NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Islands in the Blood by Geoff Stevens
(Indigo Dreams Publishing, Stoney Stanton, Leicestershire, UK, 2010)
Tributes were paid earlier this year to Geoff Stevens who died at the age of 69. He was one of Britain’s most published poets. He was born in 1942 in the industrial Black Country area of England and was a chemist in industry for 37 years. In 1976 he founded and edited Purple Patch magazine which ran for 130 issues until his death. The Guardian newspaper described it as “a national treasure” and it was his pride and joy. He went on to edit several other poetry magazines and helped with the establishment of poetry groups in and around the West Midlands. He was a champion of the small press publishing scene and received the Ted Slade Award for Services to Poetry in 2009.
The collection under review marks something of a departure from the urban scene that often acted as a backdrop to his work. As the title suggests, it focuses on his love of islands. These are the wild places where he often went to soak up the local history, seek solitude and find peace. For the most part, they are poems about islands in the physical sense but sometimes they are about islands in the mind.
The descriptors that he brings to bear on the word “island” are many and various: they are not only “off-springs from the mainland” but “speech bubbles in a cartoon”, “an oatmeal biscuit dipped in milky tea rising out of an estuary”, “old comfortable clothes”, “fragmented relationships / returning like sleet”. Sometimes they are little more than isolated rocks breaking the surface that “sit like a lower set of worn and blackened teeth upon a blue-gummed sea”.
In writing about these islands, Stevens brings with them a sense of history. We learn about the stone quarrying on Portland, the axe-heads made on Rathlin, the white church that lost its steeple in a hurricane on Ballintoy. He feeds us with snippets of information like newspaper cuttings from a distant past. Literary references play a prominent role, too: Orwell on Jura -this was the island where he wrote his celebrated novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”—Auden and McNiece on Iceland, Mailer on Guernsey, Victor Hugo in the Channel Islands and Dylan Thomas on Elba.
When he soaks up the atmosphere of these islands, his descriptive powers come to the fore. In “View From The Lair of the Great White Worm” a sunset is described as
a beautiful painting
hung at the edge of the last daylight
and in the poem “Skellig” a “spelter sea” is described as
a silversmith’s petrification of metallic waves
whipped by the wind.
In “The Calf of Man”—the name given to the smaller of the two islands that make up the Isle of Man—Stevens imagines it being born “one stormy night in a leaky-roofed stable / next to a field on the edge of the sea cliffs” so that when he arrives
there it was
the off-spring of the three-legged one
in good health and perfectly formed
the waters lapping gently around its underbelly
a little body of green Manx grassland
nestling contentedly just off-shore
from it’s father’s more substantial mass.
There are some beautiful cameos to be found in these poems—the contentment of eating fish and chips on Great Cumbrae or taking breakfast at the Kildonian Hotel on the Isle of Arran. And then there is the portrait of the man “dark-duffled” who is “mulling poetry” in the Flattie Bar on Stromness…it could almost be Stevens himself.
Stevens’ choice of words is always apposite. I was particularly struck by the way the poem Samson—one of the many uninhabited islands that make up the Isles of Scilly—opened with the lines “shorn of all its inhabitants / Samson sees no-one”…the reference to the Biblical Samson shorn of all his hair immediately came to mind. Not all is quiet though. In another poem on another island the noise of tourists intrude:
…they decamp to the café to drink tea
and to chatter like noisy saucers on worn formica.
For me, this collection is much more than just a celebration of islands. It is also about islands in the mind. There is a sense in which the opening poem, “Charted Waters”, makes this clear and prepares the way for us to think in these terms
The love I speak of
..is an island
that goes with us when we travel
though we sometimes go our different ways
a place in our minds
where even in the most peopled room
we walk exposed
for even if observers recognise
that for each other we wear no clothes
they cannot see
that nakedness which we have alone.
In these islands of the mind, Stevens turns out effortlessly poems that can be full of humour on the one hand and poignancy and sadness on the other. “When Islands Grow Old” and “Alzheimer’s Isle” are deeply moving examples of the latter but Stevens can also spin a yarn and it is with this in mind that I will end this review by quoting in full “Fair Isle Pushover”
A big step, taking on a lover
in such a tight-knit community,
but she can see the pattern clearly
before her mind is fully made-up.
She realises that she will not be
exactly working with virgin wool;
he has obviously used and
been used - hence the kinky look
when his previous life is unwound.
Nevertheless, when he suggests
they undress, she does not hesitate
to pull the wool over her own eyes.
The notes at the end of the book provide a valuable commentary on some of the literary and historic references. A typing error which states that “Health and Efficiency” was the journal of the British Naturalists’ Society—as opposed to the British Naturists’ Society—would have brought a wry smile to Geoff’s face.
For all those who love islands and beautifully-crafted, accessible poetry, this is a book to treasure.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His poems and short stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011.