THE VOID YOU LEFT: POEMS FOR BRENDA WILLIAMS
By David Hackbridge Johnson
The poet Brenda Williams died in July 2015 leaving a body of work that often combines poetry with protest and social action. She campaigned on many issues, most notably those related to mental health provision. Poetry was for her a natural mode of expression that allowed a channelling of sometimes bitter attacks on the clumsiness of large organisations, by showing the deleterious effects on individuals in her work. This she did not in the rambling or the incoherent but in the intense strictures of the sonnet form. In her large sonnet cycles such as Lament for the Day Hospital, the reality of her long protest outside the Royal Free Hospital in 2000, which included many episodes of harassment and abuse, is given a poetic reality in the fourteen line structure. It focuses the anger in this short form but still the poet finds freedom within its bounds. An even larger sequence of sonnets, The Pain Clinic, charts her own troubled psyche and those of her family members in an epic of over 250 poems that holds the reader in a kind of trance of revelation and candour, presented in often simple but hypnotic lines; there is a sense of a mind continually exploring itself, looking for a way out, perhaps. Her poetry is what she gathers together to make some sense from trauma; as in the opening poem of another sequence, The Poet; she speaks of retrieving the ‘Known and significant, from disarray.’
Sixties Press produced a Collected Poems in 2009 and a Selected Poems, which contains more recent work, in 2016. As a companion to these volumes, Sixties Press has just issued The Void You Left: Poems for Brenda Williams, by her ex-husband and fellow poet Barry Tebb. This small pamphlet collects some older Tebb pieces with new work written since Williams’ death. It reveals many facets of their relationship; their family life, the struggles with health and of course the protests, in which Tebb often played a supporting role. Finally and most poignantly there are poems about grief, that final relationship we have with another human being, who can now only answer in memory and dreams. Tebb is a powerful poetic voice, one that was silenced for over a decade by work as a carer and writer on mental health, but which has for some time now been in full flow once more. Tebb was brought up in Leeds and studied there, where his student days coincided with the Leeds Poetry Renaissance; Gregory Fellows such as James Kirkup, Martin Bell, Peter Redgrove and Thomas Blackburn formed the poetic backdrop and Tebb met many of these figures and remains engaged with them, particularly the neglected Bell. Geoffrey Hill was a formidable presence in Tebb’s later student days and Tony Harrison was also active there.
Tebb combines nostalgia with candour but in a different way to Williams; whereas the latter lulls with iambics, Tebb’s lines are more volatile and his structures open to jumps and digressions. Sometimes codas of aching beauty will close a poem of coruscating emotions; the best example is ‘Plea for a Working Class History of Leeds’, one of my favourite Tebb poems, where after brutal attacks on ancient and egregious families of Leeds; De Lacy and Gaunt and their vast histories, the poem narrows to the magic of ordinary lives, chiefly the magic and intimacy of sex. After a lovely stanza on ‘the mysteries of periods/ and the revelations of working class brides’ Tebb ends the poem with:
‘I want a history of family outings
To Temple Newsam where I saw an ass
Eating straw from the steel manger
Only in this last stanza does Tebb bring in his own intimate memory of Leeds, which is at last found to be sacred, albeit in a steel manger; the Christ-child softening the steel of Tebb’s opening onslaught. These changes of register are common in Tebb’s work; they work like jump modulations in music where no pivot chord sets up the new key; the music just jumps. I am thinking particularly of Schubert who slips to the submediant with a slight of hand. Tebb has achieved this in poetry and it constitutes an important aspect of his success.
‘Cut Flowers’, the opening poem in The Void You Left, shows many such jumps. It follows a swift but packed narrative of the more than fifty years of their relationship; what could be a more telling way of suggesting the swiftness of passing time than: ‘Decades of war with truces and battles neither/ Won nor lost, now you are sixty-six with cancer/ And a future measured in months.’? Life is collapsing ‘like a bridge of planks.’ Typically without saying as such Tebb brings us into the present with the final couplet; we are given a glimpse of what the poet is doing as he thinks the poem out for us:
‘My foxes howl in the alley and at the stall
The girl cuts flowers and words are stones.’
With this final jump to a previously unheard key, the poem ends.
