Millom

Alan Hollinghurst

  • Sea to the West by Norman Nicholson
    Faber, 64 pp, £3.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 571 11729 5
  • Out for the Elements by Andrew Waterman
    Carcanet, 151 pp, £3.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 85635 377 9
  • Between Here and Now by R.S. Thomas
    Macmillan, 110 pp, £5.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 333 32186 3
  • Poetry Introduction Five
    Faber, 121 pp, £5.25, January 1982, ISBN 0 571 11793 7

There was a time when local or regional poetry was greeted and respected as a romantic phenomenon: its origins far from the literary vortex of the metropolis were the guarantee of authenticity, bardic purity of inspiration, and a closer access to the nature as well as the language of men. Even now, there is something disconcerting about the rural adage, as if beneath its apparent irrelevance or banality some potency or spell resided, choosing simplicity itself as a disguise.

What the wind blows away
The wind blows back again

is how Norman Nicholson ends a poem in his new collection, Sea to the West. The lines are perhaps low on witty morality, but their power is the greater for that: coming at the end of a description of weather over Black Combe (a recurrent point de repère of the book), they are a formal act of conclusion and interpretation which refuses to interpret. Again and again this is the pattern: the creative energy of the poems is channelled into description, and the wisdom of the vision, the revelatory magic, is either left latent or drawn into maxims of such simplicity that they send the reader back to the poem. The poem, like the landscape it describes, claims a self-sufficiency and recognises no obligation to be more than itself.

Now this may seem to be an easy task, to describe a series of landscapes but to withhold any explanation beyond the grasp of a child, and at the simplest level we examine this testimony as we examine that of the children and other naïfs who inform Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads: as the experience of folk-wisdom transmitted with an artlessness akin to innocence. Nicholson looks back to and draws strength from ‘wise, proverbial days’, though the wisdom of the proverbs – such as that

                             everybody born
Under the shadow of Black Combe
Will come back there to die –

may seem at worst perverse and at best unhelpful. But more than most this is a book to be read as a whole: centred, like its author’s life, on Millom in Cumbria, it offers a reading of that place and that life which intensifies in resonance and interconnectedness as one goes on, and goes back. One can hardly believe that the first poem in the book is as simple as it is, asserting that Scafell Pike, ‘the tallest hill in England’, will still be there when its man-made surroundings have ceased to be:

No roofs, no town,
Maybe no men,
But yonder where a lather-rinse of cloud pours down

The spiked wall of the sky-line, see,
Scafell Pike,
Still there.

It is school-magazine stuff, with its once-modishly free form and its mixture of original, slightly self-conscious metaphor and mild archaism of diction. Yet the second poem, ‘Beck’, far more imaginative and dense, leads us a stage further into the terrain with which the book identifies and also sets up the boldest dialectic with ‘Scafell Pike’: every mountain and hill is being slowly and eternally worn flat. Nicholson’s seemingly artless dicta challenge not only us but each other: the withholding of judgment gives time for the presentation of a whole and substantial corpus of evidence.

The best individual poems in the collection are a handful which contribute their information with the least personal business. ‘Shingle’, ‘Fjord’ and ‘Glacier’ all revolve their central subject in a concentrated, economical and entirely detached fashion. Nicholson is in no way a psychological writer and these inanimate geological topics draw from him an exactly complementary coldness of technique. The chilling inhumanity of these poems suggests the frailty of life, not in the manner of some proverbial maxim, but by the eradication of all human population. In the absence of pathos, the poetic imagination can cleanly vault space (the depth of the fjord) and time (the millennial growth and height of the glacier, the pebbles ‘rolling round England’).

The weakest poems (again a handful) are those in which this externality is mediated by depictions of himself and questions about the future: ‘maybe, five months from now ...’, ‘And what of me, born four years too late?’ By such homely devices Nicholson dissolves his mastery of observation in favour of a more amateur conjecture; wonder is sacrificed to a kind of parable in which the poet naively volunteers to stand for us all in his confrontation with time and the world.

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