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SHEEN
by Peter Redgrove, 163pp, £10.00, Stride.
FULL OF STAR’S DREAMING: PETER REDGROVE 1932­2003,
43pp, £5.95, Stride.

Peter Redgrove, who died earlier this year, was an extraordinarily prolific poet. In 1996, his volume, Assembling a Ghost
appeared, closely followed by a 1999 Selected Poems (both published by Cape), which dipped a toe into then-recent collections ; this, however, came only just over a decade on from the Secker and Warburg 200-page The Moon Disposes: Poems 1954 ­ 87, another excellent overview. In addition to Redgrove’s more widely-reviewed books, there are also several key Stride collections during this period, including The Laborators (1993) and Abbysophone (1995). Those who relish Redgrove’s neo-pagan pursuit of elemental landscapes and post-Freudian chains of association don’t mind: in full spate, he is, to mix metaphors, as crisp as a Cornish winter.

Recently, however, a valedictory tone has emerged: in My Father’s Trapdoors
(Cape, 1994), Redgrove’s father is reinvented as a Mandrake-style magician. Fathers, paternal ghosts and parents in general continue to haunt his work in From the Virgil Caverns (Cape, 2002) and now Sheen brings the last instalment of this distinctive voice.

Here are typical Redgrovian meditations on cloud-shapes (‘On the Cusp of two Winds’), bells ringing out across a valley (‘Bells as Bioblasters’), the mysteries of hotels, beds and rock-formations : nothing new, true, but by now Redgrove’s poetic laboratory is capable of careful examination, exploration and re-examination, revealing different, minutely-detailed facets each time. The three-step line mostly evident in this collection allows a reflective loosening, an opening up of parallel or alternative images :

       ‘There is still
                    a hint of rainbow
                                             in the gulf
       A rainbow scent
                    or sensation in the
                                             presence of the cliff
       Which at spate cascades
                    bending its stout rainbow
                                             in mid-air
      Like the shining mainspring
                    in a clock
                                             of seven colours.’
                          
                                             (‘Henrhyd Waterfall’)

At times, the reader becomes so attuned to weighing up Redgrove’s hesitations, qualifications and swerves of metaphor or element, that to come across a conventionally laid-out poem such as ‘From the Good People’, comprising seven three-line stanzas, is a shock.

The natural historian in Redgrove is also evident in several poems: ‘Gynandromorphism in Butterflies and Caftans’, ‘Sweetness of Light’ (bees as metaphors for human feasting and tasting) and the vista of sand dunes ‘nudging the church’ in ‘Down among the Dunes’ all manifest a sense of flux and plenitude, even using repetition as witty emphasis : ‘sand-dunes’ / ‘sandgrains’ / ‘sandgrain’ / ‘sandgrains’ / ‘sandy’ ­ all encountered within six lines in the last poem mentioned. This kind of raw technique channelled into pauseful consideration is a notable feature of late Redgrove: the sleight of hand is very convincing.

The reappearance of Redgrove’s father comes as a touching surprise in the very last poem in this volume, ‘Afterglow Laboratories’. The poem looks back to Redgrove’s studies at Cambridge and youthful experiments at home before ruefully admitting:
‘none of the laboratories / were mine, all were competitive / none contemplative, / my vocation was alchemist, not chemist, / my laboratories were everywhere’.

Real Redgrove enthusiasts will also want to buy the slim Stride memorial volume Full of Star’s Dreaming
containing tributes and celebrations in verse from Andrew Motion, Peter Porter, John Burnside and several others. To Mark Goodwin, Redgrove is ‘a carp / his bald glittering mind nudges / surface tension; breaks / into air’, elsewhere Philip Hobsbaum awards him the epithet ‘Great Scientist of the Stage’, while Porter lauds him memorably  as ‘Merlin in a newsprint world’. Scientist, alchemist, fish, magician ­ Peter Redgrove.

       © M.C. Caseley 2003

 

 

These titles are both available, post free, from
Stride, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6EW
[cheques payabe to ‘Stride’ please]