John Glenday, Selected Poems – review

John  Glenday’s Selected Poems adds nine pieces to a selection of work from his five previous books. It’s a small output for the time he’s been writing but a very fine one.

The main features of his work have been clear from the beginning: avoidance of rhetoric, meticulous craftsmanship, love of balanced forms, and skill in combining musical qualities with a conversational style. These features are integrally related to the way the ‘I’ of the poems seems to think and feel. His voice is quiet and measured, though what he says can be startling or disturbing. Even when directly addressing the reader as ‘you’, he seems to look inwards as much as outwards, weighing the accuracy of his words as he speaks. We see this in ‘At Innernytie’, where the rhythm suggests his reflectively pausing delivery:

All we can ever hear
is the slipping by of things
as another night comes down.

Everything changes forever:
everything remains.

His images of the physical world can be as sharply particular as they’re spare and delicate, but the things he writes about often hover elusively between being and not being. ‘Undark’, about the ‘radium girls’ who worked with radioactive luminous paint, is one of many poems imagining ghosts:

And so they came back, those girls who painted
the watch dials luminous, and died.

They come back and their hands glow and their lips
and hair and their footprints gleam in the past like alien snow.

Many writers would have set out to make us imagine the girls’ lives before death, but it’s the fantasy of their ghostly posthumous existence that haunts Glenday. The horror of their unwitting exposure both speaks for itself and is expressed in a metaphor of the radium as having ‘burned through the cotton of their lives’. The poem progresses into tentative, tantalizingly ambiguous suggestions of an almost metaphysical kind. This is typical. One of the things I find most absorbing and difficult to describe in Glenday’s work is its repeated reaching into a region of counterfactual, rationally indefinable feelings that may express themselves in terms trailing strong religious associations – words like love, imagery of darkness and light, metaphors of wholeness and healing – often involving questions about the fit between ourselves and the world, in some absolute psychological or perhaps religious sense. Creating a city, Abaton, whose essence is its simultaneous nearness and impossibility, he makes us see our not seeing it like this:

no buttresses, no walls, no astragals,
only those luminous avenues of weather
gathering the cluttered light like window glass,
all furnished in the traceries of wind and rain.

The ambiguous relations between self and not-self are reflected in several fine love poems. In ‘Blind’, addressed to a lover or partner, the speaker recalls how lying beside her after a quarrel, he held her ‘not for warmth or pardon, but for light’. What follows is a reminiscence that supplies a tacit analogy for his love of her, taking an extraordinary empathic leap into the experience of a blind man:

Remember that blind man
who once passed us in the street?
How he touched his stick gently

against the world – just confirming the world
still travelled with him –
then strode on as if something
that was not darkness lay ahead?

How swiftly and vividly the poem makes us see that blind man. It’s typical of Glenday’s quiet manner that it takes a moment to register the scale of the reangling of perception involved in ‘touched his stick gently // against the world’, or to realize how much this picture says about the speaker’s love for his partner and dependence on her strength.


John Glenday, Selected Poems, 176pp, £14.99, Picador, Pan Macmillan, 6 Briset Street, London EC1M 5NR.

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by John Glenday, David Constantine and Sean Borodale in issue 65 of The North.

One Response to “John Glenday, Selected Poems – review”

  1. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » David Constantine, Belongings – review said:

    Mar 17, 21 at 10:51 am

    […] Glenday’s Selected Poems persistently look inwards, those of David Constantine’s Belongings are focused outwards, on the […]

Leave a Reply