My kind of poetry: Yvonne Reddick
We can get used to all sorts of fashions and default settings in poetry, getting comfortable with psalms, and sestinas, and free verse, and minimalism, and stanzaic bits of ekphrasis and sonnets, and narratives. Which reminds me of a writing course I went on where elegant lyricism and exquisitely crafted velleities were the name of the game, and, en passant, one lady of letters remarked, languidly enough: “The anecdotal, the bus-stop conversation, has its own charm.” By which I understood that it has no place in serious poetry at all.
This set me to think of my own predilection for narrative in poetry, and my inability to engage with, or be engaged by, self-referential stylistic games with fleeting moments, and the fragility of, say, a lemon. It also made me think of what does engage me. Emotional and intellectual surprise and challenge... that grabs me. I like novels like The Name of the Rose, and Tristram Shandy. I like Norman MacCaig’s outrageous similes. I like the Metaphysicals. I like early Tony Harrison. I like ‘The Waste land’. I like to be out of my comfort zone, put slightly off -balance; I like creative disturbance. And so I came to like Yvonne Reddick’s idiosyncratic take on the world and its multifariousness.
The first time I met her was (regular readers, you can now roll your eyes and get it over with) at a Poetry Business Writing Day. After all, that’s where I get all my new poetry and poets. I may be wrong, but I think that was the one where she brought a distinctly eccentric poem to workshop. The title gives you due warning: ‘Holocene Extinction Memorial’. Nineteen irregular stanzas, each of which might be an idiosyncratic label in a room full of unnervingly strange exhibits.
“The Indefatigable Galapagos Mouse from Indefatigable Island wants to be invincible”
“The Hacaath of Vancouver struggle with smallpox”
“The quagga hopes Burchell’s zebra remembers her”
I have no idea if she made some of them up, or all, or none; I could Google them but I have no desire to find out. The thing is, she read with such emphatic conviction that I had no choice but to be convinced. I have no idea if anyone else was as taken as I, or even if it was “a Good Poem”. All I know is, it was unexpected, and memorable, and that’s not the case with everything you hear in a workshop. It was like the poem equivalent of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford before it was tidied up and curated into rationality; like the cabinets of curiosities beloved of the incumbents of Victorian rectories.
‘Where’s she coming from?’
Sometimes we ask of a poet we can’t pigeonhole: “Where’s she coming from?” Well, how about starting with her biography. Yvonne grew up between Glasgow, Aberdeen, Kuwait City and Berkshire. She is an academic and writer, currently based in Preston, where she is Research Fellow in modern English and world literatures at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire. She’s also Visiting Fellow, at the Centre for the Study of International Slavery, University of Liverpool. After reading English at Cambridge, she studied for her PhD and began her academic career at the University of Warwick, where she also published her first pamphlet of poetry, LandForms (Seapressed) in 2012.
One reviewer was clearly taken with the challenge of dealing with what I see as an intriguing erudition. The violence he does to syntax and semantics is a joy worth sharing. Yvonne says she didn’t understand it. Me neither. But it is enjoyable. Here’s a couple of lines from his review:
“The binary is itself the uncomfortable site of negotiation, laying waste to and galvanizing its own division and divination”
“Mostly by stanza, these lines betray navigational lyric, resplendent with lean overtures of isle:”
Well, there you go; decipher as you will. Yvonne’s research has seen her deciphering Ted Hughes’s notebooks on horoscopes and necromancy, which has fed into her dauntingly dense academic work, Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet; reading David Livingstone’s beautiful copperplate writing in Zambia, and translating previously unanalysed Congolese writers from French. Deerhart, her second poetry pamphlet, was published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press in 2016. You can see now why you should be prepared to be, with me, happily just outside your comfort zone. You should also understand that this is no cut and paste anthologiser of the strange, cryptic and bizarre. Like another favourite poet of mine – Julie Mellor – here’s a researcher who brings an imaginative sensitivity and a careful craftsmanship to her work. To persuade you to share my enthusiasm, here’s an extract from:
My Grandmother Was A Pink-Footed Goose
"My Mémé was bird-bone hollow, all ribstrakes and flapping bald elbows, flesh slouched over a V of sternum. Shallow breath-râles, knuckly birdleg fingers. Her English evaporated as her mind nested the tumor. The remains: ‘J’ai ces …hallucinations’ of pools and oceans, my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.”
