Apr 29 2023
Poetry review – BACK TO LIFE: Edmund Prestwich reviews a rich and wide-ranging collection by Michael Vince
Like Long Distance, also from Mica Press, Michael Vince’s latest book Back to Life explores the persistence of the past, sometimes with its renewal in the present, sometimes with a more tantalizing sense of its receding life. There are three sections – a short one of Lockdown poems, some of which deal directly with the poet’s own experiences and family, a long one of historical poems relating to Greenwich, and a short one revolving round Greece and the Levant.
Vince’s high intelligence and technical sophistication are obvious throughout, though not all the poems in the ‘Greenwich’ section work at the highest imaginative pressure. They include pieces on figures only passingly involved with Greenwich itself and range far from the borough in space and time, to Hudson Bay with the seventeenth century trader and explorer Henry Kelsey and to the beginnings of the universe through meditations on our changing sense of time in ‘Time Lady’. A wide cast of characters includes the Anglo-Saxon St Alphege, Joseph Conrad, Brunel, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and many others. However, Vince shows his power most impressively, I feel, not in presenting individual lives but in making leaps of connection, as he does in ‘Ravensbourne’ and ‘Enderby and Sons’. The first is a virtuoso, densely packed single sentence 36 lines long which explores historical associations and detritus carried by the smaller rivers converging in the Ravensbourne. The second begins with the extraction from the Thames mud of a ship’s cable manufactured by Enderby and Sons and develops through a series of brilliant imaginative departures that take us through images of a lost Victorian world serviced by products of the whaling industry, with glimpses
of those late at night reading beside the lamp, of women bone-corseted shaped into desire
then of whales’ peaceful lives in the southern seas, then of their mass slaughter and of Melville’s Pequod and Captain Ahab, before looping back to the Enderby family and ending in a final vast expansion of view:
a family coiling back on time’s long cordage more than four hundred years, only a small dim light compared to the many millions of years of the whales circling the world’s oceans under a blaze of stars – far off lights in the darkness, long since extinguished.
What I find most impressive is the sheer ease with which the poetry moves from point to point, from a brief intimate vignette like that of the reader by the lamp to the cosmic vistas of the end. This reflects Vince’s syntactical mastery and depends on another quality too, a trust in his readers to follow implications at their own pace, picking up, for example, the rich hints for reflection in the phrase ‘shaped into desire’, which can be taken in so many directions and responded to in such very different ways.
More local in its focus but also particularly impressive was ‘Isle of Dogs’. This gives a vivid sense of the layers of time in a single place, and the things that can be imagined as being seen by the past-haunted mind as it looks about it. For most of the poem we’re looking outward, at what such a mind might ‘see’, but in the last few lines the sheer sudden life of the image seems to put us inside the mind of the poet himself:
it’s like the same old place although it’s gone. And if you stare through river fog at the wet cobbled pavements without a second glance, you might miss the gleam of someone striking a match beside a grime-stained wall, who heads to work or later unsteadily after a few pints waves as he turns for home.
However, it was the first and third sections, ‘Lockdown’ and ‘Mediterranean’, that I found most consistently compelling. Sometimes this was because of the added layer of mental processing involved in the poet’s struggle to bring a memory or thought into focus. ‘Drive’ in ‘Mediterranean’ is a particularly brilliant example. Its effect derives from two things. One is the way syntax and metre both reinforce and act against each other. After a clear imagistic beginning they begin to converge with and diverge from each other like railway lines overlapping and moving apart as your train comes into a station, so that impressions of hesitancy and interruption combine with a constant onward momentum. The other is the way images of the poet’s restlessly driving car interact with those of a hawk scanning the ground in search of prey, apparently without finding it. The hawk becomes an implicit metaphor for the driver’s quest for a purpose to his driving and perhaps also for a man’s search for meaning in life and the poet’s search for the idea of a poem:
Whatever drives us from place to the next place confuses instinct and motive. I don’t know why I’ll drive all day but I know I will. Just for now, though, there’s the balancing hawk resting on a moment of thought, as it wheels and enacts its hunger infinitely slowly, just watching for tell-tale movements far below – there’s something there, but I can’t quite see, and next time I look it has vanished. The road leads me, and so I follow.
Two poems in the opening ‘Lockdown’ section present individual people and do so with particularly intense empathy for their situations and emotions. The first is ‘January Lockdown’, dedicated to the poet’s mother. Here, vivid images of fear and its causes, First World War air raids sounding over a child’s head, a frightening drunken father, the terror that thunder brought a nervous temperament and that made the mother cower with her children under the stairs, are given bite by being played against the orderly structure of quatrains rhyming ABBA. To a degree, situations and emotions in this poem are clear and frontally confronted, but I think its distinction involves the way the poet seems to feel the limits of his knowledge, creating the impression that as he addresses his mother he’s trying to get beyond this external knowledge to the point where he can feel for himself what it was like actually to be her. And ‘A New Translation’ combines empathy with explicit recognition that the poet can only speculate on the happiness or unhappiness of someone he knew fifty years before, a a shy Greek boy he taught English literature in East Anglia. Chance has brought this boy back to mind: reading a new translation of The Odyssey the poet realizes that it was made by the boy’s father, who was lecturing in America while the boy stayed in England with his mother. The introduction to the translation talks about a new wife and new children without mentioning the old one. The end of the poem sees both the boy and the father as reflecting Odysseus in different aspects:
I wonder if the boy with his shy smile still voyages to recover what he once owned, a long way back to home, to the island where he’d grown up happily spearing at octopus and fish, while the old man pulls at the ropes and hears no children’s voices, blocked out by wax, on course in his own direction.
There are deep and poignant ironies to this splitting of the Odysseus parallel. It makes it seem in a strange, almost metaphysical sense self-defeating that the father’s happiness and fulfilment come at possibly devastating cost to the boy. Seeing himself as Odysseus, the father sees his own child as a siren voice calling him to his doom. The poem doesn’t exactly say he’s wrong to see his situation in this way – the poet simply doesn’t know the circumstances – but I’d say our sympathy for the boy inclines us to imagine the father (described, like Odysseus, as ‘clever’) as being shallowly self-centred. There’s a suggestion of something perverse about an Odysseus who finds fulfilment in a new wife and children when the whole point of Homer’s Odyssey is that Odysseus is trying to get back to his old home, wife and son. Perhaps the idea that this Odysseus must sacrifice wife and child points to something fundamentally flawed in the structure of the actual universe. However that may be, I think the idea of the boy’s lost home resonates with the whole atmosphere of the book, perhaps with its fundamental impulsion.
I mentioned that some of the characters in ‘Greenwich’ were only temporarily associated with the place. The centrality of Greenwich to the book seems to relate to its being a point of departure and return, and the ideas of voyaging in space and voyaging in time reflect and amplify each other. There are recurrent sensations of displacement, journeying from the lost homes of the past guided by uncertain purposes into an uncertain future. This seems to me to relate to the ambiguity of the volume’s title. In the context of recovery from the covid pandemic, Back to Life suggests revival. However, the phrase also suggests that journeying into the future involves turning one’s back on life itself, on the only life there’s yet been, and that one can’t help looking back to.