WRITING ABOUT Edward Thomas in the 1970s, Philip Larkin came to the conclusion that he
was not a war poet. He volunteered, it is true, but only after contemplating emigration to America, applying for a job in the War Office, and attending for interview for a post in a boys’ school. The Army did not so much give him a subject as bring his proper subject, England, into focus.
For Larkin, the worthwhile poet of war wasn’t one who chose to celebrate or commemorate a conflict but a poet who reacted against having a war “thrust upon him.” Andrew Motion has thrust war upon himself, and his Coming in to Land: Selected Poems 1975-2015 is dominated by a gathering of his poems of conflict, under the title “Laurels and Donkeys.” Like Thomas, Motion’s “proper subject” is brought into focus through the lens of war, although unlike Thomas he hasn’t had to endure action. For Larkin, Thomas’s England “is not a Georgian dream, but the England of 1915, of farms and men ‘going out,’ of flowers still growing because there were no boys to pick them for their girls.” Motion too is a pastoral poet, a poet of noticing and chronicling the landscape, its histories and traditions, who has turned his gaze onto the devastations and human cost of combat from Hiroshima and Belsen to Iraq and Afghanistan; the pity of war in Motion’s work often has as much to do with the ways in which it corrupts and degrades the land on which it occurs as with its political element, or with its deadening body count.
Motion’s similarities with Edward Thomas don’t end with their “proper subjects.” Thomas worked his prose and journals into poetry, his best poems adapting a flattened, speech-based rhythm and, through those subtle cadences, giving the illusion of thought unraveling. There is an equally journalistic tone to much of Motion’s war poetry, a like fascination with the smallest detail, the observed, ordinarily missable, fleeting thing. Many of the poems are “found,” repurposed prose and speech; dialogue and utterance stand in for performed, foregrounded craft, and are all the more affecting for their hesitations, stutters, and colloquial slips. In “Setting the Scene,” a narrator pauses not on the devastated village and its ruined church, but on an unforgettable image — the naturalist outdoing the dramatist: “I saw a hare advance down the main street a moment ago, / then pause with the sun shining bright red through his ears.” Everything ominous and unspeakable is hinted at in this red light — the frailty and permeability of flesh, the vulnerability of the body confronted with a great, unanswerable force — but it remains a fond and benign moment, for all that.
“John Buxton” is another example of Motion’s faith in observation. Buxton, a prisoner of war, “chose as his one particular subject / the redstart,” observing one pair for “eight hundred and fifty hours.” The poem concludes with Buxton’s own words, a sentiment that resonates throughout Motion’s work: “What matters is: the redstarts lived where I could see them, / untroubled all day long except by their own necessities.” “It was not my war,” Motion states in “Now Then,” but he’s given voice to those whom conflict had silenced, or marginalized, such as patients suffering all manner of nervous collapse, who speak affectingly in “An Equal Voice,” or the shy, unlikely “Matinee Idol” giving a message to his family via a film played on the big screen: “That’s my time up, so I shall say good-bye for the moment. / Here is Corporal Wagstaff with a message for his mother.”
The most striking voice in the “Laurels and Donkeys” section of the book is that of the mother of Lieutenant Mark Evison, in “The Gardener.” Motion’s talent for capturing speech allows him to disrupt syntax, to exploit the white spaces on the page, to devastating effect. The tics and stumbles of ordinary conversation — “I said Oh my son he’s in the army / sort of brightly” — aren’t fetishized or downplayed, and the result is a living narrator, her faltering eloquence made all the more heartbreaking in the process. Her moments of lyrical lift-off stand in a starker contrast, too, grown from the rubble of everyday language:
the reindeer the wild reindeer
giving birth in the snow
with the rest of the herd scarpering
they have seen the eagle above them
but the mother stands still
what am I going to do what
a bit restless and everything
but starting to lick her baby
with the eagle watching
The poems of war don’t only dominate the collection; they appear to have refocused Motion’s sense of his work as a whole and opened up new possibilities. The vast majority of the poems gathered here are from the last 10 years of Motion’s writing life, and while there are mourned-for omissions, that feels the right decision on his part. There is an air of late blooming about it, something to which he makes subtle reference, in a different context, in “Holy Island”: “I cannot explain why I have left it as late as this.” If Thomas is a touchstone for Motion’s work, another career-long influence, the aforementioned Larkin, casts a shadow in the final third of the book, especially in poems increasingly concerned with mortality. There isn’t Larkin’s terror of the inevitable, but, as it was for the poet of “Aubade,” death is a felt presence, a sullen observer, and — at times — a coaxing voice.
The later poems deal with reputation and posterity, often in oblique ways, but most starkly in “The Realms of Gold,” where the narrator and a biographer of the all-but-forgotten D. J. Enright, a poet who led “a life as good as any,” stare out to sea: “Small waves beat towards us, / fold over neatly, and turn into foam. // Very soon more follow and / the same thing happens.” There is ambivalence around the idea of disappearance, nonexistence; in “The Fish in Australia,” the speaker casts out a broken line, for the pleasure of doing so, waiting “until such time arrives / as the dark that swallowed up / the sky has swallowed me,” and in “Through the Lych Gate” an old photograph of the local graveyard allows the opportunity to “imagine / the bliss / of having never been born.” A sense of what life might have been, had it been led in other ways, nags at the various speakers of these poems. They mourn, at times, their not having arrived at this sort of happiness sooner, but there’s a self-aware, chidingly moving nod at the fact that such shortcuts are, in truth, impossible, as in “An Echidna for Chris Wallace Crabbe”: “But he obviously understands/ that to start again at the beginning / and change faster / would only mean taking the straight road to extinction.” This book is testament to that idea, by a poet currently writing the best work of his career, having recovered from the “double-edged chalice” that was the role of poet laureate and found a method for making the demotic, spoken English of his own time fit material for poetry, just as Thomas, and Wordsworth before him, had done in theirs.
In his elegiac 2009 collection A Scattering — published in the United States with Anniversary, a group of companion poems written several years on — Christopher Reid has managed something difficult. These are poems of mourning for Reid’s late wife, the actor Lucinda Gane, but rather than fitting himself out in somber colors, Reid retains the sprightly, light-footed playfulness that characterizes his earlier work. These are percussive, jaunty, and often comic poems about loss, yet they don’t feel irreverent. Their Gilbert and Sullivan–ish theatricality allows for unexpected deflations and surprise, and acts as a way of honoring the dedicatee by making her presence animated, vivacious, and “radiant.” There is a childlike enthusiasm from the off, a defiant sort of ebullience, with the book opening on an Edenic vision of a Crete full of “sting-toting insects on haphazard reconnaissance,” the local animals and birds “scampering,” “squeaky,” the landscape laid out in “velvety ochres.” There is in that “velvety” something intrinsic to Reid’s style — a modest, familiar tone; he is a poet of both the magnifying glass and the diminutive, making what’s observed paradoxically larger and more digestible. The opening poem also gives a glimpse of a sort of doubling, which will occur throughout the book, an image set up with matter-of-factness, making the grand questions seem like domestic table talk while simultaneously foreshadowing the personal cataclysm to come: the sun, “that more dangerous beast,” says of the scene, “These are my wares. Yours more or less for the asking. / Of course I accept your paltry currency, your small change of days and hours.”
Reid confronts the potential impropriety of tackling grief and loss in this manner head-on: “Glib analogies! / Makeshift rhymes! // Please pardon the crimes / of your husband the poet.” He compares his role to Theseus, trying to find his way out of the Minotaur’s maze in a poem set at a point when illness is only “the scarcely troubling / rumour of a rumour,” ensuring the word “tumour” resounds in the reader’s ear despite, or because of, its absence. Reid’s lexicon is unexpected, drawn from a register not usually associated with his subject: words such as “sublime,” “charmed,” and “succulence” ring out. The effect as a whole is akin to this brilliant description of a monastery’s bells: “a spasm of clashing, a jam-session / praise-psalm of pots and pans, a no-nonsense / spring cleaning of the air.” In Reid’s hands, it isn’t only the air that undergoes an overhaul, but the language itself, whether he’s coining a deft portmanteau — “bloom-sleuthing” — or, more broadly, investing the elegiac mode with insubordinate joie de vivre. The thinking behind his risky method is hinted at in a poem about visiting a ruin, and the “dry sort of pleasure” found in ground plans and “parsimonious” shadows: “You don’t want their botched text. / You want the breath, pulse and footfall / of the girl who dashed out // into sunlight like today’s / through where maybe that door was — / then slammed it behind her.”
It’s the “breath, pulse and footfall” of his wife that Reid is able to give us, chronicling the little rituals and touchstones, referring knowingly to the “Senior Curator, Department of Private Jokes.” As a result, we feel included in “[a] marriage and its legends”; at one point Reid notes of Gane, “lacking religion, you gave your ardour / to customs, ceremonies, graces / of a domestic order,” and he might as easily be talking of himself. Even though we know that this is a book of elegies, Reid is still capable of sweeping our legs from under us by his feats of unexpected comparison and — in large part — by his timing. A poem about Gane’s ability to live in “the present future, / a tense of your own invention,” and her knack for “doing two or three things at the same time” lulls us into believing that it is a simple “praise-psalm,” chronicling various aspects of home life, before its ending — a poignant, unforeseeable twist: “Two or three things at the same time. / Can’t you now somehow contrive / to be both dead and alive?” That exposed, hurt voice is the flipside of the benevolent, unguarded effervescence elsewhere, a slapstick version of heartbreak. The title poem is perhaps the most pronounced example of Reid’s sleight of hand, starting with a left-field statement — “I expect you’ve seen the footage: elephants / finding the bones of one of their own kind” — before turning this natural phenomenon of scattering the bones of the lost into an analogy for placing “my own sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.”
While it doesn’t refuse to mourn, A Scattering never loses its sense of spry engagement in life, and this willed resilience allows Reid to retain a pleasurable sort of synesthesia — birdsong and goat bells are, at one point, “delicious to listen to” — a pleasure mirrored in the poems that make up Anniversary, written 10 years after Gane’s death. If there aren’t any quite as memorable as those in A Scattering, they nevertheless attest that “happiness can be sought, / found, caught, / and kept by a shared will,” memory and “fortunes both good and ill” acting to sustain and encourage, even a decade on. Writing with typical gusto of the recollection of Gane’s head, shaved during treatment, Reid calls it: “Virgin landscape, / so neat and so new!” — an epithet applicable to his version of the elegy. Producing a book that feels so free of cliché, so vivid and affecting, out of something as implacable and poetically familiar as the loss of a partner is an artistic achievement, and above that a perfectly pitched act of love for “the girl who dashed out.”