Steven Matthews

A Quiet Thing in a Stri­dent World

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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

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