Robert Crawford, The Tip of My Tongue, Cape; Angus Calder, Colours of Grief, Shoestring; Helena Nelson, Starlight on Water, The Rialto
Robert Crawford’s A Scottish Assembly (1990) confirmed what the poems appearing for several years in magazines north and south of the border had hinted at: here was a witty voice, as well-informed about and ironically distanced from contemporary consumer products and scientific headlines as it was au fait with hundreds of years of Scottish invention. The poems had a gawky but not wholly embarrassed sensuousness, and as unapologetic a middleclass perspective on things as any poet admitting to be middle-class is likely to offer. If these aspects felt forced, they felt forced in the right way: they were both an honest clearing away of one kind of faux-class, faux-macho posturing in poetry (not always contained to the north) and a driven, exhilarating journey through modernity as heritage and heritage as modernity.
After several books in which more personal themes struggled in amongst poems derived from perhaps a misdirected sense of what academic poetry might be, this collection reads more satisfyingly. Interested in exotic-seeming vocabulary rather than in the possibilities of nuanced syntax, the prosody is winningly naïve, as perhaps the praise form, surely Crawford’s favourite genre, demands:
I want to thank each bead of water
In Lake Baikal and polar Lake Vostok.
Thanks, too, to that Zurich Zoo chimp for taking
Her vertical stroll up a rope,
And to stones – strong, geriatric gneiss
In the hip-deep soil of the world.
Whitman is as strongly heard as ever in these poems, though beautifully sublimated to a modern one- or two-page attention span, and always brought to a proper, sealing, end. Quite a few of these outstanding closures suggest some finessing of Whitman through a Norman MacCaig alembic: “A haar of kirks, one inch in front of beyond”, “Canny Auld Enemy, us”, “Is overlooked by bens and glens of stars”. Certainly they are the most worked or inspired lines in Crawford’s poems, which before they rescue things with such imaginative goodbyes risk the monotony and arbitrariness of the title catalogue.
The reader should take Crawford’s Presbyterianism to be genuinely felt but not conventional. It’s reminiscent of Stanley Spencer’s eccentric, patriotic sensual and sexual Christianity, even if country and Church differ. As with the last two collections, amongst the sometimes overdriven Scotophilia (but not everything is drugs and GBH in Scotland, so why not say it?), two or three family poems are touching and, for a poet whose work seems so shy of the dynamics of actual human contact (breast-cupping, though, does have its day in this book), they are delicately rendered. “Mons Meg”, dedicated to the poet’s daughter, who must also be one of the overall book’s dedicatees, Blyth, ends –
I love how you yell a pirouette,
“Hullo, Mons Meg! Goodbye, Mons Meg!”
Blithe beside its heavy, pitch-black muzzle,
Laughing in the cannon’s mouth.
Angus Calder’s The People’s War: Britain 1939-45 (1969) is a landmark in British social history. If published poetry has come fairly late in life, with Calder’s first collection Waking in Waikato handsomely published by Scottish press Diehard in 1997, and Horace in Tollcross (Kettilonia) in 2002, the concern with the nature of history has been maintained. The title poem which opens the book wonders whether there might be a correspondence between colours and emotions, the so difficult to articulate tones of feeling that are crucial to our own personal histories (and, occasionally, their intersection with apparently grander narratives):
[…] what could be the colour of shame
stabbing through hours of sleeplessness
over offences given to loved ones
buried or burnt or years past calling […]
In “Yet another poem about John Maclean” a salesman from a Scottish electricity company, seeing Maclean’s portrait on the wall, mistakenly attributes the phrase “Time is the chrysalis of eternity” to the revolutionary. It transpires that the visitor has even named his son after Maclean, because of the quotation. The poet’s response is to rise to the spirit of the mistake, though to recognise it as such, wishing the son well, “may he too fly in the face of monopoly.”
More ambitious pieces work in their own terms, too, especially “Argathelian”, a braided meditation on a life’s life, on love and companionship, and on corrupt politics. As with Calder’s Scottish near-contemporaries, James Aitchison and Stewart Conn, there is always a sense of an intelligent and kindly interlocutor. Calder doesn’t avoid melancholy but, as in his modest and beguiling poem about simply going curling, “Haymarket Sunset”, he knows “You have to adjust your weight, / your line, your sweep. And this light is always beautiful.”
Helena Nelson’s Starlight on Water is probably the most technically engaged of the books here. Robert Crawford has the most distinctive voice and seems, understandably, content to dwell in it, Angus Calder is more attuned to traditional form, but Helena Nelson holds rhyme, rhythm and other sound patternings very dear. This isn’t just in sonnets such as “Completing the Outfit”, which opens,
I used to wish you’d put your hands just so
about my waist, spanning me here and here,
encircling me in love and trust, although
you never knew I cherished the idea
but in freer work, as in “Bike With No Hands”. Here the most unpoetic, awkward line is very much in keeping with the first attempts of riding no-handed, to be followed by a more poised account of cycling “casually, coolly, at infinite ease”.
There are some poems which use a slightly underearned, old fashioned vocabulary and tone. This may be the price of taking the general public’s understanding of poetry as a starting point (humour, slight archaicisms, romance and the lack of it?). In any case, this is a very enjoyable book, and the closing sequence, “The Mr and Mrs Philpott Poems”, originally part published as a separate pamphlet and very like a verse novel, is a sustained and original reflection on aging, parenthood and love in maturity.
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