BOOK REVIEW / The sublime thinginess of things: William Scammell on a newcomer in his seventies and two other fine debuts
Sunday 07 November 1993
The keynote is a bracing line in scepticism, nay-saying, laconic looks-at-the-worst, which paradoxically celebrates all those amazements crowding the sill of the five senses. 'On Top' seems, at first, a long way from Wordsworth, but shares his tough honesty, if not his rendezvous with immanence. Non-grudging ironies abound, and passionate exactitudes. There is a touch of Hughes here and there, a satisfaction in the thinginess of things and their sublime indifference to our noisy pratfalls.
Another first collection, Lavinia Greenlaw's Night Photograph (Faber pounds 5.99), has a memorable poem about that 'foreign city' London ('Dearest, the cockroaches are having babies'), an artist's eager, half-comprehending love affair with astronomy and science, some nicely evocative travelogues ('I rehydrate the lizard in the sink'), a fine piece about learning Russian ('I could not pronounce 'revolution' / so I shut you in a drawer and went dancing'), and a confident way with domestic detail, as in 'Sex, Politics and Religion', the 'three things I was told by my mother / that a hairdresser should never discuss'. A whiff of bathos sometimes hangs over her last lines, as though she craves an early exit from the chaos of words and feelings, but it's an attractive and accomplished volume.
There's a touch of the Peter Porters about Chris Wallace-Crabbe's Rungs of Time (OUP pounds 6.99), and hence of Horatian Auden talking his way round boredom with the help of that dubious accomplice, a well-stocked mind. He lacks, however, the manic note, the head of steam, the rage for disorder that often lurks beneath urbanity: 'Varieties of what? Well, of the world, / its bitsy and most prolific fecundity / including my own hand, a freckled brown / metaphor taking a black line for a walk'. The conceptual and philosophical chat is well-informed but gets in the way of whatever might be gnawing at the poet's vitals. 'Call Me Jack' and 'Off the Plate' are enjoyably and pointedly felt. The title of the long list- poem 'Things are in the Saddle and Ride Mankind', however, is all too diagnostic.
Multi-cultural significance freights the title sequence of Moniza Alvi's first book, The Country at My Shoulder (OUP pounds 6.99), specifically her dual Pakistani-English inheritance. This ought to have been a writerly gold mine, and maybe will be one day, but the best things here, heralded by the charming 'I Would Like to Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro', are delicate, perceptive, imaginative pieces about food, beds, cinema, childhood, love. In fact all the foregoing are really love poems, that hardest of tasks, which Alvi writes extremely well. Here's 'The Bees', complete:
Her breast is a face that looks at him.
On a quiet night he's convinced he can
open it and riches will tumble out -
pearls, golden brooches, honey.
The bees swarm into his mouth,
settle behind his ears, buzzing.
The breast is a safe -
But there's no getting in.
Steve Ellis can't get over the fact that his once and younger self, Jack the Lad, is now happy to mow his suburban lawn, change nappies, watch Steve Davis ageing on the telly, wrestle with the piano, chat with neighbours 'oozing contiguity', and tinker with 'the tiny boosters of my muse' as they decide on a link-up with his friend Richard rather than with Byronic Auden. West Pathway (Bloodaxe pounds 5.95) is entertainingly demotic and downbeat but avoids the chummy self-congratulation that in some parts of the north now passes for contemporary chic. Not many poets make you smile and nod your head so happily, though he should have taken a sterner hand with the notebooky self-conscious stuff.
Fred D'Aguiar's third book, British Subjects (Bloodaxe pounds 5.95), finds him tackling racism head-on, eloquently and intelligently, yet discovering on a return from abroad that 'I . . . miss here more than anything I can name'. The 'wet, warm, silky place' he slides into between his lover's legs, in 'Sonnets from Whitley Bay', is altogether more shopworn and second-hand. Milan Kundera wanted to escape from the burden of endless political protest and I expect black British poets do, too, on occasion, as D'Aguiar does in his reflective pieces and in his celebration of the Notting Hill Carnival: 'Life is a honeycomb / made to eat; just sort out the sting / from the honey and the choreography / comes with ease, grace; so rock on, / but mind that island in the road]' Elsewhere it looks as though he is trying to find a middle way, linguistically and emotionally, between rap / performance modes and mainstream English verse.
'How good to spend a night with Shelley' remarked 'petite, white-haired Miss Cartwright', Brian Cox's English teacher. He himself went on to teach, irritating the left with his Black Papers and the right with his humanistic zeal. As a parting shot to the traditionalists, of whom he is surely one, he handed over Critical Quarterly to the polysyllabical mercies of the literary theorists. Some of theserum doings are reflected in his Collected Poems (Carcanet pounds 9.95), which decently commemorate family, travel and brief encounters with the high and mighty. Apparently it is only God, though, who has 'a lot to answer for'.
King of the cod encomium, scourge of the scandalous, prince of parody and pastiche, Roger Woddis sadly died earlier this year. One Over the 80s (Perseverance Press, unpriced), a memorial to 'that clever soddis', reprints a decade's worth of the wit and wisdom he dispensed weekly in the New Statesman; Kenneth Baker provides a brief eulogy. Chesterton was a favourite (poetic) role model. Does this whisper something about the left's secret love-affair with all it loves to hate? Whether or no, Woddis's spitting images will be sorely missed.
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