“Old poets stay at home to become explorers…”

Speak, Old Parrot, Dannie Abse (Hutchinson, hbk £15-00)
reviewed by Judith Taylor

It seems to churlish to wonder if a poet in his nineties has anything left to write, but the question will occur to readers of this collection, not least because Abse himself keeps raising it.

Old poets stay at home to become explorers;
the older they get, the smaller they get
and, relentlessly, the trees grow tall. (‘In Highgate Woods’)

And sometimes the answer seems to be “no”. For me, there is too much in this vein:

At 3 p.m. I’m sitting in L’artista
as usual, bored, waiting for something unusual. (‘Wasp’)

What he’s aiming for is suggested by ‘Perspectives’, subtitled ‘5 paragraphs for Frank O’Hara’, but he doesn’t manage O’Hara’s trick of making the whole greater than the accumulated parts. The effect is close to maundering in places, with descents into bufferishness:

Why does this make me think how those poets
who write enigmatic nonsense become famously
the darlings of the professors they despise? (‘Perspectives’)

Similarly ‘Blue Song’, tiredly surveying modern art, ends with a predictable poke at Hirst and Emin: its closing “All I lack is talent/that’s why I sing the Blues”, presumably meant as ironising self-deprecation, doesn’t redeem it for me. Usually I welcome humour in poetry, but here it is often heavy-handed, causing crashing shifts of tone in the two sequences ‘The Summer Frustrations of Dafydd ap Gwilym’ and ‘Vows’, and contributing to the collection’s patchy and uneven feel.

It’s a pity, because there are good poems here too. I think the book’s flaws would have disappointed me less if it hadn’t also contained evidence that, for all his fears, Abse still has what it takes. The finely-sustained smuttiness of ‘Cricket Bat’ made me laugh out loud, and in ‘Parable’, seriousness and deadpan humour dovetail neatly as the poet confronts two doorstep evangelists who ask if he knows the end of the world is nigh.

I reply Yes and they are manifestly disappointed.
When I confess I keep a packed suitcase
ready upstairs,
they retreat with Olympic pace.

‘In Highgate Woods’ is similarly sure-footed in its treatment of the ways in which poets might confront mortality. And ‘Scent’ is both a touching elegy for the poet’s wife and a meditation on the uses and limitations of poetry itself. Catching the scent of a flowering shrub she planted

                            – one so alluring,
so delinquent, it could have made Adam
fall on Eve, with delight, in Eden

he lingers beside it

                                    allowing myself
the charm and freedom of inebriating fancy
till the scent becomes only the scent itself
returning, and I, at the gate, like Orpheus,
sober, alone, and a little wretched.

The light touch with which he combines the personal, the sensuous, and the mythical make this as good a poem as any of Abse’s that I know. Again, it would seem churlish to complain he doesn’t always work at this pitch – who does? – but a slimmer collection, with fewer of the more humdrum poems to muffle the best, might have served his reputation better.

Judith Taylor

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