The Three Ms: Mammoth, Minerva, and Merkin

Mark Doty, Deep Lane (Cape); Frances Leviston, Disinformation (Picador); Christopher Reid, The Curiosities (Faber).
(Three collections reviewed for the June issue of Literary Review, here with – slightly – critical notes restored.)
Mark Doty’s ninth collection displays his customary gifts of empathic observation, collapsing the distance between poet and subject to establish an observance of both secular and sexual mysteries. This is accomplished by an intensity of sensual imagery, and through an ecstatic syntax, as in this passage about Jackson Pollock: ‘Forget supplication,

beseechment, praise. Look down

into it, the smash-up swirl, oil and pigment and tree-shatter:

tumult in equilibrium.

His focus on the redemptive act of gardening, in the titular series of poems called ‘Deep Lane’, and the fit between this and the animalistic, exemplified by masterful descriptions of, among other creatures, his dog, a fish, a mole, a mammoth, and a goat, is driven by a Yeatsian dread of our self-inhibiting self-awareness:

…I have believed

if the scales fell from our eyes we’d see the world

as it is, that the core-light never flags…

There are also echoes of Blake here – perhaps George Herbert, in the address to an ambiguous, God-like ‘Sir’ – and of the addressee of a key poem from Source, Walt Whitman. In ‘What is The Grass?’ he brings together word and world in a crisis at the heart of the book: can language capture, if not the world, then at least our experience of it? ‘…he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it,/…for him the word settled nothing at all.’

A fracture runs between (and within) poems which find communion, and those which state it. The fine poem about the body of a baby mammoth, forever bereft of its mother, is followed by ‘Apparition’ in which, returning from the garden’s depths, he hears the voice of his own dead mother. Another poem places a little goat’s actions in similar contrast to language: ‘I can see the smallish squared seeds of her teeth, and the bristle-whiskers,//and then she kisses me, though I know it doesn’t mean “kiss”‘.

But in poems focussed on social contacts and contracts, a larger divide opens up between, say, the first half of ‘This Your Home Now’ with its funny, tender account of the rituals of going to the barber, and the mythopoeic second half, in which the underworld of dead friends and lovers is accessed through the same establishment. As in the switch in ‘The Lesson’, from a description of a wall on 25th Street to an account of the fall of the Berlin Wall, something is being stressed here that is brilliantly implicit elsewhere.


Frances Leviston’s book is similarly poised on the cusp between private and public utterance. As in her first book, Public Dream, she asks what aspect of the private self can survive in the poem. The speaker in her first poem, ‘making jelly/for my nephew’s fourth birthday party’ while the radio ‘intimates…certain unpopular/facts…’, is positioned just outside the role of mother, and just within that of citizen. Similarly, two titles in this section juxtapose acronyms of the exterior and interior – ‘GPS’ and ‘IUD’ – both serving and inhibiting autonomy: ‘something big is about to make sense/if we just keep going in the opposite direction…’; ‘This gadget intrudes so nothing else can…’.

Her most immediate poems are in the first and final sections, trusting the middle to reveal its different approach on re-reading. Here her impressive control of imagery and stanza is seen to quieter effect in the parallel sequences, ‘Sulis’ and ‘Athenaeum’, exploring the feminine through the merging of the ancient British goddess Sulis into Roman Minerva, herself identified with Greek Athena. Images of sleep and immersion replay earlier concerns about control over meaning:

If you fall asleep in a temple, be prepared

To wake with your ear licked clean as a conch

And the statements of the gods

Suddenly cold and clear to you…

Her most powerful poems are saved for last. ‘The Historical Voice’, both critiquing and embodying its subject, is an Audenesque triumph: ‘The syntax it likes is clean, perhaps translated’; ‘Knowing the worst, it speaks from that shadow.’ In ‘A Shrunken Head’, an artefact being returned to its origins, ‘a birdy ounce in the undercarriage’, reflects on its time in the museum, ‘I miss being part of the known//quantifiable index…’ – returning us to a mediated being, pitched between loss and belonging.


Christopher Reid’s latest collection responds to amplitude not with anxiety, but with a witty constraint. Seventy three poems beginning with the letter C amount to a Wunderkammerer of words. Recognising the alphabet simultaneously collects and randomises, Reid has found a neat way of announcing his approach to his materials, one mostly poised on the disquieting side of the comic. ‘The Coin’ for instance, is an obol placed on the tongue of a dead speaker:

The taste, which would have made me

Wince and scowl before,

And spit the nasty thing out,

Was neither here nor there.

Taste is a recurrent trope throughout, and, as ‘The Chocolate’ indicates, often eroticised: 

…why don’t you close your eyes,

Part your lips, and let me pop a square

That’s already starting to melt between my fingers,

Onto your moist and acquiescent tongue?

This poem opens with a mock-scholarly flourish, and part of the entertainment here is in the play with tones, including bursts of signature Martianisms (‘The cyclists took the corner/in italics’). The Elizabethan parody, ‘The Conceit’, ends with a ‘nether adornment,/…termed, wantonlie, Merkyn, or Mynge, or Merrie-thovght.’

However, Reid’s conceit compels him to act as the dictionary does, and it, of course, lists words because of the letter they begin with, rather than their inherent merit. Many poems depict the British obsession with sex, but not all are as sharp as the Byronic rhyme in ‘The Centaur’, concluding, of a bit of mythological bestiality: ‘[it] could only, the chorus agreed,/ end messily. Which it did. Yet for a while/they were the happiest couple in all Thessaly.’ 

One, ‘The Craving’, steps over the mark of healthy vulgarity – the craver may well crave ‘a schoolgirl’, but the conclusion, that ‘the itch/is still there, which he’ll have to satisfy some day’, has an unpleasant aftertaste.

He seems at his liveliest when least English – or at least that middle-aged, middle class, metropolitan version of Englishness seen to better effect in The Song of Lunch – allowing his imagistic gift free sway, or letting other influences in, as in the version of a Welsh medieval poem, in which the lover’s detachable genitalia are addressed: ‘Go Gogolesque member!’

About W N Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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