Review by Robert Selby
In Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Most of It’, the backwoodsman desires not the ‘mocking echo’ of his own voice when he cries out across the lake, but ‘counter-love, original response’ from a fellow human being. Nature replies instead, in the form of a stag that journeys past indifferent to him – ‘and that was all’, writes Frost at the end, when, of course, it is everything.
‘Talks’ in the title of Andrew Motion’s new collection, Peace Talks, is a verb rather than a noun. The collection’s titular sequence – part of Motion’s ‘Laurels and Donkeys’ series about twentieth- and twenty-first century Western wars, carried over from The Customs House (2012) – addresses the ‘bow-wave of trauma’ rippling out from the British Armed Forces’ recently ended thirteen-year campaign in Afghanistan. That country was left not truly at peace, but those British service personnel who survived it have returned to more peaceful climes – some in one piece, some not – and, in ‘Peace Talks’, they and their loved-ones speak. On the book’s cover is depicted a pine cone Motion, in the poem ‘A Pine Cone’, describes bringing back from a visit to Belsen. The former concentration camp, for all its past horrors, is an eerily quiet place of tree-lined paths, lark song and mass graves like ‘Neolithic long-barrows’. But of course the quiet is not peaceful, for it is thronged with innumerable silent voices, represented by the pine cone opening out its scales on Motion’s windowsill like ‘manifold silent mouths’.
And peace is allowing Motion to speak too: the weighty laureate’s laurels were shed in 2009; now too the demands and expectations of the country of his first sixty-three years. He has, to borrow from his one-time biographical subject Philip Larkin, ‘chucked up everything / and just cleared off’, removing to Baltimore where he is now Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University.
‘I find myself for the first time in my whole life able to just write poems, if I want to,’ Motion told The Yale Herald recently. ‘And that is an amazing liberation for me. When that fact dawned on me, I thought that I’d never write a poem again, but in fact the opposite seems to be the case.’
In becoming a backwoodsman as far as England is concerned, Motion has opted out of the ephemera of its literary scene and devoted himself to what matters most: the poems that he wishes to be remembered for. In this way, his recent oeuvre is an attempt to defy the mortality with which it has become increasingly preoccupied, starting with The Cinder Path (2009) and its statement that ‘We live / by death’s negligence – I believe that’ (‘Coming in to Land’). There is no more time to waste: ‘Anno Domini drives out stern matters of fact’, as one line goes in Peace Talks (‘The Conclusion of Joseph Turrill’). Motion is thus, as he communicates through another’s perspective in ‘A Meeting of Minds with Henry David Thoreau’, sending out his cries so as to
and have those echoes
and fill the woods
with circles of dilating sound
awakening the trees.
The natural world may be utterly indifferent to our voice, but the echoes we receive back reassure us that we at least possess one. ‘Who am I,’ Motion asks in regards to the life and work of D.J. Enright, ‘to let it vanish completely / without returning an echo’ (‘The Realms of God’). Motion and an Enright biographer, Michael Standage, walk together across Brighton shingle and the poet notes how
small waves beat towards us,
fold over neatly, and turn into foam.
Very soon more follow and
the same thing happens.
Nature’s indifference – whether it be the stag cutting across our path or the tide frothing between our toes – is a sobering, or perhaps consoling, reminder of our own brevity and insignificance. Such indifference is present in the poem ‘The Death of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’: Noel Odell, oxygen officer on Mallory’s doomed 1924 expedition to climb Everest, searches in vain on the mountainside for his friends, ‘repeatedly shouting their names / as loudly as possible across the wilderness’. More demands for original response; again, there comes none. Confounded by how such talented climbers could have perished, Odell concludes:
In my final estimation
the mountain looked very beautiful,
and I decided my friends
must have been enchanted the same way.
I can think of no better way to explain
why they chose to stay.
Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance, then, is dressed-up as their choice; these tragic figures are rendered somehow luckier than those who survived, who had to return back down the mountain to continue less celebrated lives away from the pure driven snow, in a world gearing up for another catastrophic war. ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’ Larkin asked incredulously of ‘The Old Fools’ not long for this world: precisely because of the human power, exemplified by Odell, to rationalise death and maintain the hope, despite everything, that it is a continuation of life.
Mountains (island volcanoes, Skyros, Mount Fuji, the Mount of Olives, and so on) recurrently rear-up in Motion’s poetry since The Cinder Path. Lying mostly outside man’s machinations, closer as they are to the clouds than to his dominion, mountains – despite their often forbidding appearance – are hailed in many cultures as places of plenty and no pain, a heaven on earth like Mount Penglai in Chinese mythology. Their presence in our sightline provides us with perspective; in ‘Talking to the Moon’ from the ‘Laurels and Donkeys’ half of Peace Talks, the wife of a serving soldier says she looks at the mountains to take her mind off her fears for him (‘they take you away // who could be there // who has explored them // who / is living there now); later, in ‘The Gardener’, a bereaved mother consoles herself by thinking of her late son as ‘molecules starting again // and the mountains never changing’. These are startling lines not from a poet, but recorded by a poet revealing to us the profundity present in everyday speech.
The most affecting poem of the collection’s first half is ‘The Lych Gate’. Motion imagines the rural Essex churchyard where his parents and various grandparents and great-grandparents are buried, but how it would have looked in 1900, when the family plot would still have been just empty ground where
I have yet to stand and imagine
of having never been born.
We conjecture as to what follows death. But we have already experienced it: it is the same darkness we inhabited before our birth. Larkin in ‘The Old Fools’ again: ‘We had it before, but then it was going to end … /…. Next time you can’t pretend / There’ll be anything else.’ And as much as we like to think we share Thom Gunn’s consoling idea of death – ‘let it come, it is the terror of full repose, and so no terror’ – we suspect we might empathise more with Larkin’s inconsolable dread.
For this reader, the strongest part of the new ‘Laurels and Donkeys’ instalment is the sequence ‘In the Stacks’ which, ironically, was commissioned. Written in response to items in the British Library, the sequence begins by returning to Rupert Brooke’s Skyros grave – via pressed leaves once pulled from an olive tree hanging over it – which was first visited in The Cinder Path, then continues on through redacted war correspondence, Wilfred Owen’s stay at Craiglockhart, and culminates in an immensely powerful, possibly ekphrastic poem. The ‘last man’ standing (we are put in mind of Harry Patch, the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ and subject of previous Motion poems) emerges from a shell-splintered copse and washes his face in a flooded bomb-crater. It looks as if he is ‘twisting his head off’ so as to throw it away and with it ‘everything inside it that can never be forgotten’, and so ‘become clean again’. This is the desire – and inability – to purge the stains of the Western Front and Belsen and Hiroshima and Helmand from man’s story.
Assessing ‘Laurels and Donkeys’ is where we can return to Frost, and not just because Motion’s poem ‘The Fence’ (which uses material from Iraq veteran Kevin Powers’s novel The Yellow Birds) naturally puts us in mind of Frost’s immortal ‘Mending Wall’. Frost espoused poetry that communicates the ‘sound of sense’, everyday speech with its natural deviations and idiosyncrasies. Motion’s pre-existing interest in this idea, generated by his study of Frost’s friend Edward Thomas, has been distilled through listening to poetry being read aloud on the Poetry Archive website, which he co-founded in 1999, and through listening to the likes of Lance Bombardier Stephen North, Adjutant Michael Altenhoven and all the other service personnel and next of kin whose voices help make ‘Laurels and Donkeys’ what it is.
‘Through my research on Edward Thomas early in my writing career, I thought a lot about the sound of sense, and about how one might make that manifest in my own writing,’ Motion told The Yale Herald. ‘I’ve stopped punctuating my poems, for one thing. Instead, I’ve started placing my lines on the page in such a way that it’s pretty clear to anybody how to punctuate it, and how they should be breathing when they’re reading the poems. So the expression of the poem on the page has a sort of sonic equivalence.’
Thus, just as Motion’s poetry has become more focussed thematically, formally it has loosened up. In this way it reflects the poet’s sense of liberation and creative revival.
The epigraph to Peace Talks, from Spinoza, roughly translates as: ‘Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.’ Precision in language has always been what Motion has striven for, and what better way to accomplish it than through poems that have their origins in other people’s words; contracting, as much as possible, the distance between reality and representation. The clearer the voice across the lake, the stronger the resonance. In the acknowledgements to Peace Talks, Motion states his hope that the respective halves of ‘Laurels and Donkeys’ will one day be published together. This is surely inevitable, as such a gathering would likely form the defining collection of war poetry by a non-combatant of modern times. Just as The Customs House improved on The Cinder Path, so Peace Talks, in turn, surpasses its predecessor.
Robert Selby has co-edited a selection of Mick Imlah’s prose (Peter Lang, 2015). His poems and reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, Oxford Poetry, and elsewhere.