Is English Your Native Tongue?

As Reviewed By: John Drexel

Belonging, by Dick Davis. Swallow Press/ Ohio University Press, 2002. 54 pages. cloth, $24.95; paper, $14.95.

Landscape with Chainsaw, by James Lasdun. W. W. Norton, 2003. paper, $11.00.

Soft Sift, by Mark Ford. Harcourt, 2003. 49 pages. cloth, $23.00.

Books of poems often arrive on the reviewer’s desk in more or less random groupings.  Poet A, one assumes, writes without thinking, “Hmmm…Poets B and C will each have a book coming out around the same time as mine, and some hack critic is going to wind up making all sorts of inapt comparisons among the three, perceiving some grand design that is not there.”

Fair enough.  Reading these particular three poets in sequence, or simultaneously, or alternately, may be an artificial exercise; but it can yield surprises, revealing three very different ways of looking at poetry and, by extension, the world, that might not be so evident were each book to be read on its own.  As it happens, each of the three poets here challenges our notions of what “an English poet” might be expected to be; for each in his own way is a poet of dislocation as much as of location.  Yet their modes of expression are quite distinct:  To resort to rather broad labels for a moment, we are considering the work of a traditional formalist, a postmodern formalist, and an elegantly postmodern non-formalist.

[private]Dick Davis (b. 1945) is the oldest and, perhaps not coincidently, the most overtly English of the three poets considered here.  He has been writing patiently for close to four decades now, and has established a secure if modest presence as an accomplished formalist in several books, notably Devices and Desires:  New and Selected Poems, 1967–1987 (Anvil, 1989) and Touchwood (Anvil, 1996).  Viewed alongside that of younger British poets such as Lasdun and Ford, his work seems deliberately low-key.  His voice is gentle and even aloof, but an unsettled sense of life often runs beneath the chiseled surfaces of his poetic line.

Although his reputation until recently has been confined to readers in Britain, Davis is by no means Larkin lite, a Little Englander.  His guise is the honorable one of the expatriate middle-aged gentleman-scholar, the Englishman abroad, who is at home everywhere and, perhaps, nowhere.  He longs to belong.  Davis’s professional expertise is in Persian language and literature:  He has lived in Iran, is married to an Iranian woman, and now teaches Persian at Ohio State University.  His poems frequently touch on, and draw from, classical Persian poets.  He writes slightly less often, but just as knowingly, of the Iran of the shah and of the ayatollahs.

One may infer from his background and especially from the content of his elegant and humane formal verse that Davis has a high regard for ancient civilizations and, again perhaps, a less high regard for modern ones.  This theme (the chaos that lies beneath culture and that may break out at any time), and these qualities (the formal and urbane) emerge in his tribute “Haydn and Hokusai,” for example.  Here Davis celebrates both the Austrian classical composer and the late-eighteenth/ early nineteenth-century Japanese painter and printmaker as

Masters of wit and line
Who welcome what is ugly,
Lumpish, disproportionate,
And give it grace, distinction-
Whose humor is a pool
For all of us to splash in…

And he reaches back in time-and to their work, which has survived them to sing and speak to us-and invokes their spirits thus:

Haydn and Hokusai
Be with me now, lighten
my lumpen moods, drive off
Ungainly panics, spleen,
Purge me of selfish torpor;
Remind me that you loved
Life’s dailiness, its quirks
And frumpish joy; and that
If there is heaven on earth
It’s here, it’s here, it’s here.

Typical of Davis’s attitude is the sense here that the world is too much with us, and that we attend too little to what matters in it.  What is atypical, however, is that this poem is unrhymed.  For, in the large majority of his poems, what strikes the reader’s eye and ear most obviously is Davis’s close, almost compulsive attention to rhyme and meter.  His diction is plain and simple, his syntax straightforward, the surface of his poems (as I have suggested) untroubled.  Not for him the dazzling and often gaudy techniques of such younger, more flamboyant and more widely heralded compatriots as James Lasdun (as we shall see).