A couple of years ago, I asked Yvonne to reflect on one of her poems and she wrote this about about this particular poem:
" ‘My Grandmother was a Pink-Footed Goose’ was inspired by a decomposed pigeon that flopped from the roof of the block of flats where I live! … it was an interesting intimation of mortality. I’d been wanting to elegise my Swiss grandmother for a long while, and I used images of keelbones, quills and ribs to evoke a body racked with illness. She was the last native speaker of French in our family, but she was also a real polyglot: she spoke excellent English, good German and some Romansh. I wanted to honour her heritage as a migrant, and to end my poem with an image of renewal and return.”
I’d been intrigued by the imagery of “keelbones, quills and ribs”, but now realise that I hadn’t read all the poem properly at all. Or perhaps it’s that after five days of intensive reading and writing on a residential writing course, I’m just that bit more fine-tuned to really, really listen to what a poem intends me to hear.
What we make of a poem is what we bring to it, all our memory that shapes the poem we reinvent from the text on the page. I suppose what I brought to it, among other things, was my relationship with the story of Icarus, of a boy whose wings failed him, and a father complicit in his death. Also, 30 years of responsibilities for increasingly old and frail relatives – my mother, my mother and father-in law. Also a day in June one year when I took my mother’s ashes to a waterfall in a quiet Dales valley. Also my father, the birdwatcher, and the cold northern hills and seas and skies where I think I belong. And all that baggage can get in the way of what’s there, if we listen. I didn’t attend properly to the voice of this poem … or perhaps the voices which overlap … and what they are telling me and discovering for themselves. So what triggered a re-understanding (which may well still be wide of the mark)?
It was this comment that stopped me dead in my tracks:
“My collection in progress (now published, Translating Mountains, Seren, 2018) is about mountaineering in the Highlands and Alps. It elegises my father, who died in the Grey Corries.”
The Grey Corries in the Nevis range are one of those landscapes I can only dream of, and read of. They’re too big, too hard, too altogether intimidating. I don’t have the strength, or the limbs, or the confidence to go into those high and unrelenting places. And I had a son who died in a fall from a high place. So I read that sentence, and then went back and read, “my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.” I have no notion whether I’m reading truly, but I know I’ll no longer read that line and think “what a wonderfully nailed down image of a great bird in flight”. Instead, I’ll remember watching a friend of mine fall off a pitch on a face in Borrowdale, and every account I’ve read of fatal falls on mountains will blur together, and mesh with that one word “webbing”. And, I suppose, I’ll be faced once more with the complicated business of the relation of the poem which is out there on its own terms, and the knowledge we have, or haven’t, about the writer, her biography, her intentions. And we’d better, at the same time, acknowledge that she may not have known what her intentions were, and that she may still not know what, or how, she feels about the process. All I know is that when I’ve written about Daedalus, or Hephaestus, or Mallory, or, indeed, Lucifer, I never knew what was going on, and was regularly unnerved and surprised. Yvonne Reddick made me see that more clearly, whether she meant to or not. And if I’m totally off track with the whole business, the question of what a poem means, and what it can be made to mean, will still be there, insistent and demanding our attention.
And what demands my attention now are the poems she sent me after I heard her read with David Constantine at the Square Chapel in Halifax. She spoke passionately about her engagement with the slow extinctions of climate change and the conflict she feels between elegising the father who died in the mountains he loved, and the father who worked in the oil industry, on oil rigs around the world. I think it’s this tension that gives these poems a rare and urgent energy.
Between fjords and the Firth, the rig whirred
from its crown-block to the pit of its possum belly –
my father left at dawn to work the offshore fields.
He mixed with roughnecks and a crude-talking toolpusher:
their toil lit the flarestack, sparked fuses, stoked motors.
Farther north, the trickle and tick of ice floes.
That year’s gales uprooted dunes, hurled gulls
along Union Street; the derrick braced its anchors,
strained against the storm surge.
His chair sat empty.
