“78 45 33 Poems” Brian Herdman Shoals of Starlings Press (Plymouth) 83 pages 2021
As indicated by the title this debut collection by Brian Herdman has music as a central theme to a life lived mainly in the 20th century. In fact, the ‘title track,’ so to speak, has an array of ‘gigs attended’ which gives a flavour of the whole. Take this extract by way of example:
I saw them. I saw them all.
I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee
walk on repeating history
bottom of the bill at the Free Trade Hall
whose idea was that? Who made that call?
I saw them. I saw them all.
I saw Sonny Boy Williamson fill
the Twisted Wheel cellar
full of harmonica blue
his spittle decalomania.
his spittle on my lapel
I saw the Everlys float harmonies
across the Odeon stalls that night
with The Stones
I saw them, I saw them all.
I saw Eddie and Gene
saw them rockin’ that Spring
at the Hippodrome, Ardwick Green
I saw The Beatles at the Oasis
Dylan at the Albert Hall
I saw them, I saw them all.
but I never saw Nina Simone
Never saw Nina Simone
Saw Nina Simone
This is such a brilliant piece of evocation and that descending ‘chorus’ still gives me the shivers, such an emotional punch, full of sound and fury and celebration and sadness.
If there’s a hint towards the beats in Brian Herdman’s poetry then this collection is also infused with Samuel Beckett where a sense of the absurdity of things is combined with a thirst for knowledge and an engagement with language which is both precise and probing. There’s a rhythmic dexterity to his work – he’s a great ‘live performer’ – which gives a strong feeling of movement, linked I suspect to the fact that quite a few of these poems were composed during long walks. Wide cultural references abound amid the immediacy of evocation, as in reverie interrupted by the natural world: ‘and is that rain on your face, or spray / or is it time falling through / seventy five years gone and forty / a lone herring gull surfs the swell / surfs and dips / soars suddenly to chase another out to sea’ (from ‘the neuroticizing mechanisms of social media’). This is out and about poetry full of sound and stuff and variety making its presence known in a sometimes tumult of thought and feeling which is also very skilfully interwoven. The longer poems which often have a philosophical trace where ideas and knowledge and thoughts are being turned over are occasionally interrupted by much shorter, tauter pieces, including the following which I think is a real gem:
she gleamed pearls
from melting ice
nothing between us now
the cinema the café
a couple of beers
the rain fell
so hello tomorrow
There’s enough information here to inform your own narrative and an almost bleak minimalism which I found strangely moving.
I think most of these poems are quite recent (Wordsworth’s ‘Poetry takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquillity’ has some relevance) and there’s certainly a strong element of what I’m going to call autobiography here. From ‘What can you do?’ we have the following:
Later, I run into Emily and Ella and we walk up to the Hoe.
We sit in the sun and look out over the Sound which
stretches blue and placid to the far horizon.
We talk about the current situation
about the effectiveness of masks
the safety of supermarket shopping
we facetime with Grace and talk
about the children, always the children
the significance of age
and how the world has disappeared now time has stopped.
Sitting here in the sun, I feel its warmth on my face.
I fell in the street the other day, hurt my hip.
This morning I weighed 162 pounds.
I’m 73. What can you do?
Tomorrow, they say, will be cold.
This is reflective, descriptive and has an overall ‘inner conversation feel’ which in this instance is friendly and if slightly mellow and melancholy then not overbearingly so. Elsewhere Herdman mixes a more colloquial monologue with something cinematically dramatic, as in this extract from ‘Jump Cut’ where we get:
I will smite all the borders with frogs
it’s like the scene in that movie
you know the one where the long-lost son
is in search of his father
better known as the dead white guy in the closet
and finds him through a series of coincidences
those things happen
extraordinary things happen every day
that’s why they put them in the film
I’m your father he might say and I’m dying
and there are women who are trying to destroy me
these things happen
this one doesn’t know who she is
or what she is feeling
and can only explain it in the most vulgar terms
what the fuck do I do with my body
Or, from ‘Home is a land of ice and cold’ where we have the following:
and we ran
and we ran and we ran and we ran
we carried the baby through the wood
the trees all twisted and torn
thick with moss and lichen
rags dripping with the blood of the wretched
hanging from branches and bracken
was it the wind howling
or the wolves
This is almost Dante run as a modern film script and there are a lot of ‘dark materials’ in this writing amid the everyday, the working-class background, the getting by and experiencing an opening up which became possible for some growing up in the aftermath of WW2 and the experience of rock ‘n’ roll and the sixties. I love the way that Herdman uses rhyme intermittently and carefully but all is grist to the mill of an ongoing inner discourse which seems to create the framework for much of his writing. In ‘A Cleansing,’ the opening poem, we have the following which brings us back to popular culture and to Beckett, a reverie which mixes celebration with a personal history all rushing along in an ongoing mesh where the (largely) lack of vocabulary aids the flow and narrative force:
so high in our attic
and getting higher
of listening to astral weeks abbey road
syd barret and the dead
of how murphy and malone
had nine kittens between them
in that room under that tree
with our baby
of how the days ran into years
of the reach for respectability
of dropping out again
with the moneyed drop-outs
in the Galloway farmhouse commune
Finally I’m going to quote the whole of another short poem which beautifully evokes a time and place, almost Dylanesque in a manner of speaking, another gem of an encapsulation but what exactly does it ‘encapsulate’ apart from a mystery, a sense of escape and of romance, a spell almost in defiance of all the bad stuff in the world? I’ve read this poem three or four times now and I keep thinking of Mr Tambourine Man with its wonderful guitar and lyrics that can make you shiver.
ghosting down Roncesvalles on a donkey
like the fool of old, but blowing a sax
I followed him
past the artisan bakeries and hip coffee shops
across the tracks and over the bridge that spans
I followed him,
the ragamuffin man
watched him skate over Lake Ontario
in a cloud and melt as the vista opened wide
to claim, my ignis fatuus.
That’s such a powerful and optimistic closing image, the will-o-the wisp, Quixote, The Pied Piper and all possibly evoked by who knows what (apart perhaps from Brian) a natural phenomenon, a dream, a high of some sort. It’s a beautiful poem whatever its source and this book is filled with material which is well worth engaging with. I’d suggest dipping then, like me, you might just want to read the entire collection from cover to cover.
Brian grew up in Manchester and has done a fair bit of travelling in his time but quite a few poems in this collection reference his long-time home which is Plymouth and wary as I am to suggest anything like a ‘Plymouth School’ it could be said that at least some of his material sits alongside other contemporaries in the city, such as Norman Jope and Kenny Knight, who have written quite extensively about the place.
The cover artwork by the book’s publisher and brilliant artist/poet in his own account, Andrew Martin, is wonderfully appropriate and effective.
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2021