Ever so comfy

James Wood

  • Collected Poems 1953-1993 by John Updike
    Hamish Hamilton, 387 pp, £20.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 241 00167 6
  • Dante’s Drum-Kit by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 145 pp, £6.99, November 1993, ISBN 0 571 17055 2
  • Old Men and Comets by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 64 pp, £6.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 19 283176 3
  • Plato’s Ladder by Stephen Romer
    Oxford, 79 pp, £6.99, November 1992, ISBN 0 19 282986 6
  • The Country at My Shoulder by Moniza Alvi
    Oxford, 56 pp, £6.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 19 283125 9
  • British Subjects by Fred D’Aguiar
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £5.95, July 1993, ISBN 1 85224 248 5
  • Night Photograph by Lavinia Greenlaw
    Faber, 54 pp, £5.99, October 1993, ISBN 0 571 16894 9
  • Nil Nil by Don Paterson
    Faber, 53 pp, £5.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 571 16808 6
  • Out of Danger by James Fenton
    Penguin, 103 pp, £7.50, December 1993, ISBN 0 14 058719 5

Every handful of John Updike’s silver has its square coin, its bad penny, its fake. This exquisitely careful writer tends to relax into flamboyance: it is the verbal equivalent of ostentatious tipping. Floating in his air of serene bestowal, the generous author throws his words at anyone who will have them. Keen watchers of such moments will enjoy the introduction to his Collected Poems: ‘In hotel rooms and airplanes, on beaches and Sundays, at junctures of personal happiness or its opposite, poetry has comforted me with its hope of permanence, its packaging of flux.’ Updike cannot resist a languid summation: the poems ‘form thus, with their sites and occasions, the thready backside of my life’s fading tapestry’.

That last-second retrieval from cliché – life’s rich tapestry – is replicated in a good number of the poems in this large book. Naturally, Updike is almost invariably good at looking. But he has little ear, and not much sense of what to do with a line, except to load it with ingots of detail. Burdened with that notion of poetry as a consoling, weightless domestic appliance, Updike tends to produce happy homily. He can’t help himself. ‘How promiscuous is/the world of appearances!’ Or:

Yet we turn each time
with fresh hope, believing that sleep
will visit us here, descending like an angel
down the angle our flesh’s sextant sets ...
This churning is our journey.

But we already have the wonderful Howard Nemerov – whose voice is heard throughout – for this kind of mild civic editorial.

Updike may not, in truth, know how to write poetry; but his deep talent is such that even the slightest poem rarely flows away without leaving some valuable deposit. As in the novels, Updike chooses a detail, expands and warms it. A mosquito is seen thus: ‘on the fine wire of his whine he walked.’ A bicycle chain on the ground, ‘rusted and disjunct ... in balky knots’, is compared in its frozenness to the way ‘a python’s differential curve/parabolises in oozy increments’. In ‘East Hampton-Boston by Air’, Updike turns something slight – a poem about being nervous on a propeller plane – into something larger, as he evokes the precarious unnaturalness of flight. Landing, he sees the pilot as a fisherman ‘trying to pull in the city/like a great fish/by the throat of the runway’. The poem ends with the now denatured passengers staggering onto the runway, having left their fear behind them, literally:

we crouch toward the open and drop
dishevelled seatbelts left behind
us like an afterbirth.

Every so often, Updike makes of a poem not just an exhalation, but something formed, a real work of art. ‘Phenomena’, a poem about mortality and the ebbing away of youthful vigour, is one of the best in the book. The poet, living near a river, sees ‘the blank-clay banks bared like senile gums’. His boiler has gone out, and when a man comes to fix it, he sees inside its ‘cave of asbestos a vivid elf’ – the dancing flame of life. At night, above the boiler, the asthmatic writer, horribly at one with his cold and senile landscape, tormented by the fire of being, struggles to breathe:

A tree inside me clenches and I sweat.
There are reasons, there is medicine;
the frost of death
has found a chink in me, is all.
I breathe easier and, breathing, sleep.
The tide sighs and rises in my sleep.
The flame is furious in its cell below.
Under the moon the cold stones wait.

It is a very distinguished poem, patient in a way that Updike is not always, and calm enough to eschew Updikean statement.

Douglas Dunn’s new book of poems has none of Updike’s virtues but extends several of his vices. It will be a great disappointment to those readers who have admired Dunn’s earlier verse (like the book of Elegies for his late wife). Alas, from somewhere, most traceably Larkin, Dunn has got the idea that poetry must be wise. Typically, he dispenses this wisdom with much colloquialism, in lines that are as loose as sacking: they seem almost to fall off the page. In the long poem ‘Disenchantments’, Dunn ponders death. The tone of equable advice, educative mildness, seems immediately unfortunate:

All sorts of nastiness lead to the void
On wheels of rotten luck or bad habits,
Cirrhosis, hepatitis B, typhoid,

Mournful -omas, murder’s vast whodunnits

‘Murder’s vast whodunnits’? The poem, in terza rima (Dante’s ‘drum-kit’ – this alone gives us an idea of the prevailing tone), continues its musing:

What’s real in suffering’s not the mystique
Tragedies pump it up with.

