Alan Morrison on
Smokestack Books, 2017
In Citizens veteran ‘love’ poet Ian Parks focuses on English social and political proletarian history, and being the son of a Mexborough miner, these are themes no doubt wired into his DNA. Such influential socialist movements as the 17th century Levellers and the 19th century Chartists jostle for our attention and admiration while emotive place names such as Cable Street and Wootton Bassett strike chords of our collective consciousness in a commemoration of the nostalgic radical.
In the consummate and assured composition of Parks’ poems I’m reminded of among other poets the late and highly gifted Gordon Hodgeon (who was also a Smokestack poet). Parks has formidable acknowledgements for this slim volume, to many of the leading journals, and looking through this collection it’s not difficult to see why, since many of the poems are not only accomplishedly composed but also tend to be short to medium in length so eminently suitable as supplemental poems.
Parks skilfully employs many stylistic effects and techniques of contemporary mainstream poetry but, refreshingly here, at least, to tackle more specialised polemical themes. This combination of fashionable poetic style and unfashionable poetic topic marks Parks out among most other poet-frequenters of high profile supplements.
Calling to mind the work of other regular journal poets such as Nick Burbridge and Dan Wyke, Parks’ short poem ‘Towpath’ is a perfect example of mainstream poetry at its best, at least, that strand of it that inherits much from the Fifties Movement poets, particularly a clipped phrasing and tendency to prose –albeit a rhythmic, musical prose– that might be called Larkinesque, and the late Fifties/early Sixties ‘Group’ poets such as Peter Porter. I excerpt the poem in full:
Another time I’ll take you to the pub
where old men spend all day over one pint.
For now we have the towpath laced with frost –
the things I won’t admit to in my heart,
the ritual dying of the winter sun.
You’d never think the hill across the way
was once a slagheap – useless, overgrown
where three untethered horses graze,
cropping the shallow-rooted grass –
just as I’d never venture to explain
the wide canal that cuts under it all,
the things it once displaced.
So claim this morning as your own.
Choose your moment. Time it well.
Unleash the dogs and watch them run.
The clipped sentences, the direct descriptions, the cropped metaphors, the anticipated almost-grasped epiphany of its end, all shaped in unrhymed tercets in sentence case (as opposed to more classical capitalised first letters to each line): these are fairly typical stylistic and prosodic aspects to much contemporary mainstream poetry. And while ‘Towpath’ is a pleasant enough poem, it takes a more polemical theme to give the same rather safe form a little bit more edge, as in ‘Wootton Bassett’:
There are no theories to explain
what happens when a country goes to war.
Poppies hide behind their crimson screen –
hedgerows falter, disappear,
horses stir, turned out to grass
and everything that England means
or might mean to a stranger standing here
is contained and diminished
to a row of shining cars,
streets lined and silent, flowers thrown;
the flag-draped coffins as they pass
through Wootton Basset in the rain.
Still the impression of the poem feels quite muted and pastel in spite of the weightiness of the theme. Nevertheless, the automobile metaphor in the middle of the poem is its lodestone and touches by association on the petrol and oil spoils of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘The Thread’ is a deft poem meditation, wistful and touching:
I sit beside the fire and watch you knit –
the click of needles as the embers burn,
the silent counting underneath the breath –
and find myself absorbed in it.
More than anything that might be done or said
between the acts of going and return
to this old building that I’ve come to love
the ravelling of purple, black, and red
as you pause and slip and purl inside the loop.
So weave a hair from your inclining head
into the fabric where you sit
to bind me closer to where I go.
Through the long months of rain and ice
and floods and falling snow
the narrative of us and what we did:
all your lost generations in the thread.
For me the aural sense-impression in its second line really stands out. The first line of the third verse is a lovely example of alliteration and assonance. ‘Oracle’ is a more penetrating poem and contains more descriptive language and some wonderful assonance throughout:
I had a question for her so I went
through convoluted alleys to the place:
no sacred grove of olives but a mill
abandoned when the textiles died.
Each city has an underside –
A burnt-out region to avoid
where streets are unlit and no one goes.
