Book review: Barefoot - The Collected Poems of Alastair Reid, edited by Tom Pow

Alistair Reid' PIC: Maggie Hardie/REX
Alistair Reid' PIC: Maggie Hardie/REX
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A “Collected Poems” is always problematic. The definitive article in “The” Collected Poems is even more so. Alastair Reid, as well as being one of the great essayists of his day was also a translator and a writer of delightful nonsense for children, especially Ounce Dice Trice.

His work Englishing Borges, Neruda, Pacheco and Mutis is every bit as important as the poems he excavated from himself. When Polygon published two wonderful volumes, Inside Out, and Outside In, equal measure was given to Reid’s significant translations. The absence of translations here is made even more stark by the inclusion of one example – Pacheco’s “High Treason” – as almost an afterthought, though it does contain a thematic rhyme to much of Reid’s work. He asserts that he does “not love my country. Its abstract splendour / is beyond my grasp”, preferring, “mountains / (and three or four rivers)”. It is at once Pacheco and Reid.

There are new poems here – but fewer than I was expecting. The major collections – To Lighten My House, Oddments, Inklings, Omens, Moments, Passwords and Weathering – appear mostly intact, with a few insertions (to be precise, six previously unpublished or uncollected). There is a section of juvenalia from the late 1940s. Had the translations been included it might have been possible for the reader to see how certain motifs – mirrors in particular, but also a certain kind of grief-full love poetry – relate to their appearance in the work of Borges and Neruda in particular.

Reid was like a cricketer who could be relied upon to hit a four and just occasionally managed a six. The early work shows an indebtedness to the “MacSpaunday” form – the work of MacNeice, Spender, Auden and Day-Lewis. That group was only once in the same room together, at the BBC, accompanied by Dylan Thomas, whose influence is clear here as well.

The early work has a fascination with alliteration, assonance and formal rhyme. So, for example, in “The Question In The Cobweb” we get a veritable onslaught: “A rumble in a tumbled cloud / is mumbling of rain aloud. / A hedgehog humping home alone / makes thunder underneath a stone”. There is a very slight sense of “putting on a poetry voice”. Verbal pyrotechnics are not the same as poetry. They seem, and I have no doubt Reid would have hated the comparison, a bit like Winston Churchill’s oil paintings: not quite good enough and obviously trying too hard.

In the later works, the shadow of Eliot is more evident. The best works are pieces like “The Syntax Of Seasons”; the two cat poems, “Curiosity” and “Propinquity”; and the elegiac “Four Figures For The Sea”. Yet when he finds his own voice – a phrase I thoroughly loathe – they are remarkable works. Exceptional among these are “The Tale The Hermit Told”, a piece of diablerie, and the poems which display Reid’s wry and melancholy wit. A piece like “Pigeons”, where each monumental statue is given a pigeon which is half-angel and half-Caesar’s slave, whispering “You too are mortal” and covering them in white splatters, is typical of the later style. So too is “The O-Filler”, a strange parable about a man who pencilled in each letter o in books in a public library, and the exquisite “A Lesson In Music”, which must rank with WS Graham’s “Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons” or Browning’s “A Toccata Of Galuppi’s” as a response to both the technical and emotional nature of music.

Two things persist across Reid’s oeuvre. One is – as one would suspect from a writer who lived in many different countries – a certain shimmer about the self. In the hitherto unpublished “Aunt Elsie” he states it boldly: “Questions of who we are / should never have an answer. / We leave old selves, like places, / disquietingly behind.” (Note as well how the earlier fussiness of effect has been dropped.) Or, in “New York Surprised”, we have the subtle rhymed last line, “Only my name is the same”.

The early poems are all about lighting out for the territories, the later ones are hankers for a home. But he is also consistently a poet of epiphany. The poems freeze around a particular moment. There is not the argumentative propulsion of Eliot and later Auden, but rather something rather more like Philip Larkin’s style: a sliver of time preserved if not understood. The dominance of the lyrical rather than the exploratory is strangely at odds with Reid’s own shuttlecock life across different continents.

Any lover of Reid’s poetry will be pleased to have this volume. Reading it made me think that, for a young academic, there is now a niche to be carved out with a proper biography which could encompass the vagabond interests of the prose with the recirculating niggles of the poetry, let alone a life that was so full and variegated.

On a final note, although the book records Reid’s frustration at the fame of his poem “Scotland”, to the extent that he burned a copy of it at the St Andrews Poetry Festival, it doesn’t mention that he imitated its final line “We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it” with the oral poem “I’m done with it, I’m done with it, I’m done with it.”

Barefoot - The Collected Poems of Alastair Reid, edited by Tom Pow, Galileo Press, £25