Three from Carcanet     
     
     
THE DAY AND OTHER POEMS by Robert Wells, 64pp, £6.95  
THE MYSTERY OF THINGS by Clive Wilmer, 64pp, £8.95 
A PERFECT V by Mary O'Malley, 78pp, £8.95  
[all Carcanet Press, Alliance Hose, Cross Street, Manchester M2 7AQ]
 

It seems a curious strategy to structure a collection in such a way that the best poems should come first and the last dozen pages bring together miscellaneous material, some of which is certainly less concentrated, laxer, and even here and there feels like packing or suggests poems not quite fully realised. Satire for one thing is not Wells' forte. It is a pity because, by and large, this third collection is an impressive performance by a poet who, at his best, writes powerfully, in particular about men working in rural landscapes and about the degree to which they are able to forge relationships, both physical and spiritual, with the land. It is not for nothing Wells is a translator of Virgil's Georgics and The Idylls of Theocritus. The Day and Other Poems is divided into four sections and if some of the poems at the end do not always quite quicken the pulse, let me say now the rest assuredly do.     
     
The tone is generally elegiac and valedictory, the book pervaded by death and by an unsentimentalised sense of loss; celebratory events are relived in memory; and explorations of the 'integrity of full sensation' (Keats's 'O for a life of sensation rather than thought!') are recollected in tranquillity. This sets up a series of tensions or ambivalences. The lived-in experience can only be fixed in words once it has been lived through. And yet there are times when the experience is vividly re-enacted in us simply by means of words.      
     
As well as a Hardyesque consciousness of loss and regret, there is also a feeling of journeying in the company of Basho. The first section ends with a four-line poem entitled 'New Year' telling the poet to move on:     
     
      The cleared hillside paler in the winter's day,     
      The fire melting now, single, a sobered glare:     
     
      The tangle and dead-weight are lifted away;     
      Stray song of birds ornaments the air.     
     
There is the spirit of haiku about this - present too in other poems - the kind of immediacy achieved in Zen satori.     
     
Many of the pieces are explorations of various kinds of 'difference', how we reconcile ourselves (or try to) with Nature, how some human beings seek to merge with it through labour, to be at-one with it and yet be conscious of its ultimate indifference. The poem 'A Caution'
tells us     
     
      Look at the land with love, but don't confuse     
      With your own flesh the field, the path, the hill.     
     
      When pressed to serve more than a human use,     
      Their blankness mocks the effort of your will.     
     
Wells also explores the world of others where experience is shared through fellowship and friendship but where, again, 'difference' isolates individuals, makes them, within shared experiences, separate from one another. This gives a fine poignancy to Wells' thinking, whether he is writing about felling trees in North Devon, living among the people of the hills of central Italy or exploring what seems to be an illicit love-relationship in India. Something of this latter is concisely expressed in the two-liner 'The Lake':     
     
      Love was a dark lake in which we bathed together.     
      I stand on the bank now. You are drowning out there.     
     
Lived-through experience, shared with Nature, with others, but marked with a sense of 'difference', separation and loss.      
     
If I started on a slightly negative note, let me end by saying there is a lot of very beautiful poetry in this collection. Try for example this Hardyesque called 'A Memory of Exmoor':     
     
      On Sundays, walking between the sea and moor     
      Through derelict woods, up to the dry-stone wall     
            That crowned the Sugarloaf,     
     
      I'd linger by a gate among hawthorn trees     
      Encrusted to a grey coral of lichen,     
            Where a lost path turned off,     
     
      And imagine it the setting for some 'tryst',     
      The word unreal enough not to bed questions,     
            Let alone challenge me     
     
      With the clear response cutting through fears and hopes,     
      That might have come (had someone really been there)     
            To test the revery. (sic)     
     
*     
     

The Mystery of Things, Clive Wilmer's fifth Carcanet collection, is confirmation of an intentness on what he calls 'exactness of form'. He is a considerable craftsman, whose influences and allusions are, as one might expect of an academic, wide-ranging, top among them clearly being George Herbert and John Donne. Like them, he too is - that rare thing nowadays - a religious poet. Here is his encomium to Herbert:     
     
      Time and again I turn to you, to poems     
      In which you turn from vanity to God     
      Time and again, as I at the line's turn     
      Turn through blank space that modulates -     
      And so resolves - the something that you say.     
                  [from 'To George Herbert']     
     
This play on the word 'turn' evinces a metaphysical turn of mind. It is found elsewhere in poems where, for example, play is made of the word 'nothing', which, as Wilmer understands, in Elizabethan usage carries sexual connotations ('nothing', 'naught', '0' meaning female genitalia). Shakespeare is in there too. Like Shakespeare, Wilmer has a penchant for ultra-serious punning.     
     
