Alan Morrison on

 

Stephen Sawyer

There Will Be No Miracles Here

Smokestack, 2018

84pp

 

 

Roses grow in skips on Penistone Road

Sawyer Sawyer

I was instantly struck by the arresting cover image of this debut poetry collection by Sheffield-based Stephen Sawyer: a black and white photograph of a young boy whose haircut and sweater suggest either the late Seventies or Eighties, perched atop a metal pole structure forming an almost crucificial shape completed by his torso against a misty backdrop of council flats with boarded-up windows. This pictorial combination with Sawyer's strikingly pessimistic title packs a real punch in its depiction of defiance mixed with despondency; indeed, Jez Coulson's highly evocative photograph has something of Ken Loach's Kes (1969) about it.

 

Sawyer's poetry emerges from such brutalism with scrubbed-up brusqueness, like a pumice stone. The first poem, 'Orgreave Mass Picnic', is, as the title suggests, set during the 1984-5 Miner's Strike; it's quite brave to start a collection with a fairly long sequenced poem but Sawyer pulls it off well, the poem seeming to move quickly on the currents of its accumulative images, and there's a certain Harrisonian quality in its linguistic agility, not to say, Classical literary allusions -in this case, Shakespeare:

 

cast as the turnspit ‘jailer’

of Antonio, wearing sackcloth

in the service of Shylock;

a metallic silver-painted sword

for a part without a word.

 

There's a great use of consonance and assonance there too. There's a wonderful aural allusion to the 1964 film Zulu: 'You could confuse Zulu drum /– beats of truncheons on shields'. And the 'bearded man/ in a red t-shirt: Keep Calm/ and Read Marx' almost reminds one of Jeremy Corbyn. Sawyer's gritty lyricism is impressive:

 

Sitting with miners in Beighton Welfare

waiting for the picket call

then hands are braced

against van roofs as we hurtle

in convoy across barrens

that look like a mace-dented breastplate

under a faint rind of moon.

A light floats to the surface – blinks,

a string-vested man sings

at a frosted bathroom window:

I left my heart in San Francisco.

 

But Sawyer's real gift is with imagery:

 

A nacreous arc bisects our route,

down to third, a bandaged tree,

second, Laundry Works,

missing letters & Sons,

Butchers Entrance, time

out of joint, back up to third –

and a backward glance:

child ghosts, a grim reaper,

painted on boarded up windows;

a cooker lit by its own irony

on forecourt ruins

and we’re flying again

in the lung-dust darkness.

 

The phrase 'nacreous arc bisects' is beautifully alliterative. 'The colliery’s beaming eyes clock/ you like a head wound' is striking, as is this imaginatively descriptive trope: 'a single scorpion shadow/ in the marsh window light/ of a colliery bus as it crosses the line'. There's almost a documentary, filmic quality to some of Sawyer's jump-cuts in depictions, the present tense lending them a timeless urgency: 'This is a reconstruction:// A cattle baron refused the free run/ of ploughed land, hires a gunfighter/ as mean as a scabbard...'. It's interesting, this filmic sensibility, since here Sawyer uses the imagery of a Western to depict this episode in the Miners' Strike, just as he earlier used imagery from Zulu. Some scenes have an almost vertiginous, surreal quality:

 

A shirtless kid leaps over flowers

in neighbourhood gardens,

mounted police galloping full-tilt

tearing them up, behead the sun.

 

Sawyer, obviously a boy during the Strike, writes: 'Women of the communal kitchen/ insist I eat a free dinner/ though I’m not a miner on strike'. The following trope is poetically evocative:

 

Pensioners legless on elderflower

falling over sequestered pews

along the candlelit terraces

at the anti-Princess Di festivities.

Can you hear the pit yard sing?

And did those feet in ancient times…

 

These are understandably moments and memories which left a lasting impression on the poet and which he revisits with a bittersweet nostalgia:

 

Three hours baby-sitting

for a sack of beetroot. Eight pints

of homebrew for fixing an engine.

Sheer weight of numbers

beating off bailiffs. Can you hear

the pit yard sing: the miners united,

will never be defeated?

 

Laughter in the cage ascending

at 25 feet per second, stomachs

leaping as the sun sets fire

to the tongues of those who harvest

the hard fruit of the deep earth,

inseparable from saltpetre, water,

and forebears, who are themselves.

 

This almost stream-of-consciousness rapture of nostalgia builds to a breathtaking bloom of imagery:

 

That way of hanging out, power

of the untamed thought

between chimney pots, chinks

of curtain light, bits of motor bike,

a mother’s valium lips, thinking

without banister rails. A first love,

a mirage’s sister, receding

as I approach her Bacall-glam eyes,

and braced front teeth, who

always got a speaking part.

Her mind I knew like the Sea

of Tranquillity, tried to find

one Sunday, amidst verandas

of blue hydrangeas; the absences

of abstract sculptures, a Pekinese

cradled in arms, garden walls

of slab-cut lumber; a union jack;

the Spion kop chanting of a train,

calling me back, calling me back.

