Portland: A Tryptych by Mark Goodwin, Norman Jope and Tim Allen KNIVES FORKS AND SPOONS PRESS (2019)
Reviewed by Jude Rosen
Portland : A Tryptych focuses on the outlying peninsula of Portland, renowned for its limestone quarries mining oolithic stone used in stately buildings and as a remote outpost of the imperial state with its military fortifications, prisons, (former) naval base and now defunct nuclear research establishment.
The collection is made up of a triptych of poems by three poets.
Pontoon, by Tim Allen, is a sequence ostensibly about the place but more a psychological subversion of it. Tim Allen grew up on Portland and left as a young man. Portland Mix, by experimental landscape poet Mark Goodwin, is a set of concrete poems in fragmented blocks of text that weigh like slabs of limestone between the different parts of Pontoon. Veästa, by Norman Jope, is named after a medieval monster of Portland myth, invoked to explore the place, its affinity with and differences from other limestone islands or outcrops of Gibraltar, Malta, and Aden (aka Yemen).
Tim Allen’s Pontoon is a fragmentary mish-mash of modernist and post-modernist aesthetics, largely in long, three-lined stanzas. It is full of references, some to the period of the poet’s growing up (‘Portland outlived the Beatles and this continues to surprise’), and to the artistic and cultural icons and influences on him: ‘One of Cornell’s boxes washed-up on Chesil Beach’ and ‘Breakers break Jimi’s blue bones’ referencing Hendrix with ‘Mislead experience’ in the margin. Many references are impenetrably internal to the poet’s psyche. Some of the most insightful lines about the place relate to sound and are almost lyrical:
I never grew up in a landscape. It wasn’t a city either
I grew up in a comb on an isthmus. The experience of being
surrounded by the sea can be likened to looking at radio
But there’s a jocular poet as trickster, with a playful voice that mixes up senses, comments, clarifies or further obfuscates in jokey marginalia, shows off and then subverts with over-the-top alliteration, wise or foolish philosophical asides and doubtful narrator explanations. This can fall apart at certain points when the references become opaque and staccato juxtapositions produce no montage effects, no surprise or shock or sudden realisation. The following lines from Pontoon 4:
I’d like to change my baby for that one with the hungry eyes.
Panda grown from identikit. Wall of Death splinters
sport in the margin the comment Structure groans, which echoes this reader’s feeling that the leaps of thought and image become so dizzying and dis-connected, that the sound, rhythm and sense of the bricolage that works elsewhere is lost. It is a relief to find intermittent poems in short ragged lines; these have a strong sonic, physical and political presence, playing with sound, splitting syllables to accentuate half rhymes and sub-meanings, playing with images that echo/resemble the ghosts of the poem–of the geological and military past:
A silhouette of all
such rubble if ob
served from Durdle
Door re(as)sembles for all
a The World a
By contrast, Portland Mix, by Mark Goodwin, is a set of concrete poems, developed in response to Pontoon and Veästa, that collages snippets, phrases and images from the other two poems and from the poet’s own observations and knowledge of Portland. These items are compacted into blocks – often right justified as though mechanically cut and scattered over the first two pages like an abandoned quarry of words, some stood on end, others pressing down on the text of Pontoon or lying beneath it – compressing into its confines several examples of buildings of Portland stone scattered across the world and highlighting every other word, undermining the hierarchy of capitalized names for stately buildings at the centre of power, putting the periphery of Portland on an equal footing –
In another rectangular block, the alternation of dark and light grey lines repeating the refrain ‘grey admiralty-building oblong grey admiralty-building oblong’ underlines the physicality of the building still there, but as a shadow of its former self (with the demise of its function as an MOD underwater weapons establishment and loss of 8,000 skilled jobs). A break in the block of text, like a faultline in the rock and the homophone pun on weight (waiting) brings a shift in tempo and awareness of geological time:
In a bed rock form all ways weight ing rock form all ways.
Similarly a letter Goodwin wrote to the other two poets as part of the collaboration, about his walk around the peninsula, is cut and pasted into blocks, set out over a page with the whole letter in light grey as a backdrop, like a silvery source from which the poem has been excavated. These visual effects are further enhanced by Susan Duxbury Hibbert’s strange aerial drawings of moons, crop circles, kites and patchwork of unhedged fields.
Norman Jope’s Veästa uses a mythic creature, somewhere between a cockerel, oarfish and red beard – anyway an outsider – as a means to explore the landscape, labour, history and folklore of Portland and by contrast Gibraltar, Malta and Aden. The language is peppered with specialist names of butterflies, wild flowers, birds, quarries and landmarks, demotic terms like ‘kimberluns’, the local word for outsiders, and anachronisms like ‘reeve’. ‘Reeve’ relates to the Court Leet, a feudal jurisdiction administering the land and still a powerful shadow presence on Portland. The lyric landscape of limestone, its slow accretion through being mined, heaped up and cut by prison labourers, is linked to coercive forces. The Verne prison is mythically metamorphosed as a Tibetan mountain enforcing surveillance and silence: ‘the monster surfaces/mirroring muteness – stones the size of fists/ fists the size of stones.’
The overriding impulse in Veästa, rather than what the poet defines as ‘a post-structuralist approach to place’ and ‘a phoneme in a global language of locations’, is rather to excavate signs in the landscape and language and recompose them in a historically freighted but contemporary diction with mythic overtones, invoking international parallels and contrasts. For Jope, this leads to a central political and ethical question:
“But what does it mean to speak for/ When language rises out of landscape/from the lungs of an intruder”
referring both to the mythic monster and himself as poet.
The problem recurs in Maltese Mix where:
Language rises out of the landscape/from the lungs of an intruder/
Through the island’s terraced fields
and in Aden Mix:
He hates this horrible rock/But hears its call to prayer/above the muezzin/who marshals the inmates/against this interpreter,/this coxcomb lyricist.
Throughout Veästa, the outsider-observer and language-maker displays an anxiety about his role:
But every writer is a fraud
And every traveller a scrounger.
Yet, rather than the insider’s psychological distancing and displacement from Portland as in Tim Allen’s Pontoon, it is the linguistic and historical excavations of the three outsiders that, in concrete and mythic forms of poetry, remix and reassemble the débris of language and history. That debris grounds this collection in Portland, but a Portland paradoxically dispersed in its very substance across the globe and imaginatively linked to other peripheries of limestone outcrops in the sea.