Tim Liardet, The Storm House (Carcanet, 2011, £9.95, 66 pp.)
Sean O’Brien, November (Picador 2011, £8.99, 84 pp.)
In his essay, ‘Walter Pater’, from 1912, Edward Thomas is critical of Pater for, ‘against his judgement’, using words ‘as bricks, as tin soldiers, instead of flesh and blood and genius’. He goes on: ‘Only when a word has become necessary to him can a man use it safely; if he tries to impress words by force on a sudden occasion, they will perish of his own violence or betray him.’ Both of these collections – both excellent – convey necessity and a principled wariness of words used as ‘bricks’. The poets’ struggles with language are to evince a common humanity – words in rhythm and usage as kindred, as ‘flesh and blood’. One feels very clearly in both Yeats’ fine distinction between rhetoric as an argument with other people and poetry as an argument with oneself.
The subject matter of Tim Liardet’s collection is ‘flesh and blood’: the violent death of the poet’s brother, Davy, in 2006. It is an event that overtakes the reader with its horror, violence and sense of violation. The task of the poems is, then, to do justice to the tragedy, and to make something monumental and reverent in the face of jarring dislocation, yet to eschew the false ‘impress’ of words ‘by force’. Liardet achieves this by exploiting the drama of simultaneous considerations in language. The reader never feels patronised by an easy telling or reckoning and, as a consequence, is never left at ease. The poems do not merely dramatise a loss or suffering, they embroil, assault, challenge the reader at every turn. Talking to the dead is not easy. The communication ‘Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living’, as Eliot put it. Part of Liardet’s craft is to keep changing the lens, especially in terms of address and angle, to allow some form of communication with the ‘untalkative’ dead. The resultant poems reverberate and fascinate, as in the aftermath of trauma. We feel the two movements of tragedy: the movement towards the victims – the pity, and the attempted movement away – the fear. There is also the consideration of the limits of language (‘the mouthful of words’, as it is put in the first poem and in the fifth sonnet of the second sequence) and its relation to a noble silence in elegy. Liardet shows time and again a struggle with language to move us away from any form of ‘solution’. He ranges over phenomena and situations that fuse psychological distress with the sensations and experiences of the world. There are objective correlatives, yes, but with twists, hooks, wrenches – the cadence of ‘falling and tearing, falling and tearing’.
The tests of Liardet’s craft are met with great accomplishment: tercets, sonnets (the second part of the collection is a hammered-out sequence of thirty-two), free verse, with a movement from short line to longer line. ‘The Revenant’, for example, uses the image of a hatch – a cat-flap – but transfers it to the back of the narrator’s neck as a source of access for the ‘furtive, shifty/and insistent’ ghost-brother. The short lines brilliantly, chillingly convey the intrusion: ‘I must submit,/it seems,/to your taking/of death’s steps/in reverse,/climbing the rungs/of my spine’. This enjambed trepidation over short lines is placed close by longer lines and other inerasable images. In ‘The Beating’ the mother’s care for the dead body is underplayed by the wish for vengeance – ‘meat for meat’ – in the light of the terrible damage inflicted upon the body. It is unflinchingly rendered: ‘every follicle magnified/among the kick-marks, a Galapagos of kick-marks … the upper heavyweight lip split open/like a plum into halves – the slit of the eye glimmering/under the monstrous lid’. ‘Galapagos’ is planted there almost unnoticed after a poem with an epigraph from Darwin considering the ‘snarl’. We want to move away, to withdraw our gaze, as in so many other poems here. We are forced into the ‘sweet violence’, however – forced to admire the reverence of a mother washing a body down, removing the rags of a vest ‘like the hands/attending the holy body’. It is intimidating, but we bear witness.
