Quiet concentration

As Best We Can – Jeffrey Wainright (Carcanet)

Many of these quiet poems have a disproportionately unsettling effect.

‘The Window Ledge’ describes objects at different times of day. Stopped clocks, old photographs, the inexplicable candle that was in a room for years, but never lit. These details speak to a slow world with cliff edges of change, hinted at in the opening poem ‘Give Me a Line’:

‘Until we shall be separated / the world scarcely needing to adjust / as we are so differently disposed.’

Its inward view also speaks to the recent moment of lockdown. The interior has become the world:

‘Morning or night is what I see beyond the lightwell, morning then night, morning then night.’

Its geist is completely of the zeit without ever mentioning ‘the virus’. I assume publishers are clearing the snowdrifts of coronavirus manuscripts from the front door around about now and here is a reminder that very good poets can hit a historical target and transcend it in one. Zen archery of the most effective sort.

As the title suggests, the collection speaks to the everyday, to getting by. We have all been doing that. In 2019 many were stretched like elastic ready to snap and the place of these poems largely passed them by then – despite those people being in the domestic probably once a day. Soon after it became most people’s lives.

‘Dreams of Lennox Road’ explores those experiences – while sleeping – of old domestic spaces, personal histories that return. Again many of us will have had that. There’s a somber feel to it, like Norway, and even I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it is how I experience the after-effect of reading the book.

It is very British though. ‘My Father and the Onward Tendency’ explores family history and ruin:

‘Yet within the year modernity was scrappage / down the river on Churchill’s vengeful barge’ as later his father ‘walked to the old Exchange on Lockett’s Lane / back to the thirties adding up his dole’.

It reminds me of Ashbery’s line ‘it’s bankruptcy, the human haul’, and no better time than now and the immediate future to be reminded of that, and to demand that we at least try to do things differently.

‘Drawing Lessons’ (after John Ruskin) begins with a man trying to focus, to attempt a still life of a pebble. Its concentration unspools gradually. This poem seems to speak to our attention as readers as much as it speaks to the attention required to draw well. Anyone who has tried that will know how hard it is. To really read a poem can take similar skill.

‘What Am I Seeing’ follows and underscores the concern with perception and depth. This is work that comes from slow attention, proper effort and commitment to understanding. This is not the poetry of the atomised who cannot think straight and do not know who they are anymore (as my recent poetry is).

Let the new era be the era of thinking straight or it will not be.

– Steve Hanson

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