Sunday 10 August 1997
"Here, iambic, urgent, minatory, / The moorhen drives her young into the reeds: / There, bansheeing phantoms of the sky, / The Canada geese fletch rippling arrowheads" ("Mimics"). The work in At The Wood's Edge by David Hartnett (Cape pounds 7) is iambic all right but not very urgent, and still less minatory. April dawns, jet planes, dog-barks line up in Hartnett's four-square, old-fashioned verse, desperate to get into a poem and in between the tasteful covers of a book. The desire to make "a sort of song" takes precedence over all the unruly contingencies that are poetic in their own right. Most of the usual subjects are covered, and most of the usual conclusions arrived at. Edward Thomas seems to be an important influence, but Thomas's brooding inwardness and formal skill are strenuously imitated rather than absorbed into something new.
Adam Schwartzman, only 24, has written a brave and perplexing second book, Merrie Afrika (Carcanet pounds 7.95), about a semi-mythical place whose "date palms / grew out from where slave-traders spat", a place "no more than a dream // in which sweat / in the rain was invisible, / and tears in the dark, / and grief was, as always, when nothing / else helped". The poems are mathematically numbered, a la Wittgenstein, and take a synoptic view of the last several hundred years of colonial and indigenous history. There's a nice parodic touch here and there (see "Happy Valley"), and a warmly feeling one, as in weavers "almost necking / the shuttles and wooing the cloth/ from the tables". The bravery lies in the book's unusual prosody and unsmart seriousness as it addresses complicated human motives, black and white. There's a whiff of Geoffrey Hill, perhaps, in the somewhat lordly manner, and in the way leitmotifs weave back and forth between poems.He risks portentousness now and then ("Under the hot sun we live / at the mercy of each other") but Schwartzman is never less than intelligently engaged with his large, loose, baggy monster of colonial guilt.
Some poets roister-doister, some camouflage themselves in suits or gowns and issue soulful bulletins from behind their impeccable disguise. Dennis O'Driscoll, a high-ranking Irish civil servant, has chosen the way of C H Sisson and Roy Fuller, ie, the daytime job and the dreamtime songs. Quality Time (Anvil pounds 7.95) ruefully acknowledges "the grass growing under [the] feet" of the nine-to-fiver, yet makes excellent poems out of this unpromising material, as well as from more traditional subjects, such as a fetching account of sin ("teach us to treat sweet secret passages / as dens of iniquity and filth ..."). "Wise, to the world he would be weaned from", O'Driscoll's is one of those quiet voices that grows on you.
Geoffrey Holloway, now approaching 80, is one of those poets who is indifferent to fashion, but passionate about his craft. And Why Not? (Flambard pounds 7.99) is a selection of his work from 1972-1994, and it deserves a wide readership. Like Hardy, Holloway notices things: the old man at the checkout with "one small packet of soda bicarb" as his sole purchase; the teenage daughter "a guerrilla in some bizarre unit / on her way to storm - /what do they call it - / maturity ... / in her armoured, other life"; a twice- grown fingernail; the garden border "whose dark soil / will open tomorrow like a piano lid / on a sound of flowers"; old age as the "following" of a "shrinking man". It's tough-tender stuff, as deliriously various as the syntax of the title poem, generously applauding the variousness of things.
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