Birmingham Canal Navigation, Cliff Yates
Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021 £6.50
The irruption of memory
As Roy Fisher had Birmingham River, so Cliff Yates has Birmingham Canal Navigation, a Sinclairesque, psychogeographical peregrination around the city of his birth and upbringing, and nearby Coventry.
In many of the poems here, the contrast between past and present is pointed: ‘The Gas Hall shut between exhibitions — / next it’s Fifty Years of Black Sabbath, / twelve quid and booking compulsory, a joke’ (‘Bridge Café’). Metal’s originators reappear in ‘Black Sabbath Bridge’
on Broad Street, with a plaque
calling them a Birmingham export.
But what did Birmingham actually think
of Black Sabbath, back then?
The poem tangentially — and both humorously and poignantly — answers the question, with the voice of the poet’s mother upbraiding the young, long-haired Cliff for having visited his uncle ‘in brown overalls / like Dad’s, a pencil behind his ear’:
You went to see Fred, Mum says,
what — looking like that?
This is likeable, no-frills poetry, into which memory irrupts as naturally as it does into everyday thought.
In ‘Red Sky Lift’ (named after one of the lifts on Aston University campus) the purchase of a Twix sets off more late-Sixties recollections:
I haven’t bought one of these
for twenty years, I say to the woman
behind the counter […]
It’s more like
forty, I realise, unwrapping it — morning break
in the printing factory, something
to look forward to, like ‘Mr Fantasy’
on the turntable or Quicksilver
The straightforward pleasure of this memory (I hesitate to call it Proustian) is then augmented by another epiphanous joy:
I rarely go swimming but there’s something relaxing
about the smell of chlorine, the stretch of blue
under those massive beams, the slow lane
and the slower lane, the lifeguard
in her red tracksuit.
The redness returns in the poem’s final, delightful image of the eponymous lift ‘on its way down for once, and only five / of us waiting we’ll easily fit in.’
It’s unsurprising that Yates practises Transcendental Meditation, because Birmingham Canal Navigation is packed with clear-headed observations of small things,as well as a deep respect for place and local history.
These poems feel real to me. I believe in their Birmingham. I believe in Luke and the frisbee. I don’t care whether everything really happened exactly as set down here. It’s enough that there was a consciousness that saw life like this and wrote it down.
The standout poem for me is one that plays with the idea of the real. The title gives us everyday clarity: ‘Swimming pool’, but the poem itself immediately drops us into misperception:
I thought they let the water out at night,
Who thinks swimming pools are emptied every night? Who is this naif letting us into their thoughts?
The poem gradually describes an oddly familiar scene (probably from film and TV rather than direct experience). It conveys that fascination with the lit water, letting us snoop after hours, enacting padding round the pool—considering, rather than doing:
I could take off my clothes and swim,
sit on the side and drip dry,
put on my clothes and dive back in.
I love the contrast between this straightforward language and the description of the pool itself: ‘it shimmers blue, a ghost of itself’, ‘the colours half-colours in the humid light.’
Halfway through, the poem turns: ‘A monk in cloisters, I have been here / for years, I have been here forever.’
You know that feeling don’t you, that maybe life up to now has been a dream, that maybe who you think you are is just not so? Deliciously, the poem takes the reader with it through that thought and on:
There’s a clock on the wall with no hands.
It is any time and no time
it is that time
when we were children
Feel the shock of stepping down off the kerb (higher than you thought) of that stepped line! We’re not in Kansas any more.
I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering the vivid present of the last stanza of ‘Swimming Pool’ yourself, and the impact of the last line. You should read the poem. You should read the pamphlet. It’s real as anything.