That universal feeling

Bernard O'Donoghue celebrates the short lyric poem
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The Independent Culture
The major challenge facing the volume of short lyric poems has always been how to achieve with its small components the thematic weight of longer works.

Christopher Reid makes it clear from the outset in Expanded Universes (Faber, pounds 6.99) that he is aware of this dilemma, and doesn't care. The Universes of his title come from Alexander Calder, in a wonderful passage which Reid uses as epigraph: "They weren't intended to move, although they were so light in construction that they might have swayed a little in the breeze... The circular forms...have some kind of cosmic or universal feeling." It is a perfect definition of the free-standing but flimsy artefacts that the most successful small poems often are, while also claiming universality for them.

Reid's expanded universe often make such persuasive claims for largeness, in poems like "The Fly" which transcendentalises Donne's earthy, vulnerable creature:

A few inches above where the fly fizzes

a gap of air

waits, but this has

not yet been vouchsafed to the fly.

The question is: will it ever be? This is typical of how Reid's lightness is a matter of carriage rather than substance. The poems constantly exceed their unself-importance, in the Kiplingesque "Stones and Bones" for example, or by leaving unstated the too devastating logic of their conclusions. The explanations of mermaids is "something on the brain /too wicked to think about"; the question of the motivation of the audience for (strip) - 'Tease'' is answered curtly: "Don't ask"; there is no point in intervening in the bullying of a child because "it's too far from this desk."

"Modest" is the word that has traditionally been applied to this inconclusive quality in Reid. But these endings are not negative in their effect because it is stressed throughout that our general malaise as a species comes from a bizarre principled refusal to respond to love. Reid's expanded universes are ours viewed through binoculars.

Though Brian Patten comes from a very different socio-poetic milieu, he shares Reid's account of our frailty, reinforced in Armada (Flamingo, pounds 5.99) by the powerful opening sequence of poems about his mother's death which culminates in "Five Down." a wonderfully spare and bleak lament for the senses, recalling the old English The Seafarer:

Her hands have abandoned the feel

of cloth.

Her tongue has let go of tasting.

Patten's great gift is the clarity and force of his language. Here, more than in any previous book, that strength is put to the graver service of elegy, its plainness reinforced by apt literary allusion.

"Lockerbie", for example, is a reworking of Thomas's "Aldestrop"; and the book's masterpiece is a magnificently wry reworking for the Liverpool poets of Dunbar's "Lament for the Makaris", pondering the brackets that will enclose our birth - and death-dates:

Tumour-ridden, the brackets close in.

They drop against the ends of names,

Not orderly, but any old how.

Henri, Mitchell, McGough - watch

it mates,

The brackets, any day now.

Through his career Patten has performed the remarkable feat of increasing in clarity, force and depth at the same time. Armada is his best book yet.

Maura Dooley, like Patten, holds the attention unfailingly in Kissing a Bone (Bloodaxe, pounds 6.95), but by very different means. Even in her longer poems (a few, such as "Home", are very short, with a Menache-like intensity) every word demands consideration; nothing has been written lightly. The death of her father dominates this book as Patten's mother shadows his. In the most haunting poems Dooley shows by linguistic intercutting how the humdrum consciousness is invaded by grief, as in "What Every Woman Should Carry":

A credit card. His face the last time,

my patience, my useless youth.

That empty sack, my heart. A box of

matches.

The hint of danger in that last detail brilliantly merges the contents of heart and handbag, like a postmodern "Rape of the Lock". Like both Reid and Patten, her concern is with the difficulty of giving a convincing exterior form to love which belongs to the "heart". So, behind the grave, measured control of language, Dooley holds in reserve a capacity for the chilling - macabre as in the volume's title.

Introduced by the poems on bereavement, most of Kissing a Bone is written from a precarious present which is expressed in the heading to the book's second section "The Future Memory" (a tempting overall title.) Images from photography, politically balanced with gun-shooting, are the central expression of this moment. In Robin Robertson's Camera Obscura (Colophon Press, pounds 10) "image" seems too abstract a term for the physical centrality of the camera and its products.

Robertson's extended poem tells the story, through fictional diaries and poems, of David Octavius Hill, the mid-nineteenth-century Edinburgh art photographer. All the time references are to May, between 1838 and 1870, emphasising like a medieval love-poet the promise, often dashed, of spring, expressive of the tragedy of Hill's life. Beyond using the camera as an image of the imagination and the unreliable fragility of its products (like Antonioni's Blowup), Robertson branches out into wide- ranging philosophical areas, particularly light which works like time in Shakespeare's sonnets: "The light that made it now dismantles it." It is also a figure for the failure of post-Enlightenment Scotland to attain nationhood: a tract for the times.

Robertson's poem is an essay in the most successful of the solutions to the long-poem dilemma, the sequence. It combines the compulsion of a single central story with the looseness of its Menippean poetry-prose form (using, for example, Colum's "She Moved Through the Fair" as a delightful bonus.) Like Robertson's fine lyric poems, Camera Obscura is full of memorable and quotable moments: "After long exposure /ghosts returned to their bodies."

It is an unqualified delight and makes, again, a strong case for the longer verse structure: another way of expanding the universe.

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