And there I found her,
cold and drugged and shivering
on the mattress where she dozed.
Not as old as you’d expect
for someone so acquainted with the world,
when she reached her hand out
and the moonlight fell on it
there were no wrinkles puckering the skin…
‘Registry of Births and Deaths’ is another effective and affecting poem about the high mortality rate among Mexborough miners; it gathers some evocative images such as ‘women in grey shawls’ and ‘ink and scraping pen’ and has an almost mythological gravity in how it describes local children ‘born to coal and dust’. The poem closes in a resonant, rather haunting tone:
At night I blink back darkness from my bed,
lie sleepless listening to the timeless air.
The town itself is riddled and subsides,
the barefoot shuffling of their feet
a tremor running through the downstairs rooms.
The figurative ‘The Bowl’ is an almost Buddhist poem-meditation, and closes on a sublime aphorism: ‘If the cradling hands/ are the will to life/ the bruised fruit is the soul’. I’m normally completely put off by sports-related poems but ‘Snooker’ does contain some nice images and sense-impressions: ‘the gentle thud of ivory on green baize/ the blue chalk powdering our clothes’. ‘Allotments’ is nicely descriptive with its ‘tarpaulin flaps’, ‘faded rugs’, ‘horsehair chairs’, ‘tang of paraffin’, ‘yellow pile of The South Yorkshire Times’ and ‘white enamel mug’ –it includes some poignant images: ‘And so the men who used to work the pits/ take on these narrow strips’. It closes on a trope which perhaps typifies the working class, at least, of Parks’ generation:
…Sunset is their hour:
it’s then you’ll find them on the far side of the hill,
talking sports and politics, scanning the rooftops, whistling
and waiting for their pigeons to come home.
The curious poem ‘Gladstone’s Axe’ is the first time in this collection that we glimpse political anger:
On rain-dark mornings such as these
when all I hear are misused words
like freedom, trust, austerity
I want to break the intervening glass…
It’s unclear from the first and eponymous poem in this collection, ‘Citizens’, how Parks stands on the EU Referendum, but my impression is that he is probably Euro-sceptic from the socialist point of view:
Night found us parked up on some empty beach
to watch the moon come clear and fade.
The European flag was everywhere – twelve stars
encircling nothing on a ground of midnight blue.
The cities had no feature and the landscape had no soul.
The rather curious ordering of the poems in this volume produces some strange juxtapositions: for example, the anecdotal poem ‘Spa’ is followed on the adjacent page by the historically evocative ‘The Levellers’, which is also one of the stronger poems in the book:
More radical than Cromwell, more extreme,
he had them lined against the wall and shot
in Burford where he tracked them down.
If there were any final words
those words have not survived.
Silence commemorates a state of mind,
an instinct born sharp-edged in civil war.
Once started, where does revolution stop?
You kill the king but who picks up the crown?
They wanted a changed world
where everything was equalled, levelled out –
debated what it meant and died for it.
Although this is a rather sketchy and uncomplicated summation of a deeply complicated movement and period, Parks’ questions are well put, the first perhaps in part answered by Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’ while the second is historically rhetorical in that we know Cromwell effectively ended up a surrogate ‘king’ of a new familial dynasty under the euphemism of ‘Lord Protector’. The Levellers acquired their name by association with earlier radical groups who ‘levelled’ the hedges of the new patchwork landscape during the enclosure riots of the 16th and early 17th centuries. The Levellers did indeed campaign and petition for male suffrage and greater equality; however, they were not as radical as the Diggers who argued for the outright abolition of private property and therefore a true levelling; and, indeed, those under Gerard Winstanley’s leadership called themselves “True’ Levellers’. These minor gripes aside, Parks nicely evokes the period in his descriptions and there are some nice alliterative and assonantal touches:
The axe is at the root of everything,
the articles are nailed upon the door.
In cramped, oak-panelled rooms
down tangled alleys, up twisting stairs
they spread their map of freedom out,
hung lamps from beams and leaned into
their dangerous words, their hushed conspiracies.
