London Grip Poetry Review – Anthony Wilson


Poetry review – THE WIND AND THE RAIN: Alex Josephy finds grief and hope artfully balanced in Anthony Wilson’s well-crafted poems


The Wind and the Rain
Anthony Wilson
Blue Diode Press 2023
ISBN 9781915108135

Never judge a book by its cover. But I would buy this book just for its cover, to hold in my hand its balanced, painterly textures and feel calmed by the gently transcendent light that seems to emanate from the image: a glazed jug and two small bowls in front of a roughly painted greyish wall, the colours perhaps of the inside of a cloud, just a little sunshine breaking through. It’s a thing of beauty, and an excellent prologue to the poetry it contains.

Anthony Wilson is well known for his five previous poetry collections, his cancer memoir Love for Now, his blog and his 2015 Bloodaxe anthology, Lifesaving Poems. In the work I’ve encountered so far, there has been acknowledgement of pain and loss, and a hard-won insistence on living in hope; these poems continue in that direction following the death of a “good/ though difficult” mother.

Grief is at the heart of the collection, as inescapable as weather. Rain, actual and metaphorical, washes through the poems:

because when I wake up
each day

the rain’s there
even when it’s not raining.

Lines such as these are strikingly brief, giving many of the poems a kind of haiku-like clarity; Wilson never falls into sentiment, but that’s not to say that he avoids emotion. On the contrary, he is able to explore depths of sorrow with no wasted words and with wit as well as honesty:

I am falling
pretty much

and in stair-rods.

You could say that these recurrent couplets are simple, but their aim is true. The formal device of small, everyday words arranged in short lines serves very well, most particularly in the nine poem sequence, ’Mother/Son’, which explores fragmentary memories of the sometimes difficult love between mother and son. There is acknowledgement of the mother’s curtailed schooling, sadly so typical of women of that era, conveyed with great precision by the single Latin sentence she remembers from school:

	sunt formicis parvis animalibus

then (you said)
your mother
fell ill
and you left
to look after
the family.

The Latin line (ants are small animals) seems wonderfully apt. Bound by family responsibilities, this woman too lived a small life, industrious as ants are for the sake of her community.

At some points the sentences are eroded even further, becoming simply traces of thought, as in the moving poem in which the mother is saying grace:

	you are so good
	and we bless you

and then from somewhere
that nothing could touch
your grandchildren
each of them
by name

Memories of boarding school inform another powerfully written sequence, ‘Old School’. Whether or not the reader has experience of that archaic world of “Oxford rowing blues”, school dinners (“was it for dogs or made of them?”), and bullying, I think these vignettes are instantly recognisable. The device of a visit to the school in later life to give a poetry reading, allows for the re-emergence of its longueurs and horrors. Each episode is told with a sense of lingering damage, but also with sympathy. The teachers are vividly remembered. There’s the Labrador-owning maths teacher, “the most bored human I ever met”; the bottom set teacher, “pompous beyond belief” but “a miracle how he got us to leave our pride, insecurity and shame at the door”; the “genius”, “popping out for a gasper between lessons in his pale grey suit.” As for the boys’ anarchic and brutal physical bullying, this is trumped by a devastating and rightly unforgiving final suggestion of past abuse that festers behind the school’s bland contemporary face:

     A salad bar. A three-bean panini... No more Broadbent. No more God looking 
     the other way while  he did it. No one calling you cunt.

There are a few of what you might call less elevated moments. Poetry world and academia come in for a couple of bitter digs; there’s the wife of a (more?) famous poet who derides Wilson’s name, “declaring it useless”, a lecture audience “in which not one soul/had heard of Joni Mitchell” (surely they were to be pitied, I found myself thinking).

Interestingly, crime dramas feature as a recurring theme, Wallander in particular, but there are also references to Poirot, Midsomer Murders and others. The pared-back private lives of detectives resonate, “brooding, oddly poetic.” Wilson also indirectly credits Raymond Carver as inspiration for the clipped sentencing he often employs, that hard-boiled ‘masculine’ restraint that persists for instance in the penultimate poem about (not) communicating with his father after his mother’s death:

How are you?
He’s not fine either.

we talk about rugby

the weather
like when I phoned from school.

This poem took me back to Shakespeare’s song about the wind and the rain, ’When that I was a little tiny boy’. The title seems to me entirely apt for a collection in which the little tiny boy is constantly so touchingly present inside the man. It takes courage to admit to this so publicly.

There is a poem that questions the role of poetry; can it “stand up/to experience the way we say it does”? The poet is too honest to seek easy consolation. But there is also, in this bleak trawl through wind and rain, a luminous joy in making poems. Wilson invokes Heaney, Kennelly and Beckett, all of whom “loved the rain.”Does Anthony Wilson love the rain? He carries it with him, a companion to his grieving and perhaps to his ambivalent hopes for solace in poetry:

With such threads

do we make our tapestry of rain.
Either everything’s a poem

or nothing is.