“pathologies and imperfections”

The Crossing Fee, Iain Bamforth, £9.95, Carcanet Press
reviewed by Clare Best
Bamforth, The Crossing Fee
The universe of this collection can seem a strange and baffling place which is yet recognisable, though not always in ways I might have expected.

Some aspects of The Crossing Fee are immediately recognisable. There are the names of places we know about or might have been in – Shetland, Holland, Egypt, Mexico, Turin – and characters with whom we might be familiar – Luther, Ruskin, Simone Weil, Goethe – but the familiarity is turned by Bamforth’s sideways take on history and place. He can tilt a house in the Var into a Roman villa “in earshot of the river’s/ gluttonous way with sucking-stones”. He can transform midsummer on Shetland into a place where “data overburden is only an echo away, like the Atlantic heave/ and the piped-in petrochemicals of the polar night.” And this is when I find the defamiliarisation itself is recognisable, even oddly comforting. I wonder, is this Bamforth’s physician’s eye, looking for pathologies and imperfections, and accepting them? There is certainly empathy at work, and an interest in oddity and difference.

The many cultural and literary references in this collection put me off a bit to start with, and made me feel intellectually inadequate. On second reading though, I found the references less daunting – I began to read them as part of the character of the places, and of the poems themselves. These references began to seem like the clothing that the bodies of the poems are wearing. Some poems are dressed extravagantly, others more plainly. The range is intriguing and witty, and the references always allow for the possibility of finding out more, of course.

The Crossing Fee presents a closely observed world made up of ailing parts, or at least of imperfect physical mechanisms. The whole of creation, it seems, is a body, a patient. Multiple meditations on hunger and appetite are woven through the collection. Is the poet suggesting that exploring the workings of possible divine and human needs might help us uncover what fuels life itself?

Clare Best

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