Bateman continues: “While recognising our place in the ‘terrible chain’ of atrocities enacted on humanity and nature, Tomorrow’s Feast, as the title implies, is entirely life-affirming, finding grace in the most extreme situations.”
There are four sections. The first focuses on roots, family, parents, and children; the second on the pandemic of 2020-22, all that lockdown meant and means; and the third brings the hypocrisies of Christianity and capitalism at their worst into a poetic reckoning.
The fourth part of the book extends that chilling vision of the condition in which we live, and includes a libretto entitled Mariner, which takes off from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and elaborates its themes and imageries in a wonderful freewheeling yet tightly controlled variation on the mysterious and fateful original, pointedly applying it to our era.
The best way to feel something of the texture of this book and taste something of its flavour and variety is to sample a few of the poems.
Try this one, from part one, Heartwood:
Red Gloves in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland
You chose red gloves,
work of a proud old lace-maker,
who didn’t soften in the presence
of your extra chromosome, but stuck
to her price in the market place
of the town named for a great king.
You wore them with all the grace
of his belovéd Esterka, offering a poised
hand to the dapper gypsy man
who serenaded you: ‘Little girl of bright colours,
the world is open for you,’ he improvised
with his sad guitar and broken smile;
and as we crossed the majestic Vistula,
you waved the colour of your pleasure to the world.
It’s a mother’s love song to her daughter, there, as the title tells us, in Poland, confronting in a market the lace-maker selling her goods.
The daughter chooses a pair of red gloves. The interaction between the young woman and the lace-maker, the observation of the mother, the sad music of the old gypsy man, the youthful optimism of the girl, all are held in this cradle of universal possibility, measured against “the majestic Vistula”.
The precise details – the location, the items, the names – complement the sense of universal application. I’m thinking of a great passage in James A Michener’s epic novel Poland, and the association of Scotland and Poland as two nations whose very existence and survival has been threatened with extinction in the past – and in Scotland’s case, is being threatened with an absolute cultural hostility even now.
In Chapter VI: The Golden Freedom, the characters are talking about the persistence of their national identity: “‘The count says we’re Austrians now. But the countess tells me on the sly: You’re Polish and always will be.’ I asked her if she was Polish too, and she said: ‘Forever’.
“Tytus led his son to a window, and as if to lend emphasis to what he was about to say, pointed toward the river: ‘As long as the Vistula flows, it waters the soul of Poland’. “‘What can be done if Russia and Prussia attack?’ the young man asked.
“‘Nothing,’ his father said in a frank admission of the futility that oppressed him. ‘But the time will come, Feliks, and be attentive to recognise it when it does come, when patriots will arise and sweep Austrians out of our lands, and Germans out of the west, and Russians out of the east.’
“‘Are you sure?’ Feliks asked.
“‘As sure as a man can be. Poland will be Poland again’. “‘When?’. “Tytus slumped in a chair and pondered that most difficult of questions, and when he had weighed all possibilities, he felt that he must speak honestly with his son: ‘I fear there will be another great retreat, and then perhaps another.
“‘It’s even possible that our lovely neighbours will gobble us up completely. For a time. Maybe even for a long time, because they’re powerful and we’re weak. He rose from his chair, and again he and his son looked down at the great river which had always commanded so much of their family’s life, and his voice was strong as he said: ‘As long as the Vistula flows, Poland will be Poland’.”
It came to my mind at the end of Stevenson’s poem not only because the river is named but because the poem itself is such a beautiful register of humanity in what it depicts and describes that it embodies the forces that will ultimately drive the oppressor away.
We all know how oppression works – it breaks down our humanity and our language, our sense of being able to communicate with others. That is what the poem presents, commemorates and validates.
Here it is with reference to a mother and daughter. Think of the same proposition now extended to the world of nature, a deeper nature than that so badly assaulted by the pandemic of Covid. Here’s a scene in the extremely unnatural humanly-created location of a crass street made for shopping but built on a beautiful slope in a big post-industrial city, now in the coronavirus moment and after industrialisation has turned to decay and departed.
Lockdown – Buchanan Street, Glasgow
I saw a young roe deer today,
not here among hills
where there’s no surprise
in their easy presence, but online –
hand-held footage caught
on an empty concourse: antlers
branching between steel bollards
and abandoned shop fronts, hooves
tapping concrete in a leggy dash
through no man’s land for safe ground;
had it broken from the herd
like a teenage rebel intent
on striking out alone, or
did an old knowledge flood
its senses with the morning sun
drawing it into the city’s coma
to seek the once green hollow?
A note reminds us that “the name Glasgow derives from the Brythonic (Welsh) ‘glas-cau’, meaning ‘green hollow’.” I remember hearing of fish swimming up into city rivers once again, of the canals of Venice becoming clean, of pollution leaving the earth’s natural resources as the poison of the disease took its toll on human beings the world over, while our London politicians threw insults at constituents as if they had nothing to do with humanity, or nature, at all. I won’t pollute this essay with their names.
WHILE the technology in the poem is contemporary and dated – “hand-held footage” on a mobile phone, presumably – the young roe deer is a classic symbol, nature in person, and goes right back to myth, for the Celtic bard Ossian was, one story has it, born of a deer, his mother. The poet and the natural world have their reciprocations, unstated in the poem but present in the imagery and the unemphatic meaning of the symbol.
Stevenson is a playwright, actor, director and theatre person as well as a poet. If the personal, lyrical, evocative voice of the poet seems sometimes almost whispered, quiet, a disclosure of meaning, she is equally capable of taking the voice of another, creating a character whose words are not hers, but through which a different humanity will be animated.
