Beautiful Objects

Mermaids Explained

by Christopher Reid, with a foreword by Charles Simic
Harcourt, 129 pp., $24.00

Electric Light

by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 98 pp., $20.00

In the late 1970s I was asked to judge a small but interesting prize, the Prudence Farmer Award, which was given to the best poem that had appeared, that year, in the New Statesman. The best poems that year seemed to me to have been written by two poets, Craig Raine and Christopher Reid, and I divided the award between them. Raine’s poem was called “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home”: it presented human life as seen through the misunderstanding eyes of an alien. Here for instance is a description of a telephone:

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.
If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep
with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

The last image only works now, of course, for someone familiar with the dial phone.

Reid’s poem was called “Baldanders.” Here is how it goes:

Pity the poor weightlifter
alone on his catasta,
who carries his pregnant belly
in the hammock of his leotard
like a melon wedged in a shopping bag…
A volatile prima donna,
he flaps his fingernails dry,
then—squat as an armchair—
gropes about the floor
for inspiration, and finds it there.
His Japanese muscularity
resolves to domestic parody.
Glazed, like a mantelpiece frog,
he strains to become
the World Champion (somebody, answer it!)
Human Telephone.

The “catasta” on which the weightlifter stands is a platform from which slaves were sold. The mysterious title “Baldanders,” or in English “Soondifferent,” comes from Johann Grimmelshausen’s seventeenth-century novel of the Thirty Years’ War, Simplicius Simplicissimus, and refers to a statue the hero finds which gives him “a recipe for conversing with lifeless objects and, as if for fun, changes into about a dozen different shapes, but always remains its own true Soondifferent self.” The weightlifter, in the course of a short poem, has been slave, pregnant woman, prima donna, frog, and sumo wrestler before his triumphant transformation into the telephone, and yet, like Baldanders, he has always remained true to his own self. Like Raine’s poem, “Baldanders” revels in the extra-vivid presentation of the familiar. But it comes with its own teasing obscurities, to add to the interest.

In my report on the award, I took pleasure in claiming that the two poets were leading members of the Martian School, and that this school was the one of the most significant of the time. My invention stuck; Raine and Reid have been patiently going along with it ever since, and we find in Charles Simic’s introduction to the new collection of Reid’s poems, his first American collection, that Reid was “the cofounder of the so-called Martian School in the 1970s, a poetic movement notorious for verse that seemed to consist of nothing else but a string of startling images intended to shock the unsuspecting readers.” This is a little harsh. Neither the original “Martian” nor “Baldanders” (the two …

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