Woman Police Officer in Elevator
Rest for the Wicked
Selected Poems 1968-1986
The Annals of Chile
When the United States became a superpower after World War II, Americans became less deferential toward English writers, with the consequence that, on the whole, postwar American readers knew little of the poetry being written in the British Isles and Ireland. Auden maintained a hold on the American audience because he lived here, and Dylan Thomas flashed briefly through the country, but apart from those two imports, modern British poets made almost no impression on the United States. We were content to let them (and the poets of the Commonwealth countries and Ireland) work in their separate sphere. This depressing situation was compounded by the gradual but widening divergence between British and American culture, and by the utter failure, in the service of a mistaken nativism, of American public (and even private) schools to keep British poetry, in a systematic way, in the elementary and secondary curriculum. The American presses that still publish poetry have tended predictably to favor American poets over others writing in English.
Several things have happened recently to change this situation. On the English side, there was a rather surprised recognition that modern American poets other than Eliot deserve to be read. On the Irish side, there was the phenomenon of Seamus Heaney, a poet whose work effortlessly made its way everywhere. Sylvia Plath’s poetry attracted the attention of English critics; Robert Lowell lived for seven years between England and America, publishing in both countries; English poets such as Donald Davie and Thom Gunn moved to the United States, teaching students both in classes and by example; Heaney taught for many years at Harvard.
Commonwealth authors, too, appealed to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic: Derek Walcott, educated in a British-derived system and writing under the sign of Yeats and Auden, moved to the United States and was powerfully influenced by the poetry of Robert Lowell. International conferences, too, ensured that poets broadened their literary acquaintance. These transatlantic transfusions have affected publishing: Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and Faber have scouted out contemporary American poets and brought them to the English audience, and some enterprising American trade publishers (among them Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the Ecco Press, and Norton) have taken on British and Irish poets.
Understandably, British or Irish poets published in the United States tend to be ones who have already acquired American connections or an American address. Of those under review here, James Lasdun has taught at Bennington and Princeton, and Glyn Maxwell has had a fellowship in creative writing at Boston University: the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon teaches at Princeton and lives in New York. Like Davie, Heaney, Gunn, Walcott, and other transplanted poets brought up on metrical forms, Lasdun, Maxwell, and Muldoon carry out their experiments in stanza or meter with gaiety and panache. Their spirited ventures in form offer a rebuke not only to the unarduous free verse practiced by many American poets but also to the unmusical willed employment of “form” by poets who have not absorbed it unconsciously. It is not that the three poets at hand are always successful, but that they are at home with form. They resemble someone who grew up in a good cook’s kitchen; people who cook from cookbooks are creatures of a different order.
British English, Irish English, American English, and Commonwealth English sometimes seem like four separate dialects (with subdivisions such as Scottish English, Caribbean English, and so on). Whether we can all learn to enjoy one another’s idiom is still an open question (Trainspotting, after all, had a sequence with subtitles). And it is not merely idiom that is the problem. To understand a topical writer like Paul Muldoon we should have some sense of his family and childhood in County Tyrone and the Irish political and ethnic conflicts that figure in his work. To what extent can a poet who, unlike a novelist, has no space for the leisurely introduction of a reader into an unfamiliar setting, bring readers of another country to care about social issues or about ethnic oppression those readers haven’t themselves encountered? What was possible for Yeats is not always possible for his successors.
James Lasdun is the least culture-bound of the three poets under review, and the most accessible to the American audience. Woman Police Officer in Elevator suffers from the posthumous iron clasp of Lowell (who also laid a chill hand on Walcott and Michael Hofmann, among others). It appears that getting away from Lowell’s styles (whether that of Life Studies or his later Procrustean line sonnets) has become a major task for the generation following him. The Life Studies style is enormously tempting for the telegraphic sketching of a personal reminiscence: here, Lasdun is recalling, for his girlfriend, their being treated to lunch by her father, who appears as one of Lowell’s grotesques using a passé vocabulary mimicked by Lowellian/Jamesian quotation:
Your father, not yet divorced,
Rosy-cheeked from the Garrick,
In his Savile Row pin-striped suit
Presided over the feast.
He spread the menu like a general’s map,
Plotting his debauch
On the virginal palates
Of his teenage daughter and her first “chap.”
In a different vein, Lasdun seems even closer to Lowell: Who else could have written the sonnet called “General McClellan?”
Potomac army loved me as I’d planned.
I was Napoleon…
Glistened like the river in its banks;
Beautiful, swollen to bursting…I held them back,
Fattening like a calf for Lee’s attack.
This is Lowell-as-swaggerer, megalomaniacal, biblical, historical, his ellipses heavy with implication. It’s hard for me to understand why Lasdun writes this sort of pastiche.
