Tropical Storms

Blake Morrison

  • Poems of Science edited by John Heath-Stubbs and Phillips Salman
    Penguin, 328 pp, £4.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 14 042317 6
  • The Kingfisher by Amy Clampitt
    Faber, 92 pp, £4.00, April 1984, ISBN 0 571 13269 3
  • The Ice Factory by Philip Gross
    Faber, 62 pp, £3.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 571 13217 0
  • Venus and the Rain by Medbh McGuckian
    Oxford, 57 pp, £4.50, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 211962 1
  • Saying hello at the station by Selima Hill
    Chatto, 48 pp, £2.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2788 0
  • Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems by Liz Lochhead
    Polygon, 159 pp, £2.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 904919 80 3
  • News for Babylon: The Chatto Book of West Indian-British Poetry edited by James Berry
    Chatto, 212 pp, £4.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2797 X
  • Human Rites: Selected Poems 1970-1982 by E.A. Markham
    Anvil, 127 pp, £7.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 85646 112 1
  • Midsummer by Derek Walcott
    Faber, 79 pp, £3.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 571 13180 8

Johnson’s Imlac, urging that the poet neglect the ‘minuter discriminations’ of the tulip leaf in favour of ‘general properties’, has been unpopular for two hundred years, never more so than now, when it is believed that accumulated tiny detail – thinginess – vouches for a poem’ s authenticity. But Imlac also argues, apparently contradicting himself, that ‘to a poet nothing can be useless,’ that he ‘must know many languages and many sciences’ and through his command of botany, zoology, astronomy, politics, ethics and so on become a ‘legislator of mankind’. This is familiar enough for us to see that there is no contradiction: our own version is that the poet be learned but wear his learning lightly, that he know more than he lets on. We expect the poet to know in a general way that his physics are Einsteinian, so that (like Imlac crossing deserts and mountains for ‘images and resemblances’) he may draw if he wishes on a language of atoms, anti-matter and black holes – but not, like Empson in ‘Doctrinal Point’, to cite individual physicists such as Heviside and Eddington. We may ask for ‘scientific precision’ in poetry but we don’t want displays of scientific knowledge any more than Johnson did: these will earn the epithet ‘cerebral’. Poems of Science, an anthology of seven centuries of scientific verse (from Anon on the structure of the cosmos – ‘as appel the eorthe is round’ – to John Updike on cosmic gall), is therefore fighting a lost battle. The editors make out a brave case for the similarity of poet and scientist (‘the starting-point for both of their activities is the imagination’), dispute old distinctions between ‘fact’ and ‘feeling’, and think it important for poets to keep abreast of scientific advance. But then comes their selection. Donne is there, not for those compasses in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, but to expound the new philosophy in ‘An Anatomy of the World’; Empson is there to haggle a doctrinal point rather than let it go. That’s science for you.

Imlac speaks of the poet as a ‘he’, and for women poets, the story goes, there has never been the same pressure to keep up. Their tradition has been one of domesticity, transcended to a greater or lesser degree, but never entering the laboratory. Yet the domestic tradition, it turns out, can provide a room of one’s own with spacious opportunities for encyclopedic research. Two of the most vigorous (and rigorous) contributors to Poems of Science are Dorothy Donnelly, examining a pin under a microscope, and Marianne Moore, whose ‘Four Quartz Crystal Clocks’, taking as its setting the US Naval Observatory and Bell Telephone Laboratory Time Vault, is a plea for punctuality and punctiliousness:

    The lemur-student can see
      that an aye-aye is not

an angwan-tibo, potto or loris.

Amy Clampitt can probably tell an aye-aye from an angwan-tibo and might well have chosen those lines as an epigraph for The Kingfisher. Hers is a poetry of minute discriminations. Unlike those unbotanical ‘Down East people’ who talk loosely of ‘that pink-and-blue flower you find along the shore’, she knows her flora and fauna and can trace them through their Latin roots. She documents the phenomenon of the sea-mouse (a marine worm of the Aphroditidae family) and records the efforts of the killdeer, a shore bird related to the plover, to camouflage its nest. She devotes a 49-line poem to describing what the surface of the sea looks like. She knows her Darwin and talks of

                         that backhand round-
about refusal to assume responsibility
known as Natural Selection.

She uses a demanding vocabulary, since accuracy (she implies) demands it: repoussé, embays, panicled, percale, cerulean, pheromone, tsunami, sphagnum. Her world is looked at but also looked up, textbook knowledge refining and elaborating a talent for precise delineation. If she occasionally seems domestic, as when she reflects on the drawbacks of central heating or adopts an idiom that might have been drawn from Vogue (fog a ‘fishnet plissé’ or ‘peau de soie’, the sea ‘velouté’ or ‘suede’), she rightly prefers the term ‘outdoorsydomestic’, which nicely catches her trick of presenting the great outdoors in indoor terms. In ‘The Cove’, for example, we see her

looking out at the eiders, trig
in their white-over-black as they tip
and tuck themselves into the swell, almost
as though diving under the eiderdown
in a gemütlich hotel room at Innsbruck.

This takes such a simple, erotic pleasure in nature that we scarcely need to notice the aptness of ‘tuck themselves into’ or the progress from eiders to eiderdown.

Such lines and shorelines bring to mind Elizabeth Bishop, littered as they are with correspondences – a turtle like ‘a covered wagon’ or the ocean ‘wrinkling like tinfoil’. She lays the paint on more thickly than Bishop: but can she rise to the grandiloquence of ‘At the Fishhouses’? At first it seems not: the generalising is less than epigrammatic, and such personality as the poet has seems cranky, beachcombing, too willing to erase itself before nature. But midway through the book comes the long, measured, mysterious ‘Procession at Candlemas’, in which a journey home along ‘route 80’, apparently to visit a parent in intensive care and including a stop at a service station, becomes a profound meditation on memory, birth, death, ceremony and the settling of America.

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