Sperm’s-Eye View

Robert Crawford

  • Dock Leaves by Hugo Williams
    Faber, 67 pp, £6.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 571 17175 3
  • Spring Forest by Geoffrey Lehmann
    Faber, 171 pp, £6.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 571 17246 6
  • Everything is Strange by Frank Kuppner
    Carcanet, 78 pp, £8.95, July 1994, ISBN 1 85754 071 9
  • The Queen of Sheba by Kathleen Jamie
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £6.95, April 1994, ISBN 1 85224 284 1

The family, stuff of novelists as different as Rose Macaulay and James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is absent from much great poetry of the early 20th century. T.S. Eliot’s parents, a religious poet and a businessman, produced between them a businessman-religious poet, and meant an enormous amount to him. Yet they scarcely figure in his poetry, while his criticism, obsessed with issues of inheritance, usually suggests that the kind of tradition that matters comes from books, not parents. Often Modernist poets seem embarrassed by Mum and Dad: Ezra Pound’s father, Homer, is displaced by his son’s epic poem. Pound is his own hero, lonely and supermannish. One has to turn to his biography to realise how much MacDiarmid’s family sustained him as he wrote such superb poems of isolation as ‘On a Raised Beach’. In Auden too, family can appear as weakness. Heredity, in various aspects of Modernist culture from Freud to eugenics, is a source of worry that becomes, eventually, a Nazi obsession.

In the Fifties, it returns as something brighter. The voice of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies grew out of a negotiation between European and American traditions, not least English and American traditions, with the balance of power tilting decisively towards America. Lowell, coming from an East Coast Wasp society, is entranced by, yet impatient with, the world of his grandparents, whose ancien régime may be represented by the Illustrated London News. He takes one of the great lines of English poetry and impatiently speeds it up, pragmatically recasting it in terms of his own inheritance: ‘They’re all gone into a world of light; the farm’s my own.’

For all the élite Bostonian whiff that comes off it (and, let’s admit it, partly because of that whiff), Life Studies comes in 1959 as a remarkably refreshing book. Eliot, characteristically generous, recognises this, sees that Lowell has been able to write a kind of poetry the author of Four Quartets couldn’t manage, yet which his own family background had qualified him for. Suddenly, mother and father and the grandparents can come centre-stage. After the chronic, heroic loneliness of Modernist poetry, the family is back. The first, unforgettable poem of the ‘Life Studies’ section of Lowell’s collection opens with the child-voice: ‘I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa.’ Many of the finest effects in this book come not from the gothic or baroque parts of Lowell’s imagination, but from a simplicity of emotion and diction, as when, in ‘For Sale’, he pictures his newly widowed eighty-year-old mother in the soon to be sold family home

     mooned in a window
as if she had stayed on a train
one stop past her destination.

Hugo Williams is one of many modern writers whose work one might see in relation to Life Studies. If home territory is one of the great themes of this century’s verse, then Williams, though a kind of retreating upper-class Imperial Englishness is implicit in many poems, belongs to the post-Lowell part of the century, in which ‘home’ means not so much territory as people. In Dock Leaves, his finest collection to date, Williams, celebrated memorialist of his father, writes with equal distinction of his mother, father and himself. As in Life Studies a sense of present erotic mess is set against a parental world burnished with the romance of obsolescence. Where Lowell looked admiringly at his grandparents’ Pierce Arrow, Williams’s retrospective eye catches someone ‘polishing the Jowett Javelin to extinction’. The elegiac possibilities of technology are beautifully exploited, as is the way in which names, whether of cars or plays or products, exert a potent gravitational pull, drawing round them the aspirations and cultural climate of their age. Williams’s book is not awash with names, but his fine sense of how they can articulate a culture is an index of his very precise ability to balance ordinary language.

To say that Lowell’s ‘For Sale’ could sit happily in Dock Leaves is to pay Williams high tribute. It is also to suggest how Williams’s life studies diverge from most of Lowell’s, since ‘For Sale’ is a more quietly accessible poem than many of the others which might be more typical of Lowell’s superlative strut. Its limpid quality, as well as its subject-matter, is what makes it seem to anticipate Williams. The poet of Dock Leaves has a poised clarity that is at once welcoming and tricksy. It is tricksy because it blends the straightforwardness of the child’s voice in lines like ‘Our lesson is really idiotic today’ with the sense that these locutions have been carefully chosen and placed by the speaker’s adult self. This produces an acoustic and visual doubling, so words and scenes are presented simultaneously from the past looking forward, and from the present looking back – an effect introduced in the starting poem, ‘On Our Marks’, which concludes:

At the end of the path you stand,
one hand holding up a yellow handkerchief.
We wait on our marks,
our hearts beating faster now, our eyes
fixed on your upraised hand,
the handkerchief fluttering in the wind.

