Ruth Valentine's tenth collection encompasses the tragedies of the public world – civil-wars in Syria and Sudan, knife crime in North London, the Iraq-Iran war – and our private griefs. At the heart of the book is an extraordinary alphabetical sequence about the Grenfell Tower dead and the society that allowed them to die. It’s a book about the morality of politics and the mortality of us all, a study in remembrance and forgetting, about the indifferent sea with its soft lullabies and cold temptations, time spreading its blankness over everything, and ‘busy humanity with its suitcases and phones, its sudden weeping…’
Cover photograph: Luigi Boccardo
Walk from the gatehouse – grey stone, Gothic windows, a rusting padlock – between cypresses to darkness. Goodbye, strangers’ kindnesses, the offerings of streetlamps. Past the willow, at night a drift of harp-strings, past the graves of those who gave up sooner, those who tried and never made it, those who did, and died leaving no chronicle. An angel waves a despairing hand at mud. You mustn’t ponder lead coffins, plague-pits, skeletons. Your task is keep on walking. As the silence grows, your mind renounces thought. Your body knows it may not manage all your mind will ask, and that could be your catastrophe, your wonder.
Not in hospital; nobody wants that. Nor the pale-blue rooms and communal eating-spaces of the hospice, however kindly. Not alone on an industrial estate in Switzerland, being filmed stating Yes I understand if I drink this liquid... Not even in bed at home surrounded by sobbing family, Victorian fantasy of reunion and forgiveness. Since it’s going to happen and won’t be dignified, you could do a lot worse than a railway station waiting-room. Say Barnham, where after class with the boys from the boys’ school we dawdled for the connection: coal fire, view of the station pub, a playground, mourners hurrying up from the underpass. * I’ve certainly known some beautiful railway stations. St Pancras before it became a shopping-mall and they hid the trains: wood-panelled ticket office, six empty tracks leading the mind north past the gasometers to an improbable state of grace; or Milan with its Day Hotel where you could have a change of clothes, a shower, then off to meet Leonardo, your Last Supper. But the number one station for dying in must be Ljubljana: the driving snow, the boys off to art college in Venice, the gun-metal socialist-realist trains, their sides announcing the life beyond: Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, Skopje, Thessaloníki, Athens. * You’re not taking this seriously. It’s not about childhood or tourism or the early years of your marriage. You are deciding where to die, assuming you have a choice and aren’t knocked down by a single-decker bus at Turnpike Lane, or a heart attack in the Parkways ladies’ toilets. It’s losing control of your body, shamefully, and your mind, which will stop writing poetry forever. So what you need is less the architecture (though a final view of a vaulted wrought-iron roof would do for transcendence) than the sound of trains leaving for cities you can dream about in your last minutes, and busy humanity with its suitcases and phones, its sudden weeping.
From the Swiss border down along the Rhône and into the narrow lane through the chestnut woods of the Massif des Maures, a bubbling blethering breaker of white fleece around a bus at night, on an old stone bridge, the headlights dimmed, silence inside, the driver sitting back and outside the shepherds, tall, walking and calling. One day, not so far into the future that I couldn’t count the days if I sat down at my desk in the grey light of a Sunday morning, it will all start flowing away, the word transhumance and the sheep pouring down to the plain. I won’t remember the time for breakfast or my lover’s name nor how I got here, transmigration of souls from the child abandoned in the empty ward. Then what is left of me will be the moment, exquisite in its colours and modulations, the touch of glass on my fingertips, the scent of hyacinths in a pot on the window-sill: intensity I’ve wanted all these years and useless because I’ll no longer have the words to turn it into a poem, to make it say anything about my own life or the lives of people shut the wrong side of a wall, their olive trees on the other side still shaking silver leaves in the wind, the olives swelling and falling onto a net on the dry ground to shrivel and rot, unharvested, untasted.
The tigers wait outside the villages. The crocodiles wait below the water-lilies. I’ve waited twenty years for permission to live here. The informers wait in shaded alleyways. The soldiers wait tetchily at the border. I am waiting for my landlord to evict me. The dictator waits for signs of disagreement. His supporters wait to shoot at demonstrators. I am waiting for my child’s school to report me. The traffickers wait for someone to pay a ransom. The fisherman waits for his boat to come back empty. I am waiting for the bank to withhold my money. The children wait for a lorry to hide and die in. I am waiting for you to decide to send me back.
an elegy This morning the fish-man lays out the white boxes on his stall at the corner as usual: river trout, red mullet, prawns; as usual the greengrocer calls Two for a pound! and the sports-shop manager bends to unlock the metal blind, which rises out of her sight like a ladder into heaven. The shoppers begin to arrive, stepping off buses, coming down in the lift from the carpark: determined women followed by shopping-trolleys like tired retrievers; couples with buggies. A man in an anorak hunkers down on his cardboard by the cash machine, the Witnesses set up their stand outside the station. Girls screech at each other like herring-gulls, boys stroll in their white trainers. A day passes. * Who is the patron saint of teenagers? Which pagan god protects them? Stall the buses! Block Lordship Lane to pedestrians and traffic! Let it rain in torrents, thunderstorms distract them, hailstones batter and bruise the knifing arm, and it won’t have happened. Where were you, blindfold Justice, where were you, Mercy? Why did you give these children not bread but a stone, not home but a crowded room with damp and despair? Wisdom, why did you tell them they were nothing, could be nothing but blades of vengeance? * The blood that just now was speeding through his veins, pulsing his heart, is washed into the gutter. His body’s gone to the hospital, in the yellow ambulance. The boys have gone, skeetered away from the screams, the onlookers, their power and their own terror. Tomorrow morning the children will come with roses wrapped in plastic bartered from Lidl and the market trader for all their savings; tomorrow a dune of flowers. Tomorrow the people waiting at the bus stop will wander over to see, and the bus will come and take them away, shaken. Today at home his sister opens the door to the policewoman.
Then sometimes people ask you how it was, and what you see’s a pale green corridor, blood dripping out of you, the man who swore it wouldn’t hurt, and hurt you. Just because you could tell no-one (shame) you can’t say now where you have been, or why. The simple answer: It’s past, I’ve changed. You wouldn’t want to squander scarce memory on the prurient, anyhow. So time spreads blankness, like an overcast November morning, mild, an even light over the park, the pond, the lime-tree walk. That backlit terror disappeared as fast as lightning sketched across an autumn night. If you want thunder you must learn to talk.
believes in silence only the oars’ discussion with the waves only the sigh as a duck lands on the river which is ever wider however often his arms lift and fall back however cool the sun sings in the mist
‘Ruth Valentine’s new collection is significant for its illumination of the socio-political failures that lead to poverty, war, and death; she skilfully transforms ideas into true poetry, captures terrible moments in a poetry that convinces with its humanity. These are widely-ranging empathetic portraits, drawn from London to Iran and beyond.’
‘In a time of pandemic and political turmoil when learning to talk, to express and share the profound, complex feelings about loss and death, feels ever more crucial, Ruth Valentine is surely one of our guides. Her voice is emotionally intense yet unsentimental and her language is expressive and musical.’