In Deep, Matt Simpson
(£8.95, Shoestring Press)

Matt Simpson's sixth collection, In Deep, is his most lyrical to date. At the heart of it is 'an uncompleted sequence' to his wife Monika. These poems are heartbreakers, yet many of them are gently humorous: Simpson's favourite trick of making you smile seconds before he moves you, perhaps to tears, is still very much in evidence. The sequence, 'November Song', the title an ironic reference to the Kurt Weill song, is the history of a marriage, from its first exciting beginnings when Monika was a beautiful young German actress come to a language school to improve her English, falling in love with her earnest young tutor:

     a technicolour girl, come to class,
     to master phrasal verbs and me
          ('Strange Meeting')

However, despite the exuberance of some of the poems at the beginning of the sequence, the opening poem not only exquisitely expresses the poet's tenderness and love for his wife, but problems are indicated which are developed more fully later on:

     Hard for her to live with peace,
     she who skipped in blood and played
          on blitz-smashed masonry.

In a mature and long-standing marriage, partners become carefully attuned to their spouse's quirks, so there is much to identify with, even if the exact circumstances, bravely faced up to, are not the same. The sequence ought to be read in the published order initially, though it is hard not to dip into favourites afterwards. My personal favourite is 'An Autumn Rose'. This describes a moment when the poet has found a 'shy lover's letter shaming me' on his desk, together with 'an October rose', such an exquisite symbol of mature love.

Wrapped within this sequence is another, giving voices to many of the characters in
The Tempest. This is a very different treatment from Auden's sequence of Tempest poems, however. The theme running through it is imprisonment/freedom, as each character contemplates life beyond the isle. This provides Simpson with an objective correlative for different states of mind. Simpson is adept at creating different voices and his women are just as believable as his men. Witness Sycorax:

     Impossible for you to imagine me
     anywhere else but cramped up in
     the syllables of others,
     unvilified, without a name that sounds
     like boots stamping on cockroaches;

Typical of Simpson, metaphysical wit rises up like yeast, to leaven the wholesome bread of this lovely sequence. He also has Stephano passing the bottle, advocating drink as a cure all, using internal rhymes to catch something of this character's desperate gung-ho. Fittingly, though, Gonzalo has the last word as he tries, 'to make the best of it'. As in the play, Gonzalo's voice is the voice of maturity and good sense, and it is what the poet finally has to do - accept that this is the only response that works. The other angles explored by the other voices reach a resolution here.

This wouldn't be a true Simpson collection without some of the elegies for which he is known. Simpson manages again to make us smile as well as mourn. For example, his comic and tender portrait of an uncle, who rode a motorbike, was a madcap and played the trumpet; or his memorial for George Butterworth in which he imagines stopping World War I to rescue him. Simpson achieves a poignant contrast between tenderness and violence when he says he would have:

     him out of the shallow trench...
     with its splashed blood and brains...

     brought him back
     to the damaged landscapes of sweet home...
          ('Banks of Green Willow')

There are many other poems here to delight the music lover, as well as celebratory poems about nature, such as the light-hearted 'Cicadas' and the delighted sighting of dolphins on holiday. So many of the poems in this collection portray people: a couple glimpsed on a train, a charity-shopping friend, a train journey in which he links people with places - it is clear Simpson has an affection for humanity with all its foibles. His jazz poems are exquisite in their wry humour and their enticing use of language:

     They say jazz is a country of the old,
     of left-over men, guys with grizzled beards,
     plaits or pony tales, out-of-date dudes
     with drawled allusions to the hoary
     good old days of hip and swing and cool,
     cats in awe of cats they learned from,
     the real McCoys that went before.
          ('Old Hands')

The delicious humour of this is warmed by the obvious affection and the skilful deployment of alliteration and half rhyme. The world of classic films and the culture of less sophisticated times is still an important part of Simpson's world, representing his youth and looking back, evoking the glamour of the times, for example in a poem for Julie London, 'Only a Thimbleful'. One of the most unusual poems here is a sonnet which addresses Shakespeare's sonnets, interrogating them:

                                         What swan-
     Feathered sonnets are rhyming dustily
     Somewhere on the lost side of the equation?

This collection includes a great variety of poems, although always at the centre remains the sequence, 'November Song'. Simpson also returns to his enduring family theme with a pair of matching poems about his parents: 'Out There' and 'In Here', which draw beautifully the exterior male world his father inhabited: 'blustery docks... lumbering cranes', contrasting with the interior domestic world of women like his mother: 'words locked/ in a diary never penned.'

This is a lovely collection, which makes one look afresh at the world and re-evaluate it. Simpson has lost none of the muscularity of his language in the lyricism of these poems. If you are a follower of his writing, this collection brings new delights, whilst affirming he still has plenty to say, returning to old themes and uncovering fresh ones. If you have not read Simpson before,
In Deep is an ideal immersion.

             © Angela Topping 2006