Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir, by David Herd

Politics makes languid poets

In the style of Andy Warhol, 16 Peter Mandelsons look out from the cover of David Herd's verse collection, but the Great Satan of New Labour is rather less prominent in the poems themselves. This may be part of the point: Mandelson's fame, like the Cheshire Cat's grin, has few evident means of support. Yet his contribution to the prevailing climate of drivel and spin is vast.

Herd, one half of the departing editorial team of Poetry Review, is too fly to write directly about this state of affairs. He writes round it. "What, if anything, has poetry got to do with politics?" the book asks. The answer is: everything; there is no other space but the political for it to occupy.

In "Apples", the speaker, collecting a partner from the station, notices a group of refugees, the colour of the sky and clothes, "And so wives kiss husbands and in flamingo pinks/ Conversations branch and continue. I take your bag/ And it's like nothing intervenes." This is well-managed, but despite the ancestral New York voices of Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, the book as a whole suffers a shortage of energy and invention.

What is offered instead is the poetry of a musing consciousness that is always about to stir itself but never quite manages to do so decisively, like the left-liberals whom Mandelson has rendered irrelevant. In one poem, "the Poet and his Wife" on a beach "had a debate,/ On the state of the nation;/ Or to be more precise the nation state -/ Which one of us, I forget who,/ Had heard was under threat./ Looking back I can't remember the details".

There are signs of greater concentration in the witty plain-language villanelle "Peter's Poem", but this kind of thing recalls the intimidating example of William Empson, who could invoke fears of an order that Herd never approaches - a pity, since there are strong grounds for doing exactly that here and now.

Sean O'Brien's selected poems, Cousin Coat, are published by Picador

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