My kind of poetry: David Underdown

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Last week I decided not to comment much on the poems Bob Beagrie shared with us; I wanted to them to be heard, and work on the reader, for their music, the texture of the language. I’m just hoping that it persuaded at least some of you to go back and listen to what they said, as well as the way they sounded, so that you could feel the surprise of recognition, say in the lovely image of the shape-shifting seals that


     cheose a life apart in the sealt sæ-tides,

     on the blæc ecges o’ the woruld’s teahor ducts.


or in the admission of the limits of language, and the erosions of language through time.


     I stand, one hand on the cross, turning,

     aiming names at horizon markers

     knowing the words can’t reach them,

     how the crow-wind strips them bare,

     how history is deciphering our footprints.


The other thing I might have said is that when I think about ‘northwords’ and ‘northern poetry’, I have in mind a quality that I’ll call expansiveness. And also a relish in the textures and surfaces of things that are an essential quality of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called haeccitas. It’s this quality that I like so much in the poems of David Underdown. So, less argument this week; just the enjoyment of sharing poems. 

embedded image from entry 91397 David has recently come to live in Hebden Bridge. Though a Mancunian by birth most of his life has been spent in the west of Scotland, latterly on the isle of Arran where he is an organiser of the McLellan poetry competition, which is how I first came to meet him. I can’t resist using this photo of me having the time of my life, having won the competition in 2015, and reading to a big room with the judge, Simon Armitage, in the audience, and David himself, just to my left. It was a stunning weekend, with a Saturday morning writers’ workshop led by Simon, in a church hall by the shore in the shadow of Goat Fell, and a view over to the mainland. It’s that combination of shore and mountain, and the expansiveness of wilded places that feeds into David’s poetry, the sense of space above all, although, as you’ll see, that’s not all by any means, and ‘space’ is a complicated concept.

His two collections, both from Cinnamon, are Time Lines (2011) and, in 2019, A Sense of North. David Constantine describes his poems as ‘watchful’: "he gives us a view from (in his own words) ‘a window / we did not know was there’, he makes ‘a halo round the ordinary.’’

The Poetry Book Society said of A Sense of North: “Drawing on subjects as varied as Roman legionaries and a worn-out shirt, modern air travel and the imagined life of a lugworm, [it] searches for purpose and order in the human condition. A sense of wonder finds itself kindled in the small and familiar as much as the large and emotive. Whether pondering the fickleness of memory or the meaning of love and loss, this is poetry that asks what it means to be alive.”

Time for the poems. I want to start with the poems of a particular sort of landscape and move towards the more interior and particular to illustrate the business of windows and of haloes round the ordinary. We start in wild places, and the relished names of bothies. Note that you would see the Quirang from the Craig Bothy ... and then the poem ranges like an airborne camera across the Highlands


     Bothy Lands embedded image from entry 91399

     Peanmeanach, Leacraithnaich,

     Strathchailleach, Staoineag, Craig . . .


     Across the firth the Quiraing’s jigsaw fret

     is topped again by April snows

     just as when families arrived

     to claim their Homes for Heroes.


     All over now: moors marching back

     from scoured shingle, lousewort and broomrape

     clinging on. For fear of falling masonry

     the house is closed with health and safety tape.


     Out in the Minch the famished gannets gorge on plastic

     line their guts with shreds of carrier bags.

     Inland, stacked beach-high behind the tide lines,

     cartons, a lube oil drum among the yellow flags.


     The bridge has gone – a lone Lands Ender

     heading South was almost drowned –

     but though the talk’s of open access

     all futures now are settled on The Mound –


     glens bright with plans,

     bankers talking dirty down in Edinburgh

     of how they’ll bring the salmon

     back to how they were.


     Birders scan the empty shorelines

     toting top Swarovski bins.

     Sharks sieve thinning seas for plankton,

     thresh accusatory fins.


     Peanmeanach, Leacraithnaich,

     Strathchailleach, Staoineag, Craig . . .


I read this as a pibroch, a lament for dispossession, and for the despoiling of the Earth. Bothies shelter storm-caught walkers, but they are invariably the abandoned houses of folk who could no longer be sustained by the land, or who were forcibly cleared from it. Homes Fit for Heroes indeed. Nothing can sentimentalise them. The moors are “marching back”, the masonry’s crumbling, the seas are choked with plastic and the birds and the fish are gone. What’s left is the roll call of the Gaelic placenames from a time when the people who spoke them knew what they described. It’s a haunting, angry poem that sticks in the mind and the heart.

