Dannie Abse, Speak, Old Parrot, 80 pp, £15 hardback, Hutchinson

One of the finest poems in Speak, Old Parrot is “Scent”, another elegy to Abse’s late wife, though this one feels almost like an elegy to the elegiac mood. The poet describes himself hesitating at the gate-post, smelling a shrub she once planted. Its scent is so alluring, so delinquent, that he imagines Adam smelling it in Eden and falling on Eve with delight or, in our world, scholars in Athens and Alexandria being distracted from their scrolls by it. But what does he care for that, he says; for him the smell means only the wife he has lost. He lingers, absorbing it, until

        the scent becomes only the scent itself
returning, and I, at the gate, like Orpheus,
sober, alone, and a little wretched.

Such emotional honesty, such subtleties and complexities of feeling, such a rich interplay between poetic allusion and private emotion, could only have been expressed in a poem in which every detail is sensitively tuned by a master.

A number of other pieces in Speak, Old Parrot are similarly fine-tuned. And yet it seems to me that poems of an opposite kind are equally important to the volume’s success. These seen rambling and sketchy, but suddenly precipitate phrases of memorable concision and power: “In the mildew of old age / all pavements slope uphill”; “Poor weeping Venus! Her pubic hairs are grey”; “nothing lasts except // nothing”; “enter the bright instant”. Clearly the memorable phrases make the poems, in the sense that without them the poems would be nothing much. Given the phrases, though, I think that the rambling itself has a value of its own. Yeats said that a poet in his poems “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete”. He was wrong. What’s moving about these late poems is the way they make us actually see a piercing reflection crystallise out of life’s accidental and incoherent elements. There’s a nakedness about them, a sense that it’s too late for anything but what matters, and at the same time a sense that for someone nearing the end everything does matter, the most banal circumstances becoming potentially fraught with significance.

Like all Abse’s books this one impresses by its deep humanity and respect for ordinary people (“The Bus” is outstanding in this respect). More surprisingly, it also entertains by a vein of vigorously bawdy humour.

You can see and hear Abse reading from Speak, Old Parrot at the T S Eliot Prize Readings by clicking here.

I’d like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this piece, which appeared in The North 51.


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