Thursday, June 14, 2007

4. Light up Lanarkshire - Gerry Cambridge

Light Up Lanarkshire (which you can read in its entirety at the link) is a single poem pamphlet, about eight (small) pages long, and also a memoir. The cover shows a photograph of the author’s grandparents, dressed up in their best clothes. James Cambridge, grandfather, was a miner, and the poem pictures him unromantically:

…a stern old man
White-chest-haired, in his long johns rising to pee dark amber
In the reek of ammonia into a pot he kept under the bed,
Or waving his walking stick at me,
All stubbly threat, from his big armchair

But it’s details like this that give the poem its resonance, partly because they display an authentic affection for those who worked down the pits, but also because of phrases like “all stubbly threat”, capturing character and description with great poetic economy.

The poem isn’t just a memory of the past. It connects with the present and future. Light is a constant refrain, in contrast to the dark world of the pits and to the essential darkness of a lump of coal. The poem begins, ‘Lanarkshire’s built on light, of light,’ and leads some fifteen lines later to:

And what is coal? Coal is a terse, black language
You could translate to the rustling tongues of money.
It is stilled fire. It is a sunbird locked in an ebony cage.
It is light made solid.

Political exploitation, dignity in adverse conditions, the necessity of not taking anything for granted – Gerry Cambridge scatters these themes through the poem and makes the writing look simple, which is often the hardest kind of poem to make work. There's no modish irony or ambiguity, no unexpected personal epiphany. It's contemporary, but not in thrall to current trends. In so many ways, that's refreshing.

There were a few lines I felt weren’t needed, and the first simile seems imprecise (trees locking up the sun’s light “like a miner descending day after day into dark”?), but the poem unfashionably makes its point without beating about the bush, calling to memory those:

Who spat out their soul in black dust on the paving stones,
Whose ossified lungs permitted clear skin and flowers in vases.

Remember them, when the lights switch on.

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