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Derek Sellen reviews Mapping by Mark Totterdell

Mapping by Mark Totterdell (Indigo Dreams Publishing ) isbn 978-1-910834-80-0
Mapping.jpg

‘What is Britain?’, ‘What does Englishness mean?’ are questions often asked in the media. I don’t think ‘Mapping’ necessarily sets out to answer such queries but nevertheless it offers a view of the nation from a poet who lives and travels close to the land.

The opening sequence, ‘Map’, is a formidable achievement, consisting of forty-nine short poems, each numbered according to the Ordnance Survey map of an area of Britain. The range of these poems encompasses localities from Land’s End to Harris, from Caernarfon to Norfolk, from the Solent to Iona. The over-lapping OS maps unfold alongside one another as you read in a steadily building patchwork. The poems bring into focus not just local landscape but cumulatively an overall vision.

Each quatrain is enjoyable and technically impressive, fluently employing lines of varying length and using inventive rhyme and alliteration as in ‘181 – Minehead and Brendon Hills’:

He saw the short pecks of high unhedged roads,
the heath hinted at by extended ellipsis,
the asterisks of mounds that took the dead’s
fine residues in former days. On this.

As this poem shows, Totterdell often exploits the tension between place and map, between the thing and the sign, in this case the mound and the asterisk. However he is alert to nature in itself, to local custom and to the beauties and flaws of the landscapes and towns he passes. We are offered the ‘green fan-vaulting’ of the beeches on the approach to Norwich, the ‘knuckles of the North York Moors’ and the ‘scooped scarps’ of the Brecon Beacons as well as the ‘battleship-grey’ city of Plymouth, and much else.

He often creates an ironic distance between himself and the ‘he’ of the poems – he feels ‘like a god, like a perfect piece of shit’, he imagines himself imagining ‘his minstrel self’. These and other references suggest a personal narrative without revealing it in full.

The following section contains seven poems each titled with the name of a genus, for example ‘Chrysaora’ and ‘Smerinthus’. If you’re as ignorant as I was of the nomenclature, each poem becomes a riddle. What is this for example?

This fort of froth, a foam-home
for the raw green speck

Most challenging is ‘Arctia’ where the tale – ostensibly of a 60s hippie with a penchant for jackets in ‘chocolate and cream’, who disappeared when ‘the whole scene shifted’ – masks the identity of the creature at the heart of the poem. These are intriguing poems which show a depth of knowledge, observation and passion for the quirks of nature.

The third series, ‘Pub’, has its genesis explained in the final poem where the writer comes across an aptly named pub:

How about pubs, you said.
The names of them. A flash of stone in the valley
through the trees. And there it was, the Fountain Head.

His companion’s suggestion gave rise to eighteen poems, describing the eighteen different pubs themselves and riffing on their names. The series is a celebration of traditional pubs, the drink and food which they serve and of the treasury of words and images that resides in their idiosyncratic names. Often the images from the pub signs come alive – from the Bird in Hand, a falcon takes flight in imagination seeking ‘its wild other’, at The Double Locks, an otter ‘has passed by, through the long wild grasses’, at The Anchor, a free band of dolphins

are playing their bodies. Each sweet looping
grace note slips over and under and over
and under and over the line of the sea.

The fourth section is ‘Bird’. From the comical wordplay of ‘Magpie’ to the awed appraisal of ‘Eagle Owl’, they are consistently enjoyable and evocative. They both chronicle the life of birds and examine the personalities with which we endow them. There is lots to learn here from the folk names of cormorants and the difference between cormorant and shag (no snigger-puns please, as the poem requests) to the keen observation of how a robin sings.

The poems that feel most personal – although all the work is coloured with the poet’s enthusiasms – are in the final section. ‘Well’ is a poet’s credo, with the simplicity of rhythm and language of a ballad, a fitting end to the collection. However two of the most telling lines in the collection occur in ‘The Shepherd and Dog’ in the series ‘Pub’, encapsulating as they do the pervading spirit of Mark Totterdell’s collection:

I slept in soft cool green of beetles’ glow.
my world a room that found no need for walls.

If you’re not up for travelling the length and breadth of Britain yourself, you can lie in the cool green glow of the poems in ‘Mapping’ and enjoy Totterdell’s unique insights and vision.

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