Stirring your tea is only a normal activity if you stop doing it relatively quickly

John Redmond

  • A Word from the Loki by Maurice Riordan
    Faber, 64 pp, £6.99, January 1995, ISBN 0 571 17364 0
  • After the Deafening by Gerard Woodward
    Chatto, 64 pp, £7.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6271 6
  • The Ice-Pilot Speaks by Pauline Stainer
    Bloodaxe, 80 pp, £6.95, October 1994, ISBN 1 85224 298 1
  • The Angel of History by Carolyn Forché
    Bloodaxe, 96 pp, £7.95, November 1994, ISBN 1 85224 307 4
  • The Neighbour by Michael Collier
    Chicago, 74 pp, £15.95, January 1995, ISBN 0 226 11358 2
  • Jubilation by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 64 pp, £6.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 19 282451 1

In a recent radio programme, Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, two of the most prominent of the New Generation poets, retraced the journey undertaken by Auden and MacNeice in Letters From Iceland – a sign of the renewed interest which younger poets are showing in the poetry of the Thirties. Although Yeats and Eliot were publishing some of their greatest poems during the Thirties, it was Auden who created the style which most of his contemporaries sought to imitate, and it is Auden, more than Yeats or Eliot, who is influencing younger poets today.

Why Auden’s early style should matter so much sixty years later can be explained, I think, with reference to the success of Northern Irish poetry during the last twenty-five or thirty years. Ever since Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion gave the primacy of this work semi-official status in The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary British Poetry, the question has been what gives Northern Irish poets their edge. Many reasons have been advanced for the phenomenon: Ireland’s verbal culture; the concentrating pressure of ‘The Troubles’; the higher esteem in which the Irish hold poets. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is the symbolic coherence of Northern Irish poetry. From the largest and most obvious motifs (the father working the land, the declining Big House) to the more quirky ones (the prevalence of otters, badgers and mushrooms), Northern Irish poetry displays the kind of integrity and intertextuality which English poetry last had in the Thirties. The way in which poets as diverse as Heaney, Muldoon, Longley, McGuckian, Carson and Mahon are to a certain degree sustained by a single symbolic world is something that poets like Armitage and Maxwell are trying to copy.

In Maurice Riordan’s first collection, A Word From the Loki, the title poem reflects the practice, which Northern Irish poets have adopted in recent years, of glossing individual words, so that parts of their poems sound like dictionary entries. Riordan, who is from County Cork, tells us about a particular word from the Loki tongue which ‘might be glossed as to joke’, and which is incredibly difficult for outsiders to pronounce:

The skilled linguist can manage, at best,
a sort of tattoo; whereas the Loki
form sounds of balletic exactness.

The practice of glossing words became firmly established in Heaney’s Wintering Out, a collection which included several poems about local place-names. The best-known of these, ‘Broagh’, describes the place’s ‘low tattoo among the windy boor-trees’ as well as its own pronunciation,

that last
gh the strangers found
difficult to manage.

Note that Riordan also uses the words ‘manage’ and ‘tattoo’; and just as at many points he echoes the language of Northern Irish poetry, he also borrows its symbolic figures. ‘Shadows’, for instance, a correct, conventional and quite successful sonnet, is yet another poem about a poet’s father working the land, a figure so recognisable that he has become the object of parody.

One of the main symbolic characters in Thirties poetry was that of ‘the vertical man’, ‘the Truly Strong Man’, usually a Communist revolutionary, an athlete, or an airman (examples of all three can be found in Auden’s The Orator). Onto this figure many of the Thirties poets projected their hopes for dynamic action against The Enemy (capitalism, sexual repression, nannies and the like). By contrast, poets in Northern Ireland, who are trying to move beyond sectarian projections of The Enemy, have preferred such diplomatic values as attentiveness and balance. As Heaney’s famous bog poems ‘The Grauballe Man’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ remind us, Northern Irish poetry has replaced the unstable, vertical man with a stable, horizontal one. Riordan’s poem ‘L.S. Lowry’s Man Lying on a Wall’ expresses the hope that this horizontal man does not have to be a corpse (‘I’m asleep, you say, possibly dead’) and also indicates a debt to Michael Longley, who wrote a similar poem about Lowry’s painting. Whereas the vertical man was supposed to carry out dynamic acts of construction, the horizontal man is open to sober acts of reconstruction and it is the latter category which dominates A Word from the Loki.

