Barry Tebb |
Alone in Sutton with Fynbos my orange cat
A long weekend of wind and rain drowning
The tumultuous flurry of mid-February blossom
A surfeit of letters to work through, a mountain
Of files to sort, some irritation at the thought
Of travelling to Kentish Town alone when
My mind was flooded with the mellifluous voice
Of Heath-Stubbs on tape reading ‘The Divided Ways’
In memory of Sidney Keyes.
“He has gone down into the dark cellar
To talk with the bright faced Spirit with silver hair
But I shall never know what word was spoken there.
The best reader of the century, if not the best poet.
Resonant, mesmeric, his verse the anti-type of mine,
Classical, not personal, Apollonian not Dionysian
And most unconfessional but nonetheless a poet
Deserving honour in his eighty-fifth year.
Thirty people crowded into a room
With stacked chairs like a Sunday School
A table of pamphlets looked over but not bought
A lacquered screen holding court, a century’s junk.
An ivory dial telephone, a bowl of early daffodils
To focus on.
I was the first to read, speaking of James Simmons’ death,
My anguish at the year long silence from his last letter
To the Christmas card in Gaelic Nollaig Shona -
With the message “Jimmy’s doing better than expected.
The difficulty I had in finding his publisher’s address -
Salmon Press, Cliffs of Moher, County Clare -
Then a soft sad Irish woman’s voice explained
“Jimmy’s had a massive stroke, phone Janice
At The Poet’s House.
I looked at the letter I would never end or send.
“Your poems have a strength and honesty so rare.
The ability to render character as deftly as a painter.
Your being out-of-fashion shows just how bad things are
Your poetry so easy to enjoy and difficult to forget.
‘The Dawning of the Day’ so sad
And eloquent and memorable: I read it aloud
And felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle
An unflinching bitter rhetoric straight out
Hence the neglect.
Your poem about Harrison.
“He has to feel the Odeons sell
Tickets to damned souls, that Dante’s Hell
Is in that red-plush darkness.
Echoed in Roy Fisher's letter, “Once Harrison and I
Were best mates until fame went to his head.
James, your ‘Love Leads Me into Danger’
Set off my own despair but restored me
Just as quickly with your sense of beauty’s muted dance.
“passing Dalway’s Bawn
where the chestnuts are, the first trees to go rusty,
old admirals drowned in their own gold braid.
The scattered alliterations mimic so exquisitely
The random pattern of fallen conkers,
The sense of innocence not wholly clear
The guilt never entirely spent.
‘The Road to Clonbarra’, a poem for the homecoming
After a wedding, the breathlessness of new beginning.
Your own self questioning, “My fourth and last chance marriage,”
Your passionate confessions of failure and plea for absolution
“His thunder storms were in the late night bars.
Home was too hard too dry and far the stars.
You were so urgent to hear my thoughts on your book
And once too often you were out of luck,
Heath-Stubbs nodded his old sad head.
“Simmons was my friend.
I’d no idea he was dead.
Before I could finish the poem John Rety interrupted
“Can you hurry? There’s others waiting for their turn!”
I muttered to my self, but kept my temper, just.
Eventually Heath-Stubbs began - poet, teacher, wit, raconteur and man
Of letters - littering his poems with references
To three kinds of Arabic genie
The class system of ancient Egypt
The pub architecture of the Edwardian era.
From the back row I strained to see his face.
The craggy jaw, the mane of long white hair.
The bowl of daffodils I’d focused on before.
He spoke but could not read and
Like me had no single poem by heart.
In his stead a man and woman read:
I could forgive the man’s inability to pronounce ‘Dionysian’
But when he read ‘hover’ as ‘haver’
My temper began to frazzle
The woman simpered and ruined every line
As if by design, I took some amitryptilene
And let my mind float free.
‘For Barry, instead of a Christmas card, this elegy
I wrote last week.
“So often, David, I still meet
Your benefactor from the time:
her speedwell-blue eyes, blue like yours,
with recollection, while we talk
through leaf-fall, with its mosaic
mottling the toad-spotted wet street.
