BOOK REVIEW / A talent for destroying his own: 'Aimed at Nobody' - W S Graham: Faber, 5.99 pounds

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W S GRAHAM died in Cornwall in 1986, leaving eight books of published poetry. Although a prolific writer, he was acutely critical of his own work, and the volume of Collected Poems which came out from Faber in 1979 omits, by his choice, many of his early poems from the Forties. His wife Nessie Dunsmuir tells of massive conflagrations of poems which he felt were beyond salvaging: 'I know what I'm doing,' he said when she remonstrated.

Robin Skelton, with Margaret Blackwood the co-editor of Aimed at Nobody, was so alarmed by Graham's potential for destruction that he arranged to collect his notebook and worksheets in exchange for a modest payment. This short, elegant book contains a selection of these unfinished poems and an introduction which emphasises that these should be regarded not as new work but as a glimpse into Graham's writing practice. At the back there are a few notes which Graham had added to individual pieces and which illuminate his self-lacerating fastidiousness: 'I will not want to do anything with this . . . It is too filled with objects and activity which could never go into verse that way . . . There is no tension or silences. O please forgive me.'

In a paradoxical manner, this book is too good for its declared intent. Time and again a poem stares out from its page, beautifully wrought but inexplicably rejected by its author. How can one not regard these as new poems? In a brief foreword, Nessie Dunsmuir says that had Sydney Graham produced a Complete Poems 'he would have included everything' he kept'.

For the reader unfamiliar with Graham's work, this book may serve as a primer, to be read with the Greville Press's Uncollected Poems (1990), before launching upon the Collected. He is not an easy poet and he demands that his reader play a positive part: 'You yourself can contribute / somewhere between the words.' In 'Implements in their Places', he famously left four blank lines to be filled in. His first obsession is with the necessity and profound difficulty of communication; language is the barrier on whose other side the poet is imprisoned, maimed or destroyed. 'Language is when the speaker kills himself / In a gesture of communication and finds / himself even then unheard' echoes into 'So I spoke and died'. 'Listen,' he pleads, again and again, 'are you there? / Can you hear / me through the deafening silence?'.

Images from earlier books recur: rowing across a loch, a man inured in ice, childhood in Greenock, the winter landscape of Madron, the sea. Inuit and snow have nothing on Graham and water. Here is the spare, bleak lyricism, language become skeletal, of Graham at his most direct:

Look up at the curving

flock or rooks like iron

filings making the sky another thing. Then

I walked out on the iron

frost of the road. With almost

my dear and the low orange

sun tinted her cheek.

Or: 'My long home / loch is still / lying between / hills in my mind.' Conversely there are sudden warm surprises. Cretans sing 'Great moustached songs. Even my mother / has a moustache. She seems happy'. Elsewhere I took delight in 'You will observe / the love for their job my windscreen wipers have'. There is one longer poem here, 'The Greenock Dialogues', and it contains all these elements, in itself making a fine introduction to Graham.

It would be good to see many more of these poems which their author regarded as fragments. As Skelton says, we, the necessary readers, are entitled to think otherwise.

(Photograph omitted)