The Topiary of Passchendaele, Christopher North
Smith/Doorstop, 2018 £5.00
Topiary, beer and cultural decline
Passchendaele is a small village in Belgium, which of course gave its name to one of the bloodiest battles of WWI (an estimated death toll of 575,000 soldiers). It is also the name of a beer brewed in the same province. And yet the title poem here, ‘The Topiary of Passchendaele’, reads like a comical nursery rhyme. It gives advice on how to accurately shape a box hedge:
check privet, manicure the arborvitae.
It is imperative to be uniform.
The topiary functions as a metaphor, but I find it difficult to say exactly what is being compared here. Although the military diction and title obviously point towards the historic battle, other parts of the poem contradict this. For example, the poem concludes:
It needs hourly attention
before cheese, fine cheese
and beer, fine beer.
I was left wondering whether the poet was taking aim at one of the grandest of European status symbols — the manicured villa garden — and using it as a metaphor for cultural decline.
Certainly, throughout the pamphlet, an underlying seediness in European culture is a theme. In ‘Conversation Beneath Banyans: Plaza Gabriel Miró 2015’, the word ‘corruption’ occurs eleven times. The setting is the Spanish province of Alicante, where people who walk past ‘our table’ are ‘vague, overweight, chattering, supposedly innocent’. The poem’s title includes elements of what we traditionally associate with European sophistication: cultivated conversation, beautiful architecture and art, and fine cuisine. But the poet artfully subverts expectation, describing the uncomfortable truth and ugliness that he sees all around him:
corruption of the decent people, corruption
in the corridors, elevators and anterooms,
distilled corruption, corruption out of the left field,
corruption simple and untrammelled, corruption
de rigueur, corruption on the highways
and byways of this engrossing, history rich country.
The compulsive repetition here reads almost like a disturbing inversion of Churchill’s famed and repetitious ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech. What is North saying here? That behind our picture-perfect idea of Europe, there is a darker story emerging?
Passchendaele Ale comes from the Brewery Van Honebrouck in West Flanders. The label reads: ‘when opening a bottle of Passchendaele, please hold a minute of silence to commemorate those who fell on the battlefield’. It holds half a litre of beer, referencing the British pint. Part of the company’s revenue funds maintenance of war memorials.