Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Out Of Nowhere: Tormentil By Ian Humphreys

Ian Humphreys is neither an elegist nor a satirist, an eco-obsessive nor a seeker of cultural identity, a valedictorian nor a watcher of the skies: he is none of these things and he is all of them. He has the intuitive poet’s facility for actuating several strands of reception within the limits of a single poem, and if his words are pressure-cookers for an intractability of concerns, then it is no surprise to find him sometimes overwhelmed in the process of transcription. Humphreys is the most self-effacing of writers; working through a history of anxiety, we deduce an honesty of purpose in his poetry, a means of correcting iniquity and complacent social abuse on the road, often, to other definitions.

According to the Wildlife Trust, Tormentil – a moorland buttercup-like plant bearing four yellow petals – was once used to treat ‘colic, gum disorders, wounds and inflammation’.* The title of Ian Humphreys’ new collection from Nine Arches is studied : the poet’s existential need for escape from his world finds relief in the Pennine fastnesses high above Hebden Bridge where this plant, whose earlier application was medicinal, thrives. A narcotic, also, for passing bees, Tormentil’s appeal extends beyond the figurative and aesthetic to the ecologically indispensable, but most, the terrain in which it grows provides a kind of refuge :

‘I can’t face the big stuff
so I comb the moors
for a tiny yellow flower’. (‘Tormentil’)

Humphreys’ collection is threaded through with the solace of physical isolation. The bleak, high moors beyond Heptonstall yield a sense of remoteness better almost than any other landscape in England. Searching for colour in a sea of waving brown grasses punctuated by blunt gritstone outcrops like Widdop and Gorple, the eye falls on the livid yellow of Tormentil as readily as the ear picks up bird cries on the wind. And it is by these that Humphreys is seduced, expressing the sense of being cocooned, in a feather-light confection of words and sounds that slow the pace of apprehension:

‘Cotton-sprawled and lulled
by curlew song

like a new-born
adrift in
mother-rhythm.’ (‘Cotton-grass, late spring’)

Such rhythms animate Tormentil. The short tercets of ‘Cotton-grass, late spring’ are one example of a narrator nestling in the delicate protective carapace of the natural world. The single unifying feature of topographies that lie at the edge of our comfort zones are their propensity for conferring the figurative opposite. The Dungeness that gave film director Derek Jarman ‘escape’ in 1986, gives Humphreys’ an imaginative conduit for recall: a ‘yellow-headed plant / that isn’t tormentil’, in this strange inert plain in the shadow of a redundant power station, offers the paradox of the panacea, as unlikely a gift, yet as wholesome an affirmation, and a memory, as a mother’s selfless love:

‘I think instead of a woman’s lips
pressed against a child’s red-raw shin.
The sharpness of that pebble beach.
Hythe, 1970. I’m there, there, there.’ (‘Mouse-ear Hawkweed’)

The narrator’s repeated declamation is the means by which he clings to the wreckage of grief, holding the memory of the mother figure in perpetual harness. Elsewhere, he gives touching testimony of a bond forged in life as he describes the mother’s retreat into dementia and subsequent death. From an intimation of spring, Humphreys makes an irony of ‘First signs’, as the mother’s mental departure signals a process of dissolution that unravels the shared ‘communion’ of food. Similarly, the psychological obliteration of ‘Remote’ is mitigated in propitiatory, and profoundly affecting, fashion, as the architecture of long-term memory is circumscribed by the locators of the present – television repeats and Tupperware boxes for favourite cakes. And, in one of the finest elegies of the collection, Humphreys performs a ministry in retrospect, surveying a landscape she loved, and they shared, from the banks of a canal :

‘and the sun revives them. I remember your love
for these painted narrowboats, the way they garland
the canal bank like festival lanterns. Listen
to the jackdaws, slipping and tumbling above

the old mill chimney, their laughter echoing
in its throat. But where is our kingfisher?
She must be close, waiting to slip from a willow tree,
to swoop and sip her bright blue reflection.’ (‘Rochdale Canal’)

Delivered apostrophically, proprietorially even in the context of a shared memory, the poet’s languorous, easy-rhythmed quatrains burnish the moment, as they usher in a sun whose energising power enables ferns to thrive in the darkest recesses of the canal lock chamber. The counterpoint is key, as it is in another poem of remembrance, whose terrible inventory of Covid deaths on a single day in April, 2020 – 784 – underscores, rather than otherwise, the need for commemoration. And again, the poet’s repeated address to his mother is tinctured in the brilliant hues of the living as ‘a new born fawn’ is rescued on a country lane, and the mother’s ‘colours’ are inferred ‘in every living thing.’ (‘Rebirth’).

