Erudite and Unpretentious

This Patter of Traces, Mark Totterdell (Oversteps Books)

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging collection which tips its cap towards the traditions of British landscape poetry while also exploring the limits of language in a playful and somewhat unorthodox fashion. Totterdell's book is one which is filled with information and with learning but his constant questioning of the relation between what we know - or think we know - and our 'actual' encounters with nature and the great outdoors is constantly stimulating and, dare I suggest it, life-affirming.

Mark Totterdell is skilled in the traditional forms of rhyme and meter and can also produce poetry which works in an orderly progressive fashion, producing an 'argument' which includes thesis, antithesis and synthesis, even where the conclusion is not entirely expected. There's a neatness to this kind of poem - and it's not the only kind he writes! - which could prove overly schematic in a less accomplished writer but I thoroughly enjoyed reading these 'wayward polemics' because they more often than not suggest an 'openness' to experience even where the formal device implies closure. Take these extracts - from the beginning and end of the poem - from 'Devil's Coach Horse', for example:

     A Devil's Coach Horse crossed my path today,
     one inch of velvet-black malevolence.
     I bent and placed a finger in its way;
     it arced into a horseshoe in defence

     then scuttled up onto my finger tip.
     I flung it onto the ground instinctively,
     imagining the agonising grip
     its fiendish mandibles might have on me.


     ...........................Watch it break free and run

     as through the vast mute years it ran its course
     before it ever thus was represented,
     or any coach was drawn by any horse,
     or any devil ever was invented.

There's an echo of D.H. Lawrence hovering over this aspect of Totterdell's work, an influence perhaps more strongly located in the poem 'Two Adders' where the concluding stanza combines an emotional response to 'the other' with a commentary on the limits of 'human interpretation' in a smoothly articulated sentence which makes its point while leaving space for the reader. Terrific!

     Look at them now in their long-evolved perfection,
     paint them with whatever metaphors you like,
     but can't you recalibrate your cultured mind
     to transcend that old instinctive urge to strike?

I also enjoyed the sensual immediacy of Totterdell's work, as exemplified in 'Himalayan Balsam' where the protagonist is searching for an olfactory analogy suitable to the occasion:

     The subtle but persuasive fragrance,
     down by the riverside, penetrates your nostrils,
     makes a beeline for the brain that teases it
     with ... bubblegum? Turkish delight?

Another literary point of reference might well be Edward Thomas and there are two poems here which seem, intriguingly, to refer to Thomas' most famous poem in an oblique and unexpected manner. 'Strop' (page 41) goes like this:

     It wasn't June but August,
     the poet was a liar,
     the willow-herb had gone to seed,
     the meadowsweet turned sour,

     and all the regiments of birds
     had been demobbed, and gone
     to ground, to skulk in undergrowth,
     their singing duties done.

There may also be an 'echo' of Yeats here though I'm less sure of this and the poem's tone is both unexpected and refreshingly ambivalent.

'Portslade' (page 42) begins like this - 'No, I've not visited Portslade, / the name's not one I remember, unless ....'

A recurring theme throughout this book appears to be the unknowable relationship between 'man' and 'other animals' and Totterdell's commentaries on the nature of language here are both entertaining in an amusing fashion and enquiring in a slightly provocative sense, as in 'Pet Shop', for example, where we get 'That craved connection only goes one way.', followed by:

     What, then, are we supposed to make of this?
     The pure white cockatoo unlocks her beak
     and, with black tongue, plants on her gaoler's nose
     one lingering and tender-looking kiss.
               (from 'Pet Shop')

Probably the best example of this kind of 'argument' is 'Black and White', a poem which packs it in, in its two short stanzas, satisfyingly taut and apparently transparent but suggesting a more complex relationship between language and its perception of the 'out there' than you could reasonably expect in a poem of this length, brief enough to quote here in full:

     Black and White

     It's all down here in black and white,
     though you will have to reconcile
     the greyness these words conceal
     between their lines. Up past the light
     sharp architecture, in the bright
     air, unselfconscious white gulls whirl,
     their great wings cutting, as they wheel,
     those knots that minds have tied so tight.

Poetry of this quality makes you wonder why Totterdell isn't better known within the mainstream of British poetry as I've seen far lesser poems than this highly praised in the national press. His exploration of the relationship between people and his planet's co-inhabitants has something of the intellectual and emotional power to be found in Helen Macdonald's prize-winning prose work, H is for Hawk - Macdonald herself being a superb and still relatively unacknowledged poet.

I've only skimmed the surface of This Patter of Traces and feel sure that it's a collection I'll look at again. I probably haven't given a strong enough sense of the range of Totterdell's writing in relation to 'the natural world' and certainly haven't attended enough to his use of unusual vocabulary. The poems I've responded to most immediately are those which contest our often clichˇd reporting of 'the world out there' and which imply strangeness but also suggest that by looking beneath the stones and wandering off 'the beaten track' we're likely to be much better rewarded, even when the rewards imply complexity and may add to our confusion:

     The Kingfisher and the Dipper

     Down by the river, all the poets gather
     for a glimpse of the flashy kingfisher,
     and fight over their flame
     and gemstone metaphors.

     Behind them, the brown and white dipper
     is coolly walking under water,
     and magicking herself behind
     the overhangs of waterfalls.

Stimulating, erudite and unpretentious. Great stuff.

         © Steve Spence 2015