Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry
Various authors, edited by Alexander Adams, foreword by William Clouston, London: Bournbrook Press, 2022, pb, 55pps, £12.50
Bournbrook Press is an offshoot of Bournbrook Magazine, founded in 2019 to offer a “primarily British audience with traditionalist, socially conservative argument and entertainment”. This venture’s newest publication is something unusual, and unlikely to be financially profitable – an anthology of original poetry put together specifically to appeal to small-c conservatives, a subset of the population not noted for their interest in new verse.
Poetry written for political purposes always runs a risk of being bathetic, just as other arts can easily become ‘artivism’ – a point amply understood by this collection’s editor-contributor, who has written an informative book on this subject. I have a 1900 anthology on my shelves, Heroic and Patriotic Verse, and while much of the verse is excellent (it includes Byron, Goldsmith, Gray and Shakespeare), some has dated less well, including ‘Of old sat Freedom’ (one of Tennyson’s windier effusions) and the frankly indigestible ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’. The verse in Sunken Island is similarly uneven, but when it is good, it is, as Social Democratic Party leader William Clouston notes in his Foreword, “both serious and enjoyable”.
Clouston also points out that this book’s eight contributors are not “blind to the country’s flaws”, and this gives this collection both muscle and a certain wryness of outlook notably absent from some patriotic poets, like Rupert Brooke or Henry Newbolt. There is no bombast to be found in Sunken Island, nor sentimentality, nor Patience Strong-style platitudes. The two prevailing emotions are love, plus loss – an odd echo of Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island (1988), which concluded that “there’s no longer an English literature”.
Kenner’s gloom is to some extent gainsaid by the poets in here, who suggest that a kind of distinctively English literary sensibility may still be discoverable – or at least a British one, because one of the poets included (the pseudonymous ‘Columba’) is Scottish, while another (Rahul Gupta) is a noted exponent of traditional alliterative verse. This does not mean that the other six contributors are stodgily suburban, nor even a hundred percent English. Alexander Adams is a justly well-regarded artist whose work is in the V&A (several of his drawings are used in Sunken Island). Benjamin Afer calls himself an “authentic reactionary”, but authors futuristic novels. Daniel Gustafsson is a bi-lingual (Swedish) doctor of philosophy, as well as a highly-regarded poet. A. Robert Lee taught in America and Japan, and lives in Spain. Nicholas Murray is a biographer of Kafka and Chatwin, and a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. S. D. Wickett is an aficionado of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick, and affianced to digital media.
The poems vary greatly in style. Nicholas Murray’s six short contributions feature everyday vexations, from standing on a train station concourse to being bitten by someone else’s dog (for which he apologises, the most stereotypically ‘English’ moment in the book). He notices small things, and honours the 19th century clergyman-diarist Francis Kilvert, who did too – “…the man of God whose fine gift / for seeing things lights the day / As sunshine after sudden rain”. He looks into a painting of a Lancashire landscape, and remembers its departed artist. He is abashed by the force of nature, in the form of a night wind which blew away rooftiles, and “glib proposals”. He then eavesdrops on an imagined conversation between James Joyce and Percy Wyndham Lewis, as verbose Irishman and Vorticist Englishman consider quantity, and the urgent need to stir things up, to dissolve “the solid shell”.
A Robert Lee’s contribution, ‘From…’, addresses Englishness, coherent but complicated, encapsulated by the “multi-there” and “multi-then” of his own odyssey from 1950s Manchester via London, America, and Japan to 2022’s Spain. “The initial from takes on lengthening distance…” while everything changes and he changes with it, but remains in some ways strangely the same. ‘From…’ is more impressionistic jottings than verse, yet it ably conveys diverse textures and odd connections – between Manchester, Lancashire and Manchester, New Hampshire – between London periods and London postcodes – between the Kents of Chaucer and supermarkets – between the island mentalities of Britain and Japan, and the “inside outsider” status of being a Spanish-speaking Englishman in Spain. In him, national nostalgia seems in permanent tension with what Germans call Fernweh – ‘farsickness’, a wish to see far-off places – and perhaps he needed to get away to understand where he had come from. As Kipling asked, “what should they know of England who only England know”? Lee at least has come “to relish the from and the to: England’s away-day, England’s away-life”.
Adams’ poem ‘Roadside Diner, Shropshire’ is less sanguine, a contrast between the heartbreaking hills of Housman, and the plastic-bottle spotted county Adams and companion view from a bleary café window, downing terrible food while “vital, indifferent” traffic dashes by, heading nowhere purposefully. This England is, he repines, “an absent people, a civilization surrendered”, and sometimes he feels like a “lone journalist remembrancing a defeated land”. Lack of legacy nags and nags at him, as he sees sunning girls arising and going “back to life, leaving nothing of themselves” – fewer traces than even the evanescent, underestimated flowers of May.
Daniel Gustafsson’s ‘Bulbs’ strikes a brighter botanical note, reminding us that even the gnarliest corm in the coldest ground pushes green spears upwards each spring, offering potential for beauty and self-realisation. His work is rhizomed in Yorkshire, a county whose notoriously crumbling Holderness coast offers plentiful metaphors for erosion of substance. “The guards have let us down”, Gustafsson warns, political leaders and opinion-formers mere “architects of entropy”, letting everything slide into the abyss out of sheer carelessness. “We’ve seen our footings fall / to sludge… have seen, through slurred decrees and sleights of hand, / a state of blank forgetfulness / usurp the patterned sand.” Spurn Point at the northern tip of the Humber could be nationally emblematic, a sandy spur soon to be an island, near where the great port of Ravenspur once saw kings land, and monks build monumentally. The East Riding’s erosion is symbolic to him of a country’s “great diminishing”, as a former “common ground” is washed across by shallow sloganeers, who impose their views on others like some postmodern Morality Police.
