Tough guys


We Look Like This
, Dan Burt (128pp, 9.95, Carcanet)
Glass Is Elastic
, Jon Glover (120pp, 9.95, Carcanet)


Old age lacks neither downsides nor chroniclers, and its losses and infirmities - and compensations - are squared up to in both these Carcanet collections. Different mixes of life-history, distillations of experience and powerful emotions, filtered through disparate sensibilities and writing practices, make for two very distinctive collections.

Dan Burt inserts a long prose memoir in We Look Like This. It casts light backwards and forwards,  picking up and amplifying the initial scene-setting poems about father and mother and brother, then being itself further opened out in the successive poems, which move on towards the present day and other relationships, other losses and lessons. The writing is always muscled but never so overworked as to become knotted, hard to understand; often making use of formal metres and rhymes, Burt's wrestling with language take us into the stress of lives lived among 'tough Jews' in Philadelphia, into the hard worlds of his father Joe, successively immigrant, boxer, butcher and coastal fisherman. The story of one admired figure from this past stands for all that time and all those lives passing:

     Thirty years ago time took his boat,
     in due course him, then his parties;
     where he rests, an urn, beneath a stone,
     I never learned, while the boy
     who begged to help his hero lift
     the hook wears plastic knees for bone.
             (from 'Homage for a Waterman')

Later poems revisit the Jewish history of persecution and Holocaust, the loves and partings of adult life, the growing impulse to find coherence and meaning in the life that's been lived, the comfort and challenge of art:

     We look like this after things fall apart;
     The painting is the autopsy report
     From an inquest where war took the part
     Of coroner. The scalpel lifts to start:
     Invade, split ribcage, scour thought and art...
               (from 'Modern Painters')


Jon Glover, a distinguished figure in British poetry for so many years, through his poetry, scholarship and the shoulder he has put to the wheel of Stand for almost five decades, has created a collection full of reflections, distortions, integrations and disintegrations. Poem after poem appears to be setting out its stall quite transparently and then moves in another direction, deepening as it goes. Sometimes the changes of angle and the staccato phrases on which the thought pivots seem to aspire to the condition of the shoot-out in the hall of mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai; language fragments, the lines become a mosaic of shards each carrying its own reflection of somewhere else. I found reading these poems a slow and difficult business, and I don't believe I have fully understood them, or ever will, but I will certainly be returning to them - probably more often than the more accessible work by Burt.

     Do, in your head, the maths
     of macular degeneration,
     and billions of years come
     together. Infra/ultra/fine

     pre-chiasmal pics back
     up inside. Rule off light's
     speed. Years of such big
     stars queuing up to be

     archived. So quiet in here.
     The space telescope that
     picked it out will have no
     power soon...
             (from 'Macular Degeneration')

So here be mirrors and windows, microscopes and telescopes, the camera and the eye itself - ways of seeing the world that science creates or investigates. Yet this science can itself lead us into disorienting places, with Glover's language that enacts the attempts to analyse and fine-tune slipping from the rigorous to the fractured to the colloquial. Each quest for 'perfect vision' seems to come to rest only provisionally, temporarily  - while ageing and illness and loss work on the poet and his perceptions.

     All a bit odd to get back there
     with thoughtful engineering
     like putting your favourite pictures in
     a wheelchair and pushing them into place.
     Closer! Look-it. Look for a comfortable ride.
     Perfect vision, again. Oh, the matching
     colours, oh, the sight lines, oh,
     the perspectives and frames! Push again.
                 (from 'The Optician's Shop Window')

               Alasdair Paterson 2012