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Afternoons Go Nowhere

Sheenagh Pugh
ISBN-13: 
9781781724989
Format: 
Paperback
Publication Date: 
Thursday, May 9, 2019
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'This collection is an entertaining adventure from first to last. Witty, astute and moving in equal measure, it is a blast of clear air from the North.' - Fiona Owen

'Pugh's lyrical, time-travelling narratives, full of wit and pathos, put the human condition in its place. Here characters and landscapes hauntingly evoke the 'space where someone was'.' – Paul Henry

'These poems are richly ambitious, but unfailingly humane.' – Matthew Francis

A fascination for history, both as a source of human drama and a field for artful speculation, characterises this collection of poems by Sheenagh Pugh from Seren press. Here we are with the rebels who sack the Palace of Savoy or inside the head of the disturbed King of France, who was convinced he was made of glass, or with the Bishop Thorlack, blessing a demon-haunted cliff. 

We are as much taken with the gaps in the chronicles, the elisions, the rumours, as we are with the relics: stone ruins, statues plagued by seagulls, the Maid of Norway in a stained-glass window. The marginalia in illuminated manuscripts inspires a poem with ‘asides’ by the Monk in a medieval scriptorium. There is a heartbreakingly lovely poem ‘The Centenaries’ that vividly evokes the battles of World War One as their anniversaries arrive in sequence. There is a thoughtful series evoking a trip to Canada by a ‘tour’ through its time zones.  

Primarily about people, this collection is also steeped in northern weathers and waters of the Scottish Isles, where Pugh now lives. The title poem refers to the abrupt darkness in winter afternoons, but also to a theme of timelessness running through the collection as in ‘Visitor’ where the protagonist is a skull that emerges from an eroded cliff only to lurch back and disappear with it, “like a neighbour who called in/ just once, and whom we never got to know” a both stern and lovely evocation, a memento mori.  

In Afternoons Go Nowhere the past seems more relevant to the present than ever, human nature never entirely predictable and often non-sensical, the natural world seeming full of a paradoxical beauty. There is also a piece entirely sympathetic to the digital new age where people in a ‘Bus Station’ are seen staring at their phones, the poem sings praises of connectivity in an otherwise dull context. Complex but with clear themes and lucid, musical language, Sheenagh Pugh’s tenth collection will delight discriminating readers. 

 

REVIEWS

Review by Glyn Pursglove, Acumen

Friday, September 20, 2019

Sheenagh Pugh is another poet who has frequently written poems on historical subjects. But where the ‘prompts’ for Crossley-Holland’s imagination mostly take the form of landscapes and objects, Pugh seems largely to find her stimuli in her reading. In Afternoons Go Nowhere, for example, one delightful poem, ‘Lieutenant Schmidt’s Ideal Lady’ is followed by a note telling us that “the facts behind this poem are related in Southern Adventure, vol. 5 of Konstantin Paustovsky’s autobiography Story of a Life”. It is a minor sadness that this delightful book doesn’t have more such notes. Indeed, some of Pugh’s titles and poems can pose minor problems of identification. The poems always intrigue and satisfy even if one doesn’t know quite what or who the historical subject is, but such ignorance can be a distraction. Pugh’s historical range – in terms of both place and time – is striking. She moves, and moves us, from London in 1391, during the Peasants’ Revolve (‘Sacking the Palace of Savoy’) to Dieppe in the 19th century (‘Seascape with Dying Author’); from 12th century Iceland (‘The Offering’) to 15th century France (‘The Glass King’ and ‘The Byzantine Emperor’s Entry into Paris’). Character always intrigues her, whether it be Lord Cardigan’s horse at the Charge of the Light Brigade (‘Ronald’), Charles IV of France (‘The Glass King’) or Dan Leno (‘The Moon’). Pugh’s poetic interests are, though, not only historical, nor her ‘sources’ wholly bookish. A sequence of four poems ‘Time Zones’, seems to be based on a visit to Canada, the four poems carrying, respectively, the following sub-titles ‘Montreal, Quebec’, ‘Somewhere in Manitoba’, ‘Jasper, Alberta: Canada Day’ and ‘Vancouver, British Columbia’. But another Canadian poem, ‘A New Psalm of Montreal: with apologies to Samuel Butler’ is, as its full-title suggests, to some extend in dialogue with an earlier poem (1890), ‘A Psalm of Montreal’ by Samuel Butler (1835-1902). There are other poems, such as ‘Oral English’ (which is about the difficulties a Japanese student of English has in understanding the polari spoken by Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne) and ‘Airline Pilots’ which examine niche languages and ways of talking. Amongst the memorable ‘historical’ poems I would pick out (while regretfully not mentioning other) ‘Seascape with Dying Author: Dieppe, 1870’. Pugh doesn’t tell the reader who the dying author is. By the sheer change of my having recently read a biography of Alexander Dumas (1802-1970) I realized at once who it was. This knowledge clarifies things. Dumae père died the day before Prussian armies invaded France, in the course of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Pugh’s closing stanzas delightfully invest this fact with a ‘literary’ significance:

Only the day after
his death will the Prussians march in,
almost as if they feared,
while he lives, that the swordsmen
with their plumed hats and rapiers
might rise up, young again,

from the place in his mind,
where he kept the matter of fancy,
still bright, still destines
to be the enemy
of the dull, the disciplined,
and scatter their army.

The closing pares of Afternoons Go Nowhere include a number of powerful poems which go beyond specific historical events or personalities and consider, instead, the larger movements of time, matters of mutability, impermanence and death. Each of the two most striking of such poems starts from a quotation. A fine sonnet, is titles ‘The more of ages, the nearer’, a title qhich abridges a line by Robert Henryson (c.1435-c.1505) – the whole line forming the epigraph of Pugh’s poem 0 “The moyr of age, the nerer hevenes blisse’. Pugh’s poem is clearly divided into an octave and a sestet. In the octave we are introduced to a man who, in his youth aspired to be an astronaut. Now, older, he recognizes that has his dream been realized he would have missed “sunsets, woodsmoke, a whole March / without celandines”. The same things he is conscious of loosing soon as he grows older. the volta of Pugh’s sonnet is beautifully effects”

The more of age, the nearer,

not to heaven: that’s neither here not there,
but to what is in plain sight
and always was, the earth beneath his feet
that now, even for a day, he would not leave
before he must: no not to have

the run of all the unnumbered galaxies.

The collection ends with a longer and more complex poem, related to the ubi sunt tradition: ‘Where beth they, before us werer?”. The title comes from an anonymous 13th century English poem, but the poem’s epigraph is taken from Empedocles: “For it is impossible for anything to come to be from what is not, and it cannot be brought about that that which is should be utterly destroyed”. The poem has its profundities, but this being Sheenagh Pugh, it also has its moment of wit. I have had to leave many dimensions of Afternoons Go Nowhere undiscussed, but it should, I think, be sufficient recommendation to say that this is one of Sheenagh Pugh’s very finest collections. If you know her world you will surely want to read this book; if you don’t, you really should read it.

Review by Karen Eunson, the New Shetlander

Friday, September 20, 2019

Afternoons Go Nowhere is a wonderfully rich collection of poems whose subject matter ranges far and wide, back through history and across the world. Nestled near the centre are Shetland poems (several previously published in the New Shetlander) which perfectly distil the difference and distinctiveness of this place and its people. The poet relishes the bleakness of winter when the trees are ‘empty of leaves and birds, / cupping only light and the open sea between their bare branches’ and the ‘North wind resists the tide, pushes it back / from the beach’. The authenticity is in the detail: we know winter is coming when ‘Butter hardens in the dish overnight’ and there are ‘more geese’ in the fields than sheep.

This is a poet who loves people wherever and whenever they lived. She is fascinated by ‘not eyes only, but what lit them’ and she knows what makes us human is our fragility. I grew to love the people who crowd the pages of the book: The ‘Glass King of France’ whose ‘mind spends months / in the dark’; Isabelle, a French princess, who was married off ages eleven for ‘six hundred thousand ecus cash down’ and was dead by twenty-five ‘a memory a name unmade’ ‘slipping through white space’; and Dan Leno, child-star of the music-hall stage, who ‘turns unthinking / into the glass’ of the mirrors backing the stage and learns the price of fame – the audience love it when he falls down. All of these fragile characters lead the way to Shetland’s dowry bridge immortalised in the Town Hall’s ‘The Maid of Norway Window’. Six year old Margaret, trafficked across the North Sea, a ‘little plush doll’ weighted down by two crowns and a breastplate who ‘stands now in glass most fragile / of hard surfaces, light flooding through her skin’. The poems encourage research and I took pleasure in finding out the ‘back stories; of some of the characters and events she writes about. I also took the time to visit the Town Hall and stand in front of the Maid of Norway window to look into Margaret’s eyes.

