Richard Fleming’s new collection Strange Journey rings true. It is the poetry of biography filtered through a charged and fiercely honest imagination. The viewpoint is often that of a person assessing their own life from a position of uneasy maturity. The skill with which this is done forces the reader into what can be an occasionally uncomfortable empathy.
Geographically, Richard Fleming’s journey hasn’t taken him too far. But the emotional gulf between the Belfast of ‘The Troubles’ and Guernsey in the Channel Islands is immense. This move also saw him deliberately destroy the vast majority of his early work, a symbolic purge which enabled him to start afresh, with a fluent and concentrated purpose.
I should mention that Richard is a close friend, and our collaboration in A Guernsey Double, contained twin collections of poetry about the island of Guernsey. Richard’s collection, The Man Who Landed, dealt with his discovery of a home in which he felt secure enough to start a fruitful poetic journey.
Although Strange Journey sometimes reflects the island he writes from, it is not constrained by it. Instead the collection is the work of a poet prospecting for the truth in his own life. Suitcases, the first poem in the collection has him on his knees opening his dead father’s luggage.
…yet I am so afraid
that when I kneel beneath the skylight
to prise apart those sagging, alligator jaws,
the life that I find compressed within
will be too small
to match my memories of him.
As Strange Journey unpacks, major themes emerge. One is in his ambivalent identification with his grandfather and father, forefathers who are ‘hidden travellers’ preserved inside the poet’s memory. In The Hidden Traveller, we are shown the dead body of the poet’s grandfather:
in laundered shirt
and suit so rarely worn in life; in death, he looked
more like a character from a story than himself.
or in the poem Deaf he remembers his father’s post-war hearing aid.
I had to stand on tiptoe, speak into it slowly
my childish words, enunciated clearly,
humming through cable, climbing, bindweed thin,
to my father’s distant ear.
These are masterful poems which point to the rifts opened by death and time, which the poet can cross now only with his imagination. But can even the imagination be trusted? The collection resonates with an urgent awareness of time passing, “Days scurry by like mice” as he writes in Birthday Poem,
What can console us?
and a fierce desire, unblunted still,
to triumph at the craft of living
Triumphing at the craft of living does not come easily. Strange Journey contains bleak moments of depression as in the confrontation with the shaving mirror in The Scream.
A human’s function is to be
but being makes me want to scream:
I try to be, but do I have to think?
There are moments too, inspired by nature, and by the life-affirming elation of new love. In Twin he is surprised by joy:
No thought it might come to this:
the shifting of the nerve ends;
the creep of blood
below the skin
that sends me pacing
in the night
hungry for the rest
and for the rest
of what I am;
for you, my twin,
and anything the future sends.
or to a moment of near Blakean vision in Rapture:
Traffic becomes gridlocked; jet planes hang suspended
in charged air;
all the birds of the earth fall silent
as the expanding sky
grows brighter, brighter,
In much of the work of this book, you feel connected to a raw, often beautifully expressed truth. And fear lurks there too. Of death, of aging, even of being forgotten. This truthfulness transcends fashions in poetry, and the spirit that pervades it. Strange Journey is full of courage too, a bitter rearguard fought by the poet’s love of life against fear. In Garden Diary (2) this is simply expressed:
Death’s a comma, no full stop.
Rebuild. Begin again.