Philip Gross is always very interesting (e.g. Deep Field), so I was pleased that the first three poems in this edition were his. The first, “The Players” is a brilliantly subtle evocation of the causes and ramifications of the First World War; so subtle, indeed, that it might not be about that at all. Two old men play chess in a Central European café; every thirty years or so there’s a bang, when “all the combinations shatter / into flight, up // over rooftops, dewlapped gables, weather vanes, / to reform, circle, circle, homing / on wherever we may be.” This aside, what I really like about all Gross’ poems is the pleasure I get from reading them, from the pacing, from the way thoughts begin, develop and shift. His strength for me is this portrayal, a live demonstration, of careful [Quakery] thinking.
Gross’ third poem would suggest by its title (“On Poetic Form: A Short Essay”) something rather tongue-in-cheek, but it isn’t. It’s a serious, and solely poetic, description of poetry, using a simple, briefly treated, single image for Poetry/The Poem. This image is “a man made of glass”, or rather “like a man made of glass”, as strictly speaking it’s a simile, not a metaphor, but as the form metaphorically “stands in the corner of the room”, right from the start we’re in a world of (poetic) looseness (which is how it achieves precision – discuss). To clarify – here’s the start:
The form stands in the corner of the room
like a man made of glass. All he can be
is how the light bends through him
It’s a clever and successfully executed idea. The poem ends with (slightly over-heavy?) paradoxes:
it, he says, silently, and everything is changed.
He never moves, and yet we start to dance.
Another highlight of this edition is Sarah Howe’s “Sirens”, a 54-line poem on one word (“pickerel”) in a poem by Roethke. Ranging through Homer and Horace, she extends the discussion of what might seem a pretty insignificant technical detail into a meditation on meaning in poetry, and on, wait for it, lust.
Also interesting is Sandeep Parmar’s review of Lavinia Greenlaw’s Double Sorrow, a rewriting of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (interesting in being basically impressed, but hoping that Greenlaw had been bolder in her treatment of the original). Similarly cautious is Patrick Mackie’s review of The Poems of Rowan Williams, praising the man and the thought behind/in the poems rather than, for the most part, the poems themselves. (Some years ago I bought a volume of Williams’ poems, and particularly liked the sonnets on Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially Macbeth.)