Michael Hofmann on the steady state of Patricia Beer

  • Selected Poems by Patricia Beer
    Hutchinson, 152 pp, £5.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 09 138450 8
  • The Venetian Vespers by Anthony Hecht
    Oxford, 91 pp, £3.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 19 211933 8
  • Nostalgia for the Present by Andrei Voznesensky
    Oxford, 150 pp, £3.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 19 211900 1
  • Reflections on the Nile by Ronald Bottrall
    London Magazine Editions, 56 pp, £3.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 904388 33 6
  • Summer Palaces by Peter Scupham
    Oxford, 55 pp, £3.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 19 211932 X

Patricia Beer’s Selected Poems contain work composed over a period of two decades. They are a tribute to her consistency rather than to her development: I don’t find myself skipping pages because her inspiration underwent a brief eclipse, or took a direction I happen to dislike. Nor do I turn to the newest or the oldest poems more readily: they are too much of a piece. Selection can be a leveller, but in Patricia Beer’s case, the level is excellence. The writing is plain and elegant; the poems range from the quietly autobiographical to the dramatic monologue to the descriptive piece. But by far the majority of them contain elements from all three types, blended together.

If this selection does reveal a development in her work, then it is towards a purer and more open poetry. Her best work has always had the clarity and force of a parable, while not disdaining verbal felicities when these offered themselves. But turning over the pages and the years, it seems to me that the poems get better at adjusting themselves to the claims of the image. In some of the early poems there is the odd phrase where the knell of seriousness is enough to kill off a whole passage: ‘Yet it looks more like life than death.’ Thus, some of the early poems have a tendency to do little more than dispense poetic justice. But as the selection progresses, the over-asserted paradoxes, the authorial pleas for perseverance, soften into gentler poetic phrasings; thoughts become more successfully embodied in images. In ‘Branch Line’, one of the outstanding poems in the book, Patricia Beer again builds up a small and clear incident into something central and personal: the last train before the closure of the line; a slightly sad holiday atmosphere; peace returned to the countryside. An immensely perceptive poem is boldly concluded:

Trains exist elsewhere
But different, sinister:
Heads, looking out for a last
Goodbye, freeze and weather
To the sky, as at Tyburn.

Development or no development, it remains to note the diversity of her themes. There are several poems on each of: natural magic, cats, railways, married life, childhood, and the Victorian age. Reading the many historical poems in this book – they make up as much as one-third, and are among the best – it struck me that they all had something medieval about them. Which I interpret as meaning that the incontrovertible realia of the past are always present in them: the shock of cold, of fear; the possibility of an early death.

Looking over the recent poems again, I find that there is one new tone in them after all – in ‘Birthday Poem from Venice’:

A column lies there idle
And leaves a gap-toothed church. One relic
A saint dived for,

Brought back to the shore
To everyone’s amazement, doing breast stroke
With steady halo.

Today is paradisal.
A cat, five minutes created, sits with a pigeon.
Happy birthday.

An almost irresponsible ecstasy. I hope to hear much more of it.

At first it seems improbable that The Venetian Vespers by Anthony Hecht should be able to sustain the weight of its three epigraphs: one from King Lear, one from Moby Dick and one by Beethoven. And indeed, Hecht’s shorter poems, chatty and clever, with their immense vocabulary and consummate prosody (why is it that these last should now be the virtual prerogative of American poets?), are often no more than trifling and decorative. ‘Invective Against Denise’ (from Ronsard) is long and feeble; ‘House Sparrows’ and ‘Persistences’ do nothing to justify their references to concentration camps. Hecht fails in his attempts to turn his witticisms to serious account; he gets no further than strings of uncomfortable word-plays, as in ‘Auspices’, an attempt at an emotional landscape:

Even if I should get away from here
My trouser legs are stuck with burrs and seeds,
Grappled and spiked reminders of my fear,
Standing alone among the beggarweeds.

The most successful of the short poems are the two free translations from Horace, the hardy-perennial ‘Application for a Grant’ and the wonderfully up-to-date ‘An Old Malediction’ – in which Hecht finds a new sinister diminutive for the cock-teasing Pyrrha: Piranha!

But these poems, it seems to me, are hardly more than by-products of the two long poems in the book: the biographical ‘The Short End’, and the autobiographical title-poem, respectively 12 pages and 25. Both are remarkable: rich, fluent and strong. They are fractured narratives in long unrhymed lines, put together from minute descriptions that have the intensity of epiphanies: Hecht watches and writes with the tenacity – the mixture of love and fear – of Yeats in ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, or Pound in the Pisan Cantos. Where similar descriptions occur in his shorter poems, they seem static, disproportionate, evasive. In ‘The Short End’ and ‘The Venetian Vespers’, however, they gain from their narrative context to acquire the weight of psychological revelations.

