Review: Michael Haslam's Scaplings, Star Jelly and a Seeming Sense of Soul
Review by Jonathan Timbers
Monday, 6 February 2017
On 17 February 2017, Calder Valley Poetry will publish Scaplings, Star Jelly and a Seeming Sense of Soul by Michael Haslam. The launch will be held at the Stubbing Wharf, Kings Street, Hebden Bridge at 7.30 pm. Guest readers will include former Forward Prize nominee, Peter Riley and Mark Hinchliffe, Deputy Chair of the Elmet Trust.
There are four reasons why this book should be on your reading list. The first is that the author is an outstandingly original, witty and entertaining writer.
The second is that he is associated with an important and innovative group of late Modernist poets called, ‘the Cambridge school’.
The third is that his vision of the Upper Calder Valley, its topography, geology and life, is as distinctive and powerful as Ted Hughes’s, but utterly different. Whereas Hughes’s was ‘grim up North’, Haslam’s valley is brimming with life and (pro)creative energy.
Finally, he speaks with authority about labouring in the post industrial present – an experience which is at odds with Hebden Bridge’s fashionable self-image.
Haslam’s style - his swagger even - feeds on bucolic and picaresque Elizabethan models. His landscape is full of folklore and fantasy. However, in this book, he also draws on the style and manner of the early Romantics, particularly Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge. Whilst there are direct references to Kubla Khan and Jerusalem, thematically, this book is more like Coleridge’s masterpiece of alienation, Dejection: An Ode. (‘The oakleaves fall and my imagination of the real has failed’).
But, unlike the Romantic poets, Haslam entertains seriousness, then trashes it. His words, he says, are ‘the eructions of a croaking poet’ (referring both to the frogs which breed in huge numbers in abandoned millponds hereabouts and to his own ageing process). Nature, life is the ‘procreative evolution personal to all’; yet for him, it is an increasingly distant phenomena. Not being dead’, he says, with mordant humour, ‘comes after being born’.
Notwithstanding all the comedy in the book, there is a valedictory undertone. Nature may be procreative but the poet is not. He is set aside, tragically aware that "the body..[is] the thought of matter": “ the lusty lads are up out and about in tractors… trailing such rich dung in the drying sun…I don’t think I am one of them”.
Some readers may have difficulties with the way this book plays with patriarchal tropes, like the female muse, the female landscape or just the fact that women appear mainly as the objects of desire (except for Peggy, who hangs out the washing). But I’d argue that you’d be wrong to dismiss this poem. Firstly, his thoughts are not meant to be definitive. ‘Enter Fool’ Haslam says of himself, ‘who rings a bell’. Secondly, nothing is fixed. Nature, Haslam says, is ‘transgender’. And we’re not meant to take any of this at face value. Finally, the subject is a man, him, facing physical decline and death. He handles that difficult subject with humour, humanity and honesty.
Sometimes to ‘understand’ the poem you have to follow the sound not the sense. He creates an entertaining verbal delirium: ‘Rhythm goes dumb and dumb be dumber’. In his own words, this playfulness can form ‘the pure idea of song’. His style is both visionary and visceral:
‘the peewits flap with rainclouds overlapping crying echoes
In the brain for love, come out for nought but doubt’.
And he can’t resist a pun: “Gravestones are dated”.
Before I finish this review, I should say something about scaplings and star jelly. Both things are defined in the text. Scaplings are ‘wedge shaped lumps of offcut gritstone”. Star jelly is a gelatinous substance found on grass. Apparently, it has no DNA and thematically it counterpoints nature’s procreative energy and decay: ‘What is nor male nor female, wasn’t born and hasn’t died”, he riddles, echoing the most ancient poetry of our language.
I urge you to read this book. It will make you laugh, cry, astonish and possibly annoy you.
Cllr Jonathan Timbers
Mayor of Hebden Royd 2014-15.