Not What Anybody Says

Michael Wood

  • BuyYellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011 by James Fenton
    Faber, 164 pp, £14.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 27382 9

One of the great attractions of James Fenton’s verse is the way it manages so often to be both plain and cryptic at once. It urges us to think about what we can’t quite know, and it favours certain strategies for doing this. ‘It is not the houses,’ Fenton writes in ‘A German Requiem’. ‘It is the spaces between the houses.’ He repeats this logical rhythm several times within the poem sequence and closes the work with it:

It is not what they say.
It is what they do not say.

Here are complete, consecutive sentences, but no propositional link between them, no all too helpful ‘but’ or ‘and’ or ‘although’. The second obviously corrects the first but abruptly, and the first lingers there on the page, ready to be completed again, or completed differently.

The style is very clear in this recent poem, the last piece in Yellow Tulips:

The sweet rain falls on the sea
Far from the land.
They stretch a torn sail taut between torn hands
To fill the pail.
They turn their channelled faces to the sky
And the sweet rain runs in their eyes
And on the channelled sea.

The torn sail, the torn hands suggest the story of a wreck, and the rain falling ‘far from the land’ is obviously falling in the right place. But who are ‘they’? How many are they? What exactly has happened? Why has no help come? Which sea is this? I ask these questions not because they need answers from the poet but because we can scarcely bring the poem to life without thinking about them. And then what does ‘channelled’ mean? Does it have the same sense the second time as the first? Does it mean something like ‘furrowed’? Are we to think of the English Channel? Either way it doesn’t sound good for the stranded mariners, and the assimilation of their faces to the sea complicates whatever consolation hangs about the story. Is the rain in their eyes going to save these people, or is it a last flash of what might have been hope? The poem hangs in the mind like a small painting and an intricate riddle. It is not what it says.

We could also think of the following poem, another recent one. This is ‘At the Kerb’, written in memory of Mick Imlah, who died in 2009 at the age of 52 – he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease a year earlier. The manner of the poem is statelier than that of the previous example, striking a mildly archaic note borrowed from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (‘Who are these coming to the sacrifice?’), but the same fine mixture of plainness and mystery emerges:

Grief to bestow, where once they bestowed their beauty,
Who are these mourners processing to the grave,
Each bearing a history like a precious ointment
And tender on their sleeves the wounds of love?

Brutal disease has numbered him a victim,
As if some unmarked car had appeared one day
And snatched him off to torture and confinement,
Then dumped him by the kerbside and sped away;

As if they stooped now at the kerb to lift the body,
As if they broke the jars and the unguent flowed,
Flowed down the sleeves and wounds, ran down the kerbstones,
Grief to bestow what beauty once bestowed.

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