Talking to the Dead

Sometimes chinks of light are framed in black. Last weekend I was one of a number of people who read poems by our friend Gordon Hodgeon at the launch of his book, Talking to the Dead, which has just been published by Smokestack Books. We read the poems as Gordon is unable to, being almost totally paralysed. He has written these poems using a Dynavox machine, that is to say with his eyes, and with the patient help of his team of carers. This is a step further still from his last book, Still Life which was mainly written in the years after Gordon became paralysed, but whilst he could still talk with the aid of a ventilator, and therefore write using dictation software.

Gordon was Chief Education Adviser for Cleveland for many years, and many people he helped were at the launch event at Preston Hall Museum in Eaglescliffe. He was an example to me when I worked with him – or more accurately when his work made mine more possible, as first Literature Development Worker and then Director at Cleveland Arts – of a serious poet with a serious job not directly involved in writing, but supporting the culture necessary for poetry. We were part of a ‘writing workshop’ that shared and critiqued poems in progress, toughly but over wine and food and laughter. Many of my poems would have been even more ramshackle without Gordon’s attentions.

Gordon gave a lot of his time to others then and afterwards, through NATE, New Writing North, Cleveland Arts, Mudfog Press, and the Poetry Book Society, amongst others. We shared the experience of being Lancastrian working class grammar school boys, albeit decades apart – he demonstrated time and again how you put back into an educational culture rather than simply take out. (I’ve also adopted Gordon’s zero tolerance approach to sloppy board papers, having been on the receiving end of his rigour.)

His own poems were always gimlet-eyed and, some might say, a bit on the miserable side, even when he was healthy and happy, but they are exemplary in many ways: human, lyrical, full of ideas and observation. As Andy Croft, Mr Smokestack, explained, most of us at the launch of Still Life 3 years ago expected it to be Gordon’s last book, given his health and disability. But last year Gordon found a new lease of poetic life, despite the challenges. The determination necessary to make these poems beggars belief, really.

And they are fine poems, aptly titled. They stare death in the face, sometimes solemnly, sometimes angrily, sometimes with a joke. They talk to the dead – be that father, grandfather or the poets on Gordon’s bookshelves. But they also talk of and to the living – to family and friends, and the writers and composers whose work lives on.

‘Wild Westerly’ addresses the poets on his shelves during a storm – the sense of enclosure transferring from the house in the storm to the mind now unable to directly enjoy the books that nourished it, ending in a defiantly affirmative cry :

‘I have a poet’s answer to this storm
for all assembled here,
these silent legislators.
I can’t read their verses now
but know their truth.
Blake, Brecht, Marlowe, Donne, Marvell,
Coleridge, Lawrence, Neruda, Keats, et al.
Yes, we understand that you’re preoccupied
with worms and what they’ll try, it’s natural.
You sense our brevity, the frittering of our breath,
we gutter out before we’ve scarce begun.
So what I’d bellow at you if I could
would go like this: we wonder, love, cry freedom, rage.
The living talk to the living in singing words,
which outlive their makers.
If you touch us, yes we will bleed.
You know I can’t. But I implore you,
open any page while you have breath.
What you discover, life. Read it, devour.

The poems in Talking to the Dead are, for me, heartbreaking as well as heartening. The book deserves to be read widely. You can find it, and more samples, on the Smokestack website.