Caught by the River


Declan Ryan | 14th January 2022

Declan Ryan finds himself transported by Pete Green’s pamphlet of imaginary travel prose poems, published by Longbarrow Press.

The late Mick Imlah, in a delightfully argumentative interview with Nick Jenkins in 1983, said 

It’s the places I haven’t been that are interesting to me. There’s something of this in the imaginary travel poems that I write, which recount variously plausible adventures in places which may or may not exist: ‘Brawl in Co. Kerry’, ‘Visiting St. Anthony’, ‘At the Grave of Michael Hofmann’ and others. The pleasure is in the pretending.

There’s something of this same satisfaction present in Hemisphere by Pete Green, a wrong-footing, shifting pamphlet of “imaginary travel” prose poems, or at least a blurring of what it means to go, in person, or in the mind. The narrative traces a journey around islands, remote, unpopulated — unreachable, even (‘the pleasure is in the pretending’), occasionally letting its guard slip but maintaining a sense of the plausible, the other life just out of reach in which all of this, and so much else, might have been possible. This sense is seeded in early, a well-handled mix of tenses and conjectural adjectives — ‘Probably the table round the back…in this impossible life you are fine’. The spectre of the recent locked-in past shapes the work here, but in broader strokes — this isn’t a lament about restriction so much as an examination of what it means to be so ordinarily confined — in language, in law, in what is permitted. The line, from ‘Rockall’ ‘Nothing is quite absolute’ might be a mantra, if Green was the sort of poet who had any truck with such things. 

What Green does so well is to have found an overarching symbol — the journey to impossible places, the lie of borders and boundaries — to prod at something closer to home and perhaps harder to discuss. In a largely arctic landscape there is this iceberg of feeling, too, hinted at early on ‘arrival’ in ‘Surtsey’ — ‘The blossom-pink of the sterilising fluid swishing at your boots is the brightest colour on the island’. This isn’t only a well-seen bit of concrete description, but something of a depth charge throughout the slim volume, in which notions of sterility and fecundity are a moving counter-narrative. In a suite of poems which are often interested in lives not lived there is a swelling of hurt and shock when — in ‘Diomede’ — so much that has been implicit is said aloud, ‘After waking, there’s the between-place where you may nominally have rejoined the world…where the virus has not yet taken hold nor the third embryo proved unviable; where your mother still nods to the click of knitting needles’. It becomes clear that as much as escape, a desire — perhaps as hopeless, if not more so — to replay, re-do, is behind much of what is here: it’s there in a regretted memory ‘Would you wanna stay with me whatever? and your fateful reply’, and in the overriding feeling of being adrift, ‘you walk away from nowhere to nowhere’. 

Green does an excellent job in transposing a wounded, confused mental state onto an equally impassable landscape, but this isn’t only a book about self-reflection, l’esprit d’escalier or the breaking down of possibilities that come with growing up and moving on. There’s also an equally well-rendered examination of the arbitrariness of borders and definitions, done with wit but also — pleasingly — a simmering anger, ‘why there’s such a plethora of English words denoting property and ownership’; ‘Perhaps every map is an act of war’; ‘Rules cannot maintain your bloodflow though‘. For Green, any lumpen-headed attempt at binaries, at neat delineation, is to be derided or at least tested against the pulse, even the binary of real and imaginary — the Northern Lights becoming the ‘national flag of planet Earth‘, a planet suddenly less remote and disconnected, is no less convincing with the caveat that, in imaginary travel, ‘you never learn to pronounce your destinations’. There’s more than pleasure to be found on this trip, but that’s a good start. 


Hemisphere’ is out now and available here (£6.00).