BOOK REVIEW / Bellowing in broad daylight: 'Gnyss the Magnificent' - Glyn Maxwell: Chatto, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
GLYN MAXWELL's first two books of poems, Tales of the Mayor's Son (1990) and Out of the Rain (1992), carried thunderous endorsements from Joseph Brodsky. A prodigious appetite for subjects and forms, together with an amazing productivity, have quickly established him as the sort of young Turk it's a pleasure to be assaulted by. Even when he's boring, as he sometimes is, grinding out lines whose meaning could be of interest only to Mother Syntax, he's generously boring, bellowing in broad daylight rather than ducking down behind the privet, and giving language the sort of pasting only true originals can. Where others have 'something to say' - he has plenty of that too - Maxwell's supple formalism seems equally focused on the nature of saying itself.

Now he's taken on poetic drama, of all things, which reputedly died at the hands of T S Eliot, Robert Duncan and Christopher Fry. Gnyss the Magnificent delivers up three verse plays, conceived on a grand scale, about revolution and tyranny, truth and honour, and the nature of love. They are also 'about' drama itself, its methods and modes, from high tragedy to low farce to the enduring mysteries of the fairy-tale. In a word, 'postmodernist', but with none of the Ashberian drearinesses attached to that slippery compound.

In the title piece, Ceaucescu and Stalin lie behind the tyrant Gnyss (together with Shakespeare's history plays and the Auden-Isherwood collaborations), who is so very un-nice as to hound all his fellow-heroes of the revolution to death, and do whatever it takes to hang on to absolute power. Maxwell juxtaposes heavies and rude mechanicals, high rhetoric and low jokes, valour and cowardice. Rhyming couplets occasionally appear, likewise the blues, but mostly it's an efficient variant of pentameter, an 11- or 12-syllabled line which hints at the splendours of Elizabethan blank verse yet stays close to the demotic of our own times.

The middle play, 'The Birthday Ball of Zelda Nein', owes something to Pinter and the Eliot of the Sweeney fragments yet is triumphantly original, making a wonderfully funny and mordant critique of Thatcherite Britain out of all sorts of ancient literary bits and pieces. 'Last Crossing of Isolde' is also a tour de force, both a re-telling of the most infamous of love stories and a running critical commentary on its conflation of lust, power politics and good-bad faith in matters of the heart. Most of the action takes place on board the ship which is bringing Isolde to the dying Tristan in Brittany, whose mysterious captain turns out to be pulling more than hempen ropes. Two rival groups of actors, one pompously British and the other skittishly Continental, take it in turns to beguile the voyage with instant versions of contemporary history, while history itself subverts and multiplies all its possible interpretations.

What is so impressive here is the reinvention of what had seemed a dead, or long-gone, set of conventions. The groundling in me couldn't wait to know what was going to happen next, while the intellectual courtier nodded at multiple allusions and grace-notes. Whether such fireworks will work on the stage I don't know. On the page, they are a delight.

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