Much more original is Lasdun’s title poem, “Woman Police Officer in Elevator,” which catches perfectly the new uneasiness in men as women take on authoritative social roles. Into the “john-sized tenement elevator” already occupied by Lasdun, there enters “a female housing cop,” who evokes chaotic responses in the speaker’s soul:
I felt her presence
Spooling through me like a Möbius strip,
Splicing her spilling curls, nightstick, the gun at her hip,
Chrome shield, the breast it emblazoned,
Seamlessly into the same
I caught—was it possible?—
The scent of some sweet-tinctured oil;
As the elevator descends, the speaker wonders whether his brief glance “triggered the blue-lashed, tiny/Metal detector of her eye,” and immediately begins to feel menaced: he thinks of “betrayals, infidelities,/Coercions, seductions, lies,/Ready to confess them all”:
As if in her firm indifference she’d regressed me
Inward down some atavistic line
To the original essence, the masculine
The poem rhymes its six stanzas regularly but unobtrusively; the point, always, of rhyme is not only to add musicality but also, and more crucially, to introduce a slight obstruction to a poet’s first thought, pressing him to zigzag into a wider vocabulary. Lasdun’s handling of diction and rhyme is more than competent, but it is the feelings evoked by his unnerved encounter with the policewoman, and his responses in a moment of gender-shift, that make the poem strike home. The final pun, alas, doesn’t work:
Opened and we parted, the clamped rift
Between us widening like a continental drift
Of the sexes; she to the butcher, the breaker,
The ripper, the rapist,
I to my therapist.
Lasdun writes fiction as well as poetry, and can tell a story in verse with great economy. The grimmest of his narratives is “The Accomplices,” a post-Frostian tale in which the speaker and his companion, driving through Vermont, unthinkingly, if generously, pick up a hitchhiker who, after announcing his destination (“Cromar’s Hatch”) adds his provenance:
“I just got out
From the St. Johnsbury Penitentiary.
I was in for some shit I did.”
Deposited at his house, the hitchhiker leans back down to the car and whispers “with a confidential grin,”
“Reckon my woman’s in for a shock, kid too,
I ain’t supposed to visit since what I did.”
Still not understanding, the couple see a child at the doorway,
Gashed and swollen like an old pumpkin,
A jack-o’-lantern without the candle-flicker,
Welted legs rickety as bamboo,
Tottering towards us as if to ascertain
What manner of creature held sway
Over its father’s comings and goings.
This is a poem about being an unwitting accomplice to evil, but its other claim on us is felt as Lasdun’s English eyes render backwoods Vermont. The criminal father’s house finely escapes stereotype:
…a low-slung house with a line of smoke
Wobbling on its chimney, and a yard
Matted with flattened stalks
Fleshy and yellow from the winter.
It is almost a body, this house, so matted with fleshy stalks.
Lasdun has a gift for rendering a scene or an anecdote credible, and for directing it discreetly into form. His AIDS-test sonnet, “Plague Years,” opens, “Sore throat, persistent cough… The campus doctor/Tells me ‘just to be safe’ to take the test,” and it continues,
He draws a vial of blood for the City Lab
I have to take it there, but first I teach
A class on Nabokov. Midway I reach
Into my bag for Speak Memory, and grab
The hot bright vial instead. I seem at once
Wrenched from the quizzical faces of my class
Into some silent anteroom of hell.
The mistake is convincingly plausible, but what also makes these lines ring true is the naturalness of the utterance. Many sonnets by the American poets sometimes called “New Formalists” consist merely of sentences hacked apart into decasyllabic groups (regardless of speech-rhythm or interesting line-breaks) and distorted by strained rhymes. Lasdun’s phrases—“The City Lab,” “I teach a class,” “I reach into my bag for x and grab y instead”—are statements anyone would find unforced, and his rhymes are natural too. The imaginative leap from the puzzled students into a “silent anteroom of hell” puts into relief the terrified speaker’s earlier attempts to speak casually, to maintain “an ironic calm,” and to go ahead with his daily duties before the trip to the lab. And the “hell” has been prepared for by the quasi-radioactive “hot bright vial” burning its way into the speaker’s consciousness. American readers who want to see rejuvenated form in untroubled action, giving brisk shape to contemporary and classical events, will find it in Lasdun.
If Lasdun finds it hard to shake off Lowell, he has shown he can do so. In Rest for the Wicked, Glyn Maxwell finds it hard to shake off Auden, and doesn’t quite succeed—or at least doesn’t find his own way often enough. Many of the external characteristics of Auden are here—the personified abstractions arranged in either childlike or faintly sinister ways, the schoolboy air of naive declaration, the allegorical anecdote, the fancy footwork with pronouns, the folkishness, the nursery-diction, the compulsive rhythms, the feminine endings. But Maxwell lacks Auden’s intense intellectuality, which infused everything Auden wrote. I can very well imagine someone who had never read Auden coming on Maxwell’s book and being elated by the swing and verve of it. Among the Audenesque effects we find, in “Birth Day,” the slightly surreal perception of the child-mind hinting at some great event to come: