ISSUE 8

On The Buses with Dostoyevsky  by Geoff Hattersley. Bloodaxe Books. 6.95. ISBN 1- 85224 - 439 - 9. 

The obsession of this book is the discrepancy between serious and popular culture. The blurb says that Geoff Hattersley's poetic allegiances are with contemporary American writers, but it's the influence of Eliot and Pound that is obvious. The title poem sets the tone. It's about the poet reading classics while downstairs his father watches trash on the T.V., the sound turned up high because of the deafness caused by his years in the steelworks. So On The Buses and Dostoyevsky rub shoulders in a jokey way This is the kind of coming together of cultures joke that is all over the place Proust in Blackpool, Drinking Boddingtons with Saul Bellow. That kind of thing is supposed to be funny because of the incongruity, but it gets cloying. What lies behind it is a hint of reverse snobbery. Just as Eliot and Pound tried to defend culture from the masses, so this kind of thing tries to defend the masses from culture. There's also an Eliot influence in the language. Eliot wasn't nicknamed 'the undertaker for nothing. He had a fear of the sexiness of language just as he had a fear of sex. it's Eliot's paring down of language that is more at work here than, say, the relaxation of Ferlinghetti (which is quite sexy).  

Geoff Hattersley faces the problem all working class artists and intellectuals face: how to make an honourable exit. In the first and last sections of this book are poems that show him straining to break away but held back by loyalty or maybe a residual but unstated political commitment. This is the source of what is, wrongly, taken to a be a surrealism In these poems. Surrealism flaunted every convention. Here the tension arises from being held by conventions you would like to throw on the back of the fire. South Yorkshire is a depressed and, in some ways, so these poems say, a depressing place. All that relieves the gloom are the oddities, the lunatics, the freakishness of the ordinary. But there is a collusion with the ordinariness, as If the freakishness is regretted, as If some dream of harmony has been lost. What the poems don't rise to is a really subversive vision, like surrealism. They are schoolboys who would like to sag off but don't quite dare.  

The second section is based on his experiences in a Kibbutz. The striking feature is that the poems remain stylistically like those based in Yorkshire. The poet's sensibility remains constant, but on the other hand there's a slight disappointment that a change of milieu so radical didn't bring at least a temporary escape from the mood that dominates the North of England poems. When he writes that you can forget who you are I what you are, back home" it's hard to believe him. He carries his northern, working-class identity everywhere. It's from that, from his knowledge that his own people have been done down, cheated, that emanates his sense of rottenness, that society has got it in, not only for the poor and defenceless, but also for the modest and honest, and there's little that can be done. That low-key, downbeat mood, searching for a moment's comfort here and there in a touch of humour, a little warmth and sunlight in the gloom, is what characterizes this collection. Those who know Geoff Hattersley's work will find no surprises, but those who love it for its resolute straightforwardness and its refusal of the commonplace tricks of poets on the make will be delighted.

 

  The Last Bus by Paul Summers  Iron Press 5.95.  

Contemporary English poetry is generally uneasy about the word "we". the use of the second person plural is not often much more than a form of disguised soliloquy, implying membership of a sexual relationship or of an intimate group, a device to dignify private experience by extending it to a hidden listener just outside the poem.  

How welcome then, is the confident, untroubled political grammar of Paul Summer's first full-length book, arguably the best first collection of 1998. The "we' and "us" in THE LAST BUS never needs to be explained, sliding easily from family and friends through generation, town and region to class and back again:  

We are more than sharply contrasting photographs  
of massive ships and straithes for coal, more than  
cracking films where grimey-faced workers are  
dwarfed by shadows or omitted by chimneys, more  
than foul-mouthed men in smokey clubs or well-built  
women in a wash-day chorus, we are more than  
lessons in post-industrial sociology, more than  
just case-studies of dysfunctional community.  
we are more than non-speaking extras in  
fashionable new gangster movies, more than 
sad lyrics in exiles songs. we are more than 
the backbone of inglorious empire, or the  
stubborn old heed of a dying beast. we are  
more than the ghosts of a million histories,  
more than the legends inscribed in blood, more 
than exhibits in some vast museum, or the  
unbought remnants of a year long sale,  
we are more than this, but not much more.  

This is - as the wonderful, bathetic last line suggests - the poetry of Dead-Pan Alley, the quiet, dark city streets down which Summers follows writers like Geoff Hattersley and David Crystal. As you would expect from one of the editors of BILLY LIAR ( and in a collection which includes work from Summers' three ECHO ROOM pamphlets) these poems are unemphatic, understated, urban pastorals:  

while we were sleeping, the damp patch on the ceiling  
has grown into a map of the dardanelles.  
the acrid legacy of a bedtime fag,  
the blunt reek of coaltar soap, of fisherman's friends;  
the taste of cold & of half-dry towels & the high pitched crunch  
of shovelled coals,  

It is the triumph of this kind of detail which holds the writing close to experience ( a " squadron of airfix planes" in a bedroom in his parents' house are "so heavy with dust they are grounded"; "a consultant from malaysia" holds up an x-ray showing "the future on acetate, like a sonar swoop  on a school of fish or a colony of snowflakes descending wet glass.)  

At times Summers sounds like he has been reading too much Gordon Wardman, (CLASS ACT, FORT APACHE NE 24, COWBOYS). The influence of James Kelman in the eleven Kelman-like prose poems is more useful, giving him room to stand slightly apart from the shared sensibility they transcribe ( PROCTOR, PHILOSOPHY, EASTER SATURDAY 1993, RANT).  

But the poems in THE LAST BUS are rarely motivated by an idea, or even by a story, rather by a shared feeling and a shared experience ( most successfully in the title sequence about his grandfather's funeral). They address head on the ways in which that experience has been written up and written off by outsiders, by them. (NORTH, FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME). And they never simplify the mixed feelings about belonging to a people and a place united by the experience of defeat (THE HUNDRED YEARS' WAR, SCAB). All of which occasionally enables Summers to extend "we" and "us" to speak for all of us, as in the fabulous IF KEIR HARDIE WAS THE MAN ON THE MOON:  

What would he make of it ? we wondered;  
looking down, night after serious night,  
on the ancient tiles of our street:  
just hanging there in the indigo  
like a stringless conker,  
distant and ownerless and  
fingering the cello curve 
of his immaculate tash  
he'd be stunned by our quiet world, 
perplexed by our lack of shift patterns, 
our weekend hangovers, our luxurious carpets  
and he'd notice the chimneys no longer smoked.  
he'd see our fitted wardrobes bulge  
with fake armani, in tasteful  
soft pastels and unbleached linen. 
he'd study our satellite dishes,  
watch open university programmes  
in the dead of night, learn envy  
from the billboard ads,
grow hungry for the horsepower  
of our nippy five-door peugots  
just before morning, he'd shift his gaze, 
browse the horizons in search of old haunts; 
he'd wake up the tramp in the library steps, 
inquire on the whereabouts of some lost friend,
and then he'd remember he's the man in the moon  
and not know whether to laugh or cry.