Pressed for Time: John Foggin, Calder Valley Poetry
This collection, which was published in 2022, was John Foggin’s last before his death earlier this year. He liked to describe himself as a poetry ‘late developer’, and over recent years won a succession of poetry competitions, as well as publishing a number of collections. Composed during his long illness, these final poems abound with Foggin’s typical enthusiasm and energy.
A recent Guardian obituary concentrated on his distinguished career in education before taking up poetry. In poems like ‘I used to Worry about the Sea’ he reflects ruefully upon lessons handed down by others: “It was well-meaning grown-ups / taught me this. And books.”
The collection reflects his absolute confidence in the use of language. ‘Out There’ begins by noticing how “we are drawn to edges”, and then suddenly explodes into lyrical splendour:
Imagine yourself a goldcrest, comfortable in a cushion of down
between an eagle’s shoulder bones, high above Cader Idris.
You’d see, you think, the drowned lands of Cantre’r Gwaelod
pale silver in a shallow sea. Or high over brown Bodmin
the sun going down in a fume and the pinnacles of Lyonesse,
and the lost world of Ys, scattering gold in a molten flux.
John Foggin’s homeland was Yorkshire, although he was also devoted to the Isle of Skye, and he was proudly and unashamedly a poet of the north. Here is a particularly evocative stanza conjuring up back streets and industrialism:
Emerald Street was paved with foundry slag
and fringed with fireweed. I can taste the creosoted
railway sleeper walls, the sweet and dirty smell
of lanolin, the smell of buses and old men
In ‘Who Knows?’ he muses on Big Bang, life, the universe, and everything: “It takes something of a god / to make a cosmic firework, / light the blue touchpaper and retire”. He writes with fascination about geology, and the particular legacy of mining in relation to the surface of the land: “The land sighs and sinks, and our houses / all sit crank, sapped by history, staring / at the waste. My place that I hardly know.” (‘Sapped’).
From there we have a number of poems about mining disasters, written with warmth and empathy, leading up to the collection’s title poem, and the remarkable line “maybe the lost miners every one will turn to jet and angels make brooches of their eyes”. ‘Wound Up’ is a tribute to the underground workers whose services are no longer required.
‘Trespassers’ celebrates the working and walking people of the north, who with the kind of radical defiance that he approved of “came by steam train, on the bus, / away from pit and mill and forge / … knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls, / would pull aside wired gates, / push over ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards, / would not be kept from bluebell woods.”
Towards the end of the collection he contemplates death. Here are the last three lines of ‘The Year I Learned to Drive’, after he reflects that “Later came the year I learned to die/ … It gets easier, I understand. / Letting go, trusting the dark / to bear you up.” At the same time other poems such as ‘Something Going on’ and ‘Open-eyed’ still embrace life … “there’s that buzz under everything.”
The final poem ‘In The Meantime’ is also listed as the Epilogue, and has the familiar, old English image of the sparrow flying through the hall signalling the brevity of life. He imagines the sparrow trapped in the hall, “frantic to be out there”. Somehow it escapes, finds itself “out into the turbulence of everywhere, / and who knows what happens next.”
Who, indeed? John Foggin’s Pressed For Time represents a measured, courageous and passionate last poetic will and testament, a marvellous example of his dedication to and mastery of his craft. He relished the community of poetry, and was tireless in his support of others. These last words can only enhance the fond memories of former students and fellow poets.
They are beautifully produced and published by his good friend and former fellow open-mic night compere Bob Horne, of Calder Valley Poetry.