Poetics: Ian Parks

The Wheel

The pithead used to dominate the town.
My dead forefathers came and went,
were buried in the shadow cast by it.
I passed it on my way to school,
heard its revolutions in the night.
If the pit head was the place’s heart
the great wheel was its soul.
And then there was the slow dismantling.
The slag heap was grassed over. It became
an innocent green mound where cattle graze.
They hauled the winding gear away
and sold the chain for scrap
then took the giant wheel and clamped it down.
They did this to remind us where we came from,
what we did and who we were –
a monument of rusting metal spokes
that radiate from hub to rim
for kids to climb on, questioning.
Some day we’ll come with picks and dynamite,
Dislodge it from its concrete plinth.
We’ll drag it from the valley floor,
Aim it at the cities of the south,
Set the wheel in motion, watch it roll.

This poem from Ian Parks is far from the idea of love. Love has been central in Parks work but he admits in the preface to his Love Poems 1979-2009 that he ‘never started out to be a love poet’. He continues in the preface: ‘love poems have just happened, appearing out of the blue and prompted by circumstances. They called and I responded’. Yet, if we consider our roles as writers or poets, isn’t this what we do, we respond? Is this because as poets we have strayed too far from radicalism? In The Wheel, Parks seems to be addressing this, you can hear the quintessential Parks voice, that running of the sounds from hill to valley floor or as Peter Dale stated: ‘like hearing your name spoken in the din of a public place – you hear it regardless of the background noise.’ In The Wheel though it is this background noise rising to the surface, it is the babbling brook turning to flood:

The pithead used to dominate the town.
My dead forefathers came and went,
were buried in the shadow cast by it.

It is the long shadows of Parks past, family, community that haunts the opening of the poem, a lament to the dead, an apology and there is no room for the love poetry that Parks is associated with here. There is no attempt to claim nostalgia or to even love those that came before him. They are dead and dead fathers have no claims to the present. Love lingers as a memory, a communal sin, as if to blame these forefathers and their failings, their shadows somehow greater than those of the pithead. For their shadows continue long after the pithead is gone, they become to some extent the very symbol of the winding gear, the tall pithead, the grind of the chain lifting them and their secrets. This sense of the rising of secrets, and to some extent lies (as history is coloured by the flaws in our recollection) is death reaching up to reclaim the future. It is the unasked question and the answer that can never be given. It is the juxtaposition of hindsight.

I passed it on my way to school,
heard its revolutions in the night.
If the pit head was the place’s heart
the great wheel was its soul.

Even in Parks memory and history, the universal ‘I’ comes to the fore, ‘I’ can often be deemed unreliable or a need to make the reader empathise/sympathise with the unfolding events, it limits the degrees of knowing a reader may have but more importantly that these structural decisions is the centre of ‘I’. ‘I’ shows the limited point of view of a child, of the miners, of the community and the coming strikes, the coming of death. ‘I’ is small, pastoral, and confined within a prison of the self, of the rose-tinted glasses, of all schools gone, of all pasts destroyed, of all hearts turned to frozen metal, screeching to a halt, the death of the soul, of community, of ‘I’. As if to echo this, to combat it too, the poet builds on the pastoral:

And then there was the slow dismantling.
The slag heap was grassed over. It became
an innocent green mound where cattle graze.

But it is a pastoral tune that again is mired by death as decay, the threat of moving landscapes, the image of the slag heap, the unknown ground that could shift and slide, smother and kill; a contaminated heap giving up its ghosts. The mound is far from innocent, it is the idea of death stalking, of sitting beneath the surface, of the coming end. ‘I’ now has been subverted to make us complicit in a wider landscape, we know more than the poet, we know more than the community, we know the end is coming and we know this through hindsight. Parks is deliberately in and outside the poem, aware that we know the history of the UK coal industry, aware that neither he or us can stop the end:

They hauled the winding gear away
and sold the chain for scrap
then took the giant wheel and clamped it down.

