CYBERMATRIX:  Review by William Oxley

SeaManShip
by Gavin Bantock, 108pp., £8.95, Anvil Press Poetry, Neptune House, 70 Royal Hill, London SE10 8RF.

This long poem, at first sight unusual in being ‘cast ... loosely in the form of a computer manual’, appears also experimental. But as the authorial introduction adds, ‘The poem is not really a manual and it certainly does not express all of my so-called “philosophy”.’ In fact, it is an undisguised autobiographical poem in that tradition first begun by Wordsworth in The Prelude
. The three subtitles to each of its three main sections (called ‘Sea’, ‘Man’, ‘Ship’) are ‘Start Up’, ‘Desktop’, ‘Install’;  ‘Open’, ‘Enter’, ‘Edit’; and ‘Save’, ‘Print’, ‘Shut Down’ which give advance notice of the poet’s formal thinking, or thinking towards a form for the poem. It is a clever if, with hindsight, an obvious idea. But at least, for once, I can say the cleverness does not get in the way of the poetry. Though I’m not sure that the glossary of technical terms, despite its helpfulness, does much for the poetry either. Encountering lines like the following, however, ‘the passacaglia swells of thunder / shuddering through his gigalith cathedrals’, one can appreciate the poet’s lively wish to avoid commonplace modes of expression. But, as often with such attempting, the risk is ever-present to over-write, eg. ‘or, that the glistening trustlights in their eyes / brim-bright and microplated with real tears’; and when he speaks of his ‘gyro-driven mind’ one can’t help thinking of poets on the dole! As a long poem for our time it has a chance of becoming, if not popular, at least cult. After all, does not the first decade of this new century not need its own Howl? Though SeaManShip is no political outburst at all, rather is it a long (and long lined) vigorous confession of one man almost, but not quite, celebrating the Global Village which came into being after the destructive age of Howl. Bantock is a learned poet with a wide international vision (he has lived for years in Japan); a vision which, initially, began to give itself expression in a religious context when he published his first long poem, Christ in 1965. But, even so, his ‘philosophy’ and  beliefs get him no further than Larkin’s when he writes in this latest work, ‘What is the wisdom in becoming wise or of ever trying to achieve / any kind of end, when an end will come anyhow to all I can call my own?’ Such edging towards despair seems at odds with the energy and wonder which have gone into the making of this interesting long poem.

  © William Oxley 2004