On Jenkins’ The Drift and Shapcott’s Her Book: Poems 1980–1998

The Drift by Alan Jenkins (Chatto & Windus, 2000), GBP8.99

Her Book: Poems 1980–1998 by Jo Shapcott (Faber and Faber, 2000), GBP8.99

In his fourth collection of poetry, The Drift, Alan Jenkins utilises well-honed prosodic skills to explore the nature of memory and loss. He uses poetic form to stabilise memory, to “anchor” sense in the flow of recollection into a schema. The nautical “drift”, the sea and water are ever-present, most specifically in the context of the boat, the struggle between the danger inherent in the youthful romanticism of the poetic “bateau ivre”, and the harsh truth of social necessity, the effects of time, and growing middle-aged. The poet is wary of the intrusion of this romanticism into the here and now.

There is something refreshingly honest about the poet’s self-analysis, about the nature of personal interpretation and reception. What is mine, what is family inheritance – who does memory belong to? It’s the construction of our moral selves that’s being surveyed. We are processing the “poet’s” memory. But it’s not as easy as that. There are possibilities of negotiating in the grey area between thought and writing, cognition and speech.

This is also poetry of class – what constitutes our social environment, or more specifically a specific English upbringing. The love poems in this tight collection are powerful for the same reason as the others are: reconstructing, assessing how memory alters and recreates a relationship. They are not weighed down by sanctimonious regret or self-satisfaction.

These are really poems of self-psychoanalysis. In the elegiac “Brighton Return”, we read “to you he was the chosen one, the brother you’d never had”. There is a vague suppressed sexuality at work here, but it is left aside for the familial and safer ground of recollection. In this and the poem “The Short Straw” we are excavating the nature of the unsaid – psychoanalytic archaeology. What “Brighton Return” and “The Short Straw” lament is both the physical loss of someone once very close and the loss of personal vision, so much tied to the friendship. The poet challenges what he’s become. He recognises that his address to the dead is an address to what’s deadened in himself.

The book exhibits the tension between the poet maudit – the hellraiser who disdains protocol and the dictates of class and inheritance – and the “citizen” he has become. It’s this tension and ambivalence that drive the craft, the currents moving below the surface that draw up the new – the unpredictable, that will free memory from guilt.

From “Salt”:

” . . . Your verse bobs like a little yacht

in heavy seas, dismasted, it veers and bobs and weaves

as if it were the Galatea at the mercy of great waves

as if the helmsman were unfit . . . ”

The boat is a symbol of family security and memory – but also of art, chaos and that outside the social order.

Jenkins, who uses the sonnet in versatile and yet formal ways – cyclically and with superb sense of volta – is one of the best sonneteers working in English today. This is informed and learned poetry, but always available, familiar, and non-pedantic.

The use of the second-person address to the self is used to great effect to offset triteness and sentimentality – there’s not a whiff of this in a book whose subject matter would normally succumb to it. The poet is as hard on himself as on the human condition in general. It’s as if he regrets that his grandfather, father, mother, friends and lovers must be reinvented by him – but that’s what none of us can escape.

What links this collection and Shapcott’s work distinctly is the motif of gender and the environment of “class”, or the social motivation of the poetic voice. But Shapcott is an altogether different poet, doing no less than rewriting the English poetic canon – challenging sources, verse structure, and the primacy of the patriarchal voice. Her “class” or social milieu is female in a world of mass media, where language is negotiated through male power structures.

Shapcott has a brilliant sense of how the line can be played against to enhance meaning, to make a point about tone and speed by turning before we expect her to. Her use of mythology, “tradition” and convention in the construction of histories is powerful. For Shapcott, the language of popular culture is living and ever-present, and subverting notions of the past. Which is not to deny the presence of history, but rather to reevaluate in the light of change. Like all great satirists, she is both part of the culture she is analysing, and able to step – momentarily – outside it.

Her Book is a “compendium” of Shapcott’s three previously published books. It isn’t a large oeuvre but then there is no excess. Shapcott anticipates her critics at every turn. The conflation of poetry, sexism, language, the media and even economics is brilliantly conveyed in her well-known “Mad Cow” poems.

A small neat poem that might be read as a mini-ars-poetica is “Watching Medusa”, bearing in mind Cixous’ essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”. It’s another poem from the ironic pages of the Shapcott gender bestiary. “Struck dumb”, the Medusa-watcher tells us, “I cannot speak or move// in case I do wrong to her and/ close the sweet hissing mouths.” In this poem the “muse” is “rescued” – is reclaimed from the male poet. The rules have changed. And whose rules were they in the first place?

In a Shapcott poem Tom and Jerry can be acting out a storyline in England – “swished my axe at Jerry, belted after him/ into the Bloody Tower, my back legs/ circling like windmills in a gale . . . ” – the barriers between the allowable and the forbidden are broken. Nothing is sacred. She is English, but could almost be “post-colonial” in her irreverence. The centre doesn’t hold, and she’s here to tell us about it.

In an early poem like “With the Big Tray”, Shapcott casually deconstructs the traditional male “artist’s” gaze. The “nude descending the staircase” motif is inverted, and the play with gender expectation is deft and unrelenting:

”The sun constructed an avenue

to the bedside table

and now the housefly played

boomerang in and out of the light.

Hilary surprised herself by breaking wind.

Secretly, her large smell

made her feel real and salty

as a merchant adventurer . . . ”

One of Shapcott’s best-known poems, “Phrase Book”, demonstrates her language play at its most damaging and smart. A poem about the Gulf War and the use of the language of propaganda in the contemporary media-savvy international military environment, and specifically the language of English-speaking pilots in action. It’s also a bizarre “love” poem, of sorts, or a poem of deathly consummation between the viewer and the screen images and their peculiar language, reminiscent of another Gulf War poem by the Australian poet John Forbes that ends:

“Instead I watch the west

do what the west does best

& know, obscurely, as I go to bed

all this is being staged for me.”