In poems such as Paul Muldoon’s ‘Immram’, Blake Morrison’s ‘Dark Glasses’ and Armitage’s ‘About His Person’, reconstruction allows the reader to feel that he is playing detective. It is one of the dominant models for the contemporary poem – less a set of images and more a set of clues, demanding a close reading not of itself but of the world. The first poem in Riordan’s book, ‘Time Out’, has the narrator immediately assuming the horizontal position as he stretches out on a sofa. Realising he is out of fags, he, unwisely, becomes vertical, gets as far as the shops and then, inevitably, is flattened by a cab:

Around 2 a.m. he’s put on ice, with a numbered tag.
Around 3 a.m. a child wakes, cries, then wails for attention.
But after ten minutes, unusually, goes back to sleep.

Riordan often gives the time or the date of an action as if for the benefit of Columbo or Kojak. ‘Milk’ begins with similarly pregnant details.

This notebook on which he used to sketch
has, on its expensive-looking cover,

a sprinkle of whitish stains: of the sort
sure to detain the unborn biographer.

Despite the title poem, most of Riordan’s poems take place in conventional, contemporary settings. Unfortunately, they often seem like good examples of the conventionality that they are trying to describe. With their renovated clichés, slangy colloquialisms and breezy tone, they seem particularly influenced by Muldoon, but, as we have seen, they draw inspiration from the whole range of Northern Irish poetry.

Nevertheless, the characters in his poems, like the poems themselves, are made worthy of imaginative attention (of the kind which any reconstruction requires) by Riordan’s manipulation of time, which is his main claim to originality. Many of his poems are like sonnets which go on for one or two lines more than normal length, registering their individuality most effectively when they persist in an activity till it seems abnormal. Stirring your tea in a restaurant or standing still in the street are only normal activities if you stop doing them relatively quickly. Riordan’s main device for exploring such abnormal behaviour is the telephone. In ‘Last Call’, for instance, the act of reconstruction is made possible by persistent silence on one end of the line (so that the listener can get clues from the background noises) while in ‘Long Distance’ it is made possible by persistent ringing (we want to reconstruct the life of the poem’s subject):

Once he dialled a number long distance.
Six, seven, eight times it rang.
No answer. He shifted the handset
to his chest, letting it ring and ring.

The blurb on the back of Gerard Woodward’s second collection, After the Deafening, suggests that we see him as a poetic Kurt Vonnegut who is writing ‘the science fiction of everyday life’. This analogy is not too far-fetched. The poem ‘Your Shell-Likes’ actually mirrors the repeated single command ‘Listen’ used throughout Slaughterhouse-Five and these poems, like many of Vonnegut’s novels, are full of black comedy, peculiar characters and apocalyptic events. The typical Woodward apocalypse is centred on the breakfast-table. In ‘A Cook’s Warning’ the kitchen is described as ‘Home’s most dangerous room’ while in ‘A Nocturnal Breakfast’ he announces: ‘I think this may be/The last ever breakfast.’ The vein of comic surrealism which this exploits is, at times, similar to Monty Python. Like the best of Python, Woodward’s poems can be eerily and blackly humorous: like the worst of Python they can be fey and palely whimsical. In Python sketches, the humour, when it is funny, often depends on terrific shifts of dimension and scale. Touching a figurine on a mantelpiece, for example, will bring the windswept head of the Sphinx crashing up through the floor; opening a cabinet in an antique shop will bring you to a desert emptiness where the horizon, apart from a sandstorm’s tiny tower, is blank and red. Such dimensional shifts are very common in Woodward’s work. ‘A Sailor’s Thoughts on Dry Land’ is a characteristic example:

  he held Daisy’s
Rancid hand, that he would soon
Eat, but saw her instead

As a tower higher
Than Sears, in whose crimson
Elevators he travelled ...

