Book review: Later That Day, by Andrew Greig

Andrew Greig is in reflective mood in his latest poetry collection, finds Roger Cox

Detail from the cover of Later That Day, by Andrew Greig

Andrew Greig is Scotland’s great poet of action, and his mountain poems have rightly seen him described as the “laureate of climbing.” Surely the written word doesn’t get much more visceral or heart-in-mouth than these lines from “Crux,” penned in the 1908s:

“Adhesion’s mostly faith in intricate movers

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but he’s shivering agnostic now

releasing the hand jam he

s t r e t c h e s

his right boot slips

right hand up

fast as a prayer

grabs his Grail o lovely jug

then cranks like a maniac over the bulge.”

In Later That Day, however, the mountains are mostly absent, as are action and adrenaline. Greig turns 70 next year, and – as the title of his new book suggests – these days he is in reflective, elegiac mood.

If one poem could be said to be the key to the rest of the collection, it is perhaps “The Old Codgers,” which sees the poet sitting drinking at a pavement table on Ashton Lane in Glasgow with a few of his contemporaries as the rain pools on the awning above their heads and “runs down past our hats and shoulders, / like death, still just missing us.”

The atmosphere he conjures up is an odd mixture; there is quiet satisfaction at “children grown, mortgage cleared” and yet also a clear-eyed understanding that, after all, it really is the simple things that have value. Ambition, he notes wryly, is “a huge umbrella bumping through the crowd, / more burden than it’s worth, slightly absurd.”

“How very little matters now,” he muses, “but sitting in shelter with each other.”

Greig isn’t exactly raging against the dying of the light here – he’s still only 70, he’s not that kind of poet, and this isn’t that kind of book. However, he’s certainly plenty curious about what comes next. The very first poem here, “A Cast Iron Rose,” begins with the words “Is that it, then?” and this question finds echoes throughout the collection, most notably in “Explorer (At Karekare).”

Here, Greig imagines a gentleman adventurer of the Victorian era, his mentor dead, his “native bearers” gone, following a river downstream and finally fetching up on the titular black sand beach in northern New Zealand. Rather than terminating in “a great, shining lake” as hoped, the journey instead comes to an abrupt halt when the adventurer reaches the Karekare Falls: “Whoever thought it all ends here,” Greig writes, “with terror crashing into wonder?”

Mountains are not entirely absent from Later That Day, but when they do make an appearance it is in the context of an elegy. In “Climbing Early in Glencoe,” dedicated to a former climbing partner, Greig looks back on an ascent of Diamond Buttress on Bidean Nam Bian when everything seemed to go right –”the ropes ran freely, front points gripped.” The duo are just clanking back down the hill after a successful ascent when Greig pulls the reader up short:

“That day’s long gone as he is

yet I think we are sustained

by what passes through

and keeps on going

for ever so they say.”

For anyone pondering life’s bigger questions at this time of crisis, it’s hard to imagine a better companion.