A Quiet Thing in a Strident World
The Noise of a Fly, Douglas Dunn, Faber and Faber, September 2017, 88 pp. , £14.99 (Hardback)
Set Thy Love in Order: New and Selected Poems, Stephen Romer, Carcanet, June 2017, 168 pp., £12.99 (Paperback)
Douglas Dunn’s first collection for over fifteen years presents a various and intriguing amalgam of established themes alongside some unnerving ‘self-portraits’ of the aged body and mind. Dunn has always revelled in a Marvellian lushness, a richness of imagery, gathered around a quiet republicanism. He has adopted and adapted ‘big house’ retirement into suburban circumstance. This is where The Noise of a Fly again ends up in its last poem, ‘Ripe Bananas’, hearing the small sounds around the house that mount to a ‘domestic symphony, | A solitude sufficiently robust | To encourage mumbles of wonder.’ There are both strong and small claims upon us here, a recourse to a rhetoric of carefulness which does not exclude ‘wonder,’ wherever it occurs, and however attentive we need to be to notice it.
The whole collection is about forms of attention, the sense that poetry may still, as the quiet thing in a strident world, pause us and make us listen to what lies beneath. ‘Can you hear them?’, indeed, the first poem, ‘Idleness’, confronts us, ‘The flap of a butterfly.’ This posed uncertainty makes for the many caveats and retractions that move the poems forward, as in the pirouettes at the start of the second poem, ‘Wondrous Strange’:
Now it can almost be heard. But not quite Almost. Still on the far side of nearly, It is the melody of the floating feather…
This is a vein which Dunn seems to working more directly and concertedly than hitherto, licensed in part by his derivation of the collection’s title from the passage in John Donne’s funeral sermon of 1626 given as its epigraph. Donne’s sermon notes the multiple distractions of the world, such as ‘the noise of a Flie’ buzzing when he is at prayer, such that ‘there is nothing, nothing in spirituall things, perfect in this world.’ Douglas Dunn achieves his own small wonders out of similar recognition, towards those moments taken in between the hurry of the day, when ‘I listen to my old watch tick | Against the smell of earth and shrubs.’ And, for the most part, the collection achieves what the ending of this poem, ‘Fragility’, aims for, the feat in age of ‘Facing what happens without self-pity.’ ‘At Lake Balaton,’ recalling the poet Miklós Radnóti and his ‘Letter to my Wife,’ suggests that the earlier poet’s example ‘Means we should try to live as best we can,’ and ‘love and write as best we can’. There is a braveness in this careful craft of measured rhythm and formal shaping which rightly aligns the quieter poems in Dunn’s new collection with the stalwartness and love of earlier poets in tragically different and difficult circumstances.
But of course, there is a permeable border between such modest fellowship and a hectoring, if not self-pitying then special-pleading, hubristic note. In the aptly-titled ‘How to Write Verse Without Anyone Knowing,’ the poet describes his younger self as ‘the perfect prig that I was then.’ And there’s a priggishness about some of these conceits and sentiments, not least in the Heaney-derived lecture on poetic language, ‘English (A Scottish Essay)’. Elsewhere, there’s too much of the self-reflexive manoeuvring that had crept into Dunn’s earlier work. The otherwise neat idea of tracking a life alongside Rembrandt’s various ‘Self-Portraits’ is marred by an inclination to a kind of bumptiousness which breaks into its truncated sonnets:
How do you write about yourself? How do you say, ‘I do not like the way I have become,’ And not feel stupid?
Whilst the final lines of the sequence return upon themselves, in order to claim that this measuring against Rembrandt has enabled him to ‘know
myself at last for who I am’ (why only ‘at last’?), such interruptions and eruptions in the poems cannot simply be written away as some kind of noisy ‘buzzing’. We always admire the care and craft of this writing, but the inclusion of such rhetorical questionings, and the ‘meta-‘ rhetoric, all detract from the achievement of those moments where the image and the sentiment come together, and we are made to see, and to hear, something:
Refrigerated garden darkness. I tread frost. Footsteps of solitude. The loneliest road Leads sixty paces west to the all-hallowed Night-view of a hillside, windless and cold….
Stephen Romer’s new and selected poems, Set Thy Love in Order, displays similar quietism and patience, often in places of retreat or retirement. The new poem ‘Taking the Edge Off’, an ars poetica which opens the book, posits that:
it seems the whole technique of staving off the cold, and loneliness and the rest, is to find an angle on the thing, such as all is provisional, or else providential…
As with Dunn, this is a poetry of ‘or else’, where the understanding of the world is subject to constant slight adjustments. Another new piece, ‘This Knowledge’, draws us into this rhythm of constant alteration, becoming ‘this knowledge | suddenly that we are forms of matter, | that dangerous edge, and how we are undone.’ As the poem ‘The French Translation’, included here from the 1986 Idols, reminds us, this aesthetic partly derives from Romer’s living and working ‘at an angle to England, travelling south.’ ‘Finding an angle’ through poetry is partly about that, remaining ‘at an angle’, and using the poetic battery of personae and vision to achieve it. As ‘Rilke in Paris’ advises us, ‘It happened on an ordinary day, | mid-week,
when he was in a corner seat | of his favourite café’, that Rilke ‘took his place for life | on those benches of the blessed.’
What Romer’s ‘angle’ on the world often allows for is a bounty that endures despite losses, and a sense of an historical expansiveness that can carry possibility forward. As with Dunn’s book, Romer’s writing is sometimes replete with sound, song, birds singing through time. In the lovely ‘Val de Loire,’ for instance, we find a nightingale which ‘uttered | his triplet crescendo’ ‘this evening,’ which yet is the song ‘heard by Alcuin…in retirement’ further down the river. The poems are not immune to losses, as in the litany of victims of seasonal turn here (‘The jonquils died | the tulips died’). But it is the uniqueness of what survives, the peony ‘with a scent all her own,’ that the writing points us towards. It is such threads that the thin shapes of the poems work along, for, in this vision, as ‘Trust’ has it, ‘life’s continuous and one || with the child we were | and can recover.’ The poetry acts as a reminder of such continuities in many contexts, and recovers them for us.
Romer’s modest and careful approach, in other words, enables him to broach the notion of the ‘providential’ alongside, or within, the ‘provisional’, and that seems to be the orbit round which the poet rides. Dunn’s decision partly to eschew the ‘spirituall,’ as always imperfect, lends sturdiness to his poetry, but detracts sometimes from its scope and flexibility. We note that Romer’s career is increasingly a movement towards shorter lines, and more spacious rhetoric. The earlier work frequently dares religious language, as in ‘Colours for Thomas,’ which ends upon the light spilling across ‘our newborn son,’ who lies ‘crowned by a spectrum, the seven strands of vision.’ But it’s hard not to conclude from this ‘New and Selected’ that Romer has got better and better as a poet; the ‘new’ poems here are written with a freedom and openness which amount to considerable achievement. ‘Seen in the Round’ is a significant elegy; ‘Collects For Lent’ strikes me as a major sequence, which drives forward meditative poetry by pulling together many aspects of Romer’s earlier work with strands and strains of Bonnefoy, Eliot and Hill, whilst achieving a crystalline uniqueness of its own:
other men’s phrases lie strewn about
the purification of the motive inescapable endurance
the light is yellow on the rough wall and tender the blue haze