Narrow Places

Brad Leithauser

  • Selected Poems by Molly Holden
    Carcanet, 126 pp, £6.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 85635 696 4
  • The Player Queen’s Wife by Oliver Reynolds
    Faber, 78 pp, £8.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 571 14998 7
  • The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill by Stephen Yenser
    Harvard, 367 pp, £21.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 674 16615 9

In ‘Barn Roof’, one of her earliest poems, Molly Holden speaks of ‘quarried colours’. The phrase says much about both her artistic ambitions, which strove endlessly after fresh visual detail, and her poetic methods, which often relied upon boldly proximate alliteration and what might be called off-off-rhyme. In the best of her poems, many of which were written at the outset of her career, a keen eye for the natural world conjoins with an ear subtly attuned to internal modulations; her most interesting aural effects often arise not in her end-rhymes but within the individual line. ‘Barn Roof’ also gives us the phrase, ‘runnels of rain-stains sustaining the decorative features ...’ That daring near-stammer of ‘stains sustaining’ strikes the sort of clangorous note one might expect to find in a poem that strives after grandeur; one of the pleasures of Holden’s work is the incongruous way in which she brings a dense, brazen music to poems that might well be described as miniatures.

Her poems tended toward the small in regard both to subject-manner (birds, bushes, mosses, babies) and duration. Of the 96 lyrics assembled in her new Selected Poems, only seven run to two pages; none extends to three or more. She seems by temperament to have been a direct soul. Her poems frequently take up an object at the precise moment when it captured her attention – the moment, say, when a sudden flock of goldfinches descends upon a garden – and drop it almost as soon as the moment has been recorded.

Like those of the American L. E. Sissman, whose life’s work Hello, Darkness was published in this country in 1980, Molly Holden’s poems cannot be separated from the discomforts and dolours of the sickroom. The two poets lived strikingly parallel lives. Holden was born in 1927 and Sissman in 1928; Holden died in 1981, after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis, and Sissman in 1976, after an extended fight against Hodgkin’s disease. Holden’s first book, published in 1968, was entitled To make me grieve; Sissman’s, also published in 1968, was called Dying: An Introduction. Of course, poets of every era and variety are likely to fix upon mortality as a theme – but in Holden and in Sissman one finds, not surprisingly, an unusual, heightened sensitivity to the horrors and cruelties of a death that is gradual, piecemeal and relentless.

Together, the two poets illustrate some of the range of strategies by which the peculiarities of modern illness – with its gleaming, sterilised surfaces, its mechanical wheelchairs and pain-killing drugs – may successfully serve as the subject-matter for poetry. Sissman’s great strength was his self-mocking sense of humour. The man who could see the cancer within him as a ‘tissue of fabrications’, or a row of surgical instruments as a ‘service for twelve’ that ‘awaits my flesh/to dine’, was someone from whom the reader would welcome even a hospital tale of ‘refined / White-sheeted torture’. Holden depended upon terseness. As she makes clear in the closing lines of ‘Hospital’, she sought to give her infirmity its due without letting it dominate her or her work:

And all the while I lay, under the words and attempted curing,
         seeking inside not out for human grace
that would give me a strength and a courage for enduring
           against great odds in a narrow place.

If Sissman often seems the more affecting poet, one reason may be that humour proves a surer guide than reticence when dealing with the horrific. Holden’s laconism – which tended to crystallise into declarations of self-defiance – rings at times of self-congratulation and its dour twin, self-pity.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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