For a certain kind of reader-of whom there may be many-Davis’s poems will come as no great shakes.  Although he has been writing poems for several decades, his work flies low, calling little attention to itself, coming in under the radar of most readers’ and critics’ attention.  Indeed, his talent’s most admirable quality may well be is its patience and persistence, the way it treats the writing of poems as a craft, not as therapy.  His work is cool (in the old-fashioned sense of the word, certainly not in the trendy sense in which it is bandied about now) and understated and, above all, quiet.  He is a leading practitioner of the school of Less Is More; many of his poems are literally epigrams.  He rarely says more than he needs to say, rarely uses two words where one word will do, and generally eschews the multisyllabic Latinate word in favor of the plain monosyllabic English one.  Readers who value high drama, language pushed to its limits, doubtless find him bland and uninteresting.  So too, on the other hand, will those who want poets to spell out literal meanings in their poems, to underline every confession and clarify every statement so that they can be sure that it has one meaning and one meaning only.

The confessional element is there, but it is always clothed in decorum.  Family tragedies lurk in the background and give many of his poems a haunted quality. There are, in some earlier poems, allusions to an emotionally disturbed brother who committed suicide, and to a sense of guilt that still pervades the poet’s memory, as in the deliberately casual and conversational and Larkinesque “Secrets,” which begins:

A family full of secrets, of the kind
Well-meaning folk now call dysfunctional;
We always moved but never left behind
The memories we were not allowed to have

But in the three four-line stanzas of this poem, Davis proves himself at an opposite pole from, say, a Sharon Olds.  He does not allow himself to make a cult of personal suffering; he confesses to successive bouts of “Anguish and pleading and indifference” but does not draw back the veil on the events that led to these.  He merely admits “I ran away to books, fantastic lands, / To verse, where things add up…”

Death is never too far from Davis’s thoughts, but his tone is elegiac and restrained, as in the simple “A World Dies…” (note the ellipses), which reads, in its entirety:

A world dies when a person dies; who sees
And savors life as he did who is dead?
No one now lives the myriad privacies
That made the life that ends, now, on this bed.

(I would assume, incidentally, that Davis pronounces “privacies” in the English manner, the first i being short.)

Having identified Davis as a formalist and traditionalist, I ought to say a little about his use of form; for that-his formal mastery-is what his admirers most admire about his writing.  As I’ve suggested, his diction and his syntax are relatively plain and simple, his tone predominantly conversational though learned; his rhymes are for the most part unadorned and unremarkable. Davis knows how to shape a stanza, how to control meter throughout a poem, and some of his poems look, on the page, like Thomas Hardy:

What metaphor is adequate?
What image makes a baggy fit?
What trope
Might cope?

Floods behind levees rising higher
Smooth as a psychopath’s desire,
they spill?

(And so on for seven stanzas in “Games.”  See, too, “Night Thoughts” and “No Going Back,” where he achieves similarly Hardyesque effects.)

However, a predominance of such effects-an overtly deliberate concentration on form, as indicated not just in the poems themselves but indeed in a couple of the titles (“A Monorhyme for the Shower,” for example, and “A Petrarchan Sonnet”), can give rise to the suspicion that the poems might be written as academic exercises rather than out of necessity. Or, as the question might be phrased, “Which comes first-the form or the matter?” But that’s an argument to be pursued elsewhere.  Davis clearly relishes the challenge of writing in set forms, and on those terms he mostly succeeds.

Finally, it’s no bad thing-indeed, it may well be a necessary thing-for a poem to leave the reader with a sense of puzzlement, at least on an initial reading. Davis’s poems perform the elegant and not-so-easy trick of seeming to say more by what they don’t say than by what they do say.  That is, he seems to imply actions and emotions that lie well beyond the words on the page, as if he is teasing the reader with a secret that he won’t reveal.  Frankly, this trait can become irritating, and as I read these poems I sometimes find myself wondering if in fact there’s less, rather than more, than meets the eye.  Are Davis’s means too slender to bear the full weight of metaphysical import?  (After all, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.) Yet, if Davis’s poems are ultimately less compelling and less memorable than those of such major poets as Geoffrey Hill, Derek Mahon (admittedly unfair comparisons, those), or Michael Longley (whom Davis particularly resembles in epigrammatic skill and formal concentration), his work nonetheless has its own distinct and undeniable merits and bears reading and re-reading.

