Kelvin Corcoran



I've been reading Alstonefield, following you through the nocturnal lanes and fields of the place and the sublime literal you sustain, thinking of Doug Oliver's phrase. It's the voice I want to hear in poetry, free of the grandiose and where everything matters. It is exactly the most intimate and the most shared experience, as you've said elsewhere - rambling in the centre of England with utter irrelevance for good.

Here, after days of a perfect Greek Spring, the storm is over us. So I'm reading Alstonefield indoors, with the wild flowers electric leaping along the sides of the roads giving me the come on. The warm rain is falling straight down like curtains of light over the sea.

Yesterday we spoke to the woman who has been restoring what was the family home, a house in the middle of the harbour locked up for twenty years or so. Everything was just left after the big argument. Earlier she had shown Melanie inside, everything was untouched, the furniture, photographs and cups. Now something has been resolved and the place is rebuilt. Her daughter is an architect and she has redesigned the interior. The house sits in the centre of the harbour with a window each side of the fireplace looking out across the gulf to Coroni. Sea light flickers on the ceiling. A sort of exile is over and everything matters, every detail is transformed.

I think you would recognise this story, pack it in your pocket as you go out walking in a Ben Nicholson and see the fit of the stone buildings and the dark fields, wondering through the valleys and limits of a personal poetry. What time is the coach load of professors expected? They've come to remove you and the place for further study, derelict barns and pub car parks filed away in Texas, for imposition on the innocent of America. Will they see a geometry of limestone walls and upland fields in the republic of the poem before all the wars chewed holes in everything we want to hold?


In that detailed landscape where you trail, a great breathing space opens up for the senses, for the pleasure of the achieved poem in a candid country. Somebody is dancing half the bloody night and walking around the oval meadow - and there is that man who keeps coming back, on his own or with others. He's doing something.

Another story. Last week in Athens we found the twentieth century ceramics museum, it's in what was the Turkish section by the old market place and new metro. There was something there for you. Demetris Mygdalinos came from a village near the Skamander in Asia Minor. He was a seaman or a diver who shipped up in a pottery centre on the Hellespont. He became a potter and in 1922, with his wife Sappho, fled Turkey and lived in Athens as a refugee. His work was discovered among various cheap factory-made playthings. We see unusual vases, winged donkeys, a naked woman and a piper, a white man on a white horse. Mygdalinos had no wheel nor kiln and he used unfired paints. He sold his pieces at religious fairs and he died in 1949/50 poor and unknown. He made a candlestick with four cats arching up to the candle holder, a two headed horse, a blue tugboat and a winged cat with a red mouth and a red tongue hanging out.

This account comes free from recommendation. You want to look at these pieces over and over, hold them and look at them from every angle. You want their shapes in your hands. You'll understand that this story does not recommend poverty or impersonal victimhood at the hands of international captains, but we see the opposite of Mygdalinos's story, it's obvious and everywhere. No. The sky will not help, nor the soil or trees - about as useful as the discarded televisions to the cats raiding the spider bins last night. If not Mygdalinos then a path opens for the cold and dark airs of the earth at every turn. It closes the heart and it would be easier to drill through the bedrock under this house with a straw than make it live again. If you go down there, into the secret flooded tunnels under the houses where the families come and go, filling and emptying their homes, you would see where all the little metaphors sit around, the metaphors of metaphors, domestic and deceitful, singing for the dull poets.

I think you are right. What return there is from the edge of such nations is not from them but the figures of the dark fields rather. This is before some fool hooked up the ladder after ascent and vanished in an abstraction, leaving behind misfit duties and an elsewhere worldview. Against which is this poem of yours, dancing in the oval meadow.


In the final part of the poem there's no easy way in or out. You slip into the long valley night walking, humming Gurney perhaps, in the good company of the despised. I remember you were waltzing with a mammal in a serious poem and the vocal bushes had their say. Come on out my little hearties, you gods and insects, let's escape the intervening nonsense through the furrows of night and the Manchester sonatas of memory. I got rhythm - and you Engels? You Cambridge?

Yesterday we went for a walk down the Trachilla road, a walking day in April. There were floods of Spring flowers along the road and under the olive trees a camomile lawn. We walked up onto the strip of land that divides the two bays before you reach the village. I've heard it called the Trachilla Cup but I can't see why. There were two abandoned houses at the top of the hill but the path went no further and we couldn't get down to the bay.

In Trachilla the fruit and veg man rolled up in his van announcing himself with a sleepy megaphone. More people than we imagined lived there came out to buy supplies. We walked along the harbour and an old woman sitting out by her house said - Good day my children. How are you? Are you well? Yes. Yes. It's a very beautiful day. We looked over the steep harbour wall at the Ben Nicholson's exhibited there, lining the shallow, transparent water.

Back out of the village we found the track after the houses on the left. There's an open gateway and you can see the beehives out by the olive trees, this is just as the houses run out. We walked through small, exotic meadow varieties of flowers which you buy in England. We found the path to Palatino Bay, the turquoise water, a place to swim later in the year.


I'm walking up and down the dark room reading Alstonefield and I can't think how to end this letter. The sea night glitters and a Spring wind rises in the olive trees and I am almost not in Europe at all. What am I doing here? Explain yourself. What are you doing here? There are choirs in the trees, perched - people singing, the Ake, the Dorze, the Irish. They sing, the night is full of holes and all the money has flown away. Roza - How's it going my child? Are you well?

I think that is all.
This letter will form part of a book by Kelvin Corcoran, Backward Turning Sea, forthcoming from Shearsman in 2008.

When 'Alstonefield' was first [first? always a dangerous bibliographical assumption with Peter Riley] by Oasis/Shearsman in 1995 I spent August reading and re-reading the poem - and piling on pencilled annotations.

Peter's generosity of explication grows over the years, notes are added, commentaries supplied - tracks and mineshafts - new areas are opened up, and returning is always a pleasure as new things are pointed out.

A couple of observations: this great poem of dusk, both in time and memory, takes off over 200 years after Gray's 'Elegy written in a Country Churchyard':

'The curfew tolls the knell of parting day |...Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight'.

'Again the figured curtain draws across the sky. \ Daylight shrinks...'

At several points I hear ‘Alstonefield’ faintly picking up that ‘passing bell’.

'Distances steeped in petrol', glossed by PR as the impossibility of escaping the sound of the internal combustion engine anywhere within the Peak District even in the dead of night, reminds me that many years ago I tried a similar experiment in Epping Forest with the same results [no doubt if you tried it today you would also run the added risk of arrest after being reported from a CCTV viewing by one of the many gated communities that have grown up around and in the Forest environs]. I shall dedicate my remaining holidays to searching for an area free from the sound of the Internal Combustion Engine - but not, I fear the jet engine.
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