which I’ll quote in full as it’s quite short and needs to be seen in its entirety:

     4.

     The cigarette was lit before
     The sniper squeezed the trigger while
     The stretcher-bearers heaved towards
     The doctors probed the wound until
     The nurse closed the eyelids after
     The orderly cleaned up before
     The squaddies shovelled earth into
     The chaplain signed the cross above
     The clerk typed out the facts except
     The telegram arrived without
     The curtains were pulled shut against
     The parlour lamp was lit although

     The parlour lamp was lit although

There’s a narrative here, an individual’s death, one which could signify a whole generation of dead soldiers, yet the lack of completion at the end of each sentence somehow adds to the ‘unfinished’ nature of the whole business, an anonymity which feels truly chilling. I’ve read and listened to a fair bit of poetry written ‘in celebration / memoriam’ of WW1 over the past few years and much of it feels clichéd, sentimental and unnecessary. I can’t say that of these poems which prove that no subject is ‘out of bounds’ if you can find an effective way of writing about it. This collection, with its two interconnecting yet quite different sections is something special. Alasdair Paterson is a cracking good poet, that’s for sure.

 
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018