Rhyming Triplets

Book Reviews: New & Collected Poems, by U. A. Fanthorpe; How Snow Falls, by Craig Raine; and Late Poems, by Anthony Thwaite

Books Literature
Study in chaos: Craig Raine's Oxford room (Photograph courtesy of Eamonn McCabe) 

Probably no two English poets could be less alike than the late U. A. Fanthorpe and the still very much alive Craig Raine. Yet, both are closer to each other in certain tacit aspects of style and outlook than either is to Anthony Thwaite, who occupies a promontory all his own. In How Snow Falls, his first collection in a decade, Raine once again displays the weird and unsettling Martian phosphorescence that brought him early acclaim. He sees the world aslant, often jarringly so. (Who else could say of his dead father in his coffin: “His face was the colour/of old glazed cheddar” and get away with it?) By contrast, Fanthorpe’s massive New & Collected Poems, which in its plump, squat thickness wholly commandeers the hand, is quite resolutely of this earth. In “Men on Allotments,” from her first collection Side Effects, she wrote that her Sunday gardeners “know how much/Patience and energy and sense of poise/It takes to be an onion”. Fanthorpe knew it too; she understood the onion’s dense aplomb, as though from within, and all her strongest poems — there are impressively many — have the layered translucence of things fresh plucked from the soil.

What these two dissimilar poets have in common, perhaps surprisingly, is a quite precise compassion of eye. Their clear-sightedness can appear cruel. In “A la recherche du temps perdu,” one of two long, and quite moving, elegies which frame his collection, Raine spares us no detail of a long-dead lover’s anatomy; he is precise in describing the facial hair which so distressed her and in fact, he numbers those hairs: “Twenty. Just under the chin.” It is “one of the facts” about her, “like the long guard hairs on a fox.” 

And he is meticulous in evoking the “fine scissors,/made in Germany, curvilinear”, with which she clipped them. Such details could veer all too easily into either bathos or farce. By dwelling so insistently, indeed obsessively, on those “tiny, shining, sparse, glint-black” chin hairs, which looked “like surgical stitches”, Raine slowly and stubbornly resuscitates his dead lover. She is never named but we feel her sheer physical presence become almost palpable on the page. Raine can even risk a low pun, as when he parodies the first line of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s venerable poem as “They fle from me that sometyme did me tweke.” Raine’s 40-page poem, made of rough, deliberately clanking couplets and drawing on rhymes of every sort — woozy off-rhymes (caffeine/coffin, vanish/varnish), docked echoes (Kleenex/box), macaronic rhymes (moussaka/pukkha), rime riche, the whole assonantal gamut, in fact — is an astonishing tour de force. 

And its title is apt: it is a true Proustian reclamation, not simply of “the past”, that vaguest of phantoms, but of an all-too-real, once-breathing, once-loved individual. And it is out of precise and specific details, unflinchingly recalled, that she re-arises before us. As Raine puts it, in his closing lines — evoking Conrad’s famous introduction to The Nigger of the Narcissus (to which his lover had introduced him) — the ultimate object of the poem, reinforced by the final punning rhyme, is

To make you real.

To make you see, to make you feel,

to make you hear.

To make you here.

Such attentive compassion produces that pity and terror which Aristotle identified as the consummate effect of genuine tragedy, and which brings catharsis. In this elegy, as well as in the almost unbearably poignant poem “I Remember My Mother Dying”, Raine evokes that pity and that terror. Both elegies draw their cumulative force out of memory; the struggle to remember, to recover the past, gives each poem its fierce momentum. In the poem on his mother’s death, again written in his seemingly shambling but in fact, quite skilfully calibrated couplets, Raine introduces delicate echoes which intensify the effect of the poem. There are hints, for example, of Louis MacNeice’s “Autobiography”, also composed in couplets (“My mother wore a yellow dress;/ Gently, gently, gentleness”), of nursery rhymes, even a suggestion of Thomas Hood’s sentimental old lyric “I Remember, I Remember”, here turned harrowing, as when Raine writes:

I remember

that before she became ill

my mother had a dark-eyed, frail

wispy delicacy, a gracefulness

created by her partial sight loss.

Here, too, his unusual gift for bizarre imagery, his “Martian” eye, strengthens the pathos, as when he compares his dying mother to a Christmas tree. It is all the more moving for being so improbable:

I remember

that watching her go

seemed a process so slow

it was like watching the candles burn

out on the Christmas tree. Blue 

                                                     uncertain

faltering buds of light

out to sea on a starless night.

