The Challenge of the Past
Waiting for the Nightingales, Miles Burrows, Carcanet, 2017, pp.112, £9.99 (Paperback)
Zoology, Gillian Clarke, Carcanet, 2017, pp.120, £9.99 (Paperback) On Magnetism, Steven Matthews, Two Rivers Press, 2017, pp.60, £9.99 (Paperback)
Diary of the Last Man, Robert Minhinnick, Carcanet, 2017, pp.88, £9.99 (Paperback)
Sometimes it’s all in the title. Who wouldn’t want to turn immediately to poems called ‘Should Catullus be Read by Old People’, ‘Eros and Asbo’, ‘Tosca Under the Duvet’ or ‘Rumpelstilstskin Reflects’? Turns out Miles Burrows also has a way with zingy first lines. ‘The poets are out watching hawks again.’ ‘Chidswell is gone. Despite his powerful serve and knowledge of Swedish.’ ‘Everyone in our street is doing Feldenkreis.’
One poem, ‘The Flight from Meaning’ deserves instant anthology status. It opens, memorably: ‘Doreen looked back at me, her face like a Tacitus unseen.’ The poet ponders the benefits and drawbacks of unfathomable women – ‘Who wants a Delphic oracle who says what she means?’ – moves on to more spiritual mysteries, and concludes: ‘Everything is fine now. I can’t understand a word.’
Women, opaque or otherwise, drift through his latest collection, Waiting for the Nightingales (‘“You’re not in love with me,” said Melanie Buckmaster… Moira Hardcastle had said the same’’’). There’s Persephone Finch, Beryl and Maureen, Deirdre, Madeline who has ‘gone into moon therapy’, Fiona, seen ‘coming out of Tesco’s / The hair recalling ancient frescoes’, and
frigid Shirley who ‘never really let me have a proper go… / The higher you got the colder it was. / You couldn’t help thinking of Shackleton and his ponies.’ Mundanity and urbanity constantly collide, as with that neat Tesco’s/frescoes rhyme. Other rhymes are even more audacious: in ‘Will She Come?’ Burrows matches jangle/jungle/rectangle/quangle-wangle (!) and ankle, and pairs Oaxaca with eczema.
Deirdre and Maureen and their ilk might not be talking of Michelangelo, but they appear among elevated company: not just Tacitus but Pico della Mirandola, Kierkegaard, Mallarmé and Max Ernst. Elegant allusions mount up in literary bricolage. Feeling ‘like Virgil’, the poet invokes Daphne, Dilys and Phyllis as modern-day wood nymphs and gets the news from Haworth in a imaginary phone conversation with Emily Bronte: ‘The window in the spare bedroom / Needs repairing. I’m going through a lot of stuff / I wrote as a child in the attic. It’s embarrassing / But I can’t bring myself to throw it away’. This is erudition played for laughs.
Burrows has been around long enough to garner a jacket quote from Anthony Powell; accordingly Waiting For the Nightingales is an extensive collection, demonstrating a long perspective with poems of wily, witty senescence. ‘I’m slowly changing / into a crocodile. Like something out of Ovid,’ the poet observes. Elsewhere he’s ‘in the run up to my end of life plan’, but not yet ready to go gentle: ‘I overtook a hearse the other day. / I was in a hurry. It was in my way.’
Artfully positioned next to the unforthcoming ‘Shirley’ is ‘Sea Wrack’: ‘I wake with a hand on the insane root. / The usual stalky tuberose slack polypoid mass / Like something you might find on a beach at low tide. / You could imagine Osbert Sitwell poking it cautiously with his stick’. And: ‘At this age it would surely be better / (Rather than waking at 2am holding the penis) / To be writing a Chinese poem / Of the T’ang period / About being a civil servant…’
Burrows doesn’t sound like anyone else, but after a while he begins to sound too much like himself, if that’s possible. He’s generally sure-footed
enough to make his intellectual whimsy stick; the danger comes when recondite allusion piles so high the reader stumbles on them. Inevitably some poems in this manner come off better than others, but his strike rate is good and even when baffling, the lines amuse as well as confound.
Robert Minhinnick also has a penis poem, but his manner is dryly succinct; no ‘stalky tuberose slack polypoid mass’ for him. Running in totality, ‘Eye to the earth / I’m in disgrace / but point me at the stars / you’ll count a constellation in my jaws’, it’s part of a longer piece, ‘The Body’, which opens with the poet eavesdropping on the ‘7pm after work conversation’ of a bunch of body-piercers. Despite being ‘the ringed and the chained… the studded and the spiked’, it turns out this outwardly gruesome crew have grievances similar to every other worker: ‘that the job was thankless; / that the public was a conspiracy of fools; / that they were paid much, much too little’.
Generally though, it’s the other kind of earthiness that absorbs Minhinnick. The longest sequence here, the 27-page ‘Mouth to Mouth: A recitation between two rivers’ concerns an archaic landscape in south Wales, the rivers being the Ogmore and the Cynffig. The sequence alternates prose passages which form a continuous narrative, alternating with poems picking up and expanding images, the whole linking vast stretches of time from the prehistoric peoples who left footprints in the mud to the poet trudging after them across ‘the rocks and the slacks, the bracken and the sand’. Perhaps the poems were composed, or at least rehearsed, on foot: ‘reciting my lines resuscitates my soul’.
The poet quickly realises that among these arid, existential dunes: ‘I am not vital to this world. No, I am not important here. I am neither integral nor native.’ Later: ‘The human condition is one of singularity. The human fate is loneliness.’ Finally, with an expansion of consciousness coupled with resignation, ‘Only when I accept alienation… this strangerdom, can I become free.’
Portentous, maybe, but there’s also space in Minhinnick’s grand vision for
a little lightness and humour. The poet delights in the sight of choughs, ‘their flight unspooling like videotape… these glossy tumblers, guerillas of anti-/ gravity.’ This section ends on a gleeful assertion: ‘... there come days when we can choose. / And I chose choughs.’ Sometimes the voice is so airy and expansive it’s in danger of floating away into unfathomability; then a crunchy phrase or sparkling image will ground it again. Altogether it’s a fresh addition to the poet-as-hiker genre.
The title sequence fields a speaker even more radically lonely, the ‘Last Man’ alive after some kind of apocalypse, leading a ‘castaway’s life’ as he makes his way to London. He walks down a deserted Regent Street and wanders into the desolate Travellers’ Club, ‘room after room of maps / and portraits, empty leather chairs’. He takes a suite at the Ritz and, even more transgressive, discovers that ‘The door to 10, Downing Street / is open. In I walk.’ The revelation of expected Government secrets and swindles brings only sadness: ‘Those were the great days, the last of our lives.’
More emphatically Welsh is Gillian Clarke’s Zoology, studded with Welsh vocabulary and subject matter. ‘Sycharth’ explicitly evokes bardic Wales: ‘House of hearth and of heart, of generous board, / great halls flame-lit for feasting,harp and bard, / under crucks and crossbeams cut from forest oak…’ ending at ‘some anonymous grave, a princedom broken, / and a country taken.’ Her generous ninth collection is made up of six heterogenous sections, the first, ‘Missing’, conjuring vanished family members in tender lines: ‘My Ga whose hands spun lace from Pembrokeshire tides; / my aunt who gave me poetry, word and world; / my father who conjured Welsh, a fox cub, a rabbit / from his sleeve’. The poet is small, holding her father’s hand or listening to him ‘in his basement workshop, / sanding, sawing, singing’ and always late for his tea: ‘Don’t wait for your father. / Don’t let it get cold.’ There’s a tiny hint of familial discord there, filtered through a child’s fuzzy comprehension.
There is an abrupt change of focus in the second section, ‘Behind Glass’, in which the poet is suddenly contemplating stuffed and fossilised animals in a museum. A quick look at the acknowledgements confirms that this
is the result of a residency, in this case at the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge. Another sequence owes its existence to the National Trust. Tree poems presumably come courtesy of the Woodland Trust, also in the acknowledgements. There’s nothing wrong with this – a poet’s got to earn a living, after all – it’s just that commissioned poems tend to stick out oddly in a collection when set against more personal pieces. At least Clarke is so technically skilled that very many of them survive the initial commission to be fresh and vividly free-standing. ‘Ichthyosaur’ achieves this, commemorating the fossilesed stillbirth of the titular Jurassic creature: ‘the frozen baby turning its head / to the world at the last moment / as all babies do, choked / as it learned to live.’
The last section comprises a powerful collection of elegies, to Welsh poets R S Thomas, Dannie Abse (whom Minhinnick also references) and, more distantly, Wilfred Owen and Hedd Wyn. ‘Madiba’, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, feels emptier, dutiful though dignified, but Clarke achieves a small miracle in her poem for April Jones, murdered by a paedophile; her graceful verse transfigures the desecrated body, never recovered, into a ‘child of the mountain, / mermaid of the estuary, / everyone’s daughter.’
Tackling a subject such as that risks overwhelming the actual poem with unearned sentiment. When even the titles make a naked bid for the heartstrings it’s hard for the reader not to feel manipulated. ‘Looking at Late Rembrandts (after leaving Dad at the Nursing Home)’ in Steven Matthews’s collection On Magnetism has to work hard to avoid both pretension and sentimentality. The poem following immediately afterwards begins, ‘From the last Christmas cracker I pulled ever / with Dad…’ This could easily evoke the faint sense of looking at someone else’s family album, but instead Matthew skilfully uses the form to expel a series of memories, as a cracker expels novelties: first the gifts, skills and kindnesses of the parent, ‘then, in a terrible rush all the things / in the future he will not ever / set to rights, now he has gone away.’ The over-familiarity suggested by ‘In Dad’s Boots’ similarly escapes the purely personal with its poignant image of the cast-off ill-fitting footwear that now hobbles the bereft son.
The title sequence of six deft sonnets commemorates Tudor scientist William Gilbert, who coined the word ‘electricus’ (‘like amber’), from which electricity is derived. Incidentally, Matthews provides genuinely informative notes to his poems, unlike Minhinnick, whose solitary footnote proves singularly unhelpful. Beyond an initial prosiness: ‘Buried, Holy Trinity, Colchester, // Cause of death, bubonic plague, Sixteen Three, / Court physician to Queen Elizabeth…’ there’s a touch of the Metaphysicals in the scientific imagery of the sonnets: ‘... magnetism proves the earth lives, stars / move in fixed tracks, and all souls can conjoin.’
The short poem ‘Inner Town Tudor Courtyard’, is sonnet-like but this time minus a final couplet, conjuring the mystery of a place visible but tantalisingly inaccessible. The fine series of new words to madrigals by John Wilbye, who like Gilbert lived and died in Colchester, point to an affinity with the wit and complexity of the Tudor imagination, while never feeling stuffy or archaic.
All four poets are responding to the challenge of the past, using and transforming tradition to suit their own ends. Some well-trodden poetic paths reveal unexpected vistas and fruitful byways, and old forms become useful containers for contemporary concerns. I would just reiterate for poets who stray into too far into the hinterland: notes are extremely helpful as readers attempt to follow the tracks.