Mar 2 2023
Poetry review – AN ANXIOUS SPRING: Merryn Williams enjoys and admires John Levett’s well-crafted poetry
This is a generous selection of John Levett’s poems written and published over the last forty-odd years. They are mostly rhymed, and it is as pleasant as it is unusual to read such a master of form. The first verse of the first poem, ‘The Insect House’, from his 1983 collection, gives a flavour:
This artificial darkness is more real Than any country midnight. One by one Attendants throw the switches that reveal The glass walls of each tank, an Asian moon, And taped along the violet edge Of warm, exhaustive privilege The thermostats displayed like silver spoons.
It’s an excellent vivid picture of this twilight world, and ‘The Ice House’, first collected in 2014, is even better:
It’s trashed now, full of rubbish, silver tins, Chunked Styrofoam, And puddles growing ice like second skins As we climb down a hundred years too late To shiver underneath its brick-lined dome Not daring to turn round or test the floor And shocked at how the rich can insulate Their world against the cold hands of the poor.
I believe that Levett is now aged about eighty, a man who was once familiar with Brylcreem, Airfix, transfers of Pluto and Popeye. A great many of his poems are about small objects – Tipp-Ex (does anyone remember Tipp-Ex?), an ancient Jack-in-a-box (‘tethered by an anxious spring’), the gas mask he wore as a child.
As the book’s title implies, behind the commonplace subject matter there is a constant drumbeat of anxiety – hospital visits, fear of nuclear war, bereavement, break-ups. So, in ‘A Piece of Cake’, a man comes home late and observes the various plates of food in his kitchen before realising that his wife has moved out, leaving him her contraceptive pills. A fine piano is broken up for firewood. A prize pike still sits in its airtight cabinet although the fisherman is dead, and so are his sons (‘Heirloom’, a poem I prefer to Ted Hughes’ better-known ‘Pike’).
I was especially struck by the late poem ‘Floc’ – which opens:
I am the dog of Michel Gallimard who 54 years ago disappeared returning to tell you of how the soul flew from the broken-necked body of Albert Camus head first from his seat to the back of the car past the wife and the daughter of poor Gallimard who, thrown in the air, both leapt for his soul as he would have once at the mouth of his goal, but came down hands empty beside the two men trapped in the Vega and dying in Sens.
Enough time has passed since the death of Camus for this poem to avoid accusations of bad taste. It’s saying that the philosopher of Absurdism has been killed in a freak accident, the dog (Floc) doesn’t know that the news will go around the world, a bird is apparently chanting ‘absurd’, and the event has been discussed so often that it no longer appears real. That is certainly an original take on the tragedy.
Here is a whole poem, also in bad taste, ‘A Difference of Opinion’:
We can only imagine what a man thinks When he’s just lost his head on the guillotine From the twenty or so of Lavoisier’s blinks And the thoughts, if any, he had in between. A chance, as I feel the edge of her tongue Sharp and ill-tempered, go whispering by, To blink from the basket and, bloodily swung, Signal at last that we see eye to eye.
It takes a minute to work out that the horror of guillotining is being compared to a brief bad-tempered marital tiff. I like this book immensely and appreciate John Levett’s unusual take on the world, always thought-provoking, never sentimental.