U. A. Fanthorpe had a sharp eye for strangeness too; it was the shock she felt at “the strangeness of other people” which led her to begin writing poems in middle age, as she notes in the foreword to this final collection of her work. The patients at the neurological hospital in Bristol, where she worked as a receptionist, are not so much described in her poems as inhabited. Seen through their eyes, the world reveals its cruelty as well as its odd grace. Even as a beginning poet, Fanthorpe could suddenly take flight from the unlikeliest of vantage points. In “After Visiting Hours”, when the visitors have left, the patients “rehearse/Their repertoire of movements” and after the “vagrant/Doctors appear, wreathed in stethoscopes/Like South Sea dancers”:

All’s well, all’s quiet as the great 

Ark noses her way into night,

Caulked, battened, blessed for her trip,

And behind, the gulls crying.

The present volume includes all Fanthorpe’s published collections from Side Effects of 1978 to Queuing for the Sun of 2003, together with 39 new and previously uncollected poems. Her delightful Christmas Poems (2002) are included (though, unfortunately, without the illustrations of the inimitable Nick Wadley). 

Apart from her conspicuous and unflagging skill, from first poem to last — she commanded a rare verbal music and there seems to have been no form she did not master — Fanthorpe’s poems radiate an unusual human warmth. 

She could be tender without ever turning soppy; she could be caustic and kind at once. Her compassion had a universal cast. It extended to “nettles and hedgehogs” as well as to vexed landscapes, as in “Earthed”, an emblematic early poem:

But earthed for all that, in the chalky

Kent mud, thin sharp ridges 

        between wheel-tracks, in

Surrey’s wild gravel,

In serious Cotswold uplands, where

Limestone confines the verges like 

                yellow teeth,

And trees look sideways.

In her preface, the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy makes the point that Fanthorpe “revived the monologue in poetry”. Her poems, whether on cherished dogs or underground rivers (whose “silken slur haunts dwellings”), on historical figures (Tyndale, Julia Margaret Cameron), Shakespearean characters or anonymous hospital patients, tremble with individual timbres; they are seldom mere speaking masks for the poet herself. At the same time, she knew, as she put it in praise of Harpo Marx, that “silence/Has a better vocabulary”. This risks making her sound overly solemn when Fanthorpe was one of the most joyous poets in recent memory. She was a celebrant of life in all its manifestations. Her work bristles with obstreperous, quite irreducible identities, all scrutinised with loving exactitude. Small wonder the last poem in this very large book evokes a Palm Sunday throng. And how fitting that her final written word should have been “Hosanna!”:

I looked, and suddenly I saw. Saw it all,

crowns, donkey, trumpets, oldies, 

the clown.

I can’t explain, but I saw. Like 

  everyone else,

I shouted Hosanna!

It might seem that there is no longer any place for a poet who does not, like Raine or Fanthorpe, cultivate the precise and eloquent detail; the irreplaceable fact rather than the broad generality. After all, ever since Ezra Pound harangued poets with the injunction (never mind that he himself often ignored it) that poetry should be at least as well written as prose, the precept has become a virtual dogma, intoned solemnly in all the writing schools. But as Thwaite demonstrates in his splendid Late Poems, published to mark his 80th birthday last June 23, the most memorable poetry utterly eludes such prescriptions and is triumphantly self-subsistent. Consider “Inheritance” which I quote in its entirety:

These little steps and quivers

Remind me of my mother’s,

Yet now they are made by me

In part-senility — 

Gestures and postures passed

Across the years, not lost

But, as if imitated

By limbs, and flesh, and features, 

With movements and with gestures,

So that what was me

Becomes this parody,

Shuddering and moving on

In jerks, till I have gone

For something else to inhabit

This inherited frame,

The same and not the same,

Inhabit, inherit, give credit

To the little steps and the quiver

Linking me to my mother,

And all that has passed,

And all that is not lost.

The poem is a single sinuous line, itself punctuated by “little steps and quivers.” The faltering footsteps of old age have been turned into a sort of minuet; and yet, unlike, say, Raine’s terrifying evocation of his dying mother, Thwaite’s words could apply to your mother or to mine, indeed, to anyone’s remembered mother. To conjure up that wobbling gait, Raine or Fanthorpe would have forged startling similes; Thwaite prefers the simplest, most commodious words. In this way, he encompasses our startled recognition that as we age we sometimes catch the echo of long-vanished footsteps in our own unsteady pace. The sensation is at once spooky and comforting. Thwaite’s poem persuades by the beauty of its music, by those grave and twining cadences that make out of dissolution itself something almost fugal in its progress. 

All the 14 poems in this little volume display a comparable mastery. Here, too, are pity and terror but they have been transformed into a mortal melody spacious enough to include us all.