Birmingham Canal Navigation, Cliff Yates
Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021 £6.50
The irruption of memory
As Roy Fisher had Birmingham River, so Cliff Yates has Birmingham Canal Navigation, a Sinclairesque, psychogeographical peregrination around the city of his birth and upbringing, and nearby Coventry.
In many of the poems here, the contrast between past and present is pointed: ‘The Gas Hall shut between exhibitions — / next it’s Fifty Years of Black Sabbath, / twelve quid and booking compulsory, a joke’ (‘Bridge Café’). Metal’s originators reappear in ‘Black Sabbath Bridge’
on Broad Street, with a plaque
calling them a Birmingham export.
But what did Birmingham actually think
of Black Sabbath, back then?
The poem tangentially — and both humorously and poignantly — answers the question, with the voice of the poet’s mother upbraiding the young, long-haired Cliff for having visited his uncle ‘in brown overalls / like Dad’s, a pencil behind his ear’:
You went to see Fred, Mum says,
what — looking like that?
This is likeable, no-frills poetry, into which memory irrupts as naturally as it does into everyday thought.
In ‘Red Sky Lift’ (named after one of the lifts on Aston University campus) the purchase of a Twix sets off more late-Sixties recollections:
I haven’t bought one of these
for twenty years, I say to the woman
behind the counter […]
It’s more like
forty, I realise, unwrapping it — morning break
in the printing factory, something
to look forward to, like ‘Mr Fantasy’
on the turntable or Quicksilver
The straightforward pleasure of this memory (I hesitate to call it Proustian) is then augmented by another epiphanous joy:
I rarely go swimming but there’s something relaxing
about the smell of chlorine, the stretch of blue
under those massive beams, the slow lane
and the slower lane, the lifeguard
in her red tracksuit.
The redness returns in the poem’s final, delightful image of the eponymous lift ‘on its way down for once, and only five / of us waiting we’ll easily fit in.’
It’s unsurprising that Yates practises Transcendental Meditation, because Birmingham Canal Navigation is packed with clear-headed observations of small things,as well as a deep respect for place and local history.