Oct 14 2023
Poetry review – BEFORE WE GO ANY FURTHER: This collection by Tristram Fane Saunders tackles serious matters seriously but with a pleasingly light touch
Sometimes it is fortuitous when one’s first encounter with a poet is at a reading where they are able to present some of their best poems with their intended pacing and emphasis and accompanied by additional remarks about context – none of which might be immediately obvious on the page. All of which can be a very good preparation for reading the poet’s work on the page; and such was my introduction to Before We Go Any Further by Tristram Fane Saunders.
It should be said at once that Saunders is not only a good performer but is also a good poet on the page. In both modes it is obvious that he loves and pays attention to the sound of language whether spoken out loud or murmuring in a reader’s head. And as well as crafting pleasingly resonant phrases he also gives full weight to individual words – for instance extracting unexpected mileage from the fact (hitherto unnoticed by me) that the little word ‘trivial’ has a root meaning of ‘three ways’. He does not merely play clever word games, however; he is sensitive to what is going on around him and observes it accurately and with compassion as well as humour.
And so, before we go any further with generalities, let us take a look at some of the particulars of the collection. It is arranged in three (untitled) sections but before getting to the first of these it orients itself with a poem called “Home,” (a comma is included) which tries very ingeniously to imagine the head or gut sensation that leads a pigeon back to its loft.
The first section proper begins with “The Somnambulist” which in turn begins with a game of charades and requires us to know or to find out something about the fictional character Dr Caligari. Once we have done that we will appreciate why Saunders makes a point of mentioning a bathroom cabinet midway through the poem. Following the sleep-walker is “The Oneiroscopist” (interpreter of dreams) an ekphrastic poem based on a painting by the surrealist artist Edith Rimmington. To start with, the poem simply describes the picture but soon Saunders is using conversation about the artwork as a means of reflecting on his relationship with a companion.
I like this one, you said. You like the dark, and birds in galleries, and bones in galleys British Surrealism, a Noah’s Ark of you-like animals. I kept a tally.
This is a strongly rhymed poem which, interestingly, uses a different rhyming scheme in each of its verses.
Subsequent poems also explore tricky relationships by indirect means, for instance by recalling late night phone calls with an anxious student of biology (“Monkfish”) or describing how the poet consoled someone’s distress using a Canadian First Nations souvenir mug which he ‘filled with hot milk and wrapped her palms around the hollow / eye of it and kept on talking.’ (“How the Raven Ate the Moon”). A TV documentary about tectonic plates is the core element in a ghazal which records the final scene of a couple’s break-up
There is no centrifugal pseudo-force, only a slow subduction. Heat is lost. Plates ‘grow’ apart not ‘drift’. As you sealed the final box I failed to meet your eye with mine – unmoving, not unmoved – on Continental Drift.
In contrast to these two-handers, “Health” is a more complex poem, rather longer than those that have gone before and featuring a larger cast of characters, albeit some of them rather shadowy. The poem is set in Ventnor Botanic Gardens and it shifts between present observations of the plants and insects and meditations about patients and doctors in the TB sanatorium which, we learn, once occupied the site. At first the botanical labels provide the words stamen and stigma and from there the poem moves in a new direction, remembering a poster campaign which says
…. we must work to fight the stigma over mental health but they don’t mean that. Health I mean. Nobody is angry or ashamed of being healthy.
Maybe not: but there are truths that need to be faced about mental health; and to address them Saunders breaks the fourth wall, seeming to bring the reader into the action
I turn the corner past the greenhouse, find the blue pagoda. In it, you are reading this. Hello. Can I sit down? This is the closest I will ever come to being honest. Look at the pretty flowers. People died where we are sitting. Everyone my age is sick. I’ve never slept beside someone who didn’t need pills to separate the day from night.
From here the poem continues its gently fretful way, recycling a cache of loaded words like stigma, stigmata, pagoda, flower, guidebook, water – not with the regularity of a sestina but with an unsettlingly unpredictable insistence.
Some of ‘everyone my age’ appear again by name in “Lullaby” in which ‘No one sleeps’ and the poet’s own wry assessment of himself is ‘I look like something you might like to sleep through.’
