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Steve Spence

"Mapping Mark Totterdell" pub. Indigo Dreams Publishing. 74 pages   £9.99

Mark Totterdell’s debut collection, This Patter of Traces, was so good that I was slightly apprehensive about the follow-up which promised at its centre to be a book based on walking and ordnance survey maps. I’d heard him read a few of these at various live events and was impressed and intrigued. The book in fact is made up of five sections: Maps; Genus; Pub; Bird and Well. The mapping section is comprised mainly of five poems per page, each with an OS reference number and each being four lines long. It’s worth quoting a few of these in full to give a flavour of the pieces:

          150 – Worcester and Malvern Hills

          Orchards and dust, the stub of a summer season.                                                                                     
          He worked, for a handful of cash, the pale gold land,
          gathering what the machine shook out of the trees,
          sifting dry twigs and leaves from sweet-fleshed damsons.

          204 – Truro and Falmouth

          From the beach café the sea looked flat, dull grey.
          he tried to connect to his clear blue memory
          of floating on top of a world of kelp forest;                                                                      
          the bright fish that flickered in canyons of reef.

           94 – Whitby and Surrounding Area

          Walking near the knuckles of the North York Moors,
          his pack top-heavy, his path unclear and slippy,
          he fell and stained this map with fine rich mud
          which to this day obscures the coastline North of Whitby.

The mix of a wide range of geographical location together with a sense of movement gives a sort of overview, across place and time, mixing the traditional with the modern in terms of verse form and a mixing of voice and perspective. I found it best to read these through quite quickly then retrace my steps, focussing on individual lines and phrases. Totterdell is attuned to the musicality of the poetry as related to the rhythms of walking through the landscape and his workmanlike verses are well-suited to this out-and-about poetry. His way of writing about ‘the otherness’ of the natural world and our relation to it is sustained and intense though surprisingly perhaps the poetry is also easy to read and enjoy. It’s terrific stuff.

In section 2, Genus, we get the following:


          This gobbet of white
          was never cuckooed
          -hoick, splat-
          into the arsy-versy
          armpit of the thistle.

          This fort of froth, a foam-home
          for the raw green speck
          with pinprick eyes,
          is a soft construct
          of shat sap and fart.

The wordplay here is generated from the image of the spittlebug with its foam nest, a sight which most of us who ever went fishing can remember from summer days spent on the canal or river bank.
In ‘Arctia’ we have an evocation of the tiger moth as seen as a sort of laid-back sixties hippy the protagonist used to hang out with. This poem though tightly constructed, line by line, has the feel due partly to its lack of capital letters, of being more free-form and in tune with its subject: ‘the sixties haha it was like drops of blood on / a night sky only the drops were the colour of / the night
and the sky was the colour of blood / it was cosmic but then we drifted apart I / haven’t seen him for decades the whole scene shifted…’ . This is playful writing, beautifully put together and formally in contrast with its predecessors. In ‘Tipula’ (the cranefly) we are back to short three-line stanzas which have enhanced sonic qualities aided by local names:


          above the clifftop,
          trailing bent threads,

          between grey tors,
          in airman’s goggles,

          a tipsy stagger
          over the plain,

          Jinny Spinner,
           a soft bobbin
          through high fells,

          across the firth
          on kirk-window wings,

‘Granfer-Griggles’ appears to be an alternative name for the bluebell while ‘Kirsie-Kringlo’ has a tie-in with Christmas and with times past, which would seem to fit in with the reference to the final poem in the collection which quotes from auld lang syne.  Totterdells’s love of landscape and ‘the natural world’ is equalled by his love of words, etymology and taxonomies, a fact which clearly aids his often oblique way of coming at things, even within a pretty traditional poetic palette. The final poem in this section, entitled ‘Anguis’ (the slowworm), combines a sinewy layout with appropriate wordplay (Anguis/anguish and word/worm) in a manner which is both clever and effective:


          It’s no           worm,                                                                                                                                                              
          and it twists quick.
          ‘It’s not a snake
          but a legless lizard’,
          but what’s a snake
          but a lizard that lost
          its legs in another time?
          Words squirm. It writes
          and writes and writes
          itself in cursive script.
          Seized, there’s the
          endless anguish
          of autonomy,

          the shed tail
          writhing and
          writhing and
          writhing as if
          it weren’t
          for ever

Despite the sophistication of the writing, perhaps because of it, Totterdell still manages to create a sense of an encounter, a meeting between the known and the other, which is simply words on a page which provide the basis for an emotional interaction.

