Ian Brinton reviews
by Nigel Wheale
In an article for The Pen in autumn 1984 Nigel Wheale wrote about ‘Venetian Aspects’ highlighting a city ‘famously the place of painters, poets, masqueraders, all those who operate through the play of surface and the actions of glaze and veneer’ and this concern for the play of light on surfaces shone through a poem, ‘Venetian words’:
Slicks and rips ran eel-fast
beneath the lagoon, hammer-beaten
by an early rain burst:
In the evening we stalked fire flies
that might have been moving
within the constellated dark
of cypress trees,
Beyond which true light struck
like a night-long inflection
burning among storm clouds.
A similar playfulness and masquerade haunts this lovely new volume of poems from Oystercatcher. The opening page consists of a quoted line from Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude Book I followed by a skilful cut-up of lines from different parts of James Thomson’s The Seasons, the whole becoming a new poem celebrating a world of glint and movement noticed when ‘all is off the poise within.’
The motto for Tsinghua, one of China’s foremost universities situated on the site of a former royal garden in Bejing, is ‘Self Discipline and Social Commitment’ and the grace with which Wheale combines the transient human affairs of Government with the wondering awareness of life’s continuance ensures that this glint and movement stretches beyond the accurate observation of the naturalist deeply embedded in Orkney:
You close mate-guarded
this only, tapered egg,
written in a single day,
now rocking gently on the blank cliff face.
Within, a new bird-dot forms inwith the sun yoke,
hanging in clear protein on twisting ropes of chalazae.
Endless curve of shellsphere,
strengths to be taken in frail colour.
How did you sign this womb of cryptic tints,
who writes this fluent shell script,
your gull’s hymn to the ovular bird therein?
In Tsinghua an old man
is washing pollution
from the fine granite steps
that climb to Party Headquarters.
He moulds his mop to a brush point
and signs his labour secretly
with three lines of characters,
a mop calligraphy writ I water
That will evaporate before
the morning operatives arrive,
this writing as covert, fragile and muted
as blank signs on eggshell.
This last section from ‘Fulmar Egg’ echoes the quiet timelessness of Hardy’s ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’: the contrast of different activities bound together by an overarching perspective and a deep respect for the ordinary. It is that respect which informs the poem written for John O’Neill, ‘classicist, painter and good man’, and titled simply, in the form of a letter, ‘Dear John’:
Light is breaking like a heart over Hoy
and the islands are feline tonight,
grey velvet flexing under an overshot sky.
The bleached trace of fence posts
And power lines quarter the land,
And the fields are shaved like landing strips
In the raw truth of extraction.
None of our feuding painter friends catch this, John,
can I say, they all dress it up, this island,
for who could show its rawness and cruelties?
You painted the bay and Flow for me,
Insisting that you leave out the power lines,
And the waymarking buoy, which you regretted.
The elegiac tone is hauntingly interwoven with the late artist’s awareness of those aspects of Orcadian life which have become the bedrock of Nigel Wheale’s recent poetry:
The island children are playing out in this high cold evening.
They quad-bike furiously over the perfect brae,
and how you would love to hear them, John.
A hare lies smoothed by the cool flows of air,
pale fur rings each eye, her pelt blonde-tipped.
But now the light is gone, the bay blank-faced,
the braes and feas mute, and our Virgil wakes to sing
the chastely rising star world, the asterisms we too glazed upon.
‘Indigo night, my silent friend’, you’d written
in that other life, those other lives, we’ve all undergone.
When Nigel Wheale’s selected poems, Raw Skies, appeared from Shearsman in 2006 I was struck by the sense of place that weaves its way through the carefully crafted lines: one was always being confronted by the palpable. The early work suggested the influence of George Oppen’s hard edges hemmed with the distinctive compassion Oppen achieved in his poems from the sixties. The definite world, where even light ‘rakes across all surfaces’ (‘White Love, White Ship’), is invaded by the insistent arrival of the mundane in the pedestrianized shopping mall and ‘money continues to ooze/from an acid green hole set firm/in the wall.’
The slim volume of poems, The Plains of Sight, published by John Welch’s The Many Press in 1989, concentrated upon the life and works of the painter Gwen John and in one of the prose sections which interleave the little volume Wheale writes of the artist’s development:
There is a well-defined progress in the style of her work, which began carefully and securely in the minute exploitation of accumulated glazes, semi-transparent layerings of the paint, a method taught by Whistler.’
That minute care for the registering of the effects of light and the definite contours of the visible world is then caught by a poem’s simplicity:
A suffused window
a generous breakfast cup
unofficial flowers in a white jug
a chair that waits for no one:
what more could we want?
The title poem of this new Oystercatcher, ‘The Six Strides of Freyfaxi’, takes its name from the horse in Hrafnkel’s tenth-century Icelandic Saga, tales of struggles between chieftains and farmers in the east of
Eternal marble pacing of the Parthenon,
the rider floats, smoothly borne along,
a trance horse to cross the nine worlds.
Stone and air, the palpable and the dream: in this final ‘stride’ Nigel Wheale gives us a world of Art and Nature.
Ian Brinton is an English scholar and poetry critic, and regular contributor to Eyewear. He is the editor of a key study of JH Prynne, A Manner of Utterance (Shearsman, 2009).