Or:

The dead can’t talk, or appear on your doorstep,
Or be discovered turning to you from
Beautiful landscapes, wearing smiles of courtship.

At other moments, you have to pinch yourself that you haven’t stumbled on an undiscovered Larkin poem:

Some have their landscapes for that big to-do
Few folk believe in, or hope for when they’re dead.

These poems are puzzling, because this kind of chattiness seems to be so far from Dunn’s real gifts. He lacks the necessary delicacy, the ‘lightness’ (in Calvino’s sense), the precision. A sweet poem about libraries begins jauntily, for instance, almost like Betjeman: ‘The Mitchell, Brynmor Jones and Andersonian,/Delightful Bailey’s when it lived in Blythswood Square ...’ But it soon snags:

Dear God, forgive the overdose of venison
And the gluttonous bombast of beer and Beaujolais,
Intensive seminars on ‘Libraries Today’.

That last line tucks itself in neatly, but I’m not sure it saves the terrible approximateness of ‘the gluttonous bombast of beer and Beaujolais’.

It is difficult to know how to judge the verse in D.J. Enright’s new book. It’s not really verse; at every opportunity, Enright slips out of the metrical corridor and back into his prosy, bookish study. These poems should perhaps be seen as little exhaust-puffs from his cultural charabanc as it makes its amiable progress through the better journals. The tone is a pert self-argument, a kind of educated mutter, as if life presented itself to Enright as an exam that needed to be marked – one can hear the tick and scrape of the red pen. In ‘Confetti’, for instance, the poet calls a taxi to take him and his pregnant wife to the hospital; it is an emergency. He notices that the taxi is

  stuffy, sweetly scented,
And beery. And it’s littered with confetti.
Attendant ironies? The cabbie doesn’t notice.
He’s weary. It’s been a long day. He’s wrapped up
In something. Or rapt. Perhaps the wedding was his.

Most of the poems are strange, tensionless collapses into prose. In general, the closer he is to epigram the funnier and neater.

But Enright is always likeable. Stephen Romer’s self-presentation is not. Certainly, one comes away from Plato’s Ladder with a powerful sense of the Platonic Form of The Poet. The Poet dedicates poems to friends, has other artist friends, like a painter called Caroline (‘You are my Proserpine of summer’); The Poet has luxurious thoughts about Stendhal or Leonardo (‘Leonardo is much to blame/For fixing the equivocal’) and travels to Lake Como or France or Venice (‘A mauve trauergondel off San Michele’). If this fails, The Poet can always enter an old poem:

I know, my love, I’ve preached at you
With all the weary wisdom of Onegin.

(Can one imagine anything worse than being apologised to by a man who thinks he is Eugene Onegin?) If poetry were a matter of the right form, like not doing up the last button on a waistcoat, then assuredly Stephen Romer would be a poet. But one quickly tires of this summery sprawl, this stuffed life, this fussy shuttling between European marvels.

Romer has his moments, but too much of his work seems like an idea of what poetry should be. In a poem like ‘Beneath the Tree’, it takes a moment to realise that a lot of rather undistinguished words are simply obscuring a banality of thought. The poet considers the flickering life of the mind, which stores so much but which also erases thought; he laments our inability to see ourselves whole, laments the chemical instability of life. Yet for all this, we know that we are ‘the single accomplished aggregate/of all we have felt and thought’. If you are the kind of reader that thinks talking about the ‘breadth and curve and tenor’ of the sky is poetry, you’ll like Romer. Certain phrases suggest that Wallace Stevens is the azure sea in which he would like to swim. But he has none of the rigour nor the glassy brilliance of Stevens’s impalpable lexicon. This, from the end of ‘Serenissima’, is typical:

I decided my only hope
in the universe that day
was the emerald green and cobalt
in the lower pane of a window,
Ss Giovanni e Paolo ...

Moniza Alvi, unlike Stephen Romer, has charm. As Tchaikovsky did with melody, she relies on it to get her out of difficulties. These poems are simple, a little undeveloped, dusted in detail. Several of her best-known poems like ‘I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro’, don’t really expand on the surprise of their conceits. Her most interesting work trades new experiences of Britain with sparkling reminders of life in Pakistan. This is a first book, and it is difficult to predict how she will develop. Too many of the poems have a perilous sweetness, like the five-line poem ‘Glastonbury Tor’:

The short grass at my feet is blown by a tornado.
Below me, fields level out to clouded grass.