 

Sawyer's poetry is infused with tactile and gustatory sense-impressions:

 

Children release balloons

in front of the main stage.

All the time of light

and a hiss of anger remain

in the green apple I bite into.

Pit-boot flush in stirrup-cup...

 

True beauty in the grit of circumstance. This is an exceptional lyrical opening to the collection, at times sublime, it immediately detonates any preconceptions based upon the despondent Loachian cover image.

 

'Picasso's Bull' is a quite surreal poem, its actual subject not entirely clear to my reading, either Sawyer is depicting a boy playing blind man's buff like a bull, or the other way round -no matter, it has some excellent images: 'a winged minotaur of immolation'. It might be ekphrasis, describing Picasso's painting. It's followed by another similarly themed poem, 'Draft for the Contemporary Love Poem', which uses equine imagery. In 'Time Served' Sawyer imaginatively depicts the processes of his father's carpentry as an almost sacramental alchemy, the evocative terms for various techniques and tools tripping off the page:

 

I wanted to rag-dab

on the knotting, stem the flow of resin, seal;

sand the wood, prime – with milk-thin paint.

You barely had time to mortise and tenon

crossbar and upright before I was a brother

of the brush and the cat, a silhouette,

on the corrugated roof of the motorbike shed...

 

References to listening to a bulletin about 'the Bay of Pigs' interspersed with Petula Clark's 'Down Town' on the radio suggests this is the early Sixties. 'Central Leading' is a cascade of animalistic descriptions again, this time set in the computer pool of a library, and again it has a faintly surreal quality to it:

 

I look around the table, see a young woman

the colour of rosewood, tears of barley pearl,

her cheeks diffusing the light of hot flesh.

 

Users of the computer suite are staring at her

and one another, as if she were flailing her limbs

like ocean-rich kelp or conjuring a marmoset

from her tunic sleeve...

 

 

Strangely, I anticipate it; need it more

than I need a Patagonian llama to shamble

through this library door en route for Music and Film.

 

The people round the table stare at me now

as well as her, as if she and I were one.

Vowels drift like dandelion seeds to fade

between Poetry and Adventure. I go to her:

scalded eyes like mineral springs...

 

'Niobe of Gaza' is a hard-hitting depiction of the indiscriminate massacre of Palestinian innocents on the Gaza Strip, wrought with fine Lorcan images that jar against more brutal ones:

 

She sees her children in the open pores

of sunset as bluish purple flowers

on a high-rise balcony washing-line full,

as swaying blue jeans, a table of crayons,

a girl’s blouse concealing an alarm clock

that faintly rings in a world where truth

is a bundle of wet kindling.

 

She sees her children

in the blown ash

of a side board, a neck tie,

a brittle white school shirt,

a row of empty desks.

 

Should she write:

Please Help children missing, last seen

in classrooms, chalk dust, making fun

of the mad village poet, selling courgettes

in the souk. A poster for every clinic,

village square and yard of separation wall,

written in the unsubmissive spirit of the olive.

 

That last-excerpted trope, 'written in the unsubmissive spirit of the olive' is quite stunning on many levels: sibilantly, alliteratively, and symbolically. This poem is a triumph of lyricism amidst righteous indignation and angry compassion; it is a masterclass in expressive and poetic discipline in terms of how Sawyer resists overt expression of outrage but instead encapsulates everything in meticulous description of the abandoned objects of a bombed-out Palestinian home -it's a chilling still life:

 

Where is this street

they have hidden from her?

the House of Waiting Bowls: 48 pieces

of fine china and a haunted kettle.

The smell of cooking stew, stronger

than the power of revolutionary phrases.

Dolls made of soft leaves, branches

and paper, a carton of caterpillars

under the dining room table.

 

The poem is pockmarked with exceptional aphorisms, such as 'The smell of cooking stew, stronger/ than the power of revolutionary phrases', and 'Her enemy gods haunted and cursed/

bang on the night’s ceiling with a cane'. This tour de force closes with haunting questions:

 

Do they know her. Is she, she –

with broken spectacles,

they have not watched her hair turn grey.

Does she remember the spreading fig tree

that fed the generations, 49 widows,

then left to litter the square with fruit.

Does she know they cut it down ?

 

'The Wedding Song of Whirlow Park' is a cascade scintillating imagery:

 

the chrome grilles

and cream tail-fins of the stretch-limousines

oozed-up the gravel drive like hammerhead sharks.

Then, from the side of the house, the men

in frockcoats, swallows drinking in flight;

women, hand-signing for a draw

on a shared cigarette: low v-line necks

and butterscotch calves, dresses of gold

and lavender, sleeveless and purple, ruby

and strapless. One: ivory, mermaid tight,

thighs of nude pink in the sunshine.

 

this whirlpool of tree ferns

and caspia, pink candles and lumps of butter,

soft, wide-brimmed black hats at 26 degrees.

Why don’t they just ask me to leave?

I’m not one of them; I’m older and younger,

louder when vulgar; mostly, say nothing

at all. Photographs! Caught – writing my

escape, a dog bowl of stagnant water

at my feet. The serrated skyline

of marching pines with associating blues,

greens and variegated shading, bordering

the lawns. Ponds that teem with water fowl,

reflect yellow fleeces of laburnum that break up...

 

There's something in common with Tony Harrison's oeuvre in a focus on class, accents and vernaculars: 'I feel I know these guests/ I haven’t met: iron-bridge direct, vowels/ hammer-bounced flat for a tang' -Harrison's 'Rhubarbarians' comes immediately to mind. Sawyer's depictions of the strained formalities and sartorial showiness of a wedding are highly imaginative and incisive in their constant penetration through the superficialities of such a scene:

 

I stare into the baize-green, mid-distance,

the little helpers, holding the bridal train

above rolling lawns, the married couple

ascending flights of steps, thumbs-up

to applause; one woman – I return

to this one woman – cropped, dark hair;

a pink-mauve gown, with halter neck,

a pulse of sadness in her chanting eyes,

her smoker’s husky laughter, scratched

and dry, buffed up to a fine sheen

on a roll, mellowing out at the tail end

like a sea-bell wrapped in harbour mist.

Her mouth disappears in sunshine.

Words bluster, whisper; a kissed cheek,

a top hat, then she’s smaller, diminished

by distance...

...How close you can get

to see-through pink ears, still feel alone

and related. She will see them again

in Spanish cathedrals, night train-windows.

 

In a rather Larkinesque way, the poem tapers off into the melancholy shadows towards its close, as the poet picks his way through 'gloves/ of white lightening, envelopes, marmalade' and focuses his attention on an 'elderly man in a plush weave of cloth' and observes, again, in Harrisonian mode, 'a river of words/ without language, that soens as he walks/ in freckled light among the pines'. 'Eyewitness' is a rather cryptic miniature:

 

Here they are in dramatis personae:

slack-jaw, blank-stare, pensive as cattle; one,

a bespectacled historian, dictaphone live,

pencil-in-hand, foredoomed to record

the sound of a sailor, wielding a lighter

to knock out a tooth souvenir.

 

'The Iron Woman' is a fine narrative piece reminiscing on a stalwart elderly woman activist during the Miner's Strike:

 

Waiting for the phone to ring in the Miner’s Welfare –

the men told last moment of the night’s mass-picket:

grabbing coats, thrown about on cratered roads, hands

pressed against the roof as we swerved past haulage yards,

treatment plants, the anthracite air leaking darkness

...

...I saw her cycle towards us

in the early hours to picket the night shift going in.

Her silhouette softening under fence lights – Women

Against Pit Closures, clapping – to dismount at the gates,

embrace her comrades on the line, time backed into a corner.

 

She must have been in her eighties. Front row, third left.

Same seat, row, teacher, slate; a spire she can no longer see.

Orchestras, chapel choirs, dance nights at the Greystones.

Her husband’s lungs ripping themselves inside-out

on summer nights. Elvis in the Closed Shop taproom...

 

The poet reflects on his route out from this gritted background through education: 'She’s as live to me as the guilt/ I feel for trying to escape – not the people – the mining life,/ through the promise-lie of education, to stumble upon myself/ in a stranger on Collegiate Crescent, speaking a language/ that wasn’t my own...' There's more than a hint here of Tony Harrison, and also of Dennis Potter's Nigel Barton. The spectre of the militant octogenarian looms large in Sawyer's memory and remains with him:

 

…I carry her

in coffee spoons, sleeplessness, a love of nocturnal beasts

that run against the odds. I see her in the childhood of stars,

a spinal canal of grassed-over spoils, words I mine.

Cycling past the pithead baths the miners built themselves...

 

'The Six Goodbyes of the Eightfold Path' abounds with bristling alliteration:

 

There is a big-bottomed Bluebottle

on Bob Brighton’s paint-soaked blocks

of raw hessian and flax, here,

in the first floor computer suite where we

are welcome to weep and flirt, suffocate

on rags of time, imitate a cockatoo

but are forbidden to shout...

 

 

As I walk through the glass doors of swing

to the entrance hall, children’s poetry

on the wall, a tiptoe over discarded chips,

down yellow-trimmed steps

onto the Surrey Street thoroughfare...

…Sunflowers,

contorted willow in the scornful florists.

 

Sawyer has a playful turn in juxtapositions of the profound, philosophical and spectacular with the urban, grim and mundane, carpet factories jostling with images of ancient mystique:

 

ask myself if this is the sound of the Higgs

Boson particle. Feel the primordial urge

to invoke passengers to relax the muscles

on either side of the spinal column. Chant

the Six Goodbyes of the Eightfold Path

...

...power reaching its epiphany

at Eric Gilbert Domestic and Commercial

Carpets and Flooring when the top deck

is moving like the pottery and egg

decorators of ancient Machu Picchu.

 

The brilliantly titled 'Nostalgia for the Light' transports us to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where 'ni pena ni miedo, written in the sand/ with earthmoving equipment'. It is the time of Pinochet. In contrast to the desert there is 'Baptismal snow on the observatory dome'. Sawyer meditates on philosophical quandaries:

 

Astronomers tell us we live behind time;

search beyond the light for our origins

in a sack of atoms in a halo of winter.

