Michael Vince, Long Distance – review

Michael Vince’s Long Distance is haunted by a sense of how old things live on in the present and the traces of dead things linger. This is particularly true in the first and third sections, set in England. Perhaps surprisingly, the second section, set in Greece, focuses mainly on what seems to be a single personal relationship in the present of the poems, and the fourth on glimpses of contemporary life, sometimes in England, sometimes in Greece.

‘What seems to be a single personal relationship.’ Vince appears committed to the idea that poetry should present itself objectively, however personal and subjective its inspiration. So what seem to be personal poems are both vivid and profoundly reticent. Emotions are created by sound and sharply focused images. In this way, although Vince uses regular metre and avoids Poundian fragmentation, he has strong affinities with Modernists like Eliot and the Greek Seferis.

The expressiveness of his sound is easy to illustrate in individual lines, like the book’s first, whose stop-start rhythm mimics the movement of a cyclist swerving through traffic – ‘A dreadlocked boy on an undersized bike weaves among cars’. What’s impossible to illustrate in a short review is the kind of skill we see in a long poem like ‘Urban Bees’. Here, superficially disparate and contrasting materials are woven together seamlessly. Even as it brings individual details into sharp focus the poem flows through them, keeping a steady momentum over line endings and incorporating radical changes of perspective and emotion without breaking stride. So past and present, wild nature and technology, humour and sorrow, sickness and health, physical observation and fantasy seem not to be juxtaposed by the will of the poet but discovered and accepted as naturally coexisting and interpenetrating each other both in the physical world and in the spontaneous movement of the mind.

Vince is equally talented in creating sharply distinct images of people or things in action like tiny video clips. In nineteenth century Camberwell there’s ‘a hansom cab’s creak and clop, the washerwoman // with raw hands closing the basement door’; in the New Forest an old man who ‘watches his meaning slacken and loosen / and drain away and sits now at the window // not looking out.’ Such images are both seen and felt – as we look at the people we experience their sensations. These examples are randomly chosen out of a mass of possible illustrations. Vince’s evocations of inanimate scenes and objects are no less arresting and there’s a remarkable poem describing not only the immediate physical sensations of a boat journey but the way the internal sensations of movement linger for hours afterwards. What’s most impressive, though, is the way he uses images to concretely distil emotion, as in the last lines of his celebration of love in ‘A Voyage to Cythera’, a Greek island sacred to the goddess of love:

I watch you stoop, pour out water, hold out your hands,
and a happy cat leaps for delight, a simple motion
of being in love with more than being in love,
while the goddess turns in sleep on the hill and longer
shadows soothe us as we climb back home together.

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Fleur Adcock, Tishani Doshi, Annie Freud and Michael Vince in issue 66 of The North.

Michael Vince, Long Distance, 78pp, £8.99, Mica Press, 47 Belle Vue Rd, Wivenhoe, Colchester, Essex CO7 9LD


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