Alan Morrison on

Christopher Reid
A Scattering
Arete Books (2009)

This slender and unassuming 62 page volume simply but attractively designed in Areté’s typographical tricolour livery – a Faberish approach which lends a certain un-showy elegance to the look of the book – is a pleasant and at times emotionally overwhelming collection, largely inspired – as well-publicised through its winning the 2009 Costa Prize – by the poet’s recent bereavement by his wife Lucinda, to whom it is naturally dedicated. The book begins slowly and subtly, with a balmy and underwhelming clipped sparseness of style and tone, but progresses and gathers pace and power until the final longish poem ‘Lucinda’s Way’ (nine pages), which acts as the most affecting and lingering piece in the collection. A Scattering is essentially composed of four long poems, one of which is cut into a multi-titled sequence.

To tackle the book chronologically, if that’s not too expedient, the first poem, ‘The Flowers of Crete’, is a Betjemanesque travelogue, with a very slightly twee Englishing of tone, but not one without its appeal; but then the lines lengthen, straggle out a bit more, enter into poetic prose territory but one which, it must be said, is infinitely more affecting and figuratively wrought than most other examples of contemporary poetic prose/prose poems/'prosetry' (I’m thinking specifically here of the flatly prosaic – in terms of language, subject and tone - work of peers such as Hugo Williams, whose more recent oeuvre seems to me very much at the prose-end of prose poetry, its supplementary ubiquity being a constant source of bafflement to me as on each appearance the phrase ‘must try harder’ suggests itself) – Reid’s poetry, when he trusts it to unravel a little, can be descriptively rich and enticing, albeit with a distinctly Larkinian precision:

we enter the Bible-illustration wilderness.
Slopes of haggard boulders from down at the road,
boulders pitted and fissured, punished-looking,
among which only the toughest of shrubs, the thriftiest thrivers –
a broom in flower now, not making too much of its yellow –
endure what seems a man-haunting, saint-haunted place.

In many ways this reads as prose, but it is poetically-tinted prose, clipped and exacting, which isn’t always necessarily a desired effect in poetry, but here I think works on its own terms well. Reid’s instinct at personification, at figurative animation of non-sentient life such as rocks and plants, is nicely handled. Almost wilfully plain-speaking, unembellished phrases such as ‘Bible-illustration wilderness’ and ‘punished-looking’, describe plainly, directly and a little prosaically, as opposed to a thicker, more sense-oriented evocation – but again, for Reid’s purposes this works well, and again reminds one of Larkin’s lyrical restraint; a very pruned post-Movement English trait in poetry, one which is still highly fashionable in the poetry mainstream and which in other poets can tire in the often accompanying absence of any verbal flourish, but which in Reid’s writing manages to impress by its combination with more verbalistic backing. But Betjeman’s ghost distinctly haunts some of Reid’s turns-of-phrase, such as the rather quaint and bucolic ‘what a treat to hear bells raised suddenly’, which evokes the aforementioned laureate’s Summoned by Bells period and slightly, though by no means badly, conjurs a middle-aged middle-class man in cricketing whites and sun-hat strolling around a village church admiring the subtleties of its architecture. Part of me admires, and at the same time faintly winces at, some verses of this poem that feel just a little bit too clipped, slightly journalistic in the best Sunday supplement features sense of the word; even a touch overly academic in the classically educated sense, such as the following nicely composed extract which I would imagine more scholastic literary outlets such as the TLS would particularly go for:

Or the double conundrum
of the Phaitos Disc, in Herakleion’s
inexhaustible museum: again, a spiral
front and back, each a centrifugal
procession of hieroglyphs, lyrical enough,
to encourage the thought (unsupported
by scholarship) that it might be a poem.
No Minotaur, but a flower, at the centre of one of them.

Here however Reid rescues himself from any real perceived esoteric conceits by choosing intuition and heart over knowledge and head, venturing his un-erudite but instinctual fancy that the hieroglyphs are a poem. So even when a Shillingburyish gentility of expression does emerge, it is counteracted by naïf intrusions of consciousness; it’s this emotional injection, coupled with a general air of humility, that lifts Reid’s politely understated poetry into a more interesting authenticity of self-expression.

