Rialto Press, 2009 £5.50
Reviewed by Robin Vaughan-Williams, Rob A Mackenzie and Ross Kightly
The Night Is Young is a little book of memories, full of stories and anecdotes sparked by everyday objects, people, and places: a pop bottle, a stepladder, his brother’s Vespa, the death of a friend. The poems amble along at a gentle pace that brings to mind expressions like “memory lane” and “recollected in tranquillity”.
There’s also a touch of nostalgia. “I love to paddle back”, begins one poem (‘River’), suggestive of a casual dabbling in the past, while in a recollection of 1974’s three-day week in ‘Keymarkets’ we are told, “it was just/ the best of times”. Many of the poems don’t seem to be going anywhere, and to begin with I was annoyed by the suggestion of a purposeless wallowing in nostalgia, which appears to be being undertaken from the comfortable security of a settled middle age, replete with “my heated seats Volvo” and a well-stocked library. But this is a collection that grew on me, both on reading through it, and on re-reading.
The tone of voice is measured, lacking any flashes of emotion, and absolutely deadpan. This means the standpoint of the poet is indefinite—you can’t always tell what his take is on what he writes. The phrase “it was just/ the best of times” suggests an idealisation of a past time, the three-day week, which probably wasn’t really all that ideal. But is this actually the poet’s sentiment? Something about this phrase jars, the register is slightly different from the surrounding text; it sounds as if it might have been said by someone else. So maybe this is reported speech and its sentiment is offset; not disowned entirely, but treated with a dose of irony, mockery even.
Nostalgia implies not only an idealisation of past times, but also a sense of loss, for those times are gone. Some of the poems do have a sense of loss. For example, in ‘My Town’ the poet lies down in the street, “as if fallen a long way: drawn round/ with chalk or magic marker maybe, another/ piece of evidence essentially”. In recognising that the town he once knew is gone, he feels he has passed away himself in some way. Whereas most of the poems keep their two timeframes distinct—remembered (or recounted) past and remembering present—here they seem to fuse, or become muddled up, reinforcing the sense of an identification with a past timeframe.
Generally, however, the past is not represented as especially better than the present, so any sense of loss is not really to do with the passage of time. In fact, past and present appear to be remarkably similar—they are both humdrum and homely, marked by their ordinariness. The memories in The Night Is Young do not seem to be consciously guided; instead, they cluster around everyday objects and people, rather like Proust’s madeleines, the sparks for involuntary memory. Memories, and the life remembered, are shaped by the objects and events of which they are constituted. Any loss here is existential; instead of unity and wholeness, intentionality and self-determination, recollection has yielded a sense of inner-distance, a series of warm, sometimes poignant memories that hang together loosely, but without imparting any obvious meaning to life.
The lack of direction I felt when I started reading the collection is not simply in the poems, it is in the life (or conception of life) they depict.It is ultimately the concrete, however mundane, that this collection is rooted in. Just as there is a deadpan avoidance of emotional extremes, so extremes of experience are avoided in ‘The Night Is Young’, where the poet concedes that, although he has “drunk/ a highland malt”, he has not been “drunk drunk”, “never lost it completely”. While the syntax presents this as a deficiency, the tone of the poem suggests indifference to the celebration of intoxication—why would anyone want to have “brought back a curry in a taxi/ on the back of a girlfriend” anyway? Similarly, there are no extremes in the style of the poems. Deft and assured—another sign of comfort perhaps, comfort with one’s craft—they refrain from anything flashy. Things, not words, they seem to be saying, that’s where we must begin.
Rob A Mackenzie:
This pamphlet contains well written, accessible poems. Most of the poems tell stories, mainly anecdotal memories, elegies, and reflections set in the past which still seem to haunt the present day.
If you’re going to write poems that touch on common themes (time, mortality, the relationship between present and past), you either need to have something worth saying or an extremely engaging way to say it. I didn’t feel that Peter Sansom always succeeded. Poems such as ‘Croft Juniors’, ‘Station Buffet’, ‘ A Straw Hat’, ‘Instead of . . .’ and the title poem were well enough written, but slight. They skated their way around nostalgia, mild humour and repetition but didn’t inspire much reaction.
