Kevin Saving on

Andrew Motion
The Cinder Path 
(Faber, 2009)
58pp, RRP: £12.99,

No, not the Catherine Cookson 'Weepathon' - rather, the first post-laureate effusion of Mr Motion.
  The writer, it had been 'leaked' from On High, was experiencing 'Block' towards the end of his office - had felt imprisoned in the role, with its more-or-less-unspoken requirements to perform, poodle-like, before royalty. Certainly, the embarrassing 'rap' - which he'd felt impelled to write for the two princes - evidenced some deeply-internalised discomfort in an appointment which, after all, no one forced him to take up. So now we're offered 39 new poems from Fabers to betoken that this creative constipation is a thing of the past.
  Alas, not so. Motion is, and always has been, a fluent writer of prose. His two biographies of Philip Larkin and John Keats were both well-researched and a pleasure to read. But (ever!) to call him a 'poet' was over-stretching any recognised use of the term and this last collection is unlikely to enhance his reputation. The first poem, 'On the Balcony', starts promisingly:
 
  The other, smaller, islands we can see
  by turning sideways on our balcony -
 
  the bubble-pods and cones, the flecks of green,
  the basalt-prongs, the moles, the lumpy chains -
 
  were all volcanoes once, though none so tall
  and full of rage for life as ours, which still
 
  displays its flag of supple, wind-stirred smoke
  as proof that one day soon it will awake...
 
and remains at least competent to the end
 
    ...a fire that we
  suppose means nothing to us here, but have to see.
 
This is as good as things are ever allowed to get.
  The second, an unrhymed five sonnet-sequence on the life of Harry Patch (a centurion, Cornishman and the last survivor from 'The Trenches') again commences well, but rapidly degenerates into a kind of regurgitation from that remarkable man's memoirs, The Last Fighting Tommy (Bloomsbury, 2008). Several of the later poems, 'My Masterpiece', 'A Dutch Interior', 'The English Line' appear designed to show-off their originator's 'painterly' eye: again, alas, they fail. Quite regularly, all one comes away with is an impression of public self-preening or, indeed, 'motioning'. The author would do well to heed his own advice (from 'The Benefit of the Doubt'):
 
  ...remember the stranger a thing is
  the less need to say as much.
 
Several of the better poems appear to be written, as they say, 'from life' - fashioned in particular from the writer's own relationship with his father (a D-Day veteran). 'The Stone' and 'A Goodnight kiss' - both 'about' his children - and, especially, 'The Veteran' evince real, authentic feelings. At other times - as in 'Passing On' (on Motion senior's death) or in 'The Mower', the effects appear more forced and 'writerly': therefore, unfortunately, contrived.
  Much of the remaining work (notably 'The Feather Pole', 'A Garden in Japan' and 'The view from Here') seems occasioned only by the desire to be seen publishing a poem.
  Located near the centre of this collection, the title-poem illustrates - and is illustrated by, the book's front cover (an oil, 'The Cinder Path' by S.F.Gore [1878-1914]). Again, the somewhat self-aggrandising tone does not work to the benefit of its author.
 
  I know what it means
  to choose the cinder path.
 
  You might say death
  but I prefer taking
 
  pains with the world.
  The signpost ahead
 
  which bears no inscription.
  The elm tree withstanding
 
  the terrible heat
  of its oily green flame.
 
Andrew, you're an academic, not Spartacus.
  In closing this publication, Fabers have chosen (for some reason best known to themselves) to bind seven blank leaves together at the end of their book. This seems, somehow, an appropriate summation. Glossy but vapid - and the reader left asking 'Why?'
 
 
 
Kevin Saving © 2009