Nov 15 2023
Poetry review – UP LATE: P.W. Bridgman admires Nick Laird’s collection which, while rooted in personal grief, involves the reader in a wider and deeper experience of their own
We are still emerging from a pandemic that lately swept the world and sowed boundless misery. Those of us fortunate to have survived the virus are still discovering how the disease’s insidious physical effects—and the effects of the prolonged social isolation it necessitated—have lingered into, infiltrated even, the present.
Covid-19 is not leaving us the way it found us. We are realising that we have all changed, some more than others, and in the pandemic’s wake we see the world rather differently. For one thing, when refracted through Covid’s gimlet lens, other interdependent contemporary calamities—the worsening climate crisis, stubbornly persistent patterns of egregious economic and other inequality, proliferating and seemingly intractable geopolitical conflict—are all sensed more acutely today: apparently ungovernable, yet oh-so avoidable if only the collective will could be summoned.
The pandemic and its persistent tectonic rumblings demand, thus, a reckoning. We see it in our politics, our art and in the aftermath of the disruptions we experienced in our most important relationships. Some of us lament the lack of fellow feeling revealed at a time of universal human need. How can so many of our number have been willing to stand on claimed (and fictitious) individual rights (such as the ‘right’ to refuse to wear a mask in an enclosed public space), placing those ‘rights’ above the common good? Our innocence, or what remained of it, may now have been fully and finally driven out the door. So, what now?
The pandemic did not leave Nick Laird where it found him. It snatched away Alastair Laird, (C.A.E.L. d. 11.03.2021), his father, whose slow decline and death in the Antrim Area Hospital Laird had to witness, touchless and at an impotent distance. Contact during his final weeks, days and hours was mediated by better-than-nothing but still deeply unsatisfactory screen images and hushed and rushed telephone consults with doctors and nurses, speaking on the fly from an overworked ward. Up Late is Nick Laird’s book of reckoning: not just with the pandemic and its heavy personal toll but with the larger questions of pervasive, Beckettian estrangement and loss, for which the now-receding pandemic, its antecedents and its subsisting progeny serve as a ready metaphor. That reckoning is most fully realised in the poem that gives this book its title. It is only fitting that the poem “Up Late”—Laird’s tribute to his dead father (which justly won this year’s Forward Prize for Best Single Poem)—should be addressed last in this review. And so, it shall be.
We immediately sense what awaits us in this slim volume when we find that its first poem is entitled “Grief”. Here, grief is a place. One inhabits it. It is a metaphysical conjuring that is true to human experience. Markers of time and space blur into nothingness: ‘neither past nor future hold / substantial interest’. The miasma displaces the ‘root system, distance, light and air…’ that, like every tree, every human needs (quoting “Theodicy”). Grief is a place where one is ‘bent inward from the world’ and whose contours ‘delineate an absence’ (from “On a Paperclip”). Laird’s language for describing Grief’s ravaged modern landscapes and cityscapes is richly apocalyptic—vivid and visceral, reminiscent of the writings of Bukowski or, closer to home, Gary Allen.
Consider this passage from “Ultion”:
…and by dawn [you] were running down the Grand Union towpath past dog shit and litter, an emptied handbag on a bench, the dead swan floating in the plastic, and beneath you your feet feel the earth – that hostage, that exhausted host – felt like it was accelerating in its spinning faster and faster as it tried to shake us off.
Can Vladimir and Estragon, and the barren tree that marks their waiting place, be far away?
Then there is this passage from “Sheep’s Head”, where the sky is a ‘slab of ruined pewter’ and where we discover evocations of the Book of Revelation:
‘…the night the cage nets for the salmon got wrecked the rain chucked itself in buckets at the panes and the wind was stricken and wild in the chimney and out there was an exit where only net was before and from the rip in the continuum fish thrashed out into the churn and glitter spilt in liveried propulsion, thousands separately nosing downwards to dimensions of no end, out of the turmoil into a silent malevolence where each creature preyed upon the other, and nothing was safe…’
In his collection, Up Late, Nick Laird often addresses us from this place called Grief. ‘Taste wood’, he says. ‘Taste stone. Taste / glass. Do you have a preference?’ Later:
If the siren rises and falls, turn on the bathroom light and look at your face in the mirror, and keep on looking at your face until your face is no longer your face but the face of a stranger. [From “Fun for One”]
And yet, and yet—again, true to human experience—there are faint glimmers:
I didn’t underestimate the depths of tenderness in an animal – almost any animal – might stir in us like colour into paint. [From “Theodicy”] …the desolation overwhelming until consciousness is just distracted by this something else, the accent of a few yellow tulips on the sideboard behind and consciousness moves outside to sit on the hard bench as sunlight advances… [From “Curation”]
And there is vacillating ambivalence:
I find sometimes I want all of it. The moment of sunset… The colours… The soundtrack of an endless quarrel. An evening to go on and on burning. Cocteau was asked if his home was on fire, what one thing would he save? The fire, he said, only the fire. [From “Property”] I also hoped to visit tropical resorts to feel the texture of expensive sadness… [From “American Poem”]
And, yes, life does ‘go on and on’, as it must, ‘burning’ or not. ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’, Beckett famously said. There is hard human work to do. Work that cannot be dodged. Work that requires Laird to step up and out of his place of grief and deal with life’s imperatives. And he does, as when a picnic with his children is disrupted by the horrific spectacle of a magpie attacking a baby rabbit (recounted in “The Outing”). After shooing the marauding bird off with a blanket, Laird must—inexplicably to his children—put the magpie’s suffering victim out of its misery while they watch. He must then endure ‘… the silence // that fills the car on the drive back to a house / that is a little different; harder, sharper, / and where my children will not look at me.’ They cannot know—they are yet too young to know—that he has not failed them, nor the baby rabbit. It is ‘done, past saving’.