In the Atacama’s absolute desert, not a blade

of grass or weightless god...

 

...the women of Calama

search below sand for a scintilla of bone

with a hand-held plastic shovel. Husbands,

sons, brothers – a splinter of guitar finger –

the same calcium galaxies are made of;...

 

The poem dissipates into Lorcan aphorism:

 

you smell the white cap snowmelt, hear

the desert breathe lightly, the Milky Way

read softly. As for the poet?

 

I could say: Raul Zurita.

 

I could say: the dead that change places

with the living.

 

You would need to study dust.

 

'Ithaca' tackles the devastating austerity imposed by the Troika on Greece over the past decade -it veers from mythological, almost surreal imagery, to the bleakly desperate and futile:

 

...Barbarians are preparing

to buy the slow tempo of the morning;

disused gods are eating cliff eggs

and walnuts in abandoned ice-cream vans.

You’ve seen a well-dressed, elegant man

asking tourists if they could spare the biscuits

on their saucers and Cassandra with staff

and hurricane hair-do, wandering

between soup halls and a shrine that bubbles

in a tree-lined courtyard – foretelling

of a military coup. People stare at her, buy

postcards as the mad pomegranate tree burns

in the garden of tumultuous poses.

 

Sawyer relays some traumatic tales of those Greeks pushed over the edge by utterly relentless recession and decline:

 

           ...the eighty year old woman

who, bathed in petrol, paid for the flames

with a smile of Piaf – refused to be a burden

to her children. Praise the fortitude of suicides:

Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist,

preferred a bullet in Syntagma Square

to delving deep into garbage heaps for food

after a life-time’s work...

 

The 'barbarians', then, would seem to be the drivers of austerity, the technocrats and monetarists of the Troika. This poem is awash with arresting descriptions and images: 'a sister/ who plays the concertina with light brown arms', 'father, purple chiton clasped at the shoulder,/ striding across a vineyard' and 'wild-eyed lions/ staring under the dead echo of a cloudless sky'. There is again a filmic element with direct reference to cinema:

 

          ...A numinous orange glow

above the neo-classical picture house

that once featured Charlton Heston in Ben Hur;

now, it’s ash drifts like burnt celluloid; closer,

an open-air kitchen: nurses, teachers, clowns

on stilts waving at you by a clouded samovar,

graduates serving tea to graduates, who serve tea.

 

In an austerity-ransacked country where the currency is so devalued, Sawyer notes that 'Later, we will pay/ for a cinema seat with a blonde onion'. There's some evocative consonance in 'Afterlife': 'curing bacon,/ translating black smoke rising in circles', and: 'After my life I find myself ascending on the assisted chin-dip to a bass line/ that mangles the brain endings, a blurr/ of birdseed lyrics...'. We then enter the surreal again: 'silence in the buildings, sobbing/ of the man inside the burning woman/ as if we’re never, merely, who we are./ What do you think of that, Mr Death?' Sawyer's imagining of an afterlife as a kind of dreamlike rush of associations lends itself nicely to a stream-of-consciousness awash with striking images and phrases:

 

Is the one who was once me

The Singing Molecatcher of Pig Island?

I’m spending my death in Large Print

Romance: spines of silent talking books,

the click of a purse clasp, a faint scent

of urine, laughter and voices

that must have a source. is, the room

where souls seek the bodies they crave:

a librarian’s gypsum fingers, shelving

Love in Stormcrow Castle; Mrs Green

of Fishamble Street, retaining water

and an albino vampire on a vinyl sofa.

Don’t take me completely: don’t leave me!

After my life I returned to the woman

who used to serve but now she drinks

in the Sheaf View Inn; lives with a cocker

spaniel, a bichon frise and a man.

 

I find myself noticing small details:

the earth accelerates, passes onions, oranges,

scaffolding; meets oncoming streaks

of pale-blue gold in the surface water...

 

'Chute' is a nicely descriptive set in a rubbish tip:

 

Coins and fingers

in a sofa, dumped

for a ‘corner’

with chrome feet

and pouffe.

 

Greedy doors

are angled steep

to raise skip sides

take more in.

Wobbly bubbly glass,

a set of sash windows,

a flash wind

from Graves Park,

cathode-ray lit curtains,

The Maltese Falcon.

 

The first time ever I saw your skip

I lean inside, a hand appears,

we dance with a third eye

and a chair that likes poetry

when its legs are in the air.

 

...

I don’t want to be cremated…

just scattered between greedy doors

angled steep

 

a Christmas tree

in monsoon rain,

an errant eye lash

on a damp mattress

‘I told you’:

‘You told me –

I told you!’

 

There's a dreamlike stream-of-consciousness aspect and an almost Joycean juxtaposition of the mythical and the mundane:

 

I read of Hephaestus, beater

of the cuirass and greaves.

His mother threw him out of heaven

for making plastic windows.

 

They still sell tripe on London Road;

I dream awake in the barbers

of pigs turning back into people.

 

In 'Dark Matter' there are aspects of Tony Harrison again, the focus on linguistics mingled with Classical allusions:

 

The front door’s glottal stop off-beat

like my neighbour’s hammer glancing

headless nails. He’s taken to prising

bricks into the gaps, throwing the debris

on my side. As the earth mis-shapes

under the weight of shoppers and skips,

we seem, more than ever divided

and alone. Insurrections of branches

ring voices from the birdless dark, wind

tugging at the moorings of the house;

rain tapping like a vintage Olivetti

on the window sill. I open the door

 

offer to help the man who loves a fence,

blowback pressing on the cheeks

of my face; he’s falling out of his windtricked

shadow like Ajax on the down

swing slicing through a solitary eye,

lopping off a monstrous tail, lying

in the glassy slag of blood and skin

that was his herd. I wake in the belly

 

of a dream: bust up fence float, aside

clothes pegs and Seneca’s Tragedies...

 

Like Joyce, Sawyer constructs myth from the urban and at times climbs the sublime:

 

In Our Time radio talk

of Xerxes, vibrating with anger:

men beheaded, the Hellespont lashed

and branded, redress for his stormwrecked

bridges as the blown mist

recovers its laughter at the water’s edge.

 

I make peace with rotten wood

bearing traces of age-old knots;

white bed sheets and hands fly from

a plastic basket. Hear knives of rain

from gutters stab as I put the squeeze

on a teabag in a leaking cup. Compose:

 

Help – Shed wanted. Ten by

Eight (or slightly larger).

 

Must be tongue-in-groove

for scattergun apple tree orchard.

 

'Litany' is another cascade of rapid images:

 

...Because you were

the rain that dreams of larkspur

and woodruff, the smell of loam and bubblegum

laughter as the pub door opened.

Because we felt the same way about the city

of leaves and the miners’ strike, string-vests

and washing lines in back yards.

 

There are some wonderful olfactory sense-impressions: 'It's true,/ when we first met my senses were alert/ to amber clouds radiant like hives, the smell/ of the bread bin, burl in the bark, iron/ in the dew...'. There's frequent mention of Neruda, the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate, which links back to the earlier poem set in Pinochet's Chile. I confess at times in this particular poem I started to find the constant and almost staccato associations a little tiring, even repetitive, whilst still admiring Sawyer's evident linguistic gifts:

 

...here,

at this table under the caped silhouette

of the Porto Sandeman, as folk musicians

played button accordion. Remember, we

didn't know what a euphonium was, so we

bought another round of drinks, quoted

Marx from The Class Struggles in France,

asked whose side Christ was on...

 

Whilst this stream-of-consciousness versifying is often compelling and certainly Joycean, I'm not sure it's always a technique which should be used across so many poems. Nevertheless, the piling up of imagery is always arresting in its imaginativeness:

 

That night your chrome yellow Mini-cooper

went missing outside the Star and Garter;

remember, we walked in donkey jackets

by the burnt-out boathouse, a glycerine lake

under the alopecia moon. I called you three

birds that teach three birds to sing.

I called you Burning blue breaks

of the sea. Your navel was an ear

to the shore – the bark of silence. Now,

I throw you a bone...

 

Having said that, some parts of this poem begin to slightly grate: 'How could I forget/ your cold-war tantrums and bonfire eyes/ Niagara could not quench. How could I forget/ Your six quavers of silence to the apocalypse/ smile and when we talked of Plato’s cave...'. By the time it gets to 'Tell me everything/ you know about Medusa, Cruella De Vil,/ Ivor Cutler. Because you were a tyrannicide/ hiding behind another tyrannicide, disguised/ as a florist', I found myself zoning out a little. But really this is nitpicking an otherwise exceptional poetics. 'Flood' is immediately more engaging because it feels that it has a clearer purpose of evocation:

 

Rain in Sheffield falls on Jazz

at the Lescar

on the anarchist tree surgeons

of Heeley Green

on the Abbeydale Picture House

car-booted into perpetual revival,

in baths for sale up to the brink

on London Road.

 

There's a surreal element again here:

 

Rain falls on the self-pouring tea pot

of 1866. Rain falls

on outsourcing and cheap imports,

on a long dance hall –

a salsa class at the workers club

on Mulehouse Road.

 

But the tonal and compositional confidence and the ever-imaginative evocations keep me engaged:

 

A woman sitting on the top deck

listening to the rain’s church Latin

rinsed with Anglo-Saxon, verse

of Nether Edge, Manor Park,

Heeley Green, Walkey library...