Liardet uses filmic lightning cuts and allusions to great effect. At the end of the entirely successful re-make of Heaney’s poem, ‘The Constables Call’, there is a pondering on the ‘deceased’s toenails’ that transforms into ‘Nosferatu’s/fingernails scratching a name on the air’. Many poems inhabit and re-play worlds of sound (as in ‘Grief-fugue’, with its snatches ‘of schtumm/going round in my head all day’). The weight of ‘suggestion and still-growing questions’ is felt throughout the collection. It is sustained over the sonnets that form the poem’s second part – an imagining set to music. A grief, a trauma: how true the poems are to the turbulence of both, the mind’s unbidden playing over and over, the variants and echoes, of the event, and the calling for ‘wild, protective love’. How moving they are too, as in the ‘slo-mo’ reverse at the end of the third sonnet: ‘I want to rewind the flames/that flowered along your limbs, at finger and toe:/I want to walk you out of the furnace, put you together/as if by doing so I might be able to map/a way back for you, forward for me. Then let you sleep.’
Sean O’Brien’s latest collection is one of his best – my favourite since ‘Downriver’. There is, as ever, an enviable range and control – of form, prosody and tone. There are many poignant and finely-judged elegies here (‘Elegy’ and ‘Novembrists’, for example). They pay homage in exacting ways, through telling and truthful embodiments of lost loves and ways of living. ‘Novembrists’ is an incredible poem. It is an elegy for O’Brien’s parents that convinces and moves the reader in its deployment of imagery – the concrete universal: ‘walking to no purpose/But to walk, among the rutted leaves/and dripping hawthorns, in behind/The sleeping yards and flooded lawns/And air-raid shelters piled with mattresses and comics, now I see that it is my parents that I walk beside,/Her headscarf and his muted cigarette,/the desultory familiar talk, whose virtue/Lies in its routine …’ This seems to be close to the heart of the matter with the great poems here, and in previous collections: the virtue of routine, the celebratory urge that stems from those now-heralded small unremembered acts of kindness, the settings that are fly-tipped with the bits and pieces, the backdrops that give us, as readers, a sniff of the real. ‘Josie’ is another such poem, where the lost voices in the ‘Burnt Norton’ style garden are underpinned by ‘a half century gone/Like the cherry tree weeping its resin’.
Many other poems ponder flickering access out of and back into memories – ‘Correct. You can’t go back. But then we saw the gate …’ (‘Salisbury Street’) – both collective and domestic. O’Brien has never pulled his punches. There are still some direct addresses, some state of the nation poems, subtle and resonant, looking back to ‘Song of the South’ or ‘The Politics of’. At turns they are funnier, as in ‘The Plain Truth of the Matter’, at others more terrifying – ‘The Citizens’, for example. The latter contains choric horrors: ‘All we want to do is live forever …/Before we ship you to the furnaces/And sow you in the field like salt.’ There is a touch of Lowell’s ‘Stalin’ here perhaps: those millions ploughed under with the crops they grew.
O’Brien is the master of memorable cadence and unforced wordplay – redeemed cliché – as in the beautiful opening to ‘Railway Lands’: ‘Over these moss-padded sleepers/The nineteenth century runs out of steam.’ O’Brien never allows the poems to leave the sticking points of historical process. He addresses big questions: how we live and where else there is to live; what imagined and real worlds and what patterns in history our convictions might create and trace. And there is the range. Who else could write a poem that fuses Dante with the ‘Fat Slags’ from Viz (‘On the Toon’)? Who else could manage such moving homages and farewells (‘Michael’, ‘Dinner at Archie’s’ and the poems for the late Peter Porter)? ‘Leavetaking’ is perhaps the finest: ‘The world, you’d say, exists/not to be understood/But to demand conviction.’
The shade of Peter Porter hovers over both of these books. A couple of moments from his ‘Deaths of Poets’ came to mind: ‘Each meant his life to be/an exemplary success story, but somehow/it all went wrong; death couldn’t be postponed’; and the last two lines: ‘and someone’s coming with moist hair to bring/you to the house you’ve always hoped to live in’. Both these collections try to do justice to random forces beyond any human control and the forces of language needed to reckon them. Both are matters of conviction – words used out of necessities, not as ‘bricks’.