BOOK REVIEW / Right to the funny-bone The quick and the dead: 85 Poems - Gavin Ewart: Hutchinson, pounds 7.99

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GAVIN EWART'S poems, in the phrase he has used of jazz, mostly go 'straight into a vein'. Their wit ensures the swift penetration, the shot of emotional truth at once hitting the spot. Over Ewart's long career, that spot has sometimes been the funny bone, sometimes the heart, sometimes - in his more widely social or political poems - the elusive sites of conscience and good sense.

He is a poet who does not resort to high sonority or the egotistical sublime; his ear is too lively for the dying fall, though he is often gloomy in a mode so intimate that a poem might be private conversation. Allowing it not even windy grandeur, Ewart has death pegged for a pusillanimous creep. Because he has no side or pomp, it is his nature to cut death down to size; this cutting does not diminish its terror but strips it of the traditional dignity that can be sublimely analgesic.

His latest book comes in two parts, 'Serious' and 'Frivolous'. Plenty of the serious poems contain jokes; most of the frivolous poems concern matters of moment and depth. The arbitrariness of trying to separate serious from frivolous is part of Ewart's virtuoso tease; his elegies cannot be wholly downcast since they recall the missed living peculiarities of the lamented. The elegy for George MacBeth is in the latest international language, Glosa: 'O George, homo u pani-bo-pe in u pani-bo / tu pa vive hedo in poesi] Stili,

grafo-mo]' ('O George, like a baker in a baker's shop, / you lived happily in poetry] Pen, desk]') The epithalamium for MacBeth's last marriage, a poem happy and now made poignant by death, is placed among the 'Frivolous' poems.

The comforts are, as they have always been for this poet, sex, cats, women (preferably not literary ones, though Beryl Bainbridge receives a fine dry shorty), reading and words themselves ('Ah, the words] The words] / They can reconcile us to anything]'). Ewart revisits Larkin's Arundel Tomb, writes 'A Short Discursive Whitmanesque on Felix Holt', meditates in many metres upon Hardy, Brecht, Lawrence and Louisa May Alcott. Snobbery, repression, indifference and hardness (of which Baroness Thatcher is the Evil Queen) are laughed to scorn, also revolting beer and the kill-joy cricket commentating of Fred Trueman.

Ossification, not old bones, is to Ewart the enemy of life; in 'Packages' he describes its particular dangers for the poet:

We don't like poets who fool about. No one escapes.

We all, like England, expect.

One lives by gay rhetoric, one by entropy with animals,

one is a 'war poet', one has a 'secret narrative' -

whatever it is, we expect it; and any sudden

change is never thought of as a change for the better.

We don't like it much.

Gavin Ewart will not allow his poetry to 'set firm as amateur toffee'. Quickness fills his work; it is the best thing in the face of 'that long night

of snow'.