The next one takes some chutzpah, to take on Norman MacCaig on his chosen ground. ‘Toad’. Everyone’s favourite MacCaig poem, I imagine:


     Stop looking like a purse. How could a purse
     Squeeze under the rickety door and sit,
     Full of satisfaction in a man’s house?


Here’s David’s take on a similar experience:




     You must have hopped in

     while the door was ajar

     bringing with you a pattern

     from the spaces between

     tall stems and stalks

     the dark marsh grass

     behind the shed.


     Beneath the light I see

     through your hopeless camouflage

     the mad mosaic of browns

     and greens, your landscape;

     and when I bend and kneel – 

     my eye almost the level of yours –

     your eye is an unwinking bead.


     Among the upright legs of chairs

     you pulse a gentler rhythm.

     Cupped in my palms

     I encompass you.

     We are surrounded by upholstery

     and household equipment –

     the two of us, skin to skin.


     Out in the marshy bit behind the shed

     from my bare hands you slip

     naked into soft rain.

     From underneath my hood

     I look in vain amongst the grass

     for where you've gone

     and kneel, and feel the ground.


There’s so much to like about this, starting with the title that sets up the expectation of both intimacy and vulnerabilty. I like the shifts of perspective, too, from outside to inside to outside again and the ambiguity of “spaces between”. It’s an expansive word, space, and a relative one, too. I like the way the space perceived by the toad is utterly different from that perceived by the human. There’s a moment that draws you in, that observation of how the toad brings into the angular spaces of the house a camouflage that abruptly ceases to work. There’s the tenderness of the connections of touch and also of eye contact, and the abrupt sense of loss when he returns the toad from that moment of intimacy into the world in which it vanishes, quite; you share the poet’s wondering if it was ever there at all. Brilliant. MacCaig comes to mind again:


     A jewel in your head? Toad,
     You’ve put one in mine,
     A tiny radiance in a dark place.


A similar sense of intimacy, the trope of ‘handling’, and a kind of wonder fills this next poem, that begins with a question.


     Charlotte Brontë’s Boots embedded image from entry 91398

     Your choosing them: what took your fancy

     must have been the compact chiseled toes

     capped by black leather, soft

     as human skin might be.


     No Vibram, no Goretex, no inner sole.

     You could never walk roughshod in these

     over your reverend father, over Branwell,

     over your dead sisters,


     yet here they are, left and right,

     under glass now. In fine or inclement weather

     each morning you would lace them tight

     to go about the business of your day.


     More here than fabric and the skin of animals.

     The same fingers held these as held the pen

     in that room upstairs, the one where Jane

     and Bessie Lee and Rochester were born.


     Brown, patterned like Laura Ashley

     and tiny, more like gloves than boots,

     they must have encased your feet,

     your boniness, white beneath your stockings.


     Who warmed them, those feet of yours,

     sore and cold from moors and rough cobbles?

     Who would you trust to feel the space

     between each toe, or hold that instep in their hand?


I think it’s the final stanza that lifts this poem beyond what many of us may have written, as it shifts from a speculation about the world of a famous writer and her boots to something more important, her feet inside them, and the imagined vulnerabilty of the wearer. Tenderness. There’s not enough of it in the world.

I thought I’d finish with a poem that segues nicely from one garment to another:


     My Favourite Shirt

     After all this time my favourite shirt

     the one I never have to think about

     or wonder if it’s right, has gone,

     worn out, a tear across its back

     where countless times I’ve tucked it in.

     And now I look more closely

     the collar’s frayed. Cuffs too.

     In places it’s so thin it is diaphanous.

     When did this occur? When

     was the first time someone might have looked

     and idly thought: ‘Bit shabby’?


     I wonder how it is that we lose grace.

     It doesn’t happen suddenly

     though that is how you notice it,

     the thinning of the lips, the brightness gone

     from this person who remains your friend.


It doesn’t need a commentary, does it? Except to observe how it’s lifted from what might feel predictable by one startling line: “I wonder how it is that we lose grace”. That phrase “I wonder” is what lies at the heart of so much of David’s poetry. What do I mean by “wonder”? I think it’s what one critic wrote (my rueful apologies, I can’t locate the source): resonance, aliveness, enthusiasm - attained through very close observation which manifests as care and love for such varied aspects of the world.

Thank you, David Underdown for being our guest and sharing your poems. For me, it’s been a labour of love.


embedded image from entry 91402

embedded image from entry 91403

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