from Poetry London, Spring 2014
I have never been more aware of different generations of living British poets. First, there are the brilliant and passionate young, whose excellence may be amongst the few reasons for hope in difficult times. There seem to me to be far fewer middle-aged poets: almost a missing generation. Then comes a great galaxy, (including the Poet Laureate), born shortly after the Second World War, whose average age I would guess to be close to my own (sixty). But the most interesting generation may be far older. The ages of the poets in this review range from eighty-five to ninety-two. I feel justified in mentioning this, because the poets' own work is rich with references to time.
It is now exactly thirty years since I heard Abse read 'In the Theatre', his terrifying poem about brain surgery, with its refrain: 'Leave my soul alone'. Abse's 'two lives', as doctor and poet, still beat through this book, in his brisk account of fright as 'Tachycardia' (abnormally high heart rate). His parrot muse is now much possessed by age. Even the poems' gods live 'enfeebled': Venus's 'pubic hairs are grey'.
But Abse's humour remains as wicked as the parrot's cackle. He recounts childhood memories of an uncle's 'last visit': 'He seemed to fall asleep ... Was this one of his tricks?'. But death cannot undercut the parrot's punchline. 'Uncle Isidore, work?' / my brother had said. 'For decades he did nothing / and he didn't even do that till after lunch''. One of the finest poems in the collection is Abse's elegy for his brother Leo, who served as 'MP for Happiness'. Leo's words are preserved by the poem: 'I had to be stubborn'. Dannie Abse's own writing can be stubbornly political. His politicians' cigars 'glow / with blood-light'. Yet his poems '(u)se a peacock's feather', flashing with colour, as well as steel:
Sunbright sunbright, you said,
the first time we met in Venice
you, so alive with human light
I was dazzled black;
The opening words, unpunctuated and fresh, give a glimpse of the power of Abse's poems addressed to his dead wife. 'Sunbright' ends, with the lightness of a feather, in tender subtleties of sense and sound—and a joke:
Sweet, all this is true or virtually true.
It's only a poetry-licensed lie
when I rhyme and cheat and wink
and swear I almost need to wear
(muses help me, cross my heart) sunglasses
each time I think of you.
Abse's poetry does not blind itself to sorrow. 'Scent', whose opening is imposingly Latinate, with 'jubilating flower', sinks past the confidence of classical myth to desolate simplicity: 'I, at the gate, like Orpheus, / sober, alone, and a little wretched'.
Yet nothing could be less wretched than Abse's renderings of a shameless poetic ancestor from the fourteenth century: Dafydd ap Gwilym. These versions capture both the lusts of Dafydd, 'full of sperm', and his comical failures: 'few would yield'. Abse's ear is equally well tuned to accent and to rapid rhyme. In 'Storm', Dafydd tries to seduce the wife of a deacon, 'So very big in Brecon', only to be thwarted by thunder. 'Who alerted the gods to have such fun? ( ... ) Too bloody powerful her Brecon husband, mun'. A particular Welsh warmth powers 'The Bus', whose round trip, without a single passenger, is travelled with humour and compassion. 'The driver, proud of his bus, felt depressed ... what was the point of it all?' The point is the poem's ending: 'On schedule, at the terminus of Llantwit, / the bus arrived empty, yet terrific with light'. 'Terrific' releases one word's strength from generations of use. Abse is still writing—and reading—at his mesmerizing best. This collection ends: 'I see no feathers in the wind'. But I would bet my reviewer's fee on the hope of some new, peacock plumes of poetry from Dannie Abse.
I also hope that, in any generation, public comment on poetry is not limited to those who write it, or read it in vast quantities. Fergus Allen's New and Selected Poems contains his first collection, published at seventy-two, four collections from the next twenty years, and twelve new poems. I had to retrieve my copy from a family member. This poetry sceptic found Allen a fascinating poet, remarkable for his range of experience, his flashing humour, and his wild, unsettling imagination. I entirely agree.
Allen's experience as civil engineer and senior civil servant may underlie the commanding precision of his poems: 'The after-sunset sky lies west-south-west'. Their strength includes relentless testing of theory against reality. Allen's 'parachutists fall... Not knowing till they hit the ground / How rapid is the speed of sound'. But his poetry also inhabits vast, strange spaces at the edge of science. 'The Oceanographer's Dream', one of his youngest poems, describes 'monstrosities'. Yet the monsters are viewed with wry humour, possibly mating during 'a gap in the recording'. Allen, admirably, sees no gap between human and non-human. His grandchild's hands appear like 'those of a lemur'. One of his poems' many voices describes wakin, 'Like a marine worm sensitive to light'. Though Allen's rhythms and clear diction grow increasingly secure, his poems' technical assurance does not reassure: 'The pale birds circle overhead / Something alive will soon be dead'. Is the muse of these authoritative lines a vulture? His poems, increasingly, shock. Early work discreetly refers to 'desirable legs'. The newest coolly notes: 'lovers who are out of luck / Exchange infections as they fuck'. It also features, with relish, an imagined nightclub's 'penis pink'.