The section titled Pub often uses the name of the location to generate the poem, as in ‘The Ostrich’ where we get – ‘No, no. Head back in the sand. The ceiling so low’. In ‘The Pig’s Nose’ the tone is mildly surreal and again the poem appears to arise from the title: ‘…up past Gammon / Head, the Ham Stone, over the salted water, the swinefish caught in the waves as they break / on the blades of the shore, / seahogs to the slaughter.’ From ‘The Plough and Harrow’ we get this wonderful play-on-words  – ‘the foot-tangling promise of its label,’ (as opposed to tongue-twisting,) and in ‘The Turf’ the punning is even more ‘up-front’ and self-enclosed despite the clear references to the outdoors:

          The haunt of otter, the haunt of avocet,
          the fields half water, the water opposite
          half mud, its outer edge a habitat
          for all of these utterly elegant black-and-white

          waders. The other? All I have of it,
          all I can get, a fair glimpse of a set
          of paw prints. Bitter? Thanks, I’d love a bit;
          a half of Otter, a half of Avocet.

This is almost a conceit, clever and witty, filled with sound and very readable.

In ‘Four Kingfishers’, from the penultimate section, Bird, there appears to be a progression throughout the day and indeed the summer, with a final stanza which hints at autumn melancholy, a traditional poetic subject:

          Four was perched on the brittle tip of summer,                                                                                          
          the sun gone, its dull chest as rust
          as the first dieback of those reaching leaves.

In fact the more you look at these skilful poems which combine a sophisticated exploration of language with an unusually deep engagement with ‘the natural world’ you find layers of meaning and depth. ‘Mapgie’, with its artificial suffix at the end of each line:

          don’t lose your ragpie
          he’s such a wagpie
          waving a black and white pirate flagpie

is more jokey, as is ‘Eagle Owl’ –‘It began as a hoot / and a rumour, a tabloidy / tale of a swoop and / a scuffle,…’ . This poem ends with the single line – ‘It could almost be true’, which is another way of implying the strangeness of our fellow creatures and our encounters with them. I had to look up the word ‘theropod’ too as you are often likely to encounter some new vocabulary in a Mark Totterdell poem.

In ‘Viewpoint’, from the final section, ‘Well’, Totterdells’ ability to change perspective by a shift from the overview to a more focussed, microscopic scene, dealing with the minutia and its relation to ‘the bigger picture,’ is well-judged and I can’t help thinking that he would find Drew Milne’s ‘lichen poems’ (and indeed the photographs) of interest, despite the fact that their way of coming at poetry is somewhat different.

          Under the sun, light bounces from barn roofs
          and puddled fields, creating an effect
          of landscape as threadbare fabric, bits of brightness
          shining from somewhere beneath it. Something snags

           at my back. Barbed wire, that was once tacked
          to the trunk, now protrudes like a metal briar
          from where grey bark has overgrown it. I focus on
          a miniscule forest of lichen and bright moss.

The initial description has a very Paul Nash painterly feel, exploring the grammar of landscape, something which Totterdell is very attuned to and the shift from ‘macro to micro’ is a trope repeated again, notably in the poem ‘Trap’ where we have  ‘…moth stuff / that a lens / would show as tiles from a roof / that will never be fixed’. Elsewhere we have the carapace of a lobster being compared to a ‘Hokusai breaker’ and a wonderful passage of rhyme-driven, tongue-twisting wordplay in ‘Mussel’, with ‘…(imagine the slo-mo tussle / for space on this rock), each bound by byssal / threads of this sticky mollusc-bristle,…’ . ‘Damson’, a three stanza poem which brilliantly shifts the word of the title to the final word ‘Damascene’ is a beautifully compressed piece which includes a snippet of overheard radio speech and again mixes the world of ‘the garden’ with the bigger world ‘out there’. In ‘Beach Café’ we have ‘wavelets corrugate the sea’, a terrific piece of observation and ‘Grey Mullet’, written in couplets, mixes a dreamy summer lyricism with some unexpected analogies: ‘rings of ripples alter a mirrored landscape / like some cheap effect on childhood telly’.          

The final three poems in the last section have an increasingly melancholy feel engendered by a sense of dislocation, as in ‘View’, where we get this: ‘Squinting through / binoculars, I see / my street, oddly foreshortened, / like something quite untrue’. This could be a homecoming after a funeral, certainly we are remembering a lost friend or loved one: ‘whether that uncertain line / between shades of grey-blue / can really mark the far hills / where we left the last of you.’ I love Totterdell’s angle on this, oblique almost yet you know exactly what he’s getting at. The hint of a reference towards Houseman aids the mood but it’s done so carefully and integrated into the text in an unobtrusive manner.  In ‘Sidewell Street’, we have ‘a deep and darkening sky, a skinny moon’. It’s December and the birds are chattering in the trees.  A snippet from auld lang syne completes the poem and we are heading into reflective mode, melancholy but with a hint of hope, of celebration perhaps. The last poem, ‘Well’, feels like an attempt at resolution, and the final stanza, echoing Hardy and Houseman again, really hits the mark:

           A world away, a gulf apart,
          profounder by a mile,
          there lies that other well, of which
          I cannot speak at all.

These are poems which combine literary history with natural history and a love of words. They experiment to a degree – there is plenty of fizz and fizzle – but they are very pleasurable to read and mix playfulness with thought and feeling in a very approachable manner. Terrific!



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018