Terminal democracy

Are poets like prisoners? Does garlic really resemble female sexuality? William Scammell tackles the many mysteries raised by recent collections
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The Independent Culture
IN U A Fanthorpe's Safe as Houses (Peterloo pounds 6.95), men are portrayed, comically, as Widow Twankeys longing to come out of the pin-striped closet, or else they're safely dying and dependent fathers, or Romans "stabbing" their long roads "into distance" ("You could see how they / Hated the landscape"), or they're holy and long-dead and thus admirable, like Tyndale translating the Bible. There's something rather cosy about this man and his God, doing good works among the loveable locals.

The same is true of references to "Mr Joyce, so difficult; Mr Lawrence, so coarse; / And Mrs Woolf, so strange", reminiscent of an earlier poem about "Mr Lee" and his lusciously pastoral Cider with Rosie. Lady Macbeth also gets domesticated - she's upset about all that blood in her best guest room - and so does Ibsen: "We are the children of Norah who slammed the front door, / Who walked out alone with her courage ... / We were the children of the doll; / It seems there is hope for us, after all" ("The Doll's Children").

"Reading Between" is scathing about the "Never-Never world" dreamt up to "gentle the English" through the many horrors of this century, and another of Fanthorpe's poems laments:

We missed the jazz and swing of our extrovert parents,

The pyrotechnic raves of our groovy kids.

Our ground was never steady under foot.

In another excursion poets are likened to prisoners, both experts on "Time" and "The unrepeatable marvel of each second", and you feel that prisoners might have something to say about that gratulatory parallel.

Fanthorpe is good at sheer loving-kindness: "He picks the amateurs who follow Him / For love" one poems says of God. It's those amateurs she celebrates, and the amateurs respond by packing out her readings. "We can walk where they did, / But the guts and the goodness are beyond us", another one says of Tudor monks. Hence her aesthetic and moral project, to re-imagine the unsung, untitled, often unthanked secular monks and nuns of the contemporary wasteland.

The witty note struck in the opening line of Charles Boyle's Paleface (Faber pounds 6.99) - "My life accused me: paleface, it said, you deserve better" ("Monday") - announces a poetry of the urban scene which combines no-nonsense modernity with an eye for pathos and old-fashioned yearnings - "love / was a thing I almost believed could filter through / to the junk yards, the scams, the base-line / of the national economy" ("The Big Idea"). He says of the bile spouted by some speaker in a public park that "it could be real, or it could be art"; so presumably the job is to purge of pretence "the gap between the gritty norm / and their culture's pellucid ideal".

This last is from "Velcro", a long imaginative poem about a primitive tribe and its customs, as plausible as it is funny, essentially a covert account of our own predilections and misdeeds. The playful surface, here and elsewhere, is married to a running critique of our hardboiledness and Thatcherite greed. I worried at times about whether the throwaway manner mightn't detract from the poems' staying power, but in the end was won over by the number of bullseyes he hits - see "Figurine", "Dry Goods", "Solid Professionals", "lst Floor, Ladies Fashions", "New Mains, 1864". There's a surreal touch here and there, reminiscent of James Fenton, and something of Craig Raine's eye for unobvious similarities, but these are assimilated into his own deadpan voice. I was glad to make its acquaintance.

"You wished to incline your neck / with as much grace over the parapet, leaning down / to the leaning swans, but had walked on / shy of mythology". It's to Peter Sirr's credit that he's not going to let Yeats or anyone else distract him from a good look at "Body and Soul" in The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange (Gallery Press pounds 6.95), where sad newsagents' shops jostle for attention with "the steel sensation / of fish flesh against your throat" as "the full moon / romances your flat".

Derek Mahon's terminal democracy, where the spirit gives up on things and exults in its own grim adequacies, looms over some of Sirr's lines - "your lives are waiting, impatient for you", "the afterlives / of madrigalists", "our minor banditry", etc. Still this is an attractive and intelligent book, full of "words gathered together to do good / ... aching to tell how the world works!" "Pictures From a Glass House", for example, and "Hunting the Bricks and Mortar" make fine use of his favourite images of light and glass, bricks and architecture, that utopian house we all carry around in our heads: "a window / not there yet, / not made, not even gathered from the fire / but taking up the stubborn space between / one hand and another, one finger / and the next ..." "Tenancies" is a good poem about the presences that haunt such architecture, in this case a dead relative. And "Four Songs" has a nice valetudinarian wit, descending straight from Prufrock.

I'm not so sure about the reflexive note, a Wallace Stevens-like musing over the sea-swell of art, which Sirr does rather well but which tends to deflect him from those strong impulses which kick off any decent poet's opening lines. Verses which stop to look at themselves in the mirror and pat a few pieties into place seldom get to any worthwhile destination, not even those fluttering along the shore of Key West.

