Alcohol and Poetry
Review: Shades of Grey
on Scupham, Crossley-Holland and Shuttle
Peter Scupham, Winter Quarters, Oxford University Press, £4.50
Kevin Crossley-Holland, Time's Oriel, Hutchinson, £4.95
Penelope Shuttle, The Child-Stealer, Oxford University Press, £4.95
'Such vulnerability is my concern' (The Snowing Globe): Peter Scupham's preoccupation with 'vulnerability' has always humanised his poetry, redeemed it from preciosity. Winter Quarters is as rich in honed surfaces and artful indirections as ever. This richness can make its moments of pathos seem mannered. The very stylishness of a line like 'A bright thing lost among a darkening wood' virtually cancels out its hint of elegy. Yet the line distils Scupham's vision in the volume. The burnished order of the poems frequently seems to be defending against threats of chaos. So the second stanza of 'The Spanish Train' glides beyond the safe world of toys and childish word-play:
Now, on a sofa, the child holds a word:
Spain, where the rain goes, and a wooden train
Quite serious in its unclouded paintwork,
Its yellow bright as any Star of David.
Few poets are so hauntingly oblique, so good at knowing what to say and what to leave unsaid. The poem miniaturises, yet it suggests dangers which won't be tamed by poetry. The menacing suggestions accumulate quietly: 'The flowers prepare their faces for the night./Shutters and blinds are drawn. There are long journeys/Which must be made'. Obliquity, though, is nothing without precision. There are times when Scupham intimates at too great a distance from experience. Responsive to history, his imagination is, none the less, essentially lyrical. He is at once most exhilarating and most precariously close to self-indulgence when he manipulates his favourite images: 'Dusk, and the twisting candles/Blend shade and flying shade,/The quick and the dead link fingers,/Their circle made, unmade'. The moment of communion is touched on, then whisked away. It's hard to know whether one is contemplating a perfected stillness or a vacuum. A similar doubt is raised by the poet's elegant but distracting use of allusions and models (Roethke's 'Four For Sir John Davies', for instance, ghosts 'La Primavera').
Scupham's poems, as Neil Powell puts it, `invariably ritualise their subjects'; the result can be writing of exquisite poignancy:
The night dies on till all the tides are turned,
And though the ebb was deeper than the full,
From this, our common ground, we cannot single
That diminution in the homing waves
Which speaks of tears, which speaks of tears and flame.
These lines are moving and wholly literary, Virgilian in their calm, their quickened and abiding sadness. Their relevance to the poem's apparent subject is tenuous, though a more generalised application is possible. Scupham's is a technique that catches the manner yet often lacks the substance of major poetry.
Two sequence's, 'Conscriptions' and 'Notes from a War Diary', are less tantalisingly associative. In 'Cleanliness', a poem from 'Conscriptions', Scupham's Stevens-like gaudiness is given a welcome ironic focus: 'Is not the sun a high armorial fire/Which angels burnish into excellence?' Here words and context strike humorous sparks off one another. Yet such clarity is achieved at the cost of a certain evocativeness. Though Scupham's ability to release the sonorous line at will can seem too easy, it's a gift for which the reader is often grateful. It sustains a mysterious poem like 'The Cottages'. It contributes to the success of 'The Candles', a sensitively woven meditation set against the imposition of martial law in Poland. The blank verse is attuned to subtle movements of feeling; the poem ends with a muted affirmation which does not deny the reality of suffering. Like the best poems in Winter Quarters it lights candles despite its knowledge of 'Whatever comes with night to put them out'.
Darkness pervades some of the most powerful poems in Kevin Crossley-Holland's Time's Oriel. 'Children in the Cherry Tree' shows him at his best — at once inside the self-estrangement of the children, 'the silent high-riders hear shouts/In their throats' and aware of the distance between himself and childhood. This distance is signalled by a single line set between two flanking stanzas: 'So high and so cold, the tree now such a stranger'. The poem's final line, 'As darkness lopes along the waiting blue hills', is just right, alive with menace and imminence, the rhythm a match for the loping it enacts. Again, 'Grandmother's Footsteps' is a spooky tour-de-force. It captures the cruel seriousness at the heart of games; its syntax is very expressive, panicking phrases allowed to run into one another: 'Laughing they troop back to the starting-line most of them/But no not all those other ones how long will it be?'