Gustafsson’s lyrical wistfulness is given a more combative edge by Benjamin Afer, whose ‘Lines on an English Street’ express feelings of inner exile, the author feeling alienated from his ancestral domain by demographic changes as symbolized by ethnic restaurants – “a surfeit of whiffs”, from an alphabet soup of eateries in High Streets that have somehow become Grand Bazaars. “It’s a solitary walk the Englishman beats / In the swelling crowds of the English streets”, he insists bleakly, notwithstanding possible economic upsides: “The happy ringing of tills and drumming feet / Make a merchant at home on the English street.”
The collection closes on an unexpected crescendo, with four extracts from larger works by Rahul Gupta. The author, who holds a doctorate in alliterative verse, and is undertaking a major translation project from Old Norse, is alive with logophilic intensity, pouring torrents of words onto pages as if upending some wonderfully capacious cornucopia. Familiar words are deployed in unexpected ways, unfamiliar ones summoned from OE word-hoards where they have lain too long asleep, and new ones are smithed – and all are marshalled to striking mythopoeic purpose.
Gupta’s chief area of operations is the post-Roman, pre-English world, when Angles, Celts, Jutes, Saxons and Scandinavians moved across claimable spaces between downfallen towns, where horse-masters could be kings and stones sacred, and ravens battened on bodies at real battles whose locations we have lost, and which we barely now remember even as names. This is ‘Matter of Britain’-territory, Gog Magog-country, the Logres that lies under even the ugliest parts of everyday England, giving the least imaginative modern Englishman some vague sense that he belongs in some continuum. This epic subject – so liable to be conventionalised and sentimentalised – gains vastly in vitality at his hands.
‘A Norse Étude’ is a combat scene condensed from all the hyperboreal epics, from Heimskringla and Orkneyinga to Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, imagining “horny-nebbed” hooded crows descending on men falling under a hail of “Flanged arrows as flinder- / fledges leapt from edges / over shields, bows shrilling, / when shank-deep was dankness / of gore”. Poems were – and are – also weapons in these wars of all against all, as tribal minstrels interpret and invent legends, weaving words “from that web of swords”, trying to forge the future by capturing the past.
‘The Turn and Fall of Leaf’ could be a title from Tolkien (to whom Gupta has been likened), a lambent disquisition on autumn, its colours and significances, its glories and sadness, as the glowing greenwood goes glorious, then brown and blighted. Winds pick up and shiver the timbers, and their chlorophyll clothes weep to the far-below floor. Secret glades are shockingly made naked, and rides are mounded deep in dry detritus – “pathways choked, by parched masses: / crinkled chamoisy, crunched underfoot / as shuffling drifts. With shift and ruffle / They enswathe the sward”.
Time for ‘The Onset of Winter’, with clouds and winds as “sky-skirmishers, obscure armies / of ill omen”. The Wild Hunt passes, baying and foaming hounds headed by Herne, antler-masked “wood-warlock of the warrior-band”, in elemental pursuit of white harts from heraldry, while berserkers and whippers-in howl and scream and “chew the shieldedge” in frenzy. And then – the chase passes and the thrumming hoofbeats recede into infinity. Nature exhales, and all is suddenly motionless. Overhead, “Hunter and Hound are hovering still” in a sky diamonded with stars and a moon of mother-of-pearl.
At other times, winter deals harsh hail and sleet to punish the patient earth – “gravel-grain that grows no harvest”. Yet other days, snowfall hushes all noise, subdues all striving; a giant Cold Genius walks the whitening land with his finger to his lips, casting crystals of infinite variety indifferently over the quick and the dead, obliterating boundaries, ivorying all the colour-fields. “All wear his harness: / ironhardened earth” and “The ice tightens / Wonderfetters”.
But there is release at last, as even in winter there is the possibility of warmth. In ‘The Midwinter Sun’, the “all-tending orb” suddenly rides high and reaches down with effortless sensuality. He “…drives the spore: he inspires the bud, / as the twig whitens, to untwist her whorl: / he parts her petals; the pollen to smoulder / from flaunting catkins”. Blinking, yawning animals emerge from hibernation, hungry for the starting grass, conscious of urgent impulses that make the male hen harrier seek out multiple mates, send hares careering across champaigns, adders intertwine Gordianally, and unsettle cattle in crew yards. The poet tracks Phoebus lovingly through his golden ascents, then Wheel of Fortune downturns, as the “traitor-barons…eclipse the glory of his lion’s mane”, as so often before. The uncertain sun sinks into the sea, and troubled men set out in tiny boats, “travailing westward /… on benighted tides, / In search of the dawn.” Like all his others, this is a virtuosic performance, a welcome reminder that there is still blood in the tradition.
The contributors to this volume could all be seen like Gupta’s metaphorical sailors, navigators of unknown waters, seeking Sol-ace in a gathering dark, reaching for verse to reverse eclipse. If sometimes their reach falls short, at other times it does not, and always they are honourably-intentioned. This public-spirited Parnassian project can be judged a success if even a few of the many other anxious among the English are inspired to poetry in their turn.
DEREK TURNER is the editor of The Brazen Head, as well as a novelist (A Modern Journey, Displacement, and Sea Changes) and reviewer. His first non-fiction book, Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire, was published June 2022. Some of his writing may be found at www.derek-turner.com He is also on Twitter – @derekturner1964