After, Andrew McCulloch
The Melos Press, 2020 £6.00
The importance of a title
Why is a pamphlet’s title important? I'd say because it either piques the reader’s interest on its own terms, or summarises the principal theme (if there is one) of the contents — or both. Usually the reasoning behind the title is quickly apparent.
But here, it’s only after reading the whole pamphlet that one realises why the poet chose to call it After. The pamphlet closes with a title poem, ‘After’; in fact, it looks almost like an afterword. ‘After’ is the shortest, quietest and, arguably, most satisfying of all the poems. And almost half of it is quoted on the pamphlet’s front jacket:
It is to walk not behind but instead,
hear other feet break the twigs you stand on,
tread off the moss on words sunk in the earth.
Remember they are stone.
This is gnomic — almost Gnostic — writing, which goes on to urge the addressee(s) to, ‘Listen to / your shaping song’. This may be somewhat mystifying at first, but there’s no denying its beauty.
The significance of the collection title can be found elsewhere too. ‘Hallam Speaks’ is named ‘after’ Tennyson’s son. No fewer than five poems are subtitled ‘after Émile Verhaeren’, and one is ‘after Paul Verlaine’. The latter, ‘Seagull’, seems to be aiming for fidelity to the spirit of ‘Je Ne Sais Pourquoi’ rather than a direct translation, but without any notes, it’s difficult to be sure of McCulloch’s intentions:
Why am I here?
A heart I despise
Beats heavily over the waves and cries.
All I prize,
On wings of fear
My reckless love would lose or hazard here.
Another key connection with the title After is that the poet follows in the footsteps of his Lincolnshire predecessor, Tennyson, in the likeable set of six ‘Somersby Sonnets’ — named after the village where Tennyson’s father was rector and Tennyson himself was born, grew up and spent some adult years.
The Somersby sonnets open like this:
I always felt on more familiar terms
with Tennyson than any other poet:
born among the fields and the farms,
his heavy country face, one you might meet
swinging a stick, beating his verses out
down empty lanes
All in all, the title After provides a pleasing unity, as if it’s the key to unlocking the pamphlet’s underpinning concerns.