The Domino Hymn: poems from Harefield, by Grey Gowrie

Hope in the heart of a modern limbo
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Grey Gowrie has had an unusual career as a poet, quite unlike his other existence as a public man about the arts. In 1971, after a poetic apprenticeship at Harvard as Robert Lowell's assistant, he published a slim volume with Oxford University Press, A Postcard From Don Giovanni. This accurately reflected the brittle, post-1960s Biba world of the time.

Then came nothing for 30 years until the brutal eruption into his life of heart disease. The experience of a heart transplant stung him into poetry again, and the result is this pamphlet of 13 poems.

Meditations on serious illness in a hospital environment are familiar terrain for poets. The problem for the reader is that sympathy for the raw human trauma is often at war with the reader's legitimate desire to have an authentic poetic experience. Gowrie passes the test.

The title poem does justice at some length to the remarkable sequence of operations he was part of. His transplant was a "domino" - he received the heart of a man who in turn had a combined heart and lung transplant for lung disease.

Gowrie's style has not developed greatly in 35 years. It is a poetry of bitter relishing of experience that he learned from Lowell and a few contemporary English and Irish practitioners such as John Fuller, Derek Mahon and Tony Harrison. It is seen at its best in "Celebrate", in which the image of an apple generates its usual associations - Newton, Chardin - cleverly woven into a meditation on the celestial recurrence of an eclipse.

The hospital environment is painted as a "subaqueous world of care", drifting in and out of sleep to a constant background of television, the paraphernalia of care, doctors looming into view with clipboards - the modern limbo.

The poems only once range beyond the poet's immediate confines, in an elegy for the art critic David Sylvester that celebrates vision, "as we go down into green from the white bed". The prospect of death renders the picture that the world effortlessly paints for us every instant infinitely precious. The sequence ends in a dialogue with his wife after recovery, in which two northerners, born by the Irish and the Baltic Sea respectively, dream of the southern warmth of Crete while travel is still a distant prospect. For now, the horizon stretches no further than "the Discovery Channel or Wild Life".

Peter Forbes's latest book is 'The Gecko's Foot' (Fourth Estate)