Richard Barnett, Seahouses, (Valley Press, £7.99).
Is it too fanciful to hope, that a cultural archaeologist, in six hundred years, might turn over in their hands, the delicate, beautiful rectangle of processed wood, print technology, and creative design, that is the small press poetry volume of today, and marvel?
They would be right to marvel if it was this small volume from Scarborough’s Valley Press, Seahouses by Richard Barnett. The black and white tree burr (or is it bird featherings?) of the front cover (from the poet’s own photograph) is beautiful, yet sets the dark and somber tone of this collection, with its preoccupation with time and travel and their displacements, and what remains.
Though reaching an apogee in the extended poem sequence that gives the collection its name, its themes (often in a nautical context) are prefigured in ‘Longshore Drift’, where the narrator ‘summons whispers, echoes to pursue/down to the shore – another refugee.’ Or in ‘Poem on Selling a Guitar’, where, ‘My fingertips/will forget the strings, but for a time/my shoulders will recall the heft.’ And then asks: ‘What remains of a song,/when you find you cannot sing it?’ Or the isolation and loneliness in ‘Pitcairn’, where ‘breadfruit’ is only ‘our windfallen consolation’, without which, ‘we would have nothing –‘ and only in sleep do ‘we slip/the moorings of our separateness’. Marooned, geographically on Pitcairn Island, as well as emotionally and psychologically.
In ‘Cloud Study, Hampstead Heath’, that most ephemeral of natural phenomena, cloud, makes up a ‘Today…made of light and air/and water underfoot.’ A moment where a boy – the woman’s son? – is ‘a sycamore key,/dancing on air, so small, so slight/that the wind must surely carry him away.’ This world is constantly shifting, transient, inherently ‘unsafe.’ ‘Paths are ghosts./To walk is to be haunted, to haunt,’ from ‘A Line Made By Walking’, the opening poem, establishes the book’s mood.
However, should this sense of broken-offness, departedness, threaten to sound a little whimsical and even soufflé-fey, at times, the epigraphs remind us of the high seriousness of intent. No poems that quote Chomsky and De Lillo in their epigraphs are aspiring to otherworldly romanticism. The tone is more like the dystopia of ‘Tomorrow’, where ‘tomorrow we will/not need to live for one another…tomorrow our smiles will be fixed…tomorrow we will all be/collaborators.’ Or the Plathian, in the title-echo of ‘You Do Not Do’, and the short-line and dark suggestion, where ‘I light a black candle for you.’
All these concerns meld in the ‘Seahouses’ sequence which concludes the collection. Barnett exploits the sea theme to the hilt, with some stanzas almost concrete poems in the shape of boats’ hulls, and the Siren-like refrain of ‘Will you come with me? Everybody/Comes with me, eventually.’ And the counterpoint indecision of reply, which almost wants to be made by mermaids – ‘Perhaps, yes, perhaps/yes, yes, perhaps.’
The sardonic trope in this ostensible sea-saga, is that the boat described in the poem is not just in harbour, but dry-docked, beached, needing attention on the shingle (‘dry-docks’ feature also in ‘Longshore Drift.’) The sea itself is a life-taker, ‘the broken mirror of the world’ as well as the bringer of cargoes of new ideas (Cuthbert, the missionary, is described.) But nothing seems to be working much, the work of repair giving in to decay and atrophy (including the ideas) in ‘This year was slow, wood/ and pitch weren’t getting on.’ The water is indifferent to the human plight, ‘Self-sufficient, distant sea/Withdraw and overwhelm, itself it solves.’ Itself, but nothing else. Even its capacity to feed us is in doubt, the Norwegian lobster-pots empty of catch and its crew, a ‘cup of coffee was on the dashboard/half full and steaming.’ Where are they? Even the will or quest to repair, make reparations, seems fatigued, given-up. Instead of weatherproofing the boat, ‘I kept finding myself with a/rollup and mug of tea, staring out at the gorse and/marram running down to the beach.’
In the quotations above, you may see some the strengths of a poem well-grounded in the everyday of ‘mugs of coffee’ and ‘roll-ups’, and the detritus under the waves and left on the shoreline, but also the slightly uncomfortable line-endings which are created in those sections where the narrators’ voice enters, in those forms that seems to echo the bow or sterns of ships and boats in shape. I like this discursive, observational, philosophical narrator-voice, but wonder if the determination to press home the nautical referencing with ‘ship-shape’ stanzas (perhaps in itself, a slightly overly-self-referential ‘tic’) doesn’t undermine the voice itself, as like the boat-shapes, it is an artful design too intrusive. I enjoyed the varied tone and ‘voice’ in this counter-pointing, and this and the refrain-and-answer sections help ‘caulk’ the timbers of the verse together, but my preference lies where the poet allows the sea, and the happenings on, above and below it, to ‘speak for itself’, without the authorial commentary, which, if you’ll forgive me, make the sequence just slightly less immersive.