John Glenday’s Selected Poems reviewed by Colin Pink
Selected Poems by John Glenday. £14.99 Picador ISBN 978-1-5290-3771-5
John Glenday is an outstanding contemporary poet whose work repays reading and re-reading. His first two collections, published by Peterloo Press, have long been out of print and second hand copies are increasingly hard to find at reasonable prices, so this Selected Poems is a very welcome addition to his oeuvre. The volume includes poems from his four full-length collections: The Apple Ghost; Undark; Grain; and The Golden Mean, plus poems from Mira, a limited edition pamphlet of poems inspired by the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel, and it concludes with nine uncollected poems.
There is something profoundly allusive and elusive about Glenday’s work which means that it sustains a deep fascination over repeated encounters. His work is both precise and ambiguous; there is always more to a Glenday poem than immediately meets the eye, which makes them thought provoking and haunting. His poems are often somewhat uncanny and there is a strong awareness of mortality, of time running out, as the epigraph or fore-poem to the collection states:
There’s not a moment to lose.
Speak now if you have something to say …
there’s never a moment to lose. Nothing
goes without saying. So go ahead, say it now
but not just to yourself. The great silence is coming.
The great silence/death pursues the poet, but it also, in ‘Famous Last Words’, inhabits him:
I am a column of silence, resonating where it touches
on our world;
reluctant as silk drawn from flesh, or a harp
singing in its cage of wind.
The dialectical relationship between a wary silence and an ecstatic singing often underpins Glenday’s poetic voice. The fact that it is often hard to pin down a conclusive meaning to a Glenday poem, even though each individual part has a crystalline clarity, is what makes them so intriguing and rewarding. Like all great poems, the more one reads them the more subtle nuances of meaning emerge from them. The poems often conjure a liminal presence, as in ‘Edie’s Room’: ‘Just before dawn, I was woken / by the soft hush of the dead about their work.’ It is as if there always lurks, behind everyday experience, a ghostly other presence, so that humble reality is a thin veil separating us from a much more profound world. In ‘A Day at the Seaside’ the poet observes his father fishing:
We’re out in my father’s boat and he’s fishing …
I’m watching him as he fishes, because I’ve never
seen him so focussed before – so engaged.
It’s as if the fish had hooked him. Then just
as he makes his final cast, an oystercatcher calls …
The rhetorical device of reversing the expected relationship of things, the fish hooks his father rather than the other way around, is a favourite device to be found in several of Glenday’s poems (see for instance the poem ‘Concerning Shadows’ where ‘shadows cast us’). ‘A Day at the Seaside’ slowly builds up a vivid image of father and son immersed in nature, with the slight threat of being carried out to sea by the tide, but then, the final line completely turns around the meaning of the poem, as if metaphorically tipping over the boat:
… far out across the water. Far out across
the water an oystercatcher calls
just once, and then just once again, and then its silence calls.
The hurt lies not in the cross, but in the nails.
The repetition in the description of this gentle everyday scene lulls us (much like the repetitive motion of waves) but in the last line the poem becomes, in an instant, a focus for the contemplation of suffering and pulls in a raft of Christian allusion; father, son and fishing retrospectively take on whole new layers of meaning.
This sense that there is always something more, something spiritual, that cannot quite be articulated, sitting behind that which can be articulated, is summed up neatly in the short poem ‘Epitaph’:
Father, forgive this man.
He never listened to your song
till it was all but done
then found he couldn’t sing the words
so he spoke the tune.
Glenday’s imagination is often sparked off by quirky pieces of information, which can conjure up gentle humour and surprisingly powerful effects. A good example is an, unlikely, love poem about longing and desire called ‘Tin’ inspired by the fact that the can opener was invented 48 years after the tin can; it is worth knowing that Glenday met his wife at around the age of 48. The poem begins, humorously:
When you asked me for a love poem
(another love poem) my thoughts
were immediately drawn to the early days
of the food canning industry – …
and concludes with sensual longing:
and I thought of the first tin of cling peaches
glowing on a dusty pantry shelf
like yet-to-be discovered radium –
the very first tin of cling peaches
in the world, and for half a century
my fingers reaching out to it.
Glenday’s poems often create uncanny effects, with the homely becoming unhomely, the ordinary becoming extraordinary; as in the contrast between the opening lines of ‘The Apple Ghost’:
A musty smell of dampness filled the room
Where wrinkled green and yellow apples lay
On folded pages from an August newspaper.
‘My husband brought them in, you understand,
Only a week or two before he died.
He never had much truck with waste…
and the concluding lines:
I knew besides, that, had I crossed to the window
On the rug of moonlight,
I would have seen him down in the frosted garden
Trying to hang the fruit back on the tree.
Perhaps, for Glenday, memory functions as the fruit that we gather from the tree of life and cannot put back. In ‘The Empire of Lights’, an ekphrastic poem inspired by an uncanny painting by René Magritte, he says:
The past is the antithesis of burglary. Imagine…
In the House of the Past we move backwards
from room to room, forever closing doors
on ourselves, always closing doors.
In each room, we leave some of those little trinkets
we love most, that the house is stealing from us.
Because we cherish them, we abandon them…
Glenday is often inspired by works of art, as in ‘Landscape with Flying Man’, about the fall of Icarus, the image of Vitruvian Man, the Flight into Egypt, several paintings by Magritte, a Chagall painting in ‘Over Vitebsk’ or a First World War painting of soldiers relaxing and swimming in ‘The Big Push’. In his later work he has produced a number of highly effective prose poems, such as ‘The Afterlife’, ‘Promise’, ‘Exile’ which remind me somewhat of the work of the American poet Mark Strand, with their quality of being at once vividly descriptive, elusive and playfully humorous or ironic.
The collection ends on a delightful image of domestic harmony, despite the encroaching darkness of the world horizon, in ‘For My Wife, Reading in Bed’:
I know we’re living through all the dark we can afford.
Thank goodness, then, for this moment’s light…
…What else do we have but words and their absences
to bind and unfasten the knotwork of the heart;
to remind us how mutual and alone we are, how tiny
and significant? Whatever it is you are reading now
my love, read on. Our lives depend on it.
Colin Pink has published two collections of poetry: Acrobats of Sound (Poetry Salzburg, 2016) and The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament (Against the Grain, 2019).
Clive James’s The Fire of Joy reviewed by D.A. Prince
The Fire of Joy by Clive James. £20. Picador, 2020. ISBN: 978-1529042085
Clive James has borrowed a military metaphor for his title. The feu de joie is a celebratory succession of rifle shots, performed by a regiment’s riflemen. It’s a reminder, as James explains in his introduction, that a ‘regiment’s collective power relies on the individual, and vice versa.’ That succession of noise evokes both the linear progression of poetry in English and also that essential component of poetry: sound. James is such a fan of the sound of poetry that he even includes his own practical list: Rules on Reading Aloud.
This book is a mixture of anthology and memoir, held together by selected poems and his life-long relationship with them. Some of it was written and much of it was dictated, as James tells us, while he was undergoing treatment for a rapidly-advancing cancer; he credits his wife with the initial impulse for ‘this book as a combination of critical anthology, teaching aid, hymnal and breviary’. He could also — but doesn’t — mention his personal relish for the humour surrounding the poetry world and how addictive reading poetry becomes, especially when linked to the personal foibles of poets. I found I had to ration my reading, to make the pleasure of his companionably gossipy anecdotes last as long as possible. James died in 2019, aged 80 — hence 80 poems by which he maps his life’s indivisible connection with poetry in English.
The subtitle is ‘Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud’ — ‘roughly’ because although there are eighty listed on the Contents page he manages to slip a few more in via the individual essays. All these poems are ones he has by heart. His criterion for choosing is a simple one: these poems got into his head — ‘… seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. In fact, I believe that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.’
He even finds an Italian word to cover this — gazofilacio — which means ‘a treasure chamber of the mind’. His mother read rhythmic, rhymed poems to him, while part of his early schooling required him to memorise a poem a day. That may sound insignificant but it’s a foundation — the foundation — of that despite-ness of poems, the way some stick without having to be learned by heart. That’s something I recognise, having a similar memory bank; when you have it, you take it for granted and have to work hard at staying aware that other minds might not work in the same way. During his commentary on Louis MacNeice’s ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ James recounts how he survived a painful wait for an ambulance via an interiorised recital of this poem, along with ‘Snow’. — the full text of which is slipped in as an extra. One of the more practical uses of poetry — and Keats’ Odes are my go-to poems for dental treatment. Even as I type this my mind slides away to MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’ and how it might fit in; that’s the nature of this book.
That’s how this anthology becomes an ongoing debate between James and the reader: why this poem? why this poet? With the poems arranged chronologically, in line with the development of poetry seen as poets building on the work of their predecessors, the familiarity of the early poems (say, up to the early twentieth century) is inevitable. James had studied the traditional English Literature syllabus, first at Sydney University, and then at Cambridge. Wyatt, Donne, Milton and onwards — familiar ground. In the main the poems that have stayed in his mind are the ones that live in my memory too: Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’, Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. The first woman to appear in the line-up is Christina Rossetti (with “Remember’) but that’s the nature of the canon. These are the poems of memory and at this level memory is subjective.
It’s in the twentieth-century century poems, and where James has personal knowledge of (and often friendship) the poets that the debate about who?/why? gets wider. William Empson might not be an obvious choice but James’ account of ‘helping’ Empson recite a couple of his poems at a reading in the Cambridge Union after a well-fuelled dinner is a delight. And while he has convinced me to read more Empson he can’t, quite, persuade me to return to John Berryman, despite his enthusiasm for Berryman’s ‘vaudevillian magic’. Poets are summed up in passing by James’ lightness of touch — Vita Sackville-West is commended for her ‘verbal carpentry’, Ted Hughes is ‘marinated in mysticism’. Robert Lowell ‘could rise to sublimity and fall to banality within a single phrase.’ His account of U.A.Fanthorpe’s ‘Not my Best Side’ recognises her ‘sensitivity to the tones of officialese’ and he records that ‘None of the witty male poets were quite as witty as she is in catching the more pompous turns of official and critical language’. That line takes me away from this review, to read other poems by her. A lot of James’ comments have done that.
That is the true joy of this book. It’s like a conversation with a cheery and well-read friend, better-read but never stuffy, where a lot of ideas and recommendations are lightly worn, and which takes you onwards — to more reading, to more debate. It’s very good company.
D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her second full-length collection, Common Ground, HappenStance, 2014) won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. A pamphlet, Bookmarks, also from HappenStance, was published in 2018.