I looked at Heath-Stubbs’ face, his sightless eyes,
And in a second understood what Gascoyne meant
“Now the light of a prism has flashed like a bird down the dark-blue,
At the end of which mountains of shadow pile up beyond sight
Oh radiant prism
A wing has been torn and its feathers drift scattered by flight.
Barry Tebb |
You were the one I wanted most to know
So like yet unlike, like fire and snow,
The casual voice, the sharp invective,
The barbed wit, the lapsed Irish Protestant
Who never gave a ****, crossed the palms
Of the great and good with coins hot with contempt
For the fakers and the tricksters whose poetry
Deftly bent to fashion’s latest slant.
You wrote from the heart, feelings on your sleeve,
But feelings are all a master poet needs:
You broke all the taboos, whores and fags and booze,
While I sighed over books and began to snooze
Until your voice broke through the haze
Of a quarter century’s sleep.
“Wake up you git
And bloody write!” I did and never stopped
And like you told the truth about how bad poetry
Rots the soul and slapped a New Gen face or two
And kicked some arses in painful places,
And so like you, got omitted from the posh anthologies
Where Penguin and Picador fill the pages
With the boring poetasters you went for in your rages,
Ex-friends like Harrison who missed you out.
You never could see the envy in their enmity.
Longley was the worst, a hypocrite to boot,
All you said about him never did come out;
I’ve tried myself to nail others of that ilk
Hither and thither they slide and slither
And crawl out of the muck white as brides’
Fat with OBE’s, sinecures and sighs
And Collected Poems no one buys.
Yet ‘Mainstrem’, your last but one collection,
I had to wait months for, the last borrower
Kept it for two years and likely I’ll do the same
Your poetry’s like no other, no one could tame
Your roaring fury or your searing pain.
You bared your soul in a most unfashionable way
But everything in me says your verse will stay,
Your love for your fourth and final wife,
The last chance marriage that went right
The children you loved so much but knew
You wouldn’t live to see grown up, so caught
Their growing pains and joys with a painter’s eye
And lyric skill as fine as Wordsworth’s best
they drank her welcome to his heritage
of grey, grey-green, wet earth and shapes of stone.
Who weds a landscape will not die alone.
Those you castigated never forgave.
Omitted you as casually as passing an unmarked grave,
Armitage, I name you, a blackguard and a knave,
Who knows no more of poetry than McGonagall the brave,
Yet tops the list of Faber’s ‘Best Poets of Our Age’.
Longley gave you just ten lines in ‘Irish Poets Now’
Most missed you out entirely for the troubles you gave
Accusing like Zola those poetic whores
Who sold themselves to fashion when time after time
Your passions brought you to your knees, lashing
At those poetasters when their puffed-up slime
Won the medals and the prizes time after time
And got them all the limelight while your books
Were quietly ignored, the better you wrote,
The fewer got bought.
Belatedly I found a poem of yours ‘Leeds 2’
In ‘Flashpoint’, a paint-stained worn out
School anthology from 1962.
Out of the blue
I wrote to you but the letter came back ‘Gone away
’ then I tried again and had a marvellous letter back
Full of stories of the great and good and all their private sins,
You knew where the bodies were buried.
Who put the knife in, who slept with who
For what reward.
They never could shut you up
Or put you in a pen or pay you off and then came
Morley, Hulse and Kennedy’s ‘New Poetry’
Which did more damage to the course of poetry
Than anything I’ve read - poets unembarrassed
By the need to know more than what’s politically
White as snow.
Constantine and Jackie Kay
And Hoffman with the right connections.
Sweeney and O’Brien bleeding in all the politically
Sensitive places, Peter Reading lifting
Horror headlines from the Sun to make a splash.
Sansom and Maxwell, Jamie and Greenlaw.
Proving lack of talent is no barrier to fame
If you lick the right arses and say how nice they taste.
Crawling up the ladder, declaring **** is grace.
A talented drunken public servant
Has the world’s ear and hates me.
He ought to be in prison for misuse
Of public funds and bigotry;
But there’s some sparkle in his poetry.
You never flinched in the attack
But gave the devils their due:
The ‘Honest Ulsterman’ you founded
Lost its honesty the day you withdrew
But floundered on, publicly sighed and
Ungraciously expired as soon as you died.
You went with fallen women, smoked and sang and boozed,
Loved your many children, wrote poetry
As good as Yeats but the ignominy you had to bear
Bred an immortality impossible to share.
You showed us your own peccadilloes,
Your early lust for fame, but you learned
The cost of suffering, love and talent winning through,
Your best books your last, just two, like the letters
You wrote before your life was through.
The meeting you wanted could never happen:
I didn’t know about the stroke
That stilled your tongue and pen
But if you passed your mantle on to me
I’ll try and take up where you left off,
Give praise where praise is due
And blast the living daylights from those writers who
Betray the sacred art of making poetry true
To suffering and love, to passion and remorse
And try to steer a flimsy world upon a saner course.
Barry Tebb |
Sitting in outpatients
With my own minor ills
Dawn’s depression lifts
To the lilt of amitryptilene,
A double dose for a day’s journey
To a distant ward.
The word was out that Simmons
Had died eighteen months after
An aneurism at sixty seven.
The meeting he proposed in his second letter
Could never happen: a few days later
A Christmas card in Gaelic - Nollaig Shona -
Then silence, an unbearable chasm
Of wondering if I’d inadvertently offended.
A year later a second card explained the silence:
I joined the queue of mourners:
It was August when I saw the Guardian obituary
Behind glass in the Poetry Library.
How astonishing the colour photo,
The mane of white hair,
The proud mien, the wry smile,
Perfect for a bust by Epstein
Or Gaudier Brjeska a century earlier.
I stood by the shelves
Leafing through your books
With their worn covers,
Remarking the paucity
Of recent borrowings
And the ommisions
From the anthologies.
“I’m a bit out of fashion
But still bringing out books
Armitage didn’t put me in at all
The egregarious Silkin
Tried to get off with my wife -
May he rest in peace.
I can’t remember what angered me
About Geoffrey Hill, quite funny
In a nervous, melancholic way,
A mask you wouldn’t get behind.
Harrison and I were close for years
But it sort of faded when he wrote
He wanted to hear no more
Of my personal life.
I went to his reading in Galway
Where he walked in his cosy regalia
Crossed the length of the bar
To embrace me, manic about the necessity
Of doing big shows in the Balkans.
I taught him all he knows, says aging poet!
And he’s forgotten the best bits,
He knows my work, how quickly
vanity will undo a man.
Tom Blackburn was Gregory Fellow
In my day, a bit mad
But a good and kind poet.
I read your last book
The Company of Children,
You sent me to review -
Your best by so far
It seemed an angel
Had stolen your pen -
The solitary aging singer
Whispering his last song.
Barry Tebb |
Arriving for a reading an hour too early:
Ruefully, the general manager stopped putting out the chairs.
“You don’t get any help these days.
To sort out everything from furniture to faxes.
Why not wander round the park? There are ducks
And benches where you can sit and watch.
I realized it was going to be a hungry evening
With not even a packet of crisps in sight.
I parked my friend on a bench and wandered
Down Highgate Hill, realising where I was
From the Waterlow Unit and the Whittington’s A&E.
Some say they know their way by the pubs
But I find psychiatric units more useful.
At a reading like this you never know just who
Might have a do and need some Haldol fast.
(Especially if the poet hovering round sanity’s border
Should chance upon the critic who thinks his Word
Is law and order - the first’s a devotee of a Krishna cult
For rich retirees; the second wrote a good book once
On early Hughes, but goes off if you don’t share his
‘Thought through views’).
In the event the only happening was a turbanned Sikh
Having a go at an Arts Council guru leaning in a stick.
I remembered Martin Bell’s story of how Scannell the boxer
Broke - was it Redgrove’s brolly? - over his head and had
To hide in the Gents till time was called.
James Simmons boasted of how the pint he threw
At Anthony Thwaite hit Geoffrey Hill instead.
O, for the company of the missing and the dead
Martin Bell, Wendy Oliver, Iris and Ted.