On Glen Maxwell's The Breakage

The Breakage

by Glyn Maxwell

Faber and Faber, GBP7.99, 80pp

Glyn Maxwell’s new volume, The Breakage, is the book of an accomplished poet who wants to be seen as part of a canon. From the opening title poem, with lines like “We kneel and start. And blood comes / Like luck to the blue fingers / Of children thinking they can help, / Quick as I can warm them.”, we know that Maxwell is a poet for whom control is everything. There’s nothing technically out of the poet’s control in this book, though there are tensions which keep the work vital. Maxwell has bought into the machinery of poetic identity, if not the mythology of the poet – though it’s hard to discern where one begins and the other ends. Technically, the book is astonishing in the consistency of control of subject matter and form, and the subtle manipulation of voice. Maxwell has that rare knack of unsettling the givens. The versatility of syntax is not as evident as in earlier work, but its more occasional deviations actually seem to emphasise what it is that makes Maxwell’s a unique voice in contemporary British poetry. The tone moves between Maxwell’s idiomatic takes on Edward Thomas, W.H Auden, and even a subliminal taste of William Empson. The poems are neat – almost too neat on occasions – but walk a fine line between being anachronistic and innovative. There is much more to this book than meets the eye. While it’s as if the world is being viewed through sepia – out of its time, as if the “poetic” seems to interfere with what it is a poem is trying to do or say – there are controlled engagements with the “colloquial” that undermine the reader’s certainty, and expectation. I read this book three times before I could fully appreciate the sting in Maxwell’s highly structured, almost contrived diction. In the end, it seems to work to take us closer to subject matter. The struggle of this book is between the comfort surrounding spaces of contemplation and consideration, and the source of the materials which are being considered. The tension generated from such displacement is brilliantly captured in a poem like “My Grandfather at The Pool”. The movement between persona, the historic/dramatic monologue, geographies, and the voice of the poet, is expert. Enrichment of a sense of place through movement is the key here. If the language seems antiquated, work it against the almost cinematographic efficiency of shifting scenes and locations. The core of the collection, the versatile “Letters to Edward Thomas”, is a set of poems in which the meditative, the occasional, the conversational, “nature poem”, confessional, epistolary, and a gentle rhetoric, interact fluently. The horrors of war and death tinge gentle moments of domesticity and “country things”. Robert Frost is there. Voices move through time. Nothing is static, despite death. Dear Edward Thomas, Frost died, I was born. I am a father and you’d like the names We gave our girl. I’m writing this at dawn. Where Robert lived, in Amherst, and your poems I keep by his, his housebrick to your tile. There are other poems where rhetoric overwhelms the voice and leaves one a little flat, but that fine-line balance of syntactical freshness and control of voice most often result in pieces like “Hide and Seek”, with its delicate final stanza: Then many draw to it as to a shrine, In glum approval, jealous but sincere, That of the silences you favoured mine, And the last thing that mattered mattered here. and meditative pieces such as “Lullaby Of The Thames”. Maxwell makes good use of a mannered irony that threatens to become something harsher but retains its poise. The book is strongly elegiac, and often meditative, and it’s this that keeps the irony restrained. Take these stanzas from an extremely well organised poem, “Cap d’Ail”: Her books are as they were, the first editions regiments. No order to relax will come. Along the shelf the Harold Robbins fade and fatten till they wreck their backs. The painting of the villa’s in the hall. Violet for the rocks, the sea blue of birds’ eggs, dirty somehow, and the whole as close in the way I shouldn’t do is crust and flake, moon-acreage of oil I’m supposed to see. I rest my cheek right by it like a brute, and then recoil to the right distance and the way we look. What I like about Maxwell’s new poetics is that it seems more sure of things than it really is. This is his best work, because there is still a touch of “uncertainty”, despite technical virtuosity. I’ve heard people lamenting this apparent conversion to the safe and controlled, the desire to create “solid” verse – I’d argue he’s actually taking immense risks and is the better for it. There are plenty of light humorous moments also in this diverse collection – unified by deftness of tone, voice, strong line and competent stanzas – of elegies, love poems, occasional pieces, dramatic monologues, homages, narratives, lyrics, and so on. As Maxwell writes in “Mr F Gets Fit”: “It did me good. I hope it does you gooder.”