The descriptions of bubbles and droplets and glitterings at the beginning of ‘The Venetian Vespers’ are later deciphered:

In the upstairs room, when somebody had died,
There were flowers, there were underwater globes,
Mercury seedpearls. It was my mother died.
After a long illness and long ago.

In this poem, rain, lights, broken glass and brains occur again and again in changing configurations that tell the story on their own, providing an account from fragments of remembered consciousness which supplements the objective narrative. Hecht writes that he

No longer can distinguish between fact
As something outward, independent, given,
And the enfleshment of disembodied thought,
Some melanotic malevolence of my own.

And this process of layering, of confusion, is substance and theme of both poems. In them, Hecht has found the perfect vehicle for his immense gifts. Humour and misery, feeling and erudition, symbol and incident complement each other to create poetry that is both fluent and memorable.

As a bonus, there is a section consisting of two poems by Joseph Brodsky – one on Cape Cod, the other on Venice. Translated by Hecht – better, it seems to me, than ever before – here are more of Brodsky’s short unrelated sentences following each other with uncompromising inventiveness and inquisitiveness.

In his ‘Answer to Voznesensky – Evtushenko’, Frank O’Hara writes: ‘We are tired of your tiresome imitations of Mayakovsky/we are tired of your dreary tourist ideas of our Negro selves.’ O’Hara’s rebuff to the two Russian poets shows him as a weird and unsuspected nationalist: but it also makes sense in terms of the far greater personal and stylistic liveliness of his poems – which sometimes gets to the point of imbecility. Reading Voznesensky’s latest book in English, Nostalgia for the Present, one has an impression of vanity and self-indulgence mostly unmitigated by poetic wit, verbal ability or irony. Often he attempts themes that are seriously beyond him – being quite at variance with the level of his writing: a casual style with rhetorical and surrealistic impulses. There are poems about the nature of Time and about God; there is a pretentious introduction to a group of four ‘visual’ poems: ‘But once again I must emphasise that these are only surface interpretations of the meanings of the poems.’

There are occasional delicate passages: as with Mayakovsky, they are mostly about animals. In a poem called ‘Lines to Robert Lowell’, for instance, there are these lines on Arthur Miller’s dog Hugo:

You’re not a dachshund,
you’re a slipper,
a moccasin with a gaping sole,
shabby with use.

A certain Unknown Being puts you
on his left foot
and shuffles across the floor.

But for the most part the writing is unpleasantly barrel-chested. The poems lose by having valorous lines promoted to choruses: ‘Man lives by sky alone’ is repeated five times in ‘Chagall’s Cornflowers’, the fifth time with capitals. Persuasive. In ‘American Buttons’ the best lines are those quoted from the American buttons themselves: ‘Men are the ancestors of apes,’ ‘Ronald Reagan is a lesbian,’ ‘If it moves, fondle it.’ Lastly, to return to the issue of nationalism, there is a long poem here, too, ‘Story Under Full Sail’, a group of lyrics about a swashbuckling sea-captain Rezanov who, by marrying the daughter of the Spanish commandant of San Francisco, almost succeeded in annexing the West Coast of America for the Czar in 1806. An appealing subject for Californians especially.

Reflections on the Nile and Summer Palaces are the latest books by Ronald Bottrall and Peter Scupham. Their titles and covers provide a fair clue to the stances of the respective poets. The cover of Bottrall’s book is a strip of limo-green over dirty yellow – the sky over Egypt, you think, the muddy unreflecting Nile. Scupham has a close-up of a dandelion on his cover – the transience of summer turned palatial.

Bottrall reflects on a multitude of subjects, but mostly on the dirt and grime of the modern cities in which he finds himself – Cairo, Rome, London. The title of one poem, ‘Change and Decay’, is again representative of Bottrall’s grumblings against urban squalor. Except for its air and water, Joyce couldn’t stand Rome. The first has gone with the coming of the Fiat. And now Bottrall finds nothing to praise, or even to pass a non-toxic comment on. His poems are as bitter, as ordinary and untransformed, as their urban subjects. It is only in the few pieces on other matters that Bottrall’s humour frees itself from his oppressive bitterness, and the poet shows what he is capable of: true observation, delicacy of tone, an ability to charm and be charmed:

She comes trotting across
Unsteady marshland
Breaks into a run
And leaps into the air
Turning a somersault

While catching small insects.

Scupham’s poems are decorous feats of word-spinning, dim impressionist excursions in the Home Counties. Their subject is landscape – always open-season for poetry. Again and again description teeters into sugary gratifying abstraction. There is a sequence called ‘Natura’ with parts named after such phenomena as ‘Cottage Flowers’, ‘Sky’, ‘Lanes’, ‘Woods’. The poems subjoined are reveries of stodgy Latinate words; celebrations of pure and empty moments; rambles with a thesaurus. There is nothing going on. Not so much as a game of cricket.