Mar 31 2023
Poetry review – THE BIG CALLS: Thomas Ovans is quick to admire Glyn Maxwell’s furious lament over the current state of England
In The Big Calls Glyn Maxwell offers us a dozen angry poems. The anger is directed at the English establishment and the governmental figures he holds responsible for corrupting and disfiguring England. Their mean-spirited, materialistic individualism is revealed, for instance, in a hostility towards asylum seekers making risky journeys to find safety, a fondness for the light-touch business-friendly regulation behind the Grenfell Tower tragedy and an aversion to tax-funded public services which has caused the near-collapse of the NHS during and after the Covid pandemic. Of course, during the last decade, many angry poems have been written on topics like these; but this collection stands out because of the particular poetic forms Maxwell has chosen. In borrowing the shape and structure of such English classics as “If” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” he manages to subvert certain attitudes, fostered in English public schools and widely expressed among the governing classes, which see English history and the English character as above reproach (and even close to being sacred). The resulting poems are not pastiches because in most cases they do not include images or themes that resemble the originals. Instead Maxwell calls his process “shadowing” and it consists of following precisely the rhyme-scheme, metre and (usually) the length of the model. The rhetorical power of the poems does not depend strongly on the reader being very familiar with the classic originals – it’s not about spotting nudge-wink references. But the forms themselves are strong and they lend authority to the narratives (both factual and fictional) that Maxwell sets forth.
The collection begins with a poem which addresses a true story from 2012 that many readers will have forgotten – or even missed completely. Some British soldiers stationed in Kenya were suspected of being involved in a young girl’s death and in its subsequent concealment. There was however no Military Police investigation at the time since a Kenyan police request for British Army assistance apparently went missing. Maxwell gives an imaginative re-telling of this story using the model of “The Lady of Shalott” and thus (rightly) putting the girl at the centre of the story. However it begins with one of the young soldiers half-remembering the poem from his schooldays
he can’t think how the hell it goes failed it anyway Christ knows a rose by any other rose
Attention then switches to the girl who works in a bar frequented by the soldiers
The afternoon is thick and grey her friend will come it’s Saturday when all the boys ride out to play from barbed-wire Camelot
A story unfolds amid soldiers’ bar-room banter (‘too-rye too-rye fuckin A / carouses Lancelot’) and ends with the hiding of a body in ‘a lidded septic tank where lies / the lady of Shalott’. Even when the body is discovered weeks later the outcome is ‘Local inquest total? One / Military enquiries? None’ – suggesting a high-level cover up:
Diplomacy makes nothing happen, just like me, like thought and prayers and poetry and anything we do for free in dwindling Camelot
It’s not of course my job to paraphrase or précis Maxwell’s poetic narratives. But these first few extracts may give an idea of how his approach works by injecting his own sardonic voice alongside real-life brutalities within Tennyson’s polished and measured verse form.
The next three pieces deal with female victims of crime – one real case and one imagined. Among these is a moving description of a murdered girl’s last journey presented as a prose monologue which shadows the poet John Clare’s account of his return home after escaping from an asylum.
The first really high-profile scandal to be addressed is the Grenfell Tower tragedy and its back-story of cosmetic cladding that was known (yet never admitted out loud by anyone concerned) to lack the required fire-resistant properties. If cost-saving is a priority
Then you might turn your thoughts to aluminium, Or polyethylene or PIR, The cheaper stuff professional opinion Knows will burn like fuel but there you are; And once it burns kill any who inhaled it, It being part-composed of cyanide Or, if these compounds took a test and failed it, You might rename them slightly, let it slide
One devastating page of poetry says as much as the prolonged public enquiry.
The catalogue of shameful episodes continues: Britain’s failure to complete promised evacuations of Afghan allies after the fall of Kabul in 2021; the Home Secretary’s repressive anti-protest legislation of April 2022. Following these come “Charge” and “Memo” which both deal with the Covid pandemic. “Charge” addresses the reckless policy of discharging elderly patients from hospitals to care homes.
Home you go, home you go, home where the home is, take up your sheets and walk grandma that’s showbiz.
Such lines may sound tasteless, even cruel, but they foreshadow elements in the much longer poem “Memo” which shadows “In Memoriam” and charts the government’s entire response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, “Memo” includes ‘some reflections on the Prime Minister of the day’. This minister does not need to be named and is only referred to as mate which, the poet explains, is ‘your name for me the only night / we met. I’m guessing ’84 // I might be wrong, the Balliol bar.’ But his characteristically un-statesmanlike sense of humour is plainly alluded to in the lines
… An eerie graph appears behind your tousled head, did you say what we think you said? Squash the sombrero. Pause for laugh.
And a few lines later comes a further quip in another televised announcement: ‘Operation, wait, Last Gasp, / you turn and smirk, cometh the hour / cometh my mate…’
“Memo” presents a catalogue of (mostly) mismanagement by leaders who are both self-confident and incompetent. It continues over eleven pages of four-line stanzas, grimly interspersed with a running count of Covid-related deaths.
Of the book’s remaining three poems I want to single out “Wreck” which is modelled on Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and deals with the drowning of a number of refugees when their small boat sank in the English Channel. Evidently rescue attempts were delayed due to disagreement over whose waters the boat was in: ‘they’re not our waters, just sit tight / and they’ll send somebody’. It is not possible in a few extracts to do justice to this poem as it moves between the plight of the refugees and petty cruelties an imaginary English public school dormitory where empathy and compassion are stripped away from future members of the governing class. Maxwell voices both anger and despair
Sixty years and I will have my say on England, fond and fooled and wrecked and sinking with three cheers in the dissolving light.
Meanwhile the consequences unfold for the victims
All night tlll dawn they could take it. By the light they let go one by one all gone all went out in my sight and english said french water there french said english water no one came not right
For those who share Maxwell’s opinions about present-day England, The Big Calls delivers a powerful and effective cry of protest and also represents a remarkable poetic tour de force in the clever use of classic forms embodying both striking imagery and subversive satirical barbs. Those who do not agree with his views might conceivably still admire Maxwell’s poetic craft – but I suspect that not many of them will be reading his book (or this review)! Maxwell may not be alone in borrowing complex rhyme- and metrical-schemes for political purposes – Andy Croft, for instance, has composed two collections (1948 and Ghost Writer) entirely in Pushkin sonnets – but the scale and variety of what he has achieved is remarkable.
If it is a reviewer’s job to mention reservations as well as giving praise then I ought to say that a decision to shadow the length of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” might have been unwise. The resulting poem “Market” (whose target is less well-defined than those of the examples above, being simply described as ‘a dark tale of England under the tabloids’) seems to me to be overlong and less focussed than the rest. Again, “From” (composed largely from extracts of offensive WhatsApp messages exchanged by serving police officers) is well-directed at a deserving target; but when extended to a seven sonnet sequence it does tend to become repetitive. But these are rather small personal complaints about a magnificently passionate and well-crafted collection in which Maxwell’s voice carries all the fierce conviction of an Old Testament prophet.