BOOK REVIEW / A clever poem, like an exceedingly long joke: 'History: ThE Home Movie' - Craig Raine: Penguin, 9.99

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IT SAYS something for the high status of the novel these days that poetry, once the undisputed heavyweight champ of English literature, should make a boisterous plea to be thought of as fiction. Craig Raine's remarkable new poem was entered for the Booker Prize, and its failure to make the shortlist will probably be put down to the, er, typically insular and petty English habit of creating footling pigeonholes for books, etc, etc.

But hold on. When Milton wrote Paradise Lost he could relax - no one objected to poems with epic stories and out-of-this-world characters (such as Satan); when Browning wrote The Ring and the Book he knew that he wasn't competing with Dickens. Even T S Eliot didn't put The Waste Land up for the big fiction jamborees.

But in these novel-gazing times, anything goes: ghostwritten fictions by celebrities, dressed-up autobiographies and vague travelogues with a world-weary narrator called 'I'. What next - shall everyone have novels? Will we peer into the bookshop windows this Christmas at Rosemary Conley's Hip and Thigh Diet: A Novel, or The Noel Edmonds Bumper Christmas Cracker: A Novel?

It is especially sad that poetry should seem embarrassed to be book length, even if (as here) it is only kidding. When the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote Omeros, recreating Homer in the Caribbean, he was conducting a serious argument with the novel, which he thought had invaded poetry and run off with its richest assets - narrative and characterisation. Poets were finding themselves (or losing themselves), he argued, on a small island of modest lyric utterances he summarised as amounting to: 'Someone hit me.'

In this context, the surprising thing about History: The Home Movie is that it is so many things at once. Raine is a miniaturist, with a knock-out gift for similes: about the least likely person to write a 300-page poem such as this. And the work itself is both immediate and cryptic, spacious and cramped; delicate and ostentatiously crude. Still, it is hard to know whether it is greed or poetic licence that lies behind the formal japing.

The poem is a series of dated scenes from the lives of two families, the Pasternaks and the Raines - two families united by the marriage between Lisa and Craig. Yet in the acknowledgements we get the old 'any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental' routine. Is that funny? The subtitle is on to something: the book does proceed in a sequence of blurred, jumpy scenes exactly like those wobbly shots from the teetering minicam on Dad's aching shoulder. But otherwise the novel gag only draws attention to the ways in which the poem isn't one: for a start, there isn't a story.

Raine begins in Russia in 1905 and alights, as the years pass, on memorable branches in the family tree. A drag artiste performs before the king; a woman is raped in Oxford; two men have a fight; a man masturbates on a train; a doctor tries to deliver a baby; a Belsen inmate wonders where to hide a spoon - the poem is certainly rich in incidents. If Raine makes no attempt to link them in a narrative, it is because he prefers to proceed through images, through the idea that things match and rhyme, that lives separated by continents can speak to each other.

The entire book is similes: this is like that. A telephone is 'like' a foetus; and later, when it hangs down to the floor, is 'like' an

ape's arm. The old-fashioned indicators on cars fold away 'like' safety razors. A bee is 'like' a Liquorice Allsort. The mouths of fish work 'like' tweezers. There are thousands of these remote lookalikes.

Sometimes, like actors playing two parts, they come back for more. In 1917 the gunfire in Moscow pops like fat, and later the rubber gloves of a midwife also crackle 'like hot fat'. After the first flash of sausages chortling in a pan, we trip up: the burning fat domesticates the gunfire and adds a ludicrous note of flying bullets to the child-birth scene. An umbrella is both like a rhubarb leaf and the doors of a tram; both an oil-stained bathroom basin and frogspawn are deemed to be 'like' ermine; the in-out, in-out sound of sawn logs is compared both to lovemaking and to the heavy breathing of trains.

The concentration on visual similarities is not always a delight. A cricket ball across a wet outfield is 'like' a circular saw - we have an arresting stab of recognition: the dark slash across the pale grass, the rolling ball as the teeth of the blade. But a circular saw brings with it a tremendous whoosh of raucous heat and noise, a flurry of dust and agitation and a strict engineered feeling which adds nothing to the thought of a cricket ball rolling through damp grass - a bucolic and unmechanical event.

But it might be wrong to chide Raine for such discords, because they are, of course, deliberate. He loves the sound of clashing worlds. During the blitz, in London, we glimpse houses with the sides ripped off:

A first floor drawing room

like a raft tilting over a waterfall

poised with furniture

and perfect with Persian rugs

Pity about the incontinent pipes

Shame the fireplace shat itself.

This is characteristic: the enthusiastic alliteration, the in-your-face contrast of luxury and excrement, and the lovely sense of life on a precipice all produce the compressed intensity that is Raine's signature. It can get formulaic - after a while we suspect that every cup of shiny white sugar has a 'brown bogey' in it - and this also afflicts Raine's strutting approach to life's fundamentals. But at its best it is much more than merely eye-catching.

Almost every verse is punning (to be censored is to be 'out of your senses') and alliterative, vibrant with chimes and echoes. But in the end, for all its exuberant fondness for the materials of life, it conjures up an enclosed and self-referring world. It begins with a pince-nez that is 'like' the letter 'g', and ends with the sign for a wheelchair, which is 'like' an ampersand. In both cases we think, well, yes, I suppose so; but we also feel hemmed in. The pince-nez and the wheelchair are not opened up by these comparisons; they are reduced to mere hieroglyphics.

But for the most part it is all so mesmerising and clever (and baffling) that we can't afford to mind this. We can even see the stylish picture on the cover as a sneaky joke - it shows a train rushing through surf and seagulls. But for some reason the train is the wrong way round - the numbers on the front are back to front. Is this a crafty reference to history being an unreliable mirror, or a hint that all journeys go both forwards and backwards? It must, we feel, be a jest of some superior poetic sort, and this in itself tells us something. On any other book we might think it was just a silly cock-up at the printers.

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