Paul Sutherland‘s New and Selected Poems
Valley Press (www.valleypressuk.com)
ISBN 9781908853776, 380pp, £20
Paul Sutherland has ten poetry collections from which to select and a life journey which started in Ontario, Canada in 1947 and continues in Lincolnshire in the current day; a journey that takes in conversion from a nominal Christianity to becoming a Sufi Muslim. The book is divided into sections that reflect this, so readers are given a narrative arc. The poems are not dated and the sections are not necessarily titles of previous collections so there’s no way of sifting out the new from the selected poems. The narrative starts in childhood, in ‘Muskoka Rescue’, a grandmother wakes, unable to find a reason, she steps out of the Canadian cabin,
‘she spotted a four year old shape wading into darkness.
Sprinted over the foreshore and plunged into shallows
erupting layers where pre-Columbian trees had fallen
and decomposed to make a silted floor. Grandma grabbed
that water-ringed shadow, shaking it awake, drew it back
to the shore. It seems that sleepwalking child was me.’
Perhaps it was natural that rescued child would become a writer, exploring both the natural world and individual place in history. The child, now adult, returns in ‘Returning to My Homeland’
‘At my grandparents’ burial spot
where few had come to separate funerals
with many secrets sprinkled into the earth
I kneel, brush and polish.
In encroaching grass their shone floral design
reflects nothing of their past wishing.’
It shows how little of someone remains in their headstones and how grandparents had become distant, not only in terms of geography, but time. A reflection echoed in the long sequence, ‘Month Home Some Time Ago’ which includes the observation ‘studded wedding/ and keeper rings don’t age/ with crumpled hands’ to describe aunts. The longer sequences often merge poetry with prose. An old friend is remembered,
‘Don Black teaches me to believe glass is never inert, never reaching the point of absolute compliance. Glass’s countless reflections, colourations, are closer to its molecular truth than the fact you can pick it up, a transparent object, trusting its form won’t melt away in your hands. Its fragility is an illusion against endless flow caught a second by the glass-blower. His artefacts used as functional pieces convey irony not lost on my best, long lasting friend from school hood days who wore black to celebrate or mourn, impossible to say which, and it still is.’
England is initially presented as a place of exclusions, ‘Finding a Blue Door in Oxford’ is a long sequence detailing a visit,
‘My visit has this analogy. I’d gaze through scrolls of a wrought-iron gate, watch an advantaged world idle, play serious, light-hearted games. In return, it might show a glimpse. Down a shadowed, arched portico I’d see two fellows confer, a quad observed, decorative with rose, wisteria or ivy, a pampered stretch of lawn leads to famous steps, a terrace revealed. Then, unexpectedly (certainly I’d be deceived) that élite domain vanishes and grimaces like a gargoyle with indifference, grins as mouldings of irony. It disappears behind landmarks and gate-closing-times. It doesn’t matter if I wear a gown, pay for photographs or access, obey rules. Once attracted it closes-up pretends it has never been open to explore. Expertise we learn in childhood games such as hide and seek would not help us gain entry.’
Then readers are taken on a tourist’s trip through York’s museums and landscapes and Scotland and its islands. In “Hugh MacDiarmid”, “Perhaps he forgot hatreds/ as snow turned to cherry/ blossoms in wall-guarded/ garden”. The section, ‘Ben Nicholson Miniatures’ is a walk through a gallery, the sequence “The Works of Art” is a brief, haiku-like muse on each,
‘Still Life (1945)
so vivid, colour perturbs
Through prominent lines
further connections imply
hidden time rehearsed.’
Whilst ekphrastic poems need to do more than describe the piece of art they are based on, I think it helps to know that Ben Nicholson used cubist images with abstract shapes in neutral shades with a dash of vibrant colour accent.
In the section ‘Lincolnshire, A New Millennium,’ ‘”Crossing the Bar”’ is about a framed copy of Tennyson’s poem passed from grandfather to grandson and ends,
‘I stare too long through the clear
sheet, past fancy script, into depths
trying to imagine you, to conjure
some moment we shared in trust
as a grandfather and grandson can.
And yet, your see-through glass
deceives, it merely reflects back me
and my preparation and crossing
from this world; not so far ahead.
You, no doubt, expected your gift
would have that purpose some hour
when passing it on like a heirloom.
It had helped you. It will help me.’
It sets the scene for the final two sections which contains poems written for and about a granddaughter, Farrah. ‘Intriguing Farrah’ is in a child’s voice,
‘Granddad, I didn’t find a witch
or hear a mouse squeak
or meet a dog to give a bone
but I saw a wheel in a silver gown
and eyebrows on a chimney.’
Children can find magic in the most ordinary of things. Whilst Farrah lacks vocabulary, her voice is clear and free of cutesy baby-talk. She is being recorded, not infantilised.
Paul Sutherland’s ‘New and Selected Poems’ successfully follow a narrative arc, which gives the whole collection an underlying structure. This might frustrate archivists looking to see the writer’s journey and development from early poems to later ones, but it creates a sense of flow and seamlessness to a body of work at its strongest when revealing focused observations and details within extended family relationships.