Books: Barnacle Bill's pastoral

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The Independent Culture
All Set To Fall Off The Edge Of The World

by William Scammell Flambard pounds 6.95

Believe me, a plague of nerves besets a fellow writer who accepts the task of pronouncing on the work of one of this newspaper's regular reviewers. Happily for me and its readers, All Set To Fall Off The End Of The World is lively, accessible and rich with a refreshing lack of the affectations which strangle much contemporary poetry. It's William Scammell's ninth book of poetry, at once his most celebratory and elegiac work. Set in the edgy territory of late middle-age, the poems weave through three sections. The first plunges into the natural world; the second takes us inside the rumbustious psyche of an old sea dog, and the third drives intimately into moments of history, both personal and political.

Scammell, who once edited an anthology called The New Lake Poets, is self-consciously attached to his Romantic forebears, and "Back of Beyond", the first section, is firmly placed in their territory. He pours animals, people and landscape into a series of meditative poems. "Memory walks back towards the gist," he tells us, and in these poems memory forms everything he looks at. Landscape, especially, is invested with layers of history. Scratch the surface of the scene and up pops a Van Gogh field; look into the barn and spy Euclid overseeing a mountain of grain.

Sometimes the present damages the pretty illusion of the past. Honeysuckle, wild roses and tawny owls all add to a Hardyesque scene in a poem called "Solway Plain" in which you could, Scammell speculates, expect Tess to "just blow through on the wind". But rudely and comically, 20th-century farming techniques upset our reverie as bales of hay sheathed in plastic are "pumped up in Virgilian pastorals". In "The Tryout" Scammell compares the way humans absorb the impressions of landscape and memory to the way rock is weathered: "This is how time / grazes the unconscious mind."

Section two, "Barnacle Bill", steps away from the meditative and toward mayhem through his lively maritime adventurer who embodies Falstaffian brio, old-age laddishness and the spirit of never say die - but if you must, do it cavorting:

"Someone had welded all four seasons into his face

and raised the veins on the backs of his hands

and poured strong beer into his rotunda."

The final section, "Lost and Found", is a serendipitous home for poems treating subjects as varied as the last general election, Zelda Fitzgerald and Robinson Crusoe. "Marooned", the Crusoe poem, makes serious inroads into the space between crowds and loneliness. It's a brave poet who writes in the shadow of Elizabeth Bishop's "Crusoe in England" which will certainly come to be seen as one of the major poems of the century. But Scammell makes a graceful acknowledgement to Bishop and continues on his own distinctive path. Scammell is good too at the odd catty remark: "There's no danger of silence though / in old age offering up its throat to Philip Glass."

There's music in many of these poems - Tchaikovsky, Haydn and Monteverdi - as well as in the careful rise and fall of Scammell's inventive phrasing. Even the quiet scepticism of his prose poem "A Change Of Government" is touched with it, bringing together the domesticity of his shower, the agony of St Sebastian and the unlikely wonders of life under the new regime, "all the soldiers and moneychangers driven off backwards with the flick of a rough clean towel".

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