A Lapse of Science

Easing the Gravity Field, Christopher Southgate
[8.95, Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Avenue, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1BS]


In the poem 'Memory' addressed to an unnamed friend, whom the poet remembers when 'we were still scientists together', there is this stanza:

     I find you used to write poetry
     Gave up at sixteen, dissatisfied
     At not immediately being Eliot,
     I, always the slower one,
     Gave up science at twenty-eight.

So what we have in Christopher Southgate is a lapsed scientist who became a poet; and, also, a man with a plain, undramatic , but not-quite-serene religious awareness. He dedicates a poem to R.S. Thomas who 'infected us, not with faith, / But with acceptance of a space in-between'; and in another distich, 'A mountain-land where faith and doubt / Inhabit each other's shadow'. Most interestingly, too, for a lapsed scientist, he shows no rancour against, nor any doubt of, that discipline from which he turned away. And this sensible detachment has been rewarded with the gift of writing about and interpreting scientific ideas. Something which makes the poems incorporating scientific notions more readable than any other poetry I can recall dealing with such matters. This I think is because he wears his scientific learning lightly, and because, as he subtitles the entire volume, they are 'poems of science and love'. Love and rational curiosity are a rare mix, and rarely successful; but they are here. It is what makes the book so interesting, at times moving, and wide-ranging.

Christopher Southgate's 1997 volume, A Love and Its Sounding
, published by Salzburg University Press, was a remarkable verse-biography of T.S. Eliot. It struck me as a brave and imaginative enterprise - as it did Anne Stevenson who wrote the introduction to it. A book that I enjoyed, it left me feeling that here was a poet with a sufficient originality to mark out a place of distinction for himself. Easing the Gravity Field does just that because we can now see his is a life of varied experience expressed in poems of great variety. There are poems of humour like 'A Capsule Falls From Space' that cannot be quoted from but which is satirically risible in its totality; and there is a poem like 'Christabel The Cat In Springtime':

     On the window-sill
     concentrating on birds,
     our cat.
     She has made of them
     a lifelong study ...
     Cat-teeth chatter gently,
     miming the grinding of bones.

Among the love poems - the section sensibly termed 'Variations on a Theme' - there are beautiful lines to be encountered: 'But our eyes stop at Venus, / glowing, lovely as a throat-warmed pearl', or in the serene study of Vermeer's 'Woman in Blue Reading a Letter':

     Vermeer has so arranged the space, the light,
     The stillness, the shape of the face of the woman,
     That our imagination streams to the paper.

There is, too, a short poem in this section, 'Plath and Hughes' - it is one of the best I have ever encountered on this disastrous but famous relationship. Definitely an anthology piece. Among the longer love poems, and difficult again to quote from, is one called 'Meigle Museum'. Like all of the love poems it shows a remarkable gift for moving restraint.

Years ago I read a short piece of prose by the Georgian poet and friend of Ezra Pound, Wilfred Blunt, in which he narrated how, in a Munich beer cellar in the 1920s, a man came up to him from a neighbouring table and asked him for a light for his cigarette. The man was Adolf Hitler - not then a 'celebrity' but soon to be. Reading Christopher Southgate's 'Les Petites Entrees?' about a man who 'As a small child he had a door / held open for him by Swinburne' and who, through his life, cherished a 'bowl ... of ... milky pearls ...', namely, his brief encounters with the famous. In later life, a minor celebrity himself, he is finally 'not wanted now to open ftes / or read the Christmas lesson.' So the poem ends:

     Each day, he takes out his will,
     and has it read to him,
     and drinks a pint of Dom Perignon.
     It is the one true satisfaction of his life.

Sad perhaps, but showing the insightful strength of this poet who now looks beyond science to the very human condition itself.

Lastly, a humorous, quietly celebratory, never didactic, tastefully loving, lucidly thoughtful, poet, his poetry is an honest experience of truth, and possessed of something of that gift found in Thomas Hardy to place a gentle finger on human emotions. Do I have any reservations? Well, I thought I had one. It was this: I wish he would live less in the land of free-verse than he does. Or if that was where he must dwell, then try for more rhythm in his poems like his great biographee/mentor T.S. Eliot so often achieved. But then, suddenly, in the scientific poem about 'Crick, Watson and the Double Helix' he hits the reader with that most difficult of verse forms, a villanelle; so I drop my quibble and say: here is a book to be enjoyed in all ways.

     William Oxley 2006