Something starts out as a poetry pamphlet and then, a few years later, looks like one of the major poems of its decade. Barry MacSweeney's Pearl came out as an Equipage pamphlet in 1995 and seems to grow in stature as the years go by. The seriousness of the poem is announced near the outset:
Listen, look, attend; wait a moment
as they used to say
in the ancient tongue of literacy, before
language was poisoned to a wreckage
MacSweeney signals that this poem is taking its place in a long tradition. With the odd line heavily freighted with the alliteration of its remote ancestors, this is fiercely literary:
Deep despair destroys and dents delight
But who or what is Pearl? Pearl is many things in this rich and beautiful poem. Pearl is a little girl with a cleft palate - poor, barely literate, knee-deep in frost, dung, stream or foliage. Pearl is an association of the effects of light through the material world (and various glimmering pangs echoing across the sparse wolds of the interior). Pearl is a naked bulb glaring on the white knuckles of a present which encourages nostalgic fantasies of an epoch when language was unsullied. Pearl is the late 14th century poem insisting upon the presence and power of a humanity which is ignored or abused by systems of power.
Pearl is also a recreation of the world of Barry MacSweeney's childhood in Northumberland in the 1950s. In conversation he has described his childhood up to the age of seven, when his parents separated, as "idyllic". You could fill pages with quotes of magnificent lyricism that communicate the beauty, harmlessness and intimacy of his sense of those years. There is also a fierce distancing of the writing from two versions of public language characterised as "terrible tabloidations" and "paranoid Marxist Cambridge prefects". So this project perhaps attempts to burrow beneath subsequent social and literary strata, to get back to a feeling of psychological bedrock.
Permit me to say this on a grey roofslate, as I protect
my poor writing, I can't do joined up, with soaked forearm
from the driving rain
From the 'rain-soaked deck' of the first page to the stars piercing the remote and unfathomable intimacy of the last moment of the book, Pearl resolutely traces margins. It gives voice to the mute girl inhabiting exposed ground in the teeth of gales from Ireland (where MacSweeney's family came from) and neglect:
So low a nobody I am beneath the cowslip's
shadow, next to the heifer's hooves.
I have a roof over my head, but none
in my mouth. All my words are homeless.
I like the way the big music of the poem comfortably hosts dense packets of detail. Often these relate to the natural world, weather and night scenes. But there are others, vivid as this:
crisps and ox-cheek for tea...
Woolworth butterfly blue plastic clip...
spam on Sundays and chips if there is coal...
Pearl the poem vibrates with pride and indignation whilst conveying the innocence embodied in Pearl, the girl. It sometimes seems that literacy itself is associated with corruption, and that Pearl is, amongst all the other things, a kind of primal lustre - a latency of consciousness. What some perhaps call the soul.
Whatever Pearl is, it inheres in clumps of words that can take your breath away:
The congenital fissure in the roof of her mouth
laid down with priceless gems, beaten lustrous copper
and barely hidden seams of gold.
Barry MacSweeney's Pearl is available in full in the collection Wolf Tongue, which is currently being reprinted by Bloodaxe.
Peter Hughes' poetry publications include Paul Klee's Diary, Blueroads, Nistanimera, The Summer of Agios Dimitrios and The Pistol Tree Poems. Nathan Thompson writes of it as ‘flickering, intense, innovative and utterly mesmerising'.
Peter also runs Oystercatcher Press, which has published over 40 poetry pamphlets over the past three years.