The Sunday poem: No 25 Andrew Motion

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work
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The new Poet Laureate: eight collections and a Selected plus biographical and critical studies of Keats, Edward Thomas and Larkin. Through a lot of different forms - romantic lyrics, prose poems, narrative poems - in different voices, his work has an elegiac watercolour restraint: explanatory, empirical, fusing beauty with loss in a characteristic note of observant tact. One poem, "Skating", describes his brain-damaged mother, in hospital 10 years before she died. His biographies set other poets' sense of loss in scrupulous, sympathetic context - of family, love, writing, society, history and politics - and implicitly his poems do the same thing for their own subjects. In "The Letter," a girl in the Second World War describes scrambling off to the hills to read a love letter, seeing a German pilot crash to death, "legs/splayed wide in a candid unshameable V". The gently transferred sexuality, the interweaving of quiet pastoral and violent death, the half-aware half- wondering voice work like a period film to disclose a whole past world. His main project, I'd say, is finding different ways of panning out from individual vulnerability to wide-angle shots of the whole human landscape.

A love poem, whose language changes through the poem from one sort of declaration to another: from the self-mockingly pompous, defensive beginning (I would like to make it clear - like an after-dinner speech) to the intimate end. Its movement is the gradual putting of emotional cards on the table - hence the title. It accomplishes this partly by a mix of self-correction and self-intensifying-by-repetition, partly by little checks in the voice (I did, you know, I did; I hate - I really hate; a long time ago now darling, a long time; tear them, even) which underwrite the poem's ostensible purpose, correcting a false impression on an always sensitive subject: a man's view of a dress. (A dress you have always said/ I never told you I liked). The poem's image for this self-correction is the repeated flower- pattern. It first hedges this round with negatives (dark purple blooms not named by any botanist); then repeats (heavy dark flower heads) and re-sees it (big drowsy petals). But just as the original flowers disappeared, so the poet wants to repeat their disappearance and negate them again (loving them, but wishing to lift them aside unbutton them). The poem uses these flowers to recharge the language. The way they got re-seen (the heaviness, the lifting aside) reflects an increasingly sensuous and explicit vision: about that dress, about the past, about an urgent now. The poem is about love itself as repeated pattern. About repeating and re-seeing that pattern in present and past (the summer we met ... a long time ago now, darling).

The poem's imperceptibly faint waist - the central stanza of six lines ringed by two of seven - imagines the dress slipping quietly out of our life but also slips a wider society into our poem: social relations (implied in giving dresses away - Oxfam perhaps?), the municipal tip, garage, and makeshift plumbing. But the words are also chosen for their sexual symbolics. After bum comes dipstick, crack, torn to shreds (anticipating tear them in the final stanza). The vowel-harmonies (life/I/right/wiping/tied/pipe, slip/tip/dipstick, heads/shreds), the Ps and Ks (tip, dipstick, pipe, piece, crack), hang together to make this stanza a different aural world from the others: an inner stanza for a hard-edged and hard-sounding, handyman- ruled outer world. Yet this outward-looking symbolism moves the poem on to the sensuality of the third stanza. As the tablecloth came from the outside into the home, so the affectionate voice that begins the last stanza calmly subsumes the outside world (and its piecemeal fracturing of things we love) into a vision of domestic love. There is still loss, even in happiness; but the pattern is still repeated: lost, and then found. You can even tear and discard it: it will turn up again.

In the last scene, the voice which introduced itself as playfully stiff (I would like to make it clear) declares itself in a different way. The amusement in the voice, its underlying smile, comes over in here I am, which kicks off a double entendre between sex, drinking and staring that lasts the rest of the poem. My head light in my hands? There is a famous poem by Craig Raine, an older contemporary of Motion at Oxford, on a similar getting-keen-on-getting-into-bed scene: "Here we are without our clothes/one excited watering-can, one peculiar rose." Here, the male sexual symbolics switch from dipsticks to head in my hands and glass full. The female flowers begin swirling and shifting (they start to swim) until symbols are swept aside altogether for the moon-white skin itself. A poem about married love, which starts with I's desire (I would like), ends with further wanting - but by you. Hence its symmetry: reciprocal desire as two outer stanzas, folded round a central harder one like petals round a pad of outward-gazing pollen.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'On The Table' appears in Selected Poems 1976-1997, Faber