John Glenday, The Golden Mean – review

John Glenday’s lyrics seem to have been wrought with a deliberate avoidance of panache. The book’s first stanza is typical in the sense it gives of finding its way between possible misstatements, like a blindfolded tightrope walker’s feet feeling for the rope:

 If you must carry fire, carry it in
your heart – somewhere sheltered but hidden,
polished by hands that once loved it.

Writing like that embodies a process of careful advance and withdrawal in which every step takes its meaning by being a development or qualification of the steps taken before it.

Admittedly it’s easy to find lines and phrases that on one level lend themselves to detached quotation. A sentence may catch the eye by a pleasing and surprising turn of metaphor (“Late mists / forget themselves above the lake”). More distinctive effects are involved in the memorability of lines like “pray that all your prayers may be stones” or “Some wounds weep precious through the generations”. In the first, Glenday’s rhythmic sensitivity and skill in balancing the line give a feeling of measured reflection to a statement that in other ways is startling, provocative and disturbing, and in the second there’s a contrast between the judicious tone of “Some” and the baroque flamboyance of the rest of the line. Other lines are made striking by animating tensions of a similar kind. In isolation, though, they’d often give a misleading impression of the overall thrust of the poem. By itself, the conceit of wounds weeping precious through generations might suggest a poet of Crashaw-like exuberance, but it’s followed by the tempering statement, “They glaze and harden, heal themselves into history.” Ultimately, no doubt, it’s true of all short poems that the meaning of the parts depends on their relationship to the other parts and the whole, but it’s particularly true of Glenday’s, because of their extreme economy and the way their meanings are found in their step by step self-adjustment.

As a result they’re often peculiarly resistant to paraphrase or even understanding except in the precise terms of their own articulation. Some aren’t pointing at or reflecting on something out there in the world at all but defining an absence, expressing a sense of incompleteness and yearning, like the haunting “Abaton”. Others are superficially more straightforward, like the rich and subtle war painting poem, “The Big Push (after Sir Herbert James Gunn, The Eve of the Battle of the Somme)”. In this too, though, the play of meaning is too subtly inherent in the unfolding movement of the poem to be detachable from reading and receiving it as a dynamic whole.

For me, the absolute triumph of the book is the final piece, “The Walkers”, which I can imagine being in the anthologies for generations. It’s voiced for the dead describing their walk home to where they lived. They speak in flat, factual tones that achieve an effect of heart-breaking understatement. The last stanza begins with a poignant image of their exile from life: “We gathered like craneflies in the windowlight of familiar rooms, /grieving for all the things we could never hold again.” Then it rotates and we realise that for all the piercing pathos of their plea for forgiveness, this poem isn’t really about the dead but about the woundedness and beauty of the life that they’ve lost and we still have: “Forgive us for coming back. We didn’t travel all this way / to break your hearts. We came to ask if you might heal the world.”

John Glenday, The Golden Mean, 64 pp, £9.99, Picador Poetry, Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in The North 55.


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