Review: Pete Green's "Sheffield Almanac"

Review: Pete Green's "Sheffield Almanac"

is another poet that I know through Gorilla Poetry, like Amy they also use ungendered pronouns, although as I hope this review will demonstrate, they are distinctly different poets.

This book is a love poem/critique/poem-of-place set in, and concerning, Sheffield, which also happens to be where I live.

This pamphlet is not difficult to read, it flows easily across the eyes and mind, and those privileged to have heard Pete's voice will hear it again in these pages (which always adds a lot to printed poetry.)  If you have not heard Pete, hear them reading "The Pull", an older poem but with some shared themes.

However this pamphlet is quite difficult to review, for the purely practical reason that it is all one poem.

Usually for a review I will read the whole book, once or twice, and then focus in on those poems that strike me most.  This is something I cannot do here.  Although the poem is split into four sections (representing the four seasons, as Pete explains in this blog post), each is substantial and (borrowing Pete's word) "discursive".  Each section takes a broad topic and explores all round it.

I shall cover all sections with a quick survey and then zoom in for a more detailed look at one later.

[i] is the Autumn section exploring the city as a University town, the changing local economy, steel mills replaced by student accommodation, the influx of bright and shining new minds every autumn, the pubs and clubs and political activism, the contrast of student life now with when Pete was a student in Birmingham.  It begins:

The steel has gone.  Now brass is made in learning.
    The city's an amalgam
Of wide-eyed youth, old grit, industrial yearning
    For the pounding of the forges through the night
Echoed in techno beats as dancefloors tip anthemic
    Hangovers loom and lengthen, recovery stalls
And time and Sheffield's calendar grow largely academic.

[i] - page 7

[ii] is Winter and as you might imagine the bleakest section.  This focuses on the trades we all make when we choose to live in cities, air quality for economic prosperity, personal freedom for a regular wage; and the difficulties of Sheffield itself: snow bringing its roads to halt, the lack of anywhere for a decent-sized airport, and the major theme of how progress is a double-edged sword:

                                ...Both sides are missing
    The other side's point.  Two old couples
Round a table in the Fat Cat balance reminiscing
    About the pubs and the Sheffield lost to us now
With a sense that change has two sides to its cutting
    Edge, that each lament for Castle Market's fall (and
Annexation by the artists) needs rebutting
    With memories of the birdshit dropping from its ceiling.

[ii] - page 17

[iii] is the Spring section and extends the themes of changing employment and building redevelopment to consider the changing face of the city itself, buildings repurposed and rebuilt and filled with "kids ... in creative trades their granddads ... wouldn't've bloody dreamed of".  The impact of national politics, a touch upon xenophobia and immigration, before accelerating into the most upbeat conclusion so far.  But I'll leave that for you to discover for yourselves, and instead quote:

                                        A crowd of hundreds
Surrounds the town hall: amid a fine kerfuffle
    Of hashtags, placards, and impassioned speakers
And twenty thousand names on a petition
    To save the indie shops on Devonshire Green,
Councillors wave through their demolition
    And succession by another row of flats
To join the M1 cooling towers
    And the Jessop hospital's Edwardian wing
On the roll call of a Sheffield lost, and only ours
    By living on in a Sheffield of the mind,
Retained by citizens still somehow proud and quirky
    Still these humble hedonists,
Recession-hardened, implausibly perky,
    Adroit jugglers of tradition and modernity.

[iii] - page 25

—because that is a sentiment that sits very well with me.  I also work in a profession that my Grandfather could not imagine.

[iv] - the Summer section starts with the floods of 2007, and how they barely made the national news, before moving into accounts of various heroic, festive and humorous responses to the catastrophe.  Pete then takes a turn towards the personal returning to the time just after their arrival in Sheffield (in 2004) and the time Nottingham just before they left:

                    ...We wearied of the confrontation
    Below the midlands' car-park accents,
Service-station banter, how every conversation
    Led to traps and tripwires; how every public space
Was up for sale, how the corporate steamroller
    Blazoned across Birmingham's town hall
A stupefying, vast advert for Coca-Cola
    Whereas, on a trip to Sheffield
We took free refuge in the Winter Garden,
    Watched a cloudburst runnel down the glass;

[iv] - page 33

And I shall leave the overview here, as it already has more detail than I intended (but I couldn't skip quoting a bit from each section) and I haven't even mentioned the epigraphs...

I shall just focus briefly on my (current) favourite section, which is the first.  I think the themes here resonate more strongly for my personal prejudices.  Lets take an excerpt from one of the more personal sections (which I haven't really covered above).  This follows on from an earlier image of each year's new undergraduates arriving in Citroens:

                                        ...Love, you uprooted
    Twice, turned north to intertwine with me, and now
Out plotline may be knotted, convoluted,
    Worn down to an epilogue's lingering thread
But wean yourself away just for a minute,
    Witness this scene, these hopefuls with
Ironic lava lamps and possibilities, and tell me if within it
    You don't see us in 1992.
Today an anxious flicker on the grainy
    Screen of an sonographer, last week a mooch
Round Oslo, buying handmade baubles on a rainy
    Afternoon, a take-off into snow.  Flick back
Further through those chapters, through the scenes scattered
    Haphazard down the valley side like relinquished
Clothing on your bedroom floor, the weave more tattered
    Further back we go.

[i] - page 8

And I don't want to stop quoting, even there, but there is only so much I can practically copy out.  I really appreciate the sharing of little personal moments here; but also there's the craft, the strongly rhythmic phrasing such as "possibilities, and tell me if within it // You don't see us in 1992."  As I already mentioned, if you can hear that in Pete's own voice, it is even better.

Similarly the overt rhyme, pulling us forwards, but wound around with other sonic embellishments: "knotted" leading to "convoluted", and then "epilogue's", "hopefuls", "possibilities" and finally landing on "don't".

There is a great deal wonderful about this pamphlet.  At the outermost layer I love the nonpartisan approach.  Pete neither eulogises, nor condemns the city; but neither do they withhold judgement where required.  This is an important characteristic for approaching both poetry and life: nothing is 100% good, nothing is 100% bad, and only in recognising that can we get close to reality.

There is also the careful and skilled approach to form.  As Pete explains in the post linked above, variable length couplets allow a flexibility of flow, while the fixed rhyme scheme pulls us through strophes (only one per section) that could be daunting if less skillfully handled.

This is an excellent and rich work.  I barely touch on some of its themes here, and in reading and rereading for this review I found more every time I returned.  If you live in Sheffield then this may show you things you are missing.  If you do not live in Sheffield, read this and wonder why not.

Sheffield Almanac is available for £5 + pp from Longbarrow Press.

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