From the perspective of the children waiting to run, the image here is of beginning, yet from an adult viewpoint the frailty of that handkerchief makes the image one of ending, of farewell, ‘At the end of the path’. The sense that goings away and comings back are intertwined is repeated in the book, not least in its early poems, where memory returns emigrants to their point of departure, children to the start of their race; where dogs bring back thrown-away sticks, and poems bring back thrown-away time. Self-conscious, Williams signals to the reader that he is all too aware of enjoying the power of the poetic retriever.

I suspect that some of the strength of Williams’s voice emerges out of the English public school world in which wee boys are spoken to as diminutive adults and every adult male is, to use the title of one of the best poems in this collection, an ‘Old Boy’. In this poem again the school language (‘could do better’) is played back from an adult perspective:

I could do better
in the written answer questions,
but everyone looks up to me
because I’ve been round the world
and have my own wife and motorbike.

I’m wearing my old school scarf
that I thought was lost forever.
Brown and magenta quarters,
the smartest colours in the world.
It was round my neck all the time.

Williams’s privileged background is mined differently in the impressive prose poem about his mother, ‘Margaret Vyner’, where names of perfumes mix with family names and those of the great and good to produce a sense of miraculously lingering evanescence while the poem’s chronicle-like structure takes us through mostly happy returns. What is striking is that the privileged setting of Parisian fashion design and Broadway acting is less exclusive than inclusive because the reader is allowed the sort of human intimacy which leads to emotional identification. Besides, the speaker himself is temporally outside that world, though inhabited by it. This is the rather Lowelly world of Mother and Father, not the more lowly, comfortable one of Mum and Dad.

Thematically, this well-structured book ranges beyond Williams’s relationship with his parents, but that is its core. If the parental poems draw on a double-voicing, child-adult effect, so do some of the other poems about erotic difficulties. ‘Prayer’ opens, ‘God give me strength to lead a double life./ Cut me in half’ and again blends a childhood voice (‘presents for everyone’) with an adult guile and knowingness. Within this very self-conscious acoustic, adult and child listen to and watch each other constantly, aware that out of such mutual perception poems form.

Geoffrey Lehmann’s Spring Forest is another family book produced through double-voicing. As Lehmann explains at the start, ‘this book is spoken through the voice of a living person, Ross McInerney of Spring Forest, Koorawatha, and much of it is based around his life and stories.’ The ostensible speaker, then, is a poor New South Wales small farmer; conducting the poems is Lehmann, a distinguished Australian poet who, among other things, is a partner in an international accounting firm. Occasionally the double-voicing in this book, a collection again preoccupied with familial inheritance, loss and return, strikes a bum note:

Life chains –
sheep farmer, wool scourer and retailer,
the two spirals of the DNA molecule
twisting around each other.
Some ancient mind read its message in our dust
without an electron microscope
and saw the caduceus,
the two snakes writhing around the wand
of commerce.

This is the poetic equivalent of purple prose. I suspect Ross McInerney would have expressed himself with something less showy than ‘caduceus’; if he did say something like this, Lehmann should have left it out. Yet it would be unfair to suggest that such a passage is typical of this very enjoyable book, part sequence, part verse novel, whose normal quality of honed speech makes such an overblown passage all the more striking. Like Williams, Lehmann dignifies his chosen family most impressively thanks to his lucidity. The very first poem, ‘Getting started’, shows this to advantage, and ends its account of moving to a new rural home with a characteristic clincher:

That day five cars passed on the road,
and the children ran out every time.

Geographical loneliness and familial closeness mix in this 170-page series of poems which cumulatively envelop the reader in a sense of living not just off but also with the land. ‘Each place spoke through its plants/ and fauna, until we came,’ ends one poem, slightly ominously; but the next sounds a resilient note:

‘What are you planting trees for at your age?’
I asked my aunt aged eighty.
Someone has to plant them,’ she said.

That sense of spirited speech gives the collection much of its verve. A proverbial pithiness blends with a sharp ear and eye to produce an account which, like Dock Leaves, is rich in returns and re-embodiments of past family life. Characters emerge and re-emerge the way they do in family stories, inhabiting one another. So, recalling his brother Jack who was killed when his plane crashed into the sea, the speaker in ‘The future of the past’ juxtaposes ‘oddments’:

Talking in a tent during the war
I heard a stranger in the dark
shout from another tent,
‘Hello! Jack, you old bastard!’
(Jack and I had the same voice.)

Lately my daughter woke at dusk
and heard the radio saying,
‘A plane has crash-landed in the sea
off Vanimo and the pilot has drowned.’

Not Jack, but his double fifteen years later.

Ageing I speak with the ageing voice
of Jack that was never heard.