This is fine writing, suffused, in every nuance, with the potency of sudden, vivid acknowledgment. In other poems, the urgency emerges as if by surprise, inducing flurries of brilliant metaphor that encapsulate immediacy. In ‘Out of nowhere’, ‘two Chinooks / crack the sheen of summer’ as they burst out of the blue and onto the page in a moment of wonder, of wonder in the questioning sense, at what cause, and of what consequence. The disturbance, too often, is unsettling, kicking the silent observer off into reveries of anxiety, the whirling ‘dark blades’ intoning a darker memory - ‘Let me out. Let me out. Let me out.’

For the process of escape is double-edged, allowing time for contemplation, and inducing shadows amongst the heather. Accepting, as Humphreys does with open-hearted alacrity, that contentment can only be got in tandem with dis-ease, his poetic striving is enacted in tortuous proportion to his emotional investment: his use of form is variegated and diverse, a measure of his compulsion to nail meaning in a verisimilitude of expression. The metamorphous and violently self-lacerating dramas of ‘crazydream i and ii’ are ear-worms of the night, picking away like surreal obsessions, and they are aptly realised in broken syntax, line and rhythm breaks. Something of a similar order is achieved in ‘Before leaving’, whose exploration of history and ancestry, of turmoil and change, is delivered in a lush framework of ‘season and soil’, with eloquent pauses for contemplation - of homelands left behind and new ones discovered – bespoken in collusive formal arrangements.

Ian Humphreys - Image credit Sarah Turton
Ian Humphreys - Image credit Sarah Turton
Or even as form gathers around a single counterpoint, as in ‘The other lot’, a diptych of reversal whose conceit – class attitude – plays around the edges of satire. A clever construct of misconception and condescension, the litany of assumed class traits is funny, when it is not being entirely serious. In a system of, on the one hand, ‘anthracite’ manners and champagne flutes, and on the other, chicken nuggets and Andy Capps’ ‘slump[ed] on snorebags’, there can be no meeting point, except in the minds of the ‘less deceived’ shrugging on the sidelines: ‘Everyone knows’, says Humphreys’ middle class antagonist, ‘they’re not like us.’

The disturbance, too often, is unsettling, kicking the silent observer off into reveries of anxiety, the whirling ‘dark blades’ intoning a darker memory...
Engaging with the wider symbolic resonance of almost-forgotten cultural artefacts is a characteristic of Humphreys’ approach. Neutering the hook-hootered and violent misogynist’s temperament amongst the wildflowers of the Pennine uplands, the poet reverses expectation in the deliciously hammy prose-poem ‘Punch and Judy on the West Yorkshire Moors’. Here, Mr Punch is transformed from a macabre Victorian ghoul into a nature-loving and devoted husband, now free from the guiding hand of the malevolent puppeteer: ‘He made me do it, Judy’. In a saturnalian mis-gendering of roles, Judy is now the hunter and forager, bearing a catapult, shaking off the rubric of hysterical male dominance and the straitjacket with which dominion is enforced:

Free from the puppet master. Free from the fist, Judy replies,
reaching for her bow and arrow.’

Such correctives to a history of cultural domination bubble like a current from an underground stream right across Tormentil. Searching for a sense of identity in negotiated histories, in displacements and migrations ranging from Eastern Europe to Africa to Hong Kong, and back again, the poet’s narrator breaks down the DNA of his origins into convenient percentage quotients, for the benefit of those who continue to conflate skin pigment with a dearth of Englishness: ‘But where do you really come from’ makes concise the process of apprehension in as simple, and arresting, a way as possible. And sometimes, Humphreys encloses a narrative in the vessel of a fable, the better to explore the intricacies of a back-story that is more or less unknown, save for family anecdotes ‘spun on whispers’. Self-referential, open-eyed, the punning ‘Whose story’ is a prose-poem of extraordinary invention, wherein the apocryphal elements build a more significant truth of mixed identity and deracination by suggestion. And if that is not possible, we should celebrate a history of shared endeavour:

‘And, of course, a fine statue
to commemorate the occasion.
Man and horse. On a pedestal.’

But above all else, and beyond the much-needed recalibration of attitudes towards homosexuality and prejudice through the medium of acerbically employed wit, lies the mechanism of escape. The sense of freedom yielded in the hills is expressed with seductive eloquence, and it is a measure of Humphreys natural affiliation with the Calder Valley that those poems which describe the depth of his wonderment, his innocent astonishment, are amongst his very best :

look how the wind
carves a bowl
into my body

look how the rain
fills the bowl
with fresh water (‘hymnal’)

Tormentil is published by Nine Arches Press (2023). More information click here

* More information here