Each year, around the churchyard
where they fell, we come to celebrate:
beer-tents, loud music, four-by-fours,
the trappings of our new-found affluence;
the clamouring of children wanting more.
That final ironic juxtaposition is particularly effective. The serendipitous chiming of ‘tents’ with ‘affluence’ is worthy of note.
Parks’ coal mining heritage looms large, as in ‘Strike Breakers’:
Look at them now. Who’d think that once
they braved the picket line?
Sitting at the far end of the bar,
ignored by those who went on strike
they spend all afternoon over one pint
or stare down at the carpet’s threadbare swirls.
in this pit village memory is long –
as long as shadows that extend
the full length of the valley
from the miner’s welfare to the cenotaph.
Memory is long indeed and Parks is something of a curator of collective reflection on the vicissitudes of a mining village:
While others scraped the slag-heap
for a bucket full of coal
or held the line at Orgreave
when the mounted men broke through…
Parks permits unforced half-rhymes to fall by happenstance:
They weren’t there when the brass bands played
and banners were unfurled,
when the men marched to the pit gate
as if they’d won the day.
They weren’t there when the promise were made.
The closing stanza is particularly resonant and makes perfect use of a coal mining metaphor to emphasise the sense of betrayal felt by this community towards those once called ‘blacklegs’ and ‘scabs’:
Remembered for one thing they pass the time.
They want to be forgiven but we can’t forgive.
The seam runs deep and deeper than you’d think.
These are the cards that are dealt to us
and this is the life we live.
‘Paragon’ is another seamlessly composed poem with some subtle alliteration, difficult to fault:
The longest platform in the world.
We walked its length together in the rain
impervious to the masses gathered there.
Each plate-glass window trapped a thin-lipped ghost
suspended high above us where we stood
among the rafters open to the night.
Their warnings went unheard.
We brushed the scarves and overcoats
of huddled immigrants, their eyes
fixed on the promise of a distant continent.
All the generations, everything they owned
strapped tight inside a worn suitcase.
Not the silent waiting but the journey back:
the steam-flanked train accelerating,
your lips a flash of scarlet and your face
reflected in the glass. The estuary exuding milky light.
The relative plainness of much of the diction here, the clipped prose, makes the final image ‘milky light’ all the more striking, as if everything before is leading up to that poetic ‘hit’. There is plenty of imagery in the poem but as with many others in this book it’s metaphor-light and, apart from alliterative and rhythmic devices, Parks’ tendency towards straight descriptions and narratives is arguably more characteristic of prose than poetry.
It’s perhaps not entirely surprising then that there is a substantial prose piece marking a kind of halfway point in the middle of this collection; a beautifully written vignette, incidentally, which in terms of themes calls to mind Dennis Potter’s Stand-Up, Nigel Barton. This mixed-medium approach is becoming more common in contemporary poetry books; David Swann’s accomplished The Privilege of Rain springs to mind as one such more implicit poetry-prose collection of recent years, as well as Colin Hambrook’s Knitting Time (both under the Waterloo Press imprint which also published Parks’ The Exile’s House).
To try and illustrate my points about prose and poetry, I’ve taken a passage from Parks’ prose piece ‘Ella’, a nice descriptive passage, and dissembled it by enjambments and line breaks to visibly resemble a poem:
I’m the youngest person in the room.
The smoke encloses me and closes in.
There’s a murmur, a ripple, then a hush.
Even my dad’s cigarettes stand out:
he smokes Capstain’s Full Strength
while the others are puffing on Camels,
making a gesture out of every draw and blow.
Nothing passes between my dad and me
although I feel him there more powerfully
than ever before, an acute awareness
of his otherness as he plays with his
wedding ring and taps the table top.
Personally, I think it makes a strong poem. Now I do the reverse, taking a stanza from Parks’ poem ‘Harlech and Beyond’ and present it as prose:
And so I took a risk, trusting to luck and circumstance to guide me to the place where I should be. Of course I took the right one as if the future and the past had entered into some unwritten bond, leaving on the platform a life lived differently as the train with all the unsaid words rattled through the night between the mountains and the sea to Harlech and beyond.
