Michael Daniels, Poets House Pamphlets, 2022, 26 pps, £7
LIAM GUILAR admires an evocation of the eroding East Riding
This is Michael Daniels’ first collection – the traditional slim pamphlet. The publisher, Poets House Pamphlets, of Oxford, has produced a fine object, printed on good paper, with understated, subtle artwork to enhance the text.
The story of Ravenser Odd deserves a poem. It was a settlement which lasted less than two hundred years at the mouth of the Humber on Britain’s eastern coast. A sand or gravel bank was created by storms at the mouth of the estuary in the early 13th century. By the 1230s, there is documentary evidence of people living and trading there and it was granted a royal charter in 1299. It became a very prosperous sandbank. At one point there was a chapel, warehouses, a jail and a windmill. There was a weekly market and two fairs a year. The town sent two MPs to Parliament.
The town suffered from a growing number of floods from the 1320s onwards, and the wealthier families began to move themselves and their money out. By the winter of 1356-57, Ravenser Odd had been abandoned. Then the land on which the town had stood was swept away in a final tempest in 1362. The storm, which inundated land on both sides of the North Sea, was so bad the Dutch gave it a name: the Grote Mandrenke[i].
It’s the stuff of folk tales, made better by the fact it’s true. An internet search reveals its continuing fascination. “Yorkshire’s ‘lost Atlantis nearly found’ after 650 years under water” reads one strange headline from 2022[ii]. As a story it can obviously be read in different ways: the contemporary enemies of the settlement might have seen its destruction as divine retribution. Today, it’s easy to see it as a symbol of nature’s indifference to human concerns, or a warning for those living along the same coast which in some places is being eroded at 30ft a year[iii]. Rather than pushing an interpretation, Daniels lets the story speak for itself.
The booklet is a sequence of linked poems that move chronologically through the history of the settlement. They are all written in terza rima. A note tells the reader this was chosen because “Dante’s development of terza rima was contemporaneous with Ravenser Odd’s highpoint”. If this seems an odd reason to choose a form, anyone who voluntarily writes in terza rima must be admired for making his own life difficult. The success of Daniels’ attempt is evident in the way the rhymes don’t intrude. The poems move smoothly, and there’s no sense that a rhyme has been forced or the lines padded to fit the form. The verse is spare, in keeping with the feel of medieval chronicle or folk tale.
From the start, the sequence announces that the specifics of the settlement’s history are also being used to contemplate the claims the dead have on the living. It begins:
What is it to be held in mind
by someone else, to dwell as ghost
or presence there? The drowned recline
in chambered mud, yet still we host
them in our heads, subdued and dim.
It isn’t us who need them most.
The link to The Divine Comedy inevitably evokes Dante’s concern with the dead, but it also illustrates an important difference. Dante’s dead are individuals with names and histories; Daniels are the nameless dead who remain undistinguished. “The dead know things we’ve never learned- / how hard it is to stay alive”.
The gardens they had tended went.
The cabbage rows were heaved and sloughed
as if the aching care they spent
to sow and plant was not enough,
as if the tilled and tidied beds
were cheap as salt and air. The rough
sea came and went all spring […]
Playing on the name, Ravenser Odd produces Odin’s ravens; thought and memory, who provide a bird’s eye perspective. They also appear as tiny pictures at the start of each poem.
The bird’s eye perspective means the poem deals with people, not individuals – the dead, not specific corpses. There is an unnamed feudal Lord; “…life was his to make the worse, / he was their breath, their bread, their meat”. Like most modern depictions of feudal lords, this one’s a sadist, but the strength of the writing means it’s unclear whether his story, and the story of the fishing vessel The Silver Pit which follows it, are retellings of chronicle events, or inventions of the poet.
The sea is the individuated character in the poem, and its restless power runs through the collection. When the end comes it ignores
such mortal dreams, but saved its breath
to asset strip the sinking town
of shattered timber, nail and lath-
The two ravens see the final calamity:
The people’s final prayer rose up,
petitioning their lonely god.
The ravens read their trembled lips
to scavenge scraps of uttered word,
then spat them back as raucous noise,
disemvowelling all they heard.
The pun in that last line is impressive, standing out in a collection where the diction is mostly conversational. The ruined voices of the dying and the dead are reduced to sounds the poet has been trying to hear, but which having been converted to noise, are lost. Even the final devastation of the land on which the town stood is a minor incident in a much larger tragedy. There is no conclusion, and if there is a moral to be drawn from the story Daniels thankfully leaves it up to the reader.
This is a small, impressive collection. The poet’s website (https://www.michaeldaniels.co.uk) contains files of him reading his work, with evocative visual images to accompany the readings.
[i] The death toll is placed around 25,000. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2011/jan/20/weatherwatch-grote-mandrenke
[iii] ‘The Holderness coast, on which Spurn Point sits, is Europe’s most rapidly eroding coastline, with some areas disappearing by more than 30ft per year.’ https://www.express.co.uk/news/history/1593410/Yorkshire-Atlantis-Ravenser-Odd-Sir-Ernest-Shackleton-ship-Endurance
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head