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Adam Thorpe, Nine Lessons from the Dark, Cape

Adam Thorpe’s fourth collection of poems begins with Scottish hillwalking. In the opener “Cairn” his words “And the sky was clear when we started out” must have been repeated by countless walkers returning from a jaunt that did not go quite as expected. There is the wide-eyed smile and relief of the survivor as Thorpe retells his ascent into heavy weather, “the going far more slur / than stone”, where the summit’s cairn vanishes only to loom up as “a huddle of granite as near / as bereavement”. Thorpe’s enjambement seems to lurch and stagger from one line ending to the next here, as if in sympathy with the exhausted and disorientated amateur.

The character of many these poems is set here. It is the voice of an informed tourist who is aware of the artificial nature of his way of seeing in the places he visits. He is not cramped or overly self-defensive by that knowledge. There is no sense of either a defiant parochialism or an overly apologetic one. This is the voice of a kind of reasonability which is still open to mystery, even if it is the marvel of humankind’s existence over tens of thousands of years, not the sublime of a religious sensibility. In terms of an English literary tradition, it is closer in tone to the English novels of Julian Barnes and Nick Hornby than to the more bitter-edged poetry of the same period.

There is at one point a conscious link to Seamus Heaney. In the poem “Sacrifice”, the author recounts a trip to Tollund in Denmark where the victim of an ancient ritual execution, so impressively described by the Nobel Laureate, is not this time refracted through contemporary murderous allegiances, but remembered instead as a place where the Thorpe inadvertentedly terrified his son. It manages to be both a funny tale, separated from its occurrence by several years, at the same time as it allows the seriousness of the sacrifice, and of his little boy’s terror, their reality.

Family and friendships are the touchstones here. There are some simply beautiful elegies as well as poems dedicated to loved ones which are written with clear and refreshing affection. “The Jewish Cemetery, Cracow”, inscribed to Thorpe’s father-in-law, remembers a trip back to the old graveyard in which the memorial to the old man’s comrades simply can’t be found, “ you / refusing to let it matter, of course, stiff-necked / as ever when it comes to remembering / such absurdity of loss.” A memory of childhood – and childhood’s questioning of the adult world is one of Thorpe’s themes – accompanies them when “Later in the cathedral square we follow your finger / as it traces your walk from school, taking / your first vodka (in the very same café we sit in)”.

As might be expected by the author of the acclaimed historical novel Ulverton, history’s bubbling through into today’s world is rendered richly, though not obscurely. Nicholas Johnson’s Cleave of last year was probably the first extended work to integrate general political concerns within a poetic memorial to the way of life fatally injured perhaps by the Foot and Mouth disaster. This collection also represents an early engagement with this grim subject: in “Neolithic” Thorpe makes a sour comparison between the New Stone Age mounds of the English landscape and the animals buried in vast plastic graves. The good nature of the collection overall gives such an intervention all the more power.

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