The crimson elevators indicate a strong sub-Freudian strain in the book, reminiscent of surrealism (there are lots of red interiors). Some of the poems in After the Deafening are like Dali’s desert scenes: they explore spaces which are impressively empty apart from a few eccentric objects – here’s a dripping watch, here are some red rocks, there’s a spindly, giant camel tottering on the skyline, there’s a cloud like Lenin’s head upside-down. The details of the poems are found in an enormous, enclosing void. In most Northern Irish poetry one can feel, in Chandler’s phrase, ‘the country behind the hill’ (one advantage of a shared symbolic world): it is hard to imagine anything between, behind or beyond the details of Woodward’s poems. As in virtual reality graphics, we find some well-realised objects spinning and floating around in a dark, warehouse emptiness.

This is not necessarily a drawback. It is clear that Woodward is not so much drawn to an emptiness as to space which it is impossible to fill – in other words, an infinity. Put him outside with Pascal on a starry night and he would appeal, against the Frenchman, to the sheer thrill of those infinite spaces. In ‘Suffolk Interior’, one of the best and most revealing poems from his first collection Householder, he describes with relish ‘the infinities of my train set/With the engine furiously figure-eighting’ while in ‘The Starter’, from this book, he vividly evokes ‘Aintree’s infinity of mud’.

In Woodward’s work, where every wardrobe opens on Narnia and every rabbit-hole falls to Wonderland, the poem is primarily an act of imaginative extension. Therefore he likes substances which can be readily extended. Anything which lacks rigidity will do (tears and oceans frequently appear), but he especially likes the spreadable consistency of, say, paint or butter. In ‘Oranges’, he talks of manufacturing marmalade ‘To spread it thickly/Over England’, and in one of the best poems of the book, the weirdly fluent ‘Oxfordshire’, he imagines spreading Oxfordshire itself over the roads of England. The poem ends with a menacingly ambiguous vision of those roads:

Broad and smooth, like endless
Volcanic beaches, and Oxfordshire
Stretched like elastic

Across the breadth of all other
Counties, flowing with vehicles
As if the river of life
Had thickened somehow to mud or honey.

The most significant point of the compass in Thirties poetry was North (hence Letters from Iceland); in Northern Irish poetry the compasshand of significance has wavered between North and West. Pauline Stainer’s The Ice-Pilot Speaks, like Seamus Heaney’s North, chooses the colder direction and finds, as Heaney found, many things preserved by the climate and, therefore, many opportunities for reconstruction. In Stainer’s ‘Iceman’, for instance, a body is preserved with ‘the tail-flights of his arrows/still primed in ice’, while in the title poem ‘a man’s hair/comes out of the ice’ and we can apply our magnifying glasses to

the eight hooves
of Sleipnir
on the albumen print
of the glacier.

For Stainer the reconstruction which such discoveries allow has an urgent religious significance. She cites the influence of Danah Zohar’s The Quantum Self which, like other popular treatments of quantum mechanics, offers an appealingly fresh and holistic account of the world around us, finding enormous significance in the tiniest particle and the most obscure event. To writers with an aestheticised Christian sensibility, like Stainer, such reassuring and inspiring theories offer many metaphorical possibilities.

While it is good to be reminded that everything is in some way significant, one would like to remind Stainer that everything is not as significant as everything else. Fortified by her reading of Zohar, Stainer’s baroque imagination sees significance in everything and in every combination of things. In particular, she insists on juxtaposing the up-to-date and the ancient (‘the swan entering Leda/like laser/through alabaster’), an effect which can be striking at the cost of being ludicrous. Furthermore, these combinations are often spoiled by Stainer’s insistence on their importance. Take ‘Xochiquetzal’:

The firefighters of Chernobyl
lie naked
on sloping beds
in sterile rooms,
without eyelashes
or salivary glands

o death
take them lightly
as the Colombian goddess
who makes love
to young warriors
on the battlefield

holding a butterfly
between her lips.

