Deaths and Lifetimes Passing Slowly

Welcome Back to the Country, Graham Clifford (31pp, 5.00, Seren)
Brumaire and Later, Alasdair Paterson (32pp, 4.50, Flarestack)
The Double-Ended Key, Roy Davids (88pp, 8.99, Acumen)
How Now, Alan Moore (67pp, 8.95, Anvil)

The two pamphlets listed here, by Graham Clifford and Alasdair Paterson, both come from award-winning poets: the former won the Poetry Wales Purple Moose Prize 2010, whilst the latter won an Eric Gregory Award way back in 1976, and has only recently returned to publishing his work.

The conceit organising Brumaire and Later is the idea (taken from French revolutionary thinking) that each day is re-named after a familiar object. So we get poems entitled 'Beetroot' and 'Watercress', and the revolutionary activity encompassed in them occasionally gives a sideways glance at the referents of the title: for example, in the latter, recruits pass over a bridge swollen with bodies that go 'bumping...towards the watercress beds.' Cheerful stuff, then, but I found that some of the poems only gesture towards a message vaguely, and took a dislike to one garlanded with an epigraph longer than the following poem ('Later')which suggests the terrible darkness hovering over following such revolutionary agendas. A prescient topic for sure, but the poem should exemplify the message, not decorate some other thought, borrowed from elsewhere, like a pendant. In a 32-page booklet, only 26 pages bear poems, two of which are less than 11 lines long: I guess this is admirably minimal, but for a fiver I'd feel a bit shortchanged. One or two possess powerful imagist-like shards: 'Snow is the cow-lick/of a thousand bald dictators/pointing from their plinths' ('Plinths).  Welcome Back to the Country feels a little more reflexive and precise, somehow. Poems like 'On the Dispersal of Water' and 'That Song' keep their eyes on organising detail and worry back round to it in a way reminiscent of the late Peter Redgrove. There's also a kind of mordant wit in pieces such as 'Being Dead', which ends: 'They say nothing. You say less./You have never felt so loved by so many friends.' Graham Clifford's work here is thoughtful and alert, and I shall return to it.

The shadow of Ted Hughes falls across many of the poems in Roy Davids's collection; he had a long-standing friendship with Hughes and there are poems reflecting on that relationship and on the day of his funeral. As Davids admits, this had a profound effect on him, and two other long sequences 'Mother' and 'Father' were written in the shadow of major heart operations in late 2006. There is, therefore, a large element of  serious weighing-up and solipsistic measuring of the self against others here, but the imagery can be powerful and effective: he recalls schoolday agonies of going to 'the Dachau clothing store/run by the Womens' Institute' and the angst of school visits by a poor mother who cadges lifts home. My reservations stem from the over-use of the first person and a feeling that confessional verse of this type has to be rigorously shaped and pruned: 'Father', shaped by absence, seems, in this respect, to observe distances that 'Mother' doesn't and to be more impressive for it. Taken together, the two sequences create a fairly comprehensive sketch of Davids's psychological scars, but I preferred some of the stand-alone descriptive poems, well away from the psychodrama. A concluding poem grudgingly admitting it was 'all right for Eliot' seems a final ironic note, given what we now know about the psychological torment of Eliot's own private life and first marriage.

Alan Moore, in his second collection, How Now! also gives the reader the ingredients of his own life - sometimes jauntily, as in '1973' ('Alvin Stardust beckons me with driving-gloved hand'), sometimes with due seriousness, as in several poems about his father's illness and death. In general, I found more light and shade in Moore's poems than in Davids's and there is a fine cumulative portrait of growing up in Ireland. 'Daddy', for example, ends with a list of excuses: 'After I cut the grass./ After I wash my hands./ When we come home from mass.' This concludes with an endless disappointed sense of deferral - no further poetic 'wrapping up' is needed. The structure of the book takes the reader through Moore's childhood, his early jobs and marriage, and finally brings us up to now. There is a slight slackening of quality towards the end, with several rambling sequences of impressions not quite cohering into a poem, but the popular cultural detail rings true and sensory detail is often vivid and convincing. It has been over twenty years since Moore's first collection, Opia appeared: it will be interesting to see what he makes of the disappointments and challenges of middle-age, where the poetic raw material suddenly thins out.

       M. C. Caseley 2011