Maura Dooley, Life Under Water (Bloodaxe), 64pp, £7.95; Leontia Flynn, Drives (Cape), 58pp, £9.00; Glyn Maxwell, Hide Now (Picador), 68pp, £8.99
(This appears in a slightly tighter form in the Spring 09 issue of Poetry London.)
What we might term the consolation of poetry is an old if not ancient theme, constantly being renewed. What use is high culture to us when we bring it to bear on loss, whether that loss is deeply personal or consists of the horrible sense that a whole way of life is slipping from us? What use is form, the springboards and restraints of metre, rhyme and stanza, the creation and shaping of language it enables and even induces, if what it is being brought to bear on is, on a moment to moment basis, unbearable? These two questions are explored in markedly different ways by the three collections under consideration here.
Many attempts at solutions have been announced for the first question, including the frequent declaration that such materials can no longer be deployed, that all cultural engagement which lacks immediate relevance to what we might term the two types of contemporaneity –youth and its informational equivalent, the news – is obsolete.
Glyn Maxwell’s new book gives the lie to this notion in an emphatic manner, by recurrently bringing a potent myth from our classical heritage into striking juxtaposition with contemporary issues. The role played by Cassandra, the Trojan princess cursed with the self-cancelling capacity for prophecy which will not be believed, is turned over by Maxwell in poem after poem, explored for possible parallels between truth- and tale-tellers of all sorts.
In truth, he nails this book’s colours to the mast in the first poem, where he presents the half-baked ideology that everything we do might be for the best of ends as, ‘Okay the ones like Cheyney, who you mustn’t name/and spoil the poem, do the motherfucking same/as ever…’ Here the knowing explicitness nods to decorum only to blow it out of the poem’s way and set us up for a bracing exploration of what exactly it is we do and, as Tonto asked the Lone Ranger, who this ‘we’ is anyway.
Storytellers and those who listen to stories abound, a recurrent theme in Maxwell’s work. The listeners, the subjects and sometimes the tellers, like Cheney, have guilts and violences of their own to deal with. They, including such figures as Agammemnon, Jim Jones and St Just, take interesting readings from their various moral compasses. Shahryār tells us what it is like to have to listen to the tales of Scheherezade every night; the narrator of ‘Hometown Mystery Cycle’ finishes on a blistering note of denial:
You know your own villages: write your own shit.
I’ve never done much and I didn’t do this,
but you asked where I come from and that’s where it is.
Black humour and the juxtaposition of the literary with the literally horrible are kept to the fore, as in ‘Tale of the Story-of-All-Stories,’ where the device of personifying different kinds of tales allows him to tell us about the nasty, brutish end of a set of short stories who mistake ‘a mindless bandit’ for ‘An interesting take on an old favourite.’ I’m not giving too much away to mention ‘bones/a-jingling in a market.’
Everywhere there is a trademark brilliance of phrasing – in particular the use of abrupt qualification as a sign of equivocation (‘till I envied my brother and I’ve not got a brother’; That’s what I make of what/I kept of it’; ‘Like somebody chronically stupid or clever’, ‘hours of talk I don’t forget and do forget’). His combination of strong rhythmic drive and the carefully manipulated diction of an everyman can make Maxwell’s voice seem confined to cracking the surface of a public discourse – it’s probably this which keeps bringing up the pat comparisons with Auden, yet another of which appears in the blurb.
But, as elsewhere in his work, The Nerve in particular, it is Maxwell’s other masters, Frost and Brodsky, which allow him to access a tender, personal voice which balances with the brusqueness and aggression exposed elsewhere. There is a witty, rueful memory of Brodsky in ‘A Walk by the Neva’, and the personification of a birthday, visiting the poet’s house after his death, emits ‘one puzzled o…kay then…’ The rather lovely ‘Thinking: Earth’ has this poised passage:
Earth. I have a daughter.
Heaven’s what I say it is for her.
Telling her is all it is so far
for me. My only use
for the word forever
is in those conversations.
Maura Dooley is much concerned with what she alludes to in one title as ‘the Blood Jet’. (The blood jet being Plath’s description, via Tsvetaeva, of poetry, and therefore carrying connotations of both wounding and suicide.) Poetry’s role as an articulation in extremis, at once the only expression and the only activity possible, is returned to again and again in this moving, intense volume, which is full of elegies and addresses to the dead, and the necessity for, as much as the ecstasy of, love.
It both explores and exemplifies the directness with which art speaks to us in troubled times, and breaks down the barriers between the crises of the individual and those of a society. That said, it opens with a wonderfully bizarre encounter with Leonard Cohen which resonates with all that artist’s lugubrious sense of the absurd:
As an oyster opens,
wondrous, and through mud
lets glitter that translucent
promise, so the lift doors
close and I am inside
alone with Leonard Cohen.
Elsewhere, her elegies allude with a kind of grave subtlety to the heritage of modern poetry in order to honour the dead. In ‘The Old Masters,’ Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ provides the title and the last line of a piece about the Twin Towers, finding a new tragic resonance in that ‘boy falling out of the sky’, and alluding to the Babel of nations which make up America, and their origins in such places as Breughel, painter of both Icarus and the biblical Tower, would have known. One line, which reads ingrained racist abuse as something approaching a doomed hubristic childishness, is especially daring:
You’ll know the photograph,
legs dangling from girders,
spik, polka, yid, paddy, nigger, wop,
the Rockefeller Building, rising like sap
In ‘Strange Meeting,’ Wilfred Owen’s nightmarish encounter with his enemy as doppelganger is echoed in a mysterious glimpse of the late Michael Donaghy, seen from a train in darkness, ‘our faces, all reflection, meeting in the glass’ – an image Dooley knows Donaghy would have loved. Here the quietness of the allusion to Owen just sends a shiver through the poem, as it makes a tentative gesture beyond religiosity and belief in an afterlife to ‘somewhere/out beyond the bended knee/that you and I were forged with…’
In that last, even more delicate allusion, via Catholicism, to Blake’s ‘mind-forged manacles’ we have an illustration of Dooley’s method, whereby poetry, the imagination’s attempt at an artefact without physical substance, can somehow hold us in a net of cultural reference, even when we cannot hold our world view together. As in ‘UnIrished,’ she keeps going beyond the markers of our identity into spaces where the familiar has become deeply unfamiliar, where ‘I even have to pause/to find the word/you grew with’ and we don’t even know the back of our own hand:
…the cross-hatched stars on your hand growing older,
or the real things, sparking still, as they cool,
it’s how they twinkle, how we wonder what they are.
(‘Familiar Object Seen from an Unusual Angle’)
The book finishes with a long poem, ‘The Source’ which moves between an account of the forming of landscape by water and the symbolic roles of water in terms of spiritual thirst and the ritual cleansing of sins. Auden’s ‘limestone landscape,’ Alice’s pool of tears, and the four tears of the Virgin which, spilt on Hampstead Heath, give rise to ‘a healing holy well,’ all come together in a redemptive appeal for us to engage fully with what we can still mean by a term like ‘faith’.
Those four tears, incidentally, neatly refer us back to an earlier description of the human heart as having ‘four rooms’: the number four (and the image of tears) echoing throughout the book. Thus we are reminded the significance of form in knitting together music, image and allusion into that very particular whole we call a poem.
This serves to refer us back to the second question posed at the beginning of this review: what use is form? This question is the half-understood descendent of a crisis of modernism, the idea that poetic form can no longer have any role to play in these difficult times, that all ‘traditional’ structures must be abandoned and new ones devised which, through virtue of being invented at the same time as the present series of problematic events, will therefore incorporate their difficulty and some hope of continued relevance.
Leontia Flynn’s second book builds instead on the triumphant engagement with form which distinguished her first collection, These Days. Drives amply demonstrates an understanding, perhaps derived from the examples of master technicians like Carson and Muldoon, that rhyme generates not just music but tone, a graph of attitude – these poems are full if not ripe with attitude. Exclamations, italics, bracketed digressions and, of course, rhyme that is both slant and sly, set these poems on their often perilous way:
You woke up just before the driver did.
Your cheapo, backpack, night-time ride through Turkey
shouldn’t have ended this way: on the road
(the bus had turned a corner on its side,
grinding up glass and bone. The driver died.
The girl behind you died…), half-scalped and bloody
and left, when you heard of bombs or trauma, since
with a sixth-sense of how soft it is, a body.
Journeys, estrangements, and the vulnerability both induce, haunt this book, particularly in its first half, which seems to race from capital to capital, to try on restlessly the masks of famous writers – Beckett, Proust, Bishop, Orwell, Plath, Baudelaire – as though pursued by some fury half-glimpsed in poems like ‘Milos’ (quoted above), or in the account of a suicidal leap in the Tate where the author’s ‘sympathetic trace’ is undercut by ‘(read ‘morbid instinct’)’.
If the first half of the book sometimes seems in too much of a hurry to allow the reader much to cling to, that unnerving interest in the suicide’s motivation is echoed in the second half, where, in ‘Spring Poem,’ the possibility of a ‘swallow dive/over the railing’ of a bridge is carefully if not completely rejected. The motivations for this, and for much in the first part, become clearer in two pivotal poems.
Just as the tonal and formal achievements of These Days coalesced in the fine sestina ’26,’ which focussed on her mother and father meeting at a dance, so too in this book there is another magisterial exploration of this riskiest of forms. ‘Drive’ (nearly but subtly not the title poem) again depicts her parents, but this time towards the end of her father’s life when he is stricken by what appears to be dementia, and her mother is reflecting on their life together as a series of repetitive car journeys.
Following the metamorphosis of a key end-word across the stanzas shows how Flynn poises herself between obeying and disobeying the strictures of the sestina: ‘motor’ becomes ‘mother,’ then ‘another,’ ‘together,’ back to ‘motor,’ on to ‘daughters,’ then finally back to ‘mother.’ This enacts the tight cycles of depersonalisation, duty and dissociation the mother experiences as she reviews their marriage.
The second poem, ‘Our Fathers,’ about her father’s declining mental condition, uses a short-lined quatrain, often limited to dimeter, to distend its syntax across stanzas, painfully drawing out its difficult conclusions about how we cling to and yet must release those we love. Cutting into this distension and delay is a simple and very effective quatrain:
my father holds open
the door of himself
and lets his old ghost
The momentary clarity of this stanza, occurring between others bound up in repetitions and interjections, achieves its undoubted poignancy because of the poet’s confidence in form, in its capacity to contain both the mimetic disruptions the poem enacts elsewhere and this succinct fulfilment of the quatrain’s capacity for balance and poise. This faith in form works in a manner similar to both Dooley and Maxwell’s faith in a cultural heritage which continues to yield new meaning, allowing Flynn to make work of great audacity and directness.
In this manner these books offer not just the consolations of three compassionate, sometimes fiercely literate intelligences, but another way to read our engagement with poetic heritage and form. These are not things to be alluded to as outmoded signifiers of refinement or elitism, but birthrights to be defended as a means of articulating that which does not seem susceptible to articulation, modes of allusion in themselves which lead to further insights, new approaches. Reinterpretation and reinvention in the terms offered by these writers presents the reader with both a continuity of, and a critique of what we mean by, culture.