The Dark Months of May
[Incidental, but not irrelevant] #1
Great God, Flood Editions makes some fine contributions to the universe—The Dark Months of May looks good, and I will indeed judge this book by its cover (slate-blue misted into a dimmed hay—a homestead as seen through what Pickard notes as mither, neither fog nor drizzle nor mist) as well as its pages (blue-black frame pages and heavy cream text pages) and its fonts (spare grey titles set against blunt black poems). Should it matter? Maybe not. But the book makes a gorgeous artifact, and I’ve enjoyed peering over the top of my copy to look down at the ill-favored books in the hands of my reading companions. I’ve used the mere sight of this back for gloating in public places, I have.
[Incidental, but not irrelevant] #2
Is the narrator of the following poem, “Denial Is a River in Egypt,” in fact Tom Pickard?
god I’m easy, a pushover
for anyone with wine, a spliff,
a condom in her bag
I say no thanks and
half a bottle later
we’re on the nest
but we were two halves
of an erotic genius
till you ditched me
for a regular spot
on a bar-stool
who’s twice the man he was
after one year
of your home cooking
you have a way of turning boys into turkeys
and he’s another
fattened for the chop
he grabs your arse in crowded bars
confusing it for one of his slack chins
he has a sudden urge
Because if he is the narrator, then Tom Pickard is the worst ex in the whole wide world.
[Let’s get review-y!]
The poetry of bitterness, of domestic resentments, is an easy art to indulge but a hard one to master, mainly because—whether intended or not—most indictments end up revealing the degree to which the wronged party feels pretty good about themselves. And who could possibly be compelled by that? Happy lovers (or even currently un-tortured ones) drawn to root through the arts of romantic wreckage, the autopsies of their smashed comrades—I mean you, reader!—these people want mutual ruin, not a moral accounting counted off in the currency of filthy undergarments. The usual problem is that in detailing What Went Wrong, the poet also accidentally sketches a negative portrait of What Went Right, i.e. his or her own sterling contribution to the relationship. Ego proves difficult to avoid; the wounded want to lick themselves clean.
But not Tom Pickard. I mean, not the narrator of the bulk of The Dark Months of May, whoever that surly and vinegar-blooded unfortunate may be.
So how does he do it? Well, for one thing, Pickard knows how to be funny without declaring his own cleverness, as demonstrated by the miniature minuet of heartbreak and vengeance that is the three lines of “Ancient Stone Dressed with Lichen”:
now the mushroom season is here
I remember—she has the basket
but I have the knife.
Oh, aye, indeedy he does, and this tiny little poem proves it—but if the narrator’s inspiring and inspired indifference to his own appearance were all The Dark Months of May offered, then it would be no more than a pleasantly nasty diversion. A happily met diversion, true: American poets, decreasingly able to find a middle ground between somber and smug, can learn much from Pickard’s ability to establish a tone without adopting a posture. Fortunately, Pickard has another set of resources by which he earns my acute attention, and this is the narrator’s inability or refusal to distinguish between the appropriateness of these resources, or even their particular aspects. So while the preceding poems describe one element of Pickard’s method, I’ve deliberately excluded elements such as these—
thick mist whispers
the breath of Whistler, envelops me
in mithering silence
From “Rouk”, or the whole of “Whither”:
a peacock wind whines
when it will
claw and fang
This combination of aural association—of a poet’s base recourse to tic, to listenings—and the landscape of the heartbreak itself helps create a sense of desperation. The poems cannot go in one of a very few directions, because the poet cannot abide or comprehend his abandonment, yet the poems never grow tiresome or predictable as language, because we cannot guess how and when the intimacy of the epistolary rhetoric will ghost into the intimacy of the lyric, of a lyric sensibility bounded by a mere handful of beasts and fields and climatological miseries. One of my favorite expressions of how Pickard uses these limitations to make a point of boundedness, of having no choice but to chew off your own limb, occurs in the first half of “Raven Beck”:
I ran across the fells to Raven Beck
heather, tufts of reed, rocks, shale holes
and jumped fences to get you a feather
and bring you back
from the driven sleep
where black birds fly in black air
and black waters fall in black ravines
Those last two lines don’t bespeak a lack of descriptive powers; they describe an admixture of patience and resignation with a world too well known.
