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
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’