The Garlic Press, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Sue Butler, Matt Merritt and Charlotte Gann
Martin Hayden’s poems are as fluid as the water with which they are awash but thankfully, not nearly as cold. In ‘LAC 1831755’, which I assume is his National Service number, the river Trent is ever present:
Rehashed the kingpins on Squadron leader’s car,
a Ford, once quite swish. Small perch in the river at night. . . .
Victory Day (rain): took a boy to town, streets criss-crossed with colour.
Even found liquorice. Mayfly on the river at night. . . .
Caught small bream and roach in sunlight at 6.00am.
Japan surrendered. Hellish. Too tired for river at night.
Even his childhood is water-filled, In ‘The Best Days of Your Life’ as Martin Hayden runs cross country as a schoolboy, he feels
. . . the drag of the stream on my
lifting feet, heard my wet shoes slap
on the track, out in front, alone.
And in ‘Water’, dedicated to Will, who is, never afraid to get his feet wet, rain pounds on the car’s windscreen and there is not much to see in the Scottish landscape other than cloud, rain and mist. But Will and Martin do set off on their walk and soon even the map has soft, wet corners. They cross boggy wastes and the guide book proves to be accurate when it warns:
‘Every footpath is a stream
but not every stream
is a footpath’
But here, as in many of Martin Hayden’s thoughtful, quietly-spoken poems, there is a warmth and a faith in friendship, companionship and shared experience more powerful than the wetness:
our hot tea is
flecked with the same
raindrops, we huddle
in damp clothing, each
with wet sleeves, cold
collars, thighs roughened
with the rub of the wet,
boots slopping, hearts pumping.
The tea from the thermos clearly tasted better for being shared and the rain made them cold but in no way downhearted. It’s a parable for us all.
The undercurrent of warmth is especially strong in the seven poems about Iona; where, if it isn’t drizzling then there is low cloud or puddles and always the soapy glaze of the cold, North Sea, ”waves / doubly powered by tide and wind”. Even good weather comes tightly sandwiched between rain, as in ‘Iona (5): Playing the Goldberg Theme in the Empty Abbey’, where:
The afternoon’s between-two-storms moment
luxuriates like a mangy otter
silky as a seal when back in the water.
But the warmth of community and shared experience pervades. On Iona different ages and nationalities heard sheep, go for walks, chat in pubs and meet pilgrimages halfway to offer the pilgrims a welcome cup of tea:
Now the world is a tap, a too-slow fill,
and hand after hand saying thank you.
I stood in that queue, and when my turn came I took the mug and drank the scalding tea. It had the same uplifting and comforting effect on me as these poems. Thank you, Martin Hayden, Thank you.
When he gets it right—and for much of this elegantly produced pamphlet he does just that – Martin Hayden uses understatement to excellent effect in his nostalgic, elegaic poems.
In ‘Of This Parish’, for example, he takes the reader back to post-war Britain by means of well observed, determinedly objective pen pictures of a town’s shopkeepers and local worthies. Other poems, like ‘Best Days Of Your Life’, recall his childhood in similar fashion.
Military life and conflict also crop up more than once early on. ‘Rites Of Passage’ is a fine sonnet, recalling a first drink with a war veteran Welsh uncle who “was always edging near some brink”. There’s no easy consolation, but the poem hints at some sort of healing for the damaged ex-soldier.
‘LAC 1831755’, on the other hand, neatly conveys the tedium of service in the RAF by means of well-deployed near-repetition. Hayden doesn’t often use stylistic devices like that, so it’s all the more effective for being unexpected.
I found the Iona poems that give the book its title a mixed bag, though. All use sharp observation and they’re never less than well written, but at times that understatement topples over into prosiness. The best of these, for me, was ‘Playing The Goldberg Theme In The Empty Abbey’, not least because the subject matter’s matched by a much more musical rhythm (it’s another sonnet) in lines like:
the precision of the rows of prayer-books
a green ripple against the undressed stone,
the Abbey’s slowly filling with the song
like a salt marsh with its tidal influx.
The pièce de resistance, though, is ‘Bradfield Woods, Early May, Dusk’. The best compliment I can pay it is to say that, over the years, I’ve stood around in a lot of woods at night in May, waiting to hear nightingales, but this poem had me longing to get out there immediately.
Hayden paces things perfectly, and the stop-start rhythms towards the end nicely reflect the song of the bird itself, “an improvisation/ on a range of home-made instruments.” His observation that silence is as important to the nightingale’s song is not just ornithologically spot-on, too—it sums up Hayden’s own method in his best moments. It’s a method that, for the most part, makes for a satisfying and affecting read.
I found Martin Hayden’s collection exceptionally moving. It felt like a really unified set—not least, bound together by the intermittent sequence, ‘Iona’. I really enjoyed his rhythm and form, finding it always consistent with his theme. I could make minor criticisms—one full rhyme in a sonnet of half rhymes (‘Rite of Passage’), for instance; a slight tendency to clichéd titles (‘Best Days of Your Life’, ‘Rite of Passage’); and the odd instance where he, arguably, under-edits (‘Bradfield Woods, Early May, Dusk’, ‘Looking for my Father’s Grave’). But, for me, these things pale in the face of such meant poetry.
The opening poem ‘Chorister’ is characteristically beautiful—its lovely, open-throated rhythm bounds down the page like song. And, at its heart, the touching question “Is it safe/ to kneel, to close your eyes?”
As often in Hayden’s work, celebration seems to be his overarching theme. Another poem written in the same kind of awe is the (ultimately) winning ‘Bradfield Woods. . .’ Here, the poet’s love of nature, the sanctuary he finds in it, is palpable. Many of his images have a childlike quality—when he describes a bat as “zigzag acrobat”, or talks about the nightingale’s “burst of clucking like chinese blocks”. It’s the wide-eyed wonder of one who does feel safe. And his choice of language brings its own natural balance, making me feel safe too: “Ash, alder, hazel, oak and elm.”
Where things get more complicated seems to me to be around human relations. A question about closeness seems to lurk in a number of Hayden’s poems. Take ‘The Moon Makes an Appearance’, for instance. Although, on the face of it, this philosophises about perception, I’m convinced it also asks a balder question about intimacy: “where you look out”, he writes, “I see blackness”. At the same time, there’s a compensatory physical holding:
We watch them [lights] twinkle,
imagining that two close and fuse
as we almost do, an arm around each other.
Touch is also wonderfully pivotal in the beautiful three-part father-and-son poem ‘Ben at Twelve’ —the most moving for me of the collection, despite the fact I rarely go for parent-child poetry. I love the touch of Ben, his “fingers absently/ pulling at my jumper” —the unconsciousness of this physical intimacy contrasting rather painfully with the poet’s own absent lost father, whose grave he so memorably “briskly” visits, himself aged 12.
Martin Hayden wins me over with this tender, meant and moving pamphlet that somehow seems to encompass all that’s mattered in one man’s life. “At least”, he writes, “I could try for a sense of connection”. Try he does; and, certainly, with me, succeeds.