Koo Press Poetry, 2009 £5.00
Reviewed by Stephen Payne, D A Prince & Helena Nelson
This is a rather luxurious pamphlet, with a heavy card cover showing an attractive photograph of standing stones and a portrait of the author on the back. The poems it contains are stately and heavy, with phrases like “the crucified deities of our time” (‘Beached Trees – Vancouver Island’) and “happed in warmth against a stealing grief” (‘Closing Scene’). As these quotations suggest, the poems are ambitious in their attributions of significance to objects and events, sometimes a little too ambitious for my taste.
The poems’ form appears to be determined primarily by syntax. Within almost every poem, stanzas and lines are allowed to vary in length, with stanzas almost always being single sentences, line breaks at phrase boundaries. (Quite often the poems move toward and then away from a line or lines of perfect iambic pentameter; but perhaps this is mere coincidence). I find all this unpretentious and pleasing, yet it does make me wonder whether some of the poems wouldn’t have benefitted from some more formal pressure. Quite often, they finish with a single-line stanza, which device I find less pleasing: it seems to exaggerate the drama of the closure, call too much attention to lines that are anyway marked by position and by scope.
The topics of the poems are engaging throughout, ranging across schoolboy memories, elegies for friends or lovers, reflections on Scottish landscape.
For me, the poems work best when their language is at its plainest, exposing the poetry in the nicely chosen scene or episode. I enjoy, for example, being told about one schoolboy following another to the toilet during a Latin lesson, and pissing on his shoe and trouser leg (‘Canis Adolescens’). The poem is spoiled a little by some cod-Freudian speculation about the perpetrator’s motives, but the ending is splendid:
a yellow footprint in the snow,
as we returned to lessons:
then, in the heat of the classroom,
the conjugation of verbs and the rising smell.
D A Prince:
The tensions between the past and the present underlie these subtle
poems and hold the collection together in unexpected ways. While stone (as in stone circles and the idea of a bedrock) appears in many of the poems, and a photograph of bleakly lonely standing stones makes a visually arresting cover, it is not the only link to the past. Sounds of wind and water, and family relationships also thread through the poems, as well as the land (Scotland) and its relationship to those who scratch a living on its surface. There’s a complexity in this pamphlet’s structure that is very satisfying.
The opening poem, ‘Back home in Lewis’, demonstrates Rochford’s skill and confidence: “Preyed over by eagles, balletic osprey, and a shrouded sun,/ no-one could own such a land but figures of stone.” Yet he can confound expectations about the subject matter. This is no sentimental view of island life but a detached, objective look at the modern world, where “Elvis look-alikes/ swank on motor-bikes with pulling power” and “Motor bodies bleed into the moor”, and on Sundays the minister waits “like black ice.” Island life has turned cold and meretricious, until the final stanza—
And the wind that broke the trees into submission,
the wind that beat you when you were a child,
the wind you ran away from,
calls like a keening mother,
come back come back come back. . .
And yet there is ambivalence here: submission, pain, misery, escape —but also the voice of a mother, and the universal call of homeland, however bleak.
The final poem, ‘Pram facing forwards’, returns to the sound of a mother’s voice, but this time she is human: “Her sounds are birthrights,/ nothing else will do.” By this time Rochford has moved through stone-built cities, funerals and grave stones, global horror in a fractured world, to settle in the vulnerability of small infants and the continual care that parents give. Eight of his poems, from a total of twenty-three, have dedicatees; individuals matter to him, although collectively mankind is treated more coldly.
‘Funeral at Tigh-na-dig’ (for John Mackay) opens with a beautiful visual image—“We wind our way to your croft like evening cattle”—evoking the slow routines of a small farm, but pulled into the present by the final line, an image of the autistic son staring into the darkness of the grave:“He bites his knuckles, draws blood.”
Rochford is fond of separating the final line from the rest of the poem, letting it sit alone—and here it works, emphasising the boy’s loneliness. There are times when I wonder if this device is too controlling, a way of underlining the message of the poem and making sure we understand, but that’s a small quibble. This is a beautifully produced collection of poems which weave together the timeless and the transitory very effectively.
This is a handsome looking pamphlet with what looks like a stone circle pictured on the cover. Inside, the centre-fold poems are ‘The Split’, a poem about splitting a piece of granite to make a grave stone, and ‘Midmar Stone Circle and Balblair the Outlier’. The second of these is illustrated with black and white photographs of the circle and the phallic ‘Outlier’. I liked the idea of this, and I was drawn in by the reference to the ancient stones;
What are they waiting for,
what have they seen?
But in the end, though these poems create their own mystery, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on—not sure enough to feel included, anyway. To me, they were the sort of poems that might work well at a reading, with a brief introduction and a bit of explanation, but perhaps not quite so well on the page.
And generally the poems in this pamphlet are well-presented and interesting, though not, to this reader at least, strongly compelling. The visual detail is often good, the plangent phrasing sometimes very attractive, but somehow I don’t feel myself personally involved. It is so hard to define what makes a poem come alive on the page! And then, among the others, a few suddenly leap out from the rest.
Take ‘Jock Hawker’, for example, a memory of a “village simpleton” from school who cheerfully exposes himself to the children, until he is stopped by “the law”. The final stanza captures the young man’s fragility in a way that is oddly tender in its generous evocation:
But I remember his freedom
and the pale veined root
pulled up in his unkempt hand.
‘Canis Adolescens’, another memory from school, is equally powerful. It commands the reader into its own world with the opening line:
Newby pissed on my shoe and trouser leg.
And once you’re in that world, Rochford holds you there, long after the poem ends.
I was moved in a very different, but equally potent way by the concluding stanzas of ‘Grasp Reflex’ which is about (I assume) a young father feeling his legs grabbed by his own baby:
No fingers will ever mean
as much as these,
with nails like slivers of pearl.
She found her way blind
through the weed of thighs
and reached for you.
That final image is beautiful. This is a poet who, at his best, can do what is sometimes, not irreverently, called ‘the real thing’.