Above all, Wilmer is a love poet, of both Eros and Agape, and affirming a relationship between them:     
     
      There is no faith or hope that does not know     
                  The odour of carnality, nor love     
     
      The neighbourhood of animalsÉ     
                        [from 'Stigmata']      
     
We are invited into sensuous experience, to 'bend and sniff' a dog rose in a hedge:     
     
      The whole flower gives off sweetness,     
      Pungency deeper in.     
                        [from 'Dog Rose in June']     
     
But it is not sensuous or sensual experience for its own aesthetic sake; it is a way to transcendence. The beloved is a goddess, an angel, a muse, who, in a lovely phrase, moves the poet 'to my best of inwardness.' Shared Eucharist is seen in terms of     
     
      You beside me     
      sharing     
      the ghostly taste,     
      
      your flesh     
      has come so close     
      there is no flesh     
     
      and no spirit     
      only the twining ghosts.     
            [from 'Ghostliness']     
     
There is a wider range of poetry here than I have room to discuss: Buddhism is made play of in some poems; there are poems that share Wells' feeling for haiku and the 'is-ness' of Zen; pieces about a waterfall, about birds, apples, making chutney. The main concern of this impressive collection is love in its earthly and heavenly manifestations and the poet's seeking to reconcile them.
The Mystery of Things is a compelling read.     
     
*     
     

I first came across the poetry of Mary O'Malley in Three Irish Poets edited by Eavan Boland, whose Introduction to that book is a classic of its kind. In it she declared 'The emergence of women has made a new space in the Irish poem'Éthus exemplifying 'the dailyness, detail and ordinariness of a woman's life in contemporary Ireland.' O'Malley's first three collections were published by Salmon Poetry. A Perfect V is her second from Carcanet.  In all her work she speaks of alienation, of being 'a woman with no landÉ.disenfranchised from my own language and shamed because of it,' someone with 'a need to stake my claim in the world.'     
     
In
A Perfect V she is very much a Deidre of the Sorrows, facing grief from painful separations: a marriage breakdown, children leaving home, home itself suffering loss of identity - things we hold dear crumbling around us. All these have historical, political and linguistic resonances too - alienation from what would normally provide us with protection and security. This is a collection of poems bravely questioning and attempting to understand and cope with raw vulnerability and with being set adrift.      
     
      So it's over. Again. How dare you agree.     
      I want you to feel me close and think
ChristÉ     
     
and beg. I want to slam the door in your face.     
      Not metaphorically, Mr  Objective Correlative,     
      oak. I want you     
      to feel the slip of my nightdress that isn't there     
      under your fingers and hear the midnight     
      laughing on the phone when I'm kicking your absence.     
                        [from 'The Jack of Hearts']     
     
If Wells and Wilmer write a mainly rational discourse, O'Malley gives us a richly-textured metaphorical one;     
     
      All I observed besides the fire blossoming     
      below the house was a brown O on each wing.     
      I could taste the shining bone that would remain     
      a charred promise in the morning ashes.     
                  [from 'St John's Eve']     
     
In this impulse towards metaphor that sometimes veers into the surreal, she views Dublin's sidewalks 'littered with discarded people and a spike/driven through its pot-holed heart'; carrying a child is the 'magnetic dock/of child to hip, earth to moon'; the moon is scythed by two falcons 'into crescents/that grin - watermelon slices/bled white along the edges.' The writing has a heart-beating physicality, something felt in the pulse. At times it even has a Dylan Thomas (or should I be thinking of Edith Sitwell?) density to it:     
     
      Cool cool fiery cat, close your eyes and fancy that     
      by the silvery zip-zapping scissory rip-rapping     
      only-pretending-to-sleep napping sea.     
     
If in the past Irish women have been 'barred from speaking', poets like Mary O'Malley have (and she has declared her indebtedness to Eavan Boland in helping to make it possible) are now speaking clearly and with a powerful voice that must be listened to.     
     
     
              © Matt Simpson 2006