St Michael’s Tower – noble and lonely
as the last chess-piece on the board.
How I could hug a man like this!

Fred D’Aguiar is garrulous. He has plenty to write about (racism, the police, exile and homecoming, the bombardments of Englishness) but not enough artistry. His nine-sonnet sequence, ‘Sonnets from Whitley Bay’, is full of glum sub-Larkinian accuracy (a town ‘with five minute jams and one of most things’), but it never really flowers. One longs for eccentricity, some crease of detail or fold of radiance.

It is in just such shining hiddenness that Lavinia Greenlaw excels. Her calm, springy, whispering monologues – ‘Galileo’s Wife’, or a soliloquy from one Dr William Pancoast, Philadelphia 1884 – are the best things in the book. She seems to have an instinct for unsettling detail:

The wrong wind brings the wrong things home:
raw sewage and, late last summer,
the body of a man who was teaching himself to dive.

Her first lines are deadly: ‘Dearest, the cockroaches are having babies.’ But her monologues are static. They don’t grow: it’s as if they’d been plucked too soon and were drowning in some watery stillness. At her best, though, Greenlaw has her own voice and her own content.

Don Paterson’s book Nil Nil is one of the most talented first books since Glyn Maxwell’s debut. His command of detail, of imagery, of startling likenesses, of bitter slang and wild neologisms (he uses a lot of Scottish vernacular) is exhilarating. Some examples: ‘the stubborn, rammish sap still on my hands’ or the poet in a kitchen hearing ‘the steam-driven clitter of pot-lids’; a room ‘ripe with gurry and old sweat’; a hot sun that ‘thuds away in its bleary corona’; ‘the wrangle of metal outside the Great Terminus’; and, most wonderfully, the experience of walking into a room and smelling ‘the soft punch of alien cooking’. Paterson has an enormous talent, though he needs to discipline it. He needs to avoid the blokeish bluntness of Simon Armitage, who peers through some of the diction (Paterson’s natural diction is sheepish and sleepy). Above all, he needs to develop his notion of what is permissible within the poem. At present, his poems are too enigmatic, foreshortened; they are a kind of suggestive nuzzling rather than a thread of thought. They hang, in their stillness, like the flags of very obscure countries: you recognise some of the colours, some of the stripes and badges dazzle: but you can’t quite place them. ‘Heliographer’, quoted here in full, is typical. It is sensitive, but blurry; the radiance of the final image isn’t quite as climactic as the poet appears to imagine:

I thought we were sitting in the sky.
My father decoded the world beneath:
our tenement, the rival football grounds,
the long bridges, slung out across the river.

Then I gave myself a fright
with the lemonade bottle. Clunk –
the glass thread butting my teeth
as I bolted my mouth to the lip.

Naw ... copy me. It’s how the grown-ups drink.
Propped in my shaky,
single-handed grip,
I tilted the bottle towards the sun
until it detonated with light,
my lips pursed like a trumpeter’s.

James Fenton is certainly the best poet in this group. Unlike most of the others, he uses the line – uses it to seal, to repeat, to extend, to sunder. He understands that the line should be under some kind of pressure. The recent nonsense verse – most of which appeared in Manila Envelope – is good fun, but careless, campy, prankish. In it speaks the Auden who ended his poem ‘Lakes’ with ‘Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy.’ Reading this high-spirited larkiness is like watching over small boys in detention – you get a sense of bursting distraction, and of strange, wriggling anger:

‘Dig that bog!’
‘Frag that frog.’
‘Stap that chap, he snuck that cig.’

But when Fenton uses all his arts – as in ‘The Milkfish Gatherers’ – the result is exquisite. The elegy ‘For Andrew Wood’ demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of his hard, spare language.

What would the dead want from us
Watching from their cave?

asks the poet, and goes on to wonder if the dead would want us to be dead, to ‘be strangled/Like some emperor’s slave’:

I think the dead would want us
To weep for what they have lost.
I think that our luck in continuing
Is what would affect them most.

The poet rises to his conclusion, the hope that

                    there
might be a pact between
Dead friends and living friends.
What our dead friends would want from us
Would be such living friends.

The emotional response seems in places a little depleted; Fenton’s commonsensical honesty at times seems inadequate. But then the web of a very few words (in five stanzas, dead is repeated six times and friends five times) begins to grow, and the poem becomes a bare moan, made of a few repeated croaks. It builds like a sestina, allowing him to use and reuse his words, to squeeze them mournfully dry. The syntactical spareness pulls apart the words, while the grinding repetition drives them together:

None of my dead friends were emperors
With such exorbitant tastes
And none of them were so vengeful
As to have all their friends waste
Waste quite away in sorrow
Disfigured and defaced.