Going down but not under

Books: For National Poetry Day on Thursday: Les Murray goads, Christopher Reid goes from Martian to mobile, and a new anthology; EXPANDED UNIVERSES by Christopher Reid, Faber pounds 6.99
Christopher Reid used to be a Martian. The Martians, it may be recalled, were a group of young poets writing in the late Seventies who sought to present things as they might appear to a visitor from outer space. The object of the exercise was to jar readers into seeing their world afresh. In practice, this meant making everyday objects seem bizarre by the use of unlikely metaphors: rugby posts becoming "monumental H's ... from some heavenly alphabet", that sort of thing. The Martian method aroused considerable critical antagonism, partly because the poetry it produced was dissatisfying. Once you had worked out which commonplace object was being obscured, the poem, like a riddle, was over, and there was little point going back to it.

Twenty years on, however, all those bizarre metaphors no longer seem like attempts to make readers see things differently, and read much more like strained efforts to write English poetry after Larkin (it being Larkin's curmudgeonly, roadside England that invariably emerged after the metaphors had been stripped away). And what Expanded Universes shows is that in Reid's case, at least, those early exercises were valuable. The rhetorical flashiness is all but gone. What remains is an authentic sense of the strangeness of things.

The collection's epigraph is a remark by Alexander Calder, the 20th- century sculptor famous for inventing the mobile. One understands why Calder appeals to Reid. His mobiles are delicate affairs: wires and weights poised in precarious counterpoint. Reid, likewise, has a fine ear for the weight of a word, and his music is invariably contrapuntal: "alertly swooning ... a modulation almost visionary" ("Insofar"). Calder's mobiles, however, pose troubling questions. His ambition was to engineer a sense of the infinite, and by their beguiling perpetual motion, he felt mobiles could be thought to catch the drift of the universe. Yet if one once loses faith in them, Calder's mobiles instantly come to seem not microcosms, but toys - elaborate structures good for nothing but circling. Working through the implications of its epigraph, Expanded Universes poises itself on this same fine line.

The book divides into two halves. Always looking for something more, the poems of the first half explore the idea that one could develop a sustainable modern faith, without departing from the languages of rationality. "From Information Received" tells the history of a cult, the narrator's matter-of-fact idiom never quite eliminating the possibility that there might be something in it. "Mermaids Explained" notes confidently that mermaids were in fact "dugongs or dolphins", but can't quite account for the story that their songs could "lull and lure ... impetuous mariners / to their downfall". Reid is too modest a poet to make anything like a leap of faith, but by nudging empiricism to its logical conclusion he arrives at the point where explanations stop, at the point where something more seems called for.

Yet if he wants to show that we can't quite exclude the thought of something more, nor can Reid deny the possibility that actually there is nothing else. Exactly halfway through Expanded Universes we arrive at "After Mallarme". As intricately structured as anything that has gone before, one reads and re-reads this baffling poem, determined to make the meaning come clear. But it never does, and so, despairing, one proceeds to the next poem. Whereupon, one immediately encounters a "fat fly fuddling for an exit". "Only retreat and a loop or swoop of despair," the poet tells us, "will give it the sky." The image loops back into "After Mallarme", and the despair one felt as one failed to find its meaning itself becomes the meaning of the poem.

The poems that follow all contrive somehow to turn in on themselves, perpetuating themselves for no other reason than the desire to be perpetuated. But this should not be thought to make them slight, for what they circle around is a hollowness, a "music emptiness" which, when glimpsed, is authentically disturbing.

It is these despairing poems - "Reflections", "Two Dogs on a Pub Roof", the sequence of "Eight Octets" - which leave the strongest impression. Larkin, not surprisingly, remains a significant presence. On the whole, however, it is the universal, not the parochial Larkin, who is being developed here: the Larkin of modern abjection who has more to do with Baudelaire than Betjeman. Modest and contrived, elaborate and absurd, Expanded Universes ultimately makes for bleak reading. But the bleakness is painfully real, and the poems, accordingly, are hard to get away from.