Remembering is important for Pugh. In ‘The centenaries’, she comments on the years of the World War One centenary which have foregrounded the ‘grimy and fading’ men killed in Ypres, Marne, Gallipoli, Verdun and Passchendaele but ‘when the Armistice / …has had its moment and tramped off into the dust-cloud, / they’ll close the road, rename it “history”’. In ‘Visitor’, she describes a pre-historic site being uncovered by a storm: ‘sand shifts, / stones are flung aside, and a skull / stares out… / Whole villages have come back’. She is clear that our ancestors are not strangers but ‘the neighbour who called in / just once, and whom we never got to know.’ Her interest is not in heroes but humanity: ‘the human warmth / that does what it can against the dark’. She chooses to bring to life people like the eponymous subject of ‘The Monk and the Margin’, light-headed with fasting, in a room ‘etched with frost-flowers’, is eyes ‘webbed’ from overmuch copying, he traces ‘gold letters with / blue, numbed fingers’. But while the manuscripts he must copy are grim sermons of chastity, suffering and death, he illuminates the margins with ‘A flying dragon’, ‘all the creatures / of the sea’ who ‘couple with such / joy, they leap from my pen’ and a whale which ‘opens his mouth and the little / silver fish stream out like / larks and rise into a golden / sky’.

This is an enriching book.

Review by M.C. Caseley, Stride Magazine

Sunday, September 1, 2019

In poetry, the parochial is often also the universal. Look no further than the worldwide readership of Larkin’s down-at-heel parables of postwar Hull existence for proof of this. Sheenagh Pugh’s poetry is much more stoically optimistic than Larkin’s, but she also has the knack of turning a small insight into a much larger exploration.

Several of the poems in this, Pugh’s tenth collection, are rooted in her Shetland environment: ‘Rules of Conversation: Hoswick’ explores the local colloquial tang, then deconstructs the casual to reveal something more universally worrying:

   Don’t ask where people live. It’s where
   do you stay? Our tenancy
   in the world is a transitory matter.

Other poems here, such as ‘The View’ and ‘The Man Who Disliked Crocuses’ are more narrative in tone, interrogating lonely lives and probing a little into interior life. These are affecting and careful landscapes, lacunae left for the reader to consider.

This is, however, considerable variety here, beyond Shetland: several poems explore Canadian spaces, or travel to the past. The mad King of France who thought he was made of glass (Charles VI) features in two of them. Other, more occasional pieces demonstrate the tact of Pugh’s writing: one of the best of these is ‘The Centenaries’, which finds a new way to discuss the centenary of the First World War. ‘Three years now they have been trudging by’, this begins, as the anniversaries pass by in commemoration, but then Pugh sharply notes the process of media-fuelled observation:

                     ...And when the Armistice,
   all flags and gravestones, has had its moment
   and tramped off into the dust-cloud,
   they’ll close the road, rename it 'history'
   and forget the names on its signs...

This question, of what is transitory and what remains, recurs in many of the poems here. The collection concludes with ‘Wher beth they, bifor us weren?’ [….which I would roughly translate as ‘Where are those who came before us?’]. This is an ambitious piece, underlined by an accompanying epithet from Empedocles​, essentially concerning the transmutation of living matter: ‘Should it console us somehow / that what looks so like annihilation / is only change?’ The poet demands answers from Empedocles about what is lost and where it goes. Bodies lifted from preserving bogs, still stamped with human character, are no help: the emotional response to such a retrieval suggests that change, by contrast, is not comforting. The final section of the poem becomes an interrogation: where is ‘all that has slipped from mind’, Pugh challenges the philosopher: ‘Show me the sand, Empedocles​ / show me the sand.’ The overall effect is of a richly ironic perception of the present and the ante-rooms of history: Sheenagh Pugh is an acute writer and this is an enjoyable,  highly recommended collection.

Review by Matthew Stewart, Rouge Strands

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

I suppose cliché might suggest the invocation of terms such as “veteran” or “prolific” when approaching Sheenagh Pugh’s new book, Afternoons Go Nowhere (Seren Books, 2019) in the light of her nine previous collections and two Selecteds,  but that would do her poetry a grave disservice. In fact, her recent work displays a freshness and curiosity that reach far beyond the scope of many far younger poets.

First off, Pugh’s use of language is well worth highlighting. Her sentence construction possesses a lucid fluidity that’s outstanding, as in the first three stanzas of The View:

For as long as he could remember, the view
from his window had led across a street
to some house the mirror of his own,

and what he could hear through the double-glazing
mainly traffic, heels clacking  on asphalt,
late at night, a little drunken happiness.

Now he looks out on a bay, cuts his hedge
hard back, ruthless with the white roses
that would come between him and the ocean…

The layering of these lines is seemingly effortless, as is the natural flow. Of course, the poet’s ear, craft and skill all underpin their gorgeous clarity.

Moreover, the above-mentioned poem reflects one of Pugh’s main thematic concerns: the relationship between people and the natural world. At pivotal moments in her work, humans and nature rub against each other, sometimes chafing, sometimes caressing, sometimes managing to do both simultaneously.

Meanwhile, this same deft touch is also apparent in the poems that deal with history. Pugh’s achievement lies in the way she turns historical figures into individuals by homing in on specific personal and emotional moments within a wider context, thus creating empathy for them as people. The Glass King of France provides one such example in its opening lines:

When he looks in the glass, he sees
himself: every organ, every vein.
His most inward thoughts shine
through his crystal skin; the secrets
ff his heart parade the streets…

Whether portraying a king or a neighbour, Sheenagh Pugh is acutely aware of the transience of life. Afternoons Go Nowhere is an unflinching celebration of the human condition, written in lucid language that reveals aching complexities. I very much recommend.

Review by Thomas Tyrrel, Wales Arts Review

Monday, July 29, 2019

Perhaps you’re reading this review on a smartphone at a bus station, in which case you’re one of those celebrated in Afternoons Go Nowhere:

 

                                                    … They know

the price of gold, what’s happening in Iran

 

tomorrow’s weather; they scan the world

their faces backlit; they are no spectators

 

but part of the play, tuned in

to a global exchange …

 

Where trendier voices might urge us to cast our screens aside in order to capture a more authentic experience of the bus station, urging us towards the visions of eternity attained by Allan Ginsberg in a Greyhound terminal, Pugh celebrates the pulse of information and the new opportunities for engagement in the dead time between one bus leaving and the next arriving. It’s characteristic of a poet who admits to wasting massive amounts of time online and wrote one of the first literary studies of fan fiction, alongside her two novels and nine previous volumes of verse.

Starting off at the bus station (a good place to start, though midway through the book), we have poems going in two directions. Aboard the buses, we have poems of travel and physical experience, such as Pugh’s eight poem ‘Canadian Sequence’ and her continued ruminations on her new home in the Shetland isles. Complimenting these, and interwoven with them, are the smartphone poems, virtual experience gleaned from books, history, and Wikipedia, and given a fresh twist by the poet’s perspective. These are my personal favourites, particularly the medieval poems that open the book. We have a monk whose thoughts break in upon the text of the chilly hagiography he’s copying out and whose illustrations run riot in the margin; a sonnet for Charles VI of France, who believed he was made of glass; and the strange morality of the everyday men set to sack the Palace of Savoy during the Peasant’s Revolt.

 

No looting was allowed. Walter said,

we are not thieves. Samson did not pocket

the temple vessels. We had never handle

such stuff. I saw men lay velvet

to their cheeks, stroke silk with fingertips

before their knives ripped though it.

 

‘I have been accused of being “populist” and “too accessible”’, Pugh writes on her website, ‘both of which I hope are true’. They still are: there’s nothing in this latest collection that’s rebarbative or overly obscure, and there’s usually an italicised subtitle to provide a welcome hint. I had to check who Dan Leno and Samuel Butler were; a poem about C.P. Cavafy in Liverpool nearly slipped past my literary radar; and I had to spend some minutes figuring out the identity of the expiring Frenchman in ‘Seascape with dying author’. However, none of this is too onerous in the internet age and Pugh’s storytelling, structure and eye for detail are so good that these poems manage to work even without knowing the essential facts behind them. The poems come out like anecdotes, richly populated, full of incident and wry comment. When the narrator drops away and one comes across a sonnet with nothing in it but the tide and wind, the change strikes one like a tour-de-force.

Despite the variation in the material, the collection hangs together remarkably well, with warmth of Pugh’s voice detectable behind every poem. I will never read all five volumes of Konstantin Paustovsky’s autobiography, but it delights me that she has, and has extracted from it the romantic episode that forms her three-poem sequence ‘Lieutenant Schmidt’s Ideal Lady’. I like her strange perspectives on places and stories that are new to me, and it’s compelling the way she varies her free verse with form, not just in ‘La Catalana’, a doggerel ballad of prostitutes on strike, but in the half-rhymed quatrains of ‘The Painter’s Bored Husband’ and the smattering of sonnets across the collection. They’re a record of afternoons well spent, and they’re well worth taking an afternoon of your own to explore them.

Review by Fiona Owen, Gwales

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

This immensely enjoyable collection, the poet’s tenth, ranges through a cast of characters from different periods, travels across Canada’s time zones, brings us Shetland, the poet’s home turf, and reminds us humans, with our hubris and divisive tendencies, of our very temporary tenure, set against nature’s deeper time-scales: ‘The border / is reshaping itself, unseen, as it has / since earth hardened’, while ‘the short-term tenants, / guarding the ground they call their own, / scowl across the wire, measuring / the distance a bullet need go / to end a brief stay sooner’. Such sad folly in the on-going human story is a theme that trickles through this collection, but there is also a humane humour at work, and a deeply observant eye.

What we get are choice moments from the annals of history, along with glimpses into ordinary human lives, most of which are destined to become forgotten. There is a tenderness shown towards being here, with a concern that lives, with their sometimes simple qualities, should matter, even though they be ‘no more / than a neighbour’s good nature, / a workman’s craft, a joker’s quick wit’. Those attributes ‘are soon gone’ and yet, ‘they were, as surely as cliff and leaf’.

History is one of this poet’s interests and runs as a rich seam through the poems. The book starts with a vivid poem that transports the reader to 1381, as John of Gaunt’s London residence, the Palace of Savoy, is ransacked by the peasants in their revolt against the introduction of a poll tax. Written in first person, as one of the peasants following the orders of Walter ‘Wat’ Tyler, the ‘sacking’ is imagined in rich detail, with a sympathy for the peasants, who follow an ethic of ‘no looting’. There are touching moments where the men feel for the beautiful stuff they are ruining: ‘I saw men lay velvet / to their cheeks, stroke silk with fingertips / before their knives ripped through it’. The ‘silver cups … fell / at our feet, grimacing up // like pained faces’ and jewels are ‘ground … into flinders’. One transgressor, who couldn’t help himself and stole a goblet, ‘we drowned’ because ‘honour’ was needed that day, was ‘all we had’.

The poems move through time to pause at various historical points to bring us characters like Charles VI, the ‘mad’ king of France who imagined himself transparent, made of glass, ‘Nothing of him / but is open to view’. Then ‘Ça ira’ sings of the French Revolution’s aspirations ‘to make the world work a better way’ where, however, ‘everyone’s dream’ of ‘freedom, equality, brotherhood’ turned to nightmare as ‘the axe … chopped and chopped’. The poem’s breezy Panglossian refrain, ‘It’ll be fine, it’ll be okay’, is ironically set against every grand aspiration. Despite humanity’s longing ‘to learn’, despite that which ‘gropes for light’, earthing the dream has proven chronically elusive: ‘freedom, equality, brotherhood, / … just not today’.

In ‘Ronald’, the focus is not on the human hero, Lord Cardigan, but his horse. The context is the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the deliberately simple diction, created through a predominance of single-syllable words, creates a spare story-telling voice. The narrative is told in eleven clipped three-line stanzas, where pathos is powerfully evoked: ‘Some horses break, / lie screaming, thrashing / in the smell of blood. // Or their man breaks / and they stay by him, nuzzling his face’. But the tale is equally comic: Ronald, surviving his battle-field horror, ‘lived to be old’, and the poet imagines him dozing off after a dose of laudanum, ‘(against a wall, / let’s hope, like Marvin’s horse / in Cat Ballou)’.

The Shetland poems capture an atmospheric sense of place, with long winters, low light, the might of the North Sea. ‘Afternoons Go Nowhere’, the title poem, is set as the tourist season ends, when ‘Butter hardens in the dish overnight’. The locals are caught out as ‘Dark falls early’ and ‘Radiators cough into life’. The poem suggests that ‘no one is ever quite ready / for this’ coming of winter, this being stopped in one’s tracks, with work still to do, and the poem ends with a ‘half-hope’ that time itself would be less keen, ‘would let things slide by … finishing what started late’.

Admirable in this admirable collection is the poem ‘Head Gulls’, which pricks pomposity by praising the common gull, those jesters and iconoclasts – for wherever a king’s ‘statue stares over folk’s heads / with that trademark, costive sublimity, / there’ll be a seagull cackling in his curls’. The sculptor may have ‘done his best to imbue / the florid features with … nobility’, but ‘all is undone / by the republican, bolshie, sarcastic seagull / perched on his head’.

This collection is an entertaining adventure from first to last. Witty, astute and moving in equal measure, it is a blast of clear air from the North.

 

A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

Review by Judy Darley

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Time, in Sheenagh Pugh’s hands, has a tendency to turn gleefully slippery. In Afternoons Go Nowhere, her tenth collection, Pugh turns her poetic sorcery to humanity, history, geology, nature, and the spaces between all those magical things.

Silken strings of words offer up glorious catches: bewildered kings, harangued statues, a lord’s horse, a bored husband building cairns, and monks speculating about saints exhale alongside bus passengers “postponing goodbyes”, not to mention glacial water scooping “a hollow in limestone.” In Pugh’s eyes, it seems, each of these has equal gravitas.

Lit by Pugh’s keen gaze, every plant, stone, animal or person has the potential to grow playful or impatient, coy, attention-seeking, or ashamed. Unexpected characters emerge humming tunes that seem familiar, but which curl with their own original lilt.

In short, Pugh’s poetry unearths those traditionally overlooked, allowing us to experience individual quirks, confusions and unfathomable kindnesses for ourselves. One delicious example is The Offering, in which Bishop Thorlock, who has been charged with restoring a possessed sea-cliff for human use, considerately leaves “one slope unblessed,” for the sole enjoyment of “gannets, puffins and cliff-monsters.”

Pugh imbues her words with consistently infectious affection – displaying an anthropological delight in our idiosyncrasies, as well as a linguistic love that equips her to paint civilisations’ heritage with fresh colours never seen before.

In ‘Airline Pilots’, a deceptively simple clutch of couplets, Pugh analyses the professional nonchalance of pilots’ tones and takes it from a practical necessity to calm anxious passengers to an admission of glory – “I am acquainted with the sun.” Sublime.

Elsewhere, Pugh alights on a moment as yet unsullied by darkness to come, inviting us to be awed by a mother’s love for her infant son, uncaring that in years to come she’ll “order his eyes put out” to assuage a power-thirst stronger than that love. In Pugh’s opinion, it seems, one act cannot, and will not, reduce the worth of the other.

Pugh’s greatest skill lies in her ability to share a passion for details, as in the title poem ‘Afternoons Go Nowhere’, when the seasons change from summer to autumn always comes as a surprises: “Somehow no one is ever quite ready/ for this, as if they half hoped/ time too would let things slide.”

It echoes the heartfelt sentiment of Pugh’s earlier collection Short Days, Long Shadows.

Elsewhere, in ‘Sensory Acquisition’, senses failing with age offer up passages of exquisite beauty, as though diminished eyesight and hearing is editing out the mundane: “Speak of paracetamol; he hears Paris in turmoil. A tame housecoat slips its peg, prowls the shadows, an ocelot.”

