Trevor's Reviews > Notes for Lighting a Fire

Notes for Lighting a Fire by Gerry Cambridge
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it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry

Prior to reading this book of poetry my smartarse comment of choice about poets would have been that they are frustrated composers of symphonies. And, look, it is not in the least the case that this guy doesn’t do lovely things with the musicality of language. Don’t for a minute mistake my meaning on that score. The fact is, though, that this poet is a painter. The dust jacket stresses that he is interested in light (I only read these notes after I was about halfway through and when I was thinking that that was exactly what I was going to say about his poetry – as if I had notice something others might have missed). His interest in light is actually near an obsession and yet it is a very curious thing. This is the first time I’ve read any of the poems in this collection – but they are so visually intense, they have left me as I might feel after seeing a collection of paintings. I would love to see some of Gerry’s natural history photography – if he can teach me to see so well through the black and white of printed words, I shudder to think what he could do with a camera in his hand.

The title poem particularly interested me. I’m from Belfast, born if not breed. I left there when I was five. About the only thing I remember of Belfast is the Eleventh Night about a month before we left home - there is a sense in which I’ve always considered fires to belong to me more personally than they might to other people. And the way in which he lights fires – the folding of the newspapers in particular – is similar to how I too was taught to set a fire.

Prepare the papers. Broadsheets are best.
Diagonally roll the last week’s news, disasters, crimes,
twist each roll in a circle, and tuck the end in.

And it was the strangest thing reading that – because this is a kind of cultural origami, a kind of ritual secret, so that whether it helps the fire catch or not is almost beside the point. What this made me think, and what hardly needs to be said, is that watching someone who knows how paper ought to be folded (or even that it ought to be folded at all) before lighting a fire gives an assurance of competence that is simply not available to someone who just screws the paper into tiny balls. But this assurance of competence was something I felt at ever turn in this collection of poems.

My favourite was Light Up Lanarkshire. And so, staying on the painting theme I’ve started, I would probably be prepared to call this one a triptych. Reading the three paintings (the three parts of the poem) from left to right we start with the infinite paradoxes of coal – with the science of it being born of light and dying only to be enfolded in earth to become, in the depths of infinite darkness, what the poet tells us is ‘light made solid’. I need to avoid quoting too much of this poem or I’ll quote the whole damn thing, but:

And light is magical, it cannot be tasted of drunk directly
(Though we drink and eat it every day),
It cannot be lifted, you can’t fold it up like a blanket;

The cover tells us Gerry did a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh in the Schools of Physics and of Biological Sciences. I take it as read, then, that his interest in light is not just that of the Impressionist in contemplating how light plays on the eye (although, it is hard to imagine someone being able to write, ‘in pastel blue and green, or white so pure / it seemed just solider light’ without having received whatever Impressionism had to gift us). It seems to me that here is someone interested in light all the way down to the deepest considerations of it as that most elusive and confounding of physical entities.

Light and birds are central themes throughout, so that the second part of the triptych, by far the most important, is a vast image of the poet’s grandfather, a miner who had spent a lifetime digging this solidified light up from fathoms. But the image here that leaps from the canvas is of the young skylark cured of its eye trouble by this careful grandfather using the same dilute solution of the Boracic powder he’d put in his own eyes after being gassed at the Somme.

And the final panel is a kind of summing up – a paying homage to what we owe to the past, but more than this, an acknowledgement that we are a continuation of the past and of their sacrifices. In a sense we too remain those:

Who spat out their soul in black dust on the paving stones,
Whose ossified lungs permitted clear skin and flowers in vases.

Remember them, when the lights switch on.

When I was a child I was fascinated by weeping willow trees. I used to steal branches from them to use as whips, amazed at hearing the crack as the tips broke the sound barrier, even before I knew that was what was causing the sound. And one day I whipped at a butterfly and in some fluke caught it on the whips crack and cut it in two, and so watched in a kind of shock at my own efficacy as the two halves, as that is what had become of the butterfly, a pair of disarticulated wings, feathered their way to the ground. For me, the regret was immediate and lifelong.

Here there are, I think, three poems on removing birds’ eggs from nests. But what I like so much about these poems is the warm, soft tones of joy captured of the picture of the child holding something so precious in the palm of his hand – and then the second-layer of paint that is applied, the jet-black ink of regret felt by the adult in remembering and in understanding consequences. Everything changes, and yet we go on believing we are forever the same identity.

only my gaze then incubated them,
and all that hatched was possession’s joy.

Which moves on to perhaps the infinitely more poignant:

Now what I see
is the female pheasant making
her delicate way, by instinct, back
under the spiny sprays to her fifteen eggs of air.

This really is a pleasure to read – it is the first hardcover publication from Happenstance Press. I’ve a feeling I read recently that it has already sold out, but if not and if you can get your hands on a copy I really do recommend it.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 23, 2012 – Shelved
January 23, 2012 – Shelved as: poetry
January 23, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Helen (Helena/Nell) Phew! So glad you liked it, and so much.

Trevor I was really surprised at how quickly I knew I was going to like it too. Right from the start.

message 3: by Owlseyes (new)

Owlseyes I liked the visual/words interplay thing; made me think of Xingjian Gao (I am reading); once in an interview he said:"painting starts where words cannot go".
And as for musicians and poets and frustration...some poets are quite accomplished: Beethoven/Shakespeare, Keats/Mozart...and so on...are good matches.
PS I knew you had some Irish "tonality" in your tape...the latest review I commented.

message 4: by Owlseyes (new)

Owlseyes Gao is a painter too

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