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Review: A Year in the Bull-Box, by Glyn Hughes

The bull-box is an isolated stone hut in the Ribble Valley, which Glyn Hughes has used as a writing retreat since his diagnosis with lymphoma cancer in 2009.

He was a successful poet in the seventies, but he gave up poetry in favour of novels and biography. When I first met Glyn we engaged in several typically robust arguments about the pointlessness of writing poetry, how you couldn't earn a living from it (demonstrably true), why he would never write another poem and so forth. Then suddenly a few years ago the dam burst and poetry again flowed from him. He has had three collections published in the past five years. Bull-Box is the finest.

The main four sections of the book deal with the progression of the seasons, starting with winter, grounded in the landscape around him. The final section moves away from the bull-box, consisting mainly of two longer poems, set in other places which have had value for him: the cancer ward, and his writing room at home (his 'dream room').

Glyn's writing has three main qualities which make him a remarkable poet.

First he has a deep knowledge and understanding of the natural world, and its flora and fauna. Secondly the animals and birds, even the flowers, in these poems are described with such accuracy and care that they appear as individuals, with their own personalities - and before you cringe there is not a hint of anthropomorphism in this work. For instance, Rooks:

At last rooks and yet more rooks are shaking
voices that sound like a bagful of stones
the flock is dragging through the valley air
upstream at dawn and downstream at dark
so it must be Spring with the first grubs stirring
to be plucked at the valley-head from a ploughing

and the last winter wind has scattered
sticks along the wood and the lane-sides
as if on purpose for them to repair nests,
to quarrel and bicker in their zest for life
where the rookery stands. The attention-seeking clack,
the circling and the homing search.


It seems another old day in dripping Winter.
Trees burned by cold are ashes, whips or feathers
dipped out of gold mist and over damp-glazed leaves.
Brilliance of wet evergreen, harts-tongue fern
and of crowded, or crushed, mossy boughs.

from A Betwixt-and-Between Day

And a whitethroat, singing:

From claws upwards it thrusts into that poise,
a balanced aim for that open beak
scissoring the air with bird-scales,
throwing them sideways as it twirls
down branches, never failing.
It cannot help but spill its song.

from June

Birds get particularly vivid press in Glyn's world:

Magpies will hop and leap the hedge-top
in a swearing gang of bandits
driving their knife-beaks through the pools of leaves
even to the eyes of nestlings.

from A Betwixt-and-Between Day

The third element which characterises Glyn's poetry, in this book in particular, is a philosophical realisation, a truly meditative appreciation, of the end which awaits us all. There's no bland acceptance of death; rather, he approaches it with the same questing, stubborn intelligence with which he has always embraced life itself:

So let this stone of grief laid sooner or later be
not the cover of a tomb but a pedestal
for the curlew's Spring call
to a sky-trip clean across the valleys of Padiham and Burnley.

from Going There On The Long Causeway

The poem Night in the Cancer Ward is very strong, and will mean much to anyone who has had to spend time in such places. The final poem in the book, Dream Room is a sort of summation of the poet's life. They are both important poems, but the deepest impressions I'm left with are the birds, animals and plants of the Ribble Valley. Walter de la Mare said: Look thy last on all things lovely / Every hour. Glyn Hughes says:

Flowers give the light back in cups of beauty.
They recompense the dark
and bandage the damaged soul.

from Flowers