ISLE OF WIGHT DREAMING : Robin Ford's On the Brink (Cinnamon Press, Wales, 2010)
Leaping out of a catalogue description of Robin Ford's new book of poems, On the Brink, from Cinnamon Press, his third, was the reference to the Isle of Wight. I didnt know his name but instantly he was my man! --the open sesame for the Island of which my own dream has always been waiting. (Long gone, I readily confess, my younger shrinking, taught by betters, from any such affiliation. The notion of poets representing this or that geographic region considered an utter joke --as though poetry was separated from the poets' own places or rather, ought to be, for the language's sake. Another of my generation's exciting but specious mutual-exclusivities which provided for the beauty of the autonomous object whilst undermining the truth of description & evocation.)
My brother Bernard, reviving as a small publisher with a renewed interest in the local via his Stingy Artist press in Weymouth, is keen now to foster my Dorset connection, as though I really were a 'Dorset poet'! --after all, I've been visiting Dorset since 1987, a few years after my younger siblings moved there from neighbouring Hampshire, followed by my parents. And Dorset's inner & outer landscapes have certainly inspired me in ways that Hampshire, apart from the New Forest, never did. However, because of what the catalogue had aroused in me, I suddenly rankled at Dorset's definitive claim! At least, I thought, if Dorset then Hampshire & the Isle of Wight too! Southampton & environs is something else : it was where I grew up, my home, the place from where one dreamt the future and opposed the small town tyrannies. But Ryde, Isle of Wight, was my birthplace, where my grandmother lived for decades (at Tangley Lodge, Salisbury Road) and where we holidayed through childhood & teens. The last time as a family was in 1965, the summer before my emigration to Australia, a brief sojourn sandwiched between clerking on British Railways in London, travelling on the Continent, & sailing on the Fairstar (I was a one-voyage mariner, jettisoned just as I was getting the hang of my hold & shop duties, worst luck).
My father, who grew up on the Island, suggested to me that perhaps we'd make a trip there, walk around his childhood haunts (Ryde, Bembridge), but it never happened. Instead I went myself, visiting my uncle Dennis there in 1996, accomplishing the reorientation Dad & I had planned. He, of course, was all ears for my report. In retrospect, lack of sleep & jet-lag from the Melbourne flight was the perfect preparation for the encounter --and my uncle's no show at both Waterloo & Portsmouth just another share of transcontinental displacement. But he was waiting at Ryde, --and all over the place in Ryde as that & succeeding days arranged themselves around his peripateticism & the wild oscillation of his sleeping & waking. Four a.m. kettle-boiling & cups of tea ushering in conversations to last the day about literature & philosophy (he was full of Ray Monk's biography of Bertrand Russell I recall) & music; walking miles around town & into the country; drinking with his young & old cronies at the London-style pub (captured for me now from memory of Graham Greene's novel or the film of Brighton Rock) --where 'London style' implicates all Southern England, transcending rural society's cap-doffing hierarchy --wherever found & whomever has the readies uncoupling ease from class --the comfortable shabbiness of carpet & furniture, and much the same for the patrons whether or not of the spiv & toff, flit & bot segment of Uncle Dennis's society.
I imagined Robin Ford's poems delivering me a version of my dream, but I should have known that dreams arent ever on tap to one's bidding! The cover of On the Brink (& that title should have been a warning) is an Isle of Wight view --cliffs, shale, white-tipped incoming seas, the dark-blue depths, the fast clouds in a sun-washed sky. And there in the centre of the book the sequence Wight.
Instantly he's given it to me, for example, At Dimbola in Freshwater (which is all about the famous Julia Margaret Cameron) : "Tennyson of course, a private path and gate for him / from Farringford, all the fashionable and great / who take up Freshwater : Browning, Darwin, Millais, / happy to pose as kings and mythic figures, Dodson's / Alice, staying up the road, whole lot fixed for us / by silver nitrate..." Or, In Clerken Lane : "Fooled by nostalgia I leave the main way, totter / on a muddy tightrope of a track, ridged high, slippery / with autumn, find it now cut short mid-way, mid-air."
There's a lovely thing apparently derived from a 1930s IOW memoir by wonderfully named Fred Mew -- A Glorious Morning 1913 : "I sit by Blackgang Chine / four hundred feet above a sea / that's brilliant, blue, / a thin, white line of foam / kissing at red shingle beach / which stretches from / St. Catherine's Point up to / the dreaded ledge at Atherfield, / graveyard of many fine ships ..." --a precious postcard.
