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A Poem A Day. 26 – The Fire Gap by Tony Harrison

An occasional blog provoked by the idea that poetry might be good for the soul. As with everything else in my life it’s actually prompted by guilt. I have shelves of poetry books and never seem to read them any more, which is a shame. Or maybe it isn’t. Either way last year I decided to choose, entirely at random, a book from said shelves and allow it to fall open upon a poem. This I would read, inwardly digest and then share my thoughts. If I had any.

I have no formal education. You can’t count a handful of ‘O’ levels obtained despite the best efforts of a pretty dreadful 1970s comprehensive so any analysis will be, by definition, amateurish and half assed. I stopped doing this last year when National Novel Writing Month came around and never got back into it. Being the kind of man who once he stops finds it incredibly difficult to start again I wondered if that was that for poetry and me.

Last week Tim Head quoted a line of Ted Hughes which I entirely failed to recognise. Then yesterday I was in a church contemplating an elaborate tomb and Philip Larkin floated into my thoughts. Never one to allow such omens to pass without reading far too much into them I  decided to treat my poor neglected soul to a verse or two. Here we go.

The first thing you notice about The Fire Gap is the fancy presentation. The poem folds out from its slim card cover and insinuates itself hissing down either side of a sinuous line created from the space between the first and second half of a poem. This line or gap cunningly creates the shape of a serpent. At the bottom of the page is a little poetic coda beneath a charcoal sketched Christ figure.

I have a few issues with the poem and all that clever snake shape mularky. These probably reflect more poorly on me than they do on Tony Harrison though so any TH fans out there please don’t be cross with me. Firstly all that fancy layout is just silly affectation and distraction. I know whenever I go overboard in photoshop or with multiple key and time signature changes in a song it’s just disguising the fact that there isn’t much of substance in the original work. Therefore I’m instantly suspicious when others do the same. Unfairly suspicious? Yes of course. Some people are true artists and the presentation is carefully thought out and an integral part of the work, here it’s just a gimmick and makes the thing awkward to read.

Anther problem stems from the constant changes to line length and the persistent rhyme every line thing. The two pulled and pushed against each other all the way through. Never allowing you to get into a rhythm but constantly suggesting you should.

So much for style. What about content? Well, the poem has a very well communicated sense of place. The curious (at least to my British mind) concept of a Thermos with ice in it, fire planes in the sky, the fire gap at the border of his land and the suggestion that his neighbours grow pot in the open on a large scale all tell us we are in a hot, hot country.

He describes his part of the US as ‘half cultivated, tame and half left wilderness’ and it is this division between the wild and the domesticated which runs throughout the piece. The writer heading to his writing shed with his flask and squeamish refusal to kill the snake and the violent, primitive murderous lust of his neighbours who inhabit the wilderness beyond his tilled fields. The fire gap a physical representation of this division is only once bridged in the poem and then by the snake, ‘the wild touched by its rattle tip, the tilled field by its snout’, but never crossed.

There is a strong religious flavour with the serpent of Eden getting a few mentions and the red necked, Trump supporting, firebrand, right wing religious fervour of Harrison’s neighbours coming in for a particularly venomous treatment. In his postscript he speaks of them blessing Cruise missiles and then uses a rather clumsy pun on tale and tail to make a point which doesn’t really work for me.

All in all I could have done with more place and less repetitious ‘ There’s a snake and I’m really scared of it but I don’t want to kill it’ stuff, but that’s just my personal taste. And I suppose, on reflection, that snaky space through the poem with the fire gap motif does kind of work.


Autospy from High/Low


The first thing you notice after putting on the stereo headphones and connecting them to your trusty cassette walkman, pressing play and letting High/Low’s wonderful 2014 album Stuck In A Void wrap you in it’s gorgeous fuzzy embrace is how warm the music feels. The songs glow, they positively radiate heat into you.  Rhythmic, anthemic melodies soar over and through layers of beautifully distorted and crafted guitar riffs the whole thing riding on a dirty, thick layer of urgent, incalescent bass driving the songs through you with the ease of a sixteen wheel truck full of rubble driving through a Wendy House.

