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21st Century Poetry: Northern rock

HARRY GALLACHER relishes a poet who takes no shit

Gaps Made of Static
Penny Blackburn, Yaffle Press, £11.50

PENNY BLACKBURN, were you to break her in half a la the old “Blackpool rock” gag, her remains would read — much like mine — Northerner, right through, top to bottom. 

Fiercely proud of her roots, steeped as she is the traditions of working-class life in her native Huddersfield, the wanderings of her pen are spread fairly evenly between the heavy engineering heritage of the north, and that hoary old subject which remains rather more difficult to pin down: poetry based on the rich and varied everyday lives of ordinary people.

Published by Yorkshire-based Yaffle Press, a cursory flick through this collection’s pages reveals its heart to be equal parts tough/tender. To reach behind the rather fetching front cover is to inhabit a museum world of cobbles, mineshafts, railway cuttings, pylons, Roman walls, boatyards and their blackened rivers. Here be ghosts.

There’s even a poem in praise of the biggest landmark my old hometown has to offer – Middlesbrough’s iconic, beautiful/ugly Transporter Bridge. 

For every chipped limestone block within these pages there’s a quietly understated moment to wring a tear from the hardest shelled reader. Witness All The Little Mothers In Hooverville: ”All the little mothers/ becoming lost mothers because/ when there isn’t even enough for one/ how will two survive?”

In several places, the author reveals herself to be in possession of what several politicians have claimed as “a strong moral compass” — except the one on display here is the real thing. Read on and you’ll discover that the aforementioned tough/tender blend is everywhere, perhaps never bettered than in A Child With Prada-Willi Syndrome, which details the condition’s symptoms — one of which can be a ferocious, unquenchable appetite — thus: ”Anything. Even boot polish, dish soap, rags,/ teabags, paper scraps, the foam from headphones./ Her genetic shortfall gnawing away, spawning a need/ so strong it would break/ the padlock on the fridge, would eat its way/ through a field of stones.”

All these and more ”culinary” details are listed — so outlandish and nightmarish that you feel there has to be a painfully witnessed truth at its heart — only for the poet to immediately follow that stanza with a perfect about-turn finish: ”With my love, I must always/ keep her hungry.”

But for all the gruff northern warmth and fascination with all things engineering, my personal favourite moment is when she vents her rare and splendid fury. Here she sets her steely eye on the brutal state treatment of the suffragettes. Yet even here there is still room for a trace of dry wit: “They say we are the weaker sex. That is why/ it takes a platoon of policemen/ to arrest a few dozen of us. Truncheons/ and helmets vs handbags and hats.”

She goes on to rudely overturn the quaintness of that last line to remind us of the bald reality of what happened in those police and prison cells: ”... too weak to resist the rubber tube/ that took three screws to get/ right down my throat.”

I can never have too much love for a poet who takes no shit — and this one can wield a number of heavy engineering tools to boot. 

An iron fist in a velvet glove indeed.

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