Colour also animates Allen's accounts of travel. These focus unsparing intelligence, as in a new sonnet's opening:
The feather-headed palms bless Repic beach,
The yellow parasols parry the sun,
The parts of life are not the parts of speech,
The perfect past is what has not been done.
Details of landscape eloquently plot political and economic power: 'a Russian supertanker, / blunt and implacable'. Allen's political observations are remorseless. An affluent householder asserts that 'Pathetic / turf-cutters were ever in our thoughts'. Allen's passing barbs are his sharpest. His gentlest reflections may be those on Protestant Irish ancestors, dying unmarried, or bankrupt.
Yet Allen's adept storytelling is never uncritical. When 'Superman' explains 'We conserve human beings in cages', he notes that humans captured 'wailing' 'will reduce their enclosure / To a barren waste'. Allen's sense of time remains unsparing. A late poem remarks of young girls: 'the years ahead of them already know / just where the crow's feet are going to walk'. But few poets can, like Allen, open a casual account of youthful fishing into a vision of human history:
not adolescents pleased with our exam results
but exiles from the Rift Valley, moving north
not in a stone boat, but an appointed dream.
One of Allen's most recent—and bitter—aphorisms reads: 'The wages of insolvency are pain'. But the wages of experience may be wisdom. Fergus Allen's poetry, with its wit and wealth of subject matter, can still compel a younger generation, almost exiled from poetry.
The wonderfully titled Dangerous Cakes is Elspeth Smith's first full collection. Notes explain that she began to write 'seriously' only after retirement. The weight of a whole life lies behind this single generation of spare, mysterious, unforgettable poems. Though occasional personal details can be identified in poems, such as the 'tea green bushes' of Smith's childhood in Ceylon, I have rarely read a book so bare of biography. Yet the poems are clearly the work of a thoughtful survivor of the generation who lived through the Second World War. Smith is especially haunted by that war's end. Here is the whole of 'Moment':
The time was twilight.
Windows were clear,
blackout curtains discarded,
no coupons for new colours.
We could see the trees.
A piano was playing.
The poems of Dangerous Cakes are short: typically, six to eight lines, often rationed to one or two stresses. Smith has an unusual sense of the separateness of every line. Her work must be read slowly if readers are to hear those lines' echoes, such as the possibilities of the piano in 'Moment': art, leisure, love. The lack of biography allows readers to bring their own experience into the imaginative space which surrounds each poem, just as white emptiness surrounds Smith's brief lines on the page. Her work demands thought, and sometimes, from a younger generation, research. I discovered that both Dunkirk and D-Day may haunt the lovely but enigmatic lines: 'June is a fleet / of ships in the night'.
Smith's recurring themes are played upon with amazing freshness and variety. Her first poem, 'New Shoes', ends with the desire to 'make you dance' (though, characteristically, with a final question mark). But Smith's conclusions should always be approached with care. 'April is a little lamb / dancing while it has the chance'. Rhyme often signals disappointment. In 'Misadventure', it emphasizes negatives, whose quiet force has strangely positive effects: 'That was the wish that should not have been made. / This is the music that should not have played'. Many poets who come to writing late leave their work trapped in diction which is over-pretty, outmoded, or sentimental. Smith's trump card is to make such language into bait, the poem into a trap. 'Sweet Things' begins with 'little kittens in their collars / tripping'. But this is not Lucie Attwell's cosiness, but a revelation of drama and terror in everyday life: 'Keep away from these woods'. The tripping kittens lead straight to 'neat slices of bread / these dangerous cakes'. This poet can place a single word like an explosive charge. A nervous child would not want a fairy tale from Elspeth Smith.
Many familiar items are boldly given voices by Smith's poems. These include a highly suggestive theatre seat: 'Each night / I fold another body in my arms'. Objects can hint at offstage horror, as in 'Lights Out': 'Little lost conduct stars / laugh in the grass. / / After the fire'.
Her penultimate poem, 'Last Invitation', is spoken by a coffin. The poem ends 'Come to me breathlessly. / Need nothing more'. The stripped aesthetic of Smith's whole collection seems a brave preparation for this moment. 'Last Invitation' is a lifetime away from John Keats's appeals to 'rich' and 'easeful' death. Keats, according to a friend, dragged a chair under a plum tree in a summer garden, and, in two hours, wrote 'Ode to a Nightingale': 'No hungry generations tread thee down'. Who can write, again, with the force of the very young? I would suggest that our oldest generation of poets can, and would, cite as evidence Dannie Abse's old parrot, Fergus Allen's monsters and the beguiling and dangerous cakes of Elspeth Smith.
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Poetry Editor: Ahren Warner
Assistant Poetry Editor: Martha Kapos
Reviews Editor: Tim Dooley