SPAM Festive Special: tom leonard, 1944 – 2018, i.m.

In this special piece to move us towards the close of the year, Rhian Williams remembers the Glaswegian poet, writer and critic Tom Leonard, who passed away on the 21st December 2018. 


       lower case posits in-the-presence-of        

lower case is presence        

lower case is company[1]


> my friend, jane, records how, when leading seminars in modern poetry, tom leonard would ‘light a candle at the start in recognition of “the universal human as inclusive and absolute”’.[2] it is that flame – its quality of intensity and of fade, the darkness around the wick, the gold that haloes it, the soft white at its very edges; a trinity of light – that i think of, and that i write by, now, this day in december, as i remember this man of letters.


light, dense, warm, yellow. light, thin, white, attenuated. light, time, presence.


> it was a still, muffled day in december last year, as i was shopping for groceries, in the shop where tom shopped for groceries, when i checked my phone, and read an email from another friend, nicky, who let me know that tom had died the day before. the shortest day of the year. which had not been one of those when the light is bright and intense – the glorious winter sunshine – but one when a lead-like, restrained, grey light had leaked only blankly in the air. a quiet day. a brief interlude, a space between darknesses.  so tom had moved with it, solsequium,[3] a burnished ‘pot marigold’, a mothering light turning with the sun into the darkest space of the year – the edges of a diurnal pausing, according to shetland tradition, when one should set down one’s work for the holiest day, anticipating the miracles and translations of the holy labour, of the returning sun.


stepping into that space        

out of the past        

surrounding        

this place, become        

an accompanying darkness;[4]


leonard’s work – radical, political, fiercely intelligent, sharply, sharply engaged by (and always advancing of) the ideological work of language, of its plasticity, of arrangement on the page ­(‘poetry is the subliminal history of linguistic shape | ahem’)[5] – was profoundly welded into presence. the ‘being here-ness’ of human experience: the light in which it stands (‘seductive bright light | of the evening narrative’)[6] and the breath – the spiritus – that marks its paces (‘poetry is the heart and brain divided by the lungs’).[7] his work was experimental in the most serious way, and i see its legacies in scottish poetry today, its sidelong glances at language, at its mendacities, the tell tales of public life. but also its vitality, its telling of stories, its bloodflow. (tom, a true intellectual, but never bloodless.) leonard’s legacy is clear and important: it is evident in a generation of poets (jenny lindsay, nick-e melville, iain morrison, kathrine sowerby, harry josephine giles, as well as jane goldman, come to mind) who regard poetry and poetics as actions, as interventions, as means of revelation.


> at this time of year – at the marking of the winter solstice, the miraculously burning oil in the temple, and the birthing of a messiah – i find myself thinking about the domestic space ­– the hearth – that fuels that birthing (‘the sacred heart | above the winterdykes | set roon the fire’).[8] of the shifts around presence, being, light and time that i see in leonard’s body of work as comparable to parenting through reciprocity (‘i wish you would touch me more | it makes me feel happy | and secure’).[9] of the vestal work of home-making that i find infusing leonard’s writing: what we might call radical mothering, where mothering is a verb for attentive nurture, for the act of nourishing, for advocacy, for the defence and advance of storytelling. labours which may be (and are) taken up by carers regardless of gender and whose object need not be a child as such. i am talking specifically about the passion contained when leonard remembers his shame at his father’s vocalising during private reading and is encouraged by an audience member to find the use of phonetic urban dialect, ‘rather constrictive’: ‘The poetry reading is over | I will go home to my children’.[10] i am talking about his remarkable feel for the rhythms of daily domestic duty, peeling spuds, going on messages, controlling one’s breath as one walks to the shops. over and again, leonard’s poems mark the habits of a particular class of daily life, intimating the textures and fabric of a life of cooking, laundry, ‘sitting in the garden | behind the toolshed | reading Thomas Mann’,[11] listening to the wireless. fiercely attentive, and alive. now, of course, leonard’s poetics were exquisitely sophisticated – i’m not even remotely saying that his work is ever uncomplicated reportage of private domesticity – but it didn’t surprise me to learn from his sons at his funeral of tom’s presence in the home, of his habit of taking a breather in the day to listen to radio 3, sat on the sofa with tea and a biscuit. or to be gifted his recipe for lentil soup.


the roar of a lawnmower        

pause        

the roar of a lawnmower        

pause        

the roar of a lawnmower[12]


for what i learn from leonard’s poems, and from leonard’s writing about poems and poetry (verse, from vers – to turn – as in ploughing a field, or mowing a lawn), is that there is a selfhood in poetry that is its animus, its means, its occasion, and its strength of expression. that poems come about from there being a story to be told (‘I was really relaxed talking to the young man I know the story of this place | I grew up in it I have eyes and ears’),[13] and the process of that telling may be quite unselfconscious as it drives towards enunciation, or even be ‘mechanical’ in the sense of algorithmic experimentation. but that self – or ‘a’ self – then becomes conscious as it manifests. that the lyric self – by which i mean the sign of presence in poetry – is not absorbed utterly by private experience, but rather it enters the rhythm of the poem and its shape on the page (all poems have rhythm as all living things breathe, and everything takes shape), and thereby intersects with time, with history, and with material records (‘in our own being | but never wholly separate, only a part | of the time we live in, and with others occupy’).[14] it comes into the world (is birthed?) and so it becomes an agential position: the expressive, poetic subject is an action, a vortex, a meeting point.


       But then he began to accept that he was a writer.      

It was a matter of language and consciousness. The link between the                                                                                                                two.[15]


even as this process hints at abstraction (‘as he grew older he stood in separate relationship to himself’), it is actually a return to the flesh, in leonard’s beautiful, active verb: ‘he was able to body himself conceptually as a totality’.[16] … so i learn from leonard that poems are things that are done with and for bodies (‘Gin a body meet a body’),[17] and are caught in the dialectic of giving and of standing back, like mothering.


> jane also told me that tom loved the work of psychoanalyst, donald winnicott – i hadn’t remembered that consciously; it was just a feeling of correlation i had when reading leonard’s work and when reading winnicott’s work on physical touch and play, on the parenting labour that is simply, exhaustingly, that of helping our children to find their own pace and breath. but today my copy of leonard’s Reports from the Present: Selected Work, 1982-94 actually falls open here:


Breath, breath, breath, breath, breath. If only Winnicott had gone further with that aside about the baby’s first perception of breath, median between inner and outer, its role as the point at which the defences are down. Maybe he did, I just haven’t seen it. So much of his stuff is great, so exciting to read. All that stuff about the sucking-blankets (his ‘guggie’, mine used to call it) ‘transitional objects’ and their elation to culture, the first experience of symbols in time. That ‘potential space’ where play occurs … ‘It is play that is the universal, and that belongs to health.’ Good on you, Mr Winnicott. A very healthy man.[18]

in Winnicott, in leonard, in breath (that which brings together time with flesh), and in play, then, we find the scene of reciprocity:


this time        

breath

       

held         

between us

        

each time        

familiar    

   

each time        

new[19]


so often violated – as leonard’s work distils in startling realisation – by institutionalised aggression and belittling, by militarism, by capitalist ideation (‘jesus christ that cunt was a cop!’),[20] in leonard’s poetics, reciprocity is staged through timely proximity, and is a route towards settling into the ‘now’. ‘we lightly hold hands as we sometimes do | until the first to be falling asleep begins to twitch and tonight it’s Sonya’:


I am aged 51 years and nine months and nine to ten days[21]


reading of one of the longest days of the year from the dim of one of the shortest, i find the milky light of glasgow at 3am in june (‘the sky in the north is translucent like a lake’) illuminating the ‘now’ as a quiet scene of resistance, outwitting interpellation; an experience of the self, of the body, and of time that has evaded capitalist value. ‘from within he came to realise himself as an instance of the universal human’.[22]


> the calendar turns, light thins out and attenuates, darkness creeps (‘The three wise kings, who have travelled | All the way from Burns & Oates in Buchanan Street, | Peer at the infant under a torch-bulb’),[23] but rhythms and habits persist:


the future, knitting the future        

the present peaceful, quiet        

as if        


the same woman knitting        

for a thousand years


tom, i miss your voice, i miss your wisdom, i miss your knowledge. i miss your compassion, i miss your understanding. your not here-ness is painful.


> and the world keeps turning, the sun keeps rising. the marigold blooms.

                                                                               glasgow, 16 december 2019


~


Text and Image: Rhian Williams


Published: 23/12/19


[1] Tom Leonard, ‘the case for lower case’, Outside the Narrative (Exbourne & Edinburgh: etruscan books & Word Power Books, 2009), p. 178.


[2] See Jane Goldman’s contribution in Tributes to Tom Leonard, ed. Larry Butler (Glasgow, PlaySpace Publications: 2019).


[3] ‘To follow the sun’ and the term for the marigold in Middle English. It is used in a conceit by Ayrshire poet, Alexander Montgomerie (1550-1598) that is used as an epigram to Leonard’s ‘The Present Tense: a semi-epistolary romance’, Outside, p.110.


[4] ‘respite in the reading’, Outside, p. 107.


[5] ‘100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose’, Outside, p. 63.


[6] ‘Plasma Nights’, Outside, p. 196.


[7] ‘100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose’, Outside, p. 63.


[8] ‘An Ayrshire Mother’, Outside, p. 209.


[9] ‘Nora’s Place (14)’, Outside, p. 156


[10] ‘Fathers and Sons’, Outside, p. 54


[11] ‘Pollok Poster 1’, Outside, p. 13


[12] ibid.


[13] ‘The Fair Cop’, Outside, p. 189


[14] ‘proem’, Outside, p. 65


[15] ‘A life’, Outside, p. 214.


[16] ibid.


[17] Robert Burns, ‘Comin thro’ the Rye’


[18] ‘The Present Tense’, Outside, p. 113.


[19] ‘touching your face’, Outside, p. 182.


[20] ‘The Fair Cop’, Outside, p. 189.


[21] ‘June the Second’, Outside, p. 181.


[22] ‘Three Types of Envoi: A humanist (2)’, Outside, p. 213.


[23] ‘My Parents’ Living-Room at Christmas’, Outside, p. 53.


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