Space   Craft

Pluto, Glyn Maxwell (54pp 9.99, Picador)

Glyn Maxwell's new book of poems describes the aftermath of a love affair - burningly personal but, like the ex-planet Pluto, strangely cold. The poet is, like Pluto, banished to the outer reaches. He is also, like Pluto, an 'ex'. There are a number of single-page, stand alone poems here, but the bulk of the book is made up of much longer poems, giving Maxwell the space to get his teeth into his own affairs. Lest this run the gauntlet of navel-gazing and self-indulgence, the poet deploys the dazzling and playful linguistic facility and lyric formality that we are now used to in his oeuvre.

But, for a book of such potentially emotive content, I found these poems quite unmoving: they are mostly an exercise in 'craft' and, to use Heaney's celebrated division, to my mind lack 'technique', about which I'm sure there will be fair enough disagreements. For Heaney, 'Craft is what you learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making' (from Finders Keepers
). It is, if you like, the technical game of writing poetry. But Heaney goes on: 'Technique... involves not only a poet's way with words, his management of metre, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality.' It is, if you like, the heart of the poem.

Now Maxwell certainly 'defines his own reality' here, and at length - there is no getting away from the monolithic status of the affair in the poet's reality - but I find it hard to get beyond his 'craft', mainly because the dominant mode of the poems is a highly repetitious deployment of forms of 'parallelism', such as one finds in the Biblical Psalms: synonymous parallelism (such as 'The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm 27:1) and antithetic parallelism (such as 'The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish' Psalm 1:6). Maxwell's use of these device recurs in just about every poem, and in most stanzas of each poem to boot, from the first poem 'The Byelaws':

     Never have met me, know me well,
     tell all the world there was little to tell,
     say I was heavenly, say I was hell,
     harry me over the blasted moors
          but come my way, go yours

through the entire book to 'The Window':

     Back at a desk I steer the thing through time.
     In time I slide a drawer of photos out
     to accelerate the star-ship
     then slide it in and shut.
     Doing either seems to do the same.

By the end, I felt I'd been parallelised out of the book and was desperate for something else - it lacked (watch out for the next Pluto pun) atmosphere. The 'craft' is unarguably first rate - if you admire the deployment of formal and rhetorical structures and the sound of the iambic pentameter (and, often, I do), then you'll enjoy the sound of these poems - but the 'technique' is, for me, missing or at best take-it-or-leave-it. Do we care? Like Pluto, I felt at the outer reaches of Maxwell's solar system, knocking to get in, but kept at arm's length by the distancing effects of repetitious rhetoric. Which is a real shame, because I've been a great admirer of Maxwell's early and recent books, particularly The Nerve
and Hide Now.

       Andy Brown 2013