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  THE ENGLISH ART OF POLLARDING
REVIEW BY M.C. CASELEY

The Memory of Rooms, David H.W. Grubb [Stride, 2001]
Selected Poems, Kevin Crossley-Holland [Enitharmon, 2001]



Kevin Crossley-Holland

The Memory of Rooms, subtitled ‘Selected and New Poems’, is an ideal introduction to the work of David Grubb, a poet who, I was surprised to discover, has been publishing collections since 1961. I first came across his work in two substantial books from the early 1990s, The Rain Children and Turtle Mythologies. This decade seems to have been a particularly profitable period for Grubb, as he also published The All Night Orchestra, possibly his best collection, in 1994, and since then several further titles have briskly appeared.

Thematically, Grubb paces around several key themes: his father, pastoral scenes of orchards, the St. Ives group of artists and writers, communicating with the holy and also refugees and combat zones around the world, reflecting his professional life working with Feed the Children and Children’s Aid Direct. These wider horizons prevent several of his familiar themes becoming simply maudlin or backyard pastoral. A poem like ‘Running Out’ explores the difficulties inherent in re-educating traumatised refugee children. Sounds grim, doesn’t it? It’s not, it’s beautifully phrases – the adult speaker asks if the child remembers playing games, drawing pictures and singing songs, then comes this concluding stanza:

          Today we are going to tell each other our names;
          you remember your name don’t you? Later
          you will take us to the border, to the valley,
          to the field where they buried four hundred names
          and then you ran and ran and ran out of your own name.

This is one of the 30 pages of appended new poems, and they suggest Grubb hasn’t finished exploring his themes yet. Stylistically, he owes a debt to Peter Redgrove’s variations illustrating different facts of an initial proposition, and W.S. Graham’s fingerprints are all over some idiosyncratic clauses and phrasings: a pity, therefore, that space couldn’t be found for his homage, ‘Poem for W.S. Graham’, a sequence from Turtle Mythologies.

In fact, the selection process behind this volume seems rather flawed: there is too much overlap and repetition – too many pear trees, too many fond parental reminiscences, too many geese, far too many owls. Pollarding, to use a suitably  pastoral image, means trimming away the ragged growths in this particular orchard. No room, therefore, for the interesting experimental sequence ‘John Clare’s Silent Songs’ (also from Turtle Mythologies) or the angry ‘What I Wanted to Say to P.J. O’Rourke’ from 1998’s Dancing with Bruno – two regrettable omissions.

Despite these moans, this is a very useful 250-pages-plus introduction to a remarkably consistent poet whose humanitarian concern is one of his strongest suits: and when you’ve read it and enjoyed it, there’s enough excluded work in volumes I’ve mentioned to make separate purchases still worthwhile.

In 1991, Hutchinson published Kevin Crossley-Holland’s New and Selected Poems 1965-1990, containing selections from his five volumes of poetry published during this period. Following this, Enitharmon gave us The Language of Yes and Poems from East Anglia in 1996 and 1997 respectively; now comes a new Selected Poems, updating the earlier collection and including substantial portions of both the additional volumes. As Poems from East Anglia was itself a thematic gathering from earlier books, the appearance of yet another selection seems puzzling, but it is a handsome, rewarding project.

Time changes perspective and earlier volumes seem somewhat slighted here: work representing The Dream House (1976) and Time’s Oriel (1983) is minimal. Later volumes gradually deepen the English idylls on the Norfolk coast where the poet lives, but there are some lovely, lyrical moments here: suggestive titles include ‘Dusk, Burnham – Overy – Staithe’, ‘Angels at St. Mary’s’ and ‘To the Edge’. From the last:

          To the scatter of a hamlet where nothing happens,
          slowly. Sixty generations banked in the mud of
          dogged minds.

          To the scruffy hem of a rhomboid; acres torched and
          charred. And far off as childhood the boy with
          Punch and plough now a man astride his scarlet tractor.
          Trawler a torque of yelping gulls.

A modest handful of new poems, as is traditional, rounds off this collection, the most interesting of which is ‘The Grain of Things’, a poetic credo. When it was first published in 1959, Donald Davie’s poem ‘With the Grain’ (included in With the Grain, 1998) famously spoke of woodworking metaphors, of the resistance of language, of how ‘we should speak, as carpenters work, with the grain of our words’. Crossley-Holland’s poem concludes with a request for ‘the honest stumble and crux – the obstinate knot in the grain of things.’ Thus dialogues continue, and an identifiable English poetry proceeds in Crossley-Holland’s work, full of Norfolk churches, the weather and blackberries.


          © M.C. Caseley.