Friday, October 21, 2005


Pickard is a poet of grit & force, like the grinding of gears to the ear or sandpaper across the eyeballs. His force doesn’t come from breaking with normative syntactic structures or disrupting and manipulating the semantic. It comes from an aggressive cynicism traditionally expressed through popular and folk forms—the ballad, the sharp satiric verse, the bawdy limerick, the dainty innocent rhyme which simultaneously shrugs off and also underscores the despairing gravity of its content. Pickard returns to these forms, willfully choosing to eschew experimentation in favor of exploring more culturally entrenched forms specific to the north of England.

The first poem in his latest collection, The Dark Months of May, kicks off with a line which courses through the work as a structural thread: "hung-over." As the collection moves the sense becomes one of falling in & out of consciousness, waking up the morning after & struggling to recollect the evening before. The recollection comes slow. Fragmented images and moments are reassembled out of sequence, their edges marked by mist and curious vagaries punctuated with sharp wry wit &, at times, piercing bitterness not unlike that of an increasingly cynical Catullus. Take the following:

a siskin’s contented mew
breezes from the gorse
martins swarm and skim

the sun slips under
the brim of my hat

I thought this place
to trace the story of a story

the river spoke and you
still stink of spring

Pickard’s brand of bitterness, however, is often much more forceful, more blunt. It is the same naked street-level cynicism which, not surprisingly, emerges often in Bunting and Pound:

cold Atlantic blasts
make warmer company that you
these last few months

Here the oppositional rage which characterizes most of Pickard’s work, especially early work like the 1971 novella Guttersnipe, are woven deeply into the texture of the verse. Pickard explores roguish elements culturally specific to Northern England in consciously selected populist forms. For Pickard the written "is a trail of evidence/ tailor-made for trial." The trail of evidence leads back temporally through rime & song, back to earlier popular traditions and finds its ultimate expression at the end of the collection through the story of James Allan delivered within the framework of a ballad.

Allan, we’re told, "was an eighteenth century gypsy musician who lived in the English-Scottish borders and died in Durham jail where he was serving a life sentence for stealing a horse at the age of seventy. His reputation as a great musician was matched by his reputation as an outlaw…."

Passages from "The Ballad of Jamie Allen" come after a stretch of short poems and then a series of mixed prose and verse pieces titled "Fragments from an Archeological Dig in Gallowate." The latter marks the cumulative stratification of cultural remains found on an archeological dig, the site flanked on all sides by modernity—office buildings and a bus station. The dig here points toward development and cultural accumulation, pointing toward a contemporary culture that still contains traces of its medieval and Victorian past. This, of course, leads into the closing passages from "The Ballad of Jamie Allen."

The passages from the ballad are part of a larger work, a libretto Pickard is currently working on for composer John Harle. Clearly Pickard finds something contemporary in both the ballad form and the story itself. Like Pickard, Allen is a musician and rogue consciously living in the border lands, on the outskirts of stifling conventional mores. The two of them, Pickard and Allen, are no different than the hawthorn discussed in the work, a hawthorn which has "set its roots against the wind/ the worrying wind that’s blowing." But the tale begins with Allen’s end. The ballad begins with an image of Allen in jail at the age of seventy, from which point the tale reaches back in order to discuss Allen’s life, just as Pickard has reached back to explore song itself. As Pickard’s ballad develops further and more of it is published we may find that it is Allen’s commitment to music, to song, which has shoved him to the margins of civilization, compelled him to support his unconventional life by unconventional means. This is certainly the case for Pickard & his writing, which never attempts to pull any punches, consistently makes this known.