Citizens

Possibly the only poet to have published poems in the TLS and the Morning Star on the same day, Ian Parks’ new collection is a book about the tensions between poetry and politics, the spoken and the unspoken, the public and the private. Accompanied by the ghosts of Ella Fitzgerald, Honeyboy Edwards and the Chartist Poets Ebenezer Elliott and Ernest Jones, Parks listens to ‘the language of the lost and dispossessed’ as he explores sites of painful historical memory – from Blackstone Edge, Cable Street, Burford and Orgreave to Wotton Bassett, Ellis Island and the killing fields of Ypres and Bapaume. Written from ‘the sharp edge of the north’, Citizens asks questions about class and identity – personal and collective, regional and national – about the responsibilities of the individual in the face of state oppression, and what it might mean to be a citizen rather than a subject.

Cover image: A W Bayes, A Chartist Meeting at Basin Stone
Author photo: Graeme Oxby

Sample Poem

Elegy for the Chartist Poets

for Ray Hearne


1

There will be silence after all these deaths:
the unrelenting sun will turn to stone,

the clocks will strike a final time then stop,
the drunks will sink a last pint and go home

down streets where a few cobbles still survive,
through squares and alleys riddled with the past.

The books will close forever on the page
in libraries whose shelves are thick with dust.

While up there on the long extended ridge
where winter tears the topsoil from the rock

and twists the trees into the shapes of souls
or in the valley bottom where the stream

ran fast to spin the ever-turning wheel
a voice will challenge silence then go still;

the sleeping lovers wake up from their dream
and fall to listening in the ghost-grey dawn.


2

This is the sharp edge of the north – the place
to which the quivering needle points, the root

and source of our resistance and dissent.
The wind has taken everything away:

the pamphlet and the broadsheet and the poem,
snatched them down from the windowsills and walls

and sent them in a spiral through the air –
charred fragments carried upwards to ignite

then come to rest under our waiting feet.
They flare there for a moment then subside.

I saw a vision on the Sabbath Day:
a huge avenging angel with red wings

alighted on the top of Blackstone Edge
and, like the sentinel he was, looked round

on towns and cities spread out on the plain,
the cursed, devoted landscape shuddering.

His feet were rooted to the solid earth,
his head was in the sky. A thunderstorm

was heaving in the west, rain clouds opened
and poured down into the gaping mouths

of great crowds gathered on the plains below.
They came barefooted and in need of bread;

they came under the banners arm in arm,
leaving the workshops empty in the dawn,

the rich mill owners turning in their beds.
They paid a penny for The Northern Star,

hunched round a single candle in the gloom
and read it to each other with wide eyes.

The poets printed liberty on each
and every page, on each and every eye.

Outside the world of commerce chimed and whirred,
the factories hummed and ticked, the coins fell ripe


and golden in the hands of guilty men
while children hauled the coal-tubs underground.

I call them out of darkness with their words:
the incantations of the working poor -

the language of the lost and dispossessed:
the mill-hands, miners, labourers in the field,

the muffled voices straining to be heard.
The incremental stirrings in the dust.

3

The places where it happened still survive:
a trace of it outlives them in the air

at Newport where the redcoats shot them down
or Sheffield where the chimneys and the soot

had crammed them into tenements to die.
Holberry raising hell up from the streets,

placing his weapons in the empty hands
of ragged boys and crude intemperate men

and giving them a date and time and place
to turn the tables over, stop the clocks.

A first incursion, arrests at midnight;
men dragged from houses leaving screaming wives.

Holberry picking hemp inside York gaol,
his fingers bleeding as he prised it free,

unravelling his past with every thread.
Ten thousand mourners when his funeral

twisted through the tangled alleyways
finding no resolution and no rest.

From Hull and Halifax and Hell good Lord
deliver me. The infant at the breast.

4

I must have caught the dying breath of it
when I was still a child: the furnace doors

wide open and the sleek, bare-chested men
pouring the liquid metal into moulds.