Gallows humour is part of what sustains Laird through these darkest of times. We see it plainly in poems like “Ode on the Adult Soul Urn”, which recounts Laird’s journey to pick up funerary urns for his parents ordered from Amazon. (Yes. From Amazon.) They are unexpectedly huge, like ‘[m]ilitary shells’, and ‘[s]lightly fascistic-looking’.
I set [them] on the back seat of the Focus and, having fastened their seat belts, drove back to the Malone Lodge on Eglantine Avenue, having determined to decant them – my parents – into Tupperware containers I’d stopped and bought in Asda in Cookstown, since I would never fit a pair of urns this enormous in my carry-on…
Laird is the master of juxtaposition. He sets the coarse language of the street—the Cookstown demotic, the John Hewitt Bar vernacular—down right alongside phrasings of a high poetic register, all to luminous effect. He addresses the profoundest of subject matter but contextualises it—wraps it even—in discomfiting adjacent references to the most supremely banal features of the everyday. His parents’ ashes… decanted into Tupperware containers picked up at Asda. Vintage Laird, that. These bittersweet but also mildly transgressive moments in Up Late give texture to, and lighten, the collection of poems gathered between its covers.
Still, it must be said that the dominant mood is one of despair, alloyed with a feisty revulsion. Indeed, that mood is conveyed in such arrestingly palpable language that the reader is sometimes driven to pause, to put Up Late down, to draw a long breath and take a quiet walk around the room before resuming. Vide:
I hope to stop… …heaping up these pyramids of objects I do not need or love, and extracting rotted bodies from the earth, a liquid dead we latch and suckle hard upon until the shrieking halts, until we grow engorged as ticks, as cysts, and burst. [“American Poem”]
Has Western societies’ preoccupation with material acquisition ever been so expertly pilloried? Perhaps, but seldom. In “American Poem” Laird bears witness to the same travesties of excess that Ginsberg excoriated in 1956 when he railed, ‘What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and / imagination? / Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the / stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!’ (Howl, Part II.)
Even the community of poets is not spared in the course of what can feel, at times, like an orgy of blind, enraged and despondent flailing. When poets turn against each other, Laird tells us, ‘they are like milk turning’ (from “The Vocation”). Oi!
There is no denying that this book can be tough sledding. These new poems fall heavy on the heart and, as noted, they do have one occasionally turning somewhere, anywhere, for relief. There are glimmers, as noted above, but they are widely spaced in the collection and they evanesce quickly. One does feel at times that Laird needs to be brought out of himself, to be brought up short and notionally invited to take his mind away, occasionally, from the churning personal despair (as he managed to do during “The Outing”).
But just when it all seems to be too much, we find that (as noted above), when his children or a friend need him to, Laird does pull himself out of himself and come through. When he does, it is when the suffering and preoccupations of others eclipse his own anxious introspections and ruminations. We see this, strikingly, in Laird’s tender paean to his dying friend, the Italian film producer and writer, Martino Sclavi.
The poem is entitled “Attention”. In it, all of Laird’s intellect and heart are concentrated, with an undeviating focus, upon his friend Sclavi’s character and talents, and the slow, inexorable and irreversible decline (brought on by brain cancer) that will soon extinguish them. That decline is first captured metaphorically by the remembrance of a marble rolling unhurriedly down a worn stone staircase in Rome. This tiny spectacle—from which attention simply cannot be diverted—percolates up into Laird’s memory, resurrecting a happy time the two must have spent together in that city. The spectacle also achieves a kind of mystical equation with what is unfolding for Sclavi in the present:
…rolling along the depth of one tread and dropping, then rolling the depth of another, and dropping, and the next, dropping and rolling, dropping and rolling, not silently, until the single white marble, translucent with a turquoise wave, hits the pavement and skitters onto the cobbles to wedge, pearl-like, beneath the tyre of a Vespa.