I really liked Stuck In A Void. I especially liked listening to it on tape rather than via the more clinical digital format as I wanted as much warm fuzziness as I could get and the older tech gave me just that. You can readily imagine how excited I was when pictures of Steve, Lee and Dave began to appear on social media first rehearsing and then actually recording a bunch of new songs. There was, we were assured, a new album in the pipeline. Preceded (in theory at least – my copies arrived simultaneously!) by a limited edition vinyl single called Mould, Autospy will be released tomorrow on the 29th of January.

Those of us with the clear headed good sense to pre-order have been listening to the twelve new tracks gathered together on cassette (or CD – the guys understand some folk may not be able to find their tape players after all these years) since yesterday when the postman brought them to us.

Confession time. I liked the previous album so much I admit to experiencing the merest frisson of trepidation as I popped the tape into the player and donned my Grado SR80 headphones. How, I wondered could the new album match up to it’s peerless predecessor? Would the band be experimenting with a new direction? Had they been persuaded by some devious sound engineer to add a brass section, backing vocals, glockenspiel solo in the middle 8? Had they done that awful thing musicians do and outgrown the very thing that makes them great? I’m thinking Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet here.

My finger hovered over the play button. Then, with the shrug of a man who has already paid his money, I dived in. The album kicks off with a rumbling bass and drum riff and then just soars into the title track. Literally seconds in and any doubts have been gloriously dispelled. This is unquestionably the same band. Don’t however let that suggest that they have stagnated or tried to produce Stuck In A Void part 2. There is a clear progression here.

It lies partly in the production which has managed to elevate the H/L sound to a more distinct level while simultaneously not ironing out the creases. It’s a hell of trick. How you introduce clarity and separation into a sound while keeping the wonderful chiming, warmth and cantankerous snarl which so warmed my cockles when I first stumbled across the band, I do not know, but they’ve pulled it off.

The album continues in this vein. If you like the first song you can relax, you’re in safe hands, you’ll like the rest. That isn’t to say the album is repetitive. Crumble Down is a less frenetic, more reflective song with some sinuous guitar solos and the single Mould a lighter more bouncing, jaunty affair. Let’s Run has an insistent speedball punch with some echoing guitar sounds which sent me spinning back to my wasted youth and the heavier stuff I used to listen to in the seventies and eighties.

This review is very much a series of first impressions so I won’t dissect every song – to be fair I think you’d be better off just trusting me when I say go get it yourself and listen. Special mention however must go to Thing Inside which hurls itself at you from the start of side two alternating between lovely passages of quieter instrumentation and thickly layered walls of fibrous riffage. Also Mono, which will satisfy anyone who likes their music to pull no punches but rather to thrash you into submission, and keep hitting you once you’re down. The whole thing wraps up with the frankly epic World Undone which, for my money, is High/Low at the very summit of the mountain. Imperious, ariose, assured and beautifully crafted.

Before I leave you I need to heap special praise on Dave Pankhurst. I’m sure the other two guys will be biting their plectra in half at the thought of a reviewer singling out a drummer rather than the ‘proper’ musicians but the tub thumping is the glue which holds Autospy together. Never screaming ‘Look at me’ as some drummers like to but always driving the songs where they need to go and hitting some glorious fills. The expansion to a three piece has completed the band’s sound and allowed them to progress from Stuck In A Void to Autospy without the need to experiment or try to reach for places they had no need to go.

This is a consummate follow up to a fine first album. Get it here and find out more about the band here. If you are lucky to live near enough they are playing a launch gig tonight at  The Edge in Basildon, Essex doors open at 8pm and entry is free.