Crossley-Holland is nearly always better when he halts on the verge of statement than when he meditates over-explicitly, when he surrenders to feeling than when he tries to hammer emotion into shape. When he asserts, as in `Deliverance' which describes the return of inspiration, he risks sounding flat-footed, striving too hard for the arresting effect: 'This is the day of the rainbow,/the bird with a twig in its beak'. By contrast, 'If Only the Wind' is at once seemingly guileless and genuinely exploratory. It's a short lyric—three quatrains—yet its theme refuses to be pinned down. It could be a poem about a poem waiting to be writ ten, which gets written in the act of describing the yearning waiting:
Yet nearly at hand there seems to go
So much I almost know or did once know.
The topmost branches sing and swing at ease.
If only the wind would come down from the trees.
As with 'Children in the Cherry Tree', the poem owes much of its force to the quiet freedom with which Crossley-Holland handles a line which swirls round, without quite settling for, the iambic pentameter. One can point to other technical details in this last stanza—its singing rhymes, the work it gets simple adverbs like 'nearly' and 'almost' to do, the importance of its supple syntax — without exhausting its richness. Magic and String — to borrow the terms of an early Scupham poem—work hand in hand, but it is Magic which has the last word. The last lines of 'At St Gregory's Minster,. Kirkdale', another fine short poem, display a similar tact:
Pale sun glossed your face. Under violet eyes
the shadows seemed only tissue-deep,
and I never guessed this was your last tide.
Once more, the poet's voice, reliving his sad lack of awareness, comes over in the skilfully roughened movement of that last line. 'Neenie', a more ambitious elegy for the poet's grandmother, seems, in comparison, almost garrulous. Its conversational flow and ability to modulate are impressive. Yet there's a sense of strain as the poet sums up his poem's meaning: 'I listen and think you are telling something/ Greater than its parts'. Perhaps the lines too obviously covet the praise they give. The poem is, nevertheless, distinguished. Time's Oriel is well-crafted and, when it steers clear of explicitness and the forcing of emotion that can accompany it, often moving.
Children and the idea of childhood fascinate Scupham and Crossley-Holland; they dominate Penelope Shuttle's latest collection. For Scupham, childhood is a grave enchantment which he celebrates and elegizes; for Crossley-Holland, it is a time of intense feeling, but not sealed off from subsequent living; for Shuttle, it represents a state of harmony from which adults exclude themselves at their peril. Her last poem, 'The Children', sends us off with this line ringing in our ears: 'we have gone away into the wise world of the children'. At her best, she is less sentimental. 'Old Houses' evokes the end of childhood's undifferentiated sense of community, as one child steps out of a circle and 'wanders away into near-adult solitude in the ruins'. No lover of 'magic circles' or idolater of childhood, Milan Kundera supplies an interesting gloss on this experience in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. He diagnoses the subtly corrupt appeal of 'Circle dancing' and describes his own discovery of how 'once a circle closes, there is no return'. But where Kundera is ironic, Shuttle is poised somewhere between grief and acceptance. Her poem feels its way with haunting sureness.
She can wreck an intuition by running up a flag of 'significance', lapsing, as in 'The Flower Press', into laboured parable: 'Should I try to show you how lives may be grasped,/and like these flowers shut in, immobilized?' More satisfying are poems which bring into unforced fusion apparently opposed feelings. Both 'Prayer' and 'The Others' trespass with strange serenity on an emotion not unlike a death-wish. In both the desired release is mirrored by flowing cadences. 'Prayer' culminates in this image: 'I'm going somewhere, unknown, untroubled,/mist rises from the kindly waters,/enfolds me in its secret placid linen'. The language is full of quiet surprises — like the neighbouring presence of 'secret' and 'placid'. That the poet is 'untroubled' is curiously moving, a rich trouble to the reader's imagination. 'The Others' is written in the short line of Williams' 'To Waken An Old Lady', and survives comparison with the delicate inventiveness of the earlier poem (unlike 'Indoors and Outdoors' whose woodenness is thrown into cruel relief beside the poem it calls to mind, MacNeice's 'House on a Cliff'). The Child-Stealer is certainly good enough to make one interested to see what this poet will do next.
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