The next poem, ‘The Unfinished’, goes for a more sparse approach, again quite Larkinian in its slight sense of omission, understatement and faintly curtailed emotion, which works powerfully. Dare one even go as far as to suggest an element of constipated anguish here, very much in Larkin-vein, peppered with some quite starkly archaic phrasing and very English, stiff-upper-lipped, laconic, darkly humorous, almost emotionally cynical (and certainly indicative of a simmering sense of anger that invariably accompanies the more gushing feelings accompanying any bereavement) in nonetheless accomplished passages such as these:

Gingerly, as if
loth to disturb it,
i released my arm
from its stiff vigil athwart
that embattled heart...

...

Kisses followed,
to mouth, cheeks, eyelids, forehead,
and a rigmarole
of unheard farewell...

Note the very Larkinian use of the word ‘rigmarole’ here, as if the whole process of witnessing a death is verging at times on a turgid labour, even a nuisance, like any other drawn-out routine or ritual – and in some obscure sense, it can feel like that, no matter how loved the person is. And it is this absolute emotional honesty of Reid’s that makes this book all the more a painful but at the same time assuringly human read.

There is some brilliantly rhythmic use of unobtrusively embedded alliteration and assonance employed to their most skilfull effect in parts of this poem sequence:

No imp or devil
but a mere tumour
squatted on her brain.
Without personality
or ill humour,
malignant not malign,
it set about doing –
not evil,
simply the job
tumours have always done...

...

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend;
nor even the jobsworth slob
with a slow, sly scheme to rob...

There’s no doubt that Reid is one of the more accomplished poets of the post-Auden-Larkin mould currently writing. It is not actually anti-confessional poetry but more verse that tips the verge of emotional floodtides and lingers edgily there; again, very English, tight-lipped, but deeply felt. And much of this book is, in spite of its subject, life-affirming, as one critic emphasizes on the jacket:

How bright the wit,
the circumstance-mocking
theatrical badinage, burned.

But precisely because of Reid’s – presumably generational – emotional self-restraint, passages that allow themselves more moroseness are all the more powerful by contrast:

When the brush had started
Tugging out random
Tufts and clumps
Of spring brown hair
From her outgrown bob,
She asked me to shave
the whole lot off.

Fractious, half-hearted,
I took on the job,
began maladroitly,
then finished it
with a perfectionist’s care.

Wasn’t it something –
that the cup of my hand
and curve of her clean scalp
should turn out to be
such an intimate fit!

There’s no doubt this is deeply felt and powerfully moving writing which crosses the barriers of stylistic tastes through its sheer human poignancy.

The third poem sequence under the umbrella title of ‘A Widower’s Dozen’, comprises really a collection of smaller poems, differentiated starkly by a variety of different verse and lyric forms employed throughout. It begins with a very simple but touching epigram, ‘Conundrum’, which expresses the perennial sense of becoming a ghost oneself on the passing of a loved one, particularly if it is one’s spouse or partner, and the feeling that half of you has gone with them, and the other half now simply haunts rather than lives life. The title poem ‘A Scattering’ is a quirky piece depicting how elephants apparently inexplicably scatter the bones of dead relatives with their trunks; a curious but intriguing motif to use for the book as a whole, and quite unpredictable given the more commonplace association of human ashes. But this poem, for me, is one of the weaker in poetic terms, in the main employing prose to get its point across, though oddly shaped on the page in a rather formal-looking verse structure. The following poem, ‘Soul’, however, is far more figuratively affecting, metamorphosing the empty-feeling of bereavement into an emotional foetus growing in a cerebral womb where it feeds on mourning and memories:

Coddled there, it’s needy, an energy-eater.
it kicks, or thumps, hollowly, and I come to a standstill,
breathless, my whole internal economy primed,
to attend without delay to its nursing and nourishment:
memories, sorrows, remorses are what it feeds on.

Luckily, I have no shortage of these to give it...

Powerful stuff; proof too that often the most affecting, profound metaphors are often the simplest and most obvious.

