Books: The White Rabbit turns into Edward Thomas

The Breakage by Glyn Maxwell Faber pounds 7.99
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Glyn Maxwell's lines seem to sprint faster across the page than those of other poets, as though he were the White Rabbit and late for an important date. They dart round corners, in and out of buildings and buses, lollop across the shires, duck into churches and football matches and poetry readings, nibble at various salads of folk wisdom, then bolt for home and the angelus of the closing rhyme. These busy manoeuvres leave the reader either breathless and gratified or breathless and puzzled, as though he'd been led through a maze simply to arrive at a bus stop, or some vaguely Parnassian version of "well I never!"

That was the old Maxwell, still visible in The Breakage but slowing now into a graver, more contemplative manner. The title-poem is an allegory of loss, about the "He ... or she or it" who "broke our beautiful / All coloured window", and the blood that "comes / Like luck to the blue fingers/ Of children thinking they can help". Cut fingers are lucky fingers, apparently; innocence quickly acquiring experience. The window itself is heavily symbolic, like Larkin's, and not very precisely located. Its function is to provide an occasion for piety and rue ("We kneel and start"), an oblique meditation on our atheistical times.

The matter of England rears its head more explicitly in the next poem, "An August Monday", set in the smug middle-class heartland of a family picnic on the eve of the First World War. It's recounted in Alexandrine couplets and prepares us (together with various other pointers and poems) for a central sequence of "Letters to Edward Thomas". Like Hughes and Mill before him - though they grew up entre deux guerres, between ancient patriotism and modern scepticism - Maxwell uses that watershed, the summer of 1914, to evoke timeless English pleasures in nature, and the imminent catastrophe - "all our hearts at journey's end, in some / Vale of picnic- cloth". The narrator is as innocent as she is ignorant that the "great / Unknowable", Thomas himself, has deserted his idyll and enlisted in the war, while she and her friends holiday in his cottage, expecting him home any minute.

In some ways the sequence is an exercise in ventriloquy, which captures very beautifully the pathos of its historical moment, poised as it is between bucolics and the shambles that awaits its culpable innocence. In the final poem Maxwell writes in his own person, risking a certain bathos and conceit - "Frost died. I was born" - and telling us that what and who he writes for is "You", the poet-soldier who was obsessed by death. This enrols him in a large club of contemporary poet-admirers and will perhaps surprise those who thought of him as an ardent vestal at the shrine of St Wystan.

Maxwell's conversion to lyric, and a less hectic way with various street creds, is welcome; a product, perhaps, of his recent marriage, celebrated in a number of love poems here, and fatherhood. There's also a continuing interest in ghosts, presences, silences, ineffable things that have no name or habitation except those handed out by the haunted ear. "My grandfather at the Pool" meditates on a photo (reproduced on the cover), in couplets again, and takes us back to the trenches once more, eliciting shades of Owen ("all pity flashes back from there / Till I too am the unnamed unaware") and "Things I dreamt but never dreamt were there. / But are and may by now be everywhere". Monosyllables cluster round the rather abstract and riddling moral. When this poet wants to be deep he reaches either for narrative obliquity or for a hard stare at the ordinary in the most ordinary of words: "It's that there's nothing now that doesn't seem / As if it's where it ended". This comes close to a sort of namby-pamby, trying to squeeze emotion out of a solemn, demotic opacity.

The successes in this book, however, are numerous, from the Thomas letters to the verve of such excursions as "Hurry My Way", "Mooncalves", "Deep Sorriness Atonement Song" (a lovely apology for not turning up at an appointment) and "Mr F Gets Fit", which has Maxwell in jogging mode embracing the ghost of Frost, genius of the New England countryside where Maxwell now lives and teaches, at Amherst. (Seamus as Yeats, Motion as Keats, Mahon as MacNeice, Raine as Donne, Muldoon as Ovid, Armitage as Kees, and now Maxwell as Thomas/Frost - either we have grown very pious towards our forbears, or very conceited.)

Still, ambition is no bad thing, nor influence, properly absorbed. One of the things Maxwell knows is that the "light" in light verse doesn't have to mean silly or throwaway. He isn't afraid to use metrical high jinks to wade into serious subjects and give them the old Audenesque one-two. Nor to rhyme "breeze" with "nobody's". Klee said that in his drawings he took lines for walks. Maxwell takes his voice for runs, races and rambles, extending his skills with every book.

The Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, houses a set of seven exquisite 15th-century tapestries of mysterious provenance and meaning. The Unicorn Tapestries by Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo (Abrams pounds 22) reproduces the works in 75 large colour plates and details the story of their production and history, and the significance of the unicorn as a secular and Christian symbol. Left, a detail from "The Unicorn is Killed", showing the hunters finishing off the unicorn and sounding the death note.