Tom Pickard’s Winter Migrants. Carcanet (2016)
This isn’t a review: I want to celebrate this book because it is the most enjoyable new poetry I’ve read in a long time.
My test of a slim poetry book (78 pages) by a single author is can I live with it for a week? Can I read and then reread and not feel the urge to read anything else. And then if I put it aside and come back to it, does it still hold my attention? Most modern single author collections of poetry fail this test, miserably.
I bought Winter Migrants as soon as it was published and I’ve been rereading it ever since. In terms of my test it’s an excellent book.
It’s split into three parts: two sequences: Lark and Merlin, and from Fiends Fell Journal and a third section made up of individual poems.
Pickard’s poetry has almost always been the record of one intelligence moving through time and recording what he encounters in precise language.
perched on a hawthorn
low enough to skip the scalping winds,
sang a scalpel song.
This first poem from Lark and Merlin is a good example of an elegantly spare, stripped-down or stripped back poetic. It belongs to what Donald Davie once celebrated as ‘a poetry of right naming’. The poet works to find the best word to describe the world he lives through.
When Alice complained to Humpty Dumpty that he was making the words do too much work, he boasted that he paid them extra for their efforts when they turned up on a Saturday for their wages. Presumably there's a small queue at Pickard's on a Saturday and he is also paying them overtime.
While I was rereading Winter Migrants I was also reading Baker’s The Peregrine. Both books have the same detailed observation of movement and light, landscapes and their wild inhabitants. Ruskin would have approved of both writers’ honest attention to detail. However, while Baker’s prose overloads the reader, Pickard’s poems have the advantage that everything unnecessary has been left out. What I envy most is his ability to capture the effects wind has and describe its movement over a landscape. In this he’s as good if not better than Ruskin at his best, though he also has the added advantage of brevity.
Sometimes minimalism doesn’t leave much for the reader to do except admire the poet’s skill. The Sequence solves this problem. Lark and Merlin might be a record of a relationship. There’s a she/you and an I. But the subject is absent. There’s no biographical context (factual or fictional) to distract from the poems. And I don’t understand how this works, but the absence of the subject creates the space which holds the sequence together.
It also allows for the complexities of shifting power within a relationship, the confusion as well as the celebrations:
She asked about my heart,
Its evasive flight;
but can I trust her with its secrets?
and does the merlin, in fast pursuit of its prey,
tell the fleeing lark it is enamoured of its song?
or the singing lark turn tail
and fly into the falcon’s talons?
Fiends Fell Journal mixes prose with poetry. The blurb describes it as a Haibun, but the alternation of Prose and Verse you find in medieval Welsh and Irish texts feels more appropriate to the wild landscape. It is the record of an intelligence moving through that landscape and taking careful note of everything seen, felt and heard. It might sound like a strange compliment, but it’s a very honest poetry and prose which doesn’t fudge itself by pretending to ‘poetic thoughts’. It would be easy to do the prose badly as poetic pose but he avoids this.
The final section of the book contains an assortment of poems on a range of subjects and in a range of styles, from the effective satire of ‘Whining while dining oot’ which puts the boot into a certain type of regional poet, to lamenting a death, ‘Squire’; to expressions of frustration with his contemporaries, the marvellous ‘To Goad My Friggin Peers’.
At the end the book returns to the sparser tone of its beginning with ‘At the Estuary’ and ‘Winter Migrants’ both short sequences.
Nothing I’ve just written does real justice to the pleasure of reading Winter Migrants. Which is really what makes Pickard stand out. He’s very very good, but he’s also entertaining and thought provoking, and enjoyable.
He reminds me what poetry was probably like before it was turned into a ‘pedant’s game’: it was worth reading.
(And as a PS. As someone who has often grumbled about the absurdity of blurbs on poetry books, the paragraph on the back of this one is a model of how a poetry book could be treated.)