Seeing yourself dead

Nicolas Tredell

  • Love in a Life by Andrew Motion
    Faber, 62 pp, £11.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 571 16101 4
  • Three Variations on the Theme of Harm: Selected Poetry and Prose by Douglas Oliver
    Paladin, 255 pp, £6.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 586 08962 4
  • Spoils of War by John Eppel
    Carrefour Press, 48 pp, August 1989, ISBN 0 620 13315 5
  • Music for Brass by Brian Waltham
    Peterloo, 64 pp, £5.95, November 1990, ISBN 1 871471 20 6
  • Lapidary by Rosamund Stanhope
    Peterloo, 64 pp, £5.95, November 1990, ISBN 1 871471 19 2

Marriage, mortality, memory, the onset of middle age and the pressure of children criss-cross Andrew Motion’s latest collection. Should we treat the vivid images and incidents that comprise this volume as fragments to be fused into a unity? We might try to construct a single protagonist: a man entering mid-life, married, a father, aware of his own mortality and that of others, slipping at moments through the doors of memory into his childhood, into his adolescence, into an earlier, failed relationship. We could take up the hint of the title and propose a thematic unity, the workings of love in one life – or more precisely, if we recall the Browning poem from which the title comes, the pursuit of a love which is always elusive: ‘Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.’ Or we might follow the prompting of the blurb, which proffers ‘marriage’ as the governing formal idea. But it is questionable how far we should see these poems as the limbs of Osiris, to be gathered into the unity of one self, story or structure. That was once the favoured approach to Modernist poetry; but Motion’s poetry is, in some ways at least, Post-Modernist. It gestures towards a coherence that is not achieved, that breaks down in blankness, disconnection and inconsequence. Love in a Life offers anecdotes in search of a narrative.

Death, as Walter Benjamin implied, gives life to stories, and intimations of mortality recur in Motion’s anecdotes. The opening poem evokes, with hallucinatory vividness, a dream-vision of ‘last century’s man ... / (spats and port waistcoat / in clackety half-light)’ on a train to St Pancras to deliver, to his sovereign, the unique bloom of a lily, enclosed in a glass bubble. The man is a harbinger of death, showing

how the bloom
in its misty bubble
is dead as a stone,
how the beat of my heart
in time with his journey
is steadily slower.

Other poems recall the mother in a hospital bed, fed with oxygen through a tube in the throat, or with head battered and shaved – a painful, poignant image that also figures in Motion’s earlier work. ‘One Who Disappeared’ juxtaposes the tale of a woman whose only son was blown from a cliff edge, to fall ‘a hundred feet / on sheets of black rock’, with the illness of the speaker’s son, and implies the fear of losing him. Death by water, that immemorial topos which offers such rich potential for the sea-changes that poetry can effect, wells up several times – in ‘Run’, for instance, where the lines move, in a manner characteristic of Motion, from the casually colloquial, through the consciously poetical, to the forceful but semantically oblique assertion:

But take Ruth
who drowned last week.

I used to fancy her –
now all I think
is what water can do,
easing off shoes,
making light
of the dense net of her tights.
To hell with out of place!
That’s the fucking Thames dribbling down your face!

But the deaths of others, while they may act as a memento mori and be the occasion for anguished, horrified, or partly erotic contemplation, cannot, however nearly experienced, be the same as one’s own. Death is common to all and unique to each. One can try to imagine one’s demise, but this is a doubtful prophylactic. In ‘Judgment’, the speaker’s joy-annulling apprehension of mortality as a universal condition of animate beings – ‘I had thought of death / and of everything that sails above the earth / brought low’ – moves into a Gothic image of interment ‘underground: at dead of night’, then into a vision of calling his wife for:

a drink of water;
a drink of water

to taste and be sure
I am dying at home.

The repetition of ‘a drink of water’ recalls the reiterated stress on water and its absence in Part Five of The Waste Land. Here Eliot’s desert is transferred to a domestic deathbed. This vision of dying brings to mind Motion’s moving elegy for Philip Larkin, in his previous collection Natural Causes (1987), which evokes Larkin facing death, not at home, but in a ‘nursing home’, and records his remark on the uselessness of poetic rehearsals of one’s end:

The trouble is, I’ve written
scenes like this so many times
there’s nothing to surprise me.
But that doesn’t help one bit.
It just appals me.

The poems in Love in a Life sometimes convey a feeling like that expressed by Keats in a late letter, of ‘leading a posthumous existence’. That feeling, marking the closeness of mortality in Keats, comes to symbolise in Motion’s work a profound (if at times somewhat posed) isolation and alienation, while also perhaps figuring a desire for some form of post-mortem consciousness. In ‘One Who Disappeared’, the speaker, anxious for his sick son, lies beside his sleeping wife, asks:

Why do I feel that I’ve died
and am lingering here to haunt you?

In ‘Close’, he meets his own death by water, but undergoes no rich sea-change, returning at once to familiar, familial routines:

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

You are not logged in