With words by Rob Cowen and images by Nick Hayes, ‘The Heeding’, published tomorrow by Elliot and Thompson, is a reflection on 2020 over four seasons and thirty-five illustrated poems. Tim Dee takes a look.
Everywhere mutability, and don’t we know it now? Turn, turn, turn but also burn, burn, burn. This last year of living dangerously has set many minds on fire as well as deporting far too many to wherever their ashes blow or their bones have planted the soil. Rob Cowen is — thanks be — of the first camp not the second, though that also means, having burned up the year with his attention to, or heeding, of its shocking truths, that there is much of the dead and of the death-in-life in his book.
This is a poetry collection but that shouldn’t frighten us. There is no private language here. The words are worked but not overdone. Brightness falls across everything. We know what Rob is on about right away. That is substantially his book’s point too and one of its most valuable findings: it is in the ordinariness of life that we must live. We best live there too. The poems here show how an extraordinary year in our world’s working has underlined such homespun wisdom and down-home truths. That has been strange, no? Everything most likely needs to change. And a change has come. But how can an apocalypse be good for anyone or anything on Earth?
The introductory text sets the scene — familiar to us all but personal and special to Rob too. On its own it would be worth the price of admission. It is a very good stand-alone essay. The poems begin. Though really we are reading the intense diary in dire times of a troubled heart looking at a wounded world. As it happens I prefer the prosey-poems to the poesy-poems. Rob is best as a writer of poetic prose. But, in either case, what we enter is the Dantean wood of the middle years of a man: a getting lost and a coming-to at one and the same time. There’s a lot to say. Sometimes the wood is summery and hot with growth, with love and with the short-cut wisdom and abandoned mirth of children; sometimes it is wintry, dark and stark, sad with the uncertain ghosts of grandparents and others. Not everything, not very much indeed, is solely the malignant utterance of COVID-19. But again, that seems the way the year has worked: we have all been chased back to asking who, truly, we are and who we want to be. So, here, there are roadside birds of prey and back garden birds of prey; there are old lovers and new lovers; there are neighbours friendly and neighbours hostile; there are family stories from one particular family store; there is a page on an allotment better than any I have read; and there are — best of all, I think, and most movingly — records of children and partners struggling but also making good out of this last bad year. There are many living rooms too (though I guess it was one only in fact) and the question arises, that we have all asked for more than twelve months now, as to what kind of room we all require in order to live. How much land does a man need, Tolstoy asked, before answering his story in parable form. How much room? Why, just his height and another inch or two for the coffin to bury him in. We’ve learned that this year. Here as well it is emotional room that is at stake. What is the reach of the human heart? What happens when the ties that bind must be broken? Locked down, sent home, kept indoors — we have inevitably asked ourselves how we feel about that. To be forcibly so isolated, en-islanded — is our living room enough if that is all we have? And what have we discovered when held back from being ourselves?
Poetry can make for a kind of breathing space and Rob has taken to it. Set free by paying attention to how his world has shrunk and his time — our time — has gone, he has given us some room to manoeuvre. This is a domestic book in the best sense of the word — small-scale, intimate, known — and a tender one in as many senses of that word as there are. I, for one, a prisoner still of my own living room, am deeply grateful for it.
‘The Heeding’, out tomorrow, is available here.