Cally Callomon reviews our May Book of the Month – Benjamin Myers’ ‘Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place’.
File under rock, this one.
This is less a book of printed words, more an album of songs.
Four songs, four tracks, two per side: Wood, Earth, Water, Rock…and boy does it rock.
The heaping of time and detritus, the collapsing of rocks on rocks is beautifully described as ‘the index of history’. One can see the strata of words Benjamin Myers uses, words he refers back to: in many ways this is not a new book, but an ancient tale recounted. Whilst we all get excited by such wonderland excursions as Blue Planet, Myers gently reminds us of the green planet to be found in the mould of his office wall, the grime beneath finger nails; the heaven in a wild flower, to quote William Blake – Blake, perhaps, an over-written Myers of a previous age, buried deep in the sod, now revealed only in the exposed vertical strata of library books.
Now to be exhumed in the life to be found Under The Rock.
There are bones to pick: Myers’ outlook will cause dissent as he detaches mankind from ‘the 10,000 tiny components in an ancient process, glistening cogs in the death machine’, his description of maggots chomping away on ‘an opened sheep, blooming like a rose, a peeling of petalled flesh whose centre sits alive with feasting maggots’. My personal view is that providing we continue to set ourselves apart from ‘nature’ like this, we will never fully embrace our place (and responsibility) inside it. He mentions a clearing in the woods, made by man for cultivation as ‘a losing battle with nature’, as if man and nature were set apart from each other. I imagine the damns created by the beaver would not get the same treatment…to me it is a losing battle with himself. He remarks ‘nature is winning here’ as a tree swallows barbed wire, as if the steel cable came from an alien culture, not created by us all; forged from smelted rock, heated and twisted by elemental fire, yet the drystone walls, ‘a natural narrative’, seem to be reprieved from unthinking man’s interference. Myers quotes Nan Shepherd: ‘The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird – all are one’. I suggest that until we add us – we folk – we will blindly continue to treat the list as a foreign land for us to be mere tourists within.
Myers is no tourist, though – he encroaches on T. S. Eliot territory, particularly the Four Quartets, when we read:
Man’s mark is everywhere around these lands. Our crude autographs are indelible, written in rusted metal remains, things dumped down lanes, or leaking petrol that gathers in puddles on land where bison once roamed. Yet ugly can be captivating too. Beauty fades fast; time feeds on it like a revenant, but flawed is fascinating. Scars tell stories, Stories are all we have when the buildings crumble.
Yet then the author goes on to describe the cities built by ants, the setts made by the badger, the paper lanterns the wasp calls home and the musky trail-scent left by the fox. In this reader’s eyes, our skyscrapers and their warrens are one and the same. The fox, fed up with being chased and savaged by dogs, has packed his bags and come to town. The High Rise is his Den. When it comes to the natural living sun-fed world, there is no us and them, only us – and in my view, until we embrace that, we will be forever at war with it. To quote Lord M. E. Smith: ‘Your Future, Our Clutter’.
What this isolation, this demarcation tends to do is separate ‘nature writing’ from all writing. Of course we all know what is meant by the classification, but it has spawned a tiresome parade of almost elitist (and rather dreary) personal accounts of evangelists finding solace in the great outdoors, quoting bird names and fauna as if they had not resorted to Google. Myers avoids this pit by putting himself at the centre of the story. These are not the observations of the naturalist, these are the experiences of a man alive today. A man full of life looking both in and out, and all the better for it. This book moves things on.
The book contains a load of old rubbish. When celebrating various spores and the shit of wildlife, the relief comes in the shape of the author’s acceptance and fascination with human detritus:
Tyres with their treads worn away, knots of frayed blue rope, plastic containers, a shred of a tattered union jack, a yellow workman’s helmet. There are small bows of polystyrene used for packing parcels and further larger pieces smoothed into more abstract shapes, plastic bottles – so many plastic bottles.
The jettisoned and abandoned flows throughout the book, either floating on flood waters or emerging from buried incarceration – not to mention a beautiful spotting of the common human turd.
Myers intersperses sections with field notes, poems and photographs. In the body of the book he describes the lifting of a rock to find what? ‘The smashed bones of a fox or the essence of poetry itself’. I suggest that the essence permeates throughout the entire book. Some may be clearly identified as short sharp lines of neatly ordered words, but ignore the lengthy passages at your loss, lift the book, turn the page, to find the very ‘essence of poetry itself’.… and yes there is swimming – not wild at all, just full outdoor immersion – with references to addiction many readers will find chillingly apt and enlightening. There are haunting trips up tributary tales of murder by asbestos or death by floods: a book brackish in tooth and claw.
A book to be seen reading in the sixth form common room, an author to adopt as your own, a book to turn others on to. Classic rock. A detailed complex beautiful Van Der Graphic adventure, a Jethro Tale.
Under the Rock: The Poetry Of Place (hardback, 372 pages) is published tomorrow by Elliott & Thompson, and is available to purchase here.