Nick Pemberton at the Brewery

Commentary by Norman Hadley

A good poetry reading should leave you feeling as if you’ve been hurled through a balsa-wood door, brushing a dandruff of splinters from bruised shoulders on the sprawling floor of a strange new room.

I mention this because there was a moment during Nick Pemberton’s reading at the Brewery last week that achieved that rare level of impact.

I’d moseyed along to read some of my own poems at the monthly Open Mic event, corralled by the irrepressible (though who the hell would want to oppress her?) Ann Wilson. In fact, gentle reader, Ann was even fuller of beans than normal, so we were treated to some quality, ebullient hosting. There was a modestly-sized but highly-attentive audience and the Brewery is a great venue, with squashy sofas and a convivial ambience.

Ann read some of her recent one-a-day poems (which sound a bit like Pills That Are Good For You) rather modishly from her iPhone. And there was an excellent poet called Margaret White who read engagingly and unprompted on, among other things, witches. But it was mainly me and Nick playing tag with the mic.

Nick’s performing style was pretty anarchic, with much shuffling of papers and the occasional urgent need for sellotape as running repair for his glasses. There was an unhurried, discursive air to many of the pieces and even an eccentric a cappela rendition of Captain Beefheart.

But it was his piece on the Cumbrian floods that impressed most. Here was a man taking an idea and wringing every last drop of human emotion from it, until he had inextricably woven together the drowning of PC Bill Barker, the camaraderie between rain-sodden neighbours and the need for unity between nations.

He talked about a hand emerging from the torrent, reaching for another hand but closing only on darkness and rain.  And that was the moment when a room full of people were hurtled sideways into a different space.

Which is, perhaps, what poetry is for.

3 Responses

  1. Great review. I wasn’t there – but I feel like I was from your writing.

  2. Cheers, Judith. I should add that people should check out the next event on 29th May, hosted by Moll Baxter and I gather Ron Scowcroft will be reading. Should be a good’un.

  3. Many thanks, Norman.
    We did okay, didn’t we?
    Here’s the poem
    all the best
    Nick

    ON THE FLOODS IN THE WEST OF THE COUNTY

    “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out,
    And to whom I was like to give offense.”
    Robert Frost

    The waters weigh heavy, the rains come down
    but fall heavier on our neighbours’ town
    until a bridge or a bank gives way
    and a human life is swept away
    in a torrent from which a hand
    like a snapped fencepost, reaches up
    and seeks tight hold of another’s hand
    and grasps instead only darkness and rain,
    a story repeated again and again
    as someone’s father, someone’s son
    is suddenly and irrevocably gone
    lost to this storm and the storms to come.

    But all I really want to say
    is none of this will go away.
    Who tells the truth? Who’s a liar?
    Must we build the floodwalls higher?

    Our neighbour, and our neighbour’s house
    is just an empathetic heartbeat
    or two clicks of a mouse from being us
    and on the wilder shores of a shared sea
    some say that him and her and you and me
    are anyway all one and though we can pick
    from the mud’s cold stink what we think
    was built to last, and construct a future
    from a broken past, somewhere a father
    somewhere a daughter, will again lie lost
    beneath brown fields of water and green hills
    that rise and fall and rise again like the waves
    that lap the cold faces of the stones.

    None of this will go away.
    This hard place is where we must stay.
    Who tells the truth? Who’s a liar?
    Must we build the fallen walls still higher?

    A family, one family, are branches
    of a single tree bent by flood waters
    until it tears and breaks and because
    where once there was land there is no land
    and where once there was water the water
    is gone, those that remain to carry on
    the building, rebuilding and compromise,
    the daily humdrum of the quid pro quo,
    are made hostage to ever more savage
    changes of season and the slow slack reach
    of the tide within us that follows
    the implacable transit of this cold moon.

    Land and water, earth and sky
    are contiguous, neighbours endlessly
    negotiating ownership of a shared space
    while the boundary lines on maps that define
    the limits of nations and neighbourliness
    are marked in this world by razor wire
    a stand tap, a shelter, shared scraps and a fire.
    And on some distant desert track,
    driven not by water but by its lack,
    a family -like a river in spate-
    seeks to find the only place it can go
    but is held back by the barrel of a gun.
    This time will come. Has already begun.

    Who tells the truth? And who’s a liar?
    Must we build the walls around us higher?
    Grieve, if you can, for what’s lost.
    Taste, if you can, a new day.

    None of this will go away.

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