 

Again Sawyer makes surreal play: 'Sheffield rose/ from the water, magnified by a rain/ drop rocked-still on plate glass'. This is rain of biblical proportions, a second Flood that submerges shops and malls:

 

You could hear it breathing, behind

barricades, gathering itself to fall

elsewhere, then everywhere else,

without tears, a clock ticking, water

lapping in Mrs Bouquets

 

In these longer, discursive poems Sawyer has a habit of striking aphoristic gold: 'roses grow in skips on Penistone Road' -a beautifully alliterative and assonantal line worthy of greater exposure, it's like Betjeman at his descriptive best. We get a nicely alliterative 'retail Atlantis' and 'flagstoned patio'. 'Host Rufus Regardless Addresses the Artists at Dr Sketchy’s' is a nicely descriptive study of the poet sketching a nude female: 'Is that an artist’s shadow/ on your picture plane or a someone/ keeping the pencil moving?' There are some nice turns of phrase: 'Draw from the laughter of cells/ in each nerve to the ache/ of her smile'. Other phrases border on the pretentious: 'Skin is an open border to the epoch/ inside'. There's one lyrical flourish which I'm undecided on:

 

Listen to the swish of charcoal,

the squeak and crack of the unsayable.

Is that a train overhead or acoustics

on a loop for effect? Remember,

the marks we don’t make

are our spaces, unparalysed by fact.

 

But really this is nitpicking again as of course in a collection there are bound to be some poems on doesn't particularly warm to. 'Classically Trained' sees Sawyer going in for long rangy lines which almost give the piece the look of a prose poem, and the usual deluge of images arguably comes a cropper on a rather clumsily made polemical point:

 

‘Blueberry’, the depressed ballerina

from the New York Met. That Thai masseuse they found dead

in the Paris Hilton: his private number like stigmata on her tan.

Oh, he has the people’s blood on his sundial, for sure.

Those intelligence dossiers in western sideboards,

next to crosswords and jigsaws. He’s as guilty as old Salah.

After all, there’s no smoke without ballistic-missile-systems.

 

I've no idea which particular despot or dictator is being depicted in this poem, perhaps he is a product of the poet's imagination -whatever, Sawyer produces another plethora of aphorism:

 

In the beginning he tackled the shortfall in camels and dreams.

kissed ten babies and put out the sun. Restored the fish supper

and typewriter. No end of fun was to be had in the tearooms.

en his ideas began to explode in the high streets and tramcars.

People bled in the barbers. Surgeons ran out of arms and legs.

Horses lay like broken saddles on the edge of smoking cities.

No one could find the weapons of mass amnesia.

I’m the same with theatre tickets when the play is weeks away.

He forgot where he’d left them. Remember the days of triumph?

He wore the People’s thin cotton black pyjama garb.

His moustache was a panther’s silence. His stallion, a silhouette.

He said politics is the minted breath of a patron saint,

a hand that holds a fountain pen. Walmart in Madagascar,

star-spangled hunger...

 

'Permit' seems to be a polemical poem on the Palestinian plight, and is one of the most formalist of the poems in this collection, set out in quatrains of fairly even lengths -here it is in full:

 

Do the eggs in the fridge need a permit? Where

neither the dead die nor the living live,

without passing three road blocks and five checkpoints

between Tulkarm and Ramallah.

 

What questions do those who return ask strangers,

to whom they themselves are strangers?

Is the small woman who lived next door smaller still?

Does the centuries-old fig tree still stammer at odd times?

 

Where the fruit in a bowl forms a parliament

when elders return from weddings and mortuaries.

Does the barber still dance tango with a matador’s countenance

in the tea house when business is slow?

 

Where kids kick a ball between crater and curfew,

argue over a goal and the girl with the mango-sad eyes,

who wanted to play. Do rivers surrounded by poems

and lips need a permit to reflect Red Gazelles?

 

Where the girl who wanted to play, cycled

by the checkpoint and a soldier chased her and a dog

chased the soldier. The dog’s face is on the wall too.

Does the orange-tubed sunbird need a permit?

 

This lyricism is reminiscent of Forties poets such as Bernard Spencer and Clifford Dyment. The questions that close four of the five stanzas gives a resonant rhetorical quality. 'In Search of Yellow House Lane' is another impressive descriptive workout with some highly imaginative images in what seems to be the depiction of an ageing couple -I excerpt it in full:

 

They remind themselves that life is short. A Spanish voice –

sounding like a full ashtray at 3am – on a loop

in the lounge. Lips on skin earn their skin. Fireworks –

ten days from Fright Night. That’s how it begins. His collar bone,

 

her weightlessness, shadows bigger than their own bigness

on the wall, an eyebrow for a cheek bone, ribs like sandbars

working Southport’s shoreline. She is Joan of Arc ablaze,

headlights – a waterless wave returning them

breathless to spines of books, underwear, an open drawer.

 

When they face each other, for they do face each other,

she can hear the coastal breakers detonate in his kneecap;

nets of darkness disturb her breasts in a hollowed-out whelk shell

of pelvis and hips. She laughs at laughter: a sea within a sea,

 

his fragile head, an unfired pot. She circles the Weetabix.

Marmalade and metaphysics, a funhouse face underside

of a teaspoon. How will they live in separate exiles

of multi-storey fibreglass with piebald trees in parking lots

 

after this? He asks her about the prostate gland. She talks of Tao:

the Watercourse Way. They walk the bouncing planks, pass

lifebelts, the Model Railway, the narratives of the Heritage Cafe,

to that place where what has happened hasn’t happened yet.

