I’ve written about place for as long as I’ve written poems. It fascinates me. For several years I struggled every which way I can think of to try and put into poetry the plural layers of reality, history, lived experience, interpretations and personal myth that we experience in the places we know well.
Often, trying to fit these tangled ideas into jewel-like, concise lyric poems felt like trying to over-stuff a delicate handbag with all the books you want to take with you on the train (obviously, I speak from experience). It ends up misshapen, the straps can’t support the contents and the whole thing gives way.
In 2011 I came across the sequence ‘Walk’ by Ian McMillan, in his smith|doorstop pamphlet This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come back to this poem and how influential it has been in my writing and in my teaching of writing. The poem is in eight parts and each part explores some aspect of the same walk, in a part of Barnsley where McMillan grew up and still walks regularly.
These poems are almost a form of time travel, exploring the same place as a child and adult, and finally an imagined future: ‘As an Old Man Ian Remembers His Walks’. There are gaps between these episodes, and there are ambiguities, in the accuracy of memory, or the point of view of who is speaking. Poem ‘0’ in the sequence observes the poet’s activities from ‘Many Points of View, Some Diverging, Some Obscured by Rain’: ‘He’s there again, that Ian McMillan, walking down the hill, / scribbling in a notebook’.
The landscape is full of people that are remembered and the whole sequence tests and pushes at this idea of memory infusing the place. Sometimes this is problematic; in Poem ‘1. Walk 1’ the narrator talks about the fate of the threepenny bit he wants dropped in a long-gone postbox, whether it went into the postman’s pocket or whether it is still sealed up in an unused postbox somewhere, and of course neither are happening for certain, but they are also both simultaneously happening in the poem.
I found reading this sequence to be incredibly liberating to me in my own writing about place. McMillan manages to create a very specific, very atmospheric understanding of this particular part of the world. It finally felt like there was a way of saying everything I wanted to say, I just needed to separate it out into its parts and use the fragments to form a whole.
At a similar sort of time I took a bus journey with a friend who was reading Richard Price’s collection Lucky Day (Carcanet). He read aloud to me from ‘A Spelthorne Bird List’ so I didn’t get carsick. I particularly remember this passage, ‘Cuckoo’:
‘It’s an uplifting call and when you hear it spring is coming, sure enough, resurrection, promise kept. But I’m not comfortable. That’s no life for her and it’s no life for anyone else mixed up in the whole business. The parents think the chick is just like them, and it’s a hero when it gets bigger. Then it’s all me me me, eating its brothers out of home and house, breaking its foster-mother’s heart as sure as. I can’t speak to her about it, and she won’t get help. She says: every one of my children is like a little Jesus, and that makes me… God.’
The whole sequence is witty and bright with these fantastically well-detailed sketches. These are birds we know well, but these are also people we know well, and the space where they cross over is surreal and mysterious, and asks some interesting questions about humanity and how we think about and interact with the everyday nature that surrounds us. These vignettes are, of course, strengthened by their presentation as a sequence, an alternative bird-book of sorts. There is no continuity between one poem and the next, all are presented individually, the voice of the poems varies, and some of them are very short, for example ‘Kingfisher’ :
Blue. I mean Green. Blue, green. Gone.
It was through this poem that I realised a sequence could so effectively present a taxonomy of ideas, that there is a richness and fullness achieved by presenting these images, ideas or figures all together. A shorter poem would not stand up to the variety presented here, and a more continuously narrative poem wouldn’t allow for the shifts in voice and perspective that make the poem what it is.
A much more recent life-changing sequence for me has been Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I read it because it had been so heartily recommended me by so many people when I told them about my interest in poetry sequences. Bluets is a book-length collection of short prose poems are numbered explorations of many aspects of the colour blue, with which the author declares she has fallen in love.
The poet collects blues and blue threads run through the sequence; perhaps most notably a gut-wringing, too true depiction of heartbreak: ‘This is how much I miss you talking. This is the deepest blue, talking, talking, always talking to you’. Nelson collects not only blue objects, but blue memories, songs about blue, and the thoughts of philosophers, writers and artists on colour and beauty in general and blue in particular. It is a love letter to the colour, a document of pleasure and pain, and says something too about the way beauty can ease grief, if only for a moment.
Bluets is still teaching me, I think, not only because it is so wise but because its writing is so brutal and beautiful that it has to be revisited. But it feels to me like a further liberation; that writing in sequence suits, so thoroughly, the ambiguities of human existence and our consciousness.
I like the feeling of seeing the multiple possibilities in everything. I’ve never been one to labour an argument just to prove my point. The truth is always a bit messier than that. I see poetry as the ideal vehicle for expressing the ambiguities and pluralities of existence, and the sequence poem as the perfect place to explore them.