The long concluding love poem, "A Journal", has its moments, but the "whole vocabulary of hopelessness" is a mite wordy, like other people's dreams and nightmares; privately compelling but in need of steely objectivity - see Kafka, see Holderlin - to lift the sunken wreck up into the clear light of day.

Sujata Bhatt writes a gentle, dare one say womanly poetry in The Stinking Rose (Carcanet pounds 8.95) which responds to colours and scents more readily than to the machinations of the intellect. "And her eyes / for once not analytical" is high praise for the "visiting scholar" from Bombay who looks at a famous poet's house "as though it were a temple". Women painters earn further praise, and so does garlic, the title's "stinking rose", which is linked to pungent female sexuality, along with the red rose of the west. Plangent, like a raag, but without the raag's virtuosity and emotional precision.

2 Impossible Horizons by Michael Glover, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 7.99. "A large and near-fatal gathering of opportunities, / Which takes in public opprobrium, private grief, / and a curiously beguiling medley - or was it a melody? - / of in-betweens

2 Selected Poems by Herbert Lomas, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 9.99. "I was born sincere but life has taught me obliqueness," says a prefatory Note to this selection from seven books spanning a quarter-century. Nobody puts pen to paper without discovering that "poetry ... straight from the heart" is a tall order: it has to crawl through dictionaries and dust before it emerges into the sunlight. Lomas deprecates his own ironies but there's nothing wrong with a lively mind and the "peculiar smell" of "Man", though you might want to trade that capitalised abstraction for particular men and women doing particular things. Common sense sinks some of these poems - "There's something / rotten in the state all right, / but you are the state" - and the breezy way with sex and Christian verities is no substitute for incarnating these matters in texture and voice. Lomas is always likeable, however, for his quirky honesty and self-questioning spirit.

2 Ignoble Sentiments by John Hartley Williams, Arc pounds 7.50. Williams won the Arvon Poetry Competition in 1983 with a sprightly postmodern fanfaronade called "Ephraim Destiny's Perfectly Utter Darkness" (Bright River Yonder, Bloodaxe, 1987) - "I can't prosper / in a world that thinks / it prospers. / That / ain't my style. / I ain't got / no style ..." The scatty, deadpan humour owed something to the American moderns but was kept from sentimentality by its inventiveness. Here he has succumbed to the lure of sincerity, in the form of a long prose autobiographical memoir, "A Snapshot of Gail", complete with letters from student friends, draft poems, and young love. It's one part Prelude to two of Lawrence and Joyce, but with no redeeming verve to lift it clear of rebarbative adolescence. The poems that follow don't quite earn their wacky keep either. Williams's "maverick" qualities are cherishable when he's on form, but can stale into mannerism when he's not.

2 Bonfire Makers by Martin Mooney, Dedalus Press pounds 4.95. The difficulty of ommunicating with fathers ("the talk collapsing down through itself like/ badly-erected staging"), drums of caustic "like dehydrated rage, / a bad temper you could add to water", a wife announcing her pregnancy during love-making ("it's sinking in like acceleration ... the plane / climbs, and home becomes a tiny plan of itself"), footballers in winter turning ghostly under the lights, as though the end of the world is imminent, young Rasputin as "the picture of all / my scruffy contemporaries / ... or any kid acting the maggot" - Mooney's details are arresting, his verse lucid and attractive. Too many "like" constructions, perhaps - the poet's indispensible au pair - but otherwise this is assured and enjoyable stuff.

2 Collected Poems by P J Kavanagh, Carcanet pounds 9.95. Not to be confused with Patrick Kavanagh, the celebrated Irish poet who died in 1967, PJ is the author of that notable memoir The Perfect Stranger, rescuer of Ivor Gurney, and poetry editor of the Spectator. "Edward Thomas in Heaven" suggests his allegiances and deft craftsmanship: "It would be mere loss / To be welcomed in by an assured Edward Thomas. / There must be doubt in heaven, to accommodate him / And others we listen for daily, who were human, / Snuffing and puzzling, which is why we listen." An unsettled childhood left "green nettles in my boots" and a desire to settle, which lies beneath his fine family meditations and uninflated nature poetry. "The soul's imperative to praise" is a good motto but a bad line - show don't tell, didn't someone say?

2 Collected Poems by John Montague, Gallery Press pounds 22.95. Montague is perhaps the most important transitional figure between Patrick Kavanagh's generation and the current starry crop of Irish poets, led by Heaney. This substantial Collected begins with his best-known book, The Rough Field, which mediates between Troubles past and present ("But what if / you have no country to set before Christ, / only a broken province?"), tracks back to his early poems of the Fifties and Sixties, and then forward to recent and new work. He has a weakness for prescription rather than the thing itself ("instead of a worn rosary, / I tell these metal keys"), but at his best he gathers in the whole "crop of temptation", from a life model's curves to the "draught-whipped candle" that magnifies the shadows of his forbears.