Glyn Maxwell, How the Hell Are You – review

One obvious contrast between Hewitt and Maxwell is in their handling of personal life. However true or fictionalised they actually are, the autobiographical poems in Tongues of Fire seem extremely frank and direct in their revelations. Avowedly personal poems in How the Hell Are You are reserved and oblique, like ‘Daylight Saving’, an elegy for Maxwell’s father. This implies the poet’s continuing feeling of closeness to his dead father by imagining a meeting “in one of the fora / we wander together, / neither one literally here” to discuss the possible abolition of daylight saving. There are rather generically personal memories of the poet and his brother or brothers cycling home to the father. The father’s care is implied in

the thrill of the way
the last shreds of a Sunday
clung to the gate like their father was coming

 to ferry them home.

It’s touching and beautifully shaped but to my mind rather remote. ‘Thirty Years’, a tribute to Derek Walcott’s teaching and declaration of how he lives on as a critical voice in Maxwell’s ear, is similarly reserved.

It’s in distilling universal experiences that Maxwell shows the power of his oblique, understated approach and of his brilliant fusing of elaborate metrical patterns with the cadences of speech. Giving a pin sharp sense of the speaker’s feeling and tone, he can create emotions out of all proportion to their overt but not real object. By leaving it to us to find the real object behind the overt one, he makes the meaning and emotion root themselves more deeply in our minds. We see this in ‘The Strain’, a remarkable little poem apparently inspired by the covid-19 crisis. It opens deceptively, describing the new strain of the coronavirus like a character in a children’s story:

It was young like we all were. And like a little
thing in an old fable all it wanted
……..was to be young forever.

Even before we’ve realised what the ‘strain’ is, there’s a gathering of huge opposing forces under the simple words – childish hope and trust against the adult’s rueful knowledge of age and time, compassionate understanding in tension with irony at the absurdity of the strain’s aspiration. When we’ve realised what the strain is there’s another tension in the fact of treating the personification of a lethal pandemic so sympathetically. The strain, Maxwell says, decided to beat time by doing what time can do but better. So like time it killed, and it closed life down for the still-living, “made memories of their precious habits, dreams / of their old haunts”.

But when all its power was spent time came for it,
as time has come for everything that ever
……..tried its luck at this,

and led the little strain away.

 

Just as the bigger subject behind the children’s story is the desolation of the pandemic, so the bigger subject behind that is the inescapability of death. What seems like mock pathos is actually transferred sorrow at mortality.

The more I think about it the more I see death and the existential void behind many of these poems, including the long ‘Pasolini’s Satan’ (spoken by the actor playing Satan in Pasolini’s Vangelo secondo Matteo), several poems spoken by the blank page contemplating the poet’s labours, and the soliloquy of a ‘Page As Seating Plan At A Wedding’. On one level self-referential poems reflecting Maxwell’s sense of the importance of the white space surrounding the words of the text, all extend into metaphysical contemplation of how the creation of human meaning both resists and depends on the meaninglessness – humanly speaking – that surrounds us. Witty as Maxwell is, and brilliantly concrete in his evocation of the human voice, I think his poetry, in contrast to Hewitt’s, revolves essentially around abstract ideas, for which it finds spare but animated physical embodiments. Some tastes will find such essentially cerebral poetry too dry but it can be incredibly moving, as in the visionary ‘Song of Until’. Starting

Proud
……..Be proud.
Who may be proud?
None may be proud
……..until all are proud

this repeats almost exactly the same words three more times, replacing ‘Proud’ with ‘Safe’, ‘Loved’ and then ‘Home’.

Though most of his poems combine traditional metrics with contemporary idiom and conversational flow, this one achieves visionary power by the way its incantatory, ritualistic repetitions tune in to age-old religious feelings and timeless yearnings for a chiliastic perfection. And what a brilliant, almost impossible balance it treads between realising the strength of the dream and suggesting its distance from reality, between encouragement to achieve utopia and admonition to modesty and humility in the meanwhile. Here, even more than elsewhere, he uses a minimalist style, including a basic, almost monosyllabic vocabulary, to achieve great subtlety and richness of meaning.

How the Hell Are You by Glyn Maxwell. Picador. 64pp.; £10.99.

I would like to thank the Acumen editors Patricia Oxley and Danielle Hope for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 100.

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