Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Review of In Memory of Real Trees - by Mark Charlesworth

In Memory of Real Trees is the follow up to Mark Charlesworth’s debut poetry collection and, once again, there is much to recommend. Landscapes familiar to Sunrise and Shorelines are revisited but with a much keener eye. A gothic gauze is once again laid over the world in Dark Forest, Cemetery Song, Bitterest Sin and Anatomising the Killer, but there is progression from the first collection; Charlesworth has moved on from the musings of a younger poet and speaks with conviction about love, desire, hope and fear.

In many of the poems, love often fails to thrive, or if it does it is inextricably bound up with despair and death: “Love is a parasite deep in the grave”, says the narrator of Victims of Love. Love brings no happiness, only horror, as the macabre conclusion shows:

“There are times in life when we will always feel
Just like little dead girls lying on the beach.”

Even in the more hopeful love poems – Ghosts #2 and How to Stop Time, for example – Charlesworth brilliantly communicates the paradoxically insubstantial and yet permanent feelings of love:

“One second’s intensity can burn an imprint on time
-fleetingly seen from the corner of an eye-
Forge two ghosts together in inseparable binds.”

In Attic Room and Heart-Shaped Hole, however, the tone is less embittered, and a yearning honesty seeps out in the end of the latter. Behind all the nightmarish images, lies a simple human desire for companionship, the narrator saying that the simplest, throwaway pleasures

“would feel a little more extraordinary
With someone else there by my side.”

Interspersed with these seemingly personal concerns are sketches of other lives, damaged and loveless. Second Hand Model and Love Song focus on the mutability and superficiality of youthful beauty, while Collateral for the Company tells the story of a lonely man who is literally worked to death.

One of the strengths of In Memory of Real Trees is the way in which personal and global hopes and fears are interwoven, as demonstrated in the two poems which bookend the collection. The individual anxieties in Damaged Goods in Transit are writ large for all humanity in the aptly named Decision Time. Individual crises parallel the predicament we face as a species.

“Do you feel vulnerable dark and cold?
Too tired to sleep,
Too empty to weep...”

evolves into

“And if we settle for a doomsday scenario
On whose shoulders will rest the blame?”

Like love, a utopian society is possible, says Charlesworth, but not without effort and pain. We first have to walk a road “marked by repentance, recant and repair / or broken bones, regrets and mistakes”. Urban landscapes are as blighted as inner worlds. The city is a dark, bewildering, dangerous place and produces fractured, alienated people, with the opening stanza of Ghosts #1 echoic of both Blake’s London and Eliot’s Wasteland:

“A multitude of drifting shadows
Moving through the city street abyss
Forever haunt the same street corners
Where unseen ropes bound lifeless wrists”

Similarly in Early Morning Commuter, the narrator’s mindscape is mirrored in the world beyond his train window – the “tide of pollution”, the “rain-swept” tower blocks and the “dampness of a disconnected world” all driving him to find escape, both physically and mentally, in “a field of daffodils” where he “begs to be devoured”.

Like those in Sunrise and Shorelines, these are complex poems and demand to be read and re-read. Many of the pieces are dreamlike in their structure, making the world of the collection disorientating and obscured. As readers, as in life, we long for the world to make sense and inevitably it doesn’t; something which is captured well in these poems. Indeed, many of the poems are about the almost impossible task of finding a calm, meaningful space amidst the maelstrom. That aside, Charlesworth’s linguistic inventiveness sometimes gets a little lost in the whirling disorder and so, for me at least, the longer poems are not always as engaging as the shorter, crystallised observations.

There is evidence, though, of a poet finding his voice. Shipwreck, Bees and Bernese Winter are amongst the best in the collection because there is a more judiciously structured progression of ideas, the reader is drawn into the narrative, and there is a more accomplished control of images:

“The frozen green river was picturesque for a while
before absent festive ice-skaters left it still.”

“...the shop-keeper traipses to a cellar store,
cutting spectrums of fabric, lace strands and silk,
in burgundy, violet, thunder-sky-scarlet,
stoking incense, candles and spices enticing...”

Remarkably, Charlesworth has suggested that this will be his last collection of poetry. Personally, I think this would be a great shame as there is obviously so much potential here for him to become an excellent poet. He is clearly prolific and watches the world carefully. If more work emerges from Charlesworth, it would be nice to see a shorter, more thematically-focused collection which will allow the reader to savour the richness of his language and the poet to cut the skin of a particular aspect of human experience sharply. In the meantime, it is well worth reading In Memory of Real Trees. These poems deserve your time.

You can keep up to date with Mark Charlesworth’s writing at http://www.markcharlesworth.blogspot.com/

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