Pastoral passage

Radiant description, linguistic precision and super-saturated dreamscapes in new collections by Matthew Francis and Stephen Sexton

Leaf Arbuthnot

At first glance it would be easy to mistake the poet Matthew Francis’s new collection, Wing, for a pint-sized nature encyclopaedia.

The white book jacket is crowded with illustrations of butterflies and other winged insects, anticipating the great number in the poems themselves. In a former life, Francis, now a professor at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, wrote IT software manuals. His ability to transpose difficult concepts into more accessible—or more arresting—language powered his last collection, The Mabinogi, a retelling of the Welsh national epic shortlisted for the 2017 Ted Hughes Award.

Linguistic precision sustains his new collection, too: reading it can sometimes feel like watching a darts champion hit the bullseye again and again. Rusty clouds of ladybirds that come drifting across the garden scatter inside the house like “coral beads from a broken necklace”. “Iron filing birds” billow above a pier before being sucked down. And a bus heaving through the Welsh countryside at night is a “box of dirty light”. The radiance of these and other throwaway descriptions can become an impediment: reading the collection first time round, I had to look up every so often; bask in the gorgeousness of the language for a bit, then get back to work.

The book is in three sections. The title of the first part is its best poem, “Freefall”, written in memory of a friend killed in a parachuting accident. The poem is a terrible reimagining of the man’s final moments. The leap itself is triumphant as a birth—the parachutist hatches from the “metal shell” of the plane into the “raucous air”. He begins to crawl, like a toddler on a Dantean new planet, across the magnificently “buffeting element”. Then his parachute fails to open. Horror. All that was invigorating turns to yowling menace:

how strange the fields below
should gather their softnesses
into a hurtling bludgeon

The second part, the soul of the book, draws from the work of Robert Hooke, a pioneering scientist who in 1665 composed a wonderfully idiosyncratic treatise on his observations in the microscopes he had designed. An oddly pedestrian poem launches this sequence. Hooke is pictured, unimaginatively, in the “panelled gloom” of an Oxford college, amid the clichéd  “smell of musty books”. But things soon pick up. The poems’ titles describe what is under Hooke’s, and the poet’s, magnifying lens. Sand becomes a trove of “sapphires, emeralds and rubies”; while a hat “barnacled with stars” reveals the intricate structure of snow crystals. The sense of discovery and delight is palpable. Poems about flowers, moss, bees and ice abound, but the magnifying magic uncovers just “how much small there is”. A nettle’s familiar “dragon tooth outline” becomes still more threatening, as each leaf hair is revealed to be a spike “fit to impale a traitor’s head”. The undersides of rose leaves are “scabbed with hillocks of a gummous substance”, the flowers’ seeds so tiny that

ten thousand would not
make this full stop.

And a flea is given new life by the scientist’s microscope, which reveals the insect to be an “armoured teardrop” with “seven-league legs/hitched up ready for leaping”.

Disappointments are strewn like tiny mines. Words that are too eye-catching to be repeated can crop up twice or more: scratch, peer, rasp. Some poems go on a bit. In his “Micrographia” treatise, Hooke recounts drowning an ant in brandy in order to examine it properly. Having “knock’d him down dead drunk, that he became moveless” Hooke was able to admire the ant at his leisure, without the insect’s juices evaporating and its body crisping up. An hour in, the ant “suddenly reviv’d and ran away”. The poem version of this bonkers little scene lacks the vivacity of the original.

The third part of the collection, “Canticles”, returns to the present. “Liberty Caps”, one of the loveliest poems in the book, describes a hunt for magic mushrooms, “shaky-stemmed thimbles of hallucinogenic tomfoolery”. The search ends in failure, not for the poem (which is superb) but for those chasing a high through damp vegetation. The thrill-seekers succeed only in gathering “an unidentified breakfast” of “bruiser” horse mushrooms and a “Renoir dalliance of parasols”.

Nature—and mushrooms—also dominate in Stephen Sexton’s collection, If All the World and Love Were Young. It deservedly won last year’s Forward Prize for best debut and is inspired by the super-saturated dreamscape of Super Mario, the video game. At its heart is an elegy to Sexton’s mother, who died of cancer while he was a (Nintendo-mad) child. Mario is guided through a kaleidoscopic wonderland of raining hedgehogs, carnivorous plants and rhythmically twitching digital grasses. Immaculate 16-syllable lines lead the reader through the levels of the game, and descriptions of intrepid adventuring are interwoven with a moving account of a woman’s sickness in real life. While the pixellated world that the poet recalls retreating to is “shallow as a pane of glass”, its unreality is given a run for its money by the surreal horror of “the idle effacement of dying”.

After dinner at McDonald’s (the poet’s mother is losing her sense of taste) the family crosses a northern Irish landscape easily as fantastical as in Super Mario: “The country roads we travel home by purple and glisten with frost/under the constellations and the Sagittarian moon.” After bereavement, a sense of the almost-possible continues to lattice over the poet’s experience of the real. “Every other day I think I see her passing by the window,” he writes,

Or crossing a bridge or walking ahead of me in the village
but this is the wrong universe among all the universes.

Both Sexton and Francis show how the natural world, whether refracted through a microscope or a video game, offers opportunity for escape, discovery and recovery. Pastoral poetry can be thought of as cuddly and nostalgic, driven by a misty longing for the old days. It does not have to be that way. Sceptics will find these works grounds for a rethink. 

By Matthew Francis
Faber, 80pp, £14.99

If All the World and Love Were Young
By Stephen Sexton
Penguin, 128pp, £9.99

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