Review: River Hoard by Neil Leadbeater

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

Cyberwit Press
ISBN 9789386653420

“River Hoard by Neil Leadbeater” is split into three parts, “Nights we Tricked the Corncrake”, “Fen Country” and “Objects at Upper Ludstone” plus a sequence “North Aral Sea”. As the titles suggest, it is mostly concerned with nature and human interaction with it. The title poem of the first part has a group of children echoing a male corncrake bird’s call,

“-the dull sound of a ratchet engaging its teeth on a pawl

-the noise made by a typewriter when the carriage shifts to the left

-the song of a fingernail scraping its edge on the rungs
of a metal comb.

Those were the late evenings of our young lives; times when
you could thrust your hand into the ripened stalks and still feel
the heat of the day sinking through the ground.”

The list is of sounds that can set people’s teeth on edge; ironic that these represent the sounds of a bird’s mating call. However, the end points to nostalgia for childhood, a time without adult responsibilities where it was possible to stop and sensually observe nature and where small things still held novelty. A group of poems focus on fish, e.g. in “Pike”,

“they reaffirm their realm –
each of them works it to the last knot

and with them go all the tags and terms
they have ever truly earned:

water-wolf, shark, lord, king…”

The poem’s focus is man’s names for pike drawn from observation, anthromorphising the fish as a signal of respect. Use of alliteration and consonance gives the poem a sound framework. This is nature observed at a distance without direct engagement.

Part II “Fen Country” shifts its focus from animals to landscape and plants. The collection’s title poem, “River Hoard” conveys reactions to lifting a fishing net out of the river Cam,

“and it was like blowing coloured marbles
out of the bowl of a saxophone
one note at a time.”

I understand that the play of light on water reduced the observers to wonder, but didn’t feel like the continuity of flowing water in puffing sound from a saxophone “one note at a time”. For me it felt as if the metaphor was bolted on. Like the earlier animals, plants are also anthromorphised, here in “Foxgloves”,

“blushing like children at the station box
who trespass for kicks in forbidden plots,
the place more beautiful than ever before
because of their bright bravado.”

Alliterative phrases give the poem an appropriate bouncing rhythm and sound pattern. Part III “Objects at Upper Ludstone” offers another shift of focus, this time onto working or living on the land. In the part’s title poem, farm machinery stands idle,

“draws me in –
it’s more to do with colour
than anything mechanical –
red is a statement I like a lot
it makes me wait
for inspiration

until the green light comes.”

The final part is a sequence about a disappeared sea, “North Aral Sea”, its loss and significance captured in the extract,

“We were the oasis on the Silk Road:
China linked to Europe.

History tells us never to give up on Hope.

One man says ‘I’ve never seen the sea but I’m sure
it’s out there somewhere
and one day will return.
The future’s in our hands.'”

“River Hoard” is packed with accomplished, gentle poems that demonstrate a love for the natural world. Their colloquial language make them easy to read aloud, which is a measure of the attention to vocabulary, sound patterns, format and craft that went into writing them. The poems’ surface elegance contains undercurrents of emotion, often using anthromorphism to communicate observations and thoughts. They nudge rather than shout at the reader and will appeal to readers who prefer poems as quiet meditations creating space to reflect on the subject and images built within.

Emma Lee

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