‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ by Simon Currie
ISBN 978-1-913122-15-7, £10
‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ is a collection of poems steeped in Simon Currie’s local landscape, Yorkshire, UK, travels abroad and looking back over a long life. In the first poem, ‘Above Clun’, the narrator observes on climbing a stile, ‘If I step up to reach the top rung,/ a shadow head may touch the clouds.’ The line implies these will be poems of observance and record. Curiously only two refer to a career. ‘Tension Pneumothorax’ subtitled ‘A&E 1964’, a man taken to hospital struggling to breathe is misdiagnosed with a heart attack until ‘I stick a needle in his chest.// A hiss of air released/ fills the whole bay’ and concludes
‘Neither surgeon nor saint,
born with two left hands,
at the touch of a finger
I raise a man from the dead.
I doubt it’ll happen again.’
This is more than a touch of modesty. For the narrator, saving this man’s live is merely part of the job, a task done between others in the high stress environment of emergency hospital admissions. The casualness of the last line suggests that success is not something to dwell on, there’s always another patient to be seen and saving one man’s live is nothing if you don’t move to contribute to saving others.
The historical poems are a mix of the weighty and slyly humorous. Blaga Dimitrova was Bulgarian Vice-President from 1992-1993 and also a dissident poet. ‘The Last Eagle of Blaga Dimitrova (1922-2003)’ subtitled ‘after Dimitrova’s The Eagles have Gone (1983), Vitosha, Bulgaria, June 2016’ starts, ‘Your eagle was a symbol of hope,/ silenced as folk ceased to speak out/ under an oppressive cloudscape.’
‘A decade on, Poet, Vice-President
(a post you regretted taking)
you could command change,
the silence broken. Your eagle
of free speech was back,
circling over town and village.
Today, that eagle must still patrol
the heights above your land.’
The eagle was a symbol Dimitrova frequently used in her poems so it’s appropriate here, although birds are a frequently used symbol for freedom. The language tells, there’s no explanation for why Dimitrova regretted taking the post of Vice-President, and the rhythm prosaic. In contrast, ‘Rimbaud for tea at Mme de Fleurville’s’ injects humour,
‘They felt a poet should look
a poet: eyes deep-set, face wan,
wind-swept locks. Not a crook.
Have some degree of hauteur,
not resemble the sort of man
that lurks outside un pissoir.
Rough trade, this peasant:
a scunge, hair an odd quiff,
voice harsh, an adolescent.
Yet, eyes a piercing blue,
face not that of a waif,
something rang true.’
The unusual rhyme scheme – lines 1 and 3, lines 2 and 5, and lines 4 and 6 – gives the poem a framework.
Inevitably looking back involves looking back at the two world wars. In ‘Garden of Stone’ set in a graveyard in Stonefall, Harrogate, Yorkshire, the headstones are
‘Sanitized, no hint of men.
Wings: R.A.F., Canadian.
Ages, eighteen to thirty.
Sun climbs. Stones dazzle.
Privet clipped, no cat smell.
Spirits geese, in skies over
Lincoln, North Sea, Holland.
Men stay, here sixty years,
twice their lives.’
The contrast between the youth of the dead and the longevity of the headstones is clear. A little light relief comes from a parrot called Evelina in ‘My African Grey’ as the parrots repeats what the husband calls his mistress so alerts the wife to his adultery,
‘The day I threw him out I gave Evelina a treat.
After all, she’d done her bit towards my divorce.
When all’s said and done, she lost her freedom
to give me mine: quite a bond.’
The title poem stays in Yorkshire and relates a struggle to identify a plant concluding it’s a willowherb but then speculating,
‘Did some enchanter squeeze
a drop from flower or fruit
inducing sleep? Or, worse, oblivion?
Otherwise, why so grand and potent
a name for such a humble plant?’
‘The Swallows of Chernobyl’ lets the reader do the speculation as it tells readers, ‘But their young never return:/ something wrong, the autumn journey / a one-way ticket’ while,
‘mums, dads get older,
back to rebuild the nests, breed again.
Build and breed.’
Something is disturbing the young swallows’ instincts to return to their birthplace to nest again. The sense of disturbed instinct is returned to in ‘Sometimes I imagine’ where the narrator arrives in a village noticing a stone to a boy who drowned before the First World War and speculating that they could have been friends,
‘played together to hoick out
crayfish or tickle trout,
to swap my Swiss Army knife
for his half-sovereign.
But then I guess he would be
the age to fight in that war,
die in a screaming shell-hole.
Better to think him slipped
away too early, in this pool.’
It must have been an accidental drowning since suicides weren’t traditionally given a stone to mark their lives. ‘Acumen not enough’ is the second poem to look back at the poet’s career, ‘But, forty years on, I remember/ only the patients I mismanaged/ through the dichotomy of choice:/ the wrong path taken.’ The last line an obvious echo of Robert Frost.
Simon Currie has created a solid collection in ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ with a mix of nature, history and personal memoir, each taking the shape of a stab carefully chiselled onto the page. The load is lightened by the occasional light poem showing that a lot of consideration and selection went into the order of poems.