Is there that much difference in terms of composition and use of language between these two pieces of writing? Are their forms, then, interchangeable? There are prosodic purists out there who would argue that it shouldn’t be possible to ask of a poem ‘Why is it a poem –as opposed to prose…?’
It’s for these reasons that I remain personally suspicious of the sentence case (i.e. the dropping of capitalised first letters) presentation of most contemporary poetry: it seems to me that chipping away at the appearance of poems on the page so that the lines more visibly resemble prose sentences can lead to an actual compositional seeping-in of prose –and isn’t a common criticism of contemporary poetry that it often resembles ‘columned prose’?
None of this detracts from the fundamental fact that Parks is a highly accomplished writer; only that in terms of composition –and this is not just about Parks’ poetry but contemporary poetry in general– it’s sometimes not completely clear whether or not some of the poetry is really prose in disguise. But this preference for prose-inflected poems –after all, the mainstream style of our time– is just that, a preference: Parks is perfectly capable of producing more figurative poetry, as evidenced in ‘The Land of Green Ginger’:
And only through this green
and stamp-sized frame
that didn’t shatter in the blitz
can you expect to see
things as they really are…
Put your eye to the window,
see how England goes;
its coalitions and its wars
the steady consolation
of the rain, the failure
to respond to change
its constitutions or its laws.
Once I drank bitter
from a clouded glass
among the city’s dissident
and peered out later
on the green-tinged street…
There’s something of the English strangeness of Harold Monro about this poem. Given Monro-favourite ‘Milk for the Cat’, it’s slightly ironic that the next poem is called ‘Cat and Man’: it tells the curious tale of a knight returning from the Crusades who is ambushed by a wildcat which claws him to death as he crushes it, and they’re buried together. The poem has some interesting moments:
I edged in from the sunlight as a child.
Scaffolding was holding up the spire.
Six hundred years had passed and still
The bloodstains deepened on the flags.
‘The Stormbringer’ is a deft lyric which closes on a trope striking for its alliteration and assonance: ‘the wide-eyed dead sprawled awkward in its wake’. ‘Burne-Jones Window’ is an elegiac piece of ekphrasis which links back nicely to window as time portal in ‘Land of Green Ginger’. Windows seem to be a leitmotiv: the next poem, ‘A Bricked-Up Window on the Great North Road’, is an eight line epigram:
She drives too fast but always slows to see
a bricked up window on the Great North Road.
She says it used to make her think of me
and now it makes her think of politics –
of how a government can stretch its arm
as far as air and sunlight which are free.
I think it has no meaning: except that bricks
and mortar fill a space where choices used to be.
Most of Parks’ poems have their moments: of a policeman on a roadblock during the Miners’ Strike: ‘Rain drips from his helmet as he waits for our reply’; the ‘purple smudge’ of the ‘Mainland’ and news ‘fast as a gasping horse’.
The window theme returns with ‘A Tree Grows Through the Ruins of a House’ which contains some arresting tropes: ‘its roots disrupt foundations,/ bring them down; its branches/ intersect the summer sky’, ‘completely overtaken by the green’, and ‘The tree puts out its shoots./ Invisible, unseen,/ the will to life persisting/ in among the fallen stone’. The next poem is about another type of aperture: ‘The Arrow Slit’, which appears to depict the poet partaking in archery:
Our movements are identical:
we wipe our foreheads, blink back sweat,
take in the birdsong
and the fleshed-out trees
which sudden death failed to displace
then duck back swiftly in the shade.
A view from a window-seat features in ‘Chantry Bridge’. ‘Harlech and Beyond’ is a Larkinesque rural outing. ‘The Tango’ is a nice figurative piece, slightly tongue-in-cheek but leads up to an unexpectedly dark close:
I’ll march you up and down the parquet floor,
the band blindfolded in a room of potted palms.
Surrender to a passion you know can’t be denied
and dance the tango – it takes two –
the dance of love, the dance of suicide.
