Falling and Flying: Jeff Phelps, Offa's Press
This full collection - and with no pun relating to the title intended – feels like a breath of fresh air. ‘Remembering Snow’ is lyrical and profound in its recollections of childhood: “Steam is scrawled by the last train / along the valley like a farewell note.” For those of a certain generation, the Beeching cuts and the end of the steam locos helped to define our childhoods. But is this an eco-poem too, commenting on the increasing infrequency of snow?
I would do anything to have
this high field covered once more
in the same snow I remember
I write this in north Northumberland, where snow has been on the ground for several days!
On the opposite page are two poems. ‘Journey’ is about swallows heading south in autumn, “a pulse you know / you must follow”. ‘Blackbird’ is suffused with joy, about hearing birdsong while whistling in the kitchen:
augmented blackbird jazz, natural as the
rearrangement of plates in a dishwasher, cold
tap gushing, kettle in the kitchen, singing.
‘Oasis Café’ maintains the mood, a place where you can make “single cappuccinos last” and “the sun rests simple on our table”. “Our Anniversaries’ celebrates the everyday, and moments that may or may not pass unnoticed:
Most anniversaries are sllent yet
still dazzle like any ruby or precious stone,
small first-times in which we left a child at school,
touched hands or found ourselves alone
‘Dangerous Corner’ is a poem about Brexit that skillfully never mentions it, as we must not do; ‘On the Bommy’ captures the legacy of growing up among bombed-out homes; ‘Dylan and Me’ is a paean to the Welsh bard of “cut-glass consonants and vowels like / London plums”, which goes some way to matching him in lyrical inventiveness, and certainly excels him in comprehension as it mourns “half a life unwritten, lily-livered/ rascally young and murmuring at us / only to love the words.”
And now to the first poem in Falling and Flying, and to a few others that relate to the title of the collection. ‘Cadman’s Leap’ relates the sad story of 18th century showman and rope slider Robert Cadman, who fell to his death at St Mary’s church, Shrewsbury in 1739 when his rope was mistakenly overtightened as he attempted to slide from the spire. A second poem, ‘Cadman’s Wife’, a villanelle, looks at the tragic mishap from his poor spouse’s point of view, collecting so few coins “for such a fall”:
I loved him, touted for him. I would crawl
among the beggars and the babies for a pound
but when he dropped I spilled them all.
Another leaper, the foolish monk ‘Eilmer of Malmesbury’ was reduced to hobbling and being mocked for the rest of his life after breaking both legs when he launched himself from the top of Malmesbury abbey wearing wooden wings. Phelps tries to understand what made the mad monk believe a Greek myth:
God forgive me, I would give both my knees
to climb those tower steps again, tie on
my singed wings and soar over the town
foolhardy, green as Icarus.
‘New Year’s Flight’ maintains the sensation of being up there, and is strangely disorientating as the poet slices through time zones, flying east on New Year’s Eve, while ‘Idiot’s Guide to Freedom’ talks of making a staircase to a window “with all the books I’d bought”:
and there at last I understood
I spread my wings
Perhaps the poet’s strong empathy with birds, as demonstrated elsewhere in the collection, helps to explain this group of poems. They certainly provide an interesting counter-point to the rest of the collection, in which Jeff Phelps keeps his feet firmly on the ground. There are a number of poems rooted in the land: ploughing, dowsing, unearthed antiquities, Avebury stone circle, plus all those Cornish saints with peculiar names. The warm mood of these crafted poems induces a certain glow, and should particularly appeal to those intent on making the most of the autumn of their lives.