Corvus’ burnt-wing love balm and cure-all is the third poetry chapbook by the Black Country poet R.M. Francis and it is brought to us by the splendid Black Light Engine Room in Middlesbrough together with some wonderfully evocative artwork from the hugely talented Jane Burn.
Like his previous chapbooks, Transitions and Orpheus, Corvus is a belter. Even the meandering title conjures up some weird and wonderful imagery. You can almost imagine those words emblazoned on an Elizabethan pamphlet penned by the likes of Robert Greene or Thomas Nashe.
Packed into this short collection of twenty poems we encounter Greek myth cheek by jowl with Lacanian psychology, and locations that oscillate between two former industrial heartlands which have much in common – Teesside and the Black Country.
As a first point of reference, it’s fair to say that R.M. Francis is by nature a poet of interstices and the liminal. His subject matter embraces the rural ‘covens of fungus and mosses’ that he finds in ‘Errington Woods’ as well as the beautiful squalor of ‘ammonia coral’ in ‘At the urinal’ where ‘philosophers spit in the trough’.
The first poem in the collection, ‘Nachtkrapp’, invokes a mythical creature of German and Austrian provenance – literally ‘night raven’ or ‘bugbear’. It describes a journey in ‘a second hand Citroen’ against the backdrop of ICI Wilton and the Teesside skyline, which, one may recall, provided the inspiration for the spectacular opening sequence of Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner.
In the poem ‘Stain’ a simple coffee stain on a carpet – ‘diluted by time and failed launderings’ – becomes a world in miniature. Despite its essentially insignificant nature, this signifier for a sexual tryst is like Blake’s grain of sand.
The eight lines of ‘Severin’ – resonant and highly charged – interact like a veritable stream of elementary particles smashing into each other. Inspired by the protagonist of the Sacher-Masoch novel Venus in Furs (with perhaps a dash of The Velvet Underground thrown into the mix) the poem explores the subject matter of S&M sex through an entirely appropriate form, which relies on repetition of the line ‘you’d left me waiting six throbbing hours’. Since, according to Freud, repetition is a constituent of religious ritual it is not surprising to find the rhyming words ‘altar’ and ‘psalter’ in this hymn to sexual fulfilment.
With its references to ‘white ale’ and ‘Powers’ Irish whiskey, the poem reflects a thoroughly modern sensibility, though given the religious symbolism that we have already encountered, perhaps the ‘Powers’ also encompass one of the angelic hierarchies.
Time is another major theme of the poem and it is reinforced by the quotation from Marvell’s ‘To his coy Mistress’ – ‘ Rather at once our time devour’.
Reading the poetry aloud is definitely to be recommended since R.M. Francis is clearly enamoured with the sound of language. Listen, for example, to the following lines from ‘Allow her to stay a whole afternoon’:
Chipped teeth sieve
fruits of fibre-sinew
This love of language leads the poet to enrich his lexicon with an unusual dialectal element of Germanic origin – the aforementioned ‘Nachtkrapp’ – and esoteric words of Greek and Latin derivation such as ‘lamella’, ‘oikos’ and ‘ingenium’ (the latter three concepts particularly associated with Lacanian psychology. But then, even the language of the common people has an innate poetical quality:
‘ere am, bab, two bob of opples’.
The spectral figures in this predominantly urban landscape include an ex-con whose relationship with the finches plucking elderberries at his ‘mould lashed windows’ makes one think of Robert Stroud whose life of incarceration provided the source material for the film The Birdman of Alcatraz.
Then there is rough sleeper, Gaz, in ‘Nihtbealu’, ‘keeping heat in with cardboard, turning tricks for spice’. Harking back to the title of the opening piece in the collection, this poem explores a similar theme since in Anglo Saxon ‘nihtbealu’ is bale or hurt that comes at night.
If you appreciate contemporary poetry, you need to read and digest this collection at your leisure. It truly is bostin fittle.