Tom Pickard’s Winter Migrants Carcanet (2016) and Fiends Fell (Flood Editions 2017)
I wrote the first half of what follows and posted it on Lady Godiva and Me nearly a year ago. I’d been rereading Winter Migrants in a cottage on the North-East Coast of England. The wind coming off the North Sea battered the walls with a vindictive persistence as it tried to rip away the roof. It wasn’t a review: I wanted to celebrate the book because it was the most enjoyable new poetry I’d read in a long time.
My test of a slim poetry book (78 pages) by a single author is can I live with it for a week? Can I read and then reread and not feel the urge to read anything else. And then if I put it aside and come back to it, does it still hold my attention? Most modern single author collections of poetry fail this test, miserably.
I bought Winter Migrants as soon as it was published and I’ve been rereading it ever since. In terms of my test it’s an excellent book.
It’s split into three parts: two sequences: Lark and Merlin, and from Fiends Fell Journal and a third section made up of individual poems.
Pickard’s poetry has almost always been the record of one intelligence moving through time and recording what he encounters in precise language.
perched on a hawthorn
low enough to skip the scalping winds,
sang a scalpel song.
This first poem from Lark and Merlin is a good example of an elegantly spare, stripped-down or stripped back poetic. It belongs to what Donald Davie once celebrated as ‘a poetry of right naming’. The poet works to find the best word to describe the world he lives through.
When Alice complained to Humpty Dumpty that he was making the words do too much work, Humpty boasted that he paid them extra for their efforts when they turned up for their wages on a Saturday. Presumably there's a small queue at Pickard's every Saturday and they have negotiated for overtime.
While I was rereading Winter Migrants I was also reading Baker’s The Peregrine. Both books have the same detailed observation of movement and light, landscapes and their wild inhabitants. Ruskin would have approved of both writers’ honest attention to detail. However, while Baker’s prose overloads the reader, Pickard’s poems have the advantage that everything unnecessary has been left out. What I envy most is his ability to capture the effects wind has and describe its movement over a landscape. In this he’s as good if not better than Ruskin at his best; he also has the added advantage of brevity.
Sometimes minimalism doesn’t leave much for the reader to do except admire the poet’s skill. The Sequence solves this problem. Lark and Merlin might be a record of a relationship. There’s a she/you and an I. But the subject is absent. There’s no biographical context (factual or fictional) to distract from the poems. And I don’t understand how this works, but the absence of the subject creates the space which holds the sequence together.
It also allows for the complexities of shifting power within a relationship, the confusion as well as the celebrations:
She asked about my heart,
Its evasive flight;
but can I trust her with its secrets?
and does the merlin, in fast pursuit of its prey,
tell the fleeing lark it is enamoured of its song?
or the singing lark turn tail
and fly into the falcon’s talons?
The final section of the book contains an assortment of poems on a range of subjects and in a range of styles, from the satire of ‘Whining while dining oot’ which puts the boot into a certain type of regional poet, to lamenting a death, ‘Squire’; to expressions of frustration with his contemporaries; the marvelously quotable, ‘To Goad My Friggin Peers’.
At the end the book returns to the sparser tone of its beginning with ‘At the Estuary’ and ‘Winter Migrants’, both short sequences.
And as a PS. As someone who has often grumbled about the absurdity of blurbs on poetry books, the paragraph on the back of Winter Migrants is a model of how a poetry book could be described.
Winter Migrants contains extracts from Fiends Fell Journal, a mix of prose with poetry.
A year later (2017) and Fiends Fell has been published by Flood Editions. The blurb says it charts a single year out of decade spent ‘on a bare hilltop near the English-Scottish border’. It contains ‘Fiends’ Fell Journal’ and ‘Lark and Merlin’.
Journals are dodgy things. The journals of poets have to compete with Coleridge’s and that’s a non-starter. The range of possible reasons for reader disappoint is vast. You are being invited to stare over the author’s shoulder and share his or her navel gazing. There is an explicit invitation to voyeurism and your willful indulgence in it might not be healthy or edifying.
The temptation to be ‘poetic’ or ‘profound’, to claim thoughts that one never had or to edit for effect must be immense.
So I hesitated because there was also the specific fear that the journal would turn out to be a prose exposition of Lark and Merlin which would bury the poems in the details that had been originally left out.
Should have known better by now. The postman delivered it early in the day. I had plans. There were things I had to do, and I thought, I haven’t got time for this. But I want to read a bit. Just a few pages. And many hours later I’d finished it and all the other things I had planned to do were still waiting to be done.
The Journal is the record of an intelligence moving through a landscape and taking careful note of everything seen, felt and heard. It’s also, incidentally and occasionally, about the writing of The Ballad of Jamie Allan. For those of us who like that book there’s the added bonus of a short run of 6 pieces about Nell Clarke, one of Allen’s partners, which doesn’t show up in The Ballad of Jamie Allen.
It might sound like a strange compliment, but it’s honest poetry and prose which doesn’t fudge itself by pretending to ‘poetic thoughts’ or attempting to be ‘literary’. In the wrong hands, the prose could easily become poetic pose in the worst sense of ‘poetic’: The solitary wind whipped figure served up as metaphor for the modern poet facing society’s overwhelming indifference. But one of the reasons for reading Pickard is the well-founded faith that he isn’t going to do that.
The blurb, which is another good example of how to write a blurb, describes it as a Haibun, but the alternation of Prose and Verse you find in medieval Welsh and Irish texts feels like a comparison more appropriate to the wild landscape. The obvious comparison is with Basho, who is nodded to in the text, but Basho was never this angry, physical or funny.
There are the inevitable traces of autobiography, but in an honest journal the writer is talking not to the reader but to himself, so here there is no explanation or background, just memories and interactions picked up and passed over. The gaps in Lark and Merlin are not filled in. Rather than an invitation to voyeurism, there’s an invitation to share a walk.
The background to ‘Whining while dining oot’ is provided, but the information doesn’t detract from the poem, and, perhaps ironically for those academically inclined to believe context is everything, it doesn’t add anything either.
As in Winter Migrants, the wind and weather become characters in the narrative. Pickard records his share of memories, meetings and dealings with humans, birds rats and mice, but the weather is his significant other in this book. It keeps him indoors, threatens him at night, bullies him when he’s outside, and just occasionally leaves him alone.
There’s been a lot of nonsense written recently surrounding the financial success of Milk and Honey and the ‘renaissance of poetry’ in Britain. There’s an unforgivable ignorance in some of the commentators who seem to think poetry of direct statement was invented on Instagram. Pickard, and others like him, have been plying their trade for decades, mostly unnoticed by the press, who would rather promote the self-centred whining of the wilfully ignorant for no other reason than the success of their sales pitch and the size of their royalties.
Nothing I’ve just written does justice to the pleasure of reading Winter Migrants or Fiends Fell. Which is really what makes Pickard stand out. He’s very good, but he’s also entertaining and thought provoking, and enjoyable.
He reminds me what poetry was probably like before it was turned into a ‘pedant’s game’ or the chopped prose equivalent of a selfie: worth rereading.