In ‘Shakespeare’s Lover’s’ the dawn sun ‘takes purchase on the windowsills/ and throws a woven pattern on the bed./ His villains linger in the shade –// the dark recesses of the mind/ where nothing is the way it seems’. It’s a tale of two nations in ‘New Year’: ‘in small encampments everywhere/ people reclaim and occupy./ Downstairs the unwashed glassed cloud/ while bankers… // …toast the new year in with chilled champagne’.
‘Metro’ is another accomplishedly composed poem containing some nice descriptions and sense-impressions:
Hungry in Paris at eighteen
I searched my pockets, scrounged the fare
and took the Metro to Montmartre.
My first time on the underground:
a rush of hot escaping air,
posters peeling from the green-tiled walls,
the faces strained, anonymous,
a platform clock repeating its loud tick…
Parks then tilts into filmic mode:
into an open, floodlit square
where street girls selling roses danced,
the word republic whispered everywhere –
a tracking shot I moved through silently.
Last night I turned a corner, found
myself still waiting there
among the lovers and arcades
with empty pockets, empty hands…
‘Iron Hague’ is a tribute poem to a Mexborough boxer and First World War veteran who ‘found a pub in Mexborough’ and ‘grew soft and fat and in the windowseat/ watched trams and straw hats and parasols,/ an innocence that ended on the Somme:/
The killing fields of Ypres and Bapaume.’ There’s a familial link for Parks:
Collier’s kiss-curl, shaven head, bare knuckles
on a Friday night, fighting for coppers thrown.
His daughters knew my grandfather,
threw him out at closing time –
wore caps and braces, out-drank all the men.
We looked in through the glass to stare at them.
The town forgets its only claim to fame.
A green plaque fades against the whitewashed wall.
I walk down shuttered Main Street in the rain.
A last drunk shadow-boxes his way
from lamp-post to lamp-post to home.
‘Cable Street’ is a monologue of someone who helped defend the eponymous street which was populated by many Jewish shops from the antagonistic march of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts on Sunday 4th October 1936:
And this, my friend, is Cable Street.
Not much to look at I confess.
But this is where we took a final smoke
before we went to beat the Blackshirts down;
and this is where we drank a tepid pint
before we went to stop them in their tracks.
Why did I do it? I don’t know.
something to do with what the others did –
a thing to be lived not understood.
Parks has an acute historic sense of his native Yorkshire as notable in ‘Chantry Bridge’, ‘Queen’s Square’ which includes mention of the Black Prince, while the wonderfully titled ‘Bloody Meadows’ describes the site of a medieval battlefield.
The final poem in this collection is its longest, ‘Elegy for the Chartist Poets’ comprises six sections made up of non-rhyming couplets. It is not only the most thematically important but also the strongest poem in the book. Chartism was a working-class protest movement active in the Midlands, the North of England, and South Wales between 1838 and 1857, which campaigned for male suffrage, the abolition of rotten boroughs (corruptly bought-off constituencies), and more representative democracy.
The Chartists are rightly remembered and venerated as pioneering petitioners for progressive constitutional reform. But a lesser known fact about the movement is that it was populated perhaps more than any other by practicing poets, both already published and/or semi-established and those inspired to compose poems in response specifically to the Chartist cause, many of whom were subsequently published, though just as many of whom were forgotten.
Parks proudly pitches his long poem firmly in Yorkshire soil from the outset –this rousing commemoration from section 2:
This is the sharp edge of the north – the place
to which the quivering needle points, the root
And source of our resistance and dissent.
The wind has taken everything away:
the pamphlet and the broadsheet and the poem,
snatched them down from the windowsills and walls
and sent them in a spiral through the air –
charred fragments carried upwards to ignite
then come to rest under our waiting feet.
They flare there for a moment then subside.
I saw a vision on the Sabbath Day:
a huge avenging angel with red wings
alighted on the top of Blackstone Edge
and, like the sentinel he was, looked round
on towns and cities spread out on the plain,
the cursed, devoted landscape shuddering.
…great crowds gathered on the plains below.