ALBUM REVIEW | High/Low -Autospy

The Primal Music Blog


ARTIST:High / Low



RECORD COMPANY:In Stereo Records

Back in the hazy early days of The Primal Radio Show, way before I came up with the ideas that would eventually build this monolith up to where it is today, I religiously played a little known UK based band who reminded me a lot of seminal UK band ‘Swervedriver’ by playing full on old school melodic grunge inspired fuzz & had an healthy interest in all things D.I.Y (In the musical sense). They recorded & mixed everything themselves, produced videos, created EP’s & Album artwork and even went so far as to build their own bloody guitar effects pedals! The D.I Y ethos has been very very strong in the High/Low camp since day one. From their earliest recordings High/Low have enthralled me. With their 2 EP’s – Forty (August 2012)& equally impressive

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A Poem A Day : 25 – 49½ by Sharon Olds


A poem  day? This blog should be retitled an Olds a day. In the true and living proof of the wholly random nature of the Random Poetry Generator today’s poem was written by the same author as yesterdays. When  you consider the groaning weight of anthologies not to mention the copious volumes of single author books from which it has to choose this is a fine coincidence and one of which I heartily approve.

That the poet is Sharon Olds is of course an enormously important factor here.  I dare say I’d be less enamoured to face consecutive days racking my brains to understand what Eliot or Durrell were rattling on about so I’m grateful for that too. Yesterday’s fine poem came from my oldest Olds collection and today’s choice bookends that rather neatly by being drawn from my most recently acquired collection. The book is The Unswept Room and was published in 2003 by the good people of Jonathan Cape which proves they must know what they’re about.

Olds is a captivating writer. She draws me in with the immediacy of her language, the universal and yet personal nature of her subject matter and the impact of her words often remains long after putting the book down. I was intrigued to see just how her writing may have matured and changed, if at all, in the years which passed in between The Sign Of Saturn and The Unswept Room. However I was quickly disabused of such ideas. One cannot discern such changes by reading only two poems. So I shall just have to read both books and get back to you on that. Oh dear, what a chore.


49½ is a moving poem about a woman facing the end of her fecundity and with it her own mortality. She is, as Olds puts it, a ‘human gone out upon it’s longest thread’ the fragility of old age beckons now her young life is biologically over. The images of emptiness are splendid and original, the spasmodic jerking back from loss and wonder to an attempt at positivity are perfectly timed and the combination of the body and spirit is so well expressed.

When I was in the womb, thirty

years of half lives beaded their dew

on my inner wall.

Blimey! The image of the ‘leash of use’ being ‘loosened’ is particularly good and all through the poem one gets the sense of loss tempered with release. A truly brilliant poem from a fantastic poet. If I get another from her tomorrow I shall be a happy man.

A Poem A Day : 24 – Sex Without Love By Sharon Olds


I’ve not had as much time to dedicate to this project lately, what with NaNoWriMo taking up so much of my days and nights throughout November but I am making time for at least one poem every day even if the attendant blog is a little more brief than I would like.

I’ve had a mixed run of recent poems with the RPG throwing up, in no particular order, the good the bad and the ugly. All have been worth reading even the stuff I’ve hated has taught me something about writing and about myself but I couldn’t help feeling I’m long overdue a poem from one of my favourites. Not, you understand, that there is anything keeping me from simply going to the shelf and reading any poem I like whenever I choose but the whole reason I started this is because I don’t appear to actually ever get round to doing that.

So I burned an offering to the Random Poetry Gods and chanted the names Thomas, McGough, Larkin, Olds, Owen, Betjamin, Armitage, Auden, Plath and it paid off with the selection of one of my absolute favourites, Sharon Olds.

I first heard Sharon Olds on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 back in the nineties around the time of the release of her peerless book The Father. This is as raw and heartfelt a collection of poems as you could ever hope to read and I cannot recommend it highly enough. After reading it I rushed out and bought all I could find under her name and today’s poem comes from one of those books, The Sign Of Saturn a collection of Old’s work between 1980 and 1987.


Sharon Olds does personal, confessional and family poetry like Mr Kipling does cakes. In today’s randomly chosen poem she explores sex between lovers who are not in love. Lovers in the physical sense not in the emotional one.  She manages to draw on some great imagery both religious and earthly, carnal and spiritual. She is capable of superb economy of language and great invention while being unafraid to employ her own unusual metaphors and the whole thing hangs together perfectly. The invention in the orgasm lines is brilliant and the way the poem then slides into reflection in a post-coital languor is simply delicious.

