On Friday last week, I was lucky enough to be part of an event at Leeds University to celebrate the remarkable life and career of poet Ken Smith who died in 2003. A new volume of his Collected Poems have been published by Bloodaxe. I’m sharing a piece written for ‘Stand’ magazine about Ken’s influence on my own poetry.
Fox and Bloodhound
As a teenager falling in love with poetry, I thought of Fox as the bold, definite creature that slunk into Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ with a ‘hot stink’, printing the page in its wake. Fox was smouldering, certain and momentary. Brought up on books like Hawk Roosting, I could imagine no other kind of poetic animal. When I eventually wrote my own poem ‘Fox Miles’, it seemed almost sacrilegious to have created a personal version of this archetype, a creature who ran beside me once in Cambridge at 5am, who seemed to symbolise loss and longing, the sense of being an outsider. I realised that my own experience of foxes was defined by their melancholy more than their totemism.
Discovering Ken Smith’s deliciously tricky, ravaged urban fox was a revelation to me as a twenty-something writer. Here was Fox as raconteur, maniac and drunkard, possessed and possessing the London night. I was soon intoxicated. When we first encounter the unreliable narrator in ‘Fox Running’, he is already slipping away from us: ‘loose in his sleek skin / loose in his slick fur.’ That opening stanza puts the reader on the back foot. Fox is too lithe for his own body. As we follow him ‘into the tube maps / into the bus routes into the rails’, he seems invisible and present at the same time, somewhere under the city’s skin. He soon begins to shape shift into a man, a lover, a runaway, a criminal. He can be both human and animal at the same time. Ken Smith’s Fox is a paradox. He is ‘running into his death / and his death always with him.’
Describing his preoccupation with the hare as a totem animal, David Harsent said in an interview with James Byrne for ‘The Wolf’ magazine:
“I don’t know quite why the hare has impressed herself upon me quite so indelibly, but I think of the hare as being a dark, magical, witchy creature. When I was in my mid-teens I found a book by the psychiatrist John Layard called The Lady of the Hare… the first section was a psychoanalytical study of a woman who was having hare dreams; the other half of the book was a cultural history of the hare. I started to read it in an idle sort of a way and before long I knew I’d found a totem: a daemon.”
Dark, magical, witchy – all these attachments seemed recognisable. The notion of Fox as daemon seems to run through Ken Smith’s poem, but its significance is always changing, outrunning the reader. Even after he is apparently dead, he is still glimpsed ‘between birdlight and Lisson Grove / between lampdark / and Long Water.’ Towards the end of the poem, the yearning to see Fox merges with a yearning for language itself:
I want a word
a beginning word forming in its water bead
I want a word forming fingers of itself
in the belly of all language…
I become obsessed with the idea of responding to Ken Smith’s ‘Fox Running’ in some way. But I felt that even the act of reading Smith’s poem had exhausted the image of Fox for me, or rather confirmed a sense that to chase Fox further would be futile or arrogant. My own response would have to follow a different animal. ‘Fox Running’ gave me the confidence – the permission almost – to do so, to find a totem or an emblem that preoccupied me.
I first sat down to write my response in Suffolk in 2015. I was staying in a house that made me perpetually alert: it was full of windows and empty beds, overlooking the solitary grey line of the beach. The rooms made me think of M.R. James ghost stories. Every night before I slept, I drew the curtains obsessively, terrified by the idea of glass and openness to the sea. At the time, I was working on a collection of poems which explored the representation of women in climbing literature and I was interested in women as both too visible and invisible in social contexts. I knew that the totem animal of my poem should be a dog, half-domestic and half wild.
Bloodhounds weigh from 36 to 72 kg (80 to 160 lbs) and are 58 to 69 cm (23 to 27 inches) tall at the withers. Originally bred for hunting deer, wild boar and, since the Middle Ages they began to be used for tracking people. They are famed for their strength and tenacity as well as their almost uncanny ability to pick up human scents over great distances, even days after their ‘prey’ has passed. I read that they are used by police and law enforcement all over the world to track escaped prisoners, missing people, lost children. But I was chilled to read that bloodhounds were also reputedly used to track runaway slaves before the American Civil War. The image was sufficiently disconcerting to stay with me. Just as Ken Smith’s Fox is a double-being, part man and part animal, I wanted the bloodhound of my poem to also be a middle aged woman, strangely invisible in the city she occupied, put to ‘use’ by others, tenacious in her strange, nocturnal journey.
I wrote the poem in one long sitting, trying not to censor myself too much as I wrote. As someone whose early reading was defined by the exactitude of early Hughes and Heaney, I’ve always found adopting that ‘looser’ style a challenge. But I was determined to follow the bloodhound of my poem wherever she led me. I thought perhaps the setting would be a familiar city (Leeds or Sheffield or even Manchester) but was surprised to find the dog running through London, perhaps on the long-dead scent of Smith’s Fox who still – after all these years – ‘speaks / with his word / from the night’s narrow places’.
My poem ‘Bloodhound’ was published in ‘No Map Could Show Them’.
You can hear another piece of mine – ‘Fox Miles’ here, set to flamenco music as part of a collaboration with guitarist Sam Moore.