From On Chalk, last verse : "and in an abandoned marlpit / when I brush againt / bramble dock coltsfoot / where it's claggy / thistle spring and anthill tussocked / I turn child again" -- more or less the idyll's caption.
Contrast the 2nd verse of the scene-setting Flotsam : "We walk the low tide shore; a cloudy day, storm passed, / sand dull and flat. Lugworm casts like walnuts, / knot and dunlin feeding at the water's curl. / Above sea's usual reach a mesh of blowsy rubbish: / cans, plastic, oil, tar-clogged garments, rope. / There's been a wreck along the coast, cargo flicked / off decks, tossed from holds and split containers. / Round the bay a line of heavy duty rubber gloves / gagged up by sea, orange as funeral garlands on the Ganges, / fingers splayed as if cold hands, at last gasp reach, lay dead in them: / Albatross, Sirenia, Irex, Clarendon." Of course it's an elegy, governed by essential pathos, but the utterly particular vocabulary is indispensable.
Juxtaposition elsewhere of "in summer sweet, by autumn treacherous" speaks to our Isle of Wight poet's internal & external weathers...
Let's suppose one hadnt gone instantly to the Wight section; instead read first the Asyla & Faustus poems. Then one would have begun with terror ("that haunted wing, my mind") & been riveted by the collection's major poem, Audrey at Whitecroft (--"the former county lunatic asylum on the Isle of Wight" , Ford notes, "later the psychiatric hospital until it closed in the 1980s" --where, indeed, he was too (Whitecroft Revisited 30 Years On), "The old wards named for poets: Shakespeare, Browning, T.S. Eliot. / Gascoyne had his time here. "). This memorable dramatic monologue features a female persona ("They called me Screamer. I do not think I screamed / but it was better not to question them. "), whose testimonial, ameliorative of what in other hands would be diatribe, reminds me just a little of James Dickey's May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church --it is transported, heightened, & similarly transgressive god-talk.
"My world seemed right for me alone, when I felt sad or down / and violence came my way, I could enter it to blessed peace, // a meadow filled with ox-eye daisies, quaking grass and sorrel / with fairies fine as dragon flies. I quickly learned it was unwise to tell / the doctors of this special place because, in envy (their own hell), / they turned the taps on me, brought out syringes, wet towels, // said I was away with birds and so I was and that is how I wished to stay / but even birdsong turned to screams which seemed inside of me; then I / was sent into the cells for days, where peepholes watched me, demon's eyes. / I wrestled myself quiet, ate filth they pushed at me through long, bad days // of stinking rain, carbolic soap and loneliness..."
A lifetime of institutional degradation passes followed by the advent of mental health's 'Community' solution. And then, one late day, "a nurse, a good one, best of seven, / taught me embroidery. My world lit up. I saw my brilliant heaven / through her, for God has many means to show Himself to us, the open eyed. // Suddenly I found my voice. // (....) Silks, wools, cottons, they worked with me as if the linen wed the thread. / I grew well, though old. One day they said, You have your own home now. /Shocked I left the ward in fear, bid farewell to every flower, / walked down the drive. Then God said, Audrey, come. And I was glad."
Audrey cant help but be a kind of surrogate, genuine creation though she also is --it's more to the point that Robin Ford's own experience of illness ("my storm of sickness"; "How to still a mind that pours / unstoppable as water over weir") & institution --that is, the ability to absorb & transform what any life throws at one --conflates exquisitely with the fiction : if not the character's doings then the atmospheres inhabited & projected.
Treacherous to take any work of art literally, as though it were an affidavit, yet feeling (pitch, ambit, tone) always attracts narrative. Why, for example, in The Oxus, the Indus and the Aral Sea, doubt this poet's confidence :
When I am well again I will lie on a chalk hillside,
breathe calmly, turn my head to see sunset fall
on sedge, burnet, harebells, float on scent of thyme
and marjoram; spring will warm my bones and over me
crossbow swifts will wheel and tumble. My eyes
will rejoice with hawkbit, speedwell, scabious,
bloodspot orchids will be the only stain the world knows,
my mind will be a new hatched butterfly
testing unexpected wings(...)
In my book it's the chalk hillside, the herbs, flowers, grasses, the birds of any season that constitutes the restorative. Indubitably, no dream, even of the Isle of Wight, without shadows, but Dream & dreaming nonetheless.
September 2nd-October 8th, 2010