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Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Guest Review: Kavanagh On Beagrie

Michael Kavanagh reviews
Yoik
by Bob Beagrie (pictured)

I'll admit I'm a sucker for the 'poetry as magic' strain throughout Celtic poetry. It travels from Heaney to Hughes, to Yeats, and stretches back all the way to the Sanskrit, where the very uttering of the sound Om is synonymous with world-creation. The idea is enticing for any poet. My words are magic spells which can summon the deep dark forces of nature and channel divine beings. This must be why some young men and women of a certain generation aspire to poetry, in the same way they want to become, secretly or not so secretly, Jedi Knights.

Bob Beagrie's Yoik takes its title from a Shamanic word for a musical form, a triple-entendre connoting 'name,' 'song,' 'summons', and possibly several other meanings. Beagrie's central theme is conflating song with poetry, naming and magic. The collection's core obsessions are with language, power, magic, song, and mythology.

The collection is layered with multiple world-mythologies. At times it reads like a poetic version of Joseph Campbell's classic of comparative mythology, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It takes material from Shamanism, Latvian Folksongs, the Finnish underworld, Cheyenne mythology, and Gaelic laments among other things. Beagrie's poems invoke these traditions with intent to master or call into being different forms of wildness, as in these lines from "Statement of Intent": "One day I'll write the kestrel's eyes / locked on the movement of a meaning / creeping live n' hot thru the hedge," or these: "The trees whistle hate from a Welsh wind's kicks / Where an outlaw poet speaks an ancient tongue / Cambria's curse, that wrong will follow wrong."

Note the colloquial 'live n' hot'. The collection is peppered with a stylised Northern-English dialect with lots of contracted slang like yeh, mank, and sommat. Beagrie's narrators are often wild men pitted against the elements. These colloquialisms function as esoteric words, or Yoiks to direct nature. For example, in "Storm Damage" a "bloke with tread-lines running through his wet-gelled hair" commands a brutal storm to "Leave me wife and me kids alone. Get it straight, its over, yeh hear, Its over!"

Beagrie juxtaposes free verse and formal poems, often pitting one type against the other for dramatic effect. His use of form creates a palpable relationship between the old and modern world. Sonnets and Odes abound; it is natural that Beagrie would gravitate to these ancient forms as part of his message about Poetry having magical roots.

The book is divided into three sections (like an Ode in macrocosm). The middle section, named "The Bard," refers to the last of the Welsh Mountain Bard's on the run from the assassins of King Edward I. "The Bard" sequence is the shortest but most powerful part of the collection. It begins with three Odes labelled with their formal Greek terms, strophe, antistrophe, and epode. Beagrie follows these immediately with a streetwise dialect poem composed of overheard quotations in a Northern English dialect. The contrast is striking, and no accident. The poet has carefully propelled us out of Ancient Wales/Ancient Greece into the present day where we find two young men discussing the role of the poet in stylized Northern dialect:

I remember once with me Nana going to town
He was sat opposite staring into space
Muttering to himself and writing in a notebook
with a Ladbrooks pen.

That doesn't mean he's a poet. Mean's he's off his napper.

I know, but it freaked me out. I thought
He was making spells.

For Beagrie, the Bard is a symbol representing the eternal poet who surfaces in many guises throughout history. By juxtaposing traditional forms with fairly radical free-verse, Beagrie is staking a claim that the Shamanistic qualities of verse are very much a present-day concern, and that he is concerned with them.

The book isn't just all theme, however. The individual poems show mastery of image, power, rhythm and sheer inventiveness. Here are just a few quotes to give a sense of Beagrie's dark, pungent music:

"All night Death prowled around her house / sang through the letterbox, tapped on the window pane";
"Spell Stammerwort's conversations in brookbabble";
"There are Thunder Gods here and rumours of fish queens";
"On a broken crag overlooking tumbling Conwy.";
"His venomous tirade rides a swarm of plague rats";
"...I watched a dove gently glide through the lace / Of the falls, and fly on into the forests darkening lace."

I have to admit, even with my enthusiasm for the themes, I did tire slightly of reading a few too many poems where the main topic is poetry itself. After all, if the poet is Shaman, perhaps he should be out using his powers to do good for mankind rather than endlessly proclaiming his power and resonance like a monologuing superhero. But in the end the sheer wildness, resonance and beauty of the text charmed me. I was left wanting to re-read many of the poems and sequences. Yoik is mature, erudite, full of far-off places, wildness, dextrous forms, and inventive free verse. I look forward to more spells from Bob Beagrie.


Michael Kavanagh is a poet and writer based in Oxford. His poems have appeared in Fire, London Magazine, Nthposition, and others.
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