‘Wintermoon’, Robert MacLean, Isobar Press (2022) : ‘Winstanley’, Simon Jenner, Waterloo Press (2021)
Reviewed by Ian Brinton
Pathways of language adjusting the mechanism of perception.
Gary Snyder’s small volume of poems, Riprap, was published by Origin Press and printed in Kyoto in 1959 and it takes its title from a set of cobbles laid on steep slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains:
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time
In this early poem, evoking the time he had worked on a trail crew in Yosemite National Park, Snyder offered the reader an idea of words as stones and the poem as a pathway which is being laid down line by line: a narrative sequence which can be traced step by step allowing for an accumulation of a world of objects to create the feeling of a human belonging within a landscape. Over sixty years later Robert MacLean’s sequence of haiku poems, Wintermoon, distils twenty-five years of living in Kyoto into a single seasonal cycle containing 119 poems divided into eleven sequences: instants of focus.
The title of this new publication from Isobar Press is taken from a haiku by the eighteenth-century Japanese poet and painter Yosa Buson ‘winter moon / pebbles / beneath my shoe’ and the pebbles in MacLean’s sequence, like Snyder’s rocks, are placed as stepping stones along an individual pathway. Choosing the one ‘less travelled by’ he evokes a world of individual perceptions which bring to life a transformative journey filled with Zen practice, loneliness, university teaching, questionings, cultural acclimation, intimate encounters with nature, romance and marriage, the death of parents and of an unborn child. As Paul Rossiter puts it on the back cover of the book ‘each sequence is a record of a series of acute and vital perceptions of the world.’
The fifth section of the sequence, ‘Back Route on Fushimi Inari’, opens with a clear statement:
go this way
In obedience to the simplicity of this direction the reader will discover a moment of the poet’s recollection as he sees a memory of years now gone:
my father’s tools
hang in the shed
feathered with dust [Migrations]
The present tense of the verb in the second line brings the past into the world of what can be seen now and the word ‘feathered’ suggests flight, a movement which contrasts with the stillness of the dust that accumulates in stasis. It is as though the gentle drawing aside of curtains permits a scene to be discovered by the reader and, in an act of instant, it is as if a light is suddenly turned brightly focused upon a moment. In the eighth section, ‘Rohatsu Sesshin at Tofukuji’, we read of ‘stepping stones / leading to / a waterfall’ as the journey leads to a cascade of movement in which words rush or gush in ex-pression and then in the next section we pause to look upwards to another moment of time gone:
you sip the tea and
your grandmother’s eyes [Oshogatsu]
Simon Jenner’s Winstanley, a sequence of 36 poems which was acclaimed on its appearance in Long Poem Magazine in 2018, is dedicated to the Diggers ‘and their modern heirs’. Gerrard Winstanley recognised that the power of the state is closely related to the property system and in the mid-seventeenth century he looked for a revolution which would replace competition by a concern for the community as a whole. Believing in the possibility of human progress Winstanley also recognised that human disasters can inevitably face mankind and in his 1648 publication The Saints Paradise placed these challenges in uncompromising terms:
losses of his estate by fire, water, being cheated by false-spirited men, death of his cattle, or many suchlike casualties, whereby he becomes poor…and meets with hard, language, hungry belly, to be despised, imprisoned.
In his introductory notes to this extraordinarily powerful sequence of poems Jenner offers us the immediate background:
When Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76) set up with fellow diggers on formerly royal St. George’s Hill, on April 1st 1649, they little expected the opposition that followed. Everything seemed possible, including enough land confiscated from the late king to render ‘a common treasury of earth’ to all who worked it and didn’t encroach on the vast swathes of countryside long seized on.
The poem opens with ‘a yoke thrown at Saint George’s Hill’ and a vision ‘of men gilding the common treasury of earth’. These Diggers of a new world ‘shall rise, / yeasted with themselves’. Jenner’s use of the word yeasted in the first poem is repeated in the third of the sequence where it echoes the sense Winstanley had of God’s existence within the self:
We are your immanence O God
we beseech you cleave your visioning
steel through us not to
reft more flesh but pulse
through your earth cleansed of the
enclosing bitterers of salt and property
souring the soil.
In The Breaking of the Day of God written one year before the Diggers’ self-claimed allotment on St. George’s Hill Winstanley had declared that ‘he that looks for a God within himself…is made subject to and hath community with the spirit which made all flesh, that dwells in all flesh and in every creature within the globe.’ Lives spilled throughout the English Civil War which led to the execution of King Charles in January 1649 become in Jenner’s words:
Our deposition’s godded in this sour
and ‘We’ve oiled the / locks to God’s kingdom with our blood.’ That belief in the ‘spirit’ dwelling in all flesh means in Jenner’s re-creation of Winstanley that ‘we’re a blood-pulse of beacons.’
The Midlands rising of 1607, during which the name of the Levellers and the Diggers was first used, was provoked by enclosures and pamphlets published in 1647/8 demanding more common lands for the poor, prompted a voice within Winstanley to tell him that the earth should be made ‘a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of persons.’ The failure of the scheme is evoked in Jenner’s sequence of poems in such a manner as to revive in the reader an awareness of the spiritual intensity of the whole mid-seventeenth century enterprise:
Our Cobham flares to charcoal.
We sour with ash, the winter seed
as sleet bore our fruit of warm toil away
we shrank like turnips besieged by frost
dormant for slow Decembers through a March
where only winds blow a sudden blaze and black,
flakes of our wattled aspirations smart our faces. [XXVII]
The colony in Surrey had lasted almost exactly a year and at their peak the Diggers were cultivating some eleven acres of land of which the agricultural writer Walter Blith was to say that there were ‘thousands of places more capable of improvement’ (The English Improver Improved, 1652). The power of Simon Jenner’s reconstruction of that endeavour is evidenced in section 27 of Winstanley:
There’s a seed the soldiers can’t tear up.
It has rooted in them, in every pamphlet
slapped down again to line a jakes.
That ‘seed’ which becomes rooted haunts the haiku pebbles of Wintermoon and Robert MacLean places it in a quietly enduring manner:
earth in my hand
weighs more than me [Migrations]
The words of both these poets have been placed like Snyder’s riprap
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
Granite : ingrained
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.