Citizens: Ian Parks, Smokestack
It rains in a lot of Ian Parks’ poems. I was tempted to work out the percentage. He is writing out of South Yorkshire and the post-industrial north of England, a home I share. Our urban landscape and its surroundings are indeed filtered through rain, an apt metaphor for days spent out of the light, in mines, steelworks and factories; nights in pubs and working men’s clubs; birth and death in tangled alleys and terraces.
The collection’s cover notes describe Parks as “the only poet to have published poems in the TLS and the Morning Star on the same day”. Born into a mining family in Mexborough, South Yorkshire, he has taught creative writing at the universities of Sheffield, Leeds, Oxford, De Montfort and Hull. Editor of the anthology, Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry (Five Leaves Publications) , Citizens is the latest of his many collections.
Two things stand out for me. First, the tension felt by many poets as to whether politics can be furthered from the notepad. Here we have a model for doing precisely this, hence the title Citizens and the question of how the subject might seek agency within a democracy of equals. This mission is certainly achieved in a final, six-poem sequence, ‘Elegy for the Chartist Poets’, that gives voice to poets whose “mouths are filled with clay”. They offer us quite specific advice:
The purple clouds are riven and we rise.
So keep your lines uncluttered, bold and clear;
Stake out the untilled region of the heart
And let it thrive. Restore us to the light.
Second, the centrality of place in so many of these accessible, enjoyable poems. Actual places appear in titles: ‘Wootton Bassett’, ‘The Land of Green Ginger’, ‘Harlech and Beyond’, ‘Cable Street’. More than this, the precise nature of a place and often its history, particularly of oppression and even killing, is wonderfully conveyed. The reader is absolutely there, for example, “swerving through new estates”, among “the fields of oil-seed rape”, “parked up on some empty beach//to watch the moon come clear and fade” (‘Citizens’). Those travelling in this “used car” are “free agents”. Yet at the time of the June 2016 referendum (hence the yellow rape fields), they “didn’t cast a vote”, and once on the open road, “our every exit is covered by a camera on a pole”.
This opening poem is followed by ‘Towpath’, where the speaker knows but does not tell their companion that, “the hill across the way//was once a slagheap — useless, overgrown/where three untethered horses graze,/cropping the shallow-rooted grass —.” In this use of language politics and poetry mesh, obliquely showing the cost of exploitation through the image of the three untethered horses grazing on the slagheap’s shallow-rooted grass. Repeatedly, excavations of this kind are made. ‘Registry of Births and Deaths’ ushers us into a dwelling that once housed the registry office. Here men and their infants “born to coal and dust” had their arrivals and departures written down, “reducing flesh and blood to dates and names”. The house’s current occupant “lies sleepless listening to the timeless air./ The town itself is riddled and subsides,/the barefoot shuffling of their feet/a tremor running through the downstairs rooms”.
These landscapes are haunted by the hidden pain of the past. But how to move beyond despair? ‘Beach Hut’ takes us into “a space no bigger than my bedroom now”. The speaker retreated there 30 years ago, during “… a year of rioting,/of running battles through the city streets,/of looted shop-fronts, shattered glass,/cars overturned and burning in the road.” But, they go on, “the rumour of it didn’t reach me there”, and bedding down on the floor, they were “convinced the answer could be found//in solitude and in the distant sound/of waves as they came crashing to the shore.” In ‘Mainland’, retreat is again considered, now by a speaker who has travelled to an island: “I came here to escape a darkening world.//Why should I listen to the news?” here where “there’s nothing but a mile/of dry-stone walls and unrelenting rain/between this cottage and the nearest farm”.
Returning to particular poems, I find new layers of meaning in apparently straightforward language. Much is achieved through images left to stand in closing lines. There is an intimacy to Ian Parks’ engagement with place and politics. There is also the memorable intimacy between the speaker and his father, detailed in five pages of prose that begin, “the only thing we had in common was our love of jazz”. Whether briefly drinking tea between the father returning from the pit and leaving for the working men’s club, or sitting together uneasily in a London jazz club, it is Ella Fitzgerald’s singing that connects them — a reminder that intimacy takes many forms.