C K Stead, This Side of Silence – review

The pleasures of This Side of Silence are largely opposite to those of Earth House. With some twenty-five volumes of poetry behind him, the nonagenarian C K Stead expends considerable skill in the effort not to sound poetic while giving his words maximum sharpness and punch. Poem after poem achieves remarkable success in this way. For example, ‘Ode to Autumn’ brilliantly compresses a shimmering of dry wit, vivid metaphorical description and complex emotion into a piece of apparently casual, almost slangy speech. It begins

This day’s officially the first of autumn
but it seems not to know.
The sun’s all over everything and the sea
flinches and glitters.

It ends

I lead a life of quiet medication
longing for foreign shores, adventure and death.

This style is so achieved that it can embrace overt artifice and still seem like impromptu speech, as it does in poems whose titles declare their formal qualities as (say) sonnets (they don’t rhyme), tercets, haiku or syllabics, or are borrowed from existing famous poems, like ‘Crossing the Bar’.

Such a sophisticated focus on concealing art by art means that these poems, in contrast to those of Earth House, never take off into sheer verbal musicality or weave incantatory spells designed to change our vision of the world. This reflects something fundamental to the book’s effect and perhaps to the poet’s sensibility. It asks to be read in terms of a clear-sighted, common sense acceptance of reality, very much including acceptance of the poet’s own nearness to death, which he sees as extinction. There are brief touches of fantasy, like a poem recounting the poet’s ‘first true love’s’ wish on parting that she could keep his ‘poet’s head’ forever on her bedpost, but the point of the whole short poem is to display the absurdity of the idea by imagining what it would actually mean.

This acceptance of reality isn’t a matter of passive acquiescence but of grounded strength. The poet seems to speak from a place of peace with his own nature and his situation. He surveys these things with sharp intelligence, wit and humour and without repining, even when talking about the deaths of old friends and acquaintances. So, in ‘Crossing the Bar’, he recalls how Anthony Thwaite’s startling last words, at a point when he seemed to have slipped into final unconsciousness, corrected his wife’s misquotation of Tennyson. Tones here are beautifully and confidently blended. If the lines implicitly celebrate Thwaite’s truth to himself, in the very teeth of death, they’re also funny and so delightfully unsolemn and unsentimental.

Altogether, the book is a fine achievement both of art and human wisdom. As always, though, achievement rests on accepted limitation. We must go elsewhere for the excitement of passionate utterance, high-wrought musicality or the emotional enlargement of fantasy, all feelings excluding and excluded by the kind of ironically detached, sober realism This Side of Silence presents.

This Side of Silence by C. K. Stead. Arc Publications. 114pp.; £11.99

I would like to thank Danielle Hope, the editor of Acumen, for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 108

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