POETRY COLLECTION I’VE ENJOYED MOST THIS YEAR – TERMINARCHY BY ANGELA FRANCE

Over the last dozen years or so, Angela France has developed into a seriously good poet. I was thinking about the collections I’ve read this year, wondering which I preferred – and then her book, Terminarchy (Nine Arches Press, £9.99) dropped on the mat with the bills and early Christmas cards.

Within a few pages – I have a strange habit of beginning books I don’t know at the back as well as the front – I thought this seemed so confident and assured I wanted to read it all, there and then. As is so often the case, it wasn’t possible. For a start, hens had to be cleaned out and fed, the home-made pig-sty, known to family as Pig Ugly, needed to be upgraded to deal with winter, given the arrival of four new inhabitants at the weekend. I was also writing a (bad) long poem, which eventually failed to survive ‘Delete’, and which took up a stupid amount of time before its demise.

So, when I finally settled to read Terminarchy, from front to back this time, it was with a fresh eye. And after two readings, I’ve found it the most pleasing new collection of my 2021. By that I mean that so much is published each year it’s impossible to read everything. I also have a tendency to re-read old, familiar books that have been on the shelves for decades. Nevertheless, acknowledging the limits of the statement, Terminarchy is top of my relatively lengthy list.

It begins with a poem separated from the rest, almost as some kind of prelude, using as a title, W H Auden’s oft-quoted (mostly out of context) line from his elegy to W B Yeats, Poetry Makes Nothing Happen. It’s a fine, powerful poem about the chance of circumstance that makes a thing that would have happened not happen, beginning with a young girl whose post arrives early, which means she reads a poem in a book, which in itself makes her later than usual for the journey to work, and which means nothing happens as she crosses the road because the guy in the 4 x 4 who was answering a call on his mobile already passed by. It’s a fine poem of three stanzas, each of which is one lengthy, perfectly controlled sentence.

Angela is often at her best when she builds a poem around an incident, or perhaps a conversation, as with the second poem in the collection proper, Water Mark, in which the narrator calls the water board’s emergency line to report a major leak in a road but is unable, upon request, to supply the post code. The water board representative says a crew can’t be sent without it. I could tell her/ how the road rises from the town,/ leaving street names behind,/ it is a road to somewhere or from/ elsewhere, how it is a place between… I could tell her I know that old sycamore, leaning/ over a crumbling wall, how this bend tightens/ if you come down the hill too fast. And, without quoting the ending, suffice to say she finds a short sentence to finish it perfectly.

The sense that we are destroying ourselves along with the planet is a constant in the background but so is the sense that we have to live in tune with our world as well as we can. We have inherited all that the world is and while we may bear a responsibility that is both historical and spiritual, and therefore need to amend our behaviour, most of what is happening is beyond our individual control. Early Spring brings the first meeting with the recurring presence of a sparrow, which seems to take on a larger, almost human presence as the collection progresses. Because of climate change, spring has come too early. Sparrow mutters behind me/ We’ll pay for this.

There are five short poems of isolated words or phrases linking to provide information about a mysterious creature, Wantwite, that appears to suck the goodness and life out of the world. I wondered at one point if the effect of them might have worked better as a single poem of different parts running on rather than an interruption to the flow of the collection, but as they are, they are offer a variety in style that brought me up short each time. Undecided on this.

Small Gods is a reflection on the relentless advance of technology and materialism – Our gods are poor things these days, bereft of altars, priests or homes. Their worshippers pay ‘spiritual’ homage by computer, with the purchase of stuff that offers only brief interest or value. City Break takes modern life on to the streets and will best find understanding from those of us who live in more isolated, less populated spaces. In this city, every face looks/ like someone I’ve seen before. Except that none of these half-familiar faces responds to a glance or half-smile, and even the hard roads and pavements are unwelcoming and exhausting. This links into the return of the sparrow in Sparrow Complains, when the bird, or the symbol of the fragile natural world that it has become, grumbles that the narrator, no longer has time nor space to pay it attention. The accusation of our neglect is plain.

Angela has always had the ability to choose words precisely and without waste. It’s just an instinctive sense, I think, but I feel she now has an added confidence and assurance in the rhythms she uses. Her sentences can be longer, stanzas more sustained. And she knows when to finish a poem. The forms she selects usually fit the poem well and allow her to stop in the right place – and she’s not afraid to adjust the form to fit the poem, as in For A Glacier, which has four two-line stanzas and then a single line to finish it. A lesser, or less advanced poet might have felt obliged to stick to the two-line sequence and might have spoiled it. She has been the inspiration behind the Cheltenham live poetry evenings Buzzwords for a long time now, and whether it is the benefit of experiencing hours of the spoken word, or the fact that she has been drawn into academia – she teaches creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire – and has therefore been immersed in poetry for most of her time for several years, she had certainly matured as a poet in the time I’ve known her work. (It may be, of course, that neither live performance nor academic study is responsible for her development. Either of these activities can be a negative rather than a positive. Whatever the truth of it, it’s a pleasure to see.)

I empathised with the narrator’s struggle to identify birdsong. Like her, I am familiar with certain birds but when they’re all at it around dawn in our woods it’s too confusing. In the poem Singing Lessons this failure provides a welcome lightening of tone. I walk with binoculars/ but can’t match the whistles, warbles, and tweets to birds/ unless I see the head-tip, open beak, and notes/ bursting into the air. I can’t learn a song unless I see the singer. She develops the theme to take in human loss, bringing us back to the general theme that gives the book its title. How long must I hear a voice call as I fall asleep,/ startle at the slant of a cheek glanced from a car,/ wake to think someone just left the room. It’s an eerie switch but beautifully done.

