Love in the Ruins

Nicolas Tredell

  • Out of the Rain by Glyn Maxwell
    Bloodaxe, 112 pp, £6.95, June 1992, ISBN 1 85224 193 4
  • Body Politic by Tony Flynn
    Bloodaxe, 60 pp, £5.95, June 1992, ISBN 1 85224 129 2
  • Red by Linda France
    Bloodaxe, 80 pp, £5.95, June 1992, ISBN 1 85224 178 0
  • Red-Haired Android by Jeremy Reed
    Grafton, 280 pp, £7.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 586 09184 X
  • Leaf-Viewing by Peter Robinson, with an essay by Peter Swaab
    Robert Jones, 36 pp, £9.95, July 1992, ISBN 0 9514240 2 5

In Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, the Prince found by the River Thames ‘a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber’. Of course, the truth of the ancient state, like the truth of the British state at the turn of the 19th century, was not necessarily a wholly savoury one. Conrad had already imagined the great imperial waterway as leading to – and from – the heart of darkness, and by 1922, The Waste Land was to find by the Thames the signs of an imperium in full decadence. Glyn Maxwell, in 1992, offers his own vision of riparian decay:

Just say you went beside the fires by the river,
in neither night nor day, insofar as
violet and lime were the shades of the air that steamed or anchored over
the slurping water, and this was the River Thames you somehow knew it.

This opening stanza of ‘The Fires by the River’ is characteristic of Maxwell’s poetry. The diction is a mixture of the offhand and the elevated, the lyrical and the slangy. The rhythm is sinewy and resourceful, sentences running on over lines of different lengths in sustained enjambment. The world evoked is recognisably our world, but displaced, made strange, caught at two removes. The effect is both oneiric and substantial – the sense of a dream, a vision, with weight. Maxwell’s Thamescape, like that of Eliot, has its lyric moments, but it is also, like Eliot’s, a decadent, nearly infernal one – ‘a mezzanine or less / up from hell’ – and the lyric colours could signify pollution and addiction, in a world in which ‘there was a drug called drug, and a drug that went by day in a blue guise’.

This riverine floor over hell is not placed specifically in the 1990s – as with Eliot, the temporal location slips and slides so that we might sometimes be in the past, in ‘those days’, and sometimes in the non-horological zone of dream and vision. Such uncertainty might lead to a poetry that proffered an abstract image of spiritual decay and lost its political and social purchase. But Maxwell does not reduce his scope in this way: he does concern himself with politics and with physical as well as spiritual suffering. ‘In Herrick Shape for Her’ mingles a restrained and dignified love lyric with a powerful evocation of the homeless and vagrant of England’s capital – ‘the Burnt-Out, the Despite’ – who do not scorch in hell but freeze physically on the streets:

London’s now where what is cold
Is terminal.

This poem is also a political indictment:

The lady was a liar
Who blared from the unblurring screen
Home truths of the Great British.

If the remarkably crafted ‘Herrick shape’ of the poem invokes 17th-century lyric, its melding of direct attack, didacticism and concern calls to mind Augustan poetry – Johnson’s ‘London’, for example – while its vision of extremity echoes that of Blake’s ‘London’.

In contrast to Eliot, Maxwell’s perception of decay does not lead to a nostalgia for hierarchy and order, but the strength of that desire is recognised. In ‘From the Fisherman’s Bastion’, tourists stand on the Bastion in Buda, the statues of the Hapsburgs behind them, looking over the Duna, and the city which bears the traces of two lost empires, the Hapsburg and the Soviet. The continuing power of the drive towards a monolithic identity, the source of both imperialism and smaller-scale nationalism, is vividly apprehended.

Throughout Maxwell’s poetry there is a strong sense of human needs, desires and fears being displaced into a world of imaginary identifications and trivial pursuits. The manipulations of collective response are sharply portrayed in ‘We billion cheered’, which evokes a world in which fear is constantly displaced into spectacle and repetition. ‘The Eater’ jauntily takes up the theme of the disparity between the ideal world portrayed by advertising and the shortfalls of actuality, and develops an image of death as the ultimate consumer. It would be interesting to compare this poem with Larkin’s ‘Essential Beauty’. ‘The Uninvited’ is a particularly resourceful, funny and suggestive poem in which country house guests act out detective games in an attempt to control the fear of death – ‘Let us be Anybody other than Body!’ – and to reassure themselves that the world is intelligible – ‘it would all be explicable / soon in the lounge’ – but find themselves disturbed by ‘the hairless stranger / who wasn’t invited and wouldn’t answer’ and whose followers mass together, perturbing the guests and producing a sense of guilt. It could be a compressed version of an unwritten Henry Green novel.

The centrepiece of Maxwell’s collection is the long title poem, a sustained and inventive achievement. ‘Out of the Rain’ partakes of biblical tale, medieval allegory, surrealist comedy. It tells the story of a flood – the Flood – which descends upon a decadent town. The narrator is one of a group of sporting, drinking young hedonists who call to mind, variously, yuppies and lager louts, Essex Men and the Bright Young Things of Waugh and Huxley and Eliot and Scott Fitzgerald. The narrator describes the night of the flood, his glimpse of the entrance to the ark – ‘a dry risen corridor of light’ – and his own strange survival, borne out of the rain by a unicorn into a cottage full of animals – a cottage which is, as he sees when he goes out in the morning, ‘dry and pocketed’ in a protected zone in the midst of the sea which covers the land. But once he thinks ‘there are no such things as unicorns’, the water bursts through. By the end of the poem, he has returned to his usual way of life, and the status of his experience of the Flood is indeterminate: was it vision or delusion? The poem’s echoes of the Bible and of medieval allegory, of Eliot and Waugh, also highlight a key difference from those precursors: for it does not portray a world where formal religion has much to offer. If there is a zone between a remote and dubious faith and a complete absorption into a world of trivial pursuits, it is represented by the animals whom the narrator meets in the cottage, who are, according to the unicorn, the Others – the animals who, for a range of reasons, did not enter the Ark. God’s great eugenic plan does not include them, but they are also excluded – and, it may be, destroyed – by a failure of imagination.

It would be wrong to reduce the otherness of Maxwell’s poems by turning them too much into allegories, political or spiritual. His poetry outruns conclusive interpretation; for all its intertextual resonances, it is original and disorientating, working into areas difficult to map in terms of existing categories. Its strength lies in its rhythm, its syntax, its diction and an overall tonal control – most evident in ‘Out of the Rain’, but a constant, surprising delight throughout the collection – which enables Maxwell to move, vertiginously but triumphantly, between a disparate range of moods and modes.

‘The bag of bones / shivering under a blanket / of excrement’ is the focus of the title poem of Tony Flynn’s collection. Like Maxwell, Flynn is concerned for the health of the polis and understands that health in physical as well as spiritual terms. As Maxwell does with the homeless, he draws attention to what the polis chooses to forget – the body, which should inform the body politic, the state, as a mode of concern, but which the state regards only as an object to subdue or reject. Flynn is concerned with that body in its vulnerability – open to violence, violation, deprivation, deformation, dismemberment, death – and with the vulnerable mind, witness and sharer of corporeal affliction. ‘The Bride’ and ‘Domestic Interior’ focus on those who grieve for the victims of political violence. ‘Autumnal’ addresses, with tact and restraint, the sufferings of those in Nazi concentration camps – Primo Levi is crucial here for Flynn. ‘The Butcher’ is a graphic tale of a mother who stabs her baby daughter in obedience, as she believes, to God’s command, His bloody instructions not rescinded at the last moment for her as they were for the patriarch Abraham. The image of butchery recurs in ‘Preferred Terms’, which opens with an image of a baby’s head as

like something from
the offal bowl,
fashioned in the butcher’s
bloody hands.

But the mother here resists the smooth patriarchal authority of the young consultant whose preferred term is ‘Down’s Syndrome’, and affirms that her child is a ‘Mongol’, gagging on her words but finally swallowing them like chewed-over gristle. Here the body is affirmed against responses of repugnance and strategies of distancing. Death may come by natural causes as well by violence, and the last two poems in the volume evoke the sadness of a son losing his mother and a wife losing her husband. In each case, the loss is focused metonymically, by means of objects associated with the dying person – the mother’s favourite dress, with which the son pleads as the last rites are administered in the next room; the blown eggs once gathered by the dying husbnd, one of which the wife cups in her palm,

pressing it gently to
her lips, as though she might breathe
the living yolk back into it.

In a world marked by suffering and loss, there are moments of imagined tranquillity, as when two rowers on a lake wish, for the two swans they have disturbed – and perhaps, implicitly, for themselves –

a quiet lake, where only
their own reflections glide
between them on the water.

And there are epiphanies of grace, of restoration and healing, as in the epithalamium ‘Gleanings’. Flynn’s sparse, careful diction, which enables him to use a word like ‘soul’ without seeming archaic or overblown, is evident throughout this volume. He often works with two or three-line stanzas, and usually employs short lines, but the effect of his line breaks is not one of abruptness but of a precise pausing and modulation of the sound and sense. A number of his poems end in a way which shifts the meaning of what has gone before and leaves reverberations in the mind. Body Politic demonstrates that Flynn has developed a poetic register that is admirable in its discipline and economy and that can encompass and evoke a range of themes and moods.

The poetic register of Linda France in Red is no less disciplined but more copious and conversational. It enables her both to explore the everyday and to enter more esoteric zones, as at the start of ‘Dutch Interior’:

Let’s say this light-filled space is the Netherlands
And I am one of that loose knot
of people unravelling themselves, making
straight for the edge.

Like Flynn, France is good at endings which shift one’s perceptions of what has gone before and leave one pondering. In ‘Precious Stones’, the speaker recalls the purchase long ago, by herself and a lover, of a ring set with different stones, the first letters of which spell ‘Regard’ – ‘an Edwardian whimsy’. The poem ends with a couplet which returns us to the speaker’s present, to the performance of a formal, recurrent social transaction that echoes, with a poignancy that is neither indulged nor wryly dismissed, a richer relationship now faded:

Every year at Christmas we exchange cards –
I hesitate before writing Regards.

