Chorale at the Crossing, Peter Porter
Love Songs of Carbon, Philip Gross
The Bonniest Companie, Kathleen Jamie
from Poetry London, Summer 2016
We must learn to think of Chorale at the Crossing as Peter Porter's last collection, and that is hard. It is a book written in a valedictory register, from the characteristically tongue-in-cheek title of the opening sonnet, 'First Poem of the Last Book', to the wise and profoundly moving closing poem, 'Hermit Crab'. In between, Porter sounds every note he made familiar. There is the unflinching doubt of his epigrams—
You have saved me
from the permanent irrelevance of words,
from poems begging in my ears,
from unread novels scowling on the shelves
and things God says, talking in his sleep.
There's the wit, cosmopolitan but never merely cosmopolitan, typically ranging across cultures or languages—
Ich danke dir
I say to the genius in my ear,
where did I leave my keys?
There's the talent for unexpected transposition—
The world will always be Boulez,
Adam thought, after twenty-four hours
of listening to the brook—
There are the resolutions into major keys—
trees to be pleached,
cuttings to be spliced,
animal droppings hunkered in.
I can invent an art
free of everything but mathematics,
he told the insects,
a special sort of noise for human brains.
And there is the ability to gather these into a single poem—the passages I've quoted in fact constitute, in the order quoted, one single poem, 'Du holde Kunst'. Those words are the opening of Schubert's great song 'An die Musik', and the words 'Ich danke dir' are the closing words of the song. Peter Porter too is giving thanks in this poem, for the music that accompanied him in life; and so the poem acquires its own dimension of farewell. But who else would put that Boulez thought into Adam's head? Which other poet would be so forthright about the irrelevance of words? And who else, having made his joke about keys in the eighth line, would recognize that the equivalent in free verse of a musical return to a major key is a turn to faultless pentameter, in that simple and perfect final line? It takes a particular order of reflection on music (I'm thinking of Forster's description of Beethoven's Fifth in Howards End) to reach for the word 'noise'.
Music, visual art, truly good writing, were the air that Peter Porter breathed. They were a part of his life, and to talk of them came naturally—his conversation was rapid, brimful, funny, and rich in understanding. Poetry as conceived by open microphone oiks held as little interest for him as that of Jeremy Prynne did—his own was situated where anyone could enjoy it, provided they hadn't written off a serious engagement with the life of the mind as elitist, and provided they were prepared to write out of experience rather than theory. No-one of my generation who cares about poetry will fail to name 'An Exequy' as one of the handful of plainly great poems written over the last half-century; and few fail to grasp his pivotal position between the generation of Auden and Curnow and the generations born after the Second World War. This collection shows eloquently just how much we've all lost.
A few weeks before he died, in what turned out to be our last phone call, Peter said ruefully, 'I'd have liked a little longer'. One poem here reflects, 'It's always too early to die'. Death is inevitably the subject of numerous poems in Chorale at the Crossing, and the collection ends with the luminously sad 'Hermit Crab':
I have no new shell to retreat to
[ ... ] I used to believe
That this shell I soon must leave
Was the only shell I have ever lived in ...
The spirit of the poem is close to Marcus Aurelius's reflection that the substance of the whole is moulded in succession into a horse, a tree, a man, then something else, 'and every one of these subsists but for a moment. It is no more a hardship for the coffer to be broken up than it was for it to be fitted together'.
It is the hardest and highest test for us all, this relinquishing of our home. 'Hermit Crab', on which Peter Porter's widow Christine writes affectingly in an afterword, makes its peace with the prospect of absence in lines which confer a transfigured meaning on those everyday notions, remembering and forgetting:
How cold the beach and lonely,
The last domain of light's remembering.
Without a home, one made of current comforts
And loving faces, forgetting
Becomes impossible, and yet the silence
Of the beach, the missing sun
And time-tied stars show
Everything's forgotten and I can forget.
Chorale at the Crossing is an indispensable book—wise, witty, human, moving, the testament of a poet who honoured the art he made his own.
