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Peter Redgrove, Sheen, Stride; Rupert Loydell (ed.), Full Of Star’s Dreaming: Peter Redgrove, 1932-2003, Stride

From the poetry dedicated to him in the tributes of Full of Star’s Dreaming, Peter Redgrove was cherished for his sense of the magical in the English land and seascape. In recent decades this has meant the southwest peninsula in particular, but his poetry is not generally founded on a particular framed outlook; the titles of some of his poems in his last book, Sheen, invoke more fundamental elements without specific locale – “Clouds and Rain”, “The Spin of Trees”, “Caverns and Towers”. He had a magical sense of the body, too, especially the body figured sexually, as a pleasurably and sometimes frightening oozing landscape in itself. The human frame was to be seen as something not exactly separate from the real land in any case: as a small territory in tune, if it was allowed and encouraged to be so, with the larger territory on which it is dependent, whether, the warning might run, in consonance with nature or not.

Humans, who are composed mostly of water but are seldom seen as such, can in themselves be seen as a living alchemical conundrum, caught perceptually midway between liquid and solid - molten fixities - as they are between the moments of life starting and the moment of death. The material nature of flesh-and-bones is acknowledged by Redgrove but then, with the sense of “blessing” that a number of contributors to the anthology rightly imply is there in his work, an invocation of the miraculous nature of it all seems to hover around his poems, no less so in Sheen. It is often unstated, often left to a humourous tone which seems to chuckle at the ridiculousness of the new age expression of it all, but Redgrove’s poetry, and so presumably Redgrove himself, appears to take shamanistic poetry, basically, seriously.

The variety of Redgrove’s friends-in-poetry represent a range of styles of poetry which seem to reflect this association with poetic sorcery, but also raise a quizzical eyebrow. Rupert Loydell remembers him as someone who “left books of wisdom / and magic in the world” and Loydell’s own poetry has a sense of a fascinating pilgrimage to it (this critic reaches for archetypes to make sense of what is almost a pagan poetry). John Burnside, too, has at least a post-religious sensibility in his writing, and Rose Flint and Andrew Motion have a feeling for praise, from the evidence here, that is good company for Redgrove’s.

If Ted Hughes had lived longer I’m sure he’d be in the anthology, too. He was practically a life-long friend with an association dating back to their Cambridge days in the 1950s, when Redgrove was involved in editing Delta magazine. Hughes and Redgrove, Penelope Shuttle, and younger voices such as Gerard Woodward, each have a poetry that is close to a book of magic’s charms, give-thanks-to-thees, and curses, and each allow enough playfulness and even self-analytical asides for them to be taken as more ‘sophisticated’ than that, if that is what is required. All manner of questions arise with a book like Sheen. For one thing, can sense be made of an alternative English tradition of green poetry, with its modern beginnings in D. H. Lawrence’s nature poetry, possibly, but perhaps jumping back centuries to folk traditions rather than the canon, however academically lettered its practioners may be? In fact, a university education might be an apprenticeship for such exhilarated poetry, although the Movement shows that this need not be the only result of a BA.

The near-obsessive use of triadic line-groupings in the form

A boulder of amethyst

    couches in its sands

      arranges round itself

      (“Amethyst Rock”)

for example, could be taken as tipping its hat to the apparent primacy of the number three in Celtic art forms. It also seems to remember the three-line haiku and its productive pauses, so that one poem in Sheen is even called “Jumbo Haiku” – note that jokeyness in the title – but, as Philip Hobsbaum has pointed out, it is also a form favoured by William Carlos Williams. Where are we here? Again, the reader is thrown back on a poetry that is knowingly simple, but without the sly sense of “knowingness” that such a phrase might imply. In this way the comic poem “Gentlemen” begins

The town Gents

    flooded as usual,

      by the chalice-fountain

Stained with birds;
    I went down into this pit

      it was awash with libations

but ends in laughing praise:

Water that gives us sight,

    passes through, hisses,

      rests in the head-bone fountain

where the whole scene swims.

Hobsbaum’s recent praise for and affectionate remembrance of Redgrove – a poem of his is included in Full of Star’s Dreaming and there is a fine essay in the Summer 2003 issue of The Dark Horse – might seem out of place at first. Hobsbaum is a formidable critic of ostensibly more academic poets who might have thought twice before lavishing such a description as this on Redgrove: “Such extraordinary powers of self-renewal surely indicate major talent and major status”. But Sheen is a book that, if it perplexes and chuckles with its teasing near new-age-isms, also does indeed have extraordinary imaginative energy, brought into focus by touching domestic detail –

Bent over me

    and kissed me, saying

      she loved me;

Smelt sweet
    and of the garden, flowers

      in beds, earth turned,

Open soil, she had been out
    gardening, paused

      to kiss me, I could smell

The garden air speeding
    over the rockeries;

      she is the gardeness…

(“Took Her for the Gardener”)

and it is a generously smiling sense of the fabulous in the world before us that is the key note to Sheen, a fitting if untimely last work.

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