Pluto by Glyn Maxwell. Picador Poetry, 64 pp., £9.99

Maxwell is a dedicated formalist like Polley, and shares his strong sense of time’s attrition.

One poem on this theme struck me as pretty well perfect, so graceful  in expression, so complex and delicate in feeling that I’m afraid to bruise it by analysis:


It has asked to be treated like all the other days.
Not to be beamed at in assembly,
winked at, singled out for praise,
parted for or crowded round, not to be
starred or handed a badge or in obvious ways

made something of. In no uncertain terms
did it say no gifts, no cake, no fuss,
no speeches, hugs, and Christ no poems.
Look how I’ve answered what it asked of us.
Touched, it gently frees itself from my arms.

The perfection of this is partly a matter of perfect appropriateness and partly of the apparent ease of the writing. Simplicity of language lends a wonderful gentleness to the way in which Maxwell speaks of the day. I love the delicacy with which it is made almost human but not quite, remaining an “it” as if rather poignantly refusing to be taken over by the anthropomorphising imagination. The line and stanza break between “in obvious ways” and “made something of” separates the phrases in a way that releases a stream of possible emphases from each. The shimmer of meanings within “made something of” specifically calls to attention the poet’s role as maker. I think Maxwell is simultaneously suggesting that for the poet (and human being) making something of the day both is an irresistible natural impulse and feels like a violation. “Look how I’ve answered what it asked of us” floats opposing suggestions, that he has fulfilled the day’s request by preserving its anonymity and that even without naming it he is approaching it too roughly. The last line suggests both that the day feels intruded on by the poet’s touch, so needing to free itself, and that it is moved by the poet’s tentativeness, so that it frees itself gently. The whole conveys both grief at and resignation to not being able to stay time’s passing.

I found much to admire in other poems. Many passages were beautiful both for their sound and for the almost musical way in which they used patterns of antithesis and verbal repetition. The blurb tells us that this is “a book about the before-and-after of love, the aftermath of loss”. That much was usually clear in the reading. That’s only a general idea though. I found many poems difficult to grasp in a less abstract way, perhaps because the poet is struggling to objectify painful private experience. One of the ones I liked best was “My Talk”, which comes immediately after “No Special Day” and in some ways seems closely related to it in theme. Phrases and images of remarkable delicacy and beauty flash out of it, and after several readings I feel it is on the verge of coming into coherent imaginative focus for me. “Dunwich” is another such. I have to say that most of the others still seem out of proper imaginative reach, with dislocating shifts of imaginative plane. Abstract concepts are sometimes described in intensely physical terms (“So space, so barely dented, might not bruise / and cry and time come running” in one poem, “The day sips its gluhwein” in another). At the same time, the wider context is left sketchy and vague, so that bringing the parts together involves either processes too cerebral for me in the context of poetry or intuitions I haven’t had yet. This is a book of considerable originality and power, but it demands a lot of work by the reader.

I wrote this for Acumen 77 and would like to thank Patricia Oxley for her permission to post it here.

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