Philip Gross is midway through a fourth decade of writing with a skill and sensitivity that place him above many of his peers, and Love Songs of Carbon is announced as his eighteenth collection, yet it's not unreasonable to guess that many of those who profess themselves readers of poetry—say, those who know by heart much of the great central portion of Porter's 'Exequy'—would be hard put to quote lines of his, TS Eliot Prize or no TS Eliot Prize. True, this is the state in which many older poets of solid achievement find themselves. But in Philip Gross's case it is particularly the result of his habit of involving his reader in every step of his thinking. 'The Way It Arrives', for instance, opens like this:
the moment, just by being there
already, once you notice—like a colour,
say, red, say, that shade barely a blush
short of vermilion,
as a crisp wrapper lifts, out of everything
rush hour and gravity holds, on the gust
of a street draught or your sudden
readiness to see: red,
(retro) now, now brake-light,
The poem turns out to be an elaboration of 'I'll find you in the crowd', words which are virtually hidden in the folds of its switchbacks and flaps. The succession of words over its thirty-line length is a wholly characteristic blend of the maddeningly abstracted and the endearingly precise. I don't know about the loved one he's sure he'll find, but my own instinct would be to give him a shake: come on, man, spit it out.
But wariness, the twisting-and-turning of the mind, the struggle to eliminate false friends among the words that crowd to the page and to set down only those that limn the thought and the feeling with the nuanced expression they require, are the core of Gross's approach. Many of his poems owe their strength to this contingency, the moving poems about his late father (in his last two collections) among them. Then at times he writes with what reads like greater confidence and certainty, laying down a clearer sense of rhetorical structure, lexical texture, and (at the close here) metrics, as in these final lines from 'A Love Song of Carbon', in which he scatters the ashes of his parents, reunited now by his act:
Ash into ash
lifts from my broadcast scatter, and into a wet wind
for winnowing, chalkier flakes dropping free
into wire-rooted ling, small gorse, bell heather,
rabbit scuts; the finer grains fetched up (we
flinch, then stay, yes, why not let them dust us)
lifting towards Sheepstor, North Hessary Tor,
Great Mis Tor and the deeper moor beyond
whatever skyline he and she had ever reached.
The rain clouds come up over Cornwall like the grey
Atlantic. Generations. Wave on wave on wave.
Philip Gross feels himself to be the next wave, and in his sixties he's reflecting on 'how we grow / into nakedness, / no hiding place from light'. His hallmark tenderness runs through this new book, along with his weakness for 'thinking too precisely on th'event', and a 'new and salty lightness at the core'.
Kathleen Jamie doesn't think precisely, she feels precisely. Every vivid stroke in The Bonniest Companie comes from a place that's bright, fresh, and designed to appear undeliberated. It was well said of Wordsworth that the best of his poems could have been written by someone who'd never read a book, and Jamie can sound the same:
Thon blackbird in the briar
by the outfield dyke
doesn't know he's born
doesn't know he's praise and part
of this Sabbath forenoon
From his yellow beak his song descends
to the year's first celandines ...
Whether Jamie's watching 'drizzle / spangling the plum tree' or remembering 'the stars above the steelworks' glare' when her father carried her outside to look or recalling a lamp at home made from 'an empty / Dimple whisky bottle / meshed in faux-gold wire', there's a charge of pure simplicity of feeling pulsing through every syllable. Simplicity, as the old Goethe knew, is the hardest thing. Get it wrong and it's banality, crassness, faux-naivety. But work at your art hard and patiently for years and you write a poem like 'The Storm':
Mind thon wild night
how the pair of us
got lost, and clung together, stumbled on
scared half daft
by a wraith-like moaning through the mirk
till we found its source:
just a metal gatepost
with a voice the storm had loaned?
Jamie's cadences are confident; a groaning is uninsistently picked up and echoed back across the storm as 'moaning' comes to a stop in 'loaned'; her knowledge that the weather drama is nature's backdrop to the drama of two people is not overplayed in a single phrase.
—A post we knew: it showed
the path to the croft-house
we'd rented cheap
till spring at least, when we went our separate ways.
Mind too what we told each another
that far-off day?
by the weird-song in the dark you'll find your way.
This is full-throated lyric poetry of an order which, adjusted for the inner ear of the age, could have been written at any time in the last three or four thousand years.
Kathleen Jamie's new book is rich in its love of the natural world, rich in its love of Scotland and the words and rhythms of Scottish usage, rich too in its refusal to make excessively much of the political day-to-day that accompanied its writing. This richness is an earned wealth. This is poetry that's paid its dues. This is the genuine article.
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About the Author
Michael Hulse's latest book of poems, Half-Life (Arc), was chosen by John Kinsella as a Book of the Year. He co-edited the anthology The Twentieth Century in Poetry, and has translated more than sixty books from the German, among them titles by Goethe, Rilke, and WG Sebald.
Poetry Editor: Ahren Warner
Co-Editor: Martha Kapos
Reviews Editor: Tim Dooley