What color, what mood?
They’re black, for God’s sake, black, what, are you blind?
[But wait. There’s more.]
Pickard’s periodic seizure by sounds themselves represents one kind of tradition, as does his familiarity with the sauced laments of the scorned; the two traditions wander in and out of each other in ways that become, as I’ve noted, hard to predict. The most elegant interweavings are the ones that seem the least deliberate, the most apparently spontaneous, as realized in “Prelude in Blue”:
a writing is a trail of evidence
tailor-made for trial
or tattooed on membrane
a kind of welding
a matrimonial mirror
you rolling snake of slut
my experience of money
I wept a storm
What makes these traditions hang together so oddly and well is Pickard’s careful acknowledgement of yet a third (and more traditionally traditional) inheritance, which is that of the ballad forms and border songs of the English and Scottish countryside. So that in addition to the hybrid constructs thus far excerpted, we also get the likes of the following lines, from “Bob’s Blues”:
call the boys, get them in,
give the surgeon plenty of gin
strap me down and kill the pain
again again again
Crude? Certainly. And of course, because as with the melding of conversational diction and lyric flight, the point Pickard gradually makes is that this narrator has lost control of the means by which he might otherwise and more strategically master his multiple languages. The character created by way of these poems, and who finds his fullest articulation in the long title poem, speaks from an emotional duress that disarms but dismantles. Under the pressure of the perceived betrayal, each of his languages comes popping out—they fuse, and in such a way that perfects the illusion of accidental beauty and logic. Clearly, Pickard tooled these poems, yet their affect achieves that of utterance, mumble, murmur . . . of immediacy.
[Neither incidental or irrelevant]
[All thanks to Mr Pickard for gifting me his own metaphor]
The Dark Months of May concludes with two longer pieces: “Fragments from an Archaeological Dig in Gallowgate,” and “The Ballad of Jamie Allan,” which corresponds to a libretto Pickard is writing by the same name. It’s “Fragments” that interests me, though, because here Pickard seems to make a version of the case he makes for the book entire, by way of exploring the addictive and terrible oddness of the dig itself, and of how it forces the poet to consider the reality of simultaneity that literal stratification obscures. In “Sondage 1,” the poet describes this unearthing:
A concrete Second World War air-raid shelter tight between the 1920’s Gallowgate bus station and the twelfth-century city wall where there is a recess with flattened cardboard boxes that someone has slept on and beneath. An abandoned red and white striped woollen hat. Trampled and scattered newspapers report bingo wins, successful diets, marriages, births, deaths, foreign wars, rising and falling stars. The area is overgrown with ferns and fireweed. A few lush blackberries ripen at the base of a twelfth-century tower where medieval guilds of plumbers and glaziers met.
The diggers fence off a large portion of the bus station forecourt—leaving a reduced service operating—and break through the concrete surface to make a finger-tip search for evidence in neatly-cut grave-size exploratory trenches. Time surgeons, the serious time squad, destroy as they dig. Remains of nineteenth-century lead works—detailed plans of it already exist—are removed by a mechanical shovel.
A bus sets out for Bangor from Bay 2 while the diggers begin their journey in Bays 8 and 7.
There’s clearly a kind of shock here, the poet’s appalled sense of how mechanically and cavalierly all these worlds are being known and destroyed at once. And it’s admittedly not easy to see at first what this narrator has in common with the cast-off erotic narcissist of the book’s earlier pages. Yet the practice that informs the latter’s language belies the digger’s work in the former. Pickard suggests that an appreciation of all the craft of the past—intimate or industrial or even geological—need not result in the time squad’s serious destruction. Not only can they live again, they can live all at once. If writing’s indeed a trail of evidence, then Pickard proves of himself what is true of most of the embittered: that their pasts and presents are their full presence as well.