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Iain Bamforth, A Place in the World, Carcanet

Iain Bamforth is a moralist, but a moralist as Aesop or La Fontaine can be, where body and mind reacquaint themselves, merge even, in stories of the human animal. This collection is philosophical, but it is witty and lyrical, too. Bamforth’s hero, Diogenes, is the guiding light here – the philosopher who, in “Diogenes Looking for Humans”, “moved with his personal effects / to a dog-house at the city gate. // He called it Plato’s Cave.”

By placing himself at the periphery of the city-state, Diogenes (which is to say, Bamforth) becomes observer - and guard - and he re-enters the animal world where the mind and soul are facts of body biology. In this mode Bamforth’s other poems scrutinise especially the thickening nexus of European power. In one poem Europeans are characterised as “flesh-eaters choking on the fricassee of their want”. In another, the continent is imagined as a slick confusion of the mercantile and the bureaucratic: “Our expense account is blue and zinc / and pays for a room with a view / in the capital city no one has ever located.”

Bamforth ranges across the world in his subject matter, linking himself in a major poem, “Eggs Like Chaos”, to Scotland via a beach in Samoa. This is a text which seeks to answer Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On A Raised Beach” by looking a little closer at what turns out to be MacDiarmid’s self-sentimentality, a kind of nihilism that praises the lifelessness of rock. Bamforth memorably takes up such a near-religion of stones, gives its granite heart a health-check, and in the end leaves it back on a remote Scottish shore. Bamforth in so doing gives himself permission to love life and to roam, as he says of Diogenes, “a citizen of the world.” Love poems and song-like texts, and superb translations of Baudelaire, Pessoa and Benn, round out a stimulating book.

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