The winding gear becomes an echo of cattle, this is the culmination of cattle grazing to cattle being culled; an extended metaphor of carcasses being hauled. Parks is also starting to play with religious imagery, this is Samson’s chains, this is the wailing at the foot of the cross; symbols of crucifixion but with an absent Christ. The pithead becomes Golgotha but a Golgotha devoid of the final absolution, the missing figures that dominate much of Parks’ poetry will not absolve us, be it Messianic, be it female or be it a landscape. Parks in much of his love poetry to date plays with the open final image, it could be argued that this is an extension of the sin metaphor that often dominates the ‘I’ in Parks’ poetry but unlike his love poetry, Parks is not confined within the final poem. History negates this, his own personal history and our knowledge of the events of the 80s and the rise of Thatcherism. The open ending in his past love poetry makes the reader responsible for inhabiting the lines unspoken, the sins to come, the final whisper into the ear before the end:

They did this to remind us where we came from,
what we did and who we were –
a monument of rusting metal spokes
that radiate from hub to rim
for kids to climb on, questioning.

It is those whispered lines that makes the reader feel guilty in Parks love poetry, we are implicit with the first rush of love and it’s demise. We sin. We wail at the foot of his poetry but Parks rarely writes about those middle years, those middle moments, those tired lines that repeat so often in all our lives. It would be pointless to do so, to serve up those moments that go nowhere, that answer no questions, that broach no answers. Parks is all about the beginning and the end but the miners strike for Parks has never ended, the long shadow of it haunts this poem and the North, and there is no room for love here, love has withered, been taken, been commercialised and concreted over, there is only sin left and we cannot be absolved. The past is such a behemoth in this poem, the anger still so raw that the kids, the grand kids of miners have no future unless they go south and the south is so mired in sin in this poem. Parks is lamenting the death of future, of past, of family and community long gone, of betrayal and lack of absolution. Parks in his other mining poems acknowledges the bloody hard life and the futility of the final months of the strike, he captures the humour, the violence and the sheer desperation as the world was turned upside down, of a revolution never gained and not even martyrs for a cause. The ‘rusting metal spokes’ become the crumbling crucifix, the death of faith. Christ is absent. Parks could end here but unlike the miners strike that ended too soon, too short of the goal, Parks seeks his revenge, in an image reminiscent of the old testament, of Sodom & Gommorah, of Sisyphus unbound in Greek mythology and seeks the tools of the men who fell short and where left out in the cold, he gives them a form of absolution:

Some day we’ll come with picks and dynamite,
Dislodge it from its concrete plinth.
We’ll drag it from the valley floor,
Aim it at the cities of the south,
Set the wheel in motion, watch it roll.

In those two last lines, all bile, all bitterness, all beauty, reveals the heart of the poem as a poem of protest. There are not many towns in the North that do not have these wheels, do not have streets named after steel foundries, mill gates turned over to middle management housing estates, engineers and loco works becoming nothing more than a street name. Names are forgotten, words are forgotten, reasons are forgotten but the anger festers, the divide grows and Parks points his wheel, his pen at the south, accuses them of betrayal, of the ultimate sin against fellow human and turns the wheel against them.

Ian Parks was born in 1959 in Mexborough, South Yorkshire. The son of a miner, Parks grew up during the declining years of the industry – something which was to have a profound effect on his later work. His first collection of poems, Gargoyles in Winter was published in 1986, the same year in which he received a Yorkshire Arts Award. From 1986 to 1988 he was writer-in-residence at North Riding College, Scarborough. He was made a Hawthornden Fellow in 1991 and was awarded a Travelling Fellowship to the USA in 1994, spending most of his year in New England. He did research into Chartist poetry in Oxford and was one of the Poetry Society New Poets in 1996. His anthology, The Voice of the People: Chartist Poetry 1838-1848 is forthcoming from Flux Gallery Press.

His collections include A Climb Through Altered Landscapes (Blackwater, 1998), Shell Island (Waywiser, 2006), The Cage (Flux Gallery Press, 2008), Love Poems 1979-2009(Flux Gallery Press, 2009) The Landing Stage (Lapwing, Belfast, 2010) and The Exile’s House (Waterloo, 2012).

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