In Between: John Wedgwood Clarke, Valley Press

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This slim volume contains a sequence of 18 poems about York’s snickets, passageways, courts and yards, from ‘Mad Alice Lane’ to ‘Whip ma whop ma gate’, and was commissioned for a project that explores the ancient city through “contemporary art interventions”.

This kind of exercise must be just up John Wedgwood Clarke’s street. He has already published another pamphlet, Sea Swim, also an 18-poem sequence, about swimming in Scarborough’s South Bay.

It’s certainly not a rose-tinted, picture-postcard view of York, founded by the Romans as Eboracum in 71 AD, on the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss. Wedgwood Clarke writes in ‘Straker’s Passage’: “Geese on the Foss / bray clear through the clearance / of this scum, this hole in the city”. There is a similar sense of liquid disgust in ‘Starre Inn Passage’: “The rivers are yours, / flavoured by your bodies; what flows from you, / returns to you: the wretched retching, retching wretched“. And ‘Black Horse Passage’ continues this theme: “Here’s the place to watch your step, fear the corner, / needle, junk; to cross internal borders of the city, / ancient checkpoints of flesh and soul, / where the straight line and the curved run down to water.”

But just when the lover of York is thinking, this is the not the city I remember, here’s ‘St William’s College’: “The city grows into itself; the city / resounds like a forest, lifts us up / in its branches. Our shadows flicker / round the Minster as it sways in the light.”

There’s a combination of debris and archaeological treasure in ‘Three Cranes Lane’:

 

     Men with keys, sticky beer, masonry,

      bird shit, broken glass –

      same old, same old.

 

     And from the sewer:

      lapis lazuli, counters, signet stones,

      thin spoons for powders.

 

I’ve quoted the poem in its entirety, and some of the vignettes in this collection are glimpses and glances that might have been given more room to develop. The sequence of poems was commissioned for a body called York Curiouser, and in a sense, it is just that; a curiosity. But, like the city and its past, it contains layers of discoveries that bear further investigation. It may well appeal to anyone who has visited York, and has found themselves wandering into its snickets and byways, and wondering. I’d hazard a guess, too, that many natives of York glancing at these lines would find themselves looking at their own city in a fresh light, thanks to this modest but enjoyable and interesting addition to Eboracum’s heritage.

Greg Freeman 

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