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.

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