I don’t know about Elaine but while our remit is quite broad it was never my intention to discuss poetry on this blog, or at least poetry that was not ‘performance poetry’ or ‘spoken word’, which I had seen live. This is largely because I’m not sure I know how to ‘review’ poetry but I do know from my memories of school that I am seriously averse to ‘analysing it’.
I am making an exception -in terms of commenting on (rather than reviewing or analysing) poetry because You Never Know was a present from John Fox. Further, many of these poems were originally written for and performed on specific occasions and in fact, they might be understood as a part of an extended performance project that takes the form of an (almost) life long experiment in a ways of living that undermine socially constructed distinctions between daily life, art and politics.
John was, of course, co-founder, with (amongst others) Sue Gill, of the legendary company Welfare State International which between 1968 and 2006 produced politically engaged site specific theatre, community celebrations, lantern festivals, installations and new ceremonies for rites of passage. John and Sue continue this work with their company Dead Good Guides and You Never Know is one of the (many) products in (many) different media, of one of their (many) recent projects, entitled ‘The Weather Station’.
Based in and around their home the Beach House, a self built eco house and studio situated on the West shore of Morecambe bay, The Weather Station project is specifically focussed around issues of ecology. Like all their work it is concerned with exploring a ‘template for living’, which in this case is both ‘creative and sustainable’. The Beach House and the way they inhabit it and its surroundings constitutes an attempt to ‘embody’ this ideal and unquestionably constitutes a site specific work of ‘vernacular art’.
The house, built with the help of family and friends, is itself a work of art/craft designed to fit with and make the most of the austere beauty of its natural setting and yet profoundly ‘homely’ and welcoming. It is also full of and surrounded by, hand crafted ‘art objects’. These are often created from the flotsam and jetsam thrown up on the beach but this includes plastic bags as well as shells, skulls and sea bleached wood. Moreover, in this context the definition of the ‘art object’ is extended to embraced parties on the beach and tea with homemade cakes, the child’s drawing and the rag rug, whirlygigs as well as ‘found’ sculptures, John’s paintings and lithographs, or the gifts given to them over the years by other artists.
Many of the poems in You Never Know simply reflect on and celebrate daily life in and around the Beach House, the views, the weather, the seasons, what flies over head, lives on, or is washed up on the beach, the making of crab apple cheese, the creaking of the new gate, fishing, parties with friends and family, walking on the beach and calm nights of fire and candlelight. Some touch on the threat of global warming in terms of its effects on the local environment, others touch on aspects of local history that are not without global implications; the killing of the last wolf in England on nearby Humphrey Head, the grave situated on the east side of Morecambe bay of the slave known as ‘Sambo’ who died in 1736, or the more recent tragedy of the Chinese Cocklers.
In line with the John and Sue’s interest in ‘secular rites of passage’ a few are written to celebrate marriages or civil ceremonies, many more for the births and birthdays of children and grandchildren and even more for the funerals or memorial services of friends and colleagues. In a sense, aging and death are themes threading throughout the whole volume but in the recognition that the awareness and acceptance of these things is indivisible from the celebration of life and of love in all their various forms.
I am not going to quote extracts and ‘examples’ from these poems, for me this pushes too far towards school territory and I think these are ones that need to be read whole and in the context of each other, their affect cumulative as much as individual. Like all John’s (and Sue’s) work, their imagery and tone bring together the sublime, the humble and down to earth, the formally restrained and the wild fantastical. Like all John’s (and Sue’s) work, taken together they speak of extraordinary energy and a dedication to remarking and taking pleasure in the rich creative possibilities of the quotidian. Like all John’s (and Sue’s) work, taken together they speak of the importance of giving free rein to the imagination in order to find better ways of being in the world and of relating to each other than allowed for by our current social and political systems.