Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

A look at
Dr. Robert Darling

Citations may be used only
with permission
from Glyn Maxwell
or his publishers

When W.H. Auden released his first Collected Poems in 1944, he arranged his verse alphabetically by the poems' first words, stating he did so because he believed a chronological ordering might lead critics to talk about his development as a poet, which he thought premature as he was not yet forty.  Still the volume weighed in at more than 400 pages.

More usual a concern for a young poet (and many not-so-young ones) is simply being published.  Those who are not early developers as Auden are probably gratified some of their earlier efforts brought no notoriety and only the embarrassment felt by the poet when he looks back through piles of unpublished earlier verse.  More and more, the development of formalist poets takes place in private.  There are several reasons for this: lack of sympathetic publishers for formal work; many formalist poets are not as prolific as some free-versifiers (Who of John Ashbery's generation has written as much as he?) partly due to the time necessary for those elements of craft of no matter to free verse; the fact that weakness in formal verse is often easier to spot than in free verse of the same level (A bad rhyme or metrical inversion will leap forward to assault the ear in a way that not even Sharon Olds can usually manage); and as traditional prosody is still rarely taught, most poets develop their craft through slow and often frustrating self-apprenticeship.  Suffice it to say that most of the prominent names in the return to formalism are standing with both feet firmly planted in middle age.

All of which makes Glyn Maxwell such an interesting phenomenon.  In the last decade, Maxwell has published four collections of poetry, all a Poetry Book Society Choice or Recommendation (and three of which were over 100 pages), one novel and three plays.  Now, for good measure, Maxwell has published Time's Fool, a 396 page poem in terza rima.  And he is not yet forty.

Maxwell's initial collection, Tale of the Mayor's Son, is an exuberant grouping of work from an unmistakable voice.  Though the influence of Auden is noticeable, Maxwell has developed a manner that is very much England here and now, even with a Byronesque narrator in the title poem:

 They skated on the ice at the ice-rink,
              Elizabeth and a black-trillbied boy
 who kept his hat on. I'd have hated that

 had I seen it. I hate people who
     make such alert decisions to impress.
 I'd have him on his arse. Oh good, he is.

 Elizabeth, white-skirted,--no more clues--
     swooped to pick the Mayor's son off the ice,
 and pterodactyl-like he shook himself.

 Hat elsewhere, hat kicked on by a small bully
     and ruined by the bully's friend. Once,
 that would have shelled and reddened my idea,

 to see such fun. But nowadays I just
     cram it in with all the other eggs
 for omelette. Skate, skate, you're crap at it,

 whatever your name is, you Mayor's son.
      The Mayor's son and Elizabeth, oh my!
 The middles of my afternoons in England.

A tale (actually more of an incident than a tale) does manage to get told and we meet with the failure of the Mayor's son and learn more of the narrator than of Elizabeth.  The poem is not profound, but it is full of life and life's grim humor.  Witness their time in the library:
 The library was full of walruses.
     Or people who resembled walruses.
 Or--no. Let's say: People who would bear

 comparisons with walruses, and might
     confess it was a modern poet thing,
 post-Tennyson: Irish perhaps, or French.

 Outside the library, the skinhead world
     dropped litter, picked up girls, and spat, and wasn't
 literate, and walruses, elsewhere,

 moaned in the sea and didn't give a fuck.
     So much for images. The library
 was full of books. The books were like more books.

 Some books were overdue. A man called Smith
     had borrowed Dante's Purgatorio
 but not the other two. I had them both.

 A man called Dorman had a book on trees,
     which nobody had mentioned recently
 though it was ages overdue.  A girl

 who's stripped the library of Sailing books
     had drowned recently, and was so slow
 to answer warnings that they'd phoned her up...

It is a poetry of great speed and shifting vision, a vernacular poetry yet in form.  One of Maxwell's great abilities is his knack for catching speech patterns; he is one of the best answers to critics who claim form is a corruption of natural speech. The story comes full circle at the end: Elizabeth will be accepted at a university which rejects the Mayor's son and there befriend the narrator's  old girlfriend;  and the narrator is resigned:  "Meanwhile the books / will pile up in my world, and somebody's hat / will find its way to me and I will wear it."

The collection is also filled with exuberant titles such as "The Albatross Revolution," "Mr Harmon to You" and "Two Old Ones Did It"; granted, there are several slight pieces in the volume, but its strengths and originality lift it far beyond the reach of most first books.  Many poems are concerned with life somehow passing one by--a recurrent Maxwell theme--and most are acutely socially aware: "Poisonfield" is a particularly fine example.  It begins:

 We went to vote in our democracy,
       and saw a poisoned field behind a fence.
 Dangerous for children, I think I said,

 but those behind me disagreed at once,
       pointing out the great wire that the field had
 wound itself in. They asked if I could see.

Through various surrealistic adventures the vote is never taken, breaking down in meaninglessness: "And the dance / failed, the disapproving children heard / apologies that sidled out of me..." (ellipses in the poem).  At the end the narrator is resigned to the insane order:
 It seems to last forever. In my bed
        I sulk and spoil the paper. Tyranny
 is mine. I miss the rallies and events

 they organise. I finger my one key
              and on the poisoned field behind a fence
 I grow my children and I grow them bad.

Maxwell's narrative abilities are best on display in "Tale of a Chocolate Egg" which satirizes the pernicious influence of modern advertising.  But it also manages to bring to life several different characters in a diverse London neighborhood and even achieves a moment of considerable charm when the hero at last has the egg handed him.  It is, all in all, a 16 page tour-de-force.

Most of the poems in Tale of the Mayor's Son are metered, many rhymed (often over stanzaic breaks), and the stanzaic patterns are far more intricate than my quotes have indicated.  This habit is even more ornately followed in Maxwell's second book Out of the Rain.  Once again, there are the Maxwellian titles: "We are Off to See the Wizard," "Got Me," "Rare Chat with the Red Squirrel," "In Herrick Shape for Her."  There is development from his first collection, though the main narrative here, the title poem, is not as strong as "Tale of a Chocolate Egg."  The poems which are too obscure are fewer and the manner not quite as brisk as the first collection, which at times left the reader wondering if he'd fastened his seat belt.

Particularly fine are "The Uninvited" and "We Billion Cheered" with its odd stanzaic pattern:

 We billion cheered.
                           Some threat sank in the news and disappeared.
 It did because
                           Currencies danced and we forgot what it was.
Maxwell is also not afraid of using capitalized abstractions (the last important poet to do so being Auden) and making the sweeping statement.  They are always backed, however, with an eye for specific detail and an ear for demotic speech.

"Helene and Heloise" is a fine poem describing two girls swimming in a pool at an English embassy overseas; their privileged lives are loving sketched. But theirs is a fragile world:

 Stretching out in her shiny gold from the pool,
 Heloise swivels, and sits and kicks
                    Then reaches back to towel
 Her skinny shoulders tanned in a U of lux-
 Uriant material. Helene
 Goes slowly to the board, and hops again

 Into the dazzle and splosh and the quiet. Say,
 Two, three miles from here there are heaps of what,
                      Living things, decay,
 The blind and inoculated dead, and a squad
 Of infuriated coldly eyeing sons
 Kicking the screaming oath out of anyone's.

And at the end of the poem the speaker returns to within the embassy compound in a stunning final stanza:
 Still, I'd think of Helene, of Heloise
 Moving harmless, shieldless into a dull
                      And dangerous hot breeze,
 With nothing but hopes to please, delight, fulfil
 Some male as desperate and as foul as this is,
 Who'd not hurt them for all their limited kisses.
"The Beast and Beauty" manages to wring fresh thoughts from an old idea.  Section 4 of the poem, "The Beast to Beauty," also exhibits Maxwell's dexterity with the sonnet, a form which he has yet to use often:
 I know how long it's been, Beauty, alone.
 I know by how the orchard's overgrown,
 By generations of increasingly
 Multi-coloured starlings, and by me.
 Not by my face, which stays Beast's one face,
 But by the dated scraps around this place
 Everywhere, the mornings blowing about.
 I know by my great vintages running out.

