Oh, the succinct and perfect use of ‘utter’ here to convey the blueness of that flame! What better word to use? Lines such as this continue to resonate long after reading John Glenday’s fourth collection of poetry, The Golden Mean.
‘The Dockyard’ works as an illustrative example of the whole collection. Careful attention is given to each word and their placing: the delicate form of the flower is aligned with something as anomolous as a welder’s torch; the prosaic is given the same weight as the pastoral. Butterflies head towards hills. Their journey bears equal witness to the dual carriageway and corner shops. All is described without judgement.
This is not to say that the collection is easy to pin down. Diverse in rhythm, structure and subject, these poems initially defy capture. A poem in Viking ballad-metre (‘The Lost Boy’) is sandwiched between a dense paragraph of youthful yearning (‘A Testament’), and a ballad voiced by a soldier on the eve of the battle of the Somme (‘The Big Push’). And yet, their composite parts touch on shared themes: transience; what it is to be alive; simultaneous pain and beauty in human experience. All is conveyed in the most measured of language. Perhaps this is the ‘golden mean’, that perfect balance of elements, to which the title alludes?
A stone and heart are compared in ‘The White Stone’. Both ‘weigh smooth and hard and cold’. However, the last lines,
before it was first
touched by the world[,]
force the reader to circle back and re-imagine that initial comparison. The world changes the surface of the heart but, without its touch, the heart would remain forever cold.
The narrator of ‘Monster’ makes an unusual appeal to our common experience:
Which of us was not cobbled into life
by love’s uncertain weathers? Are we not
all stitched together and scarred?
In an age of polemic opinion, can we bear the tension of withholding judgement?
Time becomes non-linear. Final lines have a tendency to quietly return us to a point we have already passed. The heart in ‘The Matchsafe’ is presented as ‘sheltered’ and ‘hidden’, and is the most appropriate vessel for fire. The reader is then told the heart is ‘polished by hands that once loved it’. Suddenly, we cannot resist the urge to imagine its history. The gap is filled with the activity of our own imaginings and yet everything that blossoms from that point exists within the silence and space at the end of the line.
In ‘British Pearls’, the entire poem is upended with the heft of the last line. At first, the pearls are maligned as ‘commonplace and waterish and dull’, ‘stained the roughshod grey of their drab and miserable weather’. The poet waits until the very end to usurp all that has gone before with the glorious pronouncement: ‘but their women wear them as if winter were a jewel.’ The message of the final poem ‘The Walkers’ is clear: cherish life because all is impermanent. Precise, grounded language avoids the potential for excessive sentimentality: ‘As soon as we had died, we decided to walk home.’
A pace gathers that refuses to let the reader wallow in a singular response. The image of the dead as they gather ‘like craneflies in the windowlight of familiar rooms’ is hauntingly beautiful. But what follows is devastating: ‘grieving for all the things we could never hold again’. Swiftly, we are steered away from tragedy as the dead inform us,
We didn’t travel all this way
to break your hearts.
before the final sentence, coming after all this, leaves the poem to resound on the most finely calibrated emotional tone: ‘We came to ask if you might heal the world.’
Such craft and balance typifies John Glendale’s poetry. Perfect.