wit that flickers with almost graspable significance' writes John Lucas on
the back cover of this substantial collection by a substantial poet. It is
this flickering light playing over Middleton's undoubted substantiality which
fascinates me as a relatively new reader of this poet. There is clearly a
great deal of learning in the poetry here. Middleton adds his own footnotes,
rather more seriously than did Eliot in The Wasteland, though there is
something reminiscent of the work, and of that time when poetry was dominated
by polymathic men of letters. But Middleton's flickering conjures up shadows,
and shadows make for interesting shifts of tone and shape. Many an artist or
photographer will tell you that there is more truth in shadow than flashlight
exposure. The same holds true for much poetry. And Middleton knows this very
well. 'Waiting For The Harvest Moon' illustrates this in some beautifully
thrown by people on a wall,
charm, and they stand upright.
the flat shadows, horizontal
On a paving
stone. You tread on them.
The poem extrapolates the shadows, mixing fact and imagination,
linguistically flickering like the 'air polygons' themselves.
shadows in the wrong way round,
Sometimes for symmetry, the painters.
Persians put no shadows in at all -
place for shadow, the divine creation.
Perspectivally the word-penumbras
shiver, hair stand on end;
back, seeking divinity
As light is caught in the branches of an oak.
This was one of the poems that made me shiver. The 'Anti-Basilisk' is replete
with heavier themes; translations from the classics and European poetry
tradition. There is also prolonged engagement with menacing and also slightly
ludicrous personae (Doctor Dark, and the presumably self-satirizing Saul
Pinkard) - 'Me bespewed with my own mess of tempers' as 'Pinkard's Ditty'
goes. Why is it that so many male poets summon up a poetic comic persona, a
detachable alter ego? These are clearly
erudite pieces, referring back to and ironizing the literary
tradition. But I was watching for the flickering shadows, and those I found
more easily among Middleton's unnamed peripheral characters; the long dead
artist of saint who has influenced the structure of something, have
facilitated a latent fluidity which is present in the most solid of
are few. Just as well. Under the altar
rippling verticals remember marble's origin;
knew how marble starts in water,
wove marble into its being,
even the saint, the saint waters the marble.
('The Altar at Vaison')
The subtle sublimation of solid states, the almost mystical oblation involved
in such a change, recurs in the image of a mango thrown off the balcony, a
quasi hagiographic analogy of saintly self-immolation, in 'Buffoon Voice in a
Should I pick
it up and fling it, ho,
Pick it off
the balcony table, hurl it high
furnace. That is how the saint
Hurls his will at
the invisible, blends it
By faith into an
infinite desiring. Sacrifice
To the imaginary...
If the last phrase is double edged (an imaginary God? Or merely the price
required for imaginative creativity?) this lengthy poem's own syntax melts
away at the end, changing from a poem of substance - despite the title - into
one of elusive insight
sea it floats a, floats
A 'fabric' through the glass open door.
heavy it was, now how light.
Middleton is thus a spiritual poet, though perhaps a reluctant one, and also
an epigrammatic poet, though perhaps a rather knowing one. I liked the
proposition that 'under the brooding lurked, not yet material/ A poem
scheming to coax into focus a local image' ('Elegy of the Flowing Touch')
though I was probably supposed to take it with a pinch of salt. I also liked
the wry 'Many different people have to have been there/ all sorts have been
going to go there', the opening lines of 'Of Paradise'. Middleton's language
is often sonorous, but can also be impressively flexible. I loved the
anti-basilisk, with her swivelling eyes, 'Suckers for toes, tender belly,
flexing her tail,/Hush while she skedaddles clean across/ The screen she
cannot penetrate...' ('The Anti-Basilisk'); she wonderfully embodies the
subversive element that flisks through so many of these poems - and I never
came across 'skedaddles' in a poem before. Other readers may draw weightier
conclusions from this collection, but, as final recommendation, I invite you
to watch the gleam of 'Sanctificat', where the poet and his cat watch a
floating foil wrapper landing on a rug 'from far Beluchistan'; where, like many
of my favourite poems here, it scintillates with both potential meaning and
obscurely satisfactory closure:
Any old soul
might call it futile, this flutter
Of liberation with
geometry. Fret no more,
right royal was the pleasure
You and I
could take in such a sign.
© Sarah Law 2006