 I know, moreover, how much time remains
 Before the unlikely footfall, sudden, tense,
 Across the markless gravel, and the knock,
 Unearthliness of luck staring at luck,
 And you approaching and approaching now.
 Beauty, I know all this, but hardly how.

Yet he can move from this gentle tone to beginning the next poem in the collection, "Plaint of the Elder Princes," in quite a different manner: "We are the first and second sons of kings. /We do the most incredibly stupid things. / When we meet Elves / We piss ourselves...."  "Didymus the Seated" is a fine piece examining the craziness that passes for the daily round, the promptings to "join in the deafening noise // To make the obedient choice" and reminds the reader: "There is a saint for doubt."

Maxwell's third collection, Rest for the Wicked, continues to deal with contemporary life with a dazzling array of forms.  The poems are generally shorter and the collection contains no lengthy narrative poem, though "Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun: Fragments of an Investigative Documentary" is a 12 part series of poems recounting Phaeton's disastrous ride from a variety of points of view, including that of the horses'.  Its TV documentary format is only partly successful.  There is also a stronger point of view on the poet's part in many of the poems; witness the opening stanza of "Tycoon":

 Known by the shortest of three Christian names,
 He rolls his sleeves and goes the distance. Laws
 Like two commissionaires let him through, his claims
 A fraction over half-convincing both,
 And money opens the doors that open doors
 As sure as gut and throat make way for vomit.
There are so many poems in a typical Maxwell collection and in such a variety of (usually) nonce forms and styles that it becomes difficult to select the representative.  "The Boys at Twilight," those "Who are going to be boys, who have had to be men" is particularly fine, as is "The Sarajevo Zoo," probably the most successful of Maxwell's poems dealing with the Balkans, in which "men had shinned up a ladder and taken / the sun down" and ending with
 Trees were what you could not see the starving
 beasts behind, or see there were now no beasts,
 only the keepers crouching with their two lives.
 Then winter howled a command and the sorry branches
               shed their leaves.
Again, it's the fine eye that captures the detail that is the microcosm of the larger catastrophe.  The ear of the demotic group-speak of gangs and platoons is caught in "The Allies":  "The enemy had one eye, though, and that was simple. / It's hard to know what's right till the night you know / What wrong is and the enemy was what wrong is."

The poems of The Breakage are probably Maxwell's most personal to date, though not personal in any way that could be called confessional (fortunately).  Many of the finest poems deal at least peripherally with World War I.  "My Grandfather at the Pool" deals with a photograph (conveniently reproduced on the cover of both the English and American editions) of five young men about to dive into a pool. (There may be faint echoes of "Helene and Heloise" here.)  Only one of the group is not looking at the camera and that one, Maxwell's grandfather, was the only one to survive the war.  The poem is written in couplets, a pattern that Maxwell breaks once in the middle of the poem when he strands a single line to highlight the movement from the pool to the site of the battle, a movement that quickly returns to the pool.  "An August Monday" is written from the point of view of a boy who is upset his family's plans for a picnic at the beach are disrupted by public transportation being taken over by a mass mobilization of troops being sent to battle.  "Letters to Edward Thomas" is a series of fourteen identical, lengthy stanzas, all but the last intended as the voice of a contemporary visitor not finding the poet at home (He was killed in the war) and the final being in Maxwell's own voice. It is a memorable sequence.

Maxwell's gift for pure humor is well-presented in "Deep Sorriness Atonement Song: for missed appointment BBC North, Manchester," a verse of which goes

 And the drunken plastic surgeon who said 'I know, let's              enlarge'em,'
 And the bloke who told the Light Brigade 'Oh, what the hell,      let's charge'em,'
 The magician with an early evening gig on the Titanic,
 And the Mayor who told the people of Atlantis not to panic,
             And the Dong about his nose,
             And the Pobble re his toes,
             They're all sorry, really sorry
                         But I'm sorrier than those.

