HappenStance, 2011 £4.00
Reviewed by Janet Fisher, Noel Williams and Roy Marshall
I love poetry that's about stuff, that deals with skills I'm ignorant of, that uses technical words and phrases I have to work out, so by the end I'm almost physically engaged with the work:
Numbed by cold we set about the task
with cross-cut, wedge and felling-axe,
mindful of stump and loose coil as a line's secured around a sturdy ash
The pamphlet is mostly about Hale's work with vulnerable young adults in Gloucestershire, set in woodland and countryside. It's interwoven with stories of family: memories of his father coping, or failing to cope, with reading War and Peace while on night-shift as a trainee doctor; a gift of shoes from a loving but slightly controlling mother:
such shoes are intended
to bring me to the paths of righteousness
.....(('A Mother's Gift')
There's also a rather unnerving poem 'Running Man', about a possible suicide attempt.
My least favourite was 'The Queue', mostly because I couldn't really see what it was about, and it seemed out of sync with the other poems in the collection. It had an accumulation of arresting images, especially at the end, but was a bit long; also it started off in the present tense, then switched to the past tense after the first stanza.
The best are the ones directly connected to the "gear, tackle and trim", as Hopkins put it, of Hale's trade and his interaction with the young people he cares for. He writes a eulogy to some perished forged bellows:
Worn out by heat, the wheeze and thud
of exhalation, their lung-like leather casing
is cracked, shot with holes
—he could almost have been talking about the men who perished on the Somme, as described in the poem on the facing page 'July Ist', a moving remembrance to the “bodgers, wheelwrights, hurdle makers”:
cut down there, like the forests given over
to make plank, beam, post, the vast tonnage
of timber swallowed up along the Somme.
His writing is full of short, consonant-rich words that crunch in the mouth like a fresh apple.
This is not a handbook on how to fell trees, or make a walking stick. It's really about the effort and pain of creating something, and you feel the same amount of blood, sweat and tears could go into the writing of a book, as into fixing a chainsaw or winning a war.
The title tells us much about this pamphlet, with its hints of nostalgia, traditional crafts and its core subject matter: wood. Fifteen of the twenty-four poems in Hale’s pamphlet explore aspects of woods or wood. According to the blurb, he works in a craft college located in woodlands and clearly much of his poetry comes out of the woods and into the workshop. These poems are intimate with the handling of wood, its felling, tending, planing, shaping; its fruit, life, tranformations and breath. You can imagine the man who wrote these poems contemplating the fallen tree, rolling up his sleeves and writing with shavings in his hair as he breathes sawdust.
His poetry seems similarly concerned with shape and understated craft, by which “the history of each tree is laid bare” (‘Interiors’). Few of the poems strive for great drama or significance. They’re gentler than that, almost domestic, but carefully built to do what they do efficiently. They remind me of arts and craft furniture, almost undecorated, plainly beautiful in being themselves.
However, the language may be too plain for some. Where it approaches the rich and strange, that’s largely due to unfamiliar subject matter or vocabulary, or the tautness of syntax, rather than because Hale explores some esoteric world-view or plays with meaning. Yet this language has its own particular richness.
we fashion a ladder from an ash limb,
split it lengthways with maul and froe,
exert pressure on the slightest of cracks.
Whilst ‘July 1st’ is actually a fine example of the poet using woodland as analogy (to commemorate the fallen of World War 1), many of the poems are quite light in tone and essentially descriptive—although Hale often uses narrative to prevent that description becoming static. ‘An ash’, for example, takes us through a tree’s history, from uprooting to seasoning, eventually to be:
sanded down through the grades, oiled to bring out
the grain’s salmon paleness, the ripples and dark swirls.
This brief narrative is almost mystical, due, I think, to the poet’s deep engagement with the subject rather than any ‘poetic’ desire to scaffold the text with hidden meaning. In fact, he almost shies away from doing so. The line “that mysterious shift from one state to the next” sits as no more than a description of tree becoming wood. Any further mystical carpentry is up to the reader.
Sometimes it’s useful to know a poet’s day job. David Hale works at a land and craft-based college. The beauty of many of these poems is born of a tactile and practical relationship with his subject, combined with an ability to convey the sense that nothing in nature is ever certain or safe.
In the opening poem, ‘An ash’, we follow the transformation of a “Storm-felled” tree as it passes through human hands. The skill displayed here is un-showy, assured and measured. Whilst being smooth on the eye, the material is full of knots and rough textures.
Many of these poems explore the crafts and methods that connect modern protagonists with their predecessors. But this is neither a sentimental journey nor a one-dimensional celebration; both man and nature have their strengths and vulnerabilities; danger and damage are never far away.
In ‘Wooding’ a list of injuries gives rise to an uneasy sense that some sinister natural defence system is at work. In ‘Deer skinning’ a speaker says of this task:
.....you get a taste for it. Road-kill, your neighbours’ dog, it’s compulsive.
Overcoming disgust, the observer understands how even this atavistically driven process contains the beauty of “taking apart and making anew.”
‘Payslip’ is a tender and empathetic exploration of the gap between dreams and the demands of life as a junior doctor. Equally subtle and oblique in approach is ‘A mother’s gift’ in which the gift in question is used to evoke the emotions of a mother whose child has taken a path other than one she would have wished for.
The title poem of the collection tellingly eschews romanticism, depicting relentless work carried out by “six pale men.” ‘1st July’ movingly connects modern woodworkers to those who used the same skills in the trenches of the first war.
In ‘Making’, a woodworker tries to remember Ruskin’s words on craft and how imperfection and unevenness are nothing to be ashamed of. The ‘maker’ of these poems has no need to consider imperfection or unevenness: there is scant evidence of either in this brilliantly crafted and cohesive collection.