 

'Do I Still Exist If You Don't See Me?' is more typical of Sawyer's style, a clipped and perfectly shaped descriptive poem with some sublime aphoristic flourishes:

 

She slips inside her skin

behind the flowered paper

her grey silhouette window-lit.

 

How the sun must warm her back.

She takes a finger-grip

rips-off the head at the chin,

 

disembowels herself with light

Who was the first to erase

the other? That just-breath summer,

 

when she faded ghost-like

into bare walls and floorboards,

as if the lens’s long exposure

 

could return her to wood and stone,

resist even death as her ceiling

dripped monochrome celluloid.

 

...She can’t recall

 

his face, her stolen cycle, hesitates

above the neon veins of Manhattan,

clothes-lines on hot asphalt roofs,

 

a foot poised, stepping through her

own motion. Smudged

by a nape of salt rain, a sill of cats.

 

On both sides of the camera now

undressing in one winding spiral

like she used to peel an orange

 

so she can furl herself together later

around him as he sleeps

knowing that if he wakes

 

before she becomes whole, she dies,

the sun-fried window,

white on white.

 

'Oak' is a sublime personification of the eponymous tree dripping with gorgeous images:

 

Outreaching the strangled light, bound

for the island of roots that are wings,

my main limb like a whole tree

hovering above creatures on their road

to where? A blur of fowl detonates

the surface silence, my beard tremulous

in the pond’s sky-dream.

I am Jehovah of the acorn, host of lace lice,

star moult, hairy-legged shuddering.

I milk the sun of centuries,

process gases by personal chemistry.

Separate from the earth, I marvel

their movement...

 

Slowdown – I want to say – you host

your own ghosts? I love, I drink

my strangeness in all-year-round words.

That crackclick’s my arthritic neck,

but enough of me, they’re young clouds

with no final shape. Fake sadness,

real sadness, knuckle jointed, bottlebutted,

hollowed out underneath.

Taproots tug at my crown. …

...Palate of new-born blue,

coffee, cask and leather brown,

chlorophyll, bleached grey under

a wooden bench in loving memory.

A child’s boot, my shadow on a face,

I’m falling from the page.

Midges loop back on themselves, write

 

on their writing. Rhododendron

flowers, upside down at island’s edge,

undulating faces – brothers, sisters

of truculent gods. Red plastic hearts

on Rustlings Road, dragonflies batting

on a pediment. Words from my canopy.

 

'Memoir' is similarly rich with description:

 

At my parents, Christmas, I looked

for that boy where I no longer exist.

Key, still in the yellow backdoor,

smell of wet dog by the fridge...

 

Man-o-war masts of smog – gilded

by sodium, torn on aerials – unfurling

the ship’s prow figure-head

of Brenda Scoefield, pedalling into low

definition silhouette, her grimace

set in millstone...

 

Surreal, dreamlike elements resurface: 'I escaped, died, went to Fazakerely,/ leaving behind elbows of mist,/ foreheads of salt, spaces for others/ to inhabit'. The phantasmagorical looms large in Sawyer's oeuvre. At times the heaping of images and aural associations are tangible:

 

...a gate stump, a cheeky nutmeg

by the coal truck, a rolling barrel

of scuffs, charges, kicks and curses

several feet from disturbing the peace

in every directionless riot of travel.

A kettle boils, the acousmatic voice

of the apocalypse, Big Dora, boomclang-

squeaking like a boxcar axle

pledging an imminent reckoning

for the price of bacon bones, five

Woodbine and the Wembley ball’s

thunder-clap on her window pane.

 

...

One, of oak-moss smeared denim,

white milk below the bough’s skin,

swinging on a fraying rope, shaking

stiffness out of branches. One,

of the swishy hips-first walk

and take-the-piss upper-crust drawl

and lisp. One, lying in hiding

on the washhouse, staring

at celestial insect-bites of light.

One, is my brother needing help

with his reading and writing.

My penance is a house of books.

 

There's tributes paid to televisual 'cathode glow' nostalgias, Till Death Us Do Part, and cinema, with another reference to Zulu. Then the poet appears to speculate on the nature of an afterlife: 'Do they live in another street/ after this one. Who calls them in/ at night. Do they return as people/ who see themselves as absent?' There are some disarming tropes throughout: 'Under a lamppost a couple armin-/ arm, the girl’s smile-inside/ or is it a runnel of vapour, a tear?'

 

Mrs Livesley, harmless enough

swinging her cotton-string mop

cleaning her lamp-post out front

all she is into the act, declaiming

into the gums of the wind:

Don’t think ah don’t bloody know

what yah sayin’ ‘t’ other side

of curtains ’cause ah bloody do.

 

Then the poet meditates on the fates of many in the community and there is a kind of recapitulation to the previous musings on the spirit world:

 

One, threw herself under a train,

smiled as she put out the empties.

Some of cancer, of drink, of time

which is a fog-bound street from

another point of view. Actually,

all that was an hour ago.

Can’t see them now for shadows

that self-divide and re-converge,

gaps between the living and dead

we pour through, finding our own

shape, guided by sibilant echoes,

distances, the glimmer of a cheek.

Like lungs of air we cannot hold

on to them for long.

