Two new poems by Ross Thompson, introduced by the poet
IN OCTOBER OF 2019, a few months before the world temporarily fell apart, my family took a half-term trip to Edinburgh. Like all vacations, it offered an opportunity to exist as different people for a short while, to become strangers hiding out in a city where everything tasted and felt fresh and new. Being pulled out of the humdrum repetition of daily life, as if by an invisible claw in a teddy picker, and plonked down in an alien environment, is undeniably exciting. The entire world folds and opens up like full-size origami, the streets and buildings are manifested as if you dreamed them into existence, and there are possibilities around each uncharted corner.
THIS EXTENDED PREAMBLE has very little to do with the focus of my first poem, other than the aforementioned jolly to the Scottish capital, but it is there in the background, at least in my own mind. Like so much of my work, ‘Rainbow Lorikeets’ is characterised by hope and nostalgia. Now, I know full well that there is an ongoing debate within poetry circles about how much the written word should reveal and how much it should obfuscate, but I most often veer towards the former. As I see it, poetry should be communicative. Its purpose is to relay occurrences and encounters in ways that are evocative and illuminative, to capture the transient in amber through words and imagery that are understandable and relatable. The poets to which I personally gravitate – Larkin, Dickinson, Frost, Barrett Browning, Hardy – predominantly employ language that is lucid, meaning that even on a superficial level most readers will have a sound idea of their intention. This is not to say that there are multitudes of interpretation beneath that surface (an entire thesis could be expounded on the meaning of Larkin’s lines “The trees are coming into leaf / like something almost being said”) yet their chief aim is to be direct, therefore establishing a connection with the audience that feels genuine and very real. This approach resonates deeply with me: I trust and believe poets who are able to navigate the squall line between being sentimental without being cloying, between being recognisable without teetering over into cliché.
MY WRITING IS regularly inspired by strong memories, particularly those that arrive in the mind like an unbidden guest, the difference being that this lodger also expects you to unpack their bags, sing them to sleep with a lullaby and cook them a full breakfast in the morning. The problem with inspiration is that itch demands to be scratched: an idea will not go away unless you bring it into being. As we all know, this is an extremely difficult conjuring trick to pull off. Words are slippery and elusive. A secluded pond in a forest might appear beautifully clear but as soon as you stick in your hand just to feel the coolness of the water on your skin, it turns murky with silt and long submerged leaves. Memories may hover, mirage-like, in our mental field of vision but when grasping them one is left with a handful of sand. Also, as if governed by some strange form of Heisenberg effect, some memories are so special that the very act of writing about them nullifies their specialness. As Tom Waits puts it, “The rose has died because you picked it.” My wife and I have a running joke: whenever we are in the midst of creating what will inevitably become another important memory – the time, for example, when we became fully immersed in a sudden sea fret while lying on the beach on a hitherto sunny summer afternoon – she will turn to me and say, “You’re going to write a poem about this, aren’t you?” I cannot deny that she is correct. An occupational hazard of being married to a poet is that they are often fully present: instead of living in the moment, a poet is already thinking about capturing that moment in song.
All of these disparate threads were woven into the following poem.
A Halloween jaunt to Edinburgh Zoo
where rows of nesting doll cages glister
in ailing October sun. The year spills
the last few coins remaining in her purse
to barter for more time. You pay no mind
to the vanishing light. Like a pro athlete,
you outrun your mum, breathless, zeroing
on the Bright Birds exhibit depicted
in the folding map you doggedly grip
in your gloved fists. Within moments, those same
hands are unsheathed and outstretched, quivering
inside a miniature aurora
borealis as you lift up tiny
nectar cups from which Thumbelina birds
can sip, minuscule wings and beaks purring
as you conduct colour itself, the blurred
crotchets and quavers perched on your fingers
as you giggle and chirp in harmony.
I was and remain in awe of your gifts.
You are wonderful. You can do anything.
Rainbow Lorikeets. Image courtesy of Pixabay
TRYING TO DIVINE the whys and wherefores of the creative process is nigh on impossible (one is reminded of Longley’s oft-quoted quip, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there”), namely how certain recollections percolate in the subconscious until they are ready to pop out like a pebble that has been buffed and honed by its allotted time in the ocean. For example, ‘Rainbow Lorikeets’ was only recently completed, three and a half years after the day that it describes took place. Arguably, it was in part inspired by the work of fellow Dedalus poet Mark Roper, who writes with such tenderness and precision about the natural world (his pieces on birds are second to none) and our interaction with it. The poem’s “camera” begins with a wide frame establishing shot then zooms in on small details that I aimed to convey through the previously discussed understandable yet evocative imagery. I always appreciate poems that feature a strong sense of place. This spatial organisation – whether it happens by a shoreline, on an Italian piazza or inside a crowded coffee shop – is appealing as it roots the text in an immediately recognisable location, a concrete (in all senses of the word) base on which the writer can build with figurative language and more abstract associations. Take, for example, Rossetti’s deeply unsettling ‘In An Artist’s Studio’, whose pared back sonnet form barely hides volumes of creepy happenings. Or O’Hara’s vibrant ‘Personal Poem’, which is so rich in observational detail and sensory description that it makes New York, a city catalogued elsewhere so extensively that it is in danger of becoming redundant. Or Heaney’s ‘A Call’, whose closing line always brings me to tears but is all the more affecting for its precise description of the “calm / of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums” beforehand.
MY NEXT POEM also pinpoints both a specific place and time, namely London in July 2005: the day of the bombings on the city’s transport system. I distinctly recall the panic that I felt when watching the scrolling ticker tape of news reports as, selfishly perhaps, I was fearful for the safety of my close friend, who had only recently moved to the mainland. This directly inspired the piece’s agitated in media res opening that does not subside until the volta in the fifth couplet. While this one is tonally different to ‘Rainbow Lorikeets’, it also strives to encapsulate a formative moment in time that did not arrive in my creative in-tray for seventeen years after the fact. Placed together, these poems straddle the twin poetic themes of life and death, yet at the root of it is the necessity for human relationships and, dare I say it, love. When I first started writing them, both poems desperately wished to become sonnets (as most of my poems do) but neither of them quite made it into that form. ‘The Explosions’, however, comes closest: its fixed meter and rhyme scheme seemed a fitting counterbalance to the chaos that takes place within.
When the news broke I desperately tried
to call and text but the network had died
and fallen limp as a snapped angling line.
I grew increasingly panicked each time
it failed to connect, picturing your corpse
entombed within strata of collapsed floors
and choking rush hour dust, hidden within
the skeleton of a sunken building.
Then your message came through. I almost wept.
You were safe, unscathed but were forced to trek
home in thick July heat. With no transport,
the streets in London were hiving with scores
of punch-drunk commuters doing the same,
monogrammed cuffs rolled tight as tourniquets,
ties drooping loose from their designer shirts.
Dazed, as if they had just arrived on Earth.