22 April 2017

The Torrey Canyon and Jos Smith's A Plume of Smoke

Photo: www.shipwrecklog.com

Radio 4's excellent poetry programme The Echo Chamber, hosted by Paul Farley, recently examined poetry's responses to the Torrey Canyon disaster. One of the poets featured was Jos Smith. A while back, I reviewed his pamphlet A Plume a Smoke and though I'd share it again here

In 1967, when the Torrey Canyon ran into rocks between the Isles of Scilly and Lands End and spilled over 100,000 tonnes of oil into the sea,  I was four years old, a small child living in Cornwall. I don’t remember the disaster itself, but I do remember people talking about it. And I remember how even years later, clumps of oil, looking like black rubbery pebbles, could be found washed up on our favourite beaches. So I was very interested to read Jos Smith’s pamphlet, ‘A Plume of Smoke’, which draws on oral history accounts of the disaster.

The collection starts with poems rooted in the character of the Cornish coast and waters.  ‘Remembrance I’ uses the patterns of Biblical  language to depict the power of the sea and its relationship to the people of ‘this  place of saints and graves and mines,/ of harbour bells and broken-winged gulls’ who work on it:

The water giveth and the water taketh away.
Of the thirty-one lost out of Fowey last year,
wheeled into silence by the clock of the tides,
none survived.

Here, the people are vulnerable, and the sea is powerful. The environment Jos Smith is writing about is an entity in its own right, something huge and awesome. In ‘Trawler’, we hear that

Some nights there’s the feeling of stalking a god,
diesel rattling over the waves towards a presence…

… it hangs like a thought in the gulf stream,
blowing in and out of the dark: animal,
theological, cold.

One of the strengths of this collection is the way it realises landscape as a living thing. ‘Herbivore’, a fabulous poem, rich with sounds and images, describes Cornwall’s coast as ‘one long animal/ laid down in the slopes of cove and cliff,/ bristling with sea life like nerves in the skin…’. Everything that the coastline consists of is part of the one entity:

An animal drifting in and out of view,
breathing and sleeping, sniffing and eating,
grazing the outer edge of a volatile world.

The environment is overwhelmed by a dark, unnatural force, which is in turn, given the characteristics of a living entity. In ‘The Smell was the First Thing’,  

The weight leaned in and belittled you.
Every part of it found you out…
intimate long before
any kind of explanation

This, and many other images will stay with me a very long time: the slick as a ‘black rind on the water still as leather’; children trying to stop seabirds landing from in the oil, shouting from the beach ‘“Don’t land! Don’t land! Don’t land!”’; the flaming slick ‘Primal,/ like land forming where there was no land.’

These are poems filled, as one might expect,  with voices : the voices of sailors, of the Cornish people, of the workers brought in to try and contain the disaster. But this is a collection which also deals with memory. The 30,000 tonnes of oil that were pumped into a quarry in Guernsey in an attempt to save the coastline keeps bubbling up, despite efforts to process it, like memory itself:

A memory that we have been ill-equipped to meet
with anything but indefatigable helplessness
sleeping digester of unliftable wings,
you have been on the coastal edge of all our thoughts.

The two poems entitled ‘Remembrance’ use the language of ritual to suggest a way of dealing with these memories.  The dead are remembered and in the living, some kind of healing begins to take place. In the last poem, ‘Afterwards’, there is a quiet hope, but it acknowledges that a price will be paid:

            All that repairs, repairs quietly.
All that heals, heals in silence.

The wet head of something will rise from the pools,
dripping and lonely and not what it was.

‘A Plume of Smoke’  is itself a vehicle for remembering.

The Echo Chamber's programme about the Torrey Canyon is available to listen online until 14 May 2017.

A Plume of Smoke is available to purchase from Maquette Press

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