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

Glyn Hughes's began his writing career as a poet and his last three collections were poetry. In between there were some highly regarded novels, autobiography, plays, and even an orchestral suite. A painting of his has provided the image for the cover. Between 1979 and 2006 there was a gap in the publication of his poetry until the last three collections, of which the sequence under review was the last. I met Hughes shortly after the publication of his second collection, Neighbours, in 1970 when his publisher, Kevin Crossley-Holland, who was Gregory Fellow in Poetry at my university, brought him along to the workshop he ran for undergraduate poets. Hughes impressed us with his account of making habitable a cottage he had bought near Halifax for £50.

A Year in the Bull-Box is located in and around an isolated stone hut in the Ribble valley, made available to Hughes, coincidentally, with the onset of the cancer which led to his death. A note prefacing the collection dedicates the book to those who are helping me through, although in retrospect this seems to relate more to the serenity of mind that Hughes achieves in the sequence. It seems to be utterly opposed to the strenuous pursuit of magical transcendance of the kind that Rimbaud sought, and more akin to the poems of T'ao Ch'ien in the fourth century of the last millennium whose life as a rural recluse and limpid commentary on that life made him an exemplary model for later generations of poets.

The Bull-Box is divided into six sections. The first, the title poem, could almost have been written by a classical Chinese poet: The less you possess, the more they are / not decorations but what is more needed. The middle four sections follow the seasons from winter to autumn, and the last three poems are concerned with his illness, but are no less composed in mood. It is a collection of nature poems which do not console. Hughes's temper is far too alert to the being of other forms of life. He makes himself part of the natural world around his hut which may or may not recognize him. Occasionally he allows a glancing identification with the animals he observes, as in the second poem, Salmon in Twiston Beck:

I am not the owner of my planet
even in imagination: the salmon
are too different. Yet the salmon's
log-like sickness couples with my own.

Otherwise Hughes allows observation to impart this sense of 'too different' with striking effect. There are dark shooting stars of fieldfares with hard voices, rooks with voices that sound like a bagful of stones, and the recurring presence of a whitethroat. Hughes permits himself few conclusions, and those few are striking: I fancy that in such scraps of light / our insights come, the grace of words (Radiants). Some times there is a valedictory note, but it is unflinching: I was going to a place all art and poetry reaches ... / Where unlike at first birth no-one celebrates our coming.

Written in a free verse where all the lines are self-contained units of sense whose sound is clear, precise, A Year in the Bull-Box is a book of wisdom and grace.