Departures is an assured, moving consideration of how we react to death in a person, either directly or indirectly. If I quoted this one I would do so in full because it’s a perfect whole.

I could reflect on each poem but I did that with a more investigative reaction to Jennifer Wong’s Letters Home recently and felt the result was too long for a blog. (It’s still there, for the record, should anyone feel inclined.) Better here to pick through as and how, and leave others for you to discover.

Blame makes a point about how much time might be spent by people who like to apportion blame for the perilous state of the planet and yet spend all day using up energy by being online. I don’t know enough to suggest what the form she uses might be but the use of rhyme and repeated words is effective and offers a different way of supplying a poem as a complete entity. She looks outside, twenty-eight days without rain/ and the grass is browning to the colour of barley/ while she cruises online for someone to blame. And so on.

She is at home with the natural world, with or, it seems at times, preferably without human company. Without falling into the trap of constantly mistaking the poet for the narrator, Second Wind seems to fit the picture of a woman who has spent her life walking tracks and paths around her Gloucestershire home and now, finding her body slowed by tinme, is able to consider the experience in greater detail than when she had the energy of youth to take her along at a much faster pace. That said, as usual, there is a deeper layer. I found myself thinking of the flimsy nature of boundaries, or to extend it further, borders. The second stanza of this one begins: There are consolations in stiffening joints/ slowing my walks on the limestone hills: the way a violet nestles in a knuckle of root/ or the questing eye-stalk of a Roman snail/ snaps into focus. And the third stanza, which echoes the opening line of the poem moves us on. There are secrets, better kept,/ about what may slip past fences/ as wild garlic grows where it will,/ stretches past boundaries and barriers.

A similar theme in Down Piggy Lane, where she treads an old track and remembers passing the same way as a child, when she was blessed with the wide-eyed innocence who felt it was enough to be in that place and wanting only that. It is perhaps a common experience, certainly easily relatable. Piggy Lane has, of course, changed, partly because of human development, partly because of general ‘neglect’. but is still very much alive. The path skulks round the back end of a housing estate,/ hidden by overgrown shrubs and tattered trees/ either side of the sullen brook… Pig arks are empty, fading grass straggling/ up the sides. It’s a simple enough memory poem on face value but eloquent and clear in its language. It leads into the image of her nine-year-old self carrying a Tupperware beaker/ of milk for feral kittens and windfall apples/ stuffed under my jumper for a shaggy piebald pony.

How to be alone is a six-stanza ‘instruction’ poem on how to craft a drum. Begin with wood. Maybe a log from three-cutting,/ not pine but something with weight, something/ that fits the curve of one arm, cradling. It’s about how we care, or should care, about how we use our resources to build one useful or beautiful thing out of another, how we should, if we can, make music of one kind or another, even if we are alone. It’s a poem of encouragement.

Muscle Memory considers the passing of time, using hands as the central image, and considers how our bodies forget some things and remember others. My hands remember how to rock a crying infant, for example. And then, Some habits wash away like the day’s grime./ The weight of hymn book, the shape of prayer,/ the smoothing of white gloves at Easter/ or the wiggle of the side zip on a new dress. And again, without repeating the ending here, she knows how to finish what is another lovely piece of writing.

The sense that the end is closer than the beginning comes again in Grave, in which the narrator visits a stonemason’s yard. Conversion takes us into what was once a geriatric hospital and is now in the process of being converted into a glossy retirement amenity. The gods that inhabit the places have retreated into confined spaces but are still there, waiting. A building is more than bricks and lights. It has a past, an inheritance.

Nearly makes the connection with dreams, in this case the common one of falling fast and waking before landing, or more precisely, crashing into the earth… which translates into how we live with our daily experiences, avoiding the inevitable end for as long as possible.

In Sparrow says, our companion is now far more than a bird and comes back to tell us to leave the hedgerow for the birds,/ there’s little to learn/ from what’s been tamed/ and trimmed to fit a space. It’s about far more than the modern farmer’s habit of keeping a hedge in ‘order’ by ruthless flailing, it’s about how our awareness crowds us, forces us to act and react. Sparrow comes into the house, into an armchair, leans on a door post. He nudges at my back, finger-prods my ribs,/ hovers at my shoulder, tells me to speak up,/ stand up, don’t hide behind doors or screens.

Wild Seed uses a simple, daft, domestic moment to take us into the depths of what we are. A song playing on the radio starts the dog/ howling. It’s howl is a core, ancestral cry. You laugh and the dog wags his tail as he howls/ but amusement only disguises the itch inside, to know/ what he hears, what old demand draws this from him,/ what longing. And, somehow, it touches something inside us as we listen, something at the heart of our existence. It takes us back to when we too felt the need to howl.

Terminarchy draws to its close with two poems. Endlings, which was apparently the original choice for the title, draws upon the image of the last of species wandering the earth, each alone, and ends with the sparrow returning, weeping. The only thing that jarred for me in this poem was the use of capital letters for the animals, e.g. Thylacine, but that’s a minor quibble. And finally, Living Yule, takes us back through the centuries of our common ancestry to when our daily routines and beliefs had just the same, perhaps more, effect on the quality of our lives and less on that of the planet. I was there/ when men squatted on haunches/to chip flint and weave webs of belief from seasons/ and circles of death and growth. We may have accumulated habits that have taken us away from those people but the poem argues that something of them comes down with each generation and which, instinctively, we hold dear. In that, the book ends on a line of, if not exactly hope, then a reflection on the possibility that something positive still lies at the core of all of us.

I think Terminarchy is very, very good. And if you were to buy it and like it, Nine Arches, also published her previous collection, The Hill, in 2017, which is centred on the life – magical, physical, sensual – of a specific place, Leckhampton Hill, just outside Cheltenham. I would recommend that too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: