Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

99 Words for Christmas

Delighted, today, to receive in the post my copy of 99 Words – the anthology Liz Gray has compiled by asking ninety-nine people ‘If you had breath for only 99 words, what would they be?

Liz was left, after an accident, unable to speak or write for more than a few minutes at a time. She started to realise how precious words are, and how we waste them. Eventually she had the idea of asking people what they would say if they had just under a hundred words left.

The result is a delightful little book full of wisdom, delight in the world, philosophy and playfulness. Contributors range from public figures like Desmond Tutu and Tony Benn to writers like Ursula LeGuin, Russell Hoban, Maggie Gee and Ben Okri (not that any of these are ‘like’ one another – but that’s part of the book’s charm). There are peace activists and Buddhist meditation teachers, musicians, actors, a ‘welfare funerals officer’, whatever that is, an astrologer, a fairground historian, a calligrapher and so on and on. Not on and on forever, though: only 99 of them! (Or actually 101 because a couple turned up unexpectedly that were too good to omit.)

And among them all is me, for some reason I don’t quite understand. I got this email out of the blue about a year ago, putting the basic premise to me and asking me to contribute. I agreed – it seemed interesting – and then forgot all about it. Then, as happens, came another email, telling me the deadline was nearly here. Help! I felt I would like to contribute a poem – that’s what I hope I do best – about something important. I looked through my unpublished recent-ish work, looking for short poems. Aha! There was a poem written – with tears in my eyes, I admit – when my daughter was pregnant.

Someone had just told me that at that number of days, the baby would be the size of an apple-pip, and the poem had just poured out. I put the poem, minus title, onto a page and clicked the ‘word count’ button, without much hope. Unbelievable: it was exactly 99 words! And it was about the most important subject I could have chosen: love, new birth, someone who will go on in the world (hopefully) long after I’m gone.

Amazingly, Ursula LeGuin says she had the same experience: she checked a poem she wanted to use, and lo and behold, it was 99 words long! Amazed by the coincidence, she says ‘I feel like an Augur or something.’ There must be a touch of magic about the whole business. Anyway, 99p from each copy sold goes to the charity PeaceDirect, to support local peacemakers in war zones. So click that button, or go to that bookshop, and buy, buy, buy!

Merry Christmas! and a Happy New Year to you.

Helen Tookey: Fine New Poet for Dark Autumn

Carcanet’s New Poetries series is rightly respected as a showcase of exciting talents of varying kinds. The latest volume was launched yesterday and I want to call attention to a fine new poet whose work has excited me a lot. And – STOP PRESS – her full-length book Missel Child is now available from Carcanet: just go to  http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781847772183

I’ve been reading Helen Tookey’s work with growing admiration. Her quiet, precise poems have a genuine eeriness – a spooky quality that I’ve met with nowhere else in recent poetry. I think it comes from the fact that she has interests in both archaeology and psychology, but knows intuitively that they aren’t separate – that when we dig up the past it’s our own roots we are looking at; and when we explore the dark corners of our personal psyche, we’re also daring to open up the hidden aspects of our culture and society.

‘At Burscough,Lancashire’ is a case in point. Here it is (with permission):

At Burscough, Lancashire

Lancashire’s Martin Mere was the largest lake in England when it was first drained, to reclaim the land for farming, in 1697.

Out on the ghost lake, what’s lost

is everywhere: murmuring in names

on the map, tasted in salt winds

that scour the topsoil, westerlies

that wrenched out oaks and pines, buried now

in choked black ranks, heads towards the east.

Cloudshadows ripple the grasses as the seines

rippled over the mere by night, fishervoices calling

across dark water. Underfoot, the flatlands’

black coffers lie rich with the drowned.

The poem is about a lake that’s no longer there. Helen Tookey uses its absence to evoke the landscape (a strange, nondescript no-man’s-land) in vivid, sensuous detail but also with semantic depth, so that the placenames on the map recalling the lost mere merge into the sound of the wind, and the trees which still turn up now as fossilised bog oak and the like become disturbingly evocative of mass human graves. Ruminating on the loss of the mere, she writes, by implication, an elegy for the communities that lived and worked there and have now, like the lake, gone with hardly a trace. She also hints at the other cultural obliterations which have stained past centuries. The ‘choked black ranks’ recall ethnic cleansing, forced migration, mass starvation. And the simple fact that, over the centuries, many people, fishers and other, must have drowned in the lake and been forgotten. Even money is there, faintly, with the substitution of ‘coffers’ for the expected ‘coffins’.

But it’s all held together by a consciousness which sees in a context of myth. The ‘fisher voices calling/across dark water’ are voices from the other side of the river – Styx or Lethe – that separates the dead from the living. These are the souls of the dead that might call to us in sleep. Could it even be that they are fishing for us? The choice choice of ‘flatlands’ is deft also – and again a neat substitution, because we would expect ‘wetlands’ (indeed, the remnants of Martin Mere are now a bird sanctuary run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust). Not just a neat label for the nondescript alluvial west-Lancashire landscape, it suggests a flat earth that might tilt up one day and show worrying things underneath. For the mathematically aware it also recalls Edwin Abbott’s 1884 Flatland, a brilliant Lewis-Carroll style fantasy which enables even the simplest person to understand the amazing nature of spatial dimensions.

Helen’s poem shows us just how many dimensions an absent lake and a depopulated landscape can have. And she tells us about it in such deceptively gentle and musical tones, hovering on the edge of blank verse, but always staying flexible, floating between four stresses and five – ‘rippling’ and ‘murmuring’ as the poem says. It’s like listening to a lullaby that soothes and seduces with its beauty; but just might give you nightmares.