I won't explicate every week, but I usually have a little preamble which goes with the following poem when I do readings. I've never really gone in for high-concept poetry (it's a bit whimsical for my liking), but this piece is an exception. When I wrote 'A Treasure Hunt Book', I'd just read Peter Davison's travelogue-cum-literary history-cum-cultural analysis The Idea of North, which got me thinking about the mythopoetics of northern England: this was before I'd come into contact with the novels of David Peace and M. John Harrison, and all I really had to go on was David Storey and a few Michael Haslam poems. Now, of course, I've read round my subject a bit more and I have a first edition of Basil Bunting's Objectivistic 'northern Waste Land' Briggflatts sitting, well-thumbed, on a shelf.
Anyway - there was a long ramble about my gripes with the ongoing promotion of antimodernist northern poets at the expense of experimentalists like Barry MacSweeney, but I've excised it - I remembered the books that came out in the 1980s where the text was a series of cryptic clues pertaining to a real treasure trove that was secreted somewhere in the UK. All place names were removed: you had to work out the location through poetic riddles and some lovely, but artistically-licensed, illustration. The most fantastic things about these books were that the better ones worked as stand-alone texts for children whose parents had better things to do than spending every weekend shuttling up and down the M1 looking for a distinctively-shaped tree.
This, then, is the first poem I have to offer, and it's loosely inspired by those books, and by the North, and it was written in the first flush of my discovery of the British Poetry Revival. I've edited some of the more portentous bits; I still don't love it (it's rather fey).
Don't beat me up next time you see me...
A Treasure-Hunt Book
Beards of cloud clot the last strand of sky,
over the apex of the terrace, patronyms vaporised; poised.
It has been dark in Tromsø since noon:
you might know the experiment
(a tusk plied with spiders,
the thesis pre-Columbine.)
So - what is finally given up?
What's there to chuck at feet?
Even the humanities
still demand evidence that we don't act
on whim and, in a pirate town,
a bench adheres to its esplanade
with pathetic dedication. Enjoy the view, I did.
This was The Other Town.
I stepped onto the ashen platform and knew
that a cane-hilt once showered sparks
as fists unclenched, alleviated
when a callused palm brushed, accidentally at first,
the waistband of a landlocked wife.
Yes, that platform is scored
by parasols dropped for many reasons,
but how can we guess all of them
when we have fixtures, over the spine,
and must hurtle along culvert road, no article,
over the seeping dam of the reservoir,
and forfeit breath at the chicanes
of the obstinate crofter(s)
ennobled in M-way digressions. Anyhow.
This roseate melt of emblems
bleeds south like icing
until it ceases to count in the midshires.
Spa towns reek past their function
and are ignored, we must resort
to an under-framed sandstone castle,
its littoral the lair of a family worm
whose coils might be unwound to
demarcate what we have, rising in arches
from alliterating estuaries. Dunes there crumple,
the excursion is spoilt, and seahoused fishwives
are carried, put out, to the cheaper saloons
on a saline updraft of dialect.
We watch them insist on making
the best of a day in which they
won’t strain their eyes at every sail
reporting rumours, almost from the frigid zone,
almost from the shrouded nub.
Mileage of currents is figured in
thousands, drowning is radial
but its effect is not dispersed in time.
Cold contracts, chaffing our local disparity,
and it only pulls up at the now-known fault-line,
the true point, I think, of submersion.