from Poetry London, Spring 2010
Poetry can seem, as a medium, to resist simplicity. Pattern loves its intricacies, and verbal patterning in particular has a tendency to intoxicate the unwary composer before and sometimes instead of its audience. Part of mastery, then, must always concern restraint: when to attempt simplicity—with the attendant risk of being thought simple—and, just as crucially, when not to. Control without release, as in verse written to a system (that more theoretical patterning), can seem a type of sadism which, again, the under-talented impose on their would-be readers. Genuine simplicity, writing which dares to face down its own ideologies and fetishes of technique, in search of a further freshness of utterance, is genuinely rare. In these three books we see glimpses of just that order of simplicity, as well as three radically different methods of approaching it.
Billy Collins has long been an adept of the rhetoric of artlessness, how to make the the poem appear to have no designs on you. Vona Groarke finds her metier in lyric surrender to what is ungraspable in emotion and in landscape. Don Paterson has divested himself of some of the paraphernalia of postmodernity without refusing its perspective; his sensibility, open to both provisionality and the tradition, finds a performative grace in seemingly direct utterance. Of the three, Billy Collins might seem the most open to the charge of reducing the poem to a formula. Critiques and indeed parodies of his work focus on its distinctive grounding in a casually observant self who, without apparent modulation of tone, uncovers the extraordinary in other people's quotidian. Also, he does insist on being irresistibly funny. Critics tend not to like that, while parodists feel that's their job. Ballistics contains a rather brilliant parody of Frank O'Hara's elegy 'The Day Lady Died' which through Collinsian slippage becomes 'The Day Lassie Died'. Yes, that Lassie. It relocates that poem's restless urban drift to a blithely pastoral setting. O'Hara's shopping list is revised from Strega and cigarettes to include 'a tin of hoof softener for the horse'. The best parodies thrive on a precise mix of jealousy and love. This poem also nods to an actual debt; though Collins's work often eschews the documentation we find in O'Hara, it is built on the foundations of both the 'I do this, I do that' poem, and Frank's prosodic (and existential) insight, 'You just go on your nerve'.
That note of emergency is what escapes all the lazy critics of Collins's poetry. You hear it repeatedly beneath the scarcely-ruffled surface, like a glimpse of Hitchcock at the mall. It's in the 'single hit of anti-depressant' slipped into 'High', a typical play on phrases for elation and despair and their inept match with either sensation. Poem after poem toys with the transitoriness of our memories and our pleasures, until the present moment of that single day which each piece seems content to inhabit becomes increasingly constricting, and those brief respites gained through the poet's art achieve cutting poignancy, as in the woman content to study a reproduction of a detail from a painting:
This was enough, this fraction of the whole,
just as the leafy scene in the windows was enough
now that the light was growing dim,
as was she enough, perfectly by herself
somewhere in the enormous mural of the world. ('(detail)')
It's fascinating to follow Collins into a different subject area, as in 'Greek and Roman Statuary'. This begins as a catalogue of those parts typically broken off the great art of antiquity. So neatly end-stopped is the progression of his thought that the poem could finish with the 'mighty stone ass', frequently all that survives, 'so smooth and fundamental, no one / hesitates to leave the group and walk behind to stare' (note the mischievous puns). But of course while Collins's subject may be our artefacts' vulnerability, his theme is our own:
... outside on the city streets,
it is raining, and the pavement shines
with the crisscross traffic of living bodies—
hundreds of noses still intact,
arms swinging and hands grasping,
the skin still warm and foreheads glistening.
Delight is presented as our only shield against terror, as when, in another poem, those statues come to life, and a dog tries to hide 'in his owner's shadow'. This doesn't mean that it is any less delightful. A poem recounting the comfort which may be drawn from conversing while drunk with a French dog is highly recommended, as is the fact this is followed by a poem beginning 'What I forgot to tell you in that last poem ... was that I really did love her. .. ' in which neither the 'she' nor the addressee appears to be the dog.