Martino Sclavi’s present condition, the way it contrasts with his vitality in earlier times he shared with Laird, the unforgiving advance of Sclavi’s illness—these things (some said and some unsaid) are the exclusive preoccupations of Laird’s poem, not Laird’s own suffering. These things claim all of the attention of the poem.
Near the end of “Attention”, Laird places in the foreground the enigmatic figure of Moses, sculpted by Michelangelo, which sits imperious yet mute in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (no doubt visited by him and Sclavi together in happier days). A legend about the sculpture captures the pair’s helplessness as Laird now watches Sclavi seated opposite him in his (Laird’s) London flat. Neither can admit, or doubt, that this meeting is their last. The poem concludes:
…I want to tell you Michelangelo is reputed to have loved the statue so much he hurled his hammer at it and cried that it would not speak.
So much power, and powerlessness, are concentrated in those closing lines.
Now to the poem “Up Late”—Nick Laird’s brilliant elegy to his father. Who died on 11 March 2021. In a forced isolation. This poem is the axis or armature of his latest collection. In their juddering orbits, all of the other poems revolve around it
The first challenge one faces, preparing to write a poem like “Up Late”, is the daunting enormity of its subject matter. Every writer who has sought to record and honour, through his or her writing, the tragic loss of a beloved family member or friend knows this sense of dread. ‘My writing may not be equal to what it records and honours’. This can seem an impossible remit. It wasn’t an impossible remit for Nick Laird.
“Up Late” begins gently with a series of abstractions about what Laird is experiencing in his ‘new dark’. Then, in the second stanza, death joins the narrative with a loud thump, its unvarnished announcement harsh and factual as death itself, dispelling all musings and abstractions with its inescapable truth:
My father died today. Sorry to bolt that on. You’ll understand the shift required…
Just as harsh and factual are the parameters that govern Alastair Laird’s imminent passing:
No, we are not allowed in the ward and there cannot be exceptions. Thank you for making this difficult call…
The treating doctor promises Laird, near the end, that a nurse will remain at his father’s side ‘to hold his hand and talk him though it’. Matters have come to the point where the ‘transition’ has been reached.
…the change of state, the fall of light, the trade the instant of the hand itself turning from the subject into object…
After exerting himself to get a few words out during a Zoom visit, Laird’s father lowers his head back down, ‘having done with us’, and Laird keens:
Dad, you poor bastard, I see you. You lay like that for a week alone with your thoughts in the room. Tethered. Breathless. Undefended. At sea as on an ice floe slipping down into the shipping lanes.
We’re not yet far into the poem, yet we’ve already come to another of those moments, but a different kind of moment, where Up Late must be gently laid down, where the reader must pause, go stand at the window, do something. There are more.
Laird takes us through a catalogue of the early signposts of his father’s earlier decline into dementia following a stroke, his decline worsened by the loss of his wife. Alastair is bewildered and adrift, preyed upon by sellers of ‘crap’ online, and even taken in by a predatory online avatar who persuades him to send money.
We return to the Antrim Area Hospital, where the end is truly nigh. Laird has his ‘goodbye’ call with his father and then reflects on the vanity of grief:
…To watch one self perform the rituals that take us. Automaton of grief. I howled, of course, by myself in my office, then sobbed for a bit on the sofa…
Then comes an epiphany:
An elegy I think is words to bind a grief in, a companionship of grief a spell to keep it safe and sound, to keep it from escaping…
In his fleeting, more settled, moments, Laird draws upon memory to, in a sense, reminisce about what might have been if his father were to have kept on living. Here the details—such instantly recognisable signatures of Laird’s poetry—twinkle with restrained humour that sharpens their poignancy:
…You walking round Bantry at the Friday market in your shorts in the light rain, your white tube socks pulled up and a bright T-shirt from some Spanish golf course tucked into your shorts…
Alastair Laird is dead. Fuckety fuck. Fuckety fuck fuck fuck fuck. My dad is dead. Bad luck. The light breaks and the night breaks and the line breaks and the day is late assembling. Rows of terraced houses are clicking into place. Clouds decelerate and make like everything is normal: the children wanting porridge, voices forcing pattern out of circumstance, pitching rhythmic incident on little grids of expectation, satisfaction, disappointment, and this new awe, and walking to school, at the corner where the halfway house is, leaves animated in a briefest circle by the wind.
Oh, God. Back to the window.
Well. We’d best just stop there.