Monday Books: Life is fab in the language lab
SPIRIT MACHINES BY ROBERT CRAWFORD, JONATHAN CAPE, pounds 8 OUT OF THE AIR BY JEFFREY WAINWRIGHT, CARCANET, pounds 6.95 APPROXIMATELY NOWHERE BY MICHAEL HOFMANN, FABER & FABER, pounds 7.99
Monday 16 August 1999
The Scottish writer Robert Crawford is one of the most distinctive of these new virtuosi. A gifted critic as well as poet, he relishes the language game, but also keeps a grasp on more emotionally challenging matters - notably, in this collection, the father-son relationship. Readers, however, should be prepared to contribute a taste for arcane words; a Scots dictionary will not go amiss. If you're a bit of a classicist with nerdish tendencies, then better still. Check out "rhotacised", "brecbennach", "nanomachine", "florilegium" and "difference engines". Crawford's pleasure in the sciences typifies a distinctly Scottish tradition; his predecessors include John Davidson, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan.
But this poet's pleasure is double-edged. "Blearily rummaging the Internet" (Crawford's favourite "spirit machine" is the computer), the writer-surfer enters the underworld to meet his late father via a bizarre kind of computer- game: "tanks manoeuvred round the hearth and range/ Smashing duck eggs, throwing up clouds of flour./ Fleeing the earth-floored kitchen, an ironing table/ Hirpled like girderwork from bombed Cologne/ Into the study where my Aunt Jean studied/ How not to be a skivvy all her life".
In this poem, "Alford", as in others, the media of connection also separate: they divide son from father, the old employees from the young ("Time and Motion"), or spirit away the beloved landscape ("Deincarnation") in dangerously seductive ways. It's when he surfs his own imaginative Internet that Crawford achieves real integration of mind and matter. "Impossibility," a 60-stanza dramatic monologue spoken by the 19th-century author Margaret Oliphant, is replete with magical leaps. The sea is the poem's rich governing metaphor; its tone is passionately playful: "When Alexander Diving Bell invented the xenophone/ I heard his voice calling, `The sea! The sea!'/ Hollowly into a shell/ As if he could contact Robert Louis Verne/ Or all the impossible, massed, forlorn spirits/ Edinburgh exiled". The prolific, brave and neglected Oliphant would surely be delighted to have such a "medium" as Crawford's poem to invite new generations to "Read, read".
Jeffrey Wainwright, older than Crawford by some 15 years, may not belong to the cyber generation, but science also proves for him an important imaginative resource in the writing of elegies. Science cannot console us in the way of religion, but perhaps its grand overviews offer the nearest secular equivalent. For Wainwright, the focus is on physics and geology, with the title sequence taking oxygen as its guiding "image", one that links "the blue-green algae of bacterial seas" with "the draught in Men's Medical this afternoon" and the speaker's sigh: "O that you could catch your breath again."
"Anne's Shells" is a baggy, rangy work that, like Crawford's Oliphant poem, appears liberated in rhythm and metaphor by its feminine focus. Wainwright's imagination is always emotionally drawn back to the inescapability of loss: "At length what we will both together be is calx:/ I, municipal tilth, you, by incidentals/ Abraded and raised elsewhere in the firmament/ And nothing can say this is just a different way to be." These elegies are immeasurably strengthened by their sense of personal mortality. And, while Wainwright is attuned to linguistic subtleties and engages in some quiet experiments, he never pretends, or pretends to pretend, that language and the play of art are sufficient ends in themselves.
Michael Hofmann, German by birth, educated in the US and England, was nominated (like Crawford) a few years ago as one of the Poetry Society's "Best Poets under Forty". He is a stylish writer but the style is casual. The foreign tags are slipped in among the slang-words. Tautly brilliant effects rub along with the occasional colloquial laziness. Robert Lowell is sometimes too clearly a mentor: "The nouveau oil building/ spoils the old water town, spook town, old folks' town./ My old parents, like something out of Le Carre,/ shuffle round the double Georgian square/ tracing figures of eight, endless figures of eight/ defected ice-dance trainers or frozen old spooks" ("Cheltenham").
But Hofmann is more straightforwardly confessional than Lowell. Despite the montage technique, a quest for the self is at the heart of the enterprise. This self, dominating even the elegies to the poet's father, is witty, vulnerable and Peter Pan-ish: "I can really only feign disapproval/ of my youngest/ dibbling his semolina'd fingers/ in the satiny lining of her red coat" ("Vagary"). The games Hofmann plays are, finally, with identity more than with words.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 3 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 Ian Brady: Moors murderer announces his support for Ukip and the SNP
Poldark episode 8, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
Peter Kay’s Car Share, TV review: The perfect vehicle for Kay’s comic talents
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove