The Man Alone: New
& Selected Poems,
(112pp, £9.95, Smith/Doorstop)
The Last Green Year,
John Powell Ward (64pp,
Etymology, Bryan Walpert (64pp, £7.99, Cinnamon)
It is worth
mentioning, before reviewing these books, that all three are well-produced to
an even standard, and that standard is as good as any poetry books being
produced today in Britain. And of the blurbs on the book covers, only Craig
Raine's on the Laskey book is concise enough to be worth quoting: '
Unflinching, subtle, clear, emotionally precise, uncensored, touching,
occasionally erotic, particular, these are very, very good poems'.
All these volumes
contain personal poems, and few have impersonal elements. The most personal
and demotic poems are those of Michael Laskey who writes mostly about closely
domestic things from doing his mother's ironing to cooking - at the latter of
which he sounds very expert, writing detailed poems about 'Ratatouille',
'Pudding' and 'Fried Potatoes'. When a particular poem achieves something
especially identifiable, something that gives it an additional fillip, it's
nice to be able to mention it; for not only should a poem convey the
particular reality of its subject by static description, but an element of
what Aristotle called 'mimesis' is to be welcomed. In the poem 'Home Movies'
Laskey mimics, so to speak, a good pace. In a not dissimilar way in the poem
'Driving Home', which begins with a quietly dramatic opening that turns on
the word 'alone':
You're on your own driving home,
light music that you spool
from wheel to
wheel. Each dip and bend
hums with the
abruptly becomes, with another dramatic 'turn', a horrible but true
predicament: an excellent, short, agonizing narrative.
The surprising, imaginative metaphor; or (rarely) the sharply memorable
phrase are not features of Laskey's work; rather is his great strength an
intense feeling for the ordinary in all its inevitableness. He has a
compassion for the normal; can convey experiences that most of us must have
had. His poem 'The Scar' is a particular instance of this:
they playing, it or
behind him as he dashed
street he'd skidded on gravel
in the gutter
and come a cropper.
At the sight
of the blood, his flayed
screams filled the world.
at the wound but went on
dabbing it, shushing him,
the grit till he sensed
her calm and
knew that it wasn't
though it hurt, and the Dettol
sting like she warned him.
mornings waking up in the dark
he sees her
die, watches the blood
again that he'd stood
hospital bed the last time
round and somehow not cried..
Where Laskey uses recognizable form, he always does it as unobtrusively as
possible. Even his 'punch lines' are quiet, yet as, for example, the subtly
sharp end to the poem 'Nowadays', they can be just as effective as a sudden
tub thump. So among the list of attributes given by Craig Raine - that
egregious Martian poet - certainly the first four are correct.
John Powell Ward
is a veteran Anglo-Welsh poet - to use that term which has had an uneasy
history. He has lived his life a great deal in academia and it has given him
a restless preoccupation with words, language, and the constant search for
subject matter for poems. For a few years, too, he was editor of Poetry
Wales, and one always
senses that he exercises a strict editorial control over his own work. What I
mean by this is that this reviewer - who is not unfamiliar with other
collections of his than this one - feels that John Powell Ward is more often
in control of his subjects than they are of him. The title poem, written in
the sort of shorthand lines that W.C. Williams popularized, is a journey in
words through the four seasons, that mixes with his teaching experiences:
fermenting and ripening.
red, yellow and
Referring back to my point about 'editorial control', in the end part or coda
to this loose seasonal sequence, Powell Ward has an interesting observation
to make on poetry:
not what I
but what it
thinks; to be possessed
by the poem,
Another poem, 'Rainy Day in the Country' shows the close affinity this poet
has with the other two 'personal' poets being reviewed here:
of things to do; books
have read; a cake
To bake, the
kids play with
Toys on the
rug. A roaring fire
To a drab
- Powell or Laskey, yes?
like John Powell Ward, is an academic with degrees from American universities
and awards in teaching excellence in New Zealand. Much more into scientific
matter in his poems than Ward or Laskey, he nevertheless has a number of
personal poems in Etymology. Interestingly, his father was a painter whom we glimpse at work
occasionally in the volume, whereas the son inclines to the scientific.
This reviewer is always drawn to mythological poems and Walpert has a good
one on Persephone. Entitled 'Dear Persephone', it is in the voice of her
I don't mind
tucked in here.
Let it fall. Let the phone ring.
who it is.
her it wasn't
and so have you...
She won't let
you grow up,
bangs her torch
door some nights -
We both know it's her...
has been stolen?
it is the
All science, being the result of analysis rather than synthesis, I find poems
based on scientific data lacking that warmth and interest that only the human
whole has. Whole versus Hole. There is an apposite poem in Walpert's
collection which in dealing with the latter may be said to consider the
analytic hole: i.e. the hole that appears as a consequence of the breaking
down of wholeness. But - my prejudices apart - what makes this a particularly
interesting volume are the poems that seem to address the problem I have
tentatively outlined. For example, the poem with the tremendously long title on
page 24, 'At the Boar's Head Tavern, a Neuroscientist Explains to the Woman
Beside Him that Touch and Pain Are the Same' encapsulates the collision
between biological reality and feeling. And in yet another poem that seeks to
précis the debate within itself, 'The Scientist, My Wife, Explains Satellite
Imagery', Walpert is seen trying to humanize the material with a kind of
broken refrain, which refrain adds up to the command 'Take off your clothes,
my love, turn out the light'.
Nowadays, any short poem is called a lyric. But a true lyric poem has to be
lyrical - i.e. possess some sort of musical rhythm. Almost as an admonition
to those of us accused of scientific rationalism, these lines are from 'Ode
to My Father's 14th Month in Retirement', the poem ends with these
longer need a reason
outside: Cherry trees warm the blossoms
their breaths through
within dank cellars, and now breathe,
as if to know
the thirst for rain, to dance
their flutter in the wind, to hear the tulips
air, this earth.
Etymology is a first
volume of poems. It makes an interesting debut. I assume that despite its New
Zealand connectrion it is, in fact, the work of an American. But, while one
knows this must be so from prices being quoted in dollars, and the reference
to a Dodge automobile in the poem 'Late', it would have helped this critic to
better interpret that poem if he been able to understand: 'I would pretend
not to feel/ the cup holder pressed to my temple' and 'she would say nothing
about the stickshift/ in her ribs'. There is no 'stickshift' in my
dictionary; and I don't know why a cup holder (in or out of context) is
'pressed to my temple'. England and America, two countries divided by a
common language still, as Wilde said? This last volume is perhaps the most
impersonal and intellectual of the three, though it is far from free of anecdotage.