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Advance review of 'Larksong Static' by Sheenagh Pugh

Posted by echains1@aol.com on October 11, 2020 at 4:30 PM

Review of Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 by Martin Malone, pub. Hedgehog Press


 

 

Skimming the poem titles in the early part of this Selected – Barbury Castle, Red Kites at Uffington, Wood on the Downs – you might easily file Malone as a poet of place. And indeed there is a strong element of that in him, as evidenced by the incantatory lists of place-names:

 We have been here before. Uffington, Hackpen,

Grim’s Ditch, Ogbourne St.George, Wayland’s Smithy,

Sparshott Firs, Bishopstone and Barbury

(“Wood on the Downs”)

In fact, though, it soon becomes clear that the landscape is a backdrop, albeit a sharply and lovingly observed one- in the title (a phrase from the opening poem) “static” is a noun, not an adjective; the lark-song a buzz at the back of the soundtrack. What is really at the heart of these early poems is the development of the relationships played out against the landscape:

You, me and your son

and the best kite on the hill.

Passing around the string, sharing the pull

of possibility, we are shaken;

shuddering through the kite-tail spine

of ourselves, alone in the moment’s blue

latitude. I look from boy to you

with some sense of new gravities.

An inkling load guyed skyward, upon

the caught breath of an idea murmured

into your ear: you, me, us.

(“Best Kite On The Hill”)


In the impressive poem “Small Lightnings”, person, time and place coalesce completely:

 

Driving the A4 to Burghclere, last summer

passes me in an ambulance

 

on the opposite side. The flashing lights

tell me all I need to know: our time

 

here is taking its leave on a gurney;

worked at by paramedics whose

 

urgency is slipping with each

failed shock.

 There is then a change of focus, to poems from his Great War pamphlet, "Mr Willett's Summertime" (Poetry Salzburg). I knew these poems already and was pleased to meet some of them again, especially “Let us Sleep Now”, in which Wilfred Owen meets his former enemy on a Vienna tram, heading “up the line to Simmering”, the cemetery at the end of the tracks. The war poems form a bridge between the poems already discussed and a group set in the north: Orkney, Shetland, the north of Scotland. These feel, to me, subtly different from the earlier “landscape” poems in that the landscape genuinely is the protagonist, rather than the backdrop to humans and their activities (I can relate to this, because when I moved to Shetland, I found the natural world seeming far bigger in comparison to humans and playing a larger part in my writing). In “Bright Coast”, though humans are still present, the

drawn line of horizon

stretched across a bay

the gods died making

overshadows them, a player in its own right rather than the backdrop to players. “Static” in the title, as I mentioned, is a noun; the one thing it does not connote here is “stationary”. There are constants in this poetry, like the acute observation of people, eg a mother’s embarrassment in a restaurant:

Sure

before her God, she wavers

before the cutlery.

(“Decades”)

 

and of the natural world:

 

The hunting pair stirs

a lazy spoon of air

(“Red Kites at Uffington”)


or

 

 the twittering mis-

fires of a thousand

tiny engines

(“Storm Petrel”)

 

But there is also clear development, a sense of an authorial viewpoint broadening beyond the personal to the universal. There is also, of course, the odd misfire. I was never sure why “Liverpool-Irish” started rhyming in the middle and then stopped again, but I found it distracting. And I’m not sure the first verse of “Haas Effect” was necessary – I liked the amputee moving into the future “on unsteady leg”, but otherwise the first verse felt like a lecture or instruction leaflet. These, though, are minor quibbles beside the craft that gives us the unsentimental, deeply moving intimacy of “Like I was Your Girlfriend” and “Let us Sleep Now”, and the sure rhythms at the start of “Barbury Castle”:

 

Meet me at the earthworks

in the small hours on the hill.

Up there, above your childhood,

at the swing-door of first light

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