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BOOK REVIEW / Upper-class yells from a quiet man

Bernard O'Donoghue discovers virile songs and blooming irises in four new collections
Robert Crawford's view of Masculinity (Cape, pounds 7.00) is sceptical, often expressed in evocatively repulsive images, like the smell of "unshowered Number Eights''. But the trenchancy of his earlier poetry is only prominent in two of this book's four sections. The others are concerned with his relations with wife, child and parents; they show a tender and pious gravity which we hadn't seen before from this declarative and separatist-inclined Scot. The new Crawford is described in the first poem as, like his father, homo silens, "A Quiet Man".

Not that Crawford's rhetorical virility entirely deserts him as he exposes the defects of masculine ideology. The second poem, "Chaps", has an acting note (Crawford is an outstanding performer of his poems): the refrain must be "first of all yelled in an upper-class English voice - 'CHEPS!','' before, "falling to a whisper at the end''. Some of the best effects come by way of resistance to the quietness of the family poems, as when the vita nuova of the previously ambitious young artist is expressed by the admirable neologism "Bovrilised". The relief at the escape back into verbal sparks is unmissable in "Scotch Broth":

"A soup so thick you could shake its hand

And stroll with it before dinner".

The domestic poems are often beautiful and accomplished, especially those that offset the threat of domestic mawkishness with the consonantal roughness of Scots. But stand by for the old Crawford again, with sleeves rolled for more than the washing-up.

Ruth Padel is another vigorous and forceful exponent of language, whose new book Fusewire (Chatto, pounds 6.99) runs two themes together: sex (not new in her poems) and English colonising of Ireland. What is most striking about her anti-colonial rhetoric in the latter is that their fierce, dry irony could not be employed by an Irish writer without appearing inflammatory. Padel works her two subjects together brilliantly, in titles like "Your Place or Mine?".

The second of the book's two epigraphs introduces the perfect figure for the amalgam: "Desire paths", which are "private routes through public spaces" that urban planners have not allowed for. The harshness of sex in the war-zone, in poems such as "Desire Paths of Sarajevo", is reminiscent of Gravity's Rainbow in its bleakness. What is so impressive and so desolating is the Dantesque sense of misery in the spirit's fated, instinctive push towards happiness which is bound to fail in these contexts - and also maybe in any other.

Padel is an outsider in Ireland, and "foreign" is a recurrent term. Michael O'Loughlin, who has been credited with trying to write into Irish history the Dublin urban experience it has ignored, is now on the well-beaten track of Irish poets abroad. In Another Nation: New and Selected Poems (Arc/ New Ireland Books, pounds 6.95), his language is lively, exuberant and profligate, as he attempts to cross-fertilise Irish culture with a multilingual cosmopolitanism, reading like a more innocent, if no less ambitious, Stephen Dedalus. Despite the attractive energy, the speed and range of his references (to Trakl, Vermeer, Tsvetaeva, Brahms, Vellego) can lead to a blurring of purpose. Thus we understand his desire for the non-urban simplicity of "Michael Hartnett's Irish" -

"I heard the sound

Of the snow falling through moonlight

Onto the empty fields," -

while recognising uneasily that such romanticism represents a back-sliding from O'Loughlin's grander programme.

Louise Gluck is never romantic, despite her extraordinarily Romanticism- derived subject. The Wild Iris (Carcanet, pounds 8.95) is the ultimate paysage moralise, an account of the passing year, with the days divided into the canonical hours of dawn and dusk, through addresses from flowers to gardeners. Often this turns magnificently into an address from creation to God, since the year is a plant's lifespan. The book achieves in every line that most difficult of poetic tasks, to make the personal widely significant. With the medieval European lyric-poets, Gluck returns obsessively to the tragedy of the human in contrast to flowers: we don't bloom again. Like all large subjects, this sounds trite; the poems could not be less so, as would be evident from any quotation. The second of the seven "Matins" poems ends:

"We merely know it wasn't human nature to love

only what returns love".

A feature of 20th-century reaction to poetry on this side of the Atlantic is that we have been so late coming to an appreciation of the great American poets, especially women such as Bishop and Adrienne Rich. We are indebted to publishers like Anvil and Carcanet who have kept writers like Gluck in our sights. She is a poet of enormous importance and intelligence; we must not miss her.