Here’s one in Scots, and it has nothing of the homely humour you might associate with that language. This is sharp pathos and pain.
a sodjer returns frae Afghanistan
Hame, hame, hame on the truck,
the wheels grind their grumly air,
hame tae ma mither, ma faither, ma lass,
but I canna come hame in ma hert nae mair,
noo that ma friens are laid in the grund,
and the desert sun has blurred ma een,
stour in ma mind frae yon cramasie flooer
that smuirs aa pain on field and street,
no, I canna, canna come hame in ma hert
noo I’ve duin whit I’ve duin
(orders are orders, ye dae whit ye maun),
and I’ve seen whit I’ve seen:
oh, the bluid that brak through her skin
like a flooer frae its bud, yon bairn
that cam runnin, birlin, lauchin, skirlin
intae the faimily dance o mirth
we blew tae hell like a smirr o eldritch confetti;
and noo I’m here, hame on the truck,
ma friens in the grund, but I canna come hame
nae mair in ma hert, for hame’s naewhaur
when yer hert’s deid – nae langer sair – juist deid
wi dule and the wecht o bluid fallin like flooers,
cramasie flooers, that kill aa pain, smuir yer mind,
deid, deid, as the wheels grind.
It’s only by getting as close as that, getting into the voice, the breath, getting under the skin of the character, that a true sense of what’s at stake here can be delivered. No politician ever speaks with such sympathetic care, today. Did they ever? I think perhaps they did, some of them, once. But such evidence of articulated sympathy is a liability these days.
And Stevenson tells us why very specifically in one of the funniest and most desperately chilling of the poems in this book. The Note to this poem explains its title in cold detail: “The Remembrancer is the only non-MP or civil servant with a seat in the House of Lords and House of Commons. His job dates back to Henry VIII. He has a budget of £5.3 million, a staff bill of £500,000 – including a team of six lawyers – and he represents bankers’ interests at the heart of our democracy.”
How many of us know that there is such a person, or such a job? And who occupies that job? And how might that person be appointed? And for how long? Gerda’s poem tells us a great deal of what we need to know about them, but not, alas, how to get rid of them. Except – independence.
The Remembrancer (or Noo We Ken)
With a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan
I am the very model of a true British anachronism,
my title, wig and gown they reek of darkest medievalism,
Henry the 8th set up my post to scotch egalitarianism,
I’m here to safeguard London’s holy realm of ca-pi-tal-ism.
I’m unelected, I’m protected (’cause we have no constitution),
my remit: to promote all profit, lobby every institution
that can increase the City’s power – my unique contribution:
I undermine and roadblock any equal distribution.
Remembrancer, Remembrancer, we didnae huv a clue till noo
of who you were, Sir, who you were! We didnae huv a scoobie-doo!
Sometimes you’ll see me in the House of Commons, and the Lords as well,
I have unfettered access to whoever serves my clientele,
I’m quiet, I’m discreet, polite, I never leave a nasty smell,
an icon of the British state, magician of the Citadel.
My budget is a tidy sum – around
5 million per annum,
it’s not for you, it’s for the banks (and me) watch out – Cave Canem!
Hi-hip-hoorah, it’s not for you – I’m serving glorious Mammon.
Cave Canem – beware the fangs of 5 million per annum.
We didnae huv a scoobie-doo that you were even there, Sir,
but noo we ken, we’ll no forget: Remembrancer, Remembrancer.
It’s always been a man’s job, mine, without exception, every time:
Norton, Fletcher, Edmonds, Dearham, Burrowes, Lightfoot, Dalton, Hind.
It’s like a club, our heart-beats rhyme with every stroke of Big Ben’s chime,
I’m Mr. Double, glad to share with you a glass of vintage wine.
Whit – Double, as in standards? Shairly no – it’s too good! Mr. Double!
As in Shakespeare’s Scottish play – the witches stirrin up yon trouble?
Mr. Double! How d’ye dae, fire burn and cauldron bubble,
ye couldnae mak it up, no sir, a Remembrancer called Mr. Double!
I never should have spoken out, incognito I carry clout,
but prospects of another crash and lobbying to be bailed out
has got me fired up, all excited, keener than a young Boy Scout,
I’m salivating at the thought of a tasty leveraged buyout.
He’s got himsel fired up, excited, keener than a wee Boy Scout,
he’s gantin at the thocht o a muckle leveraged buyout!
We didnae huv a scoobie-doo but noo we dae, ye mak us spew!
Ye’re juist a symptom o a system that’s bankrupt – its time is due.
We’re bailin oot, we’re dumpin you, yer wig, yer flag, red white an blue,
Remembrancer, ‘bye bye’ tae you, ta-ta tae you and aa yer crew!
They’ve rumbled me, they’ve tumbled to it, they really feel I make them spew,
they’re bailing out, they’re dumping me, my wig, my flag, red white and blue.
You’re frae anither planet, pal – ye might as weel hae come frae Mars!
Go stick yer banks, consultants, grey suits and yer Gherkin up yer arse!
You deserve tae be locked up, wi breid and watter behind bars,
and mind oan this, fur certain shair, we’ll no be readin your memoirs.
No – I never should have spoken out, incognito I carried clout.
Remembrancer, Remembrancer, we ken yer game, we’re shoutin out!
I got fired up, I blew my cover, like a foolish young Boy Scout.
Remembrancer, we’ll aye mind you, ta-ta tae you and aa yer crew,
’cause noo we ken, we’ll follow through, we’re heidin aff tae pastures new!
Four poems to give you a taste of the range and a feel for the texture of a remarkable book – and I haven’t said anything about the tour de force that is its final poem, Mariner. You’ll have to buy the book to find out about that one.
If I were you, I would.