They came barefooted and in need of bread;
They came under the banners arm in arm,
leaving the workshops empty in the dawn,
the rich mill owners turning on their beds.
They paid a penny for The Northern Star,
hunched round a single candle in the gloom
and read it to each other with wide eyes.
Indeed, never before or arguably since was poetry such an implicit part of political protest as in the case of the Chartists:
The poets printed liberty on each
and every page, on each and every eye.
Outside the world of commerce chimed and whirred,
the factories hummed and ticked, the coins fell ripe
and golden in the hands of guilty men
while children hauled the coal-tubs underground.
Parks then takes on a declamatory Shelleyean tone –and never more than now in early twenty-first century England do we need that past Chartist spirit:
I call them out of darkness with their words:
the incantations of the working poor –
the language of the lost and dispossessed:
the mill-hands, miners, labourers in the field,
the muffled voices straining to be heard.
the incremental stirrings in the dust.
In the third section Parks makes a poignant juxtaposition of the complementary pestilences of the 19th century labouring classes: ‘at Newport where the redcoats shot them down/ or Sheffield where the chimneys and the soot/ had crammed them into tenements to die’. The focus then shifts to radical Chartist and martyr to the cause, Samuel Holberry, who died of consumption shortly after being imprisoned:
Holberry picking hemp inside York gaol,
his fingers bleeding as he prised it free,
unravelling his past with every thread.
Ten thousand mourners when his funeral
twisted through the tangled alleyways
finding no resolution and no rest.
From Hull and Halifax and Hell good Lord
deliver me. The infant at the breast.
Section 4 is slightly phantasmagorical as Parks tilts into a trance of nostalgia, reverie, an industrial –almost Soviet– vision of yore:
I must have caught the dying breath of it
when I was still a child: the furnace doors
wide open and the sleek, bare-chested men
pouring the liquid metal into moulds.
I saw it from the window of a train;
heard loud insistent hammers beating out
a rhythm as they forged the man-made chains.
And there, over the dark horizon’s rim
the steel city’s furnaces puthering:
a column of tall dust throughout the day,
a pillar of fire glowing in the night.
Hymns swelling from the chapel on the hill,
torches, marches, gatherings, illicit
meetings under the beams of hidden pubs.
The descriptions and evocations here are very effective. The term ‘puthering’ is interesting, presumably from the same Yorkshire dialect from which Emily Brontë plucked ‘wuthering’ for her timeless novel. This is Parks’ Yorkshire industrial heritage, the remains and artefacts of which furnished the environment of his upbringing, and one senses his passion in each line:
It’s in the faded photograph I saw
of two old Chartists posing with their pikes,
their faces weathered and their wrinkled eyes
fixed on the future, resolute, despite
the years of trampling and the failing cries.
This part of the poem is punctuated with some biographical snippets from the lives of two prominent Chartist poets:
or go to Darfield churchyard in a mist
and find out where the Corn-Law Rhymer lies –
his gravestone overlooking fields of corn,
the railings round his tombstone flaking rust.
How Byron snubbed him, turned his lordly back
on Elliott and his kind, refused to speak
or recognise a man whose hands had toiled.
Ebenezer Elliott, the so-called ‘Corn-Law Rhymer’, was one of the most prolific and successful of the Chartist poets; he’d been born into poverty, the son of an ironmonger (who also had ten other children); an autodidact who read Milton, James Thomson, Barrow, Sowerby while working in his father’s iron foundry, Elliott later gained the patronages of Thomson and Southey, and published some poetry volumes, including Corn Law Rhymes (1831), which no doubt inspired his moniker. He famously quipped at Byron’s snobbery with the lines: ‘Go, and at Bloomfield, Nature’s Artist, sneer,/ Since chance, that makes a cobbler, makes a peer’, while the line, ‘Lordly Lara, haply, would have cried/ Matches and thread, from Holborn to Cheapside’ demonstrates Elliott’s figurative gifts.
Parks then turns his attention to the other most remembered Chartist poet:
Or Ernest Jones inside his threadbare cell,
scratching his poems in blood across the page
because the living ink had been denied.