After a pause provided by the title poem, the second section is largely concerned with writers and writing, beginning with Seamus Heaney’s ‘squat pen’ seeming to levitate in a visitor centre display. More space is given however to the work of a fictitious poet/translator AE Pious of Y___ University. The conceit here is that Pious’s rather limited oeuvre had never found a publisher until an admirer carried out a plan
covertly to insert these pages – having won the confidence of an insomniac printer who harboured some sympathy for AEP’s more esoteric interests – into the manuscripts of nine minor poets published by a Manchester-based press.
The smuggled-in translations include an Anglo Saxon Ballad “That Dark Harp” featuring the rousing stanza ‘As a plan has a flaw, / As a plank had a saw, / And a bad man, by law, / Always hangs.’ AEP’s other contributions are a Welsh elegy, an Irish drinking jig, an Old Scots folk song and a hard-to-categorize lipogram, “Lusus’s Hymn”, with its own intriguing footnote.
The dedication of an admirer who would go to great lengths to promote their hero’s work is examined rather unkindly in “Fan”. This admirer, we are told, ‘curates (or “edits”) a small magazine – I don’t recall // the name.’ and also ‘writes little poems of their own’ which are
just the kind of poems they would write, or so I gather, never having read them. If my fan should read this poem, and they will, they will around this line begin to feel an itch of disappointment…
Section two also includes poems which touch lightly on haunting and the supernatural. “Curse” begins rather puzzlingly by introducing its protagonist ‘Greg, gently mashing the keys of a Steinway.’ We may need several more clues such as ‘the unconsolable clop // that comes each night before his hopeless prayers’ before we grasp that Greg – for reasons unexplained – been given hooves instead of hands and feet.
Creatures with limbs that aren’t quite right are to be found in the sequence of poems about Crystal Palace Park which open the third section. The Benjamin Waterhouse sculptures of prehistoric reptiles where made in the 1850s when much less was known about dinosaurs. Hence ‘The iguanodon, / like everyone, / is guesswork’. The figures are however good enough to impress the poet’s young companion Henry – at least for now; and later ‘when you’re old enough / to read these words, / you won’t’ because by then there will be ‘better things / to dig through.’
Before meeting the dinosaur we learn about the Crystal Palace version of The Sphinx and also (in terza rima) about the park’s neglected maze and the lost head from Dante’s statue. The performance area, “The Bowl”, is described in rhyming couplets
The pond beside the Bowl we call the ‘rusty laptop’ has grown to be less pool than baize pool-table top. A moorhen foots it, Christlike, but for the red dot that’s more a mark of Cain. A football floats to a stop.
Across the book as a whole there are a few poems in which fondness for the surreal and esoteric goes a bit too far or fast for me to follow. (Even after doing some googling I was puzzled by “Six Glimpses of Eileen Agar in a Crowd” and by the ‘corkboard lake’ appearing in “Tuesday”.) But what shines through again and again is the sense that Saunders really enjoys working — and playing — with language whether that means making lightweight puns (a reference to a ‘lone and level sandwich’ for instance) or risking an unexpected – and possibly quite profound – comment on the appearance of a moorhen. I have already mentioned his unpicking of the word ‘trivial’ and his juggling of ‘stigma’ and ‘stigmata’; in addition he makes the first use I have seen of the word ‘peccable’ which normally lurks only inside its opposite ‘impeccable’. (The idea of ‘peccable timing’ occurs in “Clue” which involves characters from the board game Cluedo but is really about the subtleties of a much older indoor pastime for two players.) Saunders also plays imaginatively with form and experiments successfully with rhyming schemes which jump across stanza boundaries.
But alongside all this evidence of enjoyment in the making of poems there is also a welcome sense of concern and compassion. (Even in the apparently scornful “Fan” it is the writer rather than the subject or the reader who is the butt of the joke.) I keep remembering one extraordinary line from “Health”
All my friends are sick. I love them and I’m scared.
I cannot imagine writing such words when I was around the age that Saunders is now. That probably says something about the sort of young person I was; but it may also indicate that in the more spacious days of our growing-up my contemporaries and I didn’t on the whole need to worry about one another. No doubt times are harder for the young nowadays which may explain why humour in recent poetry books has often tended towards the sardonic or cynical. And it makes it all the more remarkable that Saunders succeeds in producing accomplished poems which display a genuine capacity for caring while conveying such care-free enjoyment in their crafting.