John Glenday’s modern ancient ways

John Glenday. Grain. (Picador Poetry 2009).

John Glenday’s third slim volume, deservedly shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, affirms his position as one of Britain’s finest lyric poets. its very first poem, ‘Epitaph,’ sets the tone for the whole book:

Father, forgive this man.
He never listened to your song
till it was all but done
then found he couldn’t sing the words
so he spoke the tune.

Among other things, and like a lot of the short, tight, and precise poems to follow, this sounds as if it had been there for centuries, a poem ‘anonymous’ might have written, still around and always present to our ears and eyes. Glenday is a powerfully traditional (not conventional) lyric poet, and he has carved and burnished his verses till they glow.

There are lines and verses throughout Grain that I want to repeat, but I will try to restrain myself. Moreover, although he has woven so many perfect little lyrics throughout the collection, he has supplemented them with a group of tough little prose poems, some translations, as well as some darkly comic pieces, rewriting a fairy tale, picking up a bit of history about tin cans, or creating some new saints (in the tradition of Canadian poet, bpNichol, whose work he probably came across when spending a year in Canada as Writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta).

Nevertheless, it’s Glenday’s poems of love and loss that readers will carry in their memories. The stark beauty of ‘Etching of a Line of Trees,’ an elegy for his father, can stand for many others. It begins: ‘I carved out the careful absence of a hill and a hill grew,’ and continues with further examples of such negative creation, but then:

But because I could not bring myself

to remove you from that hill,
you are no longer there. How wonderful it is
that neither of us managed to survive

when it was love that surely pulled the burr
and love that gnawed its own shape from the burnished air
and love that shaped that absent wind against a tree.

Aside from the intensity of the emotion articulated through his careful utilization of etching terminology, Glenday also makes the sense of absence extraordinarily present in the phrases of the poem.

Such stark beauty shines in poem after poem, a sense of the world as both absolutely all there is and beautiful for that very reason, and a sense of impending loss as all must die. Yet, as ‘Noust’ (a term he explains as meaning ‘shelter’ in a note) notes, there is what poets and their readers might see as an exemplary excess to it all:

Noust in the grass
grass in the wind
wind on the lark
lark for the sun

Sun through th sea
sea in the heart
heart in its noust
nothing is lost

Certainly not in Grain, a book to own and return to.

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