Pleasant Sutherings of the Shade

Sam Buchan-Watts, Path Through Wood

Prototype, 72pp, £12.00, ISBN 9781913513115

reviewed by Erik Kennedy

It’s refreshing when a book of poems does what it says on the tin. If you’re reading a book called Path Through Wood, it’s fantastic if there’s a path through a wood. Near the beginning and end of Sam Buchan-Watts’s debut collection are two poems about the emergence from, and re-entry into, a physical wood. With their semantically slant-rhyming titles, ‘“The Days Go Just Like That”’ and ‘The Days Just Go Like That’ set up a concept where the return to the wood at the end of the book is a return with a difference. The wood of the title is associated with all sorts of adolescent hijinks: ‘lighters crammed with dirt’, ‘cigarette cherry a jewel of heat’, ‘dirty magazines gateway drugs dirt is shit at what gradation boys brittle in the woods epochal summer where you bury the past’. I think many people who grew up near woods will have similar memories. It’s also gently and semi-ironically idealised; in lines that quote the poet John Clare and the theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, we’re told that the wood is a place of ‘“pleasant sutherings of the shade” fine for childhood’s “elaborate inner space”’.

But it’s what Buchan-Watts’s second-person character sees on leaving the wood that’s interesting and unexpected: larpers. If the wood is a place for youth, well, larping hardly seems more grown-up. The character stumbles out ‘blinking, skew-whiff, confused, to find this: / A medieval reenactment in medias res’:

. . . the quirks –
the radiant tinkle, the gather of enthusiasts,
the rhubarb-rhubarbs, the unintelligible frills,
the coarseness of sound their makeshift dress makes
like brown paper crumpling as it’s being burnt –
are so correct, as if history were a thing to be administered
in the afternoon.

I’m reminded of the Peep Show episode where Mark Corrigan is in the middle of a larp mêlée dressed as a knight. He pauses and asks himself, ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m in a wood in Kent with a plastic sword. I’ve crossed a line . . . This isn’t me. These aren’t my people.’ Both are funny, disorienting moments, and Buchan-Watts’s you-character seems as put off as Mark, but instead of retreating back into the relative haven of the wood, it’s time to confront the non-sylvan world in all its garish and superficial grimness. The ridiculousness of fantasy violence (the re-enactors are jousting) provides an entrée for Buchan-Watts to start discussing real violence. Many of the poems in the rest of the book address the struggles of people who occupy liminal social spaces: prisons, asylum centres, outsider artist Henry Darger’s reconstructed ‘apartment-cum-studio’, the desperate end of a Samaritans hotline.

These are the best poems in the book, and for me it’s a toss-up as to whether they need to be framed by the woods poems. In an interview with Creative Scotland about the writing of Path Through Wood, Buchan-Watts has said:

Drawing in part from my experience volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds and Nottingham, I’m particularly interested in the lyric as a forum in which society’s most vulnerable may be newly heard . . . I’m inspired by poets who make anxiety about the unruly desires of language an engine of discovery as I try to find a lyric voice that holds itself to account for its complicity and privilege.

Are the vulnerable heard? Tick. Are complicity and privilege held to account? Tick. In the second of three poems called ‘Listening In’, the speaker is a counsellor of some sort running an exercise for refugees. They are being shown how to use an old-fashioned red phone box, which is both anachronistic (virtually useless in a smartphone world) and ‘foreign’ (almost stereotypically British ‘national kitsch’ to show to recent arrivals). But the calls are being made for therapeutic rather than practical purposes:

I invite the boys in turn to leave a message
on my colleague’s answerphone while
their peer group jeers through a door frame
long since retired of glass, exposing them,
rescinding the object’s inherent discretion,
the message may be for anyone, I say: living, dead
or otherwise, nobody is listening on the end
of the line, not this time, and that is good,
speak without fear of being misunderstood

Buchan-Watts brings us right up to the phone box door, where we might overhear what the boys are saying (who might they be calling? we wonder; will the dead or the living be receiving more messages?), but also respects the boys’ privacy by shifting the poem’s direction before we intrude. A poem like this is difficult to write, because a poet who desires to centre the experiences of marginalised people also needs to make sure they’re not slyly using the experiences of others to make themselves look good, nor to make the poem about their own privilege-related guilt. Buchan-Watts is able to ‘skirt the question / of speaking “for”’, at least in his own mind, by ‘staking common ground’, namely the common ground of shabby phone boxes around the world: ‘vandalism’ and the ‘caustic stink of piss’ are ‘universals’ in all cultures. This resort to black humour is, I think, a novel solution to deploy in a poem about bridging cultural divides.