Turning, after Belonging, to James Lasdun’s Landscape with Chainsaw, we encounter a different brand of formalism altogether.  Where Davis seems relaxed and reflective, content to let his poems speak for themselves, quietly, with classical detachment, Lasdun bristles with an almost aggressive energy, as if he’s flinging his poems in the reader’s face.  Like Davis, Lasdun too is an expatriate Britisher resident in America; but his poems are more modern and more conflicted than Davis’s; and he’s more insistent on remaking himself as an American.  Is this because Lasdun belongs to a different generation (he was born in 1958) both temporally and by cultural affinity?

I used the term Britisher because, although he was born in London, Lasdun more obviously and consciously defies American notions of what it means to beEnglish. Although the peripatetic Davis has lived much of his life outside of the UK and clearly appreciates other cultures (notably that of Persia, as I’ve mentioned), his voice remains quintessentially English, good-natured even when it is wistful. Lasdun, by contrast, carries a rather visible chip on his shoulder, at least if one takes his poems at face value:  Although born and raised in England, as a Jew of continental European descent he felt himself an outsider in a nation with an official Protestant state religion, a nation where centuries of heritage and breeding count for much, as he writes in “American Mountain”:

“We’re not English” went the family saying.
What were we then? We’d lopped
our branch off from the family tree:
Anglophone Russian-German apostate Jews

mouthing Anglican hymns at church
till we renounced that too… Self-knowledge
was knowledge of not being this or this or this.

This is what I mean by the chip on his shoulder.  His alienation is so evident and pervasive that one could almost give Lasdun’s book a title that’s the antithesis of Davis’s-Not Belonging. Of course one ought to resist the temptation to read a poem as if it’s autobiography; but Lasdun adopts the confessional voice so insistently that we’ve little choice other than to take him at his word, to interpret his “I” as the flesh-and-blood poet himself, not a projected character.

That said, Lasdun is a poet of more obvious ambitions than Davis.  His syntax is knottier, his diction more elaborate than Davis’s.  And his poems return again and again, obsessively, to the same theme that Davis touches on-the search for home and the despoilment of paradise.  Indeed, Landscape with Chainsaw is part of that burgeoning poetic subgenre-the poetry collection that is thematically intertwined and can be read as a continuous narrative arc.  (Lasdun is a novelist as well as a poet.)  Much of the “narrative” that informs Landscape concerns the poet’s attempt either to tame or to reconcile himself with that landscape.  No sooner has he arrived in the New World, seeking a new Eden, than (irony of ironies! surprise! surprise!) the newcomer dispossesses the natives of their land and takes the axe to the virgin forest, only to frustrate his own desires in fulfilling them.  It’s a story as old as the hills.   (In this case, the Catskills.  Lasdun lives in Woodstock, in upstate New York, and in an eight-page poem of that title he pays tribute to the seminal event that occurred nearby in 1969.)

The poet strikes the theme of possession and dispossession right off the bat, in the opening stanza of the first poem, “Locals”:

They peopled landscapes casually like trees,
being there richly, never having gone there,
and whether clanning in cities or village-thin stands
were reticent as trees with those not born there,
and their fate, like trees, was seldom in their hands.

The late-arriving settler is met with disdain and fear; he is keenly aware that there are others “always there before you; the original prior claim / that made your being anywhere intrusive.”  Wherever he goes, “there were always locals, and they were never us.”  He doesn’t fit in, and he lets us know it:

I envied them. To be local was to know
which team to support: the local team;
where to drop in for a pint with mates: the local;
best of all to feel by birthright welcome
anywhere; be everywhere a local . . .

In “American Mountain,” Lasdun suggests that much as the newcomer-any newcomer-might aspire to live in the Garden, he always winds up clear-cutting it. Regarding the scenery littered with “abandoned orchards,” “abandoned houses,” and “abandoned grist-mills,” he asks “what landscape isn’t finally the sum of other’s abandoned efforts to turn it / into themselves?”

The metaphor of forest and trees, chainsaw and axe, echo throughoutLandscape. This is evident in such titles as “Chainsaw  I” and, some pages later, “Chainsaw  II,” as well as (for variety’s sake) “Birch Tree with Chainsaw.”   The pub in “Hops” is the Royal Oak.  As reported in the poem “Returning the Gift,” the chainsaw of the title is given to the poet by his wife as a birthday present, thereby opening new vistas of opportunity and anxiety.  The instrument is

a shiny blue Makita,
big as our child, heavy

as an impacted planet.
On every part of its body the makers
have slapped red warning stickers:
Stop! Danger of Death! Do Not Operate

Unless Experienced!

