James Fenton, Yellow Tulips, Poems 1968 – 2011

James Fenton, Yellow Tulips, Poems 1968 – 2011, 176 pp, £14.99 hardback, Faber and Faber, Bloomsbury House, 74 – 77 Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DA.

Yellow Tulips – Fenton’s new Selected Poems – reminds us what a towering figure he is. Its 160 pages cover a startling range of themes, tones, techniques and styles, often fusing modernist and contemporary elements with others that many would consider obsolete.

In the “Recent Work” section, for example, how many contemporary poets would write with the marmoreal gravity of “Memorial”, Fenton’s homage to the slain drivers and interpreters of war reporters, and then switch modes to include a line with the immediacy of “The shocked hand wipes the blood across the lens”? How many could fuse the harsh notes of the Border Ballads, the tender yearning of “Westron Wind”, the self-obliterating ardour of Yeats’ Crazy Jane, and images redolent of film noir and epic cinema as sensitively as Fenton does in “The Night Comes Down Like a Cloak”, in the process creating what seems like the living voice of its imaginary female speaker?

The more I’ve looked at the title poem itself, the more I’ve realised what depths of thought and feeling it contains and how much it brings together different strands of Fenton’s work, different strands of the English poetic tradition and different areas of life. In some ways strikingly old-fashioned in style, with imagery rooted not only in a Victorian pastoral world but in Elizabethan and Petrarchan love sonnets, it braids sex with violence and war by imagery (“throat”, “ambush”, “casualties”) and by allusion to Edward Thomas’s great First World War poem, “As the Team’s Head-Brass”. It achieves an extraordinarily intense eroticism by shifting from the physicality of desire and consummation to its emotional reverberations. Describing two lovers in a wood:

I can see the lips, parted first in surprise, parted in desire,
Smile now as the silence falls on the yellow-dappled ride
For each thinks the other can hear each receding thought
On each receding tide.

Emerging again, they “believe anyone who saw them would know / Every secret of their limbs and of their lips”. This beautifully develops their sense of being completely opened and irradiated by love, but it also suggests the shame and fear attending the exposure of sexual acts (perhaps particularly homosexual ones, even now and even though they’re no longer illegal) and it obliquely evokes the terrors of the surveillance society (also touched on in “At the Kerb”). In other words, like many of Fenton’s love poems, it combines a rich, superficially simple lyricism with a haunted and haunting sense of love’s vulnerability to destructive forces around and within it, and artistically it recovers for us parts of our heritage that we are the poorer for having let slip but that perhaps only a poet of Fenton’s stature can bring fully to life in the present.

Several poems in the first section (“from THE MEMORY OF WAR and CHILDREN IN EXILE”) are classics of the last quarter of the twentieth century and should be read by everyone, but to my mind its greatest single achievement is the nine pages of “Children in Exile”. In this, sophisticated classical rhetoric and prosody are fused with colloquial speech and subtlety of implication is wedded to passionate directness. Describing how Vietnamese and Cambodian child refugees find a home with Americans in Italy and fit themselves to their new lives, it’s a work of enormous moral and emotional power, and enduring topical relevance.

The middle section, “OUT OF DANGER”, is unusual in the way many of its poems, particularly the political ones, combine forthright passion and the kind of stripped, muscular, driving rhythms and strong rhymes you find in Kipling’s work with subtleties and complexities of thought that suddenly reveal themselves as you reread the poems. Fenton is a great political poet because he knows there are no simple solutions – perhaps ultimately no solutions at all – to the problems he writes about. The horrors and atrocities described in “Jerusalem”, “Out of the East” and “The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah” grow out of something deeply rooted in our natures and in the very nature of life, as is suggested in “The Milkfish Gatherers”, with its lovely music and its horrifying images of human and natural predation. The anger of the political poems, it seems to me, is not simply or even primarily directed at the perpetrators of atrocity but at our failure to grasp how nearly impossible it is to break the cycle of atrocity once it has been started, and how implicated in it we all are. This is a poetry that forces us to see things – often uncomfortably – even if seeing only leaves us feeling compassion and remorse.

Thanks to Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North 50.


Leave a Reply