Lord, bless all our beasties
Reviews: THE VIGIL by C K Williams Bloodaxe pounds 7.95 BESTIARY by Helen Dunmore Bloodaxe pounds 6.95
Sunday 20 July 1997
Williams has become famous for his long, sinuous lines, so American in their debt to Whitman. Like his compatriot, the late Amy Clampitt, he has an almost Jamesian mastery of syntax. His lines are broken into sub-clauses which circle back to examine themselves again, a method well suited to his obsession with analysing minute processes of consciousness.
The Vigil opens with "The Neighbor", so paradigmatic a Williams poem, it almost verges on parody. The setting is urban squalor at its most fetid, with mistreated pets emblematic of their owner's decline ("Her five horrid, deformed little dogs, who incessantly yap on the roof under my window; / her cats, god knows how many, must piss on her rugs - her landing's a sickening reek"). The subject is moral: how to be humane in such inhuman conditions ("Still life on a roof top: dead trees in barrels, a bench, broken; dogs, excrement, sky. What pathways through pain, what junctures of vulnerability, what crossings and counterings?") The praxis is memory: how it transfigures the present, bringing both anguish and the promise of redemption if its lessons are learnt ("Chris Conner singing 'Lush Life', how it brought back my college sweetheart / my first real love"). "The Neighbor" ends with the poet giving the woman his arm to help her down the stairs. Walking away in ignorance is, for Williams, the biggest sin: "To come so close to a life and not comprehend it, acknowledge it, truly know it is life," as he writes in another poem, "Secrets".
Despite his almost novelistically urban settings, Williams is a supremely lyrical poet. His subject is subjectivity, which he pursues through relentless self-interrogation. Williams is no empiricist: facts, events, signs reveal their meanings grudgingly, contingent upon their context. In "Grief", an elegy for his mother, Williams goes "to the mirror: someone who might once have felt something merely regards me, /eyes telling nothing, mouth saying nothing, nothing reflected but the things of the world". He has to step back before he can appreciate that what he feels is "Grief for my own eyes that try to seek out truth ... but find only approximation".
It is this tenderness for human frailties which makes Williams such a moving poet, and his patient questioning of such complex moral and philosophical problems which make him an important one. "Symbols", an eight-part sequence investigating common objects with typical intensity, ends with "Garden". Here, in a moment of prelapsarian containment, Williams understands that "if I believed I had lost something / I was wrong, because nothing can be lost, of the self, of a lifetime of bringing forth selves." This is Williams's project, to record "a lifetime of bringing forth selves".
HELEN DUNMORE prefaces Bestiary with a quotation from Keats, wishing that he did not have to witness "that most fierce destruction" rampant in nature when turning to it for innocent delight. As Dunmore reminds us in the title of the final poem in the book, "We are men, not beasts". The poem ends:
and what we cannot help wanting
we banish - the barn yawn, the cow breath,
the stickiness we come from.
It is of course this "stickiness" which interests her, the uneasy interface between the natural and the social which she also explored in her last collection, Recovering a Body. This new book is her sixth so far, and in it poems of the suburbs investigate the underside of social comfort, as in "Frostbite" when, exhausted by central heating, "You're outside, but even in a nightdress / that comes to the thighs, you can't rub the warmth off". "Tiger lookout" notes that, "One word / which has gone out of fashion / is putrefaction".
The potential for mess, for putrefaction, can also be found lurking behind an ordered, familiar facade in "At the Emporium":
He is the one you can count on
for yesterday's bread, rolling tobacco
and the staccato
tick of the blinds
on leathery Wednesday afternoons.
Menace is latent in those ticking blinds: "His would be the last face that saw them / before an abduction. Come in, / he is always open." The effectiveness of this vignette is precisely that open door. Over the page, "He lived next door all his life" treads more explicitly (and less successfully) into Gothic, when we learn that the neighbour who "picked his words like scones from a plate" has "girls stored in his cellar".
"The city exists by acts of faith," writes Dunmore in "Sometimes in the rough garden of city spaces". She is often concerned with the breakdown of this faith in the inner cities, and particularly in how this affects the lives of the poor and homeless. In "Need", a version from Piers Plowman, she writes movingly and with convincing anger of "Poverty hidden like AIDS":
Chips are their Sunday roast, dog-ends rolled up in Rizlas
damp down the parents' hunger as they look on
while the kids eat baked beans and bacon.
By the State's cold calculation
they could get by on carrots and bakers' leavings.
Dunmore is a poet of social rather than lyrical concerns. This is a very British way of writing, whereby the people and personae in her poems are analysed and contextualised, rather than disinterred for confessional exposure. Like the many other practitioners of this genre, she relies on close empirical observation for the effectiveness of her vision, sometimes leavened with allegory or the surreal, though eschewing complex forms or flashy language. As would be expected from last year's winner of the Orange Prize for fiction, Dunmore's poems gain their momentum through narrative control. The best of the poems in Bestiary have the deft punch of a powerful short story.
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