He also has a wry poem about the American preoccupation with jogging, "Mr F Gets Fit" which ends "I woulda jogged forever if I coulda. / It did me good. I hope it does you gooder."

The poems celebrating his marriage and new daughter are also fine, the weakest of the collection probably being the rather leisurely paced vacation poems.  Maxwell is currently resident in Amherst, Massachusetts; it will be interesting to watch the effect on his writing should he remain in this country for long.  He is a very English poet and probably no one has caught the voice of Cool Britannia better than he.

This voice is certainly evident in Time's Fool.  As mentioned above, this is a poem of nearly 400 pages written entirely in terza rima.  It tells the story of Edmund Lea, who is trapped aboard a train because of a crime he committed, sort of a combination of the Flying Dutchman and Charley on the MTA.  It is not an ordinary train, being staffed by a skeleton, even skeletal, crew, travelling through strange, deserted lands, usually with no other passengers.  However, every seven years the train returns to Lea's hometown on Christmas Eve; he is free to wander for the night but finds himself magically transported by dawn back to his train for another seven years.  This even happens when he has himself arrested--he simply vanishes from his cell.

The poem moves from 1970 to 2019.  This supplies Maxwell with abundant ground for satire as he relates the changes in British society in seven year gaps.  But the work is more than satire; that it once again concerns itself with Maxwell's preoccupation with the missed life is obvious, but Maxwell has drawn some real people here.  And he generally handles the plot well; it is in some places something of a page-turner right up to an ending that is not altogether expected.  Unlike my experience with so much contemporary fiction and a fair share of narrative poetry, I care about the characters here.

In choosing to use Dante's form, Maxwell obviously draws on the metaphysical journey as well as punishment; however, terza rima is much harder in English than in Italian.  And there are places where Maxwell's prosody creaks; however for the most part he handles it well indeed.  And as usual Maxwell is a master of voice:

 ...then Wasgood, my old guide, was saying, 'Hey,
 she got her place to go to and fair's fair's
 my attitude. She got a station, Polly,

 she stops at, got to tend to them affairs
 she has, and I don't blame her. Always tell her,
 every Christmas, if that guy of hers

 is on my line I'm having him, no favour.
 He's roadkill's what I'm saying, and she's always,
 Leave it, Woz, whatever like whatever's

 the thing to solve it, Ed!....

Who else would do this with terza rima?  Contrast this with the ending of the work (which will not give the denouement away):
 But there's no time like now, when the first streaks
 of the cold light appear. The furthest trees
 become distinct. It's Saturday that breaks

 today, and all is clear across the skies.
 The first ray's always warm, or to my mind
 it is, that pioneer. My heavy eyes

 will hold it like a rope in my weak hands,
 and soon all light appears, nothing but light
 is lifting from the earth, over the land,

 and I will look until it starts to hurt,
 stare out that light, refuse to turn away,
 though all is forming in me to a word

 which fades again, too bright in the bright day
 for ink to cling to or for soul to say.

This range from demotic speech to the intensely lyrical is wide, and the format of this poem, its themes and expanse, allow Maxwell to pull out all stops.

Certainly, a poet who has written this much this young has a good deal of dross mixed in with what will last.  His eventual stature as a poet will most likely be determined more by the work of his next two decades rather than the one now past.  But that Maxwell has written some poems that will last seems obvious.  I can think of no other poet in the language under the age of forty who is of similar accomplishment.

                                                         Robert Darling

NOTE:  Glyn Maxwell's first three collections, which I have cited here in their original editions from Bloodaxe, have been culled to supply the American edition The Boys at Twilight,  published by Houghton Mifflin, which has also brought out The Breakage and Time's Fool

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