The exotic connection that this poem proposes, between a modern nuclear disaster and a South American myth, has an acceptably eerie quality, the symmetrical delicacy of the details (eyelashes linked with butterfly – lips linked with salivary glands) being a mark of instinctive craftsmanship. But the poem is somehow spoiled by the portentous exclamation (‘o death’) which opens the second stanza – the kind of thing a fainting diva would cry out with one hand pressed to her forehead. The book contains many supercharged ejaculations of this sort: ‘o the reciprocal dazzle’, ‘O the saviour of Paradise’, ‘O terra incognita’. All of this brings to mind what Frost once said about ecphonesis: ‘American poets use it in practically one tone, that of grandeur: “Oh Soul!” “Oh Hills!” – “Oh Anything!” That’s the way they go. But think of what “oh” is really capable: the “oh” of scorn, the “oh” of amusement, the “oh” of surprise, the “oh” of doubt – and there are many more.’ It’s these other tones which are missing in The Ice-Pilot Speaks.

Anne Stevenson compares Stainer to Emily Dickinson, but she reminds me more of Edith Sitwell, particularly the Sitwell of Façade, not in terms of rhythm (which Sitwell used quite skilfully and Stainer hardly uses at all) but in terms of emotional range and diction. Like Sitwell she has a taste for words with Exotic and Poetic connotations; she also has a weakness for breathless adjectives: ‘the marvellous interlacing/ of their throats’, ‘the marvellous sufficiency of the moment’, ‘such terrible detachment’, ‘the wondrous head’, ‘the oracular dove’. While she is not above using plain old red, white and blue, her poems are usually awash with ‘ochre’, ‘indigo’ and ‘vermilion’. She is fond of musical terms like ‘vibrato’, ‘fermata’ and ‘rubato’, which sometimes reminds one of Sitwell’s ‘Four in the Morning’, where ‘the governante/Gesticulates lente, and walks andante’ and where we reluctantly meet ‘The navy-blue ghost of Mr Belaker, /The allegro negro cocktail-shaker’. In The Ice-Pilot Speaks we encounter enough painters to fill the Louvre several times over, enough silk to cover the Chrysler building and enough fine spices (especially cinnamon) to kill a horse. But when she refrains from Grand Statements, Stainer can be very good. ‘The Dice Players’, for example, is a beautifully understated poem. She has a fine ear which can evoke ‘the phrasing of spray/against sandstone’ and an eye which can see ‘floes gliding by,/chesspieces in lenten veils’. At her best, she combines religious mysticism with visual clarity as dramatically as David Jones – though one feels she would be at her best more often in a lower key.

Carolyn Forché, like Stainer, tackles some very ambitious subjects. In fact, throughout The Angel of History we find nothing but ambitious subjects – Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Lebanon, wars and torture of all kinds. Unlike Stainer, however, Forché favours very simple diction and syntax and she responds to the tragic nature of her material with bald, factual statements (‘This is a farmhouse in Izieu’) or with gnomic, wise-sounding remarks (‘When my son was born I became mortal’). The book has the same urgent, epic quality as, say, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. We feel ourselves like a camera crew right underneath a VTOL fighter’s engines. Forché is American and like many American poets she deals with big themes without embarrassment. By contrast, British poetry since the Second World War has tended to shy away from such material (which is another reason Thirties poets are so interesting today).

Derek Walcott has proposed that we think of the woman’s voice in The Angel of History as belonging to a Pauline Celan – a misleading remark, because Paul Celan’s work is as pains-takingly oblique as Forché’s is painfully direct. Celan, for instance, never actually names ‘the Holocaust’; at most he refers to ‘was geschah’ (‘what happened’), while Forché’s poems are very explicit. But Forché can sound like other writers – her phrase ‘the years, cities moving beside a train’ sounds very like Lowell’s ‘the past is cities from a train’, and she has Lowell’s apocalyptic mood, without having his verbal brilliance: ‘the wind has eaten the faces from the angels of Charles Bridge /as if the earth had finished with us.’ One problem with the book is the frequency of her empty aphorism – ‘it was like living through something again one could not live through again’ – but she has a good eye for quotations and the high points of the book, which quotes, at various times, Valéry, Benjamin and others, belong to Valéry, Benjamin and others. As she informs us in the notes, ‘the first-person, free-verse, lyric-narrative poem of my earlier years has given way to a work which has desired its own bodying forth: polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration.’