‘Cut Flowers’ was written 5 months before Williams died. Many of the poems in The Void You Left have appeared in various volumes of poetry published over the last 15 years. ‘Song for a Mayday Morning’ switches from the briefest of sketches about Williams’ troubled parents to her protests and finally to a lament for forgotten poets and their ‘soaring sonatas which remain unread’ and here Tebb can’t resist a stab at the ‘poetry establishment’ – often a target for scathing attacks in his work. Such intensity, whether in the service of love or hate is typical of Tebb and it leads to so many surprises, not least the jolts of register already mentioned. From raw exposure that perhaps stems from Robert Lowell, a favourite poet of both Tebb and Williams, in the same poem a lyricism will emerge which is in itself shocking in context. He combines both protest and lyric in ‘To Brenda Williams on her Fiftieth Birthday’; one of Williams’ long protests, this time at Oxford, allows the poet to see her as becoming Oxford as the weeks of silent dissent accrue. She becomes ‘Magdalen’s grey gargoyles’ and ‘the cement buttresses of Wellington Square’ and finally ‘Balliol, Balliol in the rain’ which acts as a gentle refrain for the poetic conceit. The quiet voice of protest is in contrast to the lambasting that stalks other poems about Williams’ campaigns; the most potent of which is the long poem ‘Guntrip’s Ghost’, co-authored by Tebb and Williams where in a dizzying array of verse forms the whole flavour of official obfuscation is evoked.
‘The Road to Haworth Moor’ is a long poem that has appeared in earlier Tebb volumes; it is always powerful and I can see why Tebb wishes to reproduce it again since it is his most important meditation on his life with Williams. He is frank about the difficulties they encountered in their marriage (Lowell perhaps again in the background) yet he writes about their life together as inevitable if baffling:
‘A double helix on the heels of both that made my south
Your north and jerked the compass till we knew
Not day from night nor wrong from right.’
The poem, which runs in long lines and varied rhythms, seems obsessed with place, or rather the instability of place. The many moves of house and town are charted through the poems course; hints of restlessness and a desire to try to come to terms with what appears to be a relationship doomed from the start: ‘We were wrong from the beginning, you always said,’. We hear of Philip Hobsbaum’s view: ‘It was the place’s fault’ as if somehow the problems could be shifted to locality. Parenthood is again explored in unforgettable lines about Williams’ father:
Cyril Williams, gravedigger at Killingbeck, buried among
The graves his own hands dug, lay beside your mother.’
There are lines as grainy with truth as can be found in the poetry of W.S. Graham, a truth born of struggle, not only with poverty but with a sense of deep regret that the working class life that both Tebb and Williams knew was disintegrating within their time; the homely intimacy of back-to-back nostalgia being swept away for the sake of ‘machines for living’. In work such as Tebb’s this decline is documented in personal poems as well as in more polemical attacks along the lines of ‘Plea for a Working Class History of Leeds’. ‘The Road to Haworth Moor’ has a coda and typically for Tebb there is a jump modulation; Tebb is alone and visiting the Bronte museum. The experience is desultory and he feels divorced from the surroundings – clearly a main theme of the poem. The poet’s thoughts cannot find a solution to the difficulties laid out in the previous sections of the poem and within the context of a plea for a renewal of desire, he drifts into an ethereal description of girls on the way to a night club:
‘One wore a veil tacked round with sequins
Like scruples on the hem: there is no beauty like that girl’s
Whose naked feet touched heaven in their swirls.’
Again, a change of key with no attempt to return to the tonic if we can imagine a poem in musical terms, and I think we should.
A number of poems are set in hospital waiting rooms or wards. ‘Cancer Clinic’ once more shows us Tebb musing in a number of images; the prints on a waiting room wall, memories of protest, and a sense of time being frozen as the patient waits to be called. It reveals the curious way the mind fixes on things when in a state of stress and fear, one which I can attest to as a frequent gazer on waiting room prints. Tebb’s attempt to engage the art historian on the painter of a print (is it Claude or Poussin?) is met with the same frozen stare that in the ends comes to the poet and the patient.
‘Intensive Care’ is almost unbearable in the immediacy of its concerns: the cannulas and drips, the drugs and pain; yet Tebb can make poetry out of the heartfelt simplicity of ‘Are my cats alive?’ and suddenly you know these utterances are precious for being so near the end. I have not read a poem that attempts this with such honesty and lack of artfulness, it speaks from the heart and goes to the heart as Beethoven would wish.
Towards the end of the book a small cluster of short lyric poems lies; these were written in the months after Brenda Williams’ death. They feel like dreams; they are sad but peaceful, as if when the protests and the pain are over a core relationship remains in grief. We see Williams in a Russian dacha, on the steps in the market place; Tebb is always waiting for her in dreams. ‘Save Our NHS’ begins with: ‘I see each day come riderless/ Over the horizon’ – and since the days are riderless, directionless, Tebb once more gives a tiny poetic resume of Williams’ life as a mother, wife, protester, as if like Williams herself, Tebb must re-run the events from which there seems no escape.
The last word is left to Brenda Williams; her last poem written just 12 days before her death ends the book. In two complex sentences and in her beloved sonnet form, she ponders her existence and the strains of memory still invading thought as death approaches. Her determination to express even at this late stage is remarkable: ‘always the poem, always the unheard’. In compiling this book of poems Barry Tebb has given voice to the unheard that emerges into poetry, so that despite Williams leaving ‘with nothing this world understands’ there is a chance to connect with words and memory.