 

The poem closes on a haunting, lingering ending:

 

Outnumbered by their own ghosts,

inseparable from sea smoke

out running the wind, oblivious

to the murmured vespers

of other roads, not caring

which side-street of knock-about

they are born or die on, too busy

twisting blood on the ball,

setting fire to their lives

to heed the rat run’s engines

as the centuries begin.

 

The alliteration of 'engines' and 'centuries begin' is beautifully judged. 'This Lightening Never Ends' is a brilliant elegy to Republican Spanish autodidact poet Miguel Hernandez who died of tuberculosis at just 31 in 1942 whilst in captivity under Franco's victorious regime -he had been spared the death penalty by the intervention of poet-diplomat Neruda, then Chilean ambassador to Spain -I excerpt this exceptional poem in full:

 

How you couldn’t write for the people unless you were with them.

Mouthfuls of sun from the raw-knuckled foothills; ballads of milk

you learned with your ear to the she-goat. How for you – work,

love and water, were a fig tree in a field.

 

Blood rose like a hood to darken the wind: rhythms of heart’s fists,

angry balls and lightening teeth of the gored bull’s soliloquy,

volcanically snorted for the low-lamp houses, gangrenous trenches

and in damp columns of prison air, you tried to dream with rats

in your hair. Bring poetry to me in the blood of onions. Defender

 

of laughter and wounds that spill like inkwells on hushed trains.

Show me how to lower roots that seek the heart with no master

in the shipwrecked flower beds and widowed balconies of Spain;

climb two trees and whistle two nightingales for Miguel Hernandez.

 

'Meeting Karl Marx in the Sheaf View' finds Sawyer imagining bumping into the seminal figure in his local pub:

 

I see you walk through the door

Jehovah bearded

minutes before pumps-off,

an Airedale scuffling

from under a table

to snap at your boot lace

as you march past the Tory rags

on the paper stand.

 

Pints, shorts, shouts: dices

clatter, rocket laughter

...

your frockcoat buttons

in the wrong eyelets

as you order a drink at the bar.

 

I want to ask you about being alone,

besieged in your study

by bills from the butchers,

the apothecary, a table

covered with oil cloth, manuscripts,

cups with chipped rims,

two volumed door stoppers

and three legged chairs,

the one with four for visitors.

 

The title poem is a long drip of imagery and descriptions of the poet's local Sheffield haunts:

 

The city is dripping

cameras, my pocket

is damp with ink,

I taste it on my mouth.

Trees smeared

with October’s blood

in the gardens

on Princess Street.

 

 

Words wear a blue dress

swing an axe, poison

an innocent girl, stagger

naked along Rose Street

past the Kenilworth Inn

barrell into Milnes Bar,

the ‘Little Kremlin’

looking for Stella… up

Midlothian Road finding

neon lips and thighs,

hollows of collar bones,

describe desire

and the voice

of a broken axle

at the crossroads:

...

an unmade hammock

of a man, swaying

before oncoming traffic

inviting drivers to cross

themselves, levitate,

plough into the Cameo

where they’re showing

I Daniel Blake

The Girl on the Train

Eight Days a Week

and on the Meadows

 

a new poem is born

purple and trembling

at busker’s junction.

 

Then suddenly we descend into the outright surreal:

 

A pigeon lands bearing

the soul of Queen Mary.

Shoeless singing, candle-

lit in a Spanish accent:

Leonard’s Hallelujah,

under pointillist canopy

of pancake leaves from

chestnut trees

falling on a hard curve

of forehead, as if cures

to an excess of knowing.

 

On the next page

the Codfather Chip shop

and Summerhouse minus

its horse sculpture facade

that resembled

a classroom drifting

in a most peculiar way.

It’s now the b-side

of a vinyl record

the balanced off-balance

of the unmarked day.

In Blackett Lane

that lone cat sits

like a cold flame,

offering no explanations,

knowing the limits

of her necessity.

 

Perhaps this is the poet's phantasmagorical Under Milk Wood. The final poem, 'Untitled', is an ekphrastic poem in response to a painting by Keith Piper:

 

His cheeks are the furrowed earth

and his lips are the patience of endless rain

and his soldier’s face is a mother’s heart

 

and his bones are everywhere you dig

and his hair is lush grass rising like incense

and his street smells of pomegranate, bread

 

 

and his leaves are bitter, his roots are sweet

and his pulse is the beat of pagoda bells

one thousand thoughts in the banana groves

 

It's astonishing to find that this is Stephen Sawyer's debut collection since his poetic expertise throughout bespeaks a more experienced pen. To my mind this must be one of the most accomplished debut collections from any poet in quite some time and deserves to be read and relished for its beauty of phrase and aphorism, and sheer linguistic gusto.

 

There Will Be No Miracles Here is above all a triumph of imagination over circumstance, a veritable tapestry of intricate depiction of Northern working-class life, which echoes the work of Ken Loach and Keith Waterhouse. It is yet another collection which emphasises the vital importance of Smokestack Books as prime champion of contemporary poetry as social document. Highly recommended.

 

Alan Morrison © 2019