Friday, 25 October 2013
CBe 2103 8 / Fergus Allen, New & Selected Poems
The risk of leaving it late to ‘emerge’, as they say, as a poet – Fergus Allen published his first collection at the age of 72 – is that there may not be much time left to enjoy post-emergence. The advantage is that you’ve been around a bit – which in Fergus’s case includes much travel, as well as careers in civil engineering and the civil service – so you may well have something to write about; you’re also likely to have read many more books by many more writers than the average twenty-something. That is to say, you have something to contribute.
Fergus Allen is now 92. The poems in his New & Selected Poems have been chosen from five previous collections (three with Faber, one with Dedalus in Ireland, one with CBe); the ‘New’ refers to a dozen poems written since his last collection. The book has a Foreword by Christopher Reid, Fergus’s first editor at Faber. You can hear Fergus Allen reading on the Poetry Archive.
The manner of Fergus Allen’s poetry is one thing: sharp, precision-engineered, no wastage. Opening the book at random, some openings: ‘When the car gave up the ghost outside Lahore / It would have been around a hundred and twenty / In the shade, had there been any shade’; ‘Nobody warned me that life would contain / Swearing and scenes of violence and nudity’; ‘After the earthquake we decided to redecorate Hell’; ‘Annie’s pubic hair was beyond a joke’. But also inviting: Allen writes out of a conviction that if he has the affrontery to detain the reader, then he has a responsibility to offer at least enough enjoyment, pleasure in the text, call it what you will, to keep the reader reading. This is the job. Which doesn’t of course mean talking down; he does assume the reader’s intelligence.
The matter is something else. For all the apparent suaveness of their phrasing, there is horror here, and unknowing, and intimations of apocalypse (‘A sort of non-existence came my way / when I was walking up through Morrab Gardens …’). Thom Gunn once said something – I can’t find the reference – about if you’re writing about the big and uncontainable things, then you need to be tight and close and maybe even very formal. Allen’s poems strike me as deeply civilised, by which I mean they are continuously aware of the fragility of so-called civilisation. His interests in myth, in folklore, in nature, in history, are not decorative. In sex too: the light and winning eroticism of a number of the poems glides over a wonder and strangeness: see the late ‘Lovers’ for sex + death + a typical Allen interpolation of the word ‘xylophone’. It’s noticeable how many of the personae are female (‘Portrait of a Woman from the Fayum’ one of my favourites; also the later ‘Lord Gregory’s Mother’).
Born and educated in Ireland, Fergus Allen moved to England in, I think, his early twenties. Anglo-Irish, a mixed blessing: I suspect the Irish have him down as English, the English as Irish. He’s not young, but neither (except in the tedious terms of years, one upon another) is he old. He is not on most readers’ map. Many of the poems haunt me, which is why this book.