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James Fenton: Yellow Tulips

Faber, London, 2013. Paperback, 176pp, £14.99.

Review by Adam Hanna
 
 
Reading James Fenton’s collected poems of over 40 years is a masterclass in the varying uses to which regular rhythms can be put. The obtrusive metres act as something of a through-line for this substantial selection. Sometimes they result in poems that bounce along like tennis balls, drawing attention by contrast to the rough terrain that they skip over. Sometimes, too, they create poems that jig like the skeletons in a danse macabre:
 
A shrieking man stood in the square
And he harangued the smart café
In which a bowlered codger sat
A-twirling of a fine moustache
A-drinking of a fine Tokay[.]
 
For their readability, mystery and slightly sinister brio, it is hard not to bounce along with lines like these. Many other poems in this fine selection are just as appealing, not least for their employment of the punchy, urgent voice of the man haranguing a square over the more mannered tone of a speaker addressing a stanza. 
 
The moustache-twirler in the smart café, though, hearing and yet probably not listening, stalks the pages as a perpetual pantomime villain. His voice, I suspect, is the same as that of the speaker of ‘The Gene Pool’:
 
Get out of the gene-pool, Gene
And take your tambourine.
You write the way you speak.
You’re not one of our clique.
You say the things you mean.
Out of the gene-pool, Gene.
 
As these lines suggest, knowing, astringent poems about poetry make up a major element in Fenton’s life’s work. His other, better-known, preoccupations are love and war. Fenton’s poetry acts as a coruscating reminder that love, while it sometimes leads to greater understanding of another person, more often brings a searchlight’s intensity to the experiences of the lover himself. It is for this reason that Fenton’s love poems constitute an exploration into the protean shape of the lyric ‘I’ – an entity that can be tender, enraptured, paranoid, twisted, abraded and bent out of shape all in the space of one poem: 
 
Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded.
I’m a hostage. I’m marooned
But I’m in Paris with you.
 
The echoes here are of Auden and MacNeice, flirting with their inner lounge-bar lyricists. The risk of this winsome note dominating is, in Fenton’s case, neutralised by an ‘I’ that swings so wildly between contrasting states that the reader is never quite sure what he will do next. 
 
While the early poems repeatedly return to the rapid movements of the ‘I’, the later ones seem increasingly to focus on the ‘we’. The lyric ‘we’, like its counterpart, ‘they’, constitutes a risky vantage point for a poem. A piece beginning ‘we’ can give an impression of insiderish insularity, but can also signal vulnerability cloaking itself in solidarity. At once, ‘we’ can give a poem the tone of a haughty committee report and that of a beleaguered samizdat. The possibilities of this tonal wobble are explored in an untitled poem about poetry. Here, visible paragraph marks act like self-conscious barks of the word ‘Item!’:
 
We despise the deformed, uncandid class-consciousness of our
domestic criticism. On our map, there are no compass points. North,
for instance, does not mean good.
 
Who are the ‘we’ that are being spoken for here? Are ‘we’ in a mid-century Soviet Republic or a more recent UK?  Whatever the answer, the volume’s frequent and entertaining nods to poetry’s insiders can at times have their unattractively touchy aspects.
 
It is in his poems on war, however, in which Fenton shows himself to have no living British equal. His time as a journalist in Cambodia in the 1970s enabled him to give readers who were more familiar with headline generalisations a glimpse into the intimate nature of war as it was experienced by its combatants, commanders and victims. As one of the few western poets who had experience of troubled Indochina, he wrote poetry about it as few others could and, in doing so, captured the squalor and incongruity of modern warfare:
 
As the APCs fanned out along the road,
The dishes piled high with frogs’ legs
Pregnant turtles, their eggs boiled in the carapace
Marsh irises in fish sauce
And inflorescence of a banana salad.
 
The mingled jollity and doom that are the dominant notes of this poem have echoes all through the early volumes. It is as if there is a faint hum that is audible behind them, a sense of catastrophe biding its time in the wings until it can march on in triumph and claim its due.
 
This is very different from the recent work nearer the back of the volume. The fact that a poem from this section, