Identity Cards

Proof of Identity, Neil Powell (68pp, 9.95, Carcanet)

Neil Powell's Selected Poems, published by Carcanet back in 1998, bore a cover painting by Michael Leonard entitled 'Afternoon of the Kites': a park on a sunny afternoon, with many groups of people poised relaxing, details picked out precisely and carefully, a hyper-real scene of photographic precision. This new volume is wrapped in a Paul Klee painting, 'Park path, with tall man and dog': this is a reverse glass painting, all is sketched with great energy, but the figure in the far distance is a blurred vertical outline, a shape amongst trees and shadows. Given the title of this collection, the reader can begin to see what is going on here.

Powell's poetry is extremely accessible: his subjects here include the documents left behind after the death of a parent, foreign travel, souvenirs, wartime childhood, arriving at boarding school, adolescent experiences and several fine pieces on landscapes, either experienced or recalled over the years. In other words, all the quotidian stuff that makes up who you eventually turn out to be. The casual snapshots from a father's business trips, 'in their continental treacle-tinted colour' are 'remnants of identity' in the title-poem, revealing character casually to those inheriting them, years later.

Many pieces here also wear an awareness of time passing, what Powell describes in 'Point-to-Point' as 'that immense/gradually unravelling distance to the finishing line' in an especially Larkinian piece, both in terms of structure and scrupulosity of thought. 'The Gardener', a four-sonnet sequence, makes this explicit by observing a parent's casual seasonal planning and planting against the march of years, entitling the poems ' 1950', '1958', '1964' and, ultimately, '1989', when 'she wills her own green burial'. Elsewhere, the emotions are not so easily tidied away: 'The Break' describes a first arrival at boarding school, describing it as the 'one wrong turning' leaving the author 'forever disconnected' from his parents, in a poem also marked by accents of pessimism not far removed from the hermit of Hull.

I enjoyed all these affecting, formally easy pieces; if you have a place in your heart for the Larkin of 'Dockery and Son' or Roy Fuller, then you will, too. The volume also, however, contains longer, more ambitious pieces, notably 'The Journal of Lily Lloyd' and I found these less effective.

This long sequence, transcribed and versified from Powell's grandmother's journal, gives a pretty vivid sense of the rackety experiences she had, trekking across South Africa in the 1920s. As a narrative, it involves the reader carefully; as poetry, it seems less successful to me, not least because having established a pattern of settling, moving on, living off other family members, moving on again, the journal then breaks off in 1926, with Powell providing a brief 'afterword' establishing how these experiences link with him. The problem seems to be that the experiences - however frightening and challenging - don't seem to have been transmuted from the raw journal material into anything more poetically affecting. The sequence 'The Gardener' (mentioned above), though briefer, seems to gesture towards wider patterns more explicitly and carefully.

In his earlier collections, notably A Season of Calm Weather
(1982), Powell's eye seemed particularly drawn to landscape meditations. There are more here, notably 'In Sudbourne Wood' and an atmospheric urban poem, 'Hotel Codan', where 'old Europe's sadness' is remembered and precisely fixed. The key themes in this collection - time, identity, memory - are large ones, but Powell's precision and craftsmanship does them justice.

     M.C.Caseley 2012