Matthew Francis, Wing – review

Two loves dominate Matthew Francis’s Wing: nature, and the English language. There’s very little self-reference: when Francis writes in the first person it tends to be in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ except in the second section, where the speaker is the seventeenth century natural philosopher Robert Hooke, author of Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses.

In earlier books Francis has recreated lives in or journeys to places that can be purely fantastical or are so exotic as to seem fantastical to a traveller visiting them. The ‘Micrographia’ section brings strangeness home with the revelations of Hooke’s microscope. Tiny beings are vividly and precisely described. Mostly short, frequently enjambed lines give the verse a momentum that brings creatures to life, creating suspense and surprise as we follow Hooke’s investigations. Sometimes we just see the beings themselves. Sometimes, in a flash, we see the world from their point of view. In ‘Ant’, Hooke’s eye is caught by ‘a sort of rust that shines and dances’ under a tree. It’s a stream of ants:


A finger felled in their path rocks them
……..amazed, back on their haunches.
…………….I see them tasting
the air for subtle intelligence,
……..till one ventures to scale it


There’s a further shift in perspective to do with time. Francis deftly evokes Hooke’s seventeenth century world and gives a subtly archaic flavour to his phrasing, so we feel the power Hooke’s discoveries had for a man of his time. In the first lines of ‘Silverfish, Moth’, a shelf of leather-bound books becomes the unlighted, narrow alleys of a seventeenth century city as Hooke catches sight of a bookworm:


One swish of itself and it vanished
into the alley between two books.
There was a twilight city in there,
……..leather and paper and dust,
where it had eaten itself a home.


I almost felt I knew Hooke as a man through his scientist’s commitment to precise observation and communication, the life implied by the analogies that occur to him, and the way his passionate curiosity and wonder breathe through the stately factualism of his style.

The sections preceding and following ‘Micrographia’ are written in a quite different, lyrically expressive, often rapturous manner, especially the ‘Canticles’ one, which closes the book on a note of rapturous but not unqualified celebration. Sometimes to my taste the richness becomes excessive, the accumulation of beautifully jewelled details clogging the overall movement. In the right mood, though, the voluptuous caressing of apples and apple names in ‘Pomona’  or of festive drinks in ‘Wassail’ is an almost physical pleasure. Descriptions of mushroom hunting in ‘Liberty Caps’ create an extraordinary brew of sensations, plunging us into the wet earthiness of woods and fields, drawing us with dreamlike intensity into gothic fantasies, suddenly releasing us with stabs of wit. Francis’s gift for metaphor is closely related to the sensuous evocativeness of his writing. It’s a particular pleasure when metaphor opens vistas of wider reflection, as in the wonderful last line of ‘Waterbear’, where affectionate description of the tardigrade and its power to survive the most extreme conditions ends by saying how one wholly dried up for a decade can be revived:


a drop of water and it pulses,

as if that was all there was to it,
back in the swim, setting off somewhere
in the lifeboat of its own body.



Wing by Matthew Francis. Faber & Faber. 80pp.; £14.99 (hardback)

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 97.

One Response to “Matthew Francis, Wing – review”

  1. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » Shanta Acharya, What Survives Is the Singing – review said:

    Oct 11, 20 at 2:19 pm

    […] What Survives Is The Singing suggests a central difference between it and the other two books (Wing, by Matthew Francis, and The Martian’s Regress by J O Morgan). In them, general ideas arise […]

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