John Gohorry on River Lane

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The title poem of Simon Cockle’s rich and engaging first collection of poems has a number of features which point to distinctive features of the whole. At the most superficial level, it’s a poem of place, like Beachlands, Hayling Island, Hartland Point, or his artlessly named sequence Poems about the Isle of Sheppey. But although place, in the title poem and elsewhere, is expertly called up, it really comes to life as a locus of memory, reflection and growing self awareness.

River Lane is in three sections, the first two describing separate, but connected incidents from the poet’s childhood. In the opening section, the poet sees himself as a child, ‘all taught and imagination / in my new coat and scarf, walking / down to where men sought the pulse / of fish, disgorged hooks from lips.’ The child scans the scene, taking in every detail – there’s a wonderful picture of the fishermen’s maggots ‘that bristled, churned bronze / like simmered rice; a million ribbed/ muscles, beating their carrion tattoo / in an orgy of silence…’ The focus then shifts to the fishermen, to their captures, and to the catalogue of wild riverbank flowers – ‘ Marshmallow, Saxifrage, Samphire, / Meadowsweet, Ribwort….’ – across which they are swung into the keep net, before the child runs back up the lane to join his mates ‘and hear their noise, the words that showed / like badges, flags, or collections of stamps.’ I’ve italicised the last line and a half here to draw attention to the way the poem accumulates different levels of significance as it unfolds – the words of the child’s mates linking to childhood collecting hobbies, and these to the adult poet’s catalogue of riverbank flowers a few lines earlier.

This process continues throughout the poem. The second section narrates an incident a little later on when in a clearing by the river the boys come across some split bin bags containing copies of Escort and Penthouse; there’s some vivid description of their pornographic contents, as well as of the masturbatory responses of the boys to them. The ‘landscape of desire’ which is portrayed in the magazines (and in this section of the poem) does have some things in common with that of the preceding section of the poem (we recall the men seeking ‘the pulse / of fish’) but the ‘signs of maleness’ which define it here locate pornography at the centre of an ‘iconography of manhood’ that extends to ‘saloon cars / aftershaves, / driving gloves, golf clubs…’ Surprised by the sound of a car, the boys run off, returning the next day to find that the river has flooded after rain and the porn mags are illegible. The poem recalls the child’s complex sense of indefinable despair and a realisation that his very existence is a consequence of the knotted physical relations (‘the Turk, the Hitch, the Figure-of-Eight’) that fascinated and aroused him the day before.

The third and final section has the poet revisiting River Lane thirty years later. The fishermen are still there, but ‘There’s a golf course now where the clearing was; / a sand hazard’s sunk like a spent blister right/ in the place we unearthed those magazines.’ A certain iconography of manhood has clearly prevailed. But the fish are returned to the river – ‘they suck the water through and seem stone /dead, but churn and flip and slip slowly down / to the bed again’ – the fishermen too are packing up, ‘set for leaving; / we all have homes to go to, now.’

The poet has grown up, with a wife and daughter, ‘safe, / in the world beyond childhood ’ he writes, and I take the childhood here to be his own. The poem ends with a question as he reaches for his car keys (tellingly, ‘Fishing for keys’) before leaving to join them – ‘what dream / of me will surface in that lane when turning / back to glance at what was left behind?’

It isn’t only places that provide the stimulus for such thought-provoking and expertly crafted poems. There are poems that focus primarily on people (The Pinchfist, Father, Hestia/Mother, Aubrey, Gamekeeper, Roots), on objects that are iconic or suffused with meditative potential (The Soft Whip, Escapement, Love Lock, Maypole, Dedicated Seat) or on a subject that is both at the same time (He listens to photocopiers, A blue dress with a yellow bow, Vellum.) There are poems that engage with animals, real or imaginary (The Shire Horse, The Mordiford Wyvern), astronomy (The Great Attractor, Jupiter and the Moon) and the outer reaches of human psychology (Head Transplant, The Synesthesia Procedure and Lincoln, a poem that deals with road rage.)

While all these subjects make for variety in terms of the scope of the collection, each poem offers individual testimony to the Simon Cockle’s imaginative intelligence and to his skill in crafting a poem. He makes effective use of traditional stanza patterns, whether rhymed or syllabic in structure, on one occasion opting for strict tanka form in the splendid A Dialogue in Tanka between Eugene Cernan and the Moon; a couple of poems (The Mordiford Wyvern and Gamekeeper) are written in hemistichs that have a strong flavour of medieval alliterative metre. There are two opaquely written poems (Loosely Coupled Systems and Memory Cento) which acknowledge, respectively, a debt to J.H.Prynne, and to extracts from an eighteenth century cookery book, a late nineteenth century collection of fairy tales, and an early nineteenth century book on the function of memory and the brain.

Simon Cockle’s imaginative curiosity, his willingness to engage, and the skill with which he does so results in poems that offer genuine insights. I particularly admire the way he can write in the first person in situations which are not overtly autobiographical. In Winter Solstice for example, he puts himself into the mind of a Neolithic person asking ‘Why has the sun stopped here?’ and goes on to build a vivid snapshot of life in those times (and, metaphorically, our own)- ‘We light / fires against the longest night / and fill the air with smoke / and words.’ In Head Transplant, he speaks as the head, addressing the body he has been transplanted onto, and in The Synasthaesia Procedure as the patient experiencing the sensory shifts and blends voluntarily and for the first time. Interestingly, the most dramatic psychedelic transformations in the poem occur while he is undergoing the procedure – this is where ‘blossom sounds just like a choir singing / thunderstorms taste of old silver fillings’. When he comes round, the dislocations are still there, but they are more muted and so, maybe, more troubling – ‘everything is familiar, but different somehow / when I smell the word ‘flower’ I smell the word flower.’

There’s an irregularly rhymed fourteen line poem in the collection which on one level is about developing prints of photographs. But other equally subtle (al)chemical changes are implied; Negatives is also a metaphor for the process behind the writing of these poems, or at least of those of them which involve memories, often disturbing memories, of childhood – ‘the long-ago, in dark rooms, form / by liquid night and chemical gloom.’ This is a poem of emergence – of the print from the negative, of summer colours in the renewing year, and of the poems themselves from the childhood experiences that inform them. There’s a sense of achievement in its closing lines – ‘With careful fingers, I present / the negatives of yesterday / to light that scares the ghosts away’ – and reading River Lane I think that sense of achievement is wholly justified.

John Gohorry October 2018