The desk paperweight: a drop of Brent crude
globed in glass, the tarry slick levelling as I tilted it.
I tried to pray for breezes to ferry him home,
but all I could invoke were fields of North Sea oil:
Magnus, Beatrice, Loyal.
I was nine, when my father made me leave –
he drilled an emirate with straight-ruled borders.
The heat on the runway like the breath of a foundry.
My Narnia books arrived after their voyage
along the Suez Canal, in the sea-freight.
Wearing shorts was forbidden – even for men.
Mirage city, under the warp-shimmer of fifty degrees.
Sun-beaten metal. Lightstruck glass,
the bombed-out bridge to Bubiyan Island.
At the sandstone ridge on the edge of Iraq,
herdsmen turned camels loose to trigger landmines.
At school, they preached that oil was fossil light:
one barrelful did twelve years’ human work.
Dad’s friends talked Bonny Light, Brent Blend,
Sour Heavy Crude, counting days in gallons.
Oil was refined, but its temper had a flashpoint –
I’d listen from the landing:
“They kicked down the door
of the neighbours’ shop,
then bullets started shattering the windows.
Khalid and I ran.
We saw tanks lumbering down Gulf Street.
They stole everything – air conditioners, cigarettes –
then torched the ground floor.
My cousin shot at the police station they’d seized.
They tore out his eyes.”
“The burning pipeline howled –
Sara said like a jet engine.
Fire-trenches and oil-lakes under a sky dark at midday.
Six million barrels of light, sweet crude…”
“I watched birds wading in the slick-ponds.
There was a hoopoe drinking petroleum,
an oiled eagle panting for water.”
“Airstrike on the Basra road:
the man clawed at the windscreen,
trying to smash free before the petrol tank blew.
An American camera blinked at his burnt out sockets.”
From Anchorage, Calgary, Houston or Galveston,
my father returned, jet-lagged and running fumes,
to plant English lavender on Texan time.
His shirts would smell of earth and gasoline.
I’d see him at the sink, scrubbing his hands:
“I’ve fixed the engine!” He’d show his palms –
I watched him scouring skin that wouldn’t come clean.
A two-stroke heart has steely valves and chambers,
a trace that falters. He said he’d hike the path
above the falls, but dusk could not bring him home –
The spring after we buried him, I heaped his books
in a rusty petrol-drum, and flicked the match. A pyre
for Goodbye to All That, Fire in the Night and Pioneer.
My father weighed a little less than at birth.
I carried him in both hands to the pines
as October brought the burning season.
When I unscrewed the urn, bone-chaff and grit
streamed out, with their gunpowder smell.
I remembered the sulphur hiss of the match –
how he taught me to breathe on the steeple of logs
until the kindling caught, quickening flames.
That night, in sleep, I saw the forest clearing
by the moor’s edge, and the ring of his ashes.
A skirl of smoke began to rise –
bracken curling, a fume of blaeberry leaves.
Ants broke their ranks to scatter and flee,
and a moth spun ahead of the fire-wind.
I took the path over the heath at a run.
A voice at my shoulder said, “You’ll inherit fire.”
And through the smoke I glimpsed a line of figures
on the hillside, beating and beating the heather
as the fire-front roared towards them.
A volley of shouts: “Keep the wind at your back!”
My grandmother threshing with a fire-broom,
Dad hacking a firebreak. My stillborn brother, now grown,
sprinting for the hollow where the spring once flowed,
the whole hill flaring in the updraft.
And there: a girl, running for the riverside –
she wore my face, the shade of ash.
You know what? Normally I’d feel driven to write some sort of commentary on the poems as I go, feeling the need to tell you just why you should like them as much as I do. I’d be talking about the rhythm, the texture, the lexis, the moments that draw you in, the points where the poems ignite. I’d talk about the core images, the metaphors. And I’d just get in the way. So read these poems, but read them aloud and taste their textures. And I’ll store these three lines in a special place, along with my mother’s ashes in the Valley of Desolation
My father weighed a little less than at birth.
I carried him in both hands to the pines
as October brought the burning season.
Thanks for being our guest today, Yvonne Reddick. It was a pleasure and a privilege.