So, no chore today, no battle with translations or T.S. Eliot and his ridiculous pompous crossword puzzle poetry. Just sheer joy at a poet I love and a thought provoking little poem and a reminder that when I’m not writing my NaNoWriMo story there are poems and poets with which I can happily wile away the long damp late autumn evenings.

A Poem A Day : 23 – Three Voices For Sylvia Plath by Sheila Holligon


The Random Poetry Generator coughed up Sheila Holligon’s book Flowers Of Morning published by The Paranoia Press 1990. This is a slim volume, card backed in salmon pink and the poem chosen is called Three Voices For Sylvia Plath and far from Plath’s work it reminded me strongly of Dylan Thomas’s great poem Lament. This is as you might expect seen from a female perspective in contradistinction to Thomas’s male protagonist. Both poems describe the different ages of man/woman and both use gorgeous imagery rich with wild nature.

I particularly liked the final stanza, the note of triumphant full grown womanhood, the image of gathering up husband and growing round with children and all the many allusions to ripened full grown summer.

So, I enjoyed today’s poem for two reasons. One for it’s own sake and two for reminding me how long it’s been since I listened to Thomas reading Lament. Actually in light of yesterday’s appalling travesty there is a third reason – it wasn’t a translation! Here is Dylan reading his poem and here are a couple of photos of Sheila’s piece complete with illustration.



A Poem A Day : 22 – Do Something by Günter Grass


Günter Grass was a German poet, novelist, sculptor, artist and playwright who died around Easter time this year. I recall it being in the news but hadn’t realised my dusty poetry shelves contained any of his work. Well this project is designed, if nothing else, to enable me to discover such hidden secrets and learn something of that which made the poet tick.

I have to say straight off the bat that when the Random Poetry Generator chose Günter Grass Selected Poems I experienced a momentary pang before reminding myself it was just a poem, would take less out of my day than emptying the dishwasher or loading ingredients into the bread machine.

The aforesaid pang was provoked by the vague apprehension that Grass wrote in German and I would therefore probably be unable to understand much of the poem. In fact if it strayed beyond my memories of German lessons at Somervale Comprehensive back in the mid nineteen seventies then you might strike the word probably from that last sentence. In other words unless Grass’s poems concerned themselves with someone called Lieselotte who had a broken leg and required first sympathy and then somebody to point out the injury (and I concede the possibility. After all someone so monumentally helpless as to have sustained a broken leg and need it pointing out to them may indeed be an attractive subject for a poet) then I would be at a loss.*

There was another reason for my momentary pang. If not in German then surely a translation. There are few worse crimes in poetry than translation. Done well (and let’s face it if not done well why do it at all?) it is little more than fan fiction. Another poet’s attempt to convey the words and meaning of the original author in an entirely different language. Poetry depends so strongly upon the rhythm of words, the incidental images they conjure in the mind, hidden and double meanings all of which rely on centuries of development of a language and cultural history shared by reader and poet which cannot ever hope to be translated. Yes the broad meaning can be translated, yes some of the lines will work in another language but everything else must necessarily be lost. If you take a glass of single malt whiskey and fill an identical glass to the same level with a perfectly colour matched liquid made from fruit cordials you cannot seriously hope to pass off the latter as an adequate substitute for the former.

Sadly the poem was not in German. I’d have been happier. I don’t know if the original is a clumsy inarticulate rant which makes the same point over and over and over again in marginally different ways. It may have been hilarious but written humour cannot withstand translation. It may have been beautifully crafted to flow and bounce with poetic use of language but the stilted sermon which I’ve just forced myself to finish was like a speech delivered by someone unfamiliar with the language in which they were making their case and lacked any redeeming qualities whatever.

In saying these things I disparage neither translator who has been set an impossible task nor poet who’s work I of course still have not read as you cannot count a translation of a poem. A translation can be excellent in it’s own right but shouldn’t be passed off as the work of the original poet rather as a poem written by the translator and inspired by the original poet. I sincerely hope this book isn’t chosen again.



