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The Customs House, By Andrew Motion. Faber & Faber, £12.99
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Wednesday 19 December 2012
We need to renew the language of remembrance. Even before state-funded commemorations of the First World War begin in 2014, a year of solemn preludes looms. Factor in the political push for exit from the EU, and on the national stage the warmer, more inclusive climate of the Olympic season may yield to a backward-looking, introspective mood: a chilling cult of the dead and the past.
In any future tussles over the meaning of the Great War, what the poets say will count. Luckily, both Andrew Motion and his successor, Carol Ann Duffy, have used the post of Poet Laureate to fuse a tender evocation of wartime ordeals with reflections on waste that shun any jingoistic nostalgia. Motion has also drawn on the terrors endured by his father, a D-Day veteran. Those experiences, of trauma carried back to the home front, leave a trace through this new volume.
The Customs House finds room for other kinds of work – deft, impressionistic poems of place; pieces devoted to the poet's wife; a Browning-esque sequence on the Baroque architect Borromini; a Tennyson-haunted elegy for fellow-poet Mick Imlah – but arms and their aftermath dominate. Most notably, the "Laurels and Donkeys" section carves verse out of war-related prose texts taken from various contexts: medics' memories of the liberation of Belsen; combatants' testimonies from Iraq and Afghanistan; his father's accounts of the Normandy campaign.
These "found poems" call on all Motion's skill as a poetic orchestrator. He moulds the heightened prose of (often) horrific reminiscences into loose-limbed but strongly rhythmic verse. However, these pieces also serve as a kind of cleansing return to the source. He aims to discover how humanely self-conscious language can endure amid the shock and grief in those slaughterhouses, "best left" – as a doctor treating casualties from Gold Beach puts it – "to the imagination".
For any reader who dreads the memorial barrage of cliché and bombast that the Great War centenary may bring, Motion delivers a salutary – and very moving – pre-emptive strike.
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