Homo Domestica

The Man Alone: New & Selected Poems, Michael Laskey
112pp, £9.95, Smith/Doorstop)
The Last Green Year
, John Powell Ward (64pp, £7.99, Cinnamon)
Etymology, Bryan Walpert (64pp, £7.99, Cinnamon)

It is worth mentioning, before reviewing these books, that all three are well-produced to an even standard, and that standard is as good as any poetry books being produced today in Britain. And of the blurbs on the book covers, only Craig Raine's on the Laskey book is concise enough to be worth quoting: ' Unflinching, subtle, clear, emotionally precise, uncensored, touching, occasionally erotic, particular, these are very, very good poems'.

All these volumes contain personal poems, and few have impersonal elements. The most personal and demotic poems are those of Michael Laskey who writes mostly about closely domestic things from doing his mother's ironing to cooking - at the latter of which he sounds very expert, writing detailed poems about 'Ratatouille', 'Pudding' and 'Fried Potatoes'. When a particular poem achieves something especially identifiable, something that gives it an additional fillip, it's nice to be able to mention it; for not only should a poem convey the particular reality of its subject by static description, but an element of what Aristotle called 'mimesis' is to be welcomed. In the poem 'Home Movies' Laskey mimics, so to speak, a good pace. In a not dissimilar way in the poem 'Driving Home', which begins with a quietly dramatic opening that turns on the word 'alone':

     You're on your own driving home,
     the miles light music that you spool
     from wheel to wheel. Each dip and bend
     hums with the tune...

abruptly becomes, with another dramatic 'turn', a horrible but true predicament: an excellent, short, agonizing narrative.

The surprising, imaginative metaphor; or (rarely) the sharply memorable phrase are not features of Laskey's work; rather is his great strength an intense feeling for the ordinary in all its inevitableness. He has a compassion for the normal; can convey experiences that most of us must have had. His poem 'The Scar' is a particular instance of this:
     What were they playing, it
or something ?
     Glancing behind him as he dashed
     down the street he'd skidded on gravel
     in the gutter and come a cropper.
     At the sight of the blood, his flayed
     knee, his screams filled the world.

     She grimaced at the wound but went on
     sponging and dabbing it, shushing him,
     washing out the grit till he sensed
     her calm and knew that it wasn't
     too bad though it hurt, and the Dettol
     did really sting like she warned him.

     These mornings waking up in the dark
     he sees her die, watches the blood
     drain from her face
     and wishes again that he'd stood
     by her hospital bed the last time
     she came round and somehow not cried..

Where Laskey uses recognizable form, he always does it as unobtrusively as possible. Even his 'punch lines' are quiet, yet as, for example, the subtly sharp end to the poem 'Nowadays', they can be just as effective as a sudden tub thump. So among the list of attributes given by Craig Raine - that egregious Martian poet - certainly the first four are correct.

John Powell Ward is a veteran Anglo-Welsh poet - to use that term which has had an uneasy history. He has lived his life a great deal in academia and it has given him a restless preoccupation with words, language, and the constant search for subject matter for poems. For a few years, too, he was editor of Poetry Wales, and one always senses that he exercises a strict editorial control over his own work. What I mean by this is that this reviewer - who is not unfamiliar with other collections of his than this one - feels that John Powell Ward is more often in control of his subjects than they are of him. The title poem, written in the sort of shorthand lines that W.C. Williams popularized, is a journey in words through the four seasons, that mixes with his teaching experiences:

     Girls and boys
     bruising, bubbling,
     splitting, fermenting and ripening.    

     Autumn here is school-time.
     Hips hang
     like an abacus to

     be numbered, the trees'
     palette is red, yellow and
     green blobs of paint...

Referring back to my point about 'editorial control', in the end part or coda to this loose seasonal sequence, Powell Ward has an interesting observation to make on poetry:

     ...the poem tells
     not what I think

     but what it thinks; to be possessed
     by the poem,
     never the writer.

Another poem, 'Rainy Day in the Country' shows the close affinity this poet has with the other two 'personal' poets being reviewed here:

     The house becomes
     An inventory of things to do; books
     We should have read; a cake
     To bake, the kids play with
     Toys on the rug. A roaring fire
     Gives cheer and light
     To a drab room.
- Powell or Laskey, yes?       

Bryan Walpert, like John Powell Ward, is an academic with degrees from American universities and awards in teaching excellence in New Zealand. Much more into scientific matter in his poems than Ward or Laskey, he nevertheless has a number of personal poems in Etymology. Interestingly, his father was a painter whom we glimpse at work occasionally in the volume, whereas the son inclines to the scientific.
This reviewer is always drawn to mythological poems and Walpert has a good one on Persephone. Entitled 'Dear Persephone', it is in the voice of her abductor, Hades:

     I don't mind the snow;
     we'll stay tucked in here.

     Let it fall. Let the phone ring.
     We'll know who it is.

      told her it wasn't
     like that, and so have you...

     She won't let you grow up,
     pursues you over wires,

     by post, bangs her torch
     against the door some nights -

     We both know it's her...

     Doesn't every mother feel
     her daughter has been stolen?

     ...That's motherhood,
     a doorway that thinks

     it is the room...

All science, being the result of analysis rather than synthesis, I find poems based on scientific data lacking that warmth and interest that only the human whole has. Whole versus Hole. There is an apposite poem in Walpert's collection which in dealing with the latter may be said to consider the analytic hole: i.e. the hole that appears as a consequence of the breaking down of wholeness. But - my prejudices apart - what makes this a particularly interesting volume are the poems that seem to address the problem I have tentatively outlined. For example, the poem with the tremendously long title on page 24, 'At the Boar's Head Tavern, a Neuroscientist Explains to the Woman Beside Him that Touch and Pain Are the Same' encapsulates the collision between biological reality and feeling. And in yet another poem that seeks to précis the debate within itself, 'The Scientist, My Wife, Explains Satellite Imagery', Walpert is seen trying to humanize the material with a kind of broken refrain, which refrain adds up to the command 'Take off your clothes, my love, turn out the light'.

Nowadays, any short poem is called a lyric. But a true lyric poem has to be lyrical - i.e. possess some sort of musical rhythm. Almost as an admonition to those of us accused of scientific rationalism, these lines are from 'Ode to My Father's 14th Month in Retirement', the poem ends with these lines:

     ...You no longer need a reason
     though look outside: Cherry trees warm the blossoms
     that held their breaths through
     winter as within dank cellars, and now breathe,
     as if to know the thirst for rain, to dance
     their flutter in the wind, to hear the tulips
     sound the air, this earth.

is a first volume of poems. It makes an interesting debut. I assume that despite its New Zealand connectrion it is, in fact, the work of an American. But, while one knows this must be so from prices being quoted in dollars, and the reference to a Dodge automobile in the poem 'Late', it would have helped this critic to better interpret that poem if he been able to understand: 'I would pretend not to feel/ the cup holder pressed to my temple' and 'she would say nothing about the stickshift/ in her ribs'. There is no 'stickshift' in my dictionary; and I don't know why a cup holder (in or out of context) is 'pressed to my temple'. England and America, two countries divided by a common language still, as Wilde said? This last volume is perhaps the most impersonal and intellectual of the three, though it is far from free of anecdotage.
          © William Oxley 2009