Sunday, 31 May 2015

Review: Sampo: Heading Further North, by Bob Beagrie & Andy Willoughby (Red Squirrel Press, ISBN 978-1-910437-04-9)

I have to confess a certain proprietorial interest in this book review. Back in 2009, when the original northern tour of the show which inspired this collection was taking place, it was Oz Hardwick and I, as MCs at Speakers’ Corner, who brought the performance to York. Authors Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby had big plans for Sampo. A national tour was envisaged; spin-off events planned; but these sadly foundered on the rocks of Arts Council funding cuts, and the show never quite had the impact it deserved. The poets immersed themselves in other projects and Sampo lay dormant awhile. But times change. Beagrie and Willoughby are back with new funding. The promised UK tour is a reality. And to tie in with the resurrection of an extraordinary piece of poetic theatre, the poems from the original Sampo show have been published here alongside brand new material to form a truly mesmerising book.

I’ve been captivated by the weird mythology of the Kalevala ever since I first heard the music of Jean Sibelius as a teenager. The core inspiration for Sampo comes from the stories of the shaman-bard Vainamoinen as narrated in the early chapters of the Finnish national epic. But Sampo is more than a simple rehash of mythology. The collection begins squarely in 21st century post-industrial Teesside, where “the glare of closed circuit cameras” and “the flicker of the burn-off flares” imbue the landscape with a mythic quality. The Iron Age hill fort which overlooks the city becomes a gateway into the world of the Kalevala, and from here, time slip is the order of the day Are we in modern times, or the Finland of folklore? It really doesn’t matter.

Readers unfamiliar with Finnish mythology need not worry that they are being taken into alien territory. The authors provide a helpful guide to the main characters and their stories in a set of well-crafted endnotes to the collection. The re-imaginings of the Kalevala tales are punctuated by fragments of emphatically 21st century verse (Flotsam and Jetsam) which provide an anchor point in the modern world, whilst constantly hinting at something magical, just out of reach.

Cities feature as prominently as frozen wastes in this collection. In part, this is because the city acts as a metaphor for the “ever float”, the limbo state which immersed the ocean-bound Vainamoinen before the start of his questing, and which constantly threatens to pull him back.

“The city with its shifting name / of London, Helsinki, / Moscow, Kyoto / Amsterdam and Carthage” inevitably draws comparisons with TS Eliot’s London. The cityscapes of Sampo, like those of The Waste Land, are bleak surreal territories somewhere between dreams and reality. There is a similar visceral empathy with the urban wilderness, and with the people adrift there. But whereas Eliot’s masterwork may present difficulties to a modern reader lacking an immersion in the classics, the Sampo poems are instantly accessible. This is The Waste Land for the Game of Thrones generation. Mythology goes hand in hand with pop culture references and subtle social satire, all with a rich insistent musicality that demands these poems be read aloud – or better still, sung:

“The iron in the blood points North.
The iron in the rocks stains ’em red.
The blood in the hills drew iron.
The iron from the hills cries blood.
The North in the blood seeks iron.
The North knows the origins of iron.”
(Walking in Circles)

“I drove a rag and bone cart piled high
with mistakes and some mistook my cargo
as wisdom: a broken bike, smashed TVs,
stepladders without the rungs, snapped
fishing rods, clapped-out rusted engines;
the things that most throw out as junk
I’d take away as basic truths.”
(The Ever Float)

As the story unfolds, the narrators slip not only through time, but in and out of the skins of the heroes of the Kalevala. The tragi-comic figure of Vainamoinen is surely a poster boy for poets the world over. There’s more than a whiff of Byron, or Dylan Thomas, about the ageless bard with his hopeless quests, his self-inflicted wound and his permanently broken heart:

“Seven years I spent
in the drink,
the seedy underworld,
inventing a self
from submerged archives
of sponges, sea snails
creatures with pincers
and all those scaly fish.
I thought I was a fish myself,
a fish afloat, alive or dead.”
(The Birth of the Shaman)

“I cannot say forgive me or explain my distance
when you are already gone back to the waves...
...I can’t say, sometimes I am this other floating man...
...who cannot treasure the instance of yourself,
as all is merged and rocked into the eternal.
By the time the clock comes back our time is over.”
(The Floating Man)

Joukahainen, the upstart who challenges him for the bardic crown in an X Factor style poetry face-off, is contrastingly brash, a figure too modern for his time:

“There was once a singer (me)
who proudly sang all the truths
of the land and of the life
he had learned...
...I reel out a litany of facts, figures and lore
but this old bloke with a silver beard
and a broken sledge remains unperturbed...
...and simply waits for my voice to falter.”
(Up to the Neck in It)

It is Joukahainen’s sister Aino – given to Vainamoinen as ransom when her brother loses his duel – who inspires the most beautiful, and heartbreaking, poetry in the collection. In the Kalevala, the grief-stricken Aino flings herself into the sea and is transformed into a fish. In Sampo, her story becomes a tragic extended metaphor:

“What remained were bogs and stubble, stunted trees...
...and a lost girl with hands running red,
her voice the caw of a hungry crow.”
(The Wizard’s Wooing)

“I wrap up in fur
to slip past the sleeping faces of my kin,
unlatch the door and leave the familiar lair
for good...
...I cry icicles for a world ruled by snowmen.”
(In the Land of Lumiukko)

Vainamoinen, it seems, truly loves Aino, but in his relentless quest for intangible mystical wisdom he drives her away:

“Be quiet! Can’t you see I’m unthinking the ocean?
Why do you distract me with your biscuits and your kisses?”
(Unthinking the Ocean)

But there is always another love. Despite the pull of the ever float, despite his grief over his beloved’s apparent suicide, Vainamoinen finds another – equally unattainable. It is his wooing of the Maid of Pohjola which sends him on his ultimate quest: to forge the Sampo, the indefinable treasure rumoured to bring peace and harmony back to a shattered world:

“‘Make me something brand new,’ he says, ‘Something
never seen before and never to be seen agai
...As if that’s not enough the daft old bard
wants the witch ‘to play the drums on it’...
...And to top it all ‘it has to shine’,
enough to warm the heart of a Northern ice queen
who has just traded in her daughter to a bloke
who spends most of his days weeping
for the lost poems of the world atop a Baltic rock...
...So muggins here says just show me to the anvil.”
(The Trouble with Wizards)

It is the quest for the Sampo which brings the collection full circle: back to the modern-day hills where Vainamoinen and his ally, Ilmarinen the smith, seek out the origins of iron. In these closing poems the smith’s raw material takes on a personality of its own, and a chillingly contemporary prophetic voice:

“I am the ubiquitous reinforcer of the heavy Rule of Law...
...As the sun glinted me I pricked out a dying wail
from punctured guts of men in the mud at Passchendaele...
...All around I abide, a bridled slave in shackles, to scrape chins,
smooth legs, stab peas, spoon, scoop, drill, lever, lay still and spin.
I evolved into razor wire to protect you from your brother...
...For you I span river banks, touch cloud, turn soil in furrows...
...You hammered out my shape but you can’t control my dance.”

The Sampo itself remains forever out of reach. Like all classic quest objects, it is impossible to recreate or imitate. The final poem, Sampo Unbound, is a celebration of the paradox that there is no holy grail, no perfect poem – and yet there’s something missing from human existence if we don’t keep trying to remake the unmakeable.

Like the Sampo, there is a sense that this whole collection is unbound by the constraints of the page. The poems’ rich musicality demands that they be read aloud, or sung, or performed ‘beat poetry’ style with an instrumental accompaniment. The two poets’ voices blend seamlessly together, at times duetting (as in Sampo Unbound, where bard and smith spark off one another) –

“But what if she sings you a Siren Song, a song
to set you weeping through your beard for home,
so a sharp rock resembles your yearning pillow?

“C’mon Smithy, toss in a Gideon’s Bible pilfered from a motel
with a Playboy Bunny pasted in the Book of Revelation.
Throw in a dinosaur bone pissed on by weary poets...”

– at times fusing so harmoniously together that it is impossible to see the join:

“I can sing light with the knowledge of bird heart and feather
So wings sprout for a moment from the backs of my listeners...

“...I can sing a village into a town and a town into a city
And with a chosen word or trumpet sound bring them all down...

“...I swear on a good day I can turn a hill into a mountain
And cover its steep slopes with lush green forest.

“All these things were given me in the floating dreamtime.
But sing as I will, I cannot bring you back from the deeps.”
(Shaman Song)

What fascinates about this collection is the fierce identification which two socially conscious Middlesbrough poets find with the legends of ancient Finland. Vainamoinen’s quest, in the hands of Beagrie and Willoughby, mirrors the universal striving of the poet to find an identity and to make sense of the world, in whatever condition we find it – to come to terms with love and loss, war and betrayal, material distraction and spiritual longing.

Having seen the show, I’m aware of the difficulties that must have faced Beagrie and Willoughby in pinning these poems to the black and white of the page. That they have succeeded in creating such a beautiful written collection is testimony to their extraordinary talents as poets. But my hope is that Sampo won’t just be read. The show, the CD, and the brilliant imagery of this collection makes it thoroughly deserving of a Saboteur award – perhaps even a Ted Hughes Prize.

(Copies of the book can be ordered from Red Squirrel Press)