In his foreword, apart from confessing the collection to be sincere rather than sophisticated (a noble bit of honesty, I thought), Charlesworth also admits that he was probably too young to fully understand the enormity of 9/11, which was his prompt to start writing. Yet, the first poem, America Under Fire, written when Charlesworth was still at high school, whilst being a powerful, raw response to the events of that day is also well considered enough to see the attacks a crucial moment in American history. Amid the “fire, chaos and tears”, the poet asks “Is the enemy within or on the out?” America is “desperate and broke” after living so long in “false realities”.
Many of the poems are based in the natural world – familiar territory for the poet of course, but Charlesworth often leads us through the kinds of lonely, perverse, abandoned places of dark gothic fairy tales – woods, bloody tombs, stormy seas and so on. The Revolt of the Trees, an interesting counterpart to America Under Fire, is a fable about greed and selfishness in which a unscrupulous woodcutter is turned into a tree. The setting of The Magnolia Room wouldn’t look out of place in an H.P. Lovecraft story. And the more light-hearted Tall Tales, blends Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall – “I saw a cat’s tail / curl round the moon...I saw a tall tree / telling a tale / to a broken man / at his own wake.”
Charlesworth seems comfortable speaking with the kind of language you might expect to find in much older poetry and some poems are full of the introspective longing and desperation reminiscent of, say, Christina Rossetti. Possessed and The Wanderer are harrowing sketches of loss, whilst in Alone the narrator yearns for love but finds nothing but emptiness: “I stand in autumn stillness / and strum a sombre tone / I watch the stars, take in their beauty / inertia creeps, division grows.”
There are whispers of an earlier Romanticism also in Dead Leaves and A Weary Night. The Final Days of Summer sounds like Keats edited by Emily Dickinson with its stark, often esoteric observations – “The hallows harvest / the fields are still / the black crows circle / the silent hill”. The Forest Awakened is full of landscapes not dissimilar to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – “The hills in the distance / ran with rivers of ice”, “Somewhere, here and there / blackness crept in / mere shards of light / as though the darkness could sing”.
Yet, Charlesworth does not confine his poems to this beautiful and terrifying natural world – there are people adrift in urban landscapes too. End of the Earth and Kendal Castle blend the archaic and modern – “Sirens scream down silent streets / and tear the night apart...figures rise, entombed from the past / the devil’s dance, a raucous laugh.”; “Now shadows fall in Kendal town, / a world weary folk tale as the castle looks down, / where red wine’s split instead of blood long ago, / the bustling streets and the cigarette smoke...”
In domestic settings, Charlesworth seems to sense the same kind of futility as Philip Larkin. The objects in Buried Things – like the sheet music in Larkin’s Love Songs in Age – become symbols of lost love and the naivety of youth. Alcoholics’ Corner is rife with gallows humour and Their Home and This House is sad and poignant without being sentimental.
It is a brave poet who is willing to publish early work alongside later, more controlled pieces, but in Charlesworth’s case it shows a writer searching for a form and for voices which will speak accurately and powerfully. I’ll admit that some of the more meandering, surrealist poems – Coming Back to Life, Home by the Sky and The Forest Awakened, for example – I found a bit shapeless and in want of a decent pruning, the rhyming a little clunky in places – but then the collection is as much about the learning process of writing as it is about end product.
For me, the strongest pieces are those in which Charlesworth writes with economy about the specific rather than the abstract, and some of the later poems such as Sail Away, A Weary Night and Their Home and This House are extremely moving and memorable – “Theirs was a home to a family, but the clocks have all stopped / this house a museum, now that her heart is lost.”
This is a collection that is much more complex than it might at first appear and well worth reading as a curious, intriguing anthology on its own and as a prelude to Charlesworth’s second collection In Memory of Real Trees, which he will be launching at The New Continental on 28th November.
You can read Mark Charlesworth’s blog here and purchase copies of Sunrise and Shorelines.