Between the Curlew and the Crow, Keith Parker
Red Squirrel Press, 2017 £6.00
Getting the voice right
The poems that speak most vividly to me in this debut pamphlet are those with a certain voice.
It’s not the formal voice of ‘Misremembering Flodden’ (‘The winning side’s king was elsewhere that day, / in a foreign country, on a futile campaign’) or the voice of classical allusion – ‘Only Odysseus / light of Athena’s eye, could be given landfall’ (‘Odysseus Unchained’).
It’s not even the one that deals with wide-ranging landscape – ‘From here all views seem iconic as we / look at Avalon perched on a basalt peak’ (‘Lindisfarne Recollected’).
The poems that seize my attention have a voice that feels totally natural. A conversational voice. They seem easy, though of course they are not. The opening poem ‘X’ is one of these. It has a relaxed structure based on what the letter X is not – ‘Not blocked G or gappy C’.
That same easy voice is in ‘Historical Processes’, which opens ‘History comes down / to something like / this, a landfill site’. (It’s the ‘something like’ which creates the easy register. Had he written ‘History comes down to this’, the voice would have been so much more lofty.)
Then there’s ‘The Angel’s Share’, which I love. Here’s the poet reflecting on paradise full of drunk angels flying dangerously:
Of course there
could never be serious accidents,
this is heaven after all
You can’t miss the conversational voice in the quotation above. It’s in the ‘Of course’ and the ‘after all’, a friend speaking with an amiably raised eyebrow. ‘The Angel’s Share’ has the most delicious ending too, which I will not spoil by quoting out of context.
Finally, the title poem, and fine concluding piece, calls on simple, accessible language, and a repetitive structure (like ‘X’) – between this and that – ‘where valley road gives way to fell / where order slips into disorder’.
‘I’ve lived on edges all my life’, the poet says, in a voice I’d trust, and want to read more of.
Keith Parker has created a sensory library in this pamphlet. The texture, feel, colour of things brings them into focus and poetry is found in visible, tangible worldly features.
The title poem of the collection (which is also the closing poem) shows the speaker’s position:
between the meet of coal and lead,
between the farmland and the moorland,
between the line of melt and snow […]
where walls run out of heathered hill
and the poet explains clearly ‘I’ve lived on edges all my life.’
Perhaps it is living on edges, then, that makes it possible to discern textures and colours with such insight? To see where one thing stops and another begins. How different they are.
Here is ‘The Ship Of Theseus Paradox’: ‘The black sail that sent Aegeus to a foaming death. / The golden prow carved with Aphrodite’s gilded breasts.’ Wow! There’s a lot of sensual information, and it goes on. Then the speaker breaks stanzas to ask ‘What then to do with the craft gently / nuzzling the quayside?’ (which I read as — how to process all this detailed information in front of us?). He answers himself with another question, ‘What to do when our identity becomes vagueness and / all the philosophers of Athens cannot decide?’
So stuff seems to matter, and what things look like, sound like, feel like. Does the poet tell us why? There’s a clue in ‘Historical Processes’:
I stand slipping on
the rubbish pile of past
its unfair smell rising
Soon the bulldozer
will close dark earth on
what we choose to forget.
Stuff matters because it never goes away, even in the bottom of a landfill site. The past is what we live on, and have to live with, now. The challenge becomes how to pay attention to old stuff, how to honour it in description, how to re-member it, whether it be the boats of Greek mythology or human remains from Flodden.
Everything is with us forever. Like it or not. These are uncomfortable poems for uncomfortable times. The comfort is the richness of the language.