Neal Mason is a mature poet who has been publishing collections of his work since the early 1990s and has appeared in many poetry magazines. I had not previously come across his work, so reading it was a refreshing surprise. His title for the collection is apt as the poems included testify to the reckless unpredictability of the past and the various ways it comes crashing into the present. The first poem After Dunwich sets the tone of what is to come with its imagining of and speeding up of the swallowing of that Suffolk port by the incoming sea. All the other poems seem to me to have a similarly tidal quality to them, of how history and time constantly encroach, often mediated by place or object, and ebb and flow within the poet’s perceptions.
Journal of a Tree for example is a meditation on the role of wood in human lives over thousands of years- from the timber in a Greek ship to a beech tree passed on a summer walk. And In Reflected on Water a rower follows the Thames from Henley to East London and converses with the people, real and fictional, who serve to map the route- from the Shelley’s at Marlow to Tennyson near Waltham Abbey.
It is, of course never very helpful to praise poetry for its subject matter, so I need to say that Mason writes beautifully and evocatively about places, but never with sentiment. There is no cloying nostalgia when he writes about the past, and where he does compare unfavourably the present to what has been he doesn’t lose sight of the follies of both. All the poems are complex and all merit or demand deeper reading. To give you a flavour I will sign off with an example of his work which also demonstrates how alive he is to the environmental and political perplexities of our age.
In Derelict Classroom Mason reflects on a crumbling arena for teaching returning to the wild. Here is the last verse.
Beyond the broken glass grows pampas
and canes; wind-punished nettles
sting empty air
while butterflies play games
on buddleia. The wilderness encroaches, unaware
of culture, geography or names.
- The Past Is a Dangerous Driver by Neal Mason is published by Holland Park Press (£10.00). To order a copy go to www.hollandparkpress.co.uk
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.