One Thousand Nights and Counting: Selected Poems
by Glyn Maxwell.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
Glyn Maxwell is a poet of music; of the rhythm, the line, and the poem as spoken word. This is not only a point of pride for the writer but also the primary distinction of his work. Maxwell’s technical prowess has been praised in major publications by the likes of William Logan, Adam Kirsch, and Langdon Hammer. He carries a charge passed down by his mentor Derek Walcott as well as Thom Gunn, Richard Wilbur, and Joseph Brodsky. Befitting such a pedigree, his collections have been shortlisted for the Whitbread, Forward, and T.S. Eliot Awards.
He has not, however, won any of those prizes — nor would he be placed in the pantheon with those forebears. A talent for form and music is not enough on its own. Thom Gunn was lightly praised for years before hitting late upon content that lent itself to the strict, wry strength of his poetics. Maxwell’s technê is still searching for that perfect inspiration. He arrives at the gates of poetry with all this craftsman’s skill, his place nowhere to be found.
One Thousand Nights and Counting, Maxwell’s new edition of selected poems, reveals first and foremost the powerful music that guides his poetry. It also uncovers a singular obsession — which acts as the focus of and inspiration for most of Maxwell’s poems — with the past. It could be that a formalist bent and a fixation with the past go hand-in-hand. Maxwell writes his poems, full of rhyme and regular meter, almost in opposition to Modernist free verse. It is natural that a formalist would be drawn to masters of a previous era, and perhaps the eye cast back at them catches their milieu as well. But few poets of his caliber have embraced both so fully.
For Maxwell, the past is a single fixed point, discontinuous from the present, and the center around which his imagination revolves, like a talisman or a totem. His verse series The Sugar Mile (2005), excerpted in Thousand Nights, evokes 9/11 primarily by giving voice to victims of the 1940 blitz of the East End of London. The book begins three days before the World Trade Center attacks, in a bar in New York City, where Maxwell’s narrative stand-in encounters an elder Englishman recounting the blitz.
It’s a highly intricate weave of voices and forms, but only the distant past — the one not experienced by the poet — feels real and grounded. In a 2005 interview, Maxwell explains, “I’d been down to New York a lot, and I knew people who were quite close to it, and my wife knew people who were killed in it. But no, I was imagining it, the encounter in the pub didn’t happen. The historical details from the war are true, but the framework is invented.” The primacy of the past over the contemporary, living world is asserted here and all throughout the edition.
The poems of One Thousand Nights and Counting grounded in the present-tense have an illusory texture, the faintness of a soft echo. “The Sentence” is one poem that stands dissociated from historical context, outside of literary allusion, and is not concerned with memory or the past. The speaker narrates a breakup through an extended metaphor:
Lied to like a judge I stepped down.
My court cleared to the shrieks of the set free.
I know the truth, I know its level sound.
It didn’t speak, or didn’t speak to me.
The jury got the point of her bright look,
The ushers smoothed her path and bowed aside,
The lawyers watched her fingers as she took
Three solemn vows, her lipstick as she lied.
She vowed and lied to me and won her case.
I’m glad she won. I wouldn’t have her led
However gently into the shrunken space
I’d opened for her. There. There now it’s said,
Said in a chamber where I sleep of old,
Alone with books and sprawling robes and scent.
With all I have, I have no power to hold
The innocent or the found innocent.
It’s not a particularly successful analogy. None of the images drawn from it lead to their own thematic insight, nor does it lend a new complexity to the familiar feelings of guilt and blame. Rather than open the experience to the reader, the metaphor distances the poet-as-writer from the poem’s content, making space for the form to fit around these well-trod emotions. Worse, the form doesn’t fit. The construction of the second line is more than slightly massaged to fit the meter. The language is neither stylized nor truly a natural voice, though the cadence is musical (hear the smooth iambic pentameter of “She vowed and lied to me and won her case”) and there is a naturalistic tone (as in the casual quality of “There. There now it’s said.”).
These problems are indicative of the challenges and occasional failings of formalism, and only reveal the effort that is hidden behind so many lines that flow perfectly. So much skill and labor goes unnoticed, but that is when you know it’s working. It also shows the difficulty that Maxwell has when he moves away from his thematic focus, the past. Poems that stray, such as “Rio Negro” or “Empire State,” have a similar lack of energy and focus.
In his verse novel Time’s Fool (2000), the protagonist Edmund Lea is trapped eternally on a train that stops in his hometown once every seven years. The rest of the world ages as normal, without him. Edmund emerges as a figure from the past (he does not age) and as an intrusion of that preserved past into the present day. He is a memory, a conversation had one too many times, the shared point of reference among one-time friends; Lea is also an allusion, a poetic image to be injected into the common world that gives weight and value.
Anxiety about the past is not only in Maxwell’s images and themes, but is also apparent in his choice of projects, which range from exercises in pure nostalgia to self-consciously literary undertakings. “My Grandfather at the Pool” examines a photo of the poet’s grandfather and his friends, now “wholly and coldly gone:”
they meet our eyes
Like stars the eye is told are there and tries
To see — all pity flashes back from there,
Till I too am the unnamed unaware
And things are stacked ahead of me so vast
I sun myself in shadows that they cast
There is a series of verse letters to the First World War–poet Edward Thomas (The Breakage, published in 1998), whom Maxwell describes in one interview as the Robert Frost of Britain, which recalls Auden’s verse epistles to Byron and is dedicated to Derek Walcott. “Under These Lights” is a touching elegy for Joseph Brodsky, another mentor, in which Maxwell envisions “the first reader // to hear you from the future.” One poem is simply titled “Mandelstam.”
This is a poet clearly trying to fashion or at least imagine his own legacy, looking back at himself as if already in the fixed point of the past. In “Haunted Hayride,” Maxwell describes a field “stretching away from Saturday like a hand, // out into Massachusetts, towards England, // into the past, and from it.” It is an apt description of the poet himself.
Paradoxically, the strength and popularity of Maxwell’s poetry also comes out of this nostalgic urge. If his engagement with the past were more comprehensively realized, or more complex, it would likely not be so indicative. If he were taking tradition and making it new, he would be extending the tenets of Modernism; Maxwell is Post-Modernist in throwing them aside. There is something to be said for hitting the perfect harmony, and he has certainly done that. England has had a long and public love-affair with its own past. Recently, the U.S. has joined it, perhaps spurred by wartime nationalism and an aging population.
Both nations seem to feel a break between the glory of the past and the confused, degraded present. In that case, it’s not at all surprising that the Biblical flood is a touchstone in the edition. Mentioned several times, Maxwell engages the myth directly in “Flood Before and After”, “Out of the Rain”, and “The Flood Towns.” In these he asks, “How do I start to explain to you // what was lost, and how, and even before // the rain that came and came?” and, “what would you have said, to see a sky // threatening the children with great change?” Of course, time itself is change. Time’s true fool is anyone who feels that the past can be recovered or change resisted. Although Maxwell’s poetry reflects the creeping nostalgia of the age, that sense of disconnection also diminishes his work. It limits what he can achieve. Yet the two poems dealing with Cassandra at the end of this edition, which consider the conflicts of change and willful disbelief, reveal, perhaps, the beginnings of a sea-change. Maxwell could use something rich and strange.