My third short poetry collection, Petrol, Cyan, Electric has been reprinted by the Poetry Business.
Looking back at poems written a while ago is an uncanny thing. To some extent, I was a different person then, with different concerns. On the other hand, maybe not:
Flammable as paraffin, the unspoken;
petrol poured on thought,
oiled, like the shore after disaster.
Two things strike me. First, how much of the collection is concerned with living beside, within, and in touch with the natural world, in terms of food, energy and livelihoods (see ‘Trawler Girl’, inspired by the sustainable fishing practices on my ex-home island in the Blackwater estuary) and in terms of taking time to notice & ‘be with’ earth and soil, moon and stars. Reading ‘Clifftop, Birling Gap’ brings back the memory of standing on the cliff-edge, looking out at the constellations. It’s only now that I see the connections between this and my novel-forever-in-progress Fret, which is also set on the clifftop at Seven Sisters (another ex-home).
Many of the poems are about the history of electricity— yes, I really did get obsessed with pylons— particularly the people involved in discoveries (such at Dr Graham, who invented the Celestial Bed, look him up, it’s interesting) and Giovanni Aldini, whose experiments on the corpses of criminals were so unsettling one observer died of shock after watching him. Aldini may (perhaps) have inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, being one of the explorers of Galvanism, which is thought to have been among the topics of conversation at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in 1816. All those dull summer nights under a dust cloud, why wouldn’t they be thinking of electricity? This all began at Sheffield Park, a long way from Switzerland, when I imagined (or spotted or hallucinated) a lad in a cloth cap walking home across the fields after a long day building pylons. The pylons stride the landscape there, swinging wires the way schoolgirls swing skipping ropes. This set me off researching the building of the National Grid, which led me to a photograph of a pylon gang from the 1920s, featuring my cloth-capped lad. Hence, ‘Pylons, 1929’.
The second thing that strikes me rereading the collection now, is the uncanniness of many of the relationships between people, animals, and objects. As Simon Armitage noticed, there’s a lot of domesticity here, bedrooms, washstands, a dripping fridge in a power cut, a kitchen still waiting for connection to the grid. There are books read at night by a woman’s ghost-self, bats flapping in a barn while she sleeps, a single-eyed fish washed ashore on a beach beside a disused railway, a dance with an absent father. It seems to me now this is about animacy. The fine filament between the static and the animated. This plays out in the poem about Aldini’s experiment. Not just in the corpse of George Foster opening an eye when jolted by Aldini’s conducting rod, but in the wife and daughter he was accused of drowning, re-imagined in his testimony, strolling the bye lanes together, walking the embankment. They are re-imagined again in the poem (‘Animal Electricity’).
As Matt Bryden’s perceptive review recognises, there’s something of Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ about these poems. The moment life hangs in the balance, not fully lived, not yet gone. The strange light that descends on a room, throwing shadows, drawing the eye to how weird an illuminated lungs-glass might appear. The hand of a travelling lecturer, reaching out, asking what now? as a bird flutters, airless, in a glass.
Now, I see why Fret is inspired by that same painting: the story of a girl raised in isolation at Seven Sisters by a scientist who conducts mysterious experiments with birds. Why? As a way of shoring the pair against extinction? An attempt at restoration? Or something more sinister?
Good timing for Petrol, Cyan, Electric to be reprinted now, enjoying another lease of life.
This collection combines a conversational tone with passages of linguistic intensity to take on the big subjects: light, love, life. Domestic settings and the characters that populate them are particularly satisfying. I also enjoy the way the poems dabble or flirt with form and technique – couplets, half rhyme, the sonnet – before ultimately spinning on their heel and waltzing off in another direction. The poems asked me to accompany them and I went willingly.
– Simon Armitage
from Petrol, Cyan, Electric
Clifftop, Birling Gap
The planet tilts on an axis
too true to see
as we stand, angled
together in an attitude
of upturned prayer. There
is something necessary
in the touch of your hand –
the dream of cellular dust, debris.
Elsewhere, stars collapse
and flare, burn into black holes.
Petrol, Cyan, Electric, was a Winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition 2012/13 and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award.
Published by Smith Doorstop, available from the Poetry Business.