Other poems, though always moving, tend to breach the perennial poetic rule of show, don't tell, though these tend to the minority. Another charge might be that some poems suffer from slightly petering-out endings, though one could easily justify this tendency with the subject matter’s sense of fading. ‘Turns’ is a plaintive and genuinely sad poem, made all the more tragic by the poet’s evident atheism and instinct to brush off any inexplicable visitations:

I know she’s dead and I don’t believe in ghosts,
nor that the house has been saving up
old echoes as rationed treats and rewards.
It’s my brain, that’s all, turned whimsically ventriloquist.

What a doubly tragic possibility it might be that the spirit of a loved one comes back especially to reassure the person they’ve left behind that there is an afterlife and a chance for spiritual reunion, but is nevertheless rationalised away by the bereaved husband as a trick of his mind. Certainly this sequence has its formalistic contrasts, with nakedly prosaic pieces such as ‘About the House’ then contrasted by the stricter versification of the very scholastic ‘Exasperated Piety’, which provides some more detached, thanatotic wit in a study of Henry James’ aphorismic flirtations with death ('that distinguished thing' as James apparently called it on his death-bed) – this is a highly accomplished though quite mannered piece of verse, but technically one of the strongest poems in the book.

Finally, to the tour-de-force of the collection, the long poem ‘Lucinda’s Way’; no doubt intended as the emotional climax of this harrowing collection, this poem is certainly justifiably placed, as it is the standout piece of the book. It immediately grabs one with its more essential, muscular rankling with the book’s core theme, the aching emptiness of bereavement, and has a more organic, straggling, tendril-like crawl across its pages, with longer and more densely descriptive lines throughout. The first section of the poem ends on a simple but quite stunning couplet:

Can’t you now somehow contrive
to be both dead and alive?

The second section is lifted slightly in mood while it straddles the stage of Lucinda’s formative acting career, and the language here cranks up a notch in tone to the more light-heartedly nostalgic:

...a London fondly constructed from old books and high hopes,
to enlist in the rackety acting profession.
RADA accepted you. You attended classes. Made friends.
Splurged on adventurous recipes for dinner parties
but, totting up the pennies in the ruled back pages of a pocket diary...

Some might call such lines basically prose put in vague verse form, but then Larkin too did the same often, and both he and Reid strike a palatable balance in the main which works on its own terms and broadly eschews true prose, due to an essential rhythmic sensibility underscoring the lines. In any case, it is well-composed writing, even if not always strictly in a poetic sense. This thespianic diversion in the sequence contains an interesting and rare probing of the obscure psychology of actors:

But I never saw you in either Shakespeare or Chekov,
...
I never saw you in the parts they wrote for you. Nobody did.

...

Is that why actors are so routinely mocked and reviled?
scapegoats for their scapegrace lives
as enigmatic as those of the gipsies
and their law as recondite as the Jews’...

The juxtaposition of the actor with the Jew, both metaphysically itinerant in a sense, is quite an intriguing one; but there are moments here and there when one feels perhaps Reid might be a little more risk-taking with his poetic instincts, less tamed by prosaic inclinations. Though the following sequence is poetically descriptive, with lovely phrases such as ‘wafty cheesecloth dresses’; in tone too it serves to further beguile the reader with an epiphany moment scouring a once seemingly unimportant memory which now holds far greater significance, as the poet finally recognises:

...Each time you brought out
the ugly passport photo
that showed you flash-pallid and gawping,
in some dingy, tube-station booth,
I said, ‘A ghost that’s seen a ghost’.

A story and a poor joke
that have lately adjusted their meaning
to an unbearable truth.

The ensuing sequence is my favourite in the whole book, Reid employing metaphor brilliantly in describing the sprawling overgrown garden he has left to neglect, whose clambering plants and wilful disorder he almost cathartically relishes as a flourishing signature of his refusal to return to ordinary routine in the absence of his wife. This rambling garden operates as a brilliant metaphor throughout this sustained passage and contains some powerfully metaphorical tropes:

...no barbered-to-baldness parsimony of lawn
with flowers and shrubs pushed to the edge,
like hired staff at a heartless banquet.

...

Approaching midsummer, roses shoot everywhere.
tangled arches ambitiously aspire, but are weighed down,
it seems, by the sheer fatness
of clusters of bloom...

These verses work particularly well when theatrical leitmotivs are merged in from the previous poem:

The iris you planted next to the rosemary – Iris orientalis –
Put on its best performance yet two weeks ago,
And even its present tatters manage a certain panache.
Astrania in the shade of the quince-tree looks brisk and sturdy.
Solanum continues to hoist itself
By stealth from bush to bush.
Your disappointing honeysuckle has tried hard, while the abutelon
remains steady.
Then there are all the flowers I don’t know the names of:
Crowd-fillers, walk-ons...

...

Genius of growth and undergrowth, you planned this small
London back plot
To be where a gardener, a lone Eve, could lose herself utterly.

The Larkinian matter-of-factness in the face of profundity emerges throughout this poem again, till parts almost resemble the tone of an administrative report – but again this conceit works in the favour of the piece, only emphasizing the barely contained emotion, through its dry but control of brimming sentiment. It ends with the chillingly moving line: ‘...you’re still to be found there/ if I look carefully’.

The following passages lope slightly down a notch in mood to a more brooding tone again, always affecting but occasionally punctuated by a curious choice of overly prosaic expression, as in the rather odd line: ‘When we sold the flat we had lived in for – amazingly – seventeen years’, which to me jarred slightly amid such otherwise carefully phrased lines.

Curiously still, the final two verses to this generally accomplished and moving sequence, and book as a whole, is a combination of one of the strongest stanzas in the whole collection with one of the weakest in my view, and rather irritatingly it is the weakest that brings the book to its close, which is a pity but not an overshadowing gripe. It is the first of these two concluding verse which to my mind should have closed the book:

One afternoon, years later, we crossed on the stairs.
Unprompted, you announced, ‘I love this house’ –
an outburst of the plainest happiness
that the high stairwell
enshrines still.

The closing verse is as follows:

While the innumerable air kisses
we exchanged in passing
remain suspended to this day,
each one an efficacious blessing.

It is niggling that that last line and phrase feels much more artificial than the main swathe of expression in this powerful collection and would I think have been best omitted altogether.

But in the end, Reid has produced here a genuinely moving, haunting volume, a deeply English sequence of reflections on bereavement and the loss of love and companionship, and, most lingeringly of all, the ghostly, purgatorial half-life the widower is left with to himself haunt. Fortunately for Reid, his powers as a poet provide one final consolation to this horrendous loneliness and remorse. In this sense A Scattering is not only life-affirming, but also death-affirming, and above all else, affirming of the strange consolation of self-expression through poetry and its capacity to, at least momentarily, triumph over the most unbearable circumstances. The fact that this book won the Costa Book Award should in no way detract from its lasting emotional value, since for once this is a collection that has received wider acclaim for bravery of theme and sincerity of expression, on which the proverbially facile glitter of a prize hangs a little awkwardly; even, in a sense, serves as an unintended sleight to such authentic writing. A Scattering is primarily an exceptional collection on the basis of its subject matter; it is technically polished and accomplished, and contains some scatterings of striking tropes throughout, but as a whole is elevated by the closeness of its sentiment to the person writing it, the controlled outpouring of a recently bereaved poet; the sheer universality of its theme which cannot fail to appeal far and wide and, in the main, across social backgrounds. In terms of its poetry alone, it is a strong and beautiful book, though not in any obvious sense exceptional; but Reid proves here that the heart produces poetry of equal – and in some cases, greater – importance to the more cerebrally based or experimental. I believe such a book as this is the tip of the iceberg of no doubt many similarly affecting and emotionally compelling poetry collections by other lesser known poets writing now, and perhaps Reid’s ultimate consolation is the opportunity for his own personal testimony to loss to be lifted from the profound obscurity of private mourning into the laps of a significant readership. On its own terms, it is one of the more affecting poetry volumes I’ve read in recent times, and is certainly recommended for those who wish for some respite from the shallower end of contemporary poetic output; Reid’s book comes well-equipped with memorable imagery and occasionally sublime emotional insights.

Alan Morrison © 2011