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A Stone Dog by Aidan Semmens

(Shearsman books), 90pp, £8.95 / $15, ISBN 9781848611658


If I were a tutor on creative writing course (an unlikely scenario) I'd advise young poets to stop writing for twenty years or so, then, after having some experience of life and wide reading, to take up the craft again. It seems to have beneficial effects. George Oppen famously gave up poetry for political activism for twenty-six years, and a number of poets I'm in touch with have taken life-sized sabbaticals: Ed Baker, for one, and the excellent Alasdair Paterson for another. And now we have Aidan Semmens, who has been working as a journalist and leading a normal life for a few decades, but who has now returned to writing and publishing poetry. Semmens was at Cambridge in the 70s - he won the 1978 Chancellor's Medal for an English Poem at Cambridge - and for a while edited Perfect Bound, the magazine associated with the Cambridge school and the British Poetry Revival. He then lived in the north-east, where he attended readings at the Morden Tower and was a friend of Barry MacSweeney and Richard Cadell.

The book is dedicated to Ric Cadell, and I'm sure Cadell would have been pleased with the economy and rigour with which these poems are constructed, as well as with their, at times, lyrical music. They are poems of observation and description, but that observation is often described by borrowed or appropriated langauge, and it doesn't privilege the omniscient observer. Rather, the world is presented in a fractured, cinematic fashion, as if we're hearing or seeing snippets from a news programme; a landscape of war-zones and economic dead-lands, with the occasional glimpse of beauty.

There's an unhurried air about this book. Semmens expects his reader to do some work, and doesn't offer easy conclusions; the long poems, in particular, are measured, while at the same time leaving room for swift movement between different tones and vocabularies:

much that was hidden has come to light,
the still beautiful colours,
the sky behind the Christ, fine
hatching, rusting heads of nails

passion leaves traces
eccentric, wry,
a guy
who cares

(from "Sins of the Fathers")

The first line seems to make a portentous statement, the tone almost biblical; but it is modified by the following lines which show it to relate to a painting or artwork, thus rendering it a simple statement of fact. The lines move easily between the formal ("the passion leaves traces") and the colloquial ("a guy / who cares"), with an unobtrusive rhyme (wry/guy) helping with the switch to the demotic. This type of skill is evident throughout the book.

"A Stone Dog" is interesting, because it's infused with the language of the King James Bible, yet is not religious, nor even particularly spiritual. Rather, it appropriates the biblical tone to deconstruct notions of nationhood and religion; it asks questions without providing easy answers in poems which are open to the reader. The poem "How Doth the City Sit Solitary" is a good example. The poem's title is taken from Lamentations 1:1, referring to the reduced state of Jerusalem ("she that was great among the nations ... how is she become tributary!"), but it has an epigraph from Numbers 24:5 (""How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,/thy dwelling places, O Israel") which, in rhe biblical text,  is followed by a prophesy of future prosperity for Israel, and a description of how God will deal with Jacob's adversaries (he will "crush their bones in pieces/And shatter them with his arrows"). The poem opens with lines which undercut these grand quotations:

How did the place first
become holy?

and then presents a view of the contradictions of present-day Israel

... the sluices of blood, the stench.
In the sanctuary of churches, mosques & synagogues,
scared rites of faith
never beyond surveillance.

This view is juxtaposed with the achievements of the Jewish people, represented by Einstein and Chagall:

it was not that they
were so interested
in physics & mathematics

rather that Einstein

human eyes looking
from graves and blood
to a strange glimpse
of the sun's eclipse
a picture
of bending light
shtetl visions
of Chagall

The poem  maintains a questioning tone throughout; it never lapses into dogmatic assertion, or tries to indicate how the reader should think. It may seem from these quotes that this is a solemn book, but it isn't; partly because there is space and room to breathe in these lines, and it never feels cramped in the way that Geoffrey Hill's verse sometimes does. It is, in fact, a surprisingly relaxed read. The dominant tone in the book is one of indeterminacy and uncertainty (a central long poem is entitled "The Uncertainty Principle") and of sadness at the state of the world. But the sadness isn't a personal melancholy; it's the result of taking an unflinching look at the world as it is, and the language that it uses. In "The Sins of the Fathers" there's the world of the TV news: war, social breakdown, ancient fueds, modern weaponry: presented in a collage, without authorial comment, in a language of disjunction and uncertainty that tells us more about the world than any cleanly-delivered judgement.

But to emphasise global politics and the TV news is to do Semmens’ work an injustice. Take the poem "As Far As I can See"; in it we have some beautiful lines:

high in the hill country
peewits parting the air
that mournful cry

rabbit trails in heather
& changing weather
across valley slopes; hope

peters out like pattering hail
a taste of bilberries not quite ripe
clinging unwanted to the tongue.

this could be almost John Burnside; but while Burnside himself uses borrowed language - that of updated pastoral idyll, casting a line back via Heaney to Edward Thomas and ultimately to Wordsworth and his imitators - in Burnside's case the borrowing remains unacknowledged, whereas with Semmens there's always an element of knowing, and of linguistic self-consciousness. In the same poem we have:

a droplet
into tactile solidity
of a rainbow small
enough to fit in the closed palm

the bird is a bird
the thrush is a thrush
the mushroom is a mushroom

these lines start with a finely-wrought image, then invoke Blake and Gertrude Stein, the echo of whom re-states the philosphical problem of language in relation to the world; but, as usual with Semmens, simply suggesting the problem, and leaving the reader to think for herself. Philosophy is one of things encompassed by this book, and there are long poems explicitly engaging with it; namely, "The Uncertainty Principle" and "Phenomonology" which deserve essays in their own right. Suffice to say here, that they tackle their subjects using the expansive language and consummate skill outlined already. In fact, the long philosophical poems are not at all difficult reads; they require attention, of course, and time to re-read them, but they're not abstract, instead conducting their musings through observation and through foregrounding language. There is one poem, called "A Wave", which is somewhat different to the rest of the book. It's a fast-paced, almost racy poem, in which word-definitions run-on from each other - emphasising language, of course, but managing to encompass a whole serious of observations and insights into western civilization. Starting from the phrase "A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof/like a dragonfly on a tomb", it continues by word-assocation:

...Helicopter: flying machine,
Greek, spiral-winged; Pan-Am,
Pan American, all-American, from
Greek pan - all, everything,
the rustic god of all things...

It should be noted though, that as well as the long, meditative poems, there are some short lyrics which for me, work very well; with echoes of Richard Cadell, who is the dedicatee of one of them; this latter poem is worth quoting in full:

Upon the Death of John Barleycorn

                 for Ric Cadell

work with
the grain

for children's gaming

church adrift
on fen mist

warmed by candles'
dying fall

oaken buds
excise old leaves

carve the loaf
taste the new word.

Good isn't it? Semmens has another book shortlisted for The Crashaw Prize, and hopefully, after his long sabbatical, a lot of other work up his sleeve. If it's all up to the standard of "A Stone Dog", it'll have been worth waiting for.