Pugh is also a magician when it comes to conjuring a sense of place, spooling out not only views but palpable impressions of the locations she loves, most notably Shetland and Canada. In ‘Quarff Gap’, the focus is on space itself – “Nothing fills the eye”.

It seems that Pugh is intent on training us to marvel in the small miracles we each overlook each day, to follow nature’s rule and allocate to each of those more commonly lauded a gull for a crown, and rather than mourning our losses, to celebrate what they’ve made way for.

It makes for a hugely cheerful read, during which you’ll find yourself falling in love with the most unlikely of heroes. At these times when so much of what we read, view and experience is overshadowed by future dreads, Afternoons Go Nowhere is a sunlit respite we all sorely need.

Review of ‘Bus Station’ by Carol Rumens, Guardian Poem of the Week

Monday, July 8, 2019

Despite the haunting title poem and other finely observed, Shetland-based studies of seascape and season, in her latest collection Afternoons Go Nowhere Sheenagh Pugh’s alertness to human characters, situations and voices, historical and contemporary, continues undiminished. I like ‘Bus Station’ not least for its sheer unexpectedness (it’s placed between two more landscape oriented poems) and for the way that as it unfolds it continues to see things clearly, and resist making the obvious judgment. The smartphone users Pugh has assembled in the small bus station are not there to be turned into stereotypes of the misguided modern human, patronised for “staring / intently into their palms”. If the poem’s tack is to engage with a sense of how things could be or should be, it’s not in the usual formulation, where “these people should be talking to each other!” The focus is on the extraordinary quietness of their technologically dazzling electronic communications, and on imagining “the sound this glow would make”.

The poem itself uses sound with remarkable skill. There are the repetitions in the first couplet, “move/not moving”. “becalmed/between”: the combination of pace-slowing consonants and rhythmic jolts suggests the physical process of setting down baggage, settling awkwardly into seats, adjusting from action to stasis, giving up one’s weight to the wait. After the caesura in the first line of the second couplet, “Dead quiet” is a forceful pairing, and again produces a slowing of the tempo. But everything changes and becomes light and speedy in the third couplet, where the short “i” sounds dance like fingertips.

Now the swiftness of the exchanges is mimed in a sketchy itemisation of knowledge. Levels of significance are flattened. Economics and warfare impinge, and pass in an instant. We slip from “the price of gold” and “what’s happening in Iran” to the social-media jumble sale where “thoughts, // facts, rumours, insults zip along wires / like cash on a Baldwin Flyer”. And with that wry simile we’re suddenly back in old technology, where you could see the excitement of trade and hear the hum – or was it more of a rattle?

A little before this, the poem has taken us on an even older metaphorical ride, with its reference to the faces as “backlit” and the smartphone users “no spectators // but part of the play”. All the world’s (still) a stage it seems. This may be a short poem, but it skims over plenty of historical ground. The reference to the now-obsolete cash railway system could be read as an omen: today’s clever technology ends up in tomorrow’s museum. The more interesting analogy is the economic one. Basketloads of cash still fly around the networks, but now they fly much faster and farther and less accountably.

In the fourth stanza, very unobtrusively, the pronoun changes from “they” to “we”, revealing the speaker to be a participant in the scene. This helps sustain a non-accusatory tone as the poem moves closer to an evaluation of the behaviour it has observed.

The apparent introversion of this behaviour is emphasised by the reference to “looking out / only on our own reflections”. Perhaps it’s a simple matter of the imagined contrast of what it might it to look up from the screen and through a window. Only the bus station windows “are dark with winter”, and there is nothing to see.

The subject of “looking out on our own reflections” is “we” (grammatically following on from “we should hear a buzz”) but by the end of the poem it’s as if the windows, too, were implicated. In a faint shiver of the uncanny, suitable for a dark winter evening, the windows might themselves seem to be looking at the figures reflected from the waiting room.

Throughout the poem, we have simply continued to watch the little hushed theatre of smartphone users, lit up in the winter darkness, plying their keys in a silence that is “off-key” but not so much disturbing as surprising. Its sounds and images are memorable. The poem doesn’t need to send us a message.

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