France’s conversational mode does not confine her to recounting what are presumably her own experiences. Red offers a range of dramatic monologues, employing personae drawn from myth, history, art, modern life. The putative speakers of most of these monologues are women in situations of oppression and subordination: a sea nymph raped by Poseidon; Mary Josephine Travers, who accused Oscar Wilde’s father of sexual assault; the wife of the Victorian apocalyptic painter John Martin; a figure based on Edward Hopper’s painting Hotel Room; a girl caught up in a sexual abuse case; a woman prisoner. These monologues are all effective for the most part, evoking specific experiences and making their points without stridency: but they sometimes seem insufficiently differentiated from France’s own voice. ‘Call me kitten’, for instance, tries to capture the idiolect of a woman in prison, and deploys feline and feral imagery to help characterise its persona, but she still seems too polite, a bourgeois pet with clipped claws and a contrived snarl. At times, the monologues smack of the stereotype, as in the attempt to connote ‘Irishness’ by making Mary Josephine Travers say: ‘I was only a young girl then, green / as shamrock.’ But these are small lapses in a quietly accomplished collection.

In Red-Haired Android, Jeremy Reed attacks ‘the poetry world’, which he sees as dominated by ‘exponents of the ordinary, /opponents of the visionary’:

Their safety-net is Larkin’s provincial
de-sexualised climacteric; the flat
sensibility bred by a library.

Imagination’s better on the street,
picking up vibrancy or anywhere
the light transforms experience
into discovery.

This poetic manifesto is echoed elsewhere in this collection. In ‘Dusting the arm-rest’, for example, Reed affirms that poetry is, or should be, close ‘to the street-corner, the edge’ and his own heroes are those who lived on and in some cases went over the edge – Blake, Rimbaud, Hölderlin, Trakl, Hart Crane, Artaud.

The opposing of the visionary to the ordinary, the call for poetry to live dangerously, the invocation of Larkin as the epitome of grey on grey – these have been familiar cultural moves at least since Alvarez’s New Poetry anthology, and they have, as Reed’s hall of fame suggests, a much older ancestry. But in Reed’s case, there is a certain contradiction. For it could be argued that Larkin shared Reed’s view, expressed here in ‘Rock and Poetry’, that ‘poetry needs street-cred’ – though he might not have put it in quite that way. For poetry to have ‘street-cred’, however, it might need its share of the ordinary, and in fact Reed’s poetry is not, as poetry, especially adventurous: rather less so, in fact, than Larkin’ s can be, and certainly less so than Glyn Maxwell’s, which seems much more likely than Reed’s to have street-cred for the Nineties. Reed’s poetry smacks of ‘a backward ethos’, to borrow a phrase from one of his poems; or rather, it smacks of two – that of the Sixties, and that of the decade of which the Sixties were a popularisation, the 1890s. Reed’s poems offer pleasures similar to those of the poems of Wilde and Symons – the self is posed as voyeur, consuming sights, colours, sensations, frissons, playing with the possibilities of alternative identities and with aspirations to transcendence. Red-Haired Android offers us aestheticism updated not so much to the Nineties as to the Sixties and early Seventies, with glam-rock and Star Trek Series I accoutrements. It is polychrome rather than pastel aestheticism; the frequent use of colour words gives the poems dazzle and burnish. But Reed’s strong chromatic sense is not matched by visual or verbal precision. His palette is vivid, but his facture is slack.

Peter Robinson’s Leaf-Viewing is a slender, finely-produced pamphlet which comes complete with a commentary by Peter Swaab. The commentary is helpful and perceptive, but it raises the question of why – other than to fill out the pages – it was necessary. Can’t the poetry stand alone? In fact, these undemonstrative poems – line-and-wash drawings to Reed’s peacock fans – are interesting and effective. They were written between 1989 and 1991 in Japan, where Robinson teaches: he thus joins a line of expatriate poets which includes Empson and Enright. The challenges for such a poet are threefold: how to negotiate with cultural difference – an especially complex problem today, when Eurocentrism has been strongly challenged; how to relate to the world he has left; and how to distinguish himself from his poetic predecessors. Robinson meets these challenges with tact and skill. Both ‘A Dedication’ and ‘In the Borrowed Scenery’ register misreadings, moments of slippage which highlight cultural difference. ‘Lost Objects’ delightedly portrays the Japanese custom of placing small lost objects in clear view – ‘A blue purse on a fire-escape!’ – and develops, in an unforced way, a more general image of loss, echoing Empson’s ‘Missing Dates’ but shedding that poem’s portentousness:

Leaving a local station platform
under white sky filled with heat,
a memory, loved one, or poem
has been left behind. But what?
Wordless in front of the next
lost property office’s window
you find yourself looking perplexed.

Another poem evokes ‘the slight vertigo’ felt each day on crossing a bridge in Japan and the spectrum of possibilities, from fruition to extinction, that the views from the bridge open up. Signs of violence between East and West often surface, as memories – ‘malnutrition, sores, / the swollen bellies of first post-war years’ – and as present realities – the news of the Gulf War heard on the BBC World Service. And in Japan as England, the ‘emblems of a dream of empire’ persist.