2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

My work here is almost done . . .  This is the fifth and last in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) –  reviewed below

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry) – reviewed here

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Do poets owe their readers explanatory notes? The pro-accessibility reply is ‘On principle, no!’ The googlers reply is ‘Not necessary – let your fingers do the walking’. Others might concede, ‘On occasions, maybe, for clarity’s sake or to take the piss out of critics and academe (see T.S. Eliot). But reading Eric Langley’s debut collection – if it’s proving hard to hang on to his erudite coat-tails – perhaps you cry ‘Yes, yes, for goodness sake!’ In fact, such pleas have already been answered by a curious, anonymous website that has sprung up to explicate many of these poems. Talk about poetry moving from the writer’s desk to the academic lecture hall without passing through an ordinary reader’s hands! It’s because Langley scrupulously offers us no help at all in positioning ourselves to read about the Chinese tradition of walnut gambling, Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, Picasso’s father, Stephen Grosson’s 1579 book Schoole of Abuse, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Derrida on postcards, Argus, Eurydice, Zeno, Edgar Allen Poe and (twice) the art historical term pentimenti. And that’s mostly from the opening 50 pages of this 128 page book (I think it’s about 40 pages too long).

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On the other hand, Langley often writes with a vigour and robust rhythmical quality to perform (all these poems are very performative) a sort of Elizabethan riffing to scatter-shot effect. He has a slightly annoying, almost reflex habit of sampling bits of Shakespeare mid-poem (especially from Hamlet) but Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s language that it was “an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, [a] weirdly expressive underswell of musical neargibberish” (‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (1971)) and at his very best Langley catches some of this. Literally born into the Cambridge school (Langley’s father, R. F. Langley, with his son, would often holiday with J. H. Prynne), Langley junior invigorates that difficult style with a 1590s fizz and gristle (his day job at UCL is studying the bard and more obscure Elizabethan texts) in poems whose image field is most often ekphrastic, whose emotional stance is often surprisingly sentimental and whose dominant atmosphere is one of loss.

The loss is key. Fundamentally this is about language (Cambridge School again) as the poor relation to ultimate reality. Our every living moment is a catalogue of loss; certainly our every communication is a clumsy moon-shot at a too-fast moving target, a shot also plagued by the drag of our words’ etymologies. But this is also (like the Forward short-listed books by Nick Makoha and Ocean Vuong) a book about lost fathers (Langley talks about this and other things and reads a poem in this interview). In addition, Langley’s sense of loss is elsewhere associated with the recall of a romantic attachment, what he refers to at one point, transmuting Anthony Burgess, as “memory’s ultraviolence”. This stirring of long-buried materials is what the book’s title alludes to. Raking light is used in art historical investigations to reveal the artist’s false starts and abandoned intentions – a sort of alternative historical version of the final painting. In fact, it’s that often over-done, old poetical favourite, the palimpsest, in art historical terms.

So ‘In raking light’ the narrative voice explains “in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up”. Perhaps my ‘explain’ is not the right word here – there is a sort of querulous (lover’s?) complaint going on in the tone as if the voice resents this uncovering of the past.

 

Once, there was life here –

residual and errant –

hushed since, shucked under

the thick skin, the tough slough.

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The vowel music in these few lines illustrates one of the pleasures of Langley’s work, but the “thick skin” is a gift to those who might accuse him of tending to bury hurt and loss under an avalanche of erudition rather than bringing it to the light. Indeed, it’s debatable whether this poem (in 8 sections), as it continues to offer multiples of synonymous formulations of this buried/hidden trope, manages to express a humanly complex emotional state or simply obscure it in a playful, bravura performance. The poem to read alongside this one is ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ which – once it has got past its tacked-on allusions to Orpheus’ lost wife and Proserpina – proceeds much more nakedly and accessibly:

 

Come back up stairs

if you read me

 

up in the subway

missing the tube travel,

 

missing the coach trips,

all the seaside rides,

 

the telephones, the postcards,

telegrams on spun wire;

 

come back up stairs,

and I’m hanging on

 

subjunctives, hanging on

superlatives, hanging on

 

the sound of someone

long gone to static

(apologies for some loss of formatting here – blame WordPress)

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The more linguistic and epistemological losses that preoccupy Langley are clear in the opening line of the opening poem, ‘Glanced’: ‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.” The interruptive full stop is (ahem) the point (Langley’s love of puns can be infectious). The idea is then played out (again in a riffing, repetitive style) via another old favourite, Zeno’s arrow, though this time the target is Zeuxis’ painting of grapes which (in legend) was so realistic that birds swooped down to peck them. Art imagined to be closing on the real – of course, it proves a delusion. The arrow does strike the canvas but penetrates what is really nothing, then slams into a “wall”. The final section of the poem, in fact, does suggest some possible success (see Hughes’ comment on Shakespeare’s ultimate expressive achievement through signals and hints). The concluding lines display Langley’s vigorous use of anaphora, rhyme, punning and Shakespearean allusion:

 

So glancing blown by,

so palpably hit away, so

 

keep so lovely looking still

keep lovely looking till

 

until each hungry bird

has flown and had his fill.

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The sequence, ‘Albada: Pigeons on pink’, starts (once we’ve done the googling to find out) with Picasso’s painter father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco. He liked to paint pigeons and for a few sections he sounds pleased with the results. But then young Pablo asks for a pencil and his father is astonished at the boy’s skill, or the degree to which his art seems to approach reality: “all these real these / really real pigeons”. Via another allusion to Hamlet, Langley then morphs the poem into an address to his own father (who wrote a poem called ‘Jack’s Pigeon’) though the two sons – Pablo and Eric – are blurred together, avoiding filial arrogance in a burst of filial piety: “it’s all still yours, still yours to say, Jose”. An albada is a Spanish love poem – this one has been re-geared into a piece about the son’s love of a father.

The two poems called ‘Pentimenti’ return to the ideas linked with raking light. The Italian word means ‘regrets’ and in art history it refers to changes an artist makes and covers over in the process of creation. The first of the poems is shorter and mixes images of painting with those of telephoning and it’s the latter that suggests this is really driven by a broken relationship in the modern world: “lost out here – dialling, dialling”. Such loss of contact and communication trips all Langley’s switches. A similar instinctive, welling up, or inundation, of potent material can be seen in the over-long, repetitive sequence in the middle of the book. This springs from a detail recounted by Galen of Pergamon that Ptolomaeus, King of Egypt, in assembling his great library, would take books from any ship that sailed into port, have them copied, then give back the copies, retaining the originals for his own book shelves. So language, knowledge, forgery, copies, signs, semiotics, morse code, the Dewey system of classification, plus Hamlet on the pirate ship and the final Alexandrian conflagration – Langley throws it all into the mix  and gives it a good stir.

