Peter Scupham

Front Lines

Speak, Old Parrot (Hutchinson 66pp £15), a delight published in Dannie Abse’s ninetieth year, is not, I hope, a swansong. It’s a book packed with both feeling and swagger, a tumbling energy that belies the closing farewell: ‘Now, I’m tired and you nest elsewhere./Bird, your cage is empty.’ Though that poem is entitled ‘Gone?’, the question mark makes the kind of promise Robert Graves made, closing one of his collections on ‘a careless comma’.

This gathering is a cavalcade of memories and tributes: for his lost wife, as lit and beautiful in ‘Sunbright’ as she was in the Venetian room long ago, ‘so alive with human light/I was dazzled black’; for his brother Leo; for the casual customers who drift in and out of L’artista, his chosen restaurant. Abse disingenuously casts himself as the timid one, the man in ‘the mildew of age’, but his poems are vigorous affirmations. In ‘Bluebells’, young Dannie listens to his friend Keith shouting his denial of God’s existence to a tunnel’s vault, yet, bluebells stuffed in their bike baskets, they emerge ‘blessed in the unanswering light of the world’; there is a mysterious beneficence in ‘The Bus’ as this wonderful vehicle makes a twilit journey from Llantwit Major to Bridgend and back again without a passenger to help it. On schedule, it arrives at the terminus, ‘empty, yet terrific with light’. Well, John Skelton called his parrot a ‘bird of wondrous kind’, and that goes for Dannie Abse’s parrot, too. Here’s to his hundredth-birthday collection.

Matthew Francis is a clever cat who has learnt to see all sorts of things in the dark. As a candlelit blackout boy of the 1940s, I seriously appreciate this. I am not sure that the cool, intelligent voice of Muscovy (Faber & Faber 66pp £12.99) moves the human heart very much, but its lexicon performs acrobatically in a dark gymnasium. A park’s lit globes in ‘Nocturnes’ create a ‘geometrical/night with its glut of moons’; a phonebox is a ‘chilled/belljar of light’ in ‘Phonebox Elegy’; the light and the dark play juggler’s tricks in his vivid evocation of childhood, ‘Was’, where every line contains that word: ‘The dark was dangling under the lamp-posts./A settlement of moths was pitching its tents./There was a consortium of trees, consorting.’

A darkness of mood pervades a Gothick group of poems with Welsh settings, where a narrator finds himself alone in a wild, disconsolate scene accompanied by the presence of something incorrigibly other. The flame in ‘Corpse Candle’ emanates from a dying man’s nostril and acts as a graveyard guide, ‘blinking in the mulch/of black woods in the valley bottom’; poltergeist and revenant combine in ‘Familiar Spirit’ to give a winter’s-night frisson to the reader, or, even better, the listener. And who is the strange woman haunting the ‘inkwash of myself’ in ‘Walker’?

Francis is a collector of curiosities. He makes long, painterly poems that illuminate the dark stretches of history from Sei Shōnagon’s 10th-century Pillow Book and a Carolingian embassy to Russia; like Sei, Francis is exact and fastidious. He is also a game-player, enjoying goose-drawn lunar flight – an image taken from the frontispiece of Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone of 1638 – or substituting keyboard symbols for letters in ‘Enigma Variations’.

Pink Mist by Owen Sheers (Faber & Faber 87pp £12.99) plays no games. It is a singularly intense verse-drama, first heard on the radio. In ‘A Poem About Poems About Vietnam’ Jon Stallworthy memorably talked of those poets who ‘knew that in love and war/dispatches from the front are all’. Owen Sheers is not a soldier, but he has made himself intimate with warfare, then and now; he has played Wilfred Owen on stage, created a dramatic text on that hard tank commander Keith Douglas and worked with wounded soldiers in The Two Worlds of Charlie F. ‘Pink Mist’, the ironic sobriquet for a head-shot kill, brings home to us the lives of squaddies in Afghanistan in a tapestry woven from six voices: the soldiers Arthur, Hads and Taff, and the women in their lives. Enlistment is a compound of half-choices, remembered war games and the consciousness of disconnection and pointlessness that joining up might heal: ‘The recruiter he’d treated me like a man./Like what I could be, not what I am./So yeah, I wanted them – Hads, Taff – to feel like that too.’

The desire to be part of the camaraderie of action drives the three of them into achievement and disaster – ‘Otherwise it’s like going to the fair,/but staying off the rides’ – so we are carried through to the maiming, the skills and responsibilities so intensely learnt, so quickly made pointless and redundant, the ‘friendly fire’, or ‘blue on blue’, the mental destruction. The final and lead voice in the tapestry is that of Arthur, who understands the way the army works, the ‘deepening/of where you belong’, who can relate to so little on his leave except a past held in his collection of 12 blown eggs, each one ‘though empty, was full/with the feel of the day when I found it’. The verse becomes threnody, a lyrical lament, the gulf widening between them and their women. Sheers does not judge; this is a work going far beyond simple ideological stances. The best analogue to Pink Mist is In Parenthesis by David Jones, magician, creator and ordinary rifleman, who made in his extraordinary verse-drama a summation of that infantryman’s war, now reaching its centenary. Owen Sheers can stand the comparison.

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