Sandy Maggots by the Hour

Sandgrain and Hourglass, Penelope Shuttle (128pp, 8.95, Bloodaxe)
Paul Muldoon (120pp, 14.99, Faber)

It wasn't easy, let me tell you, to think of a title for this review, but what strikes me about the titles of both Muldoon's and Shuttle's collections is that they concern time. In Shuttle's case, the reference is overt: the hourglass visibly marking time in a controlled cascade is a potent image, calling to mind how in fact it slips away from us like its silky representative in the glass; Shuttle's title also, of course, recalls Blake's famous lines, at the start of 'Auguries of Innocence':

     To see a world in a grain of sand,
     And a heaven in a wild flower,
     Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
     And eternity in an hour.

This takes us, via the title poem of the collection particularly, to a place where grief is apparently unrelenting, in that absence is never resolved. The poet Frances Bellerby said, heartbreakingly, that 'human love [...] is far stronger than death' which 'does not check love, nor halt its development and deepening in so far as the living are concerned. The known side of the relationship can be felt
to grow and deepen. The unknown?' Bellerby's observation summarises the anguish of a very specific 'unrequited' love, in which the beloved is utterly unreachable, in which time does not console. I hesitate to claim definitively that 'Sandgrain and Hourglass' concerns the ongoing loss of Shuttle's husband, the poet Peter Redgrove, but the poem depicts simply and elegantly, both the gulf and the unstoppable love that Bellerby describes, apostrophizing the one who has gone to their unreachable place:
You rule over a Byzantium of nettles
I tell them rain's unfinished story.

     You're dust and ashes
     My Honours List bears only your name

     You have your sandgrain
     and your sorrow.

     I have my hourglass
     and my grief.

There is a deft economy in Shuttle's harnessing of Blake: eternity and infinity are as much a curse as a promise if we hold them knowing that they also hold us. The key is in Shuttle's reversal of wonder, in her subtle recognition of the havoc of loss, and the compromises it forces, the way in which the detail of existence messes up simple binaries such as innocence and experience. 'Student' elaborates on this, as grief becomes a discipline in its own right, from which the poet cannot, however, graduate; the question is, is the poet unable to matriculate in innocence or because of innocence?

Shuttle is excellent at the sustained and witty metaphor. Yes, witty: amidst the carefully handled loss, there is a wry humour, as the poem 'Royal Society for the Promotion of Loneliness' demonstrates: 'I'm often the only one / attending the AGM, chairing / an empty hall / taking silent minutes'. We can nearly hear the sand trickling through the glass. The delight of such a poem as this is in the cleverness of the conceit's development: the society's logo is 'a cellist playing late at night / to a deserted Asda car park'; the speaker organises a conference, in which all delegates will attend workshops of one, in single rooms, of course!

Simultaneously we note the tragedy of such isolation: the poem finishes: 'The RSPL is my life / but where is everyone?' It cannot help but bring us to the more profound questions of purpose and meaning, of poetry, of life; but Shuttle, one feels, gets on with it anyway.

Muldoon's collection is more oblique in the title's allusion to time. The maggot is the larva of the fly. In Muldoon's work it becomes an astonishingly rich idea concerning an unspoken pun on entomology and etymology, and the science of forensics. The maggot of course, is horrid: it eats dead matter. The maggot is also very useful, not least because it 'clears' up dead matter, but, like the more picturesque hourglass, it tells the time. In forensic pathology, the presence of maggots in corpses will enable the determination of time and place of death. And then, the maggot is not a finite creature, but a stage of metamorphosis. It takes a poet of Muldoon's calibre to make the most of such a conceit, without letting us see how obvious it is, when we turn from entomology to etymology: the title sequence of the collection, comprising ten sonnets, does not beckon us easily, for Muldoon is satisfyingly challenging. If the imagery suggests a surreal randomness - 'the parachute I'd paid / out like the flim- / / flammable box kite / of a wild boar's intestine' - to which we must simply surrender, the discipline of form and refrain prevent such surrender. Each sonnet revolves around the repeated lines 'I used to wait' or 'I used to be...' and 'where I'm waiting for some lover / to kick me out of bed / for having acted on a whim'. 'Whim' and 'maggot' in archaic English, both mean 'obsession' or 'quirk'. The refrains act out 'obsession' as textual ticks, both repairing the fractured sonnet form, and pointing to its potential rigidity; the repetition of 'I used to...' refers back to the 'maggot' as a moment in another sequence. The 'Maggot' sequence itself, begins to read like a lament for the lost gravitas of the lyric 'I' but as the sonnets step out one after another, 'I' constantly returns, as if to cement its necessity and inevitability.

is not an easy read, neither in its subject matter, nor its difficulty; it is 'literary' in its allusions, learned and wide-ranging. 'The Humors of Hakone' for example can be considered in the tradition of the 'blazon', the conceit put to work tirelessly, as the poem seeks causes within itself for its own death (or life perhaps) paralleling the dissection of a real body for cause and time of death: 'something was raising a stink. / A poem decomposing around what looked like an arrow.' When Muldoon notes that 'however advanced the art / of forensics has become [...] to fix the time of death is hard / / if not hopeless' he brings literary and medical forensics together. This is not entirely original: the trope of literary scholarship as clinical dissection is practically a cliche; the jolt comes partly from Muldoon's viscous and graphic imagery: the 'real' body's 'stomach contents ink.' The 'real' skin 'peel[s] from her thigh like a fine-mesh stocking'; 'pupae would assail the girl from the sticker-photo booth at the same rate as a poem / cadaver. But as it proceeds, the jolt is greater as the poem consumes itself: 'the poem began to self-digest / about the time I recognized that the sanitaria in which the lepers had / been held / were nowhere in that great world of which this one is a sulfur cast.' The joke, it seems, is the poem dissects itself before the reader can. Again, not entirely original in itself, but under Muldoon's 'knife' (or quill!) the poem, generically speaking, recovers much more than it has lost - something to get your teeth into, in fact. His humour is grim, far more so than Shuttle's, but together, these two collections chart time's inscriptions against our neediness.

        Kym Martindale 2011