Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk

  The Nerve by Glyn Maxwell
[Picador £7.99]

Glyn Maxwell’s new collection is that of a maturing poet. Gone are the spiralling syntax and unsettling masculine narratives of the earlier books; instead, here are the formal control and subjective maturity of an older, wiser poet and father.

The first poem, ‘The Sea Comes in Like Nothing but the Sea’, locates us in Maxwell’s world of creative ‘strictures’: ‘…the god / who asked only a breathing life of us’. This ‘breathing life’ echoes Maxwell’s statement ‘Strictures’ (2000) in Strong Words (Bloodaxe, eds Herbert & Hollis). Here, Maxwell argues that “Poetry is decoration of the breath with stirrings of the mind.” This breath motif is taken further, “A good poem is strung upon a version of itself that is mechanical, fixed, monotonous; one that obeys an average heartbeat, clockwork breath, steady blood, measured footfall.” Here I begin losing faith with him. Body fascism aside, does this mean that those of us who live with high blood pressure, tachycardia, asthma and a limp cannot write ‘good poems’? Surely not. When you start laying down ‘strictures’, you need to be wary. Maxwell may have ditched ‘being one of the lads’, but let’s hope he hasn’t ditched his sense of irony as well.

Despite these problems, I admire many of these poems; the nerve of the book. Maxwell has always had that; nerve. Poetic nerve. Personal nerve. But the nerve is also the conduit of thought and sensation; of touch and (hormones to one side) of feeling; and this book is rich in layered thought and feeling. The idea of the nerve is the background; even the backbone. The title poem is shaped visually like a spine; individual stanzas shaped like vertebrae. The poem begins with body shape and self image:

         Somewhere at the side of the rough shape
         Your life makes in your town,
                   You cross a line,
                   Perhaps,

         In a dusty shop you pause in, or a bar
         You never tried, and a smell
                   Will do as well;
                   Then you’re

         Suddenly very far from what you know.

Such ease; such pleasing music, phrasing and line break; it takes you a great distance in a short time. But nerves ‘begin to give’ – our senses are both the root and the route of our illusions. Maxwell is wise enough to know this and advises ‘Treasure the nerve suggesting otherwise.’ This is simple Eastern philosophy (Maya, the illusion of the senses) handled with subtle artifice.

The collection abounds in formal control – quatrains, syllabics, quintains, rhymed couplets, sonnets and other stanzaic arrangements. Maxwell has always demonstrated this innovative approach to form. The tension between innovation and tradition is still, as expected, very strong – one is tempted to say ‘nervous’, which is something positive for poet and reader alike: the poems have ‘edge’. The writer is kept on his toes, pushed into new territories by the constraints of form; the reader’s senses, imagination and intellect are piqued. How?

In ‘One of the Splendours’ Maxwell feels the urge to learn some names:
        
         The bird with the three semitones, the bird
         that seems to be half air, the butterfly
         that seems to be half everything but word –
         we sat and thought, It’s time. It is our home.
                   We won’t though, I know us…

The repetitions work so well, the rhyme inventive (‘butterfly’ and ‘house’ are fused here in what we might call a ‘semantic rhyme’ of ‘butterfly house.’) The taxonomic ideas are complex by implication. The poem concludes in the impossibility of naming, in the face of language’s inability to tie things down; in the flux of nature and imagination: ‘We rest on all we know, / our little bench, and watch the trees around / in turn unsettle, like an hour ago.’

The poem ‘Blindfold’ utilises a similar visual form, near rhyme and repetitions (at the start of lines mostly), which creates an insistence and rocking invocation. These are small innovations, but effective, as in ‘Refugees in

Massachusetts’:
        
         …There is a wood
         they come to in a downpour, or have dreams
         they come to in a downpour.

In ‘Farm Animals are Childhood’, the poet uses repetition with variation to recall an incident of boys throwing stones at cows. But this is not mere anecdote – Maxwell has the wit and technique to rescue it from that. Here is an inquiry into the nature of memory and language; a questioning of childhood iconography. The poetic repetitions and variations work as a cipher for the gap between experience and recall; recall and expression. The poem begins ‘Farm animals are childhood’ and moves in quatrains towards ‘Bikes are childhood.’ But ‘The roads aren’t childhood here,’ although they are the location for this particular childhood misdemeanour: ‘Stones / we watched hit the cow flanks and the cow minds / pieced it together, reckoning otherwise.’ These are beautifully subtle slips in the poem, there, between flanks and minds; between variations on what is and what is not ‘childhood’. The voice goes on to note '’Believing’s childhood. Caring isn’t quite’ and, when the police are phoned ‘some hour later, they’re not childhood on the phone.’ This is a complex poem, belied by childlike notions, and perhaps only possible through such a control of set devices.

The close familial relationship and tragedy are explored in ‘A Hunting Man’, through rhymed couplets. Here the form suits the narrative perfectly – a father goes out hunting, leaves his son asleep in the pick-up and later finds him frozen to death. The tragedy of the guilty father culminates in suicide and the compassionate ending,

         Peace is as poor a word for what he has
         As Silence is for what it signifies.
        
         Justice softens to sweet nothings here.
         Love holds its own, admit it, as before.

Again the phrasing, line and subtle music are so natural as to be understated, but the effect is deep. There are several poems here that work in a similar way, but function through remembrances, from the poet’s own childhood to that of his own children. These often meditate on loss or the idea of ‘the lesson learned’ that will, I suspect, lose him as many readers as it will win him. Better are those projected through the angle of an imaginative lens – ‘Cow and Calf and Dog’ plays with the magical sense of childhood power,

         Elizabeth Knapp of Groton, farmer’s daughter,
         possessed though you may use the cooking tongs
         of quote-marks on ‘possessed’), stuck out her tongue
                   one Sabbath
         and backed the men assembled to all corners.

         The sounds of crow and calf and dog came out…

The magic continues, with the young girl confronting the ‘lies’ of organised religion in the face of her own animism. Thereafter we find ourselves in a small village witch-hunt, the gothic metamorphoses taking full power in the ending,

         … ‘For all my chains
         I can knock thee on the head if I so please.’
         Which was all that she could think of, or her voice
                   Could hold,
         Or the language had. She bit into her hands.

This poem is brutal, mythic, yet joyously transformative and challenging – in its music and location it speaks of the oral roots of storytelling and magic in fairy tale, and is thus also performative: ‘decorations of the breath with stirrings of the mind’ again. ‘The Fair that Always Comes’ deals with yet another childhood location, this time for adults who have gone back. It is a poem that itself invites revisiting, for its depth of metaphor: on the surface this is a simple enough narrative; beneath its subtle, musical stanzas spin,

         …the fair that always comes
         is gone. No trace of you or me goes with it.
         It travels miles nobody’s there to measure.
         Starts up again as if it never heard
         what happened to us.

Of Maxwell’s derivations, there are many. Two poems on murder and capital punishment, including ‘Love Letters for Cell 10’, echo some of Auden’s structures. ‘The Snow Village’ pays its obvious debts to Frost. ‘Playground Song’ brings the idea of Songs of Innocence and Experience into a present day setting,

         When I was called to answer why
                   I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there.
         All afternoon you near them cry
                   Explain this at an empty chair.

The simplicity of this belies the depth of faith (or lack) that seems to exist in these lines. Which leads me to end on the faith expressed in ‘The Strictures of What Was’; to the philosophic range that Maxwell’s writing exhibits; and to return to the breath that keeps this Nerve of Maxwell’s firing,

          Nothing that’s been does anything but dance.
         Nothing that blinked does anything but stare,
         now being over, though the merest sense
                   of over is strange there.
        
         They move about. The strictures of what was
         are written, not enforced, so it’s a faith
         we could grow used to. Eyes meet other eyes,
                   breath holds for breath, or breathes

         to depths there never were.

                   © Andy Brown 2003