‘Sounds Inside’ is another poem that concerns itself with vulnerable people and the piecemeal, second- and third-hand ways in which we learn about their lives. The purported subject of the poem is the prison ‘industry’ (one of the meanings of the ‘inside’ of the title), but it is also about how information is shared, about how the sounds of speech ping-pong around ‘inside’ our heads until we are uncertain about how we came to know what we know, or why it matters. The speaker of this poem is ‘overhearing a documentary on Radio 4 about music cultures in UK prisons’ but is also relaying to us things he has learned from his housemate, ‘a medical professional at the local prison’. This is a long poem full of arresting details — too many to quote — and propulsive, run-on meta-thinking:

all of this might complicate the simple fact that I am listening

more to my friend, whose working life is unique among the people I know, than to the documentary and the reflections he makes afterwards because, though he does his best

not to bring the prison home with him, I have felt it hardening his world, even if I hesitate to say it hardens him

. . .

I can go in and see my friend, forgo our habitual speech acts and hold him

to me, awkwardly, yet choose to make do with the sound of his pottering, that he is brewing a second pot of coffee this late in the morning

The ‘sounds’ promised by the title come in so many forms: the literal sound of Radio 4; the sounds described in the programme (music, yes, but also wacky noises like the sound of an inmate hoovering up crumbled biscuits); the sounds of the housemate’s conversation; sounds from outside; ‘the sound of his pottering’. And we’re also getting, whether we realise it or not, the sounds of Buchan-Watts’s thoughts. One of his major influences is Denise Riley, who has written a good deal of creative and critical work about the inner voice. ‘Inner speech is the touchstone of a privacy which needn’t depend on the isolation of its silent speaker’, Riley writes in ‘“A voice without a mouth”: Inner Speech’, ‘for it may mutter forcefully in our ear even when we are among some animated social gathering’. This is a fair description of the sound-filled morning Buchan-Watts is writing about, and how he builds a poem from it.

If this sounds complex, it is. In truth, I’m flattening the book out a little, as one sometimes has to when writing about experimental or unorthodox verse in a short piece. As Adam Crothers has said, as a half-joke, ‘Poetry is language slowed down to make it harder to understand’. So consider this an exhortation to slow down and take a look at the work for yourself, at the speed of understanding.

I said at the beginning that there is ‘a return with a difference’ when we get to ‘The Days Just Go Like That’. The you-character is ready to ‘re-submerge tipsy and lightly bereft’ into the wood, ‘cursing your way backwards / into a haze that’s styled by trees’.

You try to hold the re-enacted scene in your mind
but now you are out of it, the dream of medieval jousting
is just smattering, and the turf track is quickening,
along with the remnants of hash resin
and benzedrine, and filaments of rubber

The first key difference is that the reality of the medieval re-enactment is now an open question — either a dream or a druggy hallucination seem to be possible explanations. The second key difference comes with the poem’s left-field closing line: ‘and there’s a city down here somewhere’. The wood and the urban world had until this point been kept separate, but there’s a synthesising gesture here. Maybe the wood was city-like all along. Or maybe what we thought was a wood wasn’t a wood at all; ‘a haze that’s styled by trees’ is a bit airy and insubstantial — Buchan-Watts very pointedly does not use the two simple words ‘the wood’. It seems clear that whatever innocence the you-character had at the beginning of the book is now irrecoverable, but the loss is figured in language that defies easy paraphrase. This is the work this book does, showing us that the contemporary lyric can take many paths: a path through wood, yes, but also up the garden path, in sinuous and surprising ways.

Erik Kennedy 's latest book of poems is Another Beautiful Day Indoors.