The Broken Word, by Adam Foulds; Mandeville, by Matthew Francis; For All We Know, by Ciaran Carson

Poetic stories find their feet

Bill Greenwell
Friday 13 June 2008 00:00

The Broken Word is Adam Foulds's first published poetry (he has written a well-regarded novel). It shows a young man, Tom, fresh from "the bark/ and whine and snivel/ and brag" of school, plunged into service against the 1950s "Mau Mau" uprising in Kenya. The blurb explains this – a pity, because Foulds lets us find out decade, place and bloody context by degrees. The poem quietly initiates readers, like Tom, into casual brutality. In a blur, we see the "red wet gust" of blood, witness a rape, see vicious punishments. Tom can only define them in inadequate terms: cowboys and Indians; cricket pavilions. Of three men buried up to their necks for a minor infraction, he notes that their heads stick up "like croquet hoops". Of castrated men, we are told they have been "heavily edited".

Such images punctuate the poem, and Foulds has genuine talent as a miniaturist. Nevertheless, The Broken Word isn't an unqualified success. There are many explanatory passages in which rhythms dull, lines break for almost no reason, telling us what's happening and moving perilously close to prose: "Tom sat at his place at one/ of the English tables in the mess,/ eating beef in gravy, tightening the vice/ of his molars until the meat's/ staunch fibres gave way." Those line-breaks seem arbitrary. That this passage is followed by a truly brilliant image of a settler eating sponge pudding, "making sure that each spoonful/ wore a thick sneer of custard", signals Foulds's perfect control of verbal snapshots. The elliptical structure of the poem is expert; but within each section is more work to be done.

Matthew Francis has already proved his dexterity and invention, not only with individual poems, but with short sequences in Blizzard and Dragons. Mandeville is based on the strange, 14th-century account of the travelling knight, Sir John Mandeville – actually a compendium of other accounts, forged together by an unknown scholar. Its descriptions of the Holy Land, India, Russia, China and the Far East were believed by contemporary readers. Francis has followed the original far from slavishly: using Mandeville's travels lets him mine for strange and amazing metaphors, creating a palimpsest through which the original is occasionally visible. Francis's 40 poems draw together recurrent ideas , rather than following an itinerary.

Mandeville works as a springboard for Francis's originality; it doesn't quite act as a window into 14th-century thought. The poetic alchemy is what matters, as in this well-crafted account of the Dead Sea, which has "sulked so long it has forgotten wetness... Sometimes it dreams itself full of blood, or remembers/ what it was like to be fished and, convulsing itself,/ coughs up a gob of sticky black the size of a horse." Francis has retained the original's repetitive, laconic tone – achieved by devising every poem of tercets, each made up of rough pentameters – but it works against him. It gives Mandeville a unity which Francis might better have fragmented.

Ciaran Carson's For All We Know also has a formal unity: all its poems have 14 lines, or multiples of 14 (the remembrance of the sonnet form vanishes in longer pieces). Each poem consists of unrhymed, sinewy and colloquial hexameters, paired. It is a stupendous sequence, based on a Glenn Gould definition of a fugue offered as the book's epigraph, but also, slightly edited, insinuated into a poem: "Fugue must perform its frequent stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain, in the 'tune' sense, perpetually unfinished."

True to this, Carson gives us a couple who first meet in a clothes shop in the 1970s, as a bomb goes off. Both are bilingual. The sequence gives us their emotional communiqués, set in a series of European cities, alone or together. The inexactness of the reference points in the sequence makes it a really engaging challenge: the poems are studded with references to the Cold War and its aftermath, and a repeated analogy is drawn between the "real" identity of the lovers and the world of the double agent.

Using poetry to explore the nature of language and identity is not unusual, but I can't think of such an eloquent example. These 70 poems are active echo-chambers, with images re-surfacing – of a hovering helicopter; a patchwork quilt; untrustworthy clocks and watches; the music of Bach; the texture and implication of clothes, of style; a French song. Bewildering: as a sequence needs to be, to stretch the reader's imagination.

But the real pleasure of Carson's sequence is in more than the intelligent mystery it fosters. It lies in the perfection of the rhythm. For All We Know cries out to be read aloud, so that every syllable can be savoured. There's not a foot wrong, in the metrical or any other sense. If there's a better sequence this decade, it has to look sharp.

Bill Greenwell's 'Impossible Objects' is published by Cinnamon

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