Boyd Tonkin: Words that allow us to stare grief in the face

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In a culture warier than ever of poetry in public places, it looks as if elegies can still take you through the grandest entrances. During the late 1990s, the Whitbread book of the year award (forerunner of the Costas, before beer gave way to coffee) went four times in succession to volumes of verse: two by Seamus Heaney, two by Ted Hughes.

In 1998, the last collection of original poems to take the cross-category final prize proved to be Ted Hughes's ecstatic, tormented swansong for his first wife Sylvia Plath, Birthday Letters. (Heaney won the next round with his version of Beowulf.)

Then, for a decade, poetry languished on the margins, muscled out of the limelight by fiction and the odd heavyweight biography. Now A Scattering, Christopher Reid's four sequences of elegiac poems about his late wife Lucinda, have prevailed. At the beginnings and the ends of life, a verse-averse society still opts to honour poetry. In the busy middle passages, it tends to vanish. But for now the "necessary footnote" (as Reid puts it) of the words that mark his loss – or our losses – will reach many more readers than before.

Understated, elliptical, rising quietly through its stages of memory and mourning into a controlled intensity, A Scattering glows with a restrained passion. It brings the dead woman back into ever-changing focus not as a saint or icon but a scattily enthusiastic shape-shifter, someone whose fluctuating moods and masks calls for an equally flexible verse.

Reid never quite drops the playful, paradoxical wit of his former work. He came to prominence in the early 1980s after his first collections, Arcadia and Pea Soup, had marked him as, along with Craig Raine, one of the so-called "Martian" poets who looked down on blundering humanity with a sardonic, almost extraterrestrial eye. In some ways A Scattering could not sound more different, with its steady attention to the universal truths of bereavement. The Martian has indeed fallen to earth. But his poetry still makes it strange, stands apart – and so lets us look such grief in the face.

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