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Christopher Reid's poetry aspires to lightness, not in the sense of light verse - although he does sometimes write it - but a delicacy that would float free from the leaden dictates of this gravity-ridden world. His previous book, Expanded Universes, carried an epigraph from the sculptor Alexander Calder: "What I would like to have done would have been to suspend a sphere without any means of support, but I couldn't do it."
In his first two books, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, this meant a refined version of the simile-based Martian style invented by Craig Raine. But he has been writing much for children in the last 10 years and the mannerisms of children's verse have infiltrated his poetry. Where once a poem would have been clinched with a Martian simile, it is now more likely to be wrapped up in a genial rhyme not out of place in Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses.
All the poems in For and After are either written for friends, or versions of foreign poets including Homer, Hugo, Pushkin and Baudelaire. The poems for friends are gifts that reflect each person's qualities and interests.
Reid worked with Jane Feaver at Faber, so her poem has him talking to her on the phone about Ted Hughes when a fox appears on a nearby roof. Of course the poem had to be called "The Phone Fox". Another writer who suspends spheres without any means of support is Italo Calvino, and one of Reid's poems is an additional Invisible City, the City of Sara, celebrating the vagrant personality of a woman of that name.
The Reid universe is essentially benign: "Welcome to our peacable kingdom,/ where baby lies down with the tiger rug", as "A Whole School of Bourgeois Primitives", a keynote poem from his first book, had it. But the long poem "Bollockshire" in the new book is not as friendly: it suggests that this cosy realm stops well short of Middle England. Leave the motorway, he says, and you'll find a festering, sinister, gormless hinterland of pubs with "bouncy castles and back-room badger fights".
But Gemütlichkeit is the overriding mood of the book. Some poems might have escaped from a children's collection: "The Pickupine", for instance: "With quills banded/ red, white and blue,/ he might be a bandit/ out to get you". Often, other arts bring out the best in Reid: in "Some Late-Night Piano" a jazz pianist "lays out a tune/ with its bunches of chords/ like a deal in solitaire". That has some of the brio of jazz; and makes you think that's the only real thing - and that he should do a damn sight more of it.
All three poets here studied at Oxford: Bernard O'Donoghue is still there, a fellow of Wadham College, but his heart remains in County Cork, where he grew up. Distance lends radiance: girls in the chemists' shops of the Fifties become, in memory, the apotheosis of glamour with their "maculate make-up; Max Factor Medium, whatever the sun-index". Cork goalkeepers are the "most celebrated lineage of heroes". Traditional life such as this might be dying out but it's O'Donoghue's subject-matter, and he won't let it go.
Outliving isn't all mildly picaresque Irish tales: "Shells of Galice" is an appealing poem in which the author tries to subvert the future researches of archaeologists by carrying shells from one shore to another, even leaving a sea urchin high up a limestone mountain. Many poems are edged with sadness because of course golden lads and girls - even Max Factor girls - come to dust, and contemporary nightmares creep into some. There is a standard contemporary poem that starts with the poet clipping his hedge or creosoting the fence, when, by a train of association, we are transported to one of the world's troublespots. Generally, the effect is gratuitous and I'm not sure that O'Donogue's poems in the genre entirely escape. "Burning Furze" leads, via its charcoaled twigs, to "bodies swallowed by the blaze/ on the road to Basra". In "No More Bother to Him", both domestic and distant nightmares are alluded to - foot-and-mouth and the Macedonian/Albanian-rebel battle for Tetovo in 2001. The connection, other than the funeral pyres, is hard to discern.
Robert Crawford is unusual among contemporary poets in being almost entirely a celebrant. Not for him the rueful, harrowing notes; he loves everything (and says so outright: "I love how it comes right out of the blue"; "I love all windy, grand designs") and likes to compile lists of oddly assorted epiphanies. The opening "Fiat Lux" enjoys "braziers, holophotal lens,/ Polished golden flags, champagne and candles", and so on. The note of riotous enjoyment is infectious, but with poems like this there is always a niggling doubt. Why this particular list; why not bright red Ferraris, suspension bridges, ratatouille, or anything the reader prefers? As John Coltrane knew, the best thing about "My Favourite Things" is not the words.
What Crawford celebrates most consistently is his native Scotland. The proportion of Scots words in his poems is increasing: here we have glaikit, stushie, flauchters and more. Unlike his sometime collaborator W N Herbert, Crawford doesn't gloss these words, which creates some difficulties for English readers.
But his strongest suit is his contemporary art-and-media savvy and inventiveness. "Zero", in his last book, floated the idea of an automatic touch-tone phone menu for a nuclear installation ("If your main lust is for weapons of mass destruction/ Please try our other number in Inverbervie"), and he once invented an entire decade: "The Numties". Here we have a man who makes a micro sculpture of Ali fighting Liston: "One finger pulse could knock out the champ / Who would drown in a sweat-bead tsunami".
Peter Forbes' anthology 'We Have Come Through' is published by BloodaxeReuse content