London Grip Poetry Review – Donald Gardner

Poetry review – NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, 1966 -2020: Fred Johnston admires Donald Gardner’s well-crafted poetic chronicling of his times

New And Selected Poems, 1966 -2020 
Donald Gardner 
Grey Suit Editions
ISBN 978-1-903006-25-2
Pbck. 227pp. £14. 95 

It is no insignificant thing to discover a poet whose work in turn delivers something back to you. Call it a polite shock of newness, even surprise. When I first came upon Donald Gardner’s work my wonder was that I hadn’t read him or, indeed, of him, much more and more often. The poetry world is pock-marked with instant poets, McPoets, if you will, who haven’t bothered doing old fashioned things like serving apprenticeships in magazines and journals but seem to have sprung full-formed from the foreheads of commercial publishers or the loins of creative writing workshops. Are they all good? Of course not. And there are too many of them. Creative writing tutors who should know better have told them that they are all poets ‘inside,’ wherever that is, and the deception took like an iffy skin graft. I read a fair bit of new poetry, or poetry new to me, and it is a pleasure to come upon poetry that is what it says on the tin. As Gardner’s proved to be. My personal view is that an earlier generation took poetry seriously whereas it’s treated as a component of showbiz these days and has lost both its intent and its action. And its beauty – when last did a reviewer describe a poem as ’beautiful?’

Donald Gardner was born in London in1938, the year the Nazis banned poet and scientist Gottfried Benn from writing, Stevie Smith produced Tender Only to One, and The English Association brought out the third number of Poems of Today, packed sardine-tight with British or Anglo-Irish poets and more besides. Gardner went on to translate such writers as Octavio Paz, Ernesto Cardinal, Galliermo Cabrera Infante. He moved around, living variously in New York and Bologna, before settling in The Netherlands, where he resides still. This gathering-in of his work, beautifully and simply produced by Grey Suit, comprises ten sections, starting in 1966 (his first published collection did not appear until1969.) It is quite possible to use the sections as stepping-stones and walk oneself tidily through his career. Though – cave lector – not all poems are autobiographical. What is delineated in any such selection is the development of the imagination, style and method of seeing.

Thus ’In Mexico City’ is finely wrought but a tad eager, as a young man’s poems might be expected to be, and hauls in Munich and Viet Nam as earnests of the poets good intentions before a taxi-driver. It’s explanatory, almost apologetically so. That said, it’s a pointer towards a sincere and sure morality at the heart of the majority of Gardner’s poems. He will not be aloof, he is in the world. He is engaged. In a later section from a 1985 collection, ‘The Finest Housing Department’ is as gritty as you like, the more so because the restrained anger, the savage frustration, can still be felt:

How kindly she tells you she cannot help you directly
 but that she will gladly give you a form ….

Later still, in a section of ‘Pessoa Palimpsest,’ Gardner riffs on the line ‘Sorry if I made you Cry,’ out of John Lennon, that working-class hero doomed to a photographed assassination (the assassin managed to ‘selfie’ in the photo) by apologising for a host of small things neglected or not done:

  Sorry if I don’t look sorry
  Sorry but I really tried.
  Sorry I outstayed my welcome
  Sorry I broke down and cried . . . . .

The rhythms of Lennon’s original song are easily recognisable, of course, but it’s hard not to entertain the notion that Gardner’s trying to subvert Lennon here, taking a schmaltzy love-song and endowing it with a confessional, almost adolescent mistiness. Is it hard to take Lennon seriously? Was it all guff? Is Gardner’s poem an improvement on the original? Lennon the jealous guy was after all sending up his own jealousy. To a rather indulgently melancholy tune, too.

Gardner isn’t anywhere intimidated by sacred cows. And I’m inclined to the view that he is wary of over-egging romance. Showing up Amsterdam’s construction world in all its un-glamour, even to the point where the creation of new buildings crushes out any possibility of romance in the moon itself, he says, in ‘Moonrise:’

 . . . .while the real moon

 looks like a bad-tempered pinched little baby
 dandled upwards . . . 

He’s describing an enormous crane with its two great lamps and ‘the firm’s name on the crossbar’ hovering over the beginnings of blocks of flats. It’s an anti-romantic gesture the crane’s making, hard to imagine anything more mundane and inspirationally blank. But Gardner has managed, having drawn our attention to it, to redeem it somehow. If it’s what we have, if not exactly all we have, we must make do. There’s something of L.S. Lowry in this. The moon’s still up there, behind the brick-work. Inevitably, perhaps, the poems mature into bold realisations of intimacy, closeness, co-habiting spaces. This is the world now. We no longer have to conjecture or come over all maudlin like Lennon, here is the real heart’s geography, unmapped for the most part.

Gardner’s honesty admits us to personal places. Interesting that the poems grow physically thicker, wordier for a time, tell stories more readily. And he manages to make them interesting continually and at the same time provocative. A late poem, ‘Two Steps Down,’ engages with the onset of the Age of Accidents, that period in one’s life when things that never did before tend now to get in the way or insert themselves maliciously under one’s feet.

  The visit to A & E
  only took a couple of hours.
  Then home in the taxi
  and tucked up in bed
  with a hot toddy
  and a galaxy of medication.

And so to bed. All the engagements of the world come down to this. Gardner invites us in. This is fine poetry and needs to be read for sanity’s sake in a time of increasingly official madness.The great conflicts (with which, after all, the poet began his life) are raging still but as universal horrors now, poets are still jailed or worse for upsetting the murky order, slanders can be arranged to have someone removed from office or the academic life, it’s the Thirties most days.

A longer review might pay more succinct homage to Donald Gardner’s graceful peeves and occasional fed-upness. As a poet he has a quiet, settled command of his craft, his work incessantly readable and comprehensible. There’s more than a touch of the chronicler’s pen here, and the consequent acknowledging of others who had, with equal sensitivity, watched their age lurch by. And there’s acknowledgement too of those everyday but seldom ordinary folk who resisted, mercifully, the desire to throw a stone through a window.