Finding the River Horse: Neil Leadbeater, Littoral Press
The heart sinks. Not another poetry collection about the history and characters of an English county, I hear you complain. But yes, here it is, Cambridgeshire this time. Haven’t we been here before? Well, yes and no. Neil Leadbeater’s latest collection does include poems about quirky places and contains a selection of local worthies (Pepys and Byron inter alios) but it is more than just that.
Sometimes reading a new poetry collection one can be lulled into a recognisable dream of place. We feel at home, it’s safe, the villages and towns are familiar, even if we’ve never visited them, and to be loved for that very reason in our increasingly fraught and doubtful times. But with this work the doubts begin to creep in fairly quickly.
These places of Anglo-Saxon origin, are they all that they seem? A note at the back of the book confirms one’s growing suspicions. “The Cambridge Book of Days by Rosemary Zanders (The History Press, 2011) provided me with source material for a number of poems,” Leadbeater admits.
So, has he actually visited the places he mentions? Did he spend months trudging across sodden fields following the less-trodden paths of the fens and the Fen country? Or is this an armchair attempt to capture the spirits of the place, the genii loci? Well, my guess is it’s both.
Leadbeater brings to the party a finely developed sense of metaphor where all is not what it seems, as AC Clarke notes on the back cover. Take the brief but filling ‘Foxton’, for example:
These small farmsteads out on the end of nowhere.
“Look, over there! Beside the Hoffer, I saw them!
Not one, but seven foxes on the lawn … “
A small boy running away with an idea.
This compression is typical and one has to keep one’s wits sharp in reading this kind of poetry. It is observed and/ or remembered and is a lot of fun (many of the poems are very funny) once you get the hang of it. And isn’t that the point? Good poetry demands very close reading. This isn’t topical performance stuff, heard once and instantly forgotten. Leadbeater’s images stick like burrs and stay with you. In ‘Catching Rainbows’, my favourite, he muses:
Where do rainbows end
and is there really treasure there?
Trout can be elusive animals.
The switch of idea / image is immediate and compelling in a watery landscape. So what kind of rainbows is he talking about?
they can slip through your grasp
so that all you can see in the river
is an after-glow.
He concludes: “Chasing rainbows / is what we call it / and as rainbow chasers / we should know.” And, as poetry readers, we are all rainbow chasers, aren’t we?
I heartily commend this delightful slim volume. It’s slim, yes, but weighty and repays several readings. The poems have a brevity that allows the fullness of the landscapes and creatures to be contemplated. Not a guide book, more of a wunderkammer and one that I shall be revisiting. The cover photo draws us in and the design of the book allows us plenty of room to wander in, and wonder.
Simon Fletcher is a freelance writer/ poet and WEA tutor. He has published a number of collections of poetry, and has worked with Debjani Chatterjee and Basir Sultan Kazmi to create an anglicised version of the mushaira, a multilingual poets’ gathering that has performed all over Britain and has been invited to Pakistan, India and Norway. He is also the manager/editor of Offa’s Press, a small press with the ambition of raising the profile of poetry in the West Midlands.