Today I have the great pleasure of welcoming Andy Breckenridge to reflect on his inventive and vibrant pamphlet, The Liquid Air (Hybriddreich, 2021)
I am very grateful indeed to Nigel for this opportunity to drop in and write about a poem from my pamphlet The Liquid Air. It was one of six chosen for publication in the Dreich Slims submission call in 2021, and was published in July last year.
In the short collection I examine themes of self imposed exile – and more generally how it feels to be ‘ … in our element, and out of it. Or somewhere in between’, as it says in the blurb. As someone born and raised in Oban in the West of Scotland add now living in Brighton, the theme of dislocation is often present in my writing. It influences the way I present family, friendship, memory, location and love, either overtly or less so.
I learned from the writer Cathy Fowley that people who live in Dublin but originally come from elsewhere, call Dublin ‘home’ and the place they were brought up as their ‘home home’: an expression that sums this feeling up much more succinctly than I have.
In an early poem I wrote about how one landscape was ‘seeking to accommodate the other’ which goes some way towards explaining how my poems often attempt to fuse the experience of living, working and having a family in one place, while having gone to school and been raised somewhere else.
One of the constants between Oban and Brighton is the sea, which is a recurring motif in The Liquid Air, and sometimes lets this ‘accommodation’ take place.
The work of Iain Crichton Smith (who taught my older siblings English at Oban High School) has had an immense influence on my writing, and in a wonderful later poem At a Poetry Reading, (Ends and Beginnings, Carcanet 1994 p106 ff), the speaker contemplates the English Channel and sees similarities to the sea around his native Lewis: ‘It is a salt ring of blue’.
Later we read:
All that unites us is the sea, Resonant, indifferent, estranging
I find this poem and these lines compelling as an evocation of finding a poetic parallel between two places.
The poem I’d like to focus on for the drop in is below. It is a nativity poem for my daughter, Nell, and depicts the tension, anxiety, helplessness and finally relief of being present at her birth, so it is largely autobiographical.
As hospitals and shopping centres are fairly generic settings I was more interested in communicating the intensity of the experience – that said, the sea is visible from the thirteenth floor of the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton.
I began in medias res and in the present tense which pitches the reader straight into the urgency and panic of the delivery, then used the temporal shifts of ‘before’ and ‘after’ to depict the build up to that moment and its aftermath.
The dialogue I used for my partner and the midwife isn’t quite word for word but conveys the juxtaposition of urgency and calm.
In the animal imagery; ‘sea horses’, ‘otters’, ‘tadpoles’ and the frog that ‘punches out limbs’ I used creatures that have connections between land and water either in their name, or preferred habitats – none of them fully ‘at home’ in a singular element of air or water. I extend this feeling of unease or not fully belonging throughout The Liquid Air.
Although not immediately obvious, the image of the ‘giant wardrobe big enough/for a family of otters’ has its origin in a hazy recollection from a scene from the film Ring of Bright Water where the protagonist, who has left London to live with his recently adopted otter, constructs a wardrobe sized indoor aquarium for it to live in. Looking back, this seems appropriate because both protagonist and otter were ‘displaced’ from their original habitat – again, a feeling important both to this poem and elsewhere in the collection.
The third stanza contains a rather drenched dreamscape where the sound effects (harsh ‘c’ sounds and sibilance) I hope add to the subconscious tension in anticipating the dangers, as well as the primal physicality of the birth. This is a fictionalised passage abstracted from childhood experiences and places.
The final stanza conveys the sense of relief (panic over!) while offering the perspective that we are aquatic beings until birth; and as a species we also originated in water.
Another poem I admire is A Dead Mole by Andrew Young (Selected Poems, 1998, Carcanet p.75) The rug-pulling perspective shift in this poem must have influenced The Night You Were Born as well as others from the pamphlet, such as Fresh Water.
Next week read my review of Andy’s fabulous The Liquid Air.
AVAILABLE NOW: Unmuted the latest collection by by Nigel Kent.
Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter.