THINGS AND COURTYARDS


Nameless Earth, Robert Gray (94 pp, 9.95, Carcanet)
Essays on Departure, Marilyn Hacker (180 pp, 12.95, Carcanet)



Both these books select material and work as summaries, so far. Robert Gray's volume follows on from an earlier selected, and most of the material here seems to date from the last five years or so. Marilyn Hacker's is a 'New and Selected' volume, compiling material stretching back to 1980. Gray hails from New South Wales, and his work is widely anthologised and taught in Australia; Hacker is an American academic, but many of her poems are haunted by years spent living in Paris.

It's easy to see why Robert Gray's work has been successful: he writes in a number of forms, ranging from prose poetry through to strict rhymed and syllabic stanzas, and many of his poems are full of local colour. This isn't to belittle him, however: the brief, imagistic lyrics are full of vivid metaphor, the longer pieces sometimes struggle with complex associations. His first lines are often dramatic: I particularly like 'The Drift of Things', which begins 'Things, Berkeley said, are the language of God', then worries its way through William James, Aristotle, consciousness, finally alighting on 'the banks of Lethe', still puzzling into the nature of 'things', caught up in flux and change. This is a bravura piece, almost metaphysical in ambition.

The descriptive poem 'A Northern Town' is an example of Gray's descriptive prowess: essentially a word-painting of a church-steeple, here are the two clock-faces:

     a white stare of two clocks: each hunts
     through the streets,
     they condemn
     all they see, eyes like oaths and a tongue
     of dismissal that is gravel
     in a tin.

The malevolence is sustained through to the unsettling conclusion 'perfection belongs to evil alone.'

Some of the very small, haiku-like sequences of glimpses in this volume didn't seem worth gathering, but, that apart, this is a rewarding introduction for English readers: Gray can clearly tackle most forms and subjects in a craftsmanlike manner.


Marilyn Hacker is less concerned with ranging across a variety of forms than Gray. Sonnet sequences and patterned forms, such as sestinas, are recurrent, but this volume also features a growing boldness about her sexuality and a growing ruefulness of tone. The 1986 volume Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons sees the first of these tonal innovations, whilst the poems from Going Back to the River  (1990), and Winter Numbers four years later include a growing number name-checking former lovers, friends and contemporaries dying of cancer and AIDS. These are brave poems, covering similar ground at times as the powerful elegies of Thom Gunn's The Man with Night Sweats, but a little one-dimensional for readers outside the charmed circles of American academia. They are balanced by many lyrical references to Paris, but here the terrible shadow of collaboration and the Holocaust begins to intervene. More recent poems begin to hint at a lightness returning to some of Hacker's work. This is not an easy read and some poems seem repetitive, but there is a genuine view of the charm of the rainy courtyards of Paris if the reader perseveres.

         M. C. Caseley 2006