An Open Invitation

These Notes Are Out of Order  Andy Green (35pp, 7.00, Shoestring)


Andy Green's background as a librarian and archivist feeds into this collection which mixes poetry of the found and imagined kinds with archive material from local history sources and community memories. The title points towards the processes involved in the discovery of material waiting to be discovered and interpreted or laid bare, and also something of the obsessive nature of the archivist and his or her relation to the past and present. The questions that arise from these practices - to do with identity, politics, historical perspective and the nature of storytelling - are intriguing and Green's Midlands' explorations provide refreshing insights into the nature of narrative and of interpretation. It's not an over-scholarly project though, all the better for that I'd say, and Green admits to the fragmentary nature of collected, and what is effectively, montaged, material, which nevertheless builds a picture, however partial, ongoing and open-ended this may prove.

This book is split into three sections: the middle collection, 'A Woman Remembers the General Strike', being an extract from a cassette on an oral history project recounting the actual recollections of a woman who was involved in that historic event. It's an intriguing piece which includes the projection of an assertive, confident voice, speaking to us from the early part of the last century:
   Now we always had to call our boss Sir, never by his name. So I drew myself up
   and  said, Sir! The trams are being  run by blacklegs! I couldn't  use a  blackleg
   tram! And I swept down the stairs to the staff room, while he and the other girls
   looked on, too amazed to say anything.

       (from 'A Woman Remembers the General Strike')

The first section, entitled 'Gold Mine in the Iron Room' mixes humour with more serious speculations, based upon the variety of ways in which the material of the archive can work upon the imagination and spark off interesting tangents. Found materials can be juxtaposed in such a manner as to produce absurd results which
can be as probing as they are entertaining:

        what is the specific gravity of human blood
        what is a decibel
        what is the viscosity of golden syrup
        what is the amount of acid in a potato
        how can one repair a fishing net
        how much concrete is in the Hoover Dam
        who were the kings of Mali
        how many languages are spoken in India
        how many ways are there of spelling Birmingham
        will libraries exist in the future
                ( from 'Questions Once Addressed to the Reference Library')

Words are not the only things which appear in the archive as this charming snippet from 'The Secret Pastimes of William Hamper' attest: 'Asleep in his chair / penned in the archive corner / is where we keep / the smoke-stained bust / of antiquarian William Hamper ' .

A more sinister, surreal and puzzling environment is created elsewhere:

        Check conservation/local studies/archives/records management
        have all been informed  for their safety and user information

closure of archives notice at the foot of spiral staircase
        and check gate is closed

        clear genealogy area and place members of staff
        near genealogy desk to prevent people from entering area

        give instructions to
shoot bird
                (from 'This Area May Need to be Cleared at Short Notice')

The final section 'These Notes are Out of Order' opens with 'Origins Unknown'
which quotes from William Hutton's
History of Birmingham (1780): 'Cities of memory / cities of myth / begin with people not empires'. 'Early Occupations' employs a listing device which reminds me, to some degree, of Robert Hampson's work, in terms of its clipped historical narrative, though I think Hampson develops this method much more systematically. 'Walking Journal', as its title implies, takes the process of recording and sifting onto the street and its largely restrained reportage is interrupted by arresting moments - ' do you remember hairy Pete / someone answers yes which one?' In 'Fragments Towards New Histories' we are presented with a series of extracted testimonies, mainly from the nineteenth century, from newspaper sources, and related to issues around slavery but also including a piece from The Birmingham Daily Post, which deals with a soldier's experience in WW1. It's the way these extracts brush up against each other that make them so intriguing.

'From the Shipwreck' deals with immigration and I think, emigration, in terms of the effects of economic migrations - 'We crossed an ocean / we tended the furnace and built streets / our odyssey of labour became lost footnotes ..' - and again has something in common with the work of Robert Hampson and Martin Anderson though I think Anderson's work, in particular, has a much more lyrical element.
'we died alone in  the workhouse / we came from the shipwreck and gave birth to new worlds'. There's a hint towards the sonnet form in a fourteen-liner entitled 'Local Studies Leaflets and Ephemera Box 1' in which each line details the title of a particular meeting or demonstration related to a lobby group or association:

        Right to Work Committee Whist Dance and Drive

        British Fascists Mosley Division Grand Charity Ball

        Stop Fascism Organise Against The National Front Public Meeting

        Women's Day March from Coventry to Leamington

        We are the Public Opinion Association Meeting Every Wednesday

                (from ' VI. Local Studies Leaflets and Ephemera Box 1')

There's humour in this, despite the serious nature of much of this material and the last line above is particularly humorous if seen as a 'summing up' of all that went before!
It's the 'untidiness' of this collection that I think works most in its favour, an insistent sense that you can make an argument or marshal your material but in the end there is always an arbitrary element to this kind of collecting, however much you want to be in control. I wonder if Andy Green has come across Giles Goodland's 'A Spy in the House of Years', a somewhat different kind of related project, which mixes the systematic selection of material with the 'chaos of the multifarious' in what I take to be a more obsessively organised fashion. Just a thought!

There are more 'conventional' poems here too, such as 'Revisiting Key Hill Cemetery', which is where this extract comes from:

        They sink beneath their marble beards
        shrouded in waistcoats of ivy
        reciting speeches no-one can hear
        inventors philanderers imperialists

        I kick the shins of Chamberlain
        poke the nose of Reverend Vince
        gawp at Samuel Timmins grave
        he loved his books his home his friends

Or perhaps my favourite piece from the final section of the book, which I'll quote in full:

        VIII. Poems Found On A Wasteland

        The snail is an astronaut among bluebells
        plastic bags making love to the wind
        nettles kissing on a back seat
        foam-o-matic cleaner
removes all dirt
oil drums flowering from concrete skips
        nudist foxgloves playing hopscotch
        seagulls snorkelling cold bags of chips
        ram raid squirrels posing for mug shots
        cherry blossom used contraceptives
        readers' wives special edition
        mattresses cradling skol can babies
        council leaflets spewed back in the cut
        graffiti on a railway embankment
        I love you forever r.i.p.

If there's a sense of these poems being 'unfinished' then this seems to me to be perfectly in tune with the nature of the project and in fact of the book's title. The endpiece - 'To Future Historians and Poets', makes clear the open-ended nature of this work and invites the reader to participate.

    Steve Spence 2016