The Light Trap by John Burnside<br></br>The Chine by Mimi Khalvati<br></br>Slow Air by Robin Robertson<br></br>Voodoo Shop by Ruth Padel

Nature can still nourish British poets: Carol Rumens finds them flourishing amid the fauna

Friday 10 January 2014 05:18
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In the Independent on Sunday recently, D J Taylor regretted the current lack of celebratory spring poems. He scored a point about jocularity: Ted Hughes's fanged snowdrop clearly supplanted Wordsworth's dancing daffodil decades ago. But his suggestion that poets no longer write about nature is wide of the truth. The attraction for many poets is linguistic: "nature" opens up worlds of unfamiliar nomenclature.

How we relate to the rest of creation through naming is John Burnside's major theme in The Light Trap. Like Michael Longley, an apparent mentor, he enjoys list-making: the title poem ends with a lovely roll-call of moths: "Merveille du jour;/ Sycamore; Mother Shipton; Silver Y;/ Crimson-and-gold; Old Lady; Angel Shades."

But to name is also to claim. "Once we are close enough to give them names/ we cannot help but treat them as our own,/ these animals", he notes, in "Taxonomy: Fauna". In "History", he invents a moving parable in which Adam forgets the names of the animals, causing their death: paradoxically, Adam achieves wholeness, since he can now reunite with his animal self .

Drawn to such Classical thinkers as Heracleitus and Lucretius, Burnside considers soul and matter are one. The resultant reverence is tinged with contemporary romanticism. Also a novelist, he writes fastidious description, yet his real attraction is to the ineffable: wordless moments of loss and epiphany, unidentifiable animals, creatures evading human vision.

Mimi Khalvati's work in The Chine has a metaphysical quality, too, and here the word implies literary ancestry as well as philosophical curiosity. Warmth, though, is a characteristic of her tone. In the sequence "The Inwardness of Elephants", a son covers his head with a towel and pretends to be the Elephant Man. He shovels his meal of potatoes "through the crack". A daughter brings home a carved Indian elephant with another inside it: her mother asks if it's ivory, and proceeds on an angry list of "white gold plundered" that includes "chinoiseries,/ chessmen, dominoes, combs, piano keys". No, the daughter abruptly says. The clutter, flow, connections and silences of family life are beautifully realised.

"Love in an English Autumn" is a crown of sonnets, an intricate form. The opening is deceptively casual: "Twice I've gone as far as the High Street phone./ For no good reason. But to rein in passion./ August in London. Making time my own/ for while sun comes and goes, love is on ration." But Khalvati builds 14 more bold, occasionally quaint but sturdy structures that have real emotional holding-power, and crown her best collection to date.

Robin Robertson's work doesn't seek to charm: its attractiveness perhaps lies in clear images, sinewy, dangerous actions and an unerring sense of when a poem should stop. Self-parody may be a risk when images or words are allowed to act as emotional shorthand, as in the repetitions of "red" in the "Rothko" sequence of Slow Air. Occasionally, horrific incident might seem a poem's chief reason for existing. But there are brilliant pieces here: "The Language of Birds", "The Long Home", "March, Lewisboro". Wordsworthians may be pleased, in the latter, by a painterly glimpse of daffodils, beginning "to show/ the green of their bills". But, between couplets brimming with plenitude, are banal, poisonous utterances that suggest marital un-coupling. They bring cumulative pathos and a fugal quality to the narrative of a walking-out, where observation, deathly keen, finds all the colours "too bright".

The kind of translation Robert Lowell called "imitation" enhances all these collections. Ruth Padel's "Writing to Onegin" in Voodoo Shop telescopes the original verses to give us the moment when Tatiana sits down to write, the love-letter itself, and the sighting of Onegin. Padel works Pushkin's imagery into sensuous, slangy riffs, unfurled across expansive 12-line stanzas. She draws the reader close, and treats her protagonist humorously, tenderly: "But then I'd whisper/ Go for it, petal. Nothing's as real as what you write./ His funeral, if he's not up to it." Padel's cinematic technique never seems alien to Pushkin, himself a master of rapid-fire sequence and aside.

Other star performances include the elegy, "Butterfly landing on a Painting by Bridget Riley", and a flamboyant passaggiata, "Rattlesnakes and Rubies", in which, to misquote Elizabeth Bishop, everything's "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow" – from the first "eyeful of Brazilian tourmaline/ in smoke-yellow, rose, grass-green" to the unforgettable long shot of boys, "lime green and glitter rose", playing soccer in the "soft sapphire dusk" of Copacabana Beach.

The natural world – its jungle, gems, gardens, seas, rivers, ravines, fauna and flora – sparkles throughout these collections. Only John Burnside could be called a nature poet. But there is a conservationist strain in all four. They don't deliver lectures; but by cherishing the natural world through language, they, and many living poets, contribute to the custodianship of "our" planet. Or they would – if more people read them!

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