When the Moon is in the Seventh House

Ghosts of a Low Moon
, Andrew Oldham (72pp, £10, Lapwing)
Horoscopes for the Dead
, Billy Collins (116pp, £9.99, Picador)

Andrew Oldham’s poems are edgy and a little dangerous, whereas Billy Collins’ poems are laid back and oddly comforting, even though he tackles difficult subjects. This is Oldham’s debut collection whereas Collins is one of the most popular and prolific of the American poets; he also has a large fan base in the UK. Both books are beautifully produced with thoughtful cover art. Both poets write about the ordinary, the everyday, but imbue it with significances beyond the objects themselves. One of Oldham’s poems is dedicated to Billy Collins, which indicates some kind of debt is being acknowledged, an affinity or admiration. Both poets’ work is lyrical, accessible and readable.

I particularly admire Oldham’s poem ‘Captain Webb’s Relations’. Webb was the first man to swim the channel and he came from Dawley in Shropshire. Oldham brings his admiration of Webb and his imagination together and sets the poem in a Leeds pub:

     A morse code of beer, hot chips & black waves that reach us here

He turns the pub into a ship by clever conceit, sustained throughout the poem in a way that summons up a nightmarish scene in which Webb is fighting the waves ‘his lungs full / fathom five’ (he drowned attempting Niagara Falls). Webb was a merchant seaman before he became a professional swimmer; Oldham reflects this in his poem beautifully. There is indeed something ship-like about old-fashioned pubs with the gleaming rails and curved bars. The poem is a hymn for Webb, for endeavour, for the wives who wait and suffer. Webb is one of the ghosts of the title. This poem is a tour de force

‘Why Guns Will Never be Legal in England is a witty poem which indicates how impossibly polite, forbearing and tolerant English people are. Rather than complain about the neighbours who seem to be taking over the house and the garden, the speaker in the poem moves away. The poem makes great use of hyperbole:

     They now have barbeques in my cupboards
     Divide in my bathroom and bung up plug holes
     And sit on the dog we never bought

This is all fun, but it makes its point. Wit and sadness run through these poems, counterpointed and cumulative. There is recurrent imagery of singing and ghosts. Oldham’s subject matter ranges widely but always comes back to people and his observations about them, like ‘Costa Coffee Girl’, ‘Old Man with Bottle Bottom Glasses on Middle Street’ and ‘Flowers tied to the Lamppost’.

Collins’ Horoscopes for the Dead is a much easier read in many ways. The style is more relaxed, less wrought. Whereas Oldham’s poems make you re-read them a few times, not all of Collins’ require that. The stand-out poem for me is ‘The Chairs that no-one Sits in’. Good observational poems tell you what you have already seen but not thought to ponder on. I have often noticed two chairs put out with no-one in them. Collins describes the situation with deftness, then moves on to suggest a kind of resurrection scene:

     ... let us suppose one day
     that everyone who placed those vacant chairs

     on a veranda or a dock sat down in them
     if only for the sake of remembering
     what it was they thought they deserved

     to be viewed from two chairs
     side by side with a table in between.
     The clouds are high and massive on that day.

This poem reminds me of a Magritte painting because of its surreal qualities as hordes of couples stream into view to sit in these seats. I also love the poem about learning John Donne by heart, as I tend to love Collins’ poems about my favourite poets. And there are poems too about the making of poems, such as ‘Poetry Workshop Held in a former Cigar Factory in Key West’, in which he does what he has resisted in the workshop, and likens poems to cigars. I really enjoyed all the specialist language to do with cigar manufacture, such as ‘chaveta’, ring gauge’, hand guillotine’. ‘Grave’ is a good poem, well made and moving. At his best, Collins is a moving and accessible poet who gets things just right, but sometimes I find myself saying ‘so what?’ when I arrive at the last line. Sometimes the poems can feel quite samey and the voice too laconic. I yearn to see some development in his writing, some risks being taken that he has not taken before. Andrew Oldham does take risks and I am interested to see how he develops in the future.

If you can only afford one of these books, buy Andrew Oldham’s and save your money for a new selection of Collins poems in which only the very best are included.

     © Angela Topping 2012