Big American bear-hugs
William Scammell gives the nod to three muscular, varied new collection s
Sunday 10 September 1995
Longley's Ghost Orchid (Cape pounds 7) carries on from where his last, Gorse Fires, left off, with the addition of some classical variations sparked off by Homer and a commission from Hofmann and Lasdun's recent book of Ovid make-overs. Flowers, birds, snow, fishes, whispers, haiku-like glimpses and intimations of immortality haunt these mostly short pieces in longish lines. They're all about blessings and surprises, as in the excellent love poem "The Scissors Ceremony", or "Chinese Occasions", which marries the quiet of Mahon's "Snow Party" to birds and breezes, those patient incessant tutors of "the culture vulture from Ulster".
The title poems starts off like Heaney in fond paternal mood ("Added to its remaining sites will be the stanza/I compose...") and then calls up the plangently symbolic ghost orchid itself. "Just touching the petals bruises them into darkness". That will either have you weeping into your Palgrave or reaching for your atheistical blue pencil and a copy of Empson.
James Lasdun's title, The Revenant (Cape pounds 7) also threatens poeticality, but his bejewelled style and complex stanzas are imbued with the necessary toughness for "Bag-Slashers in the Terminal Terrestre" and "Lime Pickle" (nastily sprung on him by a girlfriend's father) and "Woman Police Officer in Elevator". This last is a virtuoso self-portrait of the ambiguous feelings "Spooling through me like a Mobius strip" conjured by the "supposedly arousing" presence of a "uniformed woman":
Coercions, seductions, lies,
Ready to confess them all, and more,
As if in her firm indifference she'd regressed me
Inward down some atavistic line
To the original essence, some masculine
Criminal salt; a frieze of victims
Panelled in my own skull
Like a lit cathedral hell ...
A shudder, and then stillness;
Avoidance of each other's eyes
As in some bedroom fiasco's wake,
The air too brimful with disclosure, till the door
Opened and we parted, the clamped rift
Between us widening like a continental drift
Of the sexes; she to the butcher, the breaker,
The ripper, the rapist,
I to my therapist.
Lasdun has bags of wit and panache, not least in those baroque stanzas which are as at home with dregs and dreck as they are with "the coffered contours of a mind/Breached by infinity" (Borromini's overreaching architecture in Rome). There's a good deal of "imbricate" and "exfoliate" along the way but if you like gorgeous brocades, rich pastries, lofty echoes from the nave, this is the stuff to spend your piacular pence on.
Mark Doty's My Alexandria (Cape pounds 7) is also a stunner, one which marries plain speaking to a long grammatical stride, "big, risky, fearless poems", as Philip Levine has said, "in which ordinary human experience becomes music". Buildings knocked down, waves breaking, sodium lights, advent calendars as ur-stories, Chet Baker's trumpet, drag queens in "black silk of esta noche" singing perfect blues, Cavafy's poems of "regret and desire ... memory's erotics, his ashen atmosphere ... the city he'd transformed into feeling": Boston and New York become Doty's Alexandrias, with Aids as a further aid to melancholy and meditation.
If Doty has a fault, it is that the celebratory note is struck just a little too often and too easily. The shining eyes, the catch in the throat, the big American bear-hug is bestowed on everything from the heavily symbolic night-ferry to instant sex. No matter how messy the grit you know there's a big shining pearl about to drop into your hand. Maybe this is one of the risks Levine speaks of, native to this sort of oceanic embrace. When it works, Doty's fearless angels and ecstasies are as rewarding as the almost medieval intensity of his gardens of love.
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