Glyn Maxwell's new
book of poems describes the aftermath of a love affair - burningly personal
but, like the ex-planet Pluto, strangely cold. The poet is, like Pluto,
banished to the outer reaches. He is also, like Pluto, an 'ex'. There are a
number of single-page, stand alone poems here, but the bulk of the book is
made up of much longer poems, giving Maxwell the space to get his teeth into
his own affairs. Lest this run the gauntlet of navel-gazing and
self-indulgence, the poet deploys the dazzling and playful linguistic
facility and lyric formality that we are now used to in his oeuvre.
But, for a book of such potentially emotive content, I found these poems
quite unmoving: they are mostly an exercise in 'craft' and, to use Heaney's
celebrated division, to my mind lack 'technique', about which I'm sure there
will be fair enough disagreements. For Heaney, 'Craft is what you learn from
other verse. Craft is the skill of making' (from Finders Keepers). It is,
if you like, the technical game of writing poetry. But Heaney goes on:
'Technique... involves not only a poet's way with words, his management of
metre, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance
towards life, a definition of his own reality.' It is, if you like, the heart
of the poem.
Now Maxwell certainly 'defines his own reality' here, and at length - there
is no getting away from the monolithic status of the affair in the poet's
reality - but I find it hard to get beyond his 'craft', mainly because the
dominant mode of the poems is a highly repetitious deployment of forms of
'parallelism', such as one finds in the Biblical Psalms: synonymous
parallelism (such as 'The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I
fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm
27:1) and antithetic parallelism (such as 'The Lord watches over the way of
the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish' Psalm 1:6). Maxwell's
use of these device recurs in just about every poem, and in most stanzas of
each poem to boot, from the first poem 'The Byelaws':
met me, know me well,
tell all the
world there was little to tell,
say I was
heavenly, say I was hell,
harry me over
the blasted moors
my way, go yours
through the entire book to 'The Window':
Back at a
desk I steer the thing through time.
In time I
slide a drawer of photos out
then slide it
in and shut.
seems to do the same.
By the end, I felt I'd been parallelised out of the book and was desperate
for something else - it lacked (watch out for the next Pluto pun) atmosphere.
The 'craft' is unarguably first rate - if you admire the deployment of formal
and rhetorical structures and the sound of the iambic pentameter (and, often,
I do), then you'll enjoy the sound of these poems - but the 'technique' is,
for me, missing or at best take-it-or-leave-it. Do we care? Like Pluto, I
felt at the outer reaches of Maxwell's solar system, knocking to get in, but
kept at arm's length by the distancing effects of repetitious rhetoric. Which
is a real shame, because I've been a great admirer of Maxwell's early and
recent books, particularly The Nerve and Hide Now.
Andy Brown 2013