The Pain of History

Stephen Brook

  • The Star-Apple Kingdom by Derek Walcott
    Cape, 58 pp, £2.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 224 01780 2
  • Selected Poems 1961-1978 by David Holbrook
    Anvil, 143 pp, £5.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 85646 066 4
  • Death Valley and Other Poems in America by Alan Ross
    London Magazine Editions, 92 pp, £3.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 904388 32 8
  • Poems 1955-1980 by Roy Fisher
    Oxford, 193 pp, £7.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 19 211935 4
  • A.R.T.H.U.R. & M.A.R.T.H.A. by Laurence Lerner
    Secker, 69 pp, £2.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 24440 3

Derek Walcott is now 50 years old, but there is none of the placidity or mellowing of middle age in The Star-Apple Kingdom. If Naipaul is the great novelist of the colonial experience, Walcott has a claim to be considered the great poet of the same experience. They share an acute sense of belonging to more than one culture and hence to none. The reference in the title poem to the Caribbean’s ‘history-orphaned islands’ is a motto for many other poems in Walcott’s new collection. The book opens with the long dialect poem ‘The Schooner Flight’. The narrator, Shabine, is a Trinidadian ‘red nigger’ sailor-poet who is fiercely conscious of his place, or absence, in history:

I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

He seems to opt for the former, but feels vindicated by being a poet:

I had no nation now but the imagination.
After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me
when the power swing to their side.
The first chain my hands and apologise, ‘History’;
the next said I wasn’t black enough tor their pride.

But something remains: ‘that’s all them bastards have left us: words.’ Later he observes the cypresses of Barbados, also known as cedars or casuarinas – three words for one tree:

but we live like our names and you would have
to be colonial to know the difference,
to know the pain of history words contain.

Wrenched from context, Shabine’s lines appear rhetorical and loose, but he’s at home in many styles: hectoring, reflective, anecdotal, headily lyrical. Its polemic apart, ‘The Schooner Flight’ is a marvellous evocation of islands and sea (‘when I write/this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt’). The vigorous demotic of the writing unifies the poem: sense of self and its denial, history and its absence, landscape and the language that must bring it all to life.

The long title poem expresses similar preoccupations, with great bitterness and power, but the third major poem in this collection is in a very different vein. ‘Forest of Europe’, addressed to the exiled Russian poet Brodsky, is a contemplation of poetry and power, and again Walcott asserts the strength of poetry against the corrupting acids that eat it away:

What’s poetry, if it is worth its salt,
but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?

From hand to mouth, across the centuries,
the bread that lasts when systems have decayed,
when, in his forest of barbed-wire branches,
a prisoner circles, chewing the one phrase
whose music will last longer than the leaves.

A romantic view, Yeatsian perhaps, expressed with great eloquence and restraint. Again like Naipaul, Walcott stresses his cultural isolation while at the same time drawing on linguistic resources rarely found in contemporary English poetry. He has been faulted for his lushness, but in this book the dense lyricism is always tempered by technical skill and a beautiful intelligence.

After Walcott’s orchestra, David Holbrook strikes one as deliberately low-keyed, muted both in his choice of subject and his manner of handling it. Although his Selected Poems span twenty years, there is remarkably little change or development. The themes remain constant: his family, animals, the countryside, travel. Holbrook is content to keep his vision modest, though he likes to ruminate on the passage of time and the limitations of feeling. He writes a conversational poetry that is accessible but often forgettable; lack of irony makes for directness but also for obviousness. ‘On Sid-mouth Cliffs’ opens:

The slack lines of my verse
Stretch beyond gathering:
I can say nothing terse.

Fortunately, things are not as bad as all that. The leisurely writing allows Holbrook to express a quiet affection, and at its best this can be touching and effective. But he needs to round off his observational poems with a lesson which often wrecks what precedes it. The tender ‘March Evening’ concludes:

                                   a wife’s
Hand turned my head, she kissed my mouth,
And we began a new year’s lease of growth.

The explicit turning of the head is a delicate detail, which is then jolted by the heavy-handed last line, with its mercantile metaphor.

‘L’Enfant et les Sortilèges’, addressed to his child, ends:

Oh, my idealised, pale, beautiful,
And raucous little saint, what hell
You are at times, and yet, in such spell-moments,
How you redeem the world!

Such hyperbole has to be communicated, not just proclaimed; here its grandiosity threatens a modest, amiable poem. Repeatedly, Holbrook lets a sense of his own sensibility intrude in this way, as when a poem about Botticelli’s Venus concludes: ‘I am so full of her frail suspended beauty.’ He often relies on Hopkinsesque clusters (‘the medlar’s flame-smart fall-flaunt’, ‘the morning fresh-fair’) that don’t come off; there are echoes of Hardy’s ‘During Wind and Rain’ in ‘Delivering Children’, and awkward echoes of Donne, as in ‘From the year’s night’s brief day’s sky’ which brings ‘Christ in the Cupboard’ to a literally unspeakable end. His metaphysical speculations rarely succeed; better are the mildly erotic poems to his wife, and the quiet reflections on his children at play or on ‘My Father’s Gay Funeral’.

