Anatomy of a poem.
‘Lipizzaner waves confront the pebble strand, breaking into froth of a trot, then beating back again.’
As an image, Lipizzaner works: the poet isn’t merely commenting on the equestrian dance of the sea as it fragments on the shore, but the allusion to the famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna is indicative of a stylized control.
Nature as dressage. But there is more. The poet informs us that the implosion of the wave, its ‘beating back again’, results in the ‘crescendo charge of white brigade, booming at the shrinking shores in bright magnificence.’ I imagine the writer, trousers rolled up, footwear in hand, standing in the sea, captivated while in the process of remembering, like the man standing on the precipice, intoxicated by the sea of fog in the Caspar David Friedrich landscape, or I can picture the poet, genuflecting before the sea’s operatic denouement, ‘the dulling soon with tide’, or rooted to the source for the poem, in homage to Turner who reputedly tied himself to the mast to better understand a storm at sea. It could read too as a lament by a defeated and exiled Trojan remembering how the siege of Troy was unlocked by the sea and the gift of a horse. ‘To part at hissing isthmus hinterland’. Widening the scope of this imagery further, perhaps the soldier licking his wounds might see between the poet’s lines the attack by serpents of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his offspring, Thymbraeus and Antiphantes, by sea serpents.
Assault of the Sea appears early in Still Rise the Sun by Joe Neal: it is a small poem of 14 lines and no line is more than seven syllables in length. In a single line, Joe packs a powerful punch. ‘As diffracted light makes a spectre of myself with rainbow halo round a saintly head’ from High Spirits, or ‘a stealth of noddle mushrooms nudge the soil away and discreetly swell upon themselves’ from The Awakening.
This should not surprise us: primarily, he is a poet of observation, a sentient presence in a world who does not trespass or interfere but allows his inner eye to reveal, rather than be quietened, by the power of harmony. I have often wondered if at heart Joe was a throwback to the Romantics, because the lyric essence of much of his work has both the energy and the vision of the Lake Poets, what I experience continuously in poems like A Branch Too Far, where
‘wet white crystals clutch at unaccustomed
Brightness from the sky in late December
Melt of snow – creased now with drag-tail dent
As creature trails its mark in progress
To the tallest tree,’ where Joe’s take on nature is unafraid of being semi-autobiographical, or where poetry, the simple act of marrying vision and pen, becomes, most satisfyingly for the poet, a means of understanding. These poems are too, for someone who spent his early years roaming the Welsh countryside, fond tokens of time, shifting snapshots of memory and the volcanic impatience of the imagination, for the poet is traipsing across thin ice. The world he knew is being eroded as surely as the great Arctic ice is melting; time and again, careful not to bathe in nostalgic or varnish the past as one would a conker to preserve it against all on-comers, Joe can sign off with subtle regret. The second stanza in Living Memory is unambiguous and word perfect.
‘Gone too the red-brack farm
With tench-filled pond
From whence I saw
Lashing eels slime rain-soaked
Grass en route to breeding sea;
Now there’s only stench of factory
And grim clouds chasing off the sun.’
To wholly appreciate Joe Neal’s gifts it is necessary to hear these poems spoken and performed: his voice is as April light on stained glass, his diction the catalyst as the incandescent wattage of the words are liberated from the page. Reading the poems again and again, as it has been my pleasure on so many occasions and yet too few, I can picture the stressed syllables unsheathing their chrysalis:
‘Hush, savour now the silence
Of the white wide-faced owl,
Surprised by cloud-redempted moon’ from The Awakening.
Consensus about the function of poetry and its fate in an age dominated by social media and the regrettable trend of truncating sentences and abbreviating words is far from collective, and although English is mature enough and sufficiently adaptable to embrace the baffling and the semi-comprehensible, ready to become graspable in a newly direct way, what is striking about the poets who interest me is their hunger to forever see a world in a grain of sand. And I believe free verse, whether writing for the eye or the ear, has allowed the poet to escape the iron talons of regimental metrics.
When Joe closes That Pure Thing with the five line stanza,
‘For we’ve built a room inside
Our cluttered living space
Where no proud furniture
Can detract from what we share
That pure thing we call love,’ he, perhaps inadvertently, is remembering that the Italian word for room is stanza, and a room is an independent part of a house, and yet, of itself, not a home, and a stanza plays the same role in a poem, like an enfilade of rooms in a house.
Lying’s as easy as sliding off an ostrich
Re-fashioning the bricks
of ruined reputation
– caught scrumping groolas
from the orchards where we lived,
I joined the Cubs and dibbed
my vow of honesty,
to always tell the truth;
But Bob-a-Jobbing Week
put apples of temptation
in my way again, buying
Dandelion and Burdock
pop with money earned
for trimming someone’s grave;
Though not a Catholic,
I attest this now
integrity and wait
Joe’s stanzas manifest their core, though in different ways, as utterly natural, writing as the spirit moves him, but never with insincerity, and I suspect that Joe’s experience as a professional actor gives him tremendous faith in the arc of his sentence, so that the poetry communicates, and makes its point, which should be the function of all treasurable writing.