This poem works so well in part because it comes close to the core of the entire book’s power: the speaking of one man in another’s voice which, at best, becomes indistinguishable from his own. Occasionally, writing of ‘a time/ before sex and money/ were a basic right’, Lehmann reminded me of Les Murray, with whom he once collaborated on a collection and whom many non-Australian readers may think of as having the territorial rights to New South Wales farming poems. Spring Forest, though, is strongest when its verse and diction are bare and clipped, quite the opposite of Murray’s dictionary-stretching, generous sprawl.

Frank Kuppner has one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary British poetry. It’s heard clearly in the very first couplet of Everything is Strange:

No, thanks. I’d rather have another Universe,
Something a little brighter, if you don’t mind.

The first of the book’s two long poems is cloudily beautiful as it sets gawping, fearful fascination with the vastness of the universe beside moments of love for family and strangers; the long poem that makes up the rest of the book, though, is simply dull. ‘In a Persian Garden’ is a kind of Omar Khayyam re-write that might at best bore the reader into returning to better known versions.

‘Last Eternal Moments’, the first long poem, is vintage Kuppner in its sperm’s-eye view of a world, our world, in which randomness and waste occasionally give way to human love. The poem is a Post-Modern ramble kept perky by the sense of humour one has come to expect from the poet who made his striking debut a decade ago with A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty, and whose autobiography-cum-murder-story, A Very Quiet Street, is a minor classic of modern Scottish prose. Kuppner has grown a whole style from the word ‘perhaps’ and his writing is endlessly provisional, reminiscent at times of kinds of New York poetry, but he has his own mixture of tones in which pathos and humour join in a verbal Möbius strip. This isn’t quite a book about the family, but kinds of family longing permeate it in a way at once arch and honest:

Is there always another child perhaps; the child you did not have?
The third child, perhaps, of the family with two?
The second child, likewise, of the family with one?
The only child of the childless couple, who find better things to do?
Or perhaps they are mute and devastated by its absence.
The planet spins on its way, anyway, slightly flattened at the poles.
So many schools release so many children each day,
But even from there, so near the moon, no one hears their shouting.
No one can see in which room in the same street
A childless person sits at a table writing,
Not far away from a picture of colossal stellar clouds.

Kathleen Jamie’s The Queen of Sheba has been shortlisted for so many prizes that it must be one of the most widely appealing recent volumes of poetry. From a narrower, but longer perspective, it is the best individual collection written by a woman in 20th-century Scotland. Dedicated to ‘the folks at home’, this may not be a book about family, but it is very much a book about background. Jamie, a well known traveller-poet as likely to be found in Nepal as in Fife, concentrates in parts of this book both on mining and scattering the culture from which she comes, a culture whose ‘whae do you think y’ur?’ she answers with a defiant revoicing of the old put-down, ‘THE QUEEN OF SHEBA.’ The title poem and several others have learned from Liz Lochhead how to present a public female Scottish voice that rounds on gender-packaging. Poems mix Scots and English easily, unaffectedly, and the volume contains poetry entirely in Scots. Just as language is confidently impure, so lyricism and public protest coagulate in a rich mix.

What sets Jamie’s poetry apart is a subtle purposefulness which, in contrast to Kuppner’s work, uses detail far less as tangential distraction than as reinforcement for a structure that knows where it’s going. Where Jamie’s travel poems may sometimes appear thin, products of visits rather than residence, the details accrue in her Scottish poems with the utter conviction that comes from an affectionate but impatient residence:

postcards sent from small Scots towns
in 1960: Peebles, Largs, the rock-gardens
of Carnoustie, tinted in the dirt.
Mr and Mrs Scotland, here is the hand you were dealt:

fair but cool, showery but nevertheless,
Jean asks kindly; the lovely scenery;
in careful school-room script –
The Beltane Queen was crowned today.
But Mr and Mrs Scotland are dead.

Many people live again in the superb time-capsule of these lines, as evocative in their way of a decent, middle Scotland as Hugo Williams’s work is of his English milieu. Familially familiar, images of the Scotland accurately enliven the pages of the book, yet they are found insufficient: the postcardy Beltane Queen is too contained by her world to hold a candle to the Queen of Sheba. This book is much more than its Scottishness or its femaleness, though powered by both. Its delicacy is denoted by a sense of life’s hair-trigger balances, as in ‘Wee Baby’ where the insistent almost-being of the title ‘only just exists, like a stamp hinge’. The collection is at its subtlest when dealing with what is only just sensed and no more. The sadness associated with a bird; boughs in the snow at Loch Morar, ‘one flake more, they’d break’; or the indecipherable flying word written on the sky in ‘Skeins o geese’:

Whit dae birds write on the dusk?
A word niver spoken or read.
The skeins turn hame,
on the wind’s dumb moan, a soun,
maybe human, bereft.