Coleridge Street Blackburn


Review of Thunder Alley,  

Mark Ward works in Grasmere, tending to the grounds of Dove Cottage. He was born in Blackburn but is widely travelled and has done interesting jobs in far-flung places. This collection is principally located in his home town and takes its title from one of its streets. There is nothing of the professional northerner about Ward, nor does he play to any northern stereotype. The angle of his poems is always straight. He doesn’t do anything tricksy or clever-clever. He doesn’t play the poetic chameleon. I’m reminded of Einstein comparing Beethoven with Bach and saying the latter was almost pure music while the former was dramatic, almost personal. You could say Ward writes a Bach-like poem: it seeks for purity of expression. Its leathery language wants to force out the personal, the dramatic so that a near purity of expression allows them their place outside the poem. There’s a poem called The Mansion of Aching Hearts which exemplifies this: 

                        At the former Union Workhouse on the hill,
                        they’d sit in soporific bliss and stare

The lines are attractively rhythmical and the sibilants of the second carefully chosen but unobtrusive. Ward has that capacity to weave in clever poetic uses without drawing attention to them. You can read the poem without noticing them, just as its meaning is subtle as a gentle smile. It’s typical of Ward’s capacity to suck significance into a poem and to hold it within the solid bricks and mortar of a robustly built piece. The workhouse is a metaphor for a set of social relations long since surpassed but whose legacy we still endure. But this is a former workhouse it’s poor inmates replaced by the mad and mentally defective till its closure. The tact of the poem is to withhold the flood of questions and doubts it engenders. The ghosts of the Victorian poor and the shades of the distressed minds no-one knew how to deal with or wanted to acknowledge haunt this beautiful poem. Not all the poems are as memorable as this. There are some almost throwaway pieces; Regret vi for example. The collection might have been better without them but they don’t mar in any real way. My guess is they were included for change of tone and to introduce humour. He can be effectively funny, as the Regret poems (there are ten of them) show. Spanish Lament for example nicely spikes how things that seem to change often remain the same, a good lesson in our spectacular (in the Debordian sense) society; but a piece like Cycles shows his real talent. I would say a social historian of the future wanting to understand what happened to the British sensibility in the years after 1979 might well be advised to start with this poem. In fourteen lines he sums up all that is meant by dumbing down, the broken society, feral youth, cultural coarsening and many more fairly impotent clichés of our time. We are, of course, in denial about what Ward is exploring here. We are supposed to believe it is a marginal phenomenon; but the poem gets it right: we all know this viciousness is now central to how we relate to one another, however various its forms. Shadows too is an excellent poem about danger, abuse and the perilousness of innocence. It exemplifies Ward’s quiet, reserved, concentrated style. When he lapses from this he becomes less individual but it is a high achievement that, though his work is not radically different in means from that of many contemporary poets, he has succeeded in finding a territory, which though not extensive is recognisably his own. 

Alan Dent. ‘Mistress Quickly’s Bed’