Across these collections, by four poets born within six years of each other (one, Christopher Reid, has even written a poem on the subject of ‘Boomers’), certain preoccupations seem to recur: an interest in travel and migrations; a sharp awareness of the environment and the damage it has suffered; and an interest in ‘lateness’ and endings – making sense of the past while nervously awaiting the future.
Two long poems dominate Andrew Motion’s latest collection, Randomly Moving Particles. The title poem is a particular triumph: a fragmentary work that shifts between micro and macro scales of vision, encompassing the political, the personal and the planetary. He namechecks Brexit and Trump (‘false, lacking the normal signs of difficulty in thinking what/to say when performing the chosen word-stream’). At the same time, there is a thread of personal loss and grief that carries through from its opening lines: ‘That Christmas I ran through fire in London/carrying my old father across my shoulders’. Indeed, it’s the elegiac moments that are particularly affecting, as in the final image of his father: ‘his mind/he abandoned/while preparing to set his jaw/and turn his face to the wall’.
We have gestures to Larkin – ‘the friendly arrow-shower daily/of email somewhere becoming correspondence’ – as Motion casts himself as the bewildered Brit abroad, now living in Maryland, isolated save for the comforts of FaceTime. He declares towards the end, ‘I am homesick for the future’, and there is a delicate, unpretentious hum of anxiety that makes this lyric poem highly compelling. The second long piece, ‘How Do the Dead Walk’, is similarly loose in form yet is written in a very different, more mythic mode. It is a grim, visceral narrative about a major returned from Afghanistan, burdened with trauma and giving in to its nightmarish consequences. Here, psychic decay is made manifest with brutal clarity: ‘Life stripped me bare/and now like a ship at berth/I neglect the running tide’.
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In Christopher Reid’s The Late Sun, we have another poet tracing the death of a parent, here his mother. In ‘Unheard Words’, she suffers ‘ordeal by speechlessness, enforced/banishment from all language’. She is a presence in several other poems too. He describes the reckoning of her life that occurs as he takes care of her last home: ‘let me not omit from my accounting/questions I asked, to which I have forgotten the answers’. Then, in ‘Actual Age’, he delights at the memory of watching his mother starring as ‘Miss Marple/in Murder at the Vicarage’ and moving elegantly on to her other performance, hiding her pains, in old age.
Reid has a playful exuberance, too, as when he enjoyably details the ‘Smells of London’. The collection skims across a variety of places – Kandy, Mandalay, lost Yorkshire villages – and there are many stunning, richly observed set pieces that stay in the memory: ‘Two on the Edge’, with a young couple on their honeymoon; a description of mountains spied from on board a plane, where there might be ‘Echoes forever waiting to happen; if happening, unheard’; and a tribute to the composer Elliott Carter, with its marvel of an ending – ‘as he grew older/his music travelled/in the opposite direction’. This is an admirably warm, self-aware collection, and Reid’s lines on himself as a literary type are suitably disarming:
By mischance, I fell among the drinkers of ink.
I knew them at once by their stained lips, their sour stink
and the light-threatened look in their eyes, a perpetual half-awake blink.
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The American activist and poet Carolyn Forché’s In the Lateness of the World has a global scope and a revelatory quality, as if she is writing from the end times. Her poetic voice is solemn and stately, tending more towards the collective experience than the purely individual. Her work is political and dutiful as she strives to be a ‘poet of witness’ (her memoir of her time in El Salvador during that country’s civil war, What You Have Heard is True, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2019). Forché sees writing as a record for voices that might otherwise be lost – ‘The Boatman’, like many of her pieces, considers the condition of migrants, prompted by the devastation of Syria: ‘We could still float, we said, from war to war.’ Then, in ‘Letter to a City Under Siege’, she speaks of ‘Turning the pages of the book you have lent me of your wounded city,/reading the braille on its walls’.
Forché’s verse frequently adopts slow rhythms that lend intensity to her descriptions. The traces that mankind leaves upon earth are a perennial focus: her opening poem, ‘Museum of Stones’, pushes us to consider the material that constitutes the history of a place – ‘all earth a quarry, all life a labor’. ‘Morning on the Island’ and ‘Report from an Island’ are both elegiac commentaries on environmental destruction: ‘The pellets are eggs to the seabirds, and the bags, jellyfish to the turtle.’ Forché’s style is meditative and mystical: this is a poet who lingers and puts pressure on language. She ends her collection with a transcendent look to the future, in ‘What Comes’: ‘to speak is not yet to have spoken’.
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Bill Manhire’s colourful collection Wow (Carcanet 88pp £10.99) begins with ‘Huia’, an immediate gesture to his New Zealand nationality. The voice of an extinct bird rings out (‘my song was now a warning/and now a song of love’), indicative of the poet’s simple, direct register and alerting us to a slide into catastrophe. Yet though Manhire is full of foreboding about the future, he mixes the serious with the playful across a range of short, experimental poems. I enjoyed the wry retelling of the story of Noah and his ark: ‘As for the animals, I never really knew./Someone else did that. In the end we ate a few.’ He has worked in universities throughout his career and ‘Conference Dinner’ is a recognisable, undermining portrait: the ‘freelance biographers tucked in’ while the Wordsworth scholars ‘left quite a lot on our plate’. This is a poet who shares his learning with an appealing accessibility and ease, telling us in ‘The Armchair Traveller’: ‘Bliss is it late at night to be alive,/learning to yield, and not to strive.’