Nine Arches, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Nikolai Duffy, Kirsten Irving and D A Prince
Incorporating an accomplished range of poetic forms and marked by a remarkably consistent poetic voice, Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s Mytton . . . Dyer . . . Sweet Billy Gibson is a strikingly idiosyncratic pamphlet which charts the lives of the 18th century Regency figure, John Mytton, the 19th century fiddler and balladeer, Jimmy Dyer, and the poet’s own great-grandfather, Billy Gibson.
In her landmark volume, English Eccentrics (1933), Edith Sitwell—whom Tyler-Burnett cites both in her opening note and her acknowledgements list—remarked how eccentricity is a particularly English characteristic resulting from what Sitwell called “that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.” On the evidence here, it is a viewpoint with which Tyler-Bennett would appear to share a strong affinity. Indeed, Tyler-Bennett is clearly fascinated with the sort of ‘colourful character’ who peppers a certain English heritage: cads, rogues, eccentrics, individuals whose extremes of behaviour are performed with such exuberance that the disorderly registers as charming.
As well as the fascination with the eccentric, though, no doubt part of this collection’s ‘Englishness’ is also the result of the controlled, detached, and restrained narrative voice which dominates these poems. While individual poems may delight in the digressive detail, never is there room here for verbiage. It’s impressively handled, although over the course of the pamphlet I couldn’t help but find myself wishing for some slight variation in register across the three ‘studies’. The more personal and somewhat looser aspect of the final section, ‘Billy Gibson’, certainly goes some way towards addressing this issue—and it was the section I thought the most successful—but I think I would have liked more of this section’s rhythmic variation and opaque layers of reference across the pamphlet as a whole.
Still, as the opening line of the closing poem, ‘Brown Town Elegy’, states: “Things change, as you look.” And it’s the recording of those changes—personal, cultural, national—which is the real reward and strength of this pamphlet. A subtle and peculiarly English character emerges and, as it does so, it strikes an oddly contemporary note, something about life, and loss, and looking in the folds of heritage for what matters and what measures:
....... Billy’s garden smart with chimes,
....... sun-loungers, plastic squirrels,
....... gothic gnomes removed. Gone, Lucy,
....... ninety-five summers’ tenant.
....... Still I see her, bending at the step,
....... unappreciative of visitors who’ll muck it,
....... tiny figure wobbling in the sun.
The cover blurb for Mytton . . . Dyer . . . Sweet Billy Gibson . . . does a great job of setting out the central ideas and framework for this pamphlet (a triptych of portraits) without stripping away too much mystery. Unfortunately, the accompanying quote doesn’t quite manage the same trick, listing specifics (such as one character’s eccentric turn as a bear jockey) that are then repeated in the author’s introduction and the first poem.
I was expecting quite a tart, dry set of cameos from the set-up, but Tyler-Bennett’s style is packed with energy and enthusiasm. Laced through with dancing wordplay (“squirearchy”, “stove-in stovepipe”, “shitten”), these sketches of dead men are not so funereal as they are celebratory, each in a way befitting its subject. "Mytton, the kooky Regency noble, is drawn in short, quick strokes, bringing to mind a Mr-Toad-like vigour, while the poems after Cumbrian balladeer Jimmy Dyer are each given a smoother rhythm and become loping tales of folk magic, mixed into “Rook-haunted, owl-spooked, song.” In starkest contrast, the tributes to Billy Gibson—the author’s own grandfather—are altogether quieter and more reflective.
One of the drawbacks to Mytton’s section being so densely packed with images and events is the risk of slightly clunky repetition. Just one poem separates the line “still handsome face” from “still comely face”, while the bear incident of the blurb crops up in no fewer than four of the nine poems in his section. There’s a danger of the author focusing too much on exact anecdotal detail and not running enough in her own direction with this information. Indeed, the lines “so, all-in-all, a snarling, snuffing,/ yelping life” sum up what the speaker finds enchanting about Mytton, but also threaten to undermine the presence of the other poems.
The juicy language, wound in with eloquent description is a pleasure, (“Parson wibbling on” nicely dents the funereal atmosphere, wrong-footing the reader). Even where notes are provided to explain, for example, Cumbrian terms like “bee bole” and “skeps” in ‘At the Mortal Man Inn’, it is not always essential to decode the entire piece in order to experience the mood. Dipping in and out of rhyme further enhances the rich texture of the poems, without corseting them too much in strict form. A fitting homage to three free-thinkers.
D A Prince:
‘Three poetry portraits’ explains the subtitle helpfully: John ‘Mango’ (‘Mad Jack’) Mytton, a popular and energetic Regency eccentric; Jimmy Dyer, a Cumbrian ballad-singer; Billy Gibson, the poet’s great grandfather, whom she never met. The three are brought to life from the words, music and illustrations of others, a range of sources from Regency hunting prints to back-street gossip. Tyler-Bennett has written historical verse portraits of men before (I wonder, when will she turn to writing about women?) and knows how to give just enough detail to make her figures immediately recognisable to the twenty-first century.
Mytton, (from ‘Rude Boy’), for example:
....... Carry On’s Sir Rodney Ffing (with two ‘f’s),
....... Sir Sid Ruff Diamond, breasting disorder
....... on a bear, saluting thinnest air,
....... ignoring quaked company . . .
He’s the loudest of the three, riding a pet bear through his dining room, vaulting a dining table on his horse, his exploits related in Tyler-Bennett’s restrained half-rhyming that doesn’t check the headlong rush of her subject. In quieter tones she imagines his ghost in our modern world (‘Mytton’s Ghost’)—
.......More likely he’d be mooching some estate,
....... once farmland, fist hammering barn conversion door.
The poems on Dyer have a more lyrical note, as she lets his ghost play at night to the drunks in Carlisle Market (‘Telling the bees for Jimmy Dyer’) —
....... Where does he go come daylight, as shoppers bree
....... through Tesco? Where does he play in sunlight?
....... Maybe hills replenish his pack, strings
....... plucking local names for flora
But it’s with her great grandfather she comes closest to home, and the memories living within her family, tales of a dog fancier and party-lover who ignored convention and superstition. In ‘Black over Bill’s mother’s’, this is emphasised with relish in full rhyme:
....... (Bill gazed at a new moon through glass,
....... Greek tragedy’ll come to pass).
....... Whit Sunday, baby’s nails were cut;
....... she hears oak coffin-lids screwed shut,
....... lamenting loud, as if obscene,
....... his chosen coat of evergreen.
This pamphlet looks good, too. Nine Arches’ house-style has heavy card for covers, (a rich shade of crushed raspberry for this one), plenty of space for the weighty black title—with oversize capitals to assert confidence, and a subtle difference in layout for each one, marking its individuality. A tableful looks seriously impressive, demonstrating the care this publishing house gives to each of its poets.