Adam Thorpe, Voluntary – Sophisticated art and deep feeling

Voluntary, by Adam Thorpe. Jonathan Cape. 70 pp. £10.00

Long sentences subtly inflected by metre and stanza pattern are characteristic of Adam Thorpe’s style and essential to what he does. He’s a poet of complex, nuanced reflection, a poet who weaves things together rather than isolating them, who makes you feel whole sequences of ideas taking light from, generating and collapsing into others. The deepest pleasures and illuminations of his writing are to be found in following these long tracking movements of feeling and thought.

Take this from “The Swimming Pool (Kinshasa, 1968)”:

Our gardener would rake its gloom
like a patch of ground, stirring it

to a distressed, even darker core
of the almost-living and the nearly drowned:

scooped with a net for the rusty bucket,
he’d pour them out in the no-man’s-land

before the proper bush: each night’s haul
a sprawl of drunken guests, bristling

with feelers and sodden legs, still
in a rush to be free: capsized hulls with oars,

tiny nests of torment …

This is brilliantly precise, vivid description of the remembered scene, with the division into couplet-length stanzas holding a magnifying glass of attention over the details even as the syntax and punctuation insistently pull us on past them, even at a point (the colon after “drowned”) where we might have been allowed to stop. The alertness of the language makes itself felt at every level, in the immaculate pacing of syntax and line-ending, in the patterning and expressiveness of sound, and in the depth of resonance in individual words. There’s a wonderful imaginative energy behind the passage’s metaphorical transformations, particularly, for me, in the transformation of overturned bugs into capsized hulls with oars.  The mere presence of such imaginative energy in the description of suffering creates frissons of cruelty and perversity which both suggest the fascinated horror of the child staring into the pool and (later in the poem) turn to sharp compassion. But of course much more is going on than just description of an African swimming pool, or even the reliving of a haunting childhood memory. Ripples of analogy carry our imaginations through a range of human indignities and catastrophes. These obviously include the catastrophes of Africa, particularly of the Congo, and of Europe’s relation to them. Kinshasa was Leopoldville, the administrative heart of King Leopold’s murderous exploitation of the Congo and its peoples, chillingly investigated in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost and the inspiration for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The very phrase “heart of darkness” seems to be recalled by “darker core”. 1968 is only a few years after the horrors of the first Congolese civil war. Several phrases within the passage glow with a particular heat in the context of the Congo’s prolonged sufferings. Later in the poem it’s easy to associate the boy’s helpless compassion for the insects with the ineffectuality of Western aid in that region. Crucially, though, the flow of suggestions is never stilled or hardened into allegory or into a single set of metaphorical relations. The poem keeps moving on, one idea keeps turning into another.

“The Swimming Pool” illustrates key strengths of the volume as a whole. None of Thorpe’s poems stay where they start; all move through wide circles of association, most gathering a considerable weight of implication and reflection on the way. A number involve striking quasi-Metaphysical conceits, like “Subtraction”, a poem set in the Carthaginian quarry, which begins “El Haouaria, where they hollowed out / Carthage, is now a vaulted omega of absence”, and explores this thought and its implications for another 22 lines. In a sense a Metaphysical conceit is very abstract in that it uses a concrete vehicle to define abstract ideas. What is impressive in Thorpe’s poetry, though, is how much the intellectual and abstract returns to the concrete. In my last quotation, an abstract idea is given a wonderful physical presence by language. Equally important is something I’d relate to the fact that Thorpe is a novelist as well as a poet. Ideas in this book are always developing out of and returning to richly evoked experiences, to situations and stories – in this case the actual experience of visiting the quarry, the imagined experience of the slaves who worked there (“Beneath the silence you can hear the moans”) and Thorpe’s concern for his own children.

Parents, children, hollowing, absence. There’s a powerful group of poems on the death of the poet’s father in which the hollowing out of the father and his absence after death are strongly felt, and generate subtle thoughts about the emptiness underlying all life. This group in the middle of the volume perhaps forms its imaginative core. And yet these pieces, and the book as a whole, are anything but depressing. Poem after poem glints with wit, sometimes darkly sardonic, sometimes humorous and warm, sometimes both at once. “Niagara” – a beautiful expression of wonder at nature’s power – includes a description of the sudden vanishing of the river’s flow “as if God were suddenly to come across // His own absence, or that human trick / He’s never quite fathomed // called letting your hair down, / called letting everything go.” Look at the blending of tones there, the subtlety of the theological humour, the rueful yet resilient acceptance of mortality, the impossibility of separating the downbeat from the upbeat, the sophisticated poise, the lightness of touch and, at the same time, the groundedness suggested by the colloquial expressions. Voluntary richly repays reading and rereading for the range of its subject matter, the sensitivity and depth of its feeling for life and the way it enlarges one’s sense of the possibilities of poetic expression.

This review appeared in Acumen 74 and I would like to thank Acumen’s editors for their permission to post it here.

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