Written over the four years following the publication of Too Late for the Love Hotel, the poems in Safe Passage were not imagined as part of the collection in which, last summer, they so happily found themselves. For each poem that reached the book, there was at least one waiting in the wings, unchosen, clamouring, finally uncalled. Composing the collection was rather like making up a jigsaw from twice the number of pieces that were required. The final picture was therefore more provisional and tentative than it was complete.
The guest reading slot at the Fire River Poets‘ evenings in Taunton is arranged in two halves, interleaved with the open mic sessions, one half either side of the convivial interval. I wanted not to repeat the mood of the first half – whatever that would be – but to give Fire River Poets a programme that rose to the opportunity offered by being allowed in one evening to suggest two contrasting pathways through my book.
Preparing for this Taunton guest reading, I seem to have discovered at last what Safe Passage is about.
Uccelli di passo ( birds of passage ) is the title of the Aldo Patocchi woodcut I chose for the cover design.
A wooden surface carved and chiselled away to discover light within the dark plane of the inked-up printing block – this became my personal metaphor for my book on Thursday night. It was important that the cover image was a woodcut rather than a pen drawing : this would have laid dark thoughts/ black moments on a clean white field and made quite a different statement about the lives who passage through my book. My more fortunate characters find ways to discover light in a rather sombre, often alarming world. Light has to be worked for/ is threatened with extinction/ is found in surprising places/ is all the more dazzling against the background of the dark.
L’amore, la morte, how close they are ….
I ended my first half-reading with ‘Waterlilies at Schönbrunn’, the poem from Report from the Judenplatz twice chosen by Matt Holland for his reading at the cenotaph on Swindon’s Holocaust Memorial Day. The image of the crowded waterlily leaves ‘imploring light from the indifferent sun’ was the closest that poem dared approach the unbearable truths about what happened to the Jewish citizens abandoned by the gentile populations of the european cities to which they belonged. Imploring light ….hoping for illumination…. imagining a brighter world….the denial of light ….the awareness of the tantalising proximity of light … working towards light …losing the light …that hunger linked so many of the poems in Safe Passage – I wondered whether it was peculiarly an ex-picture dealer’s way of interpreting the world.
A dealer in pictures is what I am, a poet said…
The light in the Safe Passage poems doesn’t seem to be a metaphor for an otherwordly state of grace. Light is simply standing in for / the visual equivalent of its near namesake, life. The incalculable blessing. The incalculable good. Planning my Fire River reading, I realised that in its quirky, metropolitan, troubled, yearning, rather old-fashioned, unambitious way Safe Passage is a passionately hopeful and optimistic little book. If you look again at the cover, you can see that darkness does indeed seem to be gathering about the buildings, but the birds are flying, together, out of the dark passage in the left hand sky and towards the light.
Life does sometimes engineer the reprieve of her Illyrian nightingales.
I have to thank the Fire River Poets for allowing me to spend such a pleasant evening in their talented and receptive company. But I also have to thank them for making me think properly about my little book. I suspect every future reading from Safe Passage will be shaped in some way by the March Thursday evening I shared with them.
So I will end this post with the lines that mean so much to me, for very personal reasons, from ‘New Things’, one of the poems there wasn’t time to read….
Look at our lagoon, signori.
Luce sull’acqua. The light of heaven.
The dancing of the water.
Safe Passage is available from Oversteps Books