Death Valley grew out of various journeys in America that Alan Ross made in the 1970s. The sense of travel is constant: Ross delights in place names, highway numbers, lists, descriptions. Too much so: the effect is often that of jottings in a notebook (to which he refers in a number of poems); in ‘West from Denver’ they are simply left as jottings. ‘Fall, Boston’ and ‘Golfers at Savannah’ also offer little more than narrative – precise and neatly observed, to be sure, but oddly unadorned, rather like captions for an above-average documentary. Ross himself seems aware that more is called for, and in many of these poems lessons are drawn.

Towards the end of an evocative poem about Venice West, he writes that this delapidated Californian town ‘lives off a past never completed’, an observation supported by the poem itself. Then he concludes: ‘Let us finish what we started.’ Is “we” generic? Or a reference to Ross and the woman he is travelling with? It is not clear, and the ambiguity is irritating rather than felicitous. ‘Wall Street’ begins as a neat vignette of men at the bar ‘like frogs with relaxed throats’, and ends:

But on afternoons lit
By the glitter and disposal of money,
They show often a flawed
Honesty, a sense of defiance
At what the hunt has done to them.

Perhaps they do, but we don’t gather this from the poem: the observation is plucked from outside it and thus loses force.

In ‘New York – Stapleton’, the pattern recurs:

Lights dowsed now, the cabin
Is scissored by silk legs of stewardesses,
Expressionless robots ministering
With brisk efficiency of night nurses –
They suggest lifestyles
Never quite lived,
Broken promises, failures of imagination.

The strengths of the writing – exactitude, vividness, suggestiveness – lapse into portentousness. There are too many short cuts in these poems.

The longest section of the book consists of a series of poems about American writers and artists. For the most part, they are half-hearted tributes, somewhat lazy appraisals that lack the sharpness of the better travel poems. Death Valley is an easy-going book, with the faults of slackness and indulgence, and the merits of readability, the occasional poem or stanza leaping brightly from the page before settling back into the cosy expanse of the book.

If the reviewers fall idle, everybody drops dead;
it’s as simple as that.

Thus nudged by Roy Fisher, I hasten to welcome his Poems 1955-1980, which gathers all his published poems and prose poems. Until now, his work has been available (if at all) only from small presses. He has nonetheless acquired a substantial reputation, and the publication of this collected volume shows it to be justified. Fisher occupies a curious spot in British poetry: although the dominant influences on his writing appear to be American (Williams in particular), he is utterly English. He is a poet of place, of the perception of place, and of the things that occupy place:

The hiss of tyres along the gutter,

Odours of polish in the air;
A Car sleeps in the neighbouring room,
A wardrobe by its radiator.

‘Its’ is telling: objects, seemingly apart, relate. Even his people, as in ‘The Intruder’, are perceived as landscape:

Her face is broad, like a filbert, the features small;
I can see where the colours lie on her skin.

The first quotation is from ‘The City’, a long sequence of poems and prose. It is a remarkable piece of work. What is odd is that the city, though unnamed, is fastidiously observed, with an impeccable eye for detail and the juxtaposition of things. Yet the picture has an unreal quality, not because he is abstracting the notion of ‘city’ from his observation, but because what at first seems documentary is in fact stylised and made remote. Even though it is often personified, what life the city has is sinister and repressive:

The suburb lies like a hand tonight,
A man’s thick hand, so stubborn
No child or poet can move it.

People are subsidiary to the city they occupy: ‘the night makes its own streets with a rake that drags persuaded people out of its way.’ Surface is crucial. Fisher is the poet of scummed water, rust, concrete slabs, puddles, and floorboards. Even the sun is seen in these terms:

Oh yellow head,
Crust of deception:
Pale over wheat fields, the sun.

The later poems are remoter still. Cities give way to landscape, and the precision grows more abstract, with Fisher contemplating more and more his own role as a poet, however diffidently: ‘Style? I couldn’t begin.’ Almost bemused by his own poetry, the private being made public, he writes:

  my life keeps
leaking out of my poetry to me
in all directions.

Some of these poems have a shy wit, almost a whimsy, that’s in full flower in the long prose poem of 1966, ‘The Ship’s Orchestra’. It’s a romp, a high-spirited shuffling of the deck, or, as Fisher put it more sombrely in an interview, ‘an elaboration of almost hallucinatory sensory effects’. Although enjoyable, it doesn’t overshadow many of the shorter poems and sequences, such as ‘The Memorial Fountain’, ‘Matrix’ and ‘Wonders of Obligation’. For all his shyness about style, Fisher’s writing is poised and beautifully controlled. He is often difficult but mostly rewarding and always distinctive.

Laurence Lerner’s second poetic study of the life of computers is a disappointment. What could be a springboard to all manner of invention turns out to be a series of predictable gags. A.R.T.H.U.R. – M.A.R.T.H.A. are computers who have fallen in love. They produce an offspring who is

Based on a seminal programme
Supplied by Arthur
Developed over nine months by Martha.

Their exchanges are humorously sabotaged by the restraints of their mechanisms: ‘Without sufficient data/I have no way to know.’ The book is riddled with lame parodies: ‘I, Arthur, take thee, Martha,/to be my symbiotic partner’ and ‘This little digit went to market.’ It is all rather too obvious, even for a book that has no pretensions to be other than lightweight. Anyhow, computers are passé: what we need are sonnets to silicon.