Talk about product placement!

In “Birch Tree with Chainsaw” he recounts, in Heaneyesque (and Muldoonesque) detail, an occasion to which he attributes particular significance:

I remember it; my first
plunge-cut, the bellying trunk
too plump for the usual felling kerf,
a bride among her bridesmaids
in its copse of lithe saplings.
I plunged the blade in, circling till she gave…

“Between A and B” begins, “The Tree of Heaven’s lost it’s winter bloom / of plastic bags.”  I could go on and on; Lasdun certainly does.  Open to any page at random, and you’re bound to find a reference to trees and saws.  I begin to long for an occasional change of scene, a city or a desert or an interior room.  (I can’t say I’ve ever before encountered a book of poems whose greatest humor was provided by the Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data that appears on the copyright page:  1. Catskill Mountains (N.Y.)-Poetry.  2. Wilderness areas-Poetry. 3. Mountain life-Poetry.

Having suggested just an occasional slight disappointment-not even that-with Dick Davis’s reticence and modesty, it may seem churlish and contradictory to criticize James Lasdun for embarking on a more baroque enterprise.  It’s not the expansive and baroque manner that irritates-I’ve been known to try that myself, and to praise other poets who pursue that line of writing-but the fact that the writing is both unremittingly earnest and clotted.  One of the first requirements of a poet ought to be an ability to write well, fluently, and in a way that delights even as it challenges the reader.  I recall being told, years ago, about a certain professor (a well-known and influential critic) who scrawled across the top of certain term papers, in large flourishing letters, IS ENGLISH YOUR NATIVE TONGUE? One can excuse awkwardness of expression in the English-language poems of Joseph Brodsky; and I’m the last one to demand literal truth or even a plausible scenario in a poem. (Imagining being at an open-air performance of The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne, I wrote in a particular poem that “the air was rife with nightingales and starlings.”  An editor once sent it back with a note, written in pencil next to that line,Oh really? I doubt it.) But for me, Lasdun wields the pen as if it were a chainsaw, and that sort of writing just doesn’t cut it.

No doubt the fault is mine in failing to appreciate this book.  After all, Lasdun comes bedecked with numerous awards and lauded with the accolades of more perceptive critics than I.  But to be quite frank, I can’t warm to his tone of complaint, his chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, and his domestic confessionalism wrapped in a fancy formal package.  Lasdun is clever, and lets you know he knows he’s clever; but I don’t find that sufficient for the making of memorable poetry.  He lacks Davis’s light gracefulness and (as I hope to show) Ford’s lyric imagination and musical sense. For all the complexity of their syntax and vocabulary-no bad traits in themselves-Lasdun’s poems seem to me comprised of an unrelenting accumulation of details that don’t build to any cumulative vision.  He can’t see the forest for the trees.

Mark Ford writes, “[I]n a quandary I seized / My innate Englishness, and practised / Wrapping it around me like an old army coat,” in a poem (“Contingency Plans”) in Soft Sift, the first of his collections published in the United States.  Readers familiar with Ford’s work from Landlocked (1992; published only in the U.K., by Chatto) and from individual poems that have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books might be forgiven for believing that he is the least innately English of contemporary English poets.  With Ford we move far away from the reticent formalism of Davis and the confessional formalism of Lasdun. And we are dealing with yet a third kind of Englishness, however innate.

Like Davis and Lasdun, Ford is well traveled.  Born in Kenya in 1962, he studied at Oxford and Harvard, taught in Japan, has spent time in the Near East and the Far East, and now lives in London, where he teaches French literature at University College.  He is the author of Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams, a biography of the eccentric and esoteric French writer.

The American edition of Soft Sift comes freighted with a foreword by John Ashbery which, to be honest, I have not read.  It’s not necessarily that I would doubt the worth of Ashbery’s praise; but, apart from understandably not wanting my own reading to be prejudiced by the opinions of another poet, I’m not at all certain that a three-and-a-half page encomium really does Ford a service.  Even though comparisons with the American poet are inevitable (and I’ll make them), I want to take Ford on his own terms, not on Ashbery’s.  (Never mind Ashbery; Ford also partakes of a literary heritage that includes Borges, Montale, Calvino.)