*Arme Lieselotte, deine bein ist gebrocken. Mr Foster’s lesson, class 2T circa 1974. I’ve yet to use this is anger.

A Poem A Day : 21 – Burning Questions by Alison Fell


Remember that terrifying, excited sensation of new love? Or the electricity in the air on a first date that makes it hard to breathe but yet supercharges every breath you do take? The endless possibilities both for happy endings and bad outcomes? Alison Fell explores and catches all this with a detached animality in her poem Burning Questions.

The book is Kisses For Mayakovsky and was published by Virago back in 1984. Virago was founded in ’73 to champion women’s writers and has remained closely associated with the feminist movement and the ongoing fight for equality ever since. And hooray for that says I. Anyone who supports the deliberate and systematic denial of opportunity to either individuals or groups simply out of a sense that they are less worthy by dint of their gender deserves a slap and sending to bed without any supper. People and organisations who fight against such prejudice and discrimination deserve nothing but our support.

I don’t recall buying Fell’s book but given the publication date and the political motivation of her publisher I’d lay odds that I found it in the Full Marx bookshop in Stoke’s Croft. Right on the junction between the A38 and Ashley road the building is now home to a Salvation Army charity shop. Symbolic really. Where once this country looked for salvation through bettering the lives of the majority through meaningful political change we are now so reduced that our only hope, as in the middle ages, is for jam tomorrow in some mythical after life. Desperately sad times.

Back in the early eighties people had enough intelligence and desire to sustain a left wing bookshop, now they vote for homelessness, cracking down on refugees, impoverished students, education and healthcare only for the wealthy and food banks for the poor. Thank you Alison Fell for reminding me how far we’ve fallen. If I thought it would do any good I’d dance on Thatcher’s grave having first interred Blair in there with her.


And so to the poem itself. Not overtly political, not at least to my 2015 understanding, but perhaps the simple fact of the evident equality between the protagonists if we assume them to be male and female or the lack of gender description leaving their orientation and sex ambiguous is of itself a political statement.

The new lovers are laughing, brittle and excited and Fell invokes the sexual tension between them with her choice of words. They crackle and buzz their laughter like lightning and the animal images of lynx and snake suggest threat and danger further raising the sense of a taut nervous atmosphere. Despite the laughter the narrator is always aware that this might not be such a good idea an ambivalence illustrated in the third stanza and I wonder if there might not be a suggestion of an infidelity on the part of one or both.

She speaks of the need to choose, of the shock of the future of something dark within them. In the end though she decides to give in to the need to explore the moment, to see where it may lead. Will she pass through? Will the truths she wants to hear bear scrutiny? Will she sting?

A cracking poem, invoking a familiar experience with great invention and yet with great precision. I look forward to reading more as, provoked by the memories this book has invoked I look back on a time when I was young enough to dare to hope for a better future.

A Poem A Day : 20 – Chasing a Lark on Warbarrow Down by Deborah Randall

Fountain House (1 of 2)-5

A shame nobody read yesterday’s blog as it might have kick started a lifelong love of medieval poetry, but I suppose that may happen through some other sequence of events. The RPG has thrown us forward in time today right up to the second summer of love in 1989. Ayatollah Khomeini places a fatwa on Salmon Rushdie, Nigel Lawson resigns as Chancellor, Arsenal win the league and Deborah Randall publishes The Sin Eater. Or at least Bloodaxe Books publish it for her.

Fountain House (2 of 2)-5

The Sin Eater is a collection of forty four poems and boasts a recommendation from the Poetry Book society. So there. The Random Poetry generator takes us to page 28 and Chasing a Lark on Warbarrow Down. It is a short seventeen line poem where as often happens with this kind of thing, a daily occurrence of no huge import triggers a poet’s response. Specifically letting her dog off its lead to run free over the top of a hill.

The opening line deftly uses the dual meaning of lark and the rest of the poem is a spinning extrapolation of the woman as God the dog her creation set free to become what it will. The fast turning imagery of the third stanza suggests the poet whirling arms outstretched like a dizzy child. My favourite line is ‘My dog and I have unbecome’ which is  wonderful but the last two lines of the piece have me beaten.

Any ideas?



A Poem A Day : 19 – Sir Orfeo

Fountain House (1 of 1)

I lay awake last night wondering how I would get through today without a small whiff of smoke leaking from the ears, in all likelihood the aforementioned whiff being accompanied by a quiet pffft of escaping sanity. A busy schedule beginning at the moment of the morning alarm clock springing into action and continuing, one commitment after another, right up until bed time, promised to keep me on my toes.

Imagine my surprise and no little relief when three consecutive cancellations came through one after the other in a brief stream of telephone calls and texts. From hectic head spin to man of leisure in a hat-trick of unlooked for interventions. I had barely begun to acquaint myself with my newly won and wholly unexpected liberty when the Random Poetry Generator showed itself possessed of an ironic bent I hadn’t previously suspected.

I settled down to occupy a little of my recently acquired idle time with a few lines of informative and fulfilling verse. My reaction may readily be surmised when I saw what the RPG had chosen for me. There sat before me the colourfully illustrated cover to a volume of Penguin Classics entitled Medieval English Verse.

Wait. Medieval? Did they even have anything we would recognise as English in medieval times? I turned to the selected page with no little trepidation. My fears were confirmed. Sir Orfeo runs over fifteen pages and was, according to the accompanying notes translated from a French source into south-western English at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It is an essay on the philosophy of courtly love based upon but differing from the Greek Orpheus. I have no intention of filling the suddenly vacant hours with reading Orpheus so you can put that from your mind.

The poem itself is a tale of Kings and loyal stewards, and love, and fairy kingdoms of glitter and death and takes our hero Orfeo from riches to rags, from love to loss and back again; as Blackadder might have said a huge roller-coaster of a poem. Good King Orfeo loved by his subjects is married to the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. A musician, he specialises in playing the harp and looks benevolently on all other harpists who pass through his land.

One day his wife is spirited away by an evil fairy king and in his grief and despair Orfeo leaves his kingdom telling his faithful steward that he should rule in his stead until news of his death set in train an election to find a new King. Orfeo goes into self imposed exile in the wilderness where he is soon reduced to a gibbering heap of skin and bones living off bark and rinds and presumably any other disgusting detritus he stumbles across.

One day, many years later, he thinks he sees his wife in a host of ghostly women and follows them to a strange land. Posing as a wandering harpist he plays for the terrible rulers of this mysterious and hellish kingdom and so beguiled are they by his virtuoso performance that the King offers him any prize he might choose. Orfeo asks for the hand of his beautiful wife Heurodis and after a bit of haggling he gets away with her making off for Winchester, where he hides in the house of a beggar.

Unrecognisable from his old, plump and clean shaven kingly self Orfeo leaves Heurodis with the beggar, nicking his ragged clothing for good measure and, after a chance meeting with his old pal the steward he heads back, still incognito to his old haunt, the castle. There he reprises his performance as a wandering harpist and claims to have found his instrument next the gnawed remains of the previous owner. The steward falls face first onto the flagstones, pole-axed with grief at this certain news of the death of his former king.

There is plenty of oh woe is me, and why was I ever born if life was going to treat me so badly from the prostrate steward until the king leaps to his feat and like Jeremy Beadle peeling off a false nose reveals his true self to all there assembled. I was just testing he says, to see if you were really loyal to me or if you’d jump at the chance of a bit of the old ruling yourself, says Orfeo and they all have a good laugh about it and are best of friends again. The queen is fetched from her temporary res. chez beggar and reinstalled to her throne and they lived a long and happy life together, the loyal steward succeeding as ruler once old age had claimed them both.

And do you know what? It was all good fun, and I actually enjoyed it. I expect having a travelling Thespian perform it in a time before the internet, multiplex cinemas and Rubik’s cubes must have been a gripping experience. It is easy to scoff about older art forms and feel terribly pleased with ourselves because we have digital radios and cgi films these days, but at the heart of any book, movie or radio four afternoon play there is a simple story. Plus ça change as the original author of Sir Orfeo might well have said.