I hold his fragile papers to the light,
feel his stained fingers on the nib
and hear the secret scratching of his pen.
Lift me up and put me down, set me free
on some high, open point where I can see
the whole of the broke past entire, the stunned
and ravaged landscape spread out under me.
Ernest Jones was every bit as remarkable a figure as Elliott: he hailed from perhaps the most auspicious and untypical background of all the Chartist poets, his father being equerry to the Duke of Cumberland, but Jones endured much strife and privation while imprisoned for political agitation and, denied ink, did actually compose some of an epic poem, The New World, with his own blood, though completed it by ‘secreting stolen ink inside a cake of soap’.
The reverie continues into section 5:
Mad Shelley dreamt it and the dream survived.
A flicker in the corner of his eye
burned through his death and went on to ignite
a hungry generation with its spark.
Parks then writes ‘The Chartist poets whisper in my ear’, and the rest of this section is in italics to indicate the whisperers:
The gagged and muted people found a voice;
it rose up from the cuttings and the seams
and gathered its momentum from the crowd.
What remains? The dignity of labour
is a lie. We sweated for our children
and they died. We met and marched together
on parliament, were turned away ignored –
our petitions, our grievances, unread.
Where can we turn to now for our redress?
Then Parks touches on the political doctoring of history to suppress the proletarian strain, and so the ghosts of Chartists are now agitating from the spirit-realm:
They want to keep you ignorant of us;
they want our voices buried underneath
a layer of history so we can’t be heard.
We rise up from our tombs and agitate.
We knock here now until you let us in.
Parks then intones that these Chartist spirits are those of our ‘lost progenitors’ and then closes the section on a ‘covert pastoral’ trope: ‘Smoke drifts across the furrows and the fields;/ the moon already has a reddish cast’.
Then the poem closes on its sixth section, which is descriptively one of its strongest, and, for me, is the point, appropriately, at which Parks’ poetic gifts reach their peak:
Snow falling from God’s heaven black with soot,
the Calder Valley thick with it, the ice
sheeting the hillsides where they pulled and climbed.
A few flakes dance and settle on my tongue.
In Manchester, in Sheffield, and in Leeds –
in all the places where their mark was left
the statues of the undeserving rich
gaze down impervious from their stone-hewn plinths.
The traffic slides and judders to a halt
where shopping centres interrupt the flow
of what we were or are or might still be.
Your songs preserve the bite and spleen of it
and when you sing them without compromise
the voices of the dead who sang before
join into swell the chorus of your song.
Now rain comes on, in huge successive waves.
It washed guiltless blood from cobblestones.
It rinses teardrops from the chiselled eye.
It runs unhindered down the workhouse walls.
The doors are barred, the candles have gone out,
the presses fallen silent. A cold ghost
repeats their spare, hard verses where they trod.
Out where the moors are brittle, blackened, burned
and silence levels everything with night;
out there under the grey indifferent sky
the Chartist poets lie in unmarked graves.
That resonant ending echoes George Elliot’s ‘unvisited tombs’ trope which closes her masterpiece Middlemarch. This is a fitting elegy –and, indeed, eulogy– to the mostly forgotten Chartist poets; its title is particularly fitting too, recalling Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ which is a ‘covert pastoral’ poem (see William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, in which said poem is deconstructed thus) in part touching on the wasted talents of those who lived and died unrecognised due to their humble origins and lack of connections, factors which of course hampered most of the Chartist poets:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air’…
This is a slim volume handsomely produced with a striking cover reproducing the colourful painting ‘A Chartist Meeting at Basin Stone’ by A.W. Bayes. But the slimness of the book belies the centuries of industrial working-class struggle represented within its thin bind. In many ways these economically composed poems serve as poetic postcards of events on the map of past peaks and impasses in the ongoing English class struggle. And Parks signposts these sempiternal places with some strikingly allusive titles –Bloody Meadows, Chantry Bridge, Stormbringer etc.– to whet the poetic appetite. This is another consummately composed collection from a poet who demonstrates humility to his subjects.
Alan Morrison © 2018