Universal Place-Makers: Mick North & Catherine Byron

These reviews first appeared in The North (No. 63, Winter 2019), a subscription to which is recommended.

Observant readers will note that the books reviewed below were originally published several decades ago. Do not be afraid, for these are books that have ‘come through’. And although they are currently (inexplicably) unavailable, the hunt for second-hand copies will sharpen the appetite and, worse comes to worse, you can get in touch and I’ll negotiate with the authors for digital release of facsimiles.

The Pheasant Plucker’s Son, Mick North, 45pp, £5, 1990, Littlewood + Arc (available from Arc Publications), Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden, OL14 6DA

Settlements, Catherine Byron, 47pp, £3.75, 1985 (Second Edition, 1987), Taxus Press (out of print).

Mick North’s The Pheasant Plucker’s Son is predominantly a book about place and his relationship with it. It happens to be the north, his home city of Lancaster and its environs, but it could have been anywhere. He doesn’t claim any exceptionalism about his home country. He could have found much of the same material if he’d grown up in other parts of the world. As an example, the opening poem, ‘Jinny Greenteeth’, which purports to be about how children are given a very local canal-side health and safety warning c/o a legend, is actually about the gloomier waters of impending adulthood. Place, of course, is so often people and there are a number of sharp poems about the islands people are. Here’s the opening to ‘Bob’:

Silly bugger slid off the barn roof once
and dropped in the midden-heap.
Simple as a smack on the head –
head a mess of coal-black curls,
a beard like a rook’s nest,
his voice a squeeze-box with a hole in:
Mi mam’s asleep on the floor,
she a’nt unbolted the door yet …

The biography is completed in the remaining stanzas and makes for a poignant but also angry story. In fact, his poems are so often half-way to becoming the sort of stories carried by folk songs; finding us the original character who inspired the verse and chorus.

Mick North has a wonderful eye and ear for unadorned detail and for what such detail represents. The final lines of ‘Dogs and Bitches’ are very funny:

                                    Dog’s not so true
to mi whistle, dog’ll not jump through
a gate – guz round. Bitch’ll skip er arse
through nice as you like, but dog’s too
feared e’ll catch iz dooins on them bars.

But mostly the detail is edged with, if not bitterness then, at least ruefulness. Here’s an example from a poem in a sequence about his father:

2. The Finger

You were always your shift’s First-Aider:
St John’s Ambulance classes every year
to keep your hand in, Rescue Team member
(formed after the chimney fell), blood-donor –
hardly a day off sick yourself until
the hollow bone of your finger-end cracked
like a shell, caught between two barrels.

The poem finishes, of course, rightly and brilliantly, with a reference to what working people physically gave to earn their daily bread. Class is clear and important and dangerous.

The title poem, knots together the dependency of the land-less rural poor with the sometime brutality of factory life and finishes with a masterly echo of the First World War:

Between Stott’s Wood and the river
the guns staked out. Beaters crackle
in the thicket on the first drive.

The poem ‘Land’ is this book’s masterpiece. It is all about who owns the ground we stand on. And who exploits the resources. And who’s paying the price. It is as powerful and angry now as it was when it was written probably 35 years ago. It asks a series of questions about the state of the very local world of north Lancashire and offers tart, universal replies. Here’s an example:

Who taught the fox
to prowl the rusty bracken
where dusk draws fire from his pelt?

Who gave the leather
for the tackle, boots and belt?

They will answer you
with unbridled market forces
and a fine tradition of breeding horses.

Its final stanza breaks the fourth wall:

Do not listen to their answers.
Do not accept their judgement of a sod’s worth.
Do not let the wicked inherit the earth.

Mick North’s collection, The Pheasant Plucker’s Son, was until a recent surge in interest still available from a descendent of its original publishers and at the original price. It’s worth a lot more.

There is a register of language in Catherine Byron’s Settlements, first published in 1985, that still feels all her own. The cover illustration – a drawing by Catherine of an ancient Irish passage grave – is neutral in its exactness, but taken at a slight distance looks almost gynaecological and certainly redolent of what’s at work beneath the surface. An early poem in the collection, ‘GRAVE SONG’, [caps as per publication] picks up the theme. Here are the first two of its three verses:

GRAVE SONG

They are going to tidy the burial mounds
some day soon, say when I’m into
my second century. All that felting
of stem and leaf they’ll cut away,
those alleys for small creatures, stringy
cloches for coaxing seeds of tare.

My own seeds continue to ripen.
They fall through red juices slowly.
Shoots and persistent fibres split
my intent closure, they are expectant
always, always pressing their future
into and through my buried core.

The poet is the poem, in this instance, and to link thousand-year-old graves with the possibility of making new life is a bold act of imagination, underpinned by detail.

So much of her work comes from not only precise observation of detail – and by gum she has looked at things and listened and enquired – but an ability, or the nerve, to inhabit that detail. This from ‘BEACHCOMBING’, for instance:

On the blanched strand I await
the rite of the tide’s contraction
and its delivery. Among
the jetsam placing cold
feet with care on the tideline
I span the liquid confluence
            of sand and sea.

What it is to be a woman, particularly coming from a country with an uncomfortable relationship with feminism, occupies so many of these poems. When they were written particularly, this must have come as a very healthy corrective to a largely male Irish literary tradition.

And it is so much about Ireland, particularly Galway. In a sequence called ‘GALWAY’, a series of stories are simply told. Here’s the opening to her poem ‘The Black and Tans deliver her cousin’s son. Galway 1921’:

Didn’t she step out into the yard
God love her
and see her own son’s brains
scattered like mash about the flags?

Again, it’s the detail, the cold-stored detail that holds our heads under the water, ‘like mash’: so everyday, so apt, so awful.

The book closes with a sequence, ‘DRIVING INTO THE PAST’, which hones-in on Catherine’s autobiography. These feel like companion pieces or alternatives to some of Seamus Heaney’s work (and there is some work to be done about the contrast about how these two poets wrote in response to Ireland), particularly the title poem of the sequence set on a road going west. Here’s the final stanzas:

… lost for the moment
on the skinned levels
of granite hills

sunk in the moss
of stiffened summers gone
I gaze finally west

on the haze that is ocean.
I gaze on a backlit dawn.

Catherine’s work may be back-lit but it still speaks very clearly to contemporary minds. And beyond everything else, these are raw, sharp, beautiful poems that will give pleasure and instruction to the thoughtful reader.

Settlements has long been out of print, although there are previously enjoyed copies available ‘out there’. You’ll just have to hunt them down. It will be fun. Recordings of some of these poems are available from The Poetry Archive.

Why this review was written & a declaration of connection

I met Catherine Byron in the 1980s when she was running a poetry writing course for the Workers’ Education Association in Leicester. She both encouraged me to write and introduced me to many interesting poets. We lost contact for a while but I got back in touch a few years ago and we have have exchanged letters and e-mails. Mick North I also met in the 1980s when I heard him read his poetry. I didn’t see or hear of him for years then bumped into him in Carlisle through some research I was doing into literature activity in the area. Then I lost track of him again but we have been in contact in the last year. In both cases, these are poets who inspired and encouraged me when I was young. I have had cause to re-read their early work and I like it very much and I want others to notice how good it is and for it to be remembered. I have included a poem each by Catherine and Mick in my book A Commonplace. I offered them money for the rights. They said no thanks, you’re alright. And so we are, we are alright.

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