The book’s title comes from the fourth stanza of Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Deutschland:

I am soft sift
In an hourglass-at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall . . .

Ford previously used it as the title of a poem in Landlocked; the first stanza of that poem can be taken as a guide for what he’s about in this book:

A chill March wind blows through
The vogue for cultural references;
In a twist the sporting chance we momentarily
Enjoyed is shut up like a geometry box.

What have here, essentially, is language at the service of imagination.  Yes, he is still enamored of the vogue for cultural references that is such a prominent feature of Ashbery’s writing; nor is Ford afraid to indulge in word-play, as in “Early to Bed, Early to Rise”:

It was in Berlin you mixed up John and J. J. Cale,
And we found ourselves watching Jacques Tourneur’s Out
of the Past
yet again.

I, on the other hand, confused Teniers the elder and Teniers
the younger
In Amsterdam, where I saw Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys
on my own.

On the outskirts of Moscow we failed to distinguish clearly
between Charles and Burl Ives;
Our punishment was to sit through Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan
the Terrible
, Parts I and II, twice.

As with Ashbery, humorous clichés and catchphrases abound.  While Lasdun addresses the reader with a lecturer’s tone, exhaustively informing you about every detail of every tree he’s ever cut down, in literal terms, Ford is playful and doesn’t ask to be read literally.  Yet he writes gracefully, with a poet’s eye and ear, and proves himself as keen an observer of the natural world as he is of the cultural-social one as he moves from a particular landscape to a deft conclusion in the span of a few lines in “Penumbra”:

. . . I lean into the wind that blows
Off the lake, and scours the sodden fields; the sky’s
Reflections ripple between ruts and bumps. I plunge
Towards remote vanishing points, where one man’s
Loss unravels and becomes another man’s

(The second sentence borrows a phrase from an Ashbery poem that has lodged in my mind, though I’ve been driving myself crazy trying to track it down.  A prize to anyone who can cite the source.)

Ford’s poems are relatively compact and concise in their expression, and yet expansive in their reach.  Compared to the careful formality of a Dick Davis poem, a poem by Ford may look casual.  (Though he does give us a clever concrete poem, “Arrowheads.”)  But his poet’s ear makes sure that each word, each phrase, is calibrated.  Take the long i sounds in the third stanza of “Early to Bed, Early to Rise,” for example:  Ives, Eisenstein, Ivan, twice. The assonance doesn’t happen by accident.  One could similarly diagram the passage I’ve just quoted from “Penumbra,” pointing out how the words play off against one another, how they connect to each other by assonance and alliteration and internal rhyme. Then too there’s the rhythm of his sentences, refreshingly natural and musical and (seemingly) uncontrived. Even more than is the case with Ashbery, I think, a Ford poem trips off the tongue with a natural and yet poetic (yes, poetic) flow.  Read “The Nightingale’s Code,” a poem of quite remarkable beauty and mystery, aloud to yourself, and see what I mean.

Ford possesses a gift for making memorable phrases; he’s eminently quotable, even when-perhaps because-sound precedes sense:  “Things ready themselves for a reckless / Leap of faith” (“Penumbra”); “Every team learns to ignore its desperadoes” (“Beyond the Boulevard”); “Grim fortune favours the disgruntled, whether / They be stick-in-the-muds or drifters” (“Take These Chains”); “a caustic voice unfolds the case / To a clutch of bright-eyed interns” (“Plan Nine”).  He’s master of the aphorism just as Davis is master of the epigram.

The question of whether Ford feels “at home” wherever he lives, or whether he’s restless, is beside the point.  What is clear, reading these poems, is that, through his imaginary forces, he’s created a world that is at once both vague and mysterious yet vivid and present, one with its own palpable landscape and full-fledged culture. For the alert and willing reader-as-traveler, it is a world well worth visiting.[/private]

About John Drexel

John Drexel's poems have appeared widely in magazines in the U.S. and Britain, including the Hudson Review, Oxford Poetry, Paris Review, Salmagundi, Southern Review, and Verse, and his work is included in A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play (Sarabande Books, 2001). A former editor at Oxford University Press and past recipient of an Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship and a Hawthornden Fellowship, he works as a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He also directs occasional poetry workshop-seminars in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, and in Cornwall, England.
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