forty-three: Tom Pow, Dear Alice

Apologies for another late post. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

I suppose I’m still working out how I find out about poetry – so far I’ve just been following my nose, really, and reading stuff that’s come across my path. I think this week’s collection is the first time I’ve read a review in a broadsheet and then gone out and bought the poetry in question (apart from that first Alice Oswald that I talk about here.)

It was this article in The Times that got me on to Tom Pow‘s Dear Alice. I thought the subject matter in itself was intriguing enough to get hold of it: ‘the imaginative legacy of a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum, the Crichton’. In the acknowledgements Pow says that he drew his inspiration both from the documentation that still exists from the asylum and also the experience of working in the buildings (it’s now a part of Glasgow University’s campus).

I instantly liked it because of the nature of the project: a poetic testament to, even a celebration of, all who lived and worked there. By all accounts the Crichton was a humane, forward-thinking place, and this collection seems an extension of that – conferring on the place and the people an extra sense of dignity.

The whole collection also seemed quite intimately linked with the natural world – with nature, animals, time and seasons. It opens with ‘Prelude’, a beautiful thumbnail sketch of a ‘blessed morning’ – but one that sees a cat with a sparrow in its mouth, ‘its beak still / soundlessly praising the day’. Is this testimony to the muteness of those caught by mental illness? It’s an arresting image, and one that, to me, seemed to sum up the whole collection; it’s instantly taken up in the following poem, ‘Inauguration’, where a ghost of a former inmate ‘carries a sparrow jammed in his mouth’.

Pow varies his style to create a kaleidoscope of images – from the poise and elegance of ‘Nebuchadnezzar in the Arboretum by Moonlight’ to the unravelling of ‘Song for M’ and the muted accounts of various visitors to the asylum, including Tom Thumb and Freud. I appreciated the notes at the back, which give explanatory detail about some of the cases that Pow draws from, but this is such an immediate collection that even without them it would have been coherent.

Lots of favourites – although it being a beautiful, hardback edition (bravo to Salt for such a beautifully produced book) I was rather loath to make any marks in it. They were ‘Prelude’, ‘Song for M’, ‘Nebuchadnezzar in the Arboretum by Moonlight’, ‘Nightwatch, 1842’, ‘Tryst’, ‘Dear Alice’, ‘Questions of Judgement’ and ‘The Buoy-Tree’ –

Lochans of rain gathered
in the hollows, the trees
were dripping and bare.

On one, a gull landed,
spreading its wings like an angel.
It must have been a sign –

for angels are signs if nothing else.
Soon other gulls flocked there
till the whole tree was frocked

with them. Their wings beat
the water gently from them,
touching each other as you might

brush your arm against another
in a dance. It’s a wonder
you never saw it that day,

it was all there was really to see –
a tree that seemed to writhe
with light, like a buoy

on a featureless sea.
But what drew the birds there,
or set them back in flight,

is just one more thing at which
to wonder. I can only think
it was the rain that kept you away.

Dear Alice, Tom Pow (Salt Publishing, 2008)

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