In Michael Collier’s fine collection, The Neighbour, simple, accurate description, with metaphorical resonance, is used to great effect. As in Heaney’s early poetry, many of the poems are about skilled manual labourers, craftsmen like the eponymous subjects of ‘The Barber’, ‘The Magician’ and ‘The Welder’. In poem after poem, he selects just the right details to describe these men and what they do. Within three lines, for instance, we can see the tree-cutter in ‘Brueghel’:

The ugly, pitiable treeman, reddish and leathery
from the sun. His baseball cap pulled tight
over his head, the visor stiff as a beaver’s tail.

In Frost’s poetry, with its pragmatic, Emersonian immediacy, work is presented as an activity in itself and as a metaphor for poetry. Frost, who delights in explaining the technicalities of any job, seems to be an influence on Collier (just as he is a strong influence on Heaney and Muldoon). Reading through The Neighbour, one feels that one is learning something from each poem, to the point of feeling sorry when they end.

The concern for technology is an enduring fascination of American literature (look no further than Moby Dick), but Collier’s work is far from being a glorification of the means of production. The narrator himself is usually not engaged in any task, and the images of technology are, in more than one sense, double-edged. His poems are full of knives and blades and hooks, useful and menacing implements. In ‘Vietnam’, for instance, he uses a fishing metaphor to describe how the Americans, like bait, hover over a nest of blue gills – that is, the Vietnamese:

a suspicious egg pouch or cocoon, something
a storm might have dislodged from the bank
and blown like a feared gift in the water

a thing swallowed whole then run with
until the line played out and the hook set fast.

‘Vietnam’ is an example of Collier tackling, with straightforward confidence, a well-worn poetic subject. A further example is ‘Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors’. Like Forché includes the most horrific images (‘fingers like candles burning to their joints’) – but unlike Forché he also includes mundane, naturalistic details which humanise his subject. At the end of the poem the metaphor of the blade returns, in a reference to a girl who, in a heart-breakingly natural way, remembers losing her scissors when the bomb went off:

          the girl, after the blast,
picking herself up sees them. And now beneath her
drawing writes: ‘Why didn’t I stretch my hands out
to take them? Those scissors sent by a friend in Hawaii.
They were sharp, shiny, and would never rust.

Charles Tomlinson’s Jubilation is a very old-fashioned poetry book. His sense of the line, his diction and his subject-matter at times are reminiscent of the Georgians and, indeed, there are a couple of references to Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney. When he is not referring to a timeless landscape and noting the effects of the seasons, he is describing medieval buildings or people from another time.‘Durham in March’, for instance, which sees the landscape from a moving train, records the relies of a time before there were trains: a castle, a viaduct, ‘a trinity of towers’. But there is nothing to stop an old-fashioned book of poems being very good, and Jubilation is, for the most part, excellent. Tomlinson’s rhythmical control is superior to that of any of the other poets reviewed here, and it allows him, by the simplest means, to achieve complicated emotional effects, as in the very first stanza of the book:

Four of the generations are taking tea,
Except that one of them is taking milk:
It is an English, autumnal afternoon,
The texture of the air half serge, half silk.

Tomlinson does have his weaknesses. He is rather too fond of the quadripartite line which Eliot made his own (‘the infirm glory of the positive hour’), using it to end several poems on a High Note: ‘In the great cycle of the sleepless year’, ‘The Sabine promise of your open door’, ‘The distant boom of a departing plane’. And landscape poets are always in danger of dropping the most commonplace of metaphors with a great thump: sunset equalling death, a green shoot equalling rebirth. Occasionally, Tomlinson allows such ready-made images to overtake the accuracy of his observations:

          the ties of blood
Rooting us in place, not unlike the unmoving trees,
And yet, as subject to earth, water, times
  As they, our stay and story linked in rhyme.

But lapses of this kind are an exception in this well-crafted book Jubilation is Tomlinson’s fourth collection since his Collected Poems in 1987 and the title, so the dust-jacket informs me, is a pun on the Spanish word for ‘retirement’, jubilación. Given the many qualities which this book displays – intelligence, precision and formal mastery – one hopes that the retirement which Tomlinson contemplates will not be from poetry.