The poems that make the pamphlet worth getting hold of are those layered with meaning, layers which may not be immediately obvious. ‘Keymarkets’, like many poems here, has a casual tone. Behind the apparent informality, however, the poem is brilliantly paced and the syntax manipulated to achieve maximum tension, a feature of this pamphlet’s strongest work. The poem begins:
Day-in day-out without natural light the winter
they rationed butter and eggs (strikes;
the three day week)—working for peanuts but even so,
despite the aisle on aisle of facing tins and jars
and the late hours in the warehouse, it was just
the best of times.
The way Sansom stretches out that sentence almost to breaking-point before making the definitive statement in its final phrase takes real skill, particularly when, on the face of it, the statement may appear entirely unconvincing. What follows is a description of how the narrator and a friend hid and sat drinking lager one night among the rafters rather than working, and reference is made to a party and a girl. Then, shockingly
—and though years later they pumped
my stomach because of her, what matters is
nobody missed us or happened to look up . . .
The way attempted suicide is glossed over by “what matters is” points towards the narrator’s true state of mind. He looks back nostalgically for an uncomplicated “best of times”, which doesn’t really sound so great. In many ways, he still prefers to place the existence of horror to one side. The poem is written with complete clarity; its complexity lies in subtle detail, psychological alertness, and perfect timing.
Similarly in ‘My Town’, the narrator revisits the town in which he grew up, and remembers various characters from the past who walk through the poem and the old streets, even though these have changed beyond recognition. On one street, he lays himself down physically:
I lie there as if fallen a long way: drawn round
with chalk or magic marker maybe, another
piece of evidence essentially.
It’s a fantastic, double-edged, evocative image, the kind of image that makes me want to re-read a poem and, in this case, consider the past: what of me is still here, what’s gone, what remains only as ghostly evidence.
A Peter Sansom poem often speaks with such a distinctive voice that I’d feel secure offering it, unseen, to anyone reasonably well acquainted with the contemporary poetry scene and of their being able to identify its author. This distinctiveness is often a matter of register, how the poet shifts tonal gears in the course of a poem:
Red, scarlet even, it meant fun
and something more, stylish, Italian [. . .]
[ . . . ] my hair
a quiff I wanted to dye black, for him
not Elvis—he was Elvis [. . . .]
He could live forever.
He did. First we live
then we remember.
(‘My Brother’s Vespa’)
Sometimes the clue to a poem’s Sansomness is more to do with subject-choice, an appetite for ranging the contemporary landscape. This is revealed by several of the titles in this well-balanced selection: ‘In the Cairngorms’, ‘In Inverness-shire’, ‘Station Buffet’, ‘Shalesmoor, Sheffield’ and ‘Millhouses Park’. At other times the location is more personal: ‘Croft Juniors’, ‘My Town’. Often, indeed, the locus is internal: ‘I Used to Faint’, ‘Instead Of Going To Work’ and the title poem itself.
Once more, the tone of these personal poems is distinctive. As the quotation from the Yorkshire Post on the back cover of the pamphlet has it: “A serious intelligence only lightly disguised as self-mockery”. It’s difficult to illustrate this quality in brief quotation, since it so often consists of an accumulation of deft, economical touches and a controlled meander through linked states of mind, but the conclusion of ‘Instead of Going To Work’ does give a flavour. After detailing various things he has done “as if that was work”, the poet tries “not to feel/ [he] should be doing more with the day/ than the nothing [he] did instead of going to work.”
Several of the poems are retrospective, celebratory, elegiac, while the two poems ‘Best Friend’ and ‘Petar K., 1957 – 2007’ celebrate with effective economy the importance of the quality of friendship. However, there’s a dynamic in other poems that pushes the reader toward the future. in ‘Station Buffet’, for example, it seems that if you “Stay here/ long enough . . . everyone you know/ will pass through.” And the concluding lines to the title poem sum up distinctively and succinctly this view of the future:
God help me to get to this age
and never what a great night that was
if only I could remember it
completely and utterly
drunk? Me? Not ever,
(‘The Night Is Young’)