Saturday, 3 September 2011

Fergus Allen at 90

Congratulations and the very best wishes to Fergus Allen, who is 90 today.

There’s an interview with Fergus Allen in PN Review earlier this year in which Joanna Blachnio cannot resist a brief description of the man himself – ‘scintillating with wit, dressed in canary-yellow corduroy trousers and white trainers’ – and opening with talk about peacocks: ‘The first one just strayed down our garden path one day,’ her host explains. ‘A neighbour thought it was sad he didn’t have a mate, got him a white pea-hen – and the pair soon began to hatch young ones all over the place. Now we have only one, simultaneously the son and grandson of the first peacock.’

Fergus Allen’s first collection was published by Faber in 1993, when he was seventy-two; two more Faber collections followed, then one with Dedalus, and most recently Before Troy from CBe in 2010. ‘Allen writes poetry that is limpid, very subtle and marvellously wise,’ says William Boyd, and if that makes him sound too much like a venerable elder I’ll add that the poetry is written with, and offers, enormous fine-tuned pleasure. From Before Troy, here’s ‘Musselburgh’:

I think it was Musselburgh where I confronted,
Or was confronted by, that girl with the long hair,
Soft brown and waving gently to her shoulders.
She stood behind the counter, hidden to breast height
By glass cases displaying soaps and toiletries,
The air scented with synthetic attar of roses.
When I asked for aspirin or something like,
She restated the question in a local accent,
Looking at me as she did so with a gaze
So unwavering, calm and disregarding
Of the niceties of social intercourse
That my headache or whatever it was
Ceased to exist or at any rate to matter,
And that day’s issue of my soul was soaked up
By the absorbent blotting paper of her retinas.

There’s a line, a line and a half, that was batted back and forth so often during proofs that I couldn’t swear on – on what? why not this very book – that the printed version accords with Fergus’s final decision; I believe it does, but I believe that he believes it doesn’t, but I also believe that his recall of the final decision reverts to a version previously discarded (though of course there’s no reason why he shouldn’t go back to it). So much artfulness to make the thing seem artless. To settle the matter, please buy a copy from the website, to edge us towards a reprint in which we can print exactly, or a little more exactly, what he intended.

A poem from Before Troy is included in the 2011 Forward Book of Poetry. Fergus Allen will be reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival at the start of November.

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