The Tin Lodes
by Andy Brown and Marc Woodward
39 poems, 75 pages
Publisher: Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2020.
To order: www.indigodreams.co.uk
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Andy Brown is Professor of English & Creative Writing at Exeter University, England, and widely known as a poet and writing tutor. His most recent collections include ‘Casket’ (Shearsman, 2019), ‘Bloodlines’ (Worple, 2018) and ‘Exurbia’ (Worple, 2014).
Marc Woodward’s collections include ‘A Fright of Jays’ (Maquette Press, 2015) and ‘Hide Songs’ (Green Bottle Press, 2018). Woodward is a highly respected musician and an internationally known mandolin player.
‘The Tin Lodes’ is a collaboration between two poets living close to the Teign estuary in South Devon, England. The title alludes not only to tin mining, that rich seam of Cornish industrial heritage, but also to the river and its environs for the word ‘lode’ carries with it several different definitions. In addition to meaning ‘a vein containing a metallic ore’ it can also refer to ‘a reach of water’ and ‘an open ditch’.
I have always been attracted to rivers which is one of the reasons why I wanted to review this book. Another reason was the fact that it was the result of a collaboration between two writers living in close proximity to one another. Collaborations between writers are becoming more common these days and I am always interested to see how they work out in practice. In this particular case, each poem was written in response to the other’s work. They were then redrafted, edited and sequenced collaboratively. All the poems are anonymous and so there is no way of knowing who wrote which one; only the collaboration matters.
The cover design is from an original painting by James Tatum entitled ‘Woods above the River Teign, at Fingle Bridge.’ It is one of those paintings that is best viewed from a distance. Up close, it is easy to get lost in all the detail but if you take a step back everything comes into focus. The same way of viewing things can be applied to this collection because the density of each of the multi-layered poems can be read on several levels and the reader needs to ‘stand back’ to note all the different facets before admiring the result as a single entity in its own right.
Like ripples in a river, the range of this collection radiates from local beginnings to quickly embrace the wider world both in terms of time and place with an impressive amount of subject matter taking in Celtic and Roman mythology, archaeology, industry, wildlife and local history.
Reading this collection I was struck by the way the framework of certain poems had been structured in innovative ways. For example, in ‘Toll Road’ each stanza takes as its starting point signs setting out the fares payable for different types of transportation (‘Coach and horses – 1 Shilling; One score of oxen or cattle – 10d, etc.,) and in ‘Sea Primer’ each stanza takes as its starting point the different time periods for religious observance (Matins, Lauds, Prime, etc.,). Smaller sequences divide their content according to other equally original criteria. In ‘Pulse’ for example, each section is headed ‘Time’, ‘Rhythm’ and ‘Repeat’ while ‘Equinox’ divides itself into two constituent parts: ‘Autumn’ and ‘Vernal’.’
The employment of local words, particularly in the section headed ‘Tributaries’ adds variety and colour to the vocabulary. A useful glossary is included at the end of the book. The first poem in ‘Tributaries’ is a list poem whose varied and descriptive place-names gives it a musical quality all of its own.
Neat descriptive turns of phrase catch the eye and ear of the reader: herons are ‘crepuscular anglers’ a meal from a bar in a seaside town is ‘a cardiac of cod and chips,’ oyster shells are ‘Neptune’s castanets’ and, in ‘Two Water Nymphs’, ‘a smirr of mist’ describes Coventina, the Queen of the Celtic river goddesses ‘as a secret / ocean; a yearning reservoir; a desert / quenched by unrelenting rain.’ The magical opening stanza of ‘The Szygy Line’ with its judicious use of alliteration caught my attention as well:
Slow beach Sundays spent
lying in the paper arms
of hot afternoons.
In it, we feel the weightless fragility of a tinderbox summer that is ready to burst into flames at any moment.
‘The Tin Lodes’ sequence stretches the catchment to the ruined tin mines on the nearby Cornish coast. It centres on the Graeco-French character Pytheas of Massalia, the first trader to come to Britain and annex the mines for the Roman Empire. A kestrel mines its prey where labourers once mined for tin. The deserted workings are likened to the ruins of Mycenae or Herodotus’s Cassiterides. The sequence operates simultaneously within different historical timeframes:
smelting the impure ore of memory
into the white metal of Now
in a place that resonates with far away.
Concern for the environment is registered in poems such as ‘Beach Trove’ and ‘Fish and Stone’. Awe and reverence for the natural world is also present in ‘Light on the Lake, Alberta’ and ‘The Light at Cape Cod’ – two instances where those ripples I wrote about earlier have radiated out into the wider world.
The collection comes full circle at the close with ‘My River’ which is mostly defined in terms of what it is not. Here are the opening and closing lines:
A river flowed into my township last night.
It wasn’t Alice Oswald’s Dart, or Wordsworth’s Thames,
or Raymond Carver’s river that he loved
the way some men love horses or glamorous women.
And it wasn’t John Milton’s stream at the foot of Paradise
with Satan cloaked in rising mist…
It was just a river. A river
that had run here, seemingly forever,
through the valley, over the mudflats
round the curving oxbow of the harbour
and out of my life.
There are many memorable poems and lines in this collection. ‘Beach Huts’ is one of the standouts in this respect. I call it ‘the sonnet with the built-in shock element’. It begins benignly enough:
April means unlocking, sweeping off spiders
and sand, putting out to air the rug,
stripy beach towels and faded sun-loungers.
but there is a change of mood at the start of the second stanza:
When they opened Springtide they found Alice,
still as a waxwork, in a garden chair,
dry as blown sand, her dress nibbled by mice.
They’d never thought to look for her in there.
This is a very fine collection, a closely observed and well-researched piece of work that succeeds in operating on several different levels at once. The collaboration is seamless and a testament to the way these two writers have worked so well together on this project. Fully recommended.