review by Lem CooleyPhilip Fried

Two Poets From West Riding

review by Lem CooleyPhilip Fried
Two Poets From West Riding

Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God by Steve Ely. Yorkshire, United Kingdom: The High Window Press, 2017. 140 pp., £10 (paperback)

The Edge of Seeing by John Duffy. Yorkshire, United Kingdom: The High Window Press, 2017. 112 pp., £4.20 (paperback)

John Duffy and Steve Ely both live in the West Riding of Yorkshire and are published by the High Window Press, also located in Northern England (Grimsby, Northeast Lincolnshire). The invoices that came with the books are from Lulu Press in North Carolina.

Fascinating if Duffy and Ely were the same person and the cosmic equanimity of Duffy's The Edge of Seeing, lucid clarity directed at Hawthorns, spiders, Celtic remnants, followed the purgation of Ely's Bloody, proud, and murderous men, adulterers, and enemies of God, which "brings together for the first time Steve Ely's recent poetry about violence (back cover)."  But probably not.

Ely directs the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield and he may have worked through Hughes to get to Bloody, proud...The uncompromising harshness and mythic grounding of Crow, suggest some kindred northern spirit.  But I take Ely to be his own man. Crow, like Godot and The Seventh Seal, belongs to the abstract expressions of shock and awe that came after the apocalypse of World War II. Hughes wrote in a time when word and image were more strictly controlled; Ely writes for an audience that has watched beheadings on video, read close accounts of school shootings and the memoirs of serial killers.

He avoids abstraction by linking one horror show with another. An elite British voice—I am handicapped by ignorance of UK political sociology—describes the "underclass" as roaches and pigs, tracing them back to Beveridge with cruel, vivid disgust. Why is the title "Inyenzi?"  It means "cockroaches," a term from the Rwandan genocide used to dehumanize Tutsis. (Ely's concise notes at the back of the book are helpful.) "Death Dealer of Kovno" sandwiches an anecdote about the vicious beating of a British schoolboy between lines from the Lithuanian national anthem and an account of fifty Jews beat to death with a crowbar in Lithuania, thus showing the universality of our human inhumanity without sacrificing particularity—naming names.

The school episode is blandly sanctioned by a teacher in "his careful herringbone." This representative of the state doesn't create the brutality, but he deftly enables it.  And for Ely the state may not create violence, but it exploits violence, often fertilized by want, fear, and ignorance to which the state and those it loves contributed. The state need not be the neo-liberal beauty we know, getting a bit long in the tooth now. Ely, who has a willingness to look things in the face, writes of dreaming visionaries, grouping John Lennon and Radovan Karadic in a poem with an epigraph from the Turner Diaries. "Every concentration camp begins / with a vision. The guns of every firing squad / are loaded by a dreamer." (p 30)

The complexity and patience of Ely's understanding impressed me. He goes inside his subject, comes back out, goes in another door, tries on some of the masks, mimics through them the ideological hate which is the soundtrack for so many atrocities. And then when the book seems almost a Black Mass of demon worship, presents simple instances of human decency.

And human bravery. "The Ballad of Scouse McLaughlin" is a long (16 pages) narrative in traditional ballad style—four line stanzas, ABCB, first and third lines longer than second and fourth. McLaughlin was a rebel—not easily accommodated, saved from jail by military service—who pulled his company through a nasty firefight in the Falkland war. I think Ely's point is that McLaughlin could just as easily have been a "psycho," but in the right place at the right time became a hero, and that both convenient shorthand terms are superficial indicators for something more elemental—like calling the power of the sun "alternative energy."

"True Crime" is a short story though paragraphs are separated to give the feel of prose poems. A supposedly solid citizen avenges the near murder of his criminal brother. This brings out something real in him and he kills more. Ely seems to be saying that this evolution somehow enlarges the narrator's human capacity. Something like Yeats's, "...when all words are said /And a man is fighting mad, / Something drops from eyes long blind / He completes his partial mind." In a 19th century novel, the narrator of True Crime would become a gibbering idiot, dehumanized by murder. Here he cuts ties, drifts to the margins, but is very much alive. Yet no reader will think Ely callous, or without affect where violence is concerned. He dramatizes and affirms our mutual fellowship, and shows deep sympathy for the innocent. This book goes beyond the pop psychology and Liberal anguish we often use to talk about violence.

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The Edge of Seeing by John Duffy is quite a different thing—quiet clear poems, often closely watched natural events—not "natures mortes," though the event may unfold at a snail's pace. My favorite may be "Wood sorrel." The sorrel, with "flowers pink as fresh / meat..." gets the title, but the stone, seen as moving through time in geological migration, captures the poem.

These poems seem very deft. They avoid excesses, including an excess of minimalism. Many poets want to bring out the spiritual dimension of nature but end up bloviating. Duffy doesn't sidestep spirituality—and seems comfortable with traditional religion—but doesn't lay his trip on us.

Every poem is not about nature, but those are my favorites. Born in Glasgow, Duffy writes some poems in dialect.  "To a toenail" invokes Robert Burns and, like the nature poems, profits from close, witty observation of these keratin shells, taken for granted in youth, the object of much attention in later life. I assume that poems from earlier books lead the way, so we get a sense of Duffy's progression and changes in style and subject. If that's true, I would call the earlier works more diverse, with anecdotes and nimble but unpretentious diction, but perhaps not as clear in focus as the later works. He seems more sure of himself in the later pieces.

At any rate, these books hold up well. In the time spent reviewing, I've not wearied of them or come to a sense of their limitations. Americans should take note of the High Windows Press if John Duffy and Steve Ely represent the talent in the house.

The Edge of Seeing and Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God will give pleasure and instruction to any reader. They are accessible but not easy. Through very different works, both poets demonstrate generous human values, more present and convincing because long held and lived.