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For me, the second ‘Pentimenti’ is a much greater success, presenting itself as a literal palimpsest of the earlier poem – the thoughts, drafts and revisions that might have led to it. The performance here is not the dazzling, often impossible to follow footwork of other poems in the book, but rather one of hesitations, lines of thought taken up, then dropped, crossings out and (literal) fadings out. For me this expresses the difficulties of expression more effectively than many other poems, especially in the revisions we witness which involve a switch of verb tense from present to past. Most of these observations seem (again) to be focused on a romantic relationship so that what is the case (first draft) is being transformed into what was before our very eyes. I think (actually, I’m not sure) the sequence drifts latterly towards the relationship with the father again but even the obscurities here play an affecting role and the collection’s final lines remind me of the tragic, closing moments of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, in which the Gaelic language, culture and memory seems to be fraying and withering to nothing even as we watch and the lights dim.

Langley’s book will infuriate many and please the few. There is an impressive peculiarity here, a performative jouissance concerning language and learning which the Forward short-listing committee must be responding to. But I do wish he’d had a tougher editorial voice to cut the length of the book which – especially in the mid-sections – indulgently outstays its welcome.

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This Must Be All: Robert Frost’s ‘Two Look at Two’

I have recently posted about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’ as well as on one of his lesser known poems, ‘A Soldier’. The latter is one of the poems I’ll be teaching this coming academic year as set by the Cambridge International Exam Board: see page 47. Student essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes). Another of the set poems is discussed in what follows: ‘Two Look at Two’. I read the poem here:

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In The Dyer’s Hand (1963), Auden’s essay on Frost opens by observing that, if asked who said ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’, most people would reply ‘John Keats’. Auden differs, arguing the famous phrase is really something Keats makes the Grecian urn say so the author maintains some dramatic distance between himself and the poem’s questionable statement. This is also a very Frostian device – though not one that Auden probes in his subsequent discussion of the poems. Whenever we read Frost, it’s important to be alert to such ironic distancing from the (simply understood) lyric voice or ‘I’. In fact, ‘Two Look at Two’ is a poem which does not obviously lend itself to this ‘dramatic’ sort of interpretation as its narrative voice seems more reliably omniscient, or at least impersonal. And yet the obvious meaning of the poem is not characteristic of a poet whose work can be dark and pessimistic, indeed labelled “terrifying” by Lionel Trilling in 1959. In the poem, a couple of lovers, walking up a mountain, encounter a corresponding pair of deer – a doe and buck. At the end of the brief, uneventful encounter the narrator reports that the human couple sense a “wave” of reciprocated love emanating from the “earth”. At the conclusion of this discussion, I’ll look again at whether the narrator’s confident assertion of this should be taken at face value.

The first and last words in the poem are the same: “love”. The opening 3 lines are full of qualifying equivocations with the choice of verb form “might” and the vague but limiting phrases about how far up the mountain side the couple will go: “A little further up” and “not much further up”. It is the twin forces of “love and forgetting” which have the potential to drive them higher up the mountain. The two are probably linked in that, absorbed in their mutual love, they may become forgetful, neglectful of the potential dangers in the landscape. The risk of self-absorption (even in the cause of romantic love) is raised here by Frost, a risk encountered by other narrators in poems like ‘An Encounter’, ‘The Wood-Pile’ and most clearly in ‘Stopping by Woods…’ In the latter, the allure of the snowy woods is strongly felt by the narrator (“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”) but his work and social responsibilities probably prevent him from abandoning the road and risking/welcoming death by exposure.

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In many cases, the chief risk is a neglect of the boundaries that in Frost’s world it seems wiser to acknowledge and adhere to. In ‘Two Look at Two’ this is clear in the forceful verbs used in the following few lines (“They must have halted” and “they must not go”) and it may explain the optimistic nature of this poem that we see the lovers in fact do adhere to the limits set. Lines 5/6 suggest they have thoughts not of over-reaching or dizzying aspiration but rather of the dangers present to them: “With thoughts of the path back, how rough it was / With rock and washout, and unsafe in darkness”. Frost’s music here is suitably rough and threatening with its harsh consonants and internal rhyme (path/back), the growling ‘r’ sounds followed by a swilling of sibilance (washout /unsafe /darkness) suggestive of the water-eroded path on the hillside. When they encounter the actual physical barrier of a wall, Frost bulks it up (despite its ruined state) in the reader’s ear with heavy plosive ‘b’ sounds: “they were halted by a tumbled wall / With barbed-wire binding”.

This is not a barrier to be passed easily – and the lovers do not even try. They possess a sort of Frostian piety or reverence most clearly seen also in ‘Mending Wall with its repeated maxim: “Good fences make good neighbours”. ‘Two Look at Two’ does allow its lovers a residual “onward impulse” which they spend, or expend, simply by gazing up along the path “they must not” now follow. The dangers that lie there are again described with a telling adjective (it is a “failing path”) and a haunting moment of hypothetical personification: “if a stone / Or earthslide moved at night, it moved itself”. It is at this point that we hear some words spoken by the lovers. Their words are brief and (effectively) firmly monosyllabic – “This is all [. . . ] Good-night to woods”. But they are accompanied by a sighing of regret that the walk has reached its limit. Frost here is accepting the reality of human desire – that “limitless trait of ‘There Are Roughly Zones’ –but he and the lovers see the risks of its limitless pursuit.

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The lovers’ clipped statements are answered in kind by the narrative voice: “But not so; there was more.” The clipped, heavily punctuated nature of lines 13/14 make them a clear, early turning point in the poem, a moment of stasis and some tension. The unpunctuated and enjambed line 15 then sets the narrative flowing again as it records the sudden presence of the doe, staring back across the wall at the lovers. The mirroring effect is most important and presented through the plain language of lines 16/7: the doe is looking at them “Across the wall, as near the wall as they. / She saw them in their field, they her in hers”.  In each line the caesura acts as the wall, dividing and join the two halves of the lines. The repetitions of ‘wall’, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘her’ slow and focus the reader on what the title suggests is the mutual regard occurring on either side of the wall.

Frost’s narrative slides seamlessly into the doe’s perspective, imagining her difficulty in seeing the couple. Though watched carefully, their alien appearance is conveyed in a simile: they are “like some up-ended boulder split in two”. But the couple perceive no “fear” in the creature and Frost’s formulation – “they saw no fear there” – also suggests they feel no fear on their part either. In fact, lines 21-24 rather suggest the couple, “though strange”, do not possess much interest for the doe:

She could not trouble her mind with [them] too long,

She sighed and passed unscared along the wall.

Notably, she also shares the ‘sigh’ with the couple and in this way the shared mutuality of the encounter is emphasised, preparing us for the final affirmative moments of the poem.

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The couple’s speech (line 25) suggests – through italicisation, short phrases and the rhetorical question – that they are breathlessly impressed. They think this is “all” but there is more to come. Frost’s poem ‘The Most of It’ comes to mind, recording as it does the appearance of another creature (“As a great buck”), its advent perhaps a response to a man’s demand for “counter-love, original response”. There, the creature seems brutish, indifferent, unaware, alien and incomprehensible as it stumbles off into the underbrush. ‘The Most of It’ (bafflingly not a poem included in CIE’s set poem list) is a key poem to contrast with ‘Two Look at Two’. In the latter, a buck also appears and, despite its more challenging even arrogant tone, it is never as frighteningly remote as the creature in ‘The Most of It’.

The buck of ‘Two Look at Two’ announces itself with a “snort” and is a more stereotypically masculine presence with its antlers, “lusty nostril”, its jerking head and its (imagined) arrogantly dismissive questioning of the couple. But his difference from the doe is minor as we recognise a whole line repeated: the buck also stands looking at the couple, “Across the wall, as near the wall as they”. It’s perhaps not clear who is interpreting the shaking of the buck’s head as questions. It’s either the narrative voice itself or that voice reporting (omnisciently) on the thoughts of the couple. His questions verge on the belligerent:

Why don’t you make some motion?

Or give some sign of life? Because you can’t.

I doubt if you’re as living as you look.

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If we are going to find disharmony in this seemingly mutual encounter, this is where it might lie. The buck’s questions portray the couple as standing respectfully, perhaps in awe, certainly in silence. The impact of the (imagined) questions is to make the human couple “almost” feel “dared / to stretch a proffering hand – and a spell-breaking one”. So the buck’s obstreperous attitude strikes the couple as a dare to reach out across the divide. Such an action would be to proffer, “to hold out or put forward (something) to someone for its acceptance”, hence a gesture of friendship. But Frost also makes it clear such a reaching across the divide would break the spell of mutual regard which has been the subject of the whole poem. In fact, the moment of choice – a topic of so many other Frost poems, most famously ‘The Road Not Taken’ – is passed over as the buck, just like the doe, moves away, “unscared along the wall”.

The final 5 lines deal with the impact on the lovers. Again, they briefly speak: “This must be all”. And on this occasion, the narrative voice agrees: “It was all”. The final phrase in ‘The Most of It’ is “and that was all”. Is this the cry or half-question of the disappointed man asking, ‘Is there no more than this’? Or is it a rapt, stunned whispering in the face of a vision of a unitary world declaring, ‘So this is all and all’s connected’? You could ask the same questions about the end of ‘Two Look at Two’ though the couple’s italicised emphasis in line 39 and the fact they continue to stand, as if rapt and wrapped still in the experience they have just had, surely does not suggest disappointment. Frost uses the metaphor of the “wave” sweeping over them, suggesting an irresistible inundation, a largeness of feeling derived from this minor incident. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”.

But the “As if” that opens line 41 cannot be ignored. This is how it felt – for the lovers. I don’t think Frost wants to deny them their experience. But perhaps they are still too absorbed in their own “Love and forgetting”. This is where the sense of the poem as a dramatic performance perhaps is relevant, in this case the incident rosily-coloured by the perceptions of the lovers. We ought to hesitate before we conclude that Frost himself sees the earth as in fact mutually responding with love. This would be exactly the “counter-love, original response” that so signally does not occur in ‘The Most of It’. The optimism of ‘Two Look at Two’ cannot be dismissed – but nor can it be taken in any simple way as the real and final ‘message’ of its author.

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Too Short an Arc: Robert Frost’s ‘A Soldier’

I recently posted a discussion about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’. In this post I’m looking at one of the poems I’ll be teaching next year from the Cambridge International Exam Board’s list of set texts. See page 47 of the Specification. Essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a student’s wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes).

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Robert Frost’s seldom discussed sonnet, ‘A Soldier’, was first published in West-Running Brook (1928). The choice of the indefinite article in the title contrasts immediately with a war poem like Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in which some effort is made to capture an individual voice, a specific occasion for grief. In Frost’s poem, the soldier’s death is rather an opportunity for the poet’s characteristic reflections on life’s limits and freedoms, on boundaries, on the relationship between our place on earth and our aspiration to something else.

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked

And tripped the body, shot the spirit on

Further than target ever showed or shone.

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On the page, Frost does not divide the structural elements of this broadly Petrarchan sonnet, but it is useful to think of them for the sake of analysis and I refer to quatrains, octet, sestet and volta where relevant. Here’s me reading the poem with the text differently chunked into units of sense.

Line 1 immediately treats the dead soldier to a metaphorical (more strictly metonymic) transformation – he becomes his own weapon. But the kind of dehumanisation suggested by the ‘man=lance’ image does not lead to more obvious themes about loss of individuality in war time. Also why Frost chooses such an archaic weapon as a lance is not clear – perhaps he was thinking of a painting, perhaps he wanted to distance the death from more contemporary images of war (the poem first appeared 14 years after the end of WW1), perhaps he felt it would give him more freedom to explore the symbolism of the death without personal, (distracting?) human entanglements. The opening 3 lines of quatrain 1 (Q1) are as follows:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

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The repetition of the verb “lies” is striking and emphasises the soldier’s passivity in death and the subsequent stillness of the lance. The adjective “fallen” confirms this idea. The end of line 1 seems to mean something like ‘the lance lies just as/in the way it was hurled’. So the throw was a failure, an ineffective effort, as also suggested in line 3 where we are told it has merely “plowed the dust”. The lance’s metaphorical ploughing of the earth further suggests an ineffective, unfertile, unproductive act. Line 2 reinforces these images of passivity, inaction, ineffectuality, as the lance “lies unlifted” over a length of time (duration suggested by the hesitations of the heavier punctuation in line 2) likely to give rise to both “dew” and “rust”. So this is not an image of death and failure in the heat of the battle; it may indeed be long after. Frost seems more than happy to draw the reader’s mind away from what might be the actual condition of the flesh and blood soldier himself by this stage. His dewy, rusty lance, plugged point first into the earth, stands in for him. This is not a poem of personal grief or lament for a warrior’s lost life. That it ought to have a bit more concern for that theme (to be a bit less exploitative) is one of the reasons why we may find reading the poem an uneasy experience.

Line 4 introduces the plural pronoun and – crossing the unmarked boundary between Q1 and Q2 – we are off into more generalised realms of philosophical speculation.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

The image of ‘sighting’ along the lance perhaps re-instates more modern methods of warfare (rifles with sights?) but whether ancient or modern, Frost suggests, in looking for a suitable target or “mark”, we fail, we see “nothing worthy”. This is more hyperbolic than factual perhaps, given that we are sighting along the lance and apparently gazing “round the world”. It’s this latter phrase – its easy familiarity enabling Frost to smuggle it past the reader’s guard against inappropriate pretention – that initiates the poem’s elevation from battle-field incident to generalised speculative discussion about human aspiration and limitation.

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The simile in line 6, comparing the observing “we” to “men” has been noted and criticised by H. A. Maxson (On the Sonnets of Robert Frost (1997)). He objects that the observing “we” are surely “men” (in the sense of human) and so the simile barrenly compares like with like. Maxson suggests Frost intended something like ‘isn’t it just like men’, a sort of frustrated, critical aside (self not excluded) that human beings have very limited powers of observation. Another way of reading the moment may be to emphasis the gender specificity of the reference: is this limit to our sight a specifically male problem?

Of course, it’s not mere shortness of optical sight that is the issue, but a “Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere, / Our missiles always make too short an arc”. The phrase “as fitted to the sphere” works in the same way as “round the world” did earlier. Frost is urging us to forget the battlefield where the poem began; the discussion now is about our place in the world/sphere and how we perceive it or not. Though the use of the word “missiles” does suggest a return to the militaristic, it works as a more generalised allusions to human tools, all carefully “fitted to the sphere” but because of that they/we are unable to contemplate what may lie beyond it. For this reasons our tools, missiles, thought and perceptions all fall short, they “make too short an arc”.

 

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Robert Frost

 

The arc image reminds us of the interim statement in Frost’s ‘Birches’ that the narrator would “like to get away from the earth awhile”. In ‘A Soldier’ the desire for a similar escape is expressed more indirectly in the constriction and thudding physicality beyond the volta, at the opening of the sestet, descriptive of all lances’ fate when limited by human “sight”:

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

The short phrases, heavy punctuation and repeated 3rd person pronoun as well as the violence of words like “rip”, “striking” and “break” convey Frost’s sense of the tragic, destructive quality of such limited aspiration and vision. There is a double wounding implied as the lances intersect and puncture the earth itself and in doing so “break their own” (curve, I take it).

Frost’s use of the word “cringe” in line 10 is interesting. The root of the word is relevantly related to Old English cringan, crincan to ‘bend, yield or fall in battle’. Its modern meaning is to bend one’s head and body in fear or apprehension or in a servile manner or to experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust. So our human failure to see or aspire beyond the earth – represented here by the lance’s metal point striking stone – becomes a defeat of sorts, an act of weakness or servility, at least of embarrassment or disgust at our own inadequacy. It is as if the birch swinger in Frost’s other poem has no other option but to remain in his despondent state, “weary of considerations”:

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

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It’s at this point the birch swinger expresses the wish to “get away” from earth by climbing the tree and swinging on it. But this is no simple, one-way,  transcendent wishfulness. In ‘Birches’ the narrator always intends to come back to earth and “begin over” because – in two of Frost’s most moving lines – “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

‘A Soldier’ lacks the uplift (for reader) and complicating paradoxes of ‘Birches’. The sonnet dwells long and hard on our limitations, our poor aim and aimlessness, the burns, tickles and cobwebs. But the sestet ends in a declarative mode, not typical of Frost who works more usually via hints and guesses.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked And tripped the body, shot the spirit on Further than target ever showed or shone.

The “obstacle” here is the earth, plugging the lance, tripping the soldier himself, a pratfall in the obstinate materiality of the world. But Frost’s plainly concluding tone is now undermined by a more characteristic paradox in what has tripped the soldier’s body is precisely what also shoots his “spirit” beyond the merely everyday. The sonnet’s final line suggests the apparently unworthy “mark” of line 5 (now referred to as a “target”) has indeed been transcended towards something “Further”. Frost’s final phrase, overly pushy and hyperbolic, overly alliterative, the rhyming couplet also raising the poetic stakes a bit too high, strikes me as vacuous, its faux shimmer and shine propelled more by wishful thinking than precision of thought. Of course, what Frost intends to say – something about the generative tensions that exist between matter and spirit – may well be inexpressible but in poems like ‘Birches’, ‘Mowing’ and ‘After Apple-Picking’ he gets closer to it than he does in the confines of this sonnet.

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The Politics of the ‘Daodejing’

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I travelled north to Bradford earlier this week to read from my versions of the Daodejing. For the first time a reader of Mandarin was present to read from something approaching the original texts. Bradford artist Yan Wang read beautifully as well as providing the evening with a couple of large banner-scrolls of chapters from the text. The whole evening had been organised by an old friend, Bruce Barnes, a poet and tireless organiser and more recently translator of long-neglected work by Kosuke Shirasu, a Japanese proletarian writer from the 1920/30s. I read Bruce’s ‘interpretations’ of Shirasu’s work (done with the help of Jun Shirasu and published as Out of his struggles (Utistugu Press, Bradford) on the train back to London and it reminded me that I had wanted for a while to organise my thoughts about the political elements in the Daodejing poems. (Poem titles in brackets are those I have given to the individual ‘chapters’ of the text).

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It’s generally accepted that one of the purposes of the collection of texts called the Daodejing is to instruct about good government. Chapter 46 (Annexation) argues that when government adheres to the Way – the teachings of the Daoist ideas – then its great parades of horses “are put out to grass to fertilise the ground”. It’s when government neglects the Way that its “war horses sire and foal / even on sacred ground”. Such neglect leads to personal and political “unsteadiness” which Chapter 26 (‘Breath-taking Scenes’) identifies as the “loss of all authority”. This is authority in its truest sense because in other poems we read of aggressive, power-grabbing behaviour which is also a way of neglecting Daoist ideas. Chapter 29 (‘What is Fixed’) describes those who grab at “earthly power” who are as liable to smash it as gain any advantage.

One of the key chapters, 67 (‘Three Treasures’) goes so far as to suggest that “only one reluctant to grasp power / is properly capable of government”. One clear attitude in these poems is that busy, hyperactive government – one that “grows brisk full of initiatives” – is an error:

 

those who hope

to rule by dishing out

press releases

a multiplicity of choices

are the con-men

of the nation

Chapter 65 (‘Blizzard’)

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This distrust of big government is compounded when those with power try to ingratiate themselves with those they rule. With very little modernisation, the Daodejing is suspicious of those politicians who “style themselves ‘man of the people’ / sometimes ‘housewife’ / they like to say ‘we are all in this together’” (Chapter 39). What lies behind such cynical declarations is a real hunger for power as an exercise of ego (not true government). Laozi is very clear that such egoistic motives lead only in one direction for a nation: war.

 

–those who govern my teacher says

must oppose conquest by force of arms

 

such methods swiftly rebound

thorn and bramble where troops assemble

Chapter 30 (‘Scorched Earth’)

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Leaders (and the Daodejing never really doubts that human society needs leaders of a sort) need to adhere to the Way and encourage their people to do the same. Chapter 37 (‘Dispassion’) puts it succinctly:

 

—the way enacts nothing yet through it all things are achieved

if the powerful

possessed themselves of it

the ten thousand would be transformed

 

once transformed if they begin

to demand action

they ought to be constrained

with the uncarved wood quality of namelessness

 

the unconditional quality of the nameless

evokes dispassion—

hence it is to be still

 

so the nation pursues its way in peace

 

This idea of ‘constraint’ begins to sound authoritarian again but elsewhere it appears our political leaders are being advised not to over-encourage our expectations. Chapter 19 (‘Fewer Wishes’) advises that a people’s restlessness ought to be dealt with by offering them “simplicity / to behold give them the uncarved block // give them selflessness give fewer wishes”. In our world of unconfined desire and acquisitiveness (the point of being alive?) this sounds suspect perhaps but is perfectly in line with those who choose to opt out of modern life towards simplicity, fewer possessions etc. The uncarved block is a recurring image representing the fullest presence of life and experience before we begin to hack away at it with our self-centred preconceptions. The three virtues of the Daodejing are to be compassionate, to be frugal and to lack ambition.

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The point is that Daoist thinking is optimistic about human nature. There is a Rousseauistic quality to its belief in the goodness of mankind as a noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious. Chapter 18 (Codes of kindness’) argues it’s only when the Way “falls into disuse / codes of kindness thoughts / of morality evolve”. Laozi argues we are better off without such rules of codified behaviour. This is not quite anarchism but certainly a powerfully libertarian thread runs through the work. In one of the most striking images in the whole sequence, Chapter 60 (‘Recipe’) compares true government to the cooking of a “delicate fish”. It requires the gentlest of touches:

 

no agitation

or any demon

or the fretting

of your own spirit

 

no shuffle or harm

or sudden injury

but aid and attend

gain advantage

 

the power to feed

the common purpose

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It’s this delicacy, gentleness, almost passivity of government that leads Laozi to associate this approach with the stereotypically ‘female’. Early on, in Chapter 6 (‘Valley’) we are told the spirit of the Way is “[a] valley without end / it is female it is called mysteriousness”. This translates politically into government playing a largely passive role (as does the good teacher) to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. Government must be honest, give the tools, give opportunities, do its job well. Its role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Its actions call forth responses to the fact it acts, plans, demands. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else.

 

Tributaries

chapter 61

 

—strong nations must play the low ground

to which all contributing waters flow

the point to which all things converge

so their invitations issue from stillness

through quiescence they gather power

let’s call that female and the male cannot

resist he brings his watery tributes

and she gains adherents he procures favour

as she looks to embrace and empower

he finds himself part of a greater thing

in this way becomes part of creation

so both thrive both discovering bliss—

real power is female it rises from beneath

Study of a Kneeling Boy Bending a Bow, for Dorchester House c.1860 by Alfred Stevens 1817-1875

Like the cooked fish, another memorable image is the bending of a bow. As it is bent the top (of society) descends earthwards while what is “nearest the earth is raised up”. This is the ideal process of government in the Daodejing. Only in Chapter 80 (‘The Commonwealth’) does Laozi give something of a portrait of the contentedly ruled society. It is small, hard-working, has basic needs met; it has the capability of greater luxury (and also weapons) but none of these are made use of. This little society is aware of others around it (perhaps run on different lines) but its people are so content they feel no desire to travel.

Idealistic without doubt. But does this even sound attractive? It’s unlikely to – given our absorption into our consumerist society, our expectations that government ought to provide and lead. But we don’t need to look far to see systems breaking down and at the least what the Daodejing offers is an alternative vision of the exercise of power in society. It’s a vision that is over 2000 years old which means it’s either well past its sell-by-date or that it contains some wisdom that we ought not to ignore.

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Martyn and Yan Wang reading from the ‘Daodejing’ for Beehive Poets, Bradford

Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and [uz]’

Last week I posted on Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’. The following discussion of another extraordinary Tony Harrison poem originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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‘Them and [uz]’ – listen to Harrison read this poem here.

for Professors Richard Hoggart & Leon Cortez

I

αίαι, ay, ay! … stutterer Demosthenes

gob full of pebbles outshouting seas –

 

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,

you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.

‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

 

I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.

 

‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!

All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see

‘s been dubbed by [Λs] into RP,

Received Pronunciation, please believe [Λs]

your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

 

‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.

I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘flat cap’)

my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great

lumps to hawk up and spit out… E-nun-ci-ate!

 

II

So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy

your lousy leasehold Poetry.

 

I chewed up Littererchewer and spat the bones

into the lap of dozing Daniel Jones,

dropped the initials I’d been harried as

and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz],

ended sentences with by, with, from,

and spoke the language that I spoke at home.

RIP, RP, RIP T.W.

I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!

 

You can tell the Receivers where to go

(and not aspirate it) once you know

Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,

[uz] can be loving as well as funny.

 

My first mention in the Times

automatically made Tony Anthony!

Read about the drafting of this poem – in the Tony Harrison Archive at Leeds University.

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Though it was Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ Harrison ‘mispronounced’ at school, it is actually Wordsworth who is more important to him because both share a belief in poetry as the voice of a man speaking to men. This conception of poetry as speech is a powerful constituent in Harrison’s work and perhaps one not clearly understood. John Lucas, for example, has attacked what he sees as loose metrics in the poem ‘V’ but, to reverse Harrison’s comment that all his writing (theatrical or otherwise) is poetry, all his poetry needs to be read as essentially dramatic and deserves to be tested in the spoken voice as much as in the study. Harrison’s interest in the curious idea that the true poet is born without a mouth implies the difficult battling for a voice or voices which can be found everywhere in his work and it is in this clamour that I find its dramatic quality. In a public poem like ‘A Cold Coming’, Harrison makes use of the contrasting and conflicting voices by playing them off against a regular form. This is almost always the case, but in what follows I prefer to concentrate less on metrical effects than on the way voices interweave.

The very title of the pair of sonnets, ‘Them & [uz]’, seems to promise conflict, at best dialogue, and it opens with what could be taken as the howl of inarticulacy. In fact each pair of these opening syllables gestures towards crucial worlds in Harrison’s universe. The ‘αίαιof classical dramatic lament is echoed by the “ay, ay!” of the musical hall comedian cheekily working up an audience. Immediately, the reader is plunged into the unresolved drama of two differing voices, instantly implying the two cultures of the sonnets’ title. The line and a half which follows, sketching Demosthenes practicing eloquence on the beach, is intriguing in that its locus as speech is hard to pin down. It is perhaps intended at this stage (apart from introducing the poems’ central issue) to hover in an Olympian fashion above the ruck of dialogue that follows, implying the heroic stance which will be taken up in the second sonnet.

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Line 3 opens again into a dramatic situation with the voice of the narrator (the adult Harrison), repeating his own interrupted recital of Keats in the classroom, while the master’s scornful comments appear fresh, unreported, as if still raw and present, in speech marks. The narratorial comment on this – “He was nicely spoken” – confirms this poem’s tendency to switch voices for its effects, this time its brief sarcasm barely obscuring the unironic comment likely to be made by an aspiring Loiner, or by an ambitious parent. The example of nice speaking given (again in direct quotes in the following line) is the master’s claim to possession, to authority in matters of language and culture and the separated-off reply of the narrator – “I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth – with its full rhyme and sudden regular iambic pentameter, implies both a causal link between the two lines, painting Harrison as dispossessed specifically by the master’s attitudes, as well as conveying the tone of resignation in the young schoolboy.

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Much of the tension and success of the poem has already arisen from the dramatic interchange of voices and the master’s voice asserts itself again in line 7 ironically claiming a kind of monolithic, aristocratic purity to poetry which this poem has already attempted to subvert:

 

Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!”

 

The following lines contain a curious wavering in the clear interplay of dramatic voices, only part of which is resolved as the poem proceeds. Evidently, the intrusive, even hectoring, parenthesis (at line 9) is the narrator’s questioning of what appears to be the master’s voice’s continuing argument that “All poetry” belongs to Received Pronunciation. Yet the aggression of this attack, with its harsh alliteration and sarcastic question mark, is out of key with the other narratorial comments in part I, though the tone is re-established in part II. In addition, I have some difficulty in accepting the master’s words as appropriate to the situation which – with no break – continues the speech made to the young Harrison. For example, the word “dubbed”, with its implication of the deliberate laying of a second voice over an ‘original’, already hands victory in the argument to Harrison’s claim for the authenticity of ‘dialect’ and, as such, would not be used by the believer in “the speech of kings”. Equally, the apparent plea, “please believe [ s] / your speech is in the hands of the Receivers”, does not accord with the voice that summarily dismissed the pupil as a “barbarian” 7 lines earlier. In this case, Harrison’s desire for the dramatic has foundered momentarily on that old dramatist’s rock, the necessity for exposition which compromises the integrity of the speaking voice.

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The true note of the master returns – interestingly, following one of Harrison’s movable stanza breaks, as if confirming a shift in voice though the speech actually continues across the break – with “We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!” The tone of the responding voice, after the suggestion of a more spirited response in the Keats comment, has returned to the resignation of the brow-beaten pupil. This is reinforced by the more distant comparison of the boy to the ancient Greek of the opening lines, heroically “outshouting seas”, while the young Harrison’s mouth is “all stuffed with glottals, great / lumps to hawk up and spit out”. This first sonnet draws to a close with this tone of frustrated defeat for the boy, yet the drama has one final twist, as the voice of the master, sneering, precise and italicised, has the last word – “E-nun-ci-ate!“. There can be little doubt that the boy must have felt as his father is reported to have done in another sonnet from The School of Eloquence, “like some dull oaf”.

The second part of ‘Them & [uz]’ contrasts dramatically with the first, though the seeds of it lie in the image of heroic Demosthenes and the accusatory tone of the reference to Keats which seemed a little out of place in part I. This second sonnet’s opening expletive aggression strikes a new tone of voice altogether. “So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy / your lousy leasehold Poetry”. The poem’s premise is that it will redress the defeat suffered in part I in an assertive, unopposed manner. Not the master, nor any spokesman for RP is allowed a direct voice, yet the interchange of speech and implied situation can still be found to ensure a dramatic quality to the verse.

The passionate and confrontational situation of the opening challenge is clear enough, yet it’s striking how it has taken the autobiographical incident in part I and multiplied it (“yer buggers . . . We’ll occupy”) to present the wider political and cultural context as a future battlefield. Even so, there is no let up in the clamour of voices raised in the poem. Immediately, the narratorial voice shifts to a more reflective, past tense (at line 3) as the rebel reports actions already taken – and with some success, judging from the tone of pride and defiance: “[I] used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz]”. Even within this one line, the final three stressed syllables are spat out in a vivid reenactment of Harrison’s defiant spoken self-assertion. It is this slippery elision of voice and situation which creates the undoubted excitement of these and many of Harrison’s poems as they try to draw the rapidity and short-hand nature of real speech, its miniature dramas and dramatisations into lyric poetry. A further shift can be found in lines 9 and 10, in that the voice now turns to address a different subject. The addressee is not immediately obvious as the staccato initials in the line are blurted out in what looks like a return to the situation and voice with which this sonnet opened. Only at the end of line 10 does it become clear that the addressee is the poet’s younger self, or the self created as the “dull oaf” by the kind of cultural repression practised by the schoolmaster. The reader is further drawn into the drama of the situation by this momentary uncertainty: RIP RP, RIP T.W. / “I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!”.

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The remaining 6 lines are, as a speech act, more difficult to locate. There is an initial ambiguity in that they may continue to address “T.W.”, though the stanza break suggests a change and, anyway, this makes little sense as T.W. is now dead (“RIP T.W.”). In fact, these lines use the second person pronoun in the impersonal sense of ‘one’, addressing non-RP speakers in general, and it is the generalised nature of these lines which disarms the effectiveness of the passage. This is particularly important in line 14, “[uz] can be loving as well as funny”, the tone of which, commentators like John Haffenden have questioned. The difficulty here is that if Harrison is addressing those who might use [uz] anyway, though there may well be many amongst them for whom the fact that “Wordsworth’s matter / water are full rhymes” is useful ammunition and reassurance, the same cannot be said of the “loving as well as funny” line which might variously be construed as patronising, sentimental or just plain unnecessary. Nevertheless, the poem regains a more sure touch in the final lines in its use of the reported ‘voice’ of The Times in renaming the poet “Anthony“. The effect here is both humorous (this, after all the poet’s passionate efforts!) and yet ominous in that the bastions of cultural and linguistic power are recognised as stubborn, conservative forces, still intent on re-defining the poet according to their own agenda, imposing their own hegemonic voice where there might be many.

Teaching Dannie Abse’s ‘Two For Joy’ (2010)

I first became aware of Dannie Abse’s work in 1986 when he and his wife, Joan, were editing Voices in the Gallery,  a sumptuous anthology of poems about paintings for the Tate Gallery. To my astonished delight, they accepted ‘At The National Gallery’, an early poem of mine about Gerrit van Honthorst’s ‘Christ Before the High Priest’ which later appeared in Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). Our paths continued to cross around the London poetry scene, especially at (usually fraught) Poetry Society Council meetings in the 1990s. A couple of years ago he visited the College where I work and happily discussed his poems with students. His death in September 2014 was such a sad loss.

With the New Year we are again teaching Dannie Abse’s collection Two for Joy (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0091931177/karelsoftw-21). But with the changes to A Levels being hurried in from September 2015, this will be the last time we work on this book (for AS Level Coursework) though it has proved a joy to teach. This is perhaps a surprise given its subject matter.

The book is a compilation of work from several years focused on Abse’s relationship with Joan, his wife (herself a writer, editor and acclaimed art historian). It was published a couple of years after The Presence (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0099531860/karelsoftw-21), a memoir completed in response to Joan’s tragic death in a car accident in 2005. ‘Two for Joy’, of course, alludes to the old country saying, cited on seeing magpies: one for sorrow, two for joy. The poems in the collection evoke both sides of this cryptic saw, from the early joys of young love to the sorrowing widower more than 50 years later.

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In terms of teaching and coursework the book’s focus is so intense, powerful and yet varied that the material always goes down very well with students and enables them to write confidently about ‘the collection’ (one of the Assessment Objectives). We might start with the simplicity of ‘Condensation on a Windowpane’ where the aging narrator inscribes his and his lover’s names on the wet windowpane because he wants to write “something simple as pure water”. Yet even water, further considered, is complicated, “like steam, like ice, like clouds”. This plainness of address and nakedness of emotion is immediately engaging but Abse is really flagging up the collection’s main themes of love and time as, eventually, the words fade, dribbling down the glass: “They weep as they vanish”.

Or what better way (I mean appalling way) to gain students’ attention than this opening quatrain of ‘Lachrymae’:

I crawled from the noise of the upturned car

And the silence in the dark began to grow.

I called out her name again and again

To where neither words nor love could go.

This little sequence of poems like tear drops is set after Joan’s death and delicately re-visits a few scenes from married life, only to end with the narrator walking in solitude beside the Hampstead ponds, “where a lone swan sings / without a sound”.

An earlier poem ‘A Night Out’ records a visit the couple made to the Academy cinema in Oxford Street in the 1950s. As a Welsh Jew in London, courting and marrying a gentile, there are plenty of moments in these poems where the unconventional couple have to confront the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the 1950s and early 1960s: anti-Semitism in ‘A Marriage’; general moral strictures in ‘Two for Joy’. On the occasion of the cinema visit, Abse’s cultural background is significant as they watch a fictionalised account of the Holocaust: “images of Auschwitz, almost authentic, the human obscenity in close-up” so much that “we forgot the barbed wire / was but a prop [. . . ] those striped victims merely actors”. Afterwards, the couple are stunned by what they have seen, sitting in a “bored espresso bar”. Gathering themselves at last, they return home to a German au pair girl, their own children safely asleep upstairs:

Reassured, together we climbed the stairs,

undressed together, and naked together,

in the dark, in the marital bed, made love.

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Abse’s technical skill with plain language is on full show in such lines and the class might have debates about how far individual love is shown to counter, compensate, or merely distract from world horrors. In a 1980 essay called ‘Rhyme’ (collected in Dannie Abse: a Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1854115073/karelsoftw-21) Abse has commented on this poem and presenting students with his observations has often proved to be a moment when sceptics about the deliberateness of a writer’s choices can be converted. He compares ‘A Night Out’ with ‘In Llandough Hospital’ arguing that the charge of emotion from the film was so powerful that he “did not want to make any pretty artifice out of it. I did not want to be lyrical about such a theme. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, to avoid all kinds of artificiality, to say what I felt and to say it plainly. I wanted the verisimilitude of prose”.

The period of the Cold War is briefly evoked at the end of ‘A Scene from Married Life’ in contrast to the “few and brief” cold wars of the couple’s marital rows. Set in Abse’s beloved Ogmore-by-the-Sea in South Glamorgan, after a petty squabble, the narrator metamorphoses into a monster of self-pity and suicidal thoughts. The poem cleverly balances the two perspectives of the over-dramatising, younger self with a more ironic, mature judgment. It’s only at the end with the appearance of Joan on the cliff top (surely an echo Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Voice, with Emma in her ‘sky blue gown’) that the faux-suicide relents:

On the high cliff my wife dressed in blue and all

The best of the world true and desirable.

With surrendering waves I crawled back to the shore.

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Such humour, often in self-mockery is never far from Abse’s work. The darker side of grief is evoked in the image of blood-stained petals falling in ‘Magnolia’ (“bridal branches slowly violated”) but most powerfully in ‘The Revisit’ which again works the rich seam of two periods of life knotted together. A beautiful lake scene enjoyed together is re-vised by the lonely widower into an apocalyptic vision, with the sun-set now evocative of “Angel wars. Such April bloodshed!” Though there are more consolatory poems in the book, where time the healer is seen to begin its work, ‘The Revisit’ shocks in its blunt confrontation with grief and on this occasion Abse’s use of poetical devices, the abundant skill of the artist, only serves to emphasise the helplessness of the man:

The gradual distance between two stars is night.

Ago, love, we made love till dark was bright.

Now without you dark is darker still and infinite

It would be a shame indeed if, in the mean-spirited, ever-narrowing criteria of the new A Level specifications, a collection such as this one could not continue to find a place. Dannie Abse’s website is at: http://www.dannieabse.com/.

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Ecology and Poetry: Review of Michael McKimm’s ‘Fossil Sunshine’

I met Michael McKimm earlier this year – at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in September 2014. His chapbook, Fossil Sunshine (Worple Press, 2013) interested me because much has been said in the last few years about how poetry has embraced science. This is one plank of the argument that also declares poetry has embraced popular culture, or the world and language of IT, the law, or maybe banking. Yes, poetry is keen to annex what it can. And I would happily sign up to the general principle that poetry’s health can feasibly be measured by the range of experience it can encompass. In times of feebleness poems are stuntedly concerned with poetic subjects, poetic diction; in periods of strength, there is a great sense of traction and encompassment, that anything will give itself to the poet.

Perhaps we are on the cusp of one of these latter moments; reading Nathan Hamilton’s 2013 Bloodaxe anthology (note the wide embrace of the title) Dear World & Everyone In It you might get that feeling. And guess what: Michael McKimm appears on page 90 and Fossil Sunshine really is differently-angled to most of the collections you’ll have read recently. These poems are the result of a year-long collaboration with earth scientists, in a project funded by Arts Council England. Drawing on fieldwork with geologists, the poems explore the relationships between geology, the oil industry and climate change, and (Worple’s blurb says) they ask what the evidence held in the geological record can teach us. The blurb goes on: “From ice ages to landslides, oil spills to geo-engineering, Fossil Sunshine captures the language of geology, as well as the energy and drive of exploration and discovery”.

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Given its subject, the book inevitably has an admonitory tone. But one of the problems with poetry’s annexing more and still more was noted by Keats and his response was to loathe anything poetic that has a palpable, didactic design upon us. Indeed, the poetic and didactic are mutually exclusive for him. Poetry is a realm (perhaps unique) where life’s genuine truth and beauty (simply that it is full of shades and ambiguity) can be expressed and relished without any irritable reaching after clarity and fact. What I like so much about McKimm’s poems is that they would also have pleased Keats on this count. They are vigorous, ambiguous and even visionary. In them we see mankind’s power as much as our malign influence, the frailty of nature as much as its resilience. They want us to think about these issues, but will not do the thinking for us.

‘Tertiary Basalts’ describes its igneous subject as “Crow black, slick as onions, or walk-on-nails / tough”. It’s in part a child’s eye view (“A thick burnt red / running through like a layer of jam”) and the narrator admits that rock like this would give his earlier self “more pictures than the clouds”. But McKimm does not ironise the child’s vision but combines it with an adult understanding of the rock’s creation to make a more rounded celebration of the natural world. ‘Holderness Boulder Clay’ does something similar as it vigorously describes the sea’s biting away at the friable coastal reaches till “a fencepost hang[s] from a whip / of wire, and plastic drainage pipes / [are] like pillarbox guns”. Whatever warnings are here they are buried in the figurative language – the whip, the gun. The poem is a tour de force of minute particulars; I’ve never felt so close to the ebb and flow, the nibbling of erosion, the swirl of “gobstoppers of granite, sandstone, / Norwegian porphyry, carnelian”. Elsewhere (in prose this time), someone called Stuart takes a little hammer to a chunk of Yorkshire chalk and skilfully unearths a fossil sea sponge: “Laosciadia Planus. I weighed it in my hand.” And like a time machine, suddenly Bridlington with its Pitch and Putt course vanishes to be replaced by a vision of the past: “Sea conifers, angiosperms. The whole place electric with reptiles”.

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Only someone much concerned with the environment could bring the natural world – both present and past – so vividly into poetry. Someone like that could not fail to express concern at our interventions in the world. A scattered sequence of poems, each called ‘Abstract from a Conference’, expresses this concern. The first explains that coal, oil, gas are anciently stored sunshine that we have since “sought with our intelligence / and drive”. Our brilliance has long been to our benefit but . . . “Is it possible, a soft // landing for civilisation? We were smart. / How smart do we now want to be?” The ‘Abstract’ in the title to these poems perhaps permits more didacticism than elsewhere: abstract as summary, abstract as form of language. Yet even here there is an awed sense of ourselves: “Survivalists, stewards of the biosphere, / from nothing we grew”. Where did we go wrong? We “thought of ourselves”. Perhaps little else. And for a while, “where was the harm in that? – / as the mighty river’s arteries flowed past.” ‘Pipeline’ is another sustained performance, a description of the route of a North American oil pipeline. Detail is put to use to suggest both the varieties of landscape it passes through as well as the ingenuity of its builders: “without even a pit stop it’s pierced Manitoba, / steady trajectory, knows where it’s going”.

So McKimm’s images are often carefully laid down, alive, at the borders of ambiguity. Yet the descriptive drive of the book pulls no punches when it comes to the mess we have made of things. Here are “the basics: deforestation, fallow lands, / tilling, terracing, irrigation systems, subsurface // water extraction, mining, transportation systems, / waterway re-plumbing, reservoir interception, // groynes, jetties, seawalls, breakwaters, harbours, / warfare”. Even a small scale ‘Oil Field’, apparently landscaped into a natural environment, is regarded, or rather listened to, with suspicion: “the beam pump’s / gentle purr, like an antique Singer threaded / through with jet, working with a rhythm / you would never think so peaceful or so clean”. At the living room table, my mother would propel an old Singer like this, an image perhaps of technology taken so far, only to be wrenched further still (the thread through this machine not homely cotton, but the more sinister thread of an oil jet).

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Andrew McCulloch’s review in the TLS concluded: “Read these poems!” Penelope Shuttle has written: “The language employed by this poet is powerfully tactile.  These are strong and in every sense grounded poems”. ‘Grounded’ is a worthy pun, of course, as much about McKimm’s language and tone as about his rocky, muddy, sandy subject matter. I’d recommend these poems, for their grit and grain as much as their environmental concerns, for their humble belief in human ingenuity as much as their clear-eyed warning about where it seems to be taking us.