Delight is local, as in the detail in 'The Fish' that the commiserating trout of the title should be described as 'lying dead / next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh'—but it is also cumulative. So, when you reach the poem 'On the Death of a Next-Door Neighbour', you realise not only how the theme of death has been resolved, but just how precisely Collins has been measuring his distance from and proximity to another great predecessor, Robert Frost. Death seems, for now, to spare the poet, visiting the wrong house like a cross between a bumbling insurance collector and a misdirected hitman:
Was it poor directions, the blurring rain,
or the too-small numerals on the mailbox
that sent his dark car up the wrong winding driveway?
Vona Groarke's work finds itself in the difficult stand-off between the visual and the verbal. The senses and language are each the subject of painstaking examination, revealing an artist daring herself to find expression for often evanescent states. As befits someone caught up with landscape, its meanings and depiction, this collection develops the schism between observation and expression into a contrast between locations—essentially Ireland and elsewhere in the UK or US. So it weighs embeddedness against the transitory, assessing the values and the cost of each. There is an alertness here that refuses to leave any phrase unexamined. The book opens:
Among the things
(though these are not things)
I did to pre-empt the storm ... ('Some Weather')
Everything that follows is either list, interrogation or weather: that which would avert and how it might do so, and that which cannot be appeased. If the dog is Collins's totem animal, then Groarke's is the horse, as in 'The clothes horse', which:
... will have to come
into its own, propped in the bath
like a newborn foal, all joints and poise, ('Horses')
- which leads us out into a landscape of family, ghosts and rain. The outside being in and the inside being out is not only a recurrent theme, it is a way of presenting the intimacy of this voice, which hovers over phenomena, attempting to internalize them, testing the heart with distance and the ear with the no less difficult challenges of craft. Contemplating a robin, she remarks:
If I knew how to fix in even one language
the noise of his wing in flight
I wouldn't need another word. ('An Teach Tui')
The role of craft in the sense of making a poem, rhythm by phrase by rhyme, points to another estrangement: the cusp between cultural and generational difference. A smartly-(almost smartingly-) rhymed piece of terza rima, 'An American Jay', focuses its sense of alienation on the apparent educational impossibility of introducing metre into the mind of someone both youthful and American:
My students smirk. I'm square. Fixed in the headlights
of form and tradition, I tell them, 'Next, it's an ode'.
The news is welcomed like a bad dose of head lice.
I remind Sally about the sonnet I'm still owed.
She smiles, says she'll get to it after her midterm on Hamlet.
I'm not sure if she thinks I'm quaint or just plain odd.
I treat myself to a Sancerre with my omelette.
To be fair to Sally, the only moment where Billy Collins appears less than surefooted is in the rhythmic grip of a sonnet—craft, which across the Atlantic can sometimes seem only parodic, is much more at stake in these poems, and it causes phrase to be nudged beyond the immediately understood towards that slower yield of symbol, towards the peculiar simplicity of lateral feeling:
Let the worst I ever do to you be die.
Turn your head sideways, dear, so I can watch you sleep.
Let the morning have us, and the afternoon.
I am here, blessed, capable of more. ('Aubade')
The main difference between the two poets, however, is really in the moment they turn from observation to ideation. There is in Collins, for all the magnificent sly wit of his eye, a sense that the framing idea comes sooner and more firmly than to Groarke, who is often so caught up in delineation that the poem seems rather a series of precise observations, or, as in the title poem, a sequence.
'Spindrift' is a meditation on Connemara that reminded me of W S Graham's magisterial 'Implements in Their Places'—no less austere, and just as light in its movement. One aspect of this tendency has already been hinted at in her reflections on the robin: just as behind the involvement with craft stands the dialogue with tradition, so beyond the search for that right phrase lies the other language, Gaelic. Here and there in that forty-five part sequence, there is a hint of Gaelic's intense musicality surfacing in an English couplet: 'Clouds soak the foreshore, / foam shoals over Moher'.
The sense of an almost maternal, certainly feminine presence coheres in a single image from 'Rain Songs' where the recurrent usage of the word 'soak' is echoed conceptually, and outside and inside, self and nature, are united in a unique coinage of the rain's:
When I sit in the car on the passenger side
wet from the sunroof drips on my blouse
so my left breast mints a coin of damp
and the nag and scold of wipers tunes in
to the squall of a newborn wanting to be fed.
Rain, Don Paterson's fourth book 'proper'—his habit of interleaving the original with the version is now so ingrained that this is by no means a straightforward bibliographic description—is infused with the similar tenderness of fathers. Those moments when love of the child exceeds and disrupts the previous weightings and standards understood by the male haunt this book and provide it with both its clearest and its most challenging images. Part of this effect stems from the trope of address; the poems addressed in turn to each son are presented to us as something we overhear between father and child; there is therefore a simple elegant directness to both tone and metre, which gives a paced, metaphysical gravity to the unfolding of what are often complex images. At a straightforward level, this plays out in the use of slight variation and parallel phrasing. One son asks 'Why Do You Stay Up So Late?' and the parable-like answer compares the act of poetic selection to the boy finding a 'secret colour' in a drying pebble, 'This is how you knew the ones to keep'. It then balances this with the father's vigil over 'the dull things of the day': 'This is why I sit up through the night'.
At a glance a similar directness is at work in 'The Circle' where a tremor in the son's hand sparks an exploration of the contrast between what we can anticipate and the inevitably other reality that follows. But here the moment at which the son is addressed is also the moment at which the poem veers off into an altogether darker series of expressions we suspect we are meant to understand before the boy will:
But Jamie, nothing's what we meant.
The dream is taxed. We all resent
the quarter bled off by the dark
between the bowstring and the mark
This transacting darkness has always been at the heart of Paterson's writing, but here, in the extraordinary fable—part Novalis, part David Lynch—'The Story of the Blue Flower', he finds a proper home for it in the account of a child's abduction and the strange, shamanic retribution visited upon the abductors, found eyeless, 'crying like two wee birds'. The sense of a deal done, some Faustian exchange, never seems far from mind. And here his latest version of Alistair Reid's notorious punch-line to a Scot experiencing a beautiful day—'We'll pay for it'—is 'The Rain at Sea', where the act of witnessing 'the sea [reach] up invisibly / to milk the ache out of the sky' takes on an air of primal transgression, a perfectly Calvinist re-reading of Wordsworth's 'Intimations':
... my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness ...
A lighter effect of this book's directness is that poems which previously might have been ascribed to one of his unlikely heteronyms (ah, Ladislav Skala, have you fallen silent forever?), are now, as with 'The Error', freely acknowledged to be the poet's own work. This is augmented by 'Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze', a tour de force of techno-jargon which sounds joyously liberated from the constraints of decorum. In interludes like these Paterson is effortlessly more than the sum of his august influences. Darkness, directness and influence are nowhere more evident than in this book's other main area of thematic development, elegy, in the sequence for Michael Donaghy which brings it to a sombre climax. While other poets might have seemed stronger influences on his work at earlier points (there is still a nod to Muldoon-of-the-Sixty-Haikus in 'Renku: My Last Thirty-Five Deaths'), it is now clear that the prosodic conviction, the effortless elegant command of persona, syntactic phrasing, and colloquial angle of attack, which has always distinguished Paterson's work, owed most to Donaghy.
The elegy is a moving repayment almost in full, shifting from uncanny (in both senses) impersonation to a compelling meditation on Zurbaran's St Francis, or specifically on 'the tiny batwing of his open mouth'. Here is the last simplicity of conviction, albeit one carefully presented in the frame of the subjunctive, in which the spiritual basis for that dread of the dark is uncovered:
I would say something had passed between
the man and his interrogated night.
I would say his words are not his words.
I would say the skull is working him.
Poetry Editor: Colette Bryce
Assistant Poetry Editor: Martha Kapos
Review Editors: Tim Dooley, Scott Verner