Poems about places and pasts: an extract from ‘On Magnetism’

Steven Matthews is professor of English Literature, University of Reading. His latest book of poetry, On Magnetism, was launched this week. It features poems about loss and remembrance, about the relation of the Renaissance and the Classical worlds to our own, and about locales within lives. 

The following poem is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher. It is followed by a reflection on the poem, and its place within the book, by Steven Matthews.

LAST CHRISTMAS CRACKER

From the last Christmas cracker I pulled ever

with Dad, it seemed there flew not just the golf-tees

I will never use, but my yellow kite

the line broke from, and the wind wafted

into the tall oak where he climbed to get it;

my blue wooden yacht which grounded itself

in the middle of the council boating lake,

where he waded barefoot through the sludge

to restore it sodden to the concrete shore;

the garage window I broke one Sunday

learning to curve a shot round the linen post;

then, in a terrible rush, all the things

in the future he will not ever set

to rights, now that he has gone away.

[From On Magnetism, copyright Steven Matthews, Two Rivers Press, 2017]

 

This poem is one of the several versions of sonnets that characterise the central formal shape in the book. The collection is concentrated around the ways that Classical and, especially, Renaissance history resonate out and down through to the present in a variety of locales. Therefore, the ‘key note’ form of the book, the sonnet, is ‘true’ to the appropriate phase of the literary past, the 1580s-1660s, when all poets tested themselves across 14 lines.

The theme of On Magnetism is how we are pulled back towards remembered places, and to our pasts, at significant moments across our lives. But also, of course (try and push two ‘like’ magnetic poles together, North to North, or South to South), how we are constantly driven away from all the times, places, and people we were once closest to.

Memory can never get a final grip upon what it tries to recover, nor can poems, although we are constantly drawn by our memories to create different stories about the past. This poem is one such unavoidable moment, the attempt to recreate a tie long past that is now broken by loss.

It was important to me, so as to be able to write it, therefore, that I concentrated on the technical demand of the form. I felt a need to string the details, of what was once a lovely time but now can no longer be, into the one sentence across the poem’s lines; weaving and carrying the reader down to the final stop.

On Magnetism is available from Two Rivers Press.

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