Sea Level, by Angela Leighton
Like most people who don’t read a lot of poetry I find it incredibly hard to write about. It’s so personal. The usual analogy, one I often make myself, is to say that poetry is a language. If so I barely speak it, and often find myself lost and hoping that I’ve picked up enough of the gist of what’s going on that I’ve managed to order a beer and not an offal platter.
I have in fact once mistakenly ordered an offal platter. I don’t recommend it.
Angela Leighton is a contemporary British poet. Sea Level is her second collection, and as the title suggests it’s shot through with images of the sea, and of nature more widely. The back of the book says too that it draws on the landscape of Yorkshire and East Riding, but knowing nothing of either I can’t speak to that.
Time I think for an example. Sea Level is a 68 page collection with the majority of poems fitting on a single page. I intend to quote three poems in full in this review, which I hope will give a good feel for her work. This first one is for me an excellent example of poem as condensed description. A capturing of a moment or place in language which while not always wholly comprehensible is nonetheless powerful:
From creel-pots’ crochet, dumped networks of nets,
staggered crates, a trailer, bales of twine,
bits and knots and art and old sea stench
under the nightly floodlight’s yellow halo,
saints’ wrack, livings, rot, planking, buoys,
rounding guts of rope, oarlock, airlock,
with acquapac and VHF, and luck,
light, weather, balance, ebb, flow,
something draws us out beyond the jerry’s
throw, its sea-sliced steps and stop, its checked
halt, systoles of dulse, litter, scum,
to falls of sea-room falling wide as we come.
I have and always have had a great love of the sea, and so of ports. Real ports are of course deeply unromantic places, full of smell, mess and odd bits of slime. Even so, I’m drawn to them. This poem captures that for me. The opening paragraph (stanza? I lack the terminology here) captures the chaos of a port. The nets heaped up in piles. The crates and rusting boats (not that rusting boats are mentioned, still I see them when I read it).
With the second paragraph we’re into the territory where poetry can so easily lose us. What is saint’s wrack? Is that something real, or something Leighton made up? What’s an acquapac? VHF? I don’t know, and yet the sense of the language remains powerful and evocative. I no longer quite know what’s being said, but I still understand it (or at least feel that I do).
Then, with the third paragraph, there’s that sense of possibility that the sea always speaks to me of. Ports are of necessity prosaic and functional, but they lead to the sea and the sea leads to, well, to a myriad possibilities of places. That’s the draw, part of it anyway.
So, as I said, poetry is deeply personal For me this poem captures the ambivalence of a port, a harbour. The quotidian mess and dirt and beyond it the draw of something vast and strange. I also love of course little phrases like “sea-sliced steps” where the alliteration helps capture that sense of the sea sliding back and forth over the stone steps leading down to the boats.
It comes tight-packed, unearthly heavy, fat
with itself, intact. Handled, it crumbles to bits.
I sift and slip a landscape through my fingers,
feeling the way of forests, sun and rain,
trees that lean with the wind, that breathe with it,
and shake a hair of needles to the ground-
a plan of rusty crosses sinking in,
the wood’s crossed fingers teasing out the sun.
Whose land is this? assorted, dry as dust,
evacuated of its light and rains,
yet springy still, as if just stepped-off, live,
on some bare hillside subject to nothing but weather.
Its crumbs fall through my hands. I own the stuff,
its solving composition, settled dross,
the earth grown poor from forests it has lost.
This bit of unsoiled land is on my hands:
the bog’s muck-sweat, hill-weathers’ heavy loads,
the ways of ownership, those famine roads.
Here it’s the physicality that draws me in. As with Harbour this is deeply sensual poetry. Not sensual as in erotic, but sensual as in visual and tactile. “Handled, it crumbles to bits.”. There’s a sense of solidity here that fits the subject matter.
Here poetry becomes an examination of something quite unexceptional: a handful of soil. Leighton leaps from the feel of the peat between her fingers to the landscape it came from, and then to the sorrows of that landscape (“famine roads”). I actually find this much harder to write about than Harbour, as there’s nothing particularly personal to me in this poem. Still, for all it has no personal resonance I still find it curiously intimate. Perhaps it’s that sensuality again.
A final example:
I pay, then climb into the night’s room.
A number tells me where I am
at home. I’ll not remember soon.
Outside, there’s too much light to dream.
The city’s talkative. Sirens scream
in fifths, tuning. Here I’m clean
out of it, free. It lays no claim
to my, my unfound hiding, name,
the puff breath makes. I am the same,
but stranger, keen. I start to learn
my whereabouts by rote, short-term:
a bed, a room, a night, by turn.
Outside, the sky must save its skin.
It lets whatever the room keeps in
out in waves. The wall’s too thin.
This night my numbered door might win
a lottery, stop an angel, summon
what lies open out there to come in.
The sense here isn’t of hotel as holiday destination, but of business travel. The narrator is alone in the room, and there’s no sense of excitement or anticipation. Instead it captures that mix of insomnia, uncertainty and the knowledge of an unfamiliar place which could include who knows what, but which you’ll likely never get to really see. Perhaps I’m projecting, but then with poetry perhaps that’s the point.
Other poems that stood out for me included a very brief one titled Dusk Chorus capturing the underlying desperation, hunger and territoriality of bird song. Another, At the Vet’s, captures that terrible moment when one stands in a vet’s room as a loved cat is put to sleep. It’s again a very short poem, but for me devastating as I’ve had to do that (thankfully only once so far) and the poem captures the scene with an accuracy that made it unsuitable for quoting. If you own cats you’ll know why I didn’t put that up to be blundered across on a blog. It’s too painful.
Some poems later in the collection lost me, being too technical or too rooted in a terrain I know nothing of. I can relate to poetry without knowing what each word means, but as with any communication there comes a point where one understands so little that any resonance there might have been is lost. That’s ok though. The trick with poetry I’ve found is not to worry that not every poem makes sense. When I studied Italian some concepts came quickly, others took years of study. Why should this be different?
I’ve previously quoted another Angela Leighton poem, here, That poem is freely available online, but also appears in this collection. It’s the poem which made me want to read more by Leighton, so if you missed that post I’d suggest at least spending a couple of minutes with it.