I saw it from the window of a train;
heard loud insistent hammers beating out

a rhythm as they forged the man-made chains.
And there, over the dark horizon’s rim

the steel city’s furnaces puthering:
a column of tall dust throughout the day,

a pillar of fire glowing in the night.
Hymns swelling from the chapel on the hill,

torches, marches, gatherings, illicit
meetings under the beams of hidden pubs.

It’s in the faded photograph I saw
of two old Chartists posing with their pikes,

their faces weathered and their wrinkled eyes
fixed on the future, resolute, despite

the years of trampling and the failing cries.
Or go to Darfield churchyard in a mist

and find out where the Corn-Law Rhymer lies -
his gravestone overlooking fields of corn,

the railings round his tombstone flaking rust.
How Byron snubbed him, turned his lordly back

on Elliott and his kind, refused to speak
or recognise a man whose hands had toiled.

Or Ernest Jones inside his threadbare cell,
scratching his poems in blood across the page

because the living ink had been denied.
I hold his fragile papers to the light,

feel his stained fingers on the nib
and hear the secret scratching of his pen.

Lift me up and put me down, set me free
on some high, open point where I can see

the whole of the broke past entire, the stunned
and ravaged landscape spread out under me.

5

Mad Shelley dreamt it and the dream survived.
A flicker in the corner of his eye

burned through his death and went on to ignite
a hungry generation with its spark.

The Chartist poets whisper in my ear:
Don’t let us be forgotten. Set us free.

We lie in the cold earth till Judgement Day
scourges the valley bottom with its fire.

Our ink is dry. Our mouths are filled with clay.
Our ears are stopped to what is said above.

The purple clouds are riven and we rise.
So keep your lines uncluttered, bold, and clear;

stake out the untilled region of the heart
and let it thrive. Restore us to the light.

The gagged and muted people found a voice:
it rose up from the cuttings and the seams

and gathered its momentum from the crowd.
What remains? The dignity of labour

is a lie. We sweated for our children
and they died. We met and marched together

on parliament, were turned away ignored -
our petitions, our grievances unread.

Where can we turn to now for our redress?
They want to keep you ignorant of us;

they want our voices buried underneath
a layer of history so we can’t be heard.

We rise up from our tombs and agitate.
We knock here now until you let us in.

These are our true fathers, our true mothers,
our true friends, our lost progenitors

who ask across the intervening years
the untenable question What remains?


Smoke drifts across the furrows and the fields;
the moon already has a reddish cast.

6

Snow falling from God’s heaven black with soot,
the Calder Valley thick with it, the ice

sheeting the hillsides where they pulled and climbed.
A few flakes dance and settle on my tongue.

In Manchester, in Sheffield, and in Leeds -
in all the places where their mark was left

the statues of the undeserving rich
gaze down impervious from their stone-hewn plinths.

The traffic slides and judders to a halt
where shopping centres interrupt the flow

of what we were and are or might still be.
Your songs preserve the bite and spleen of it

and when you sing them without compromise
the voices of the dead who sang before

join in to swell the chorus of your song.
Now rain comes on in huge, successive waves.

It washes guiltless blood from cobblestones.
It rinses teardrops from the chiselled eye.

It runs unhindered down the workhouse walls.
The doors are barred, the candles have gone out,

the presses fallen silent. A cold ghost
repeats their spare, hard verses where they trod.

Out where the moors are brittle, blackened, burned
and silence levels everything with night;

out there under the grey indifferent sky
the Chartist poets lie in unmarked graves.

Reviews

‘Ian Parks has an instantly recognisable voice: spare, lyrical, memorable, and intense. Whatever subject he addresses – historical, political, romantic - he transforms through the sheer force of his poetic identity.’

Donald Davie

‘A real poetic gift: pure poetry written as though coming ready-made from outside him.’

John Powell Ward

‘Reading a poem by Ian Parks is like hearing your name uttered in the din of a public place: you hear it regardless of the background noise.’

Peter Dale