Norman Buller on

Derwent May

Wondering About Many Women
Greenwich Exchange, 2011

The author of this collection knows his way around literature. Among other notable achievements he has been literary editor of The Listener and literary and arts editor of the Sunday Telegraph and the European. He has also been a judge for the Booker Prize and the Hawthornden Prize and is at present literary consultant to The London Magazine.

So Derwent May has been active in the literary world for some time, with many poems published in journals, four novels and several works of criticism to his credit. He has had the advantage of moving in influential circles yet, surprisingly, this is his first poetry collection. This speaks well of his modesty and suggests that he has not been subject to the rampant egoism which seems to drive and obsess many of today’s writers.

If you like your poetry to strike a quiet note not dominated by the insistence of ‘the great I am’, this could well be your kind of book. From the first poem onwards one becomes aware of the simplicity and directness of purpose of the author’s approach. It is there in the unfussy dedication to the truth of his experience which characterizes his choice and organization of language. In short, one feels in the presence of much that has been best in the tradition of poetry in English.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that any of these poems actually achieve the greatness of the best in that tradition. None of them are perfect; poems hardly ever are. The important thing is that the personal compass guiding the author’s course is true and without that genuine poetry is well-nigh impossible.

The title poem is a good example of his work:

  Wondering about many women – all
  Who looked at me and fell into my care;
  Wondering about what they used to feel,
  How much they laughed, how much they chose to bear;
  Whether any sigh to think of me still,
  If they fix a year by our affair.

  Wondering about the one who by a kiss
  Set all that was really meant in train,
  Laid up for me and for herself
  Strange shares of tenderness and pain,
  And will not see another take her place

  - As now she steps in through the door again.

Reflections on past intimate relationships could, in the wrong hands, turn out to be crude, lumpen, boastful and generally unpleasant. Here, however, the tone is entirely delicate and refined, the reflections mature and wholly human – thoroughly civilized in fact. In the final stanza the simplicity of the diction helps express the tenderness and loyalty of the affection which fortifies the relationship, allowing the feeling to come through in a genuinely moving way. This poem represents the quality of Dermot May’s work at its best.

The poems in this book are modest but have the inestimable quality of being wholly unpretentious. They are not interested in ‘isms’ and don’t concern themselves with trying to be great. There is no striving after effect for its own sake. The imagery is, on the whole, effective because it is there for the sake of the poem and not for itself. Some of the poems don’t quite manage to get where they were going but that, after all, is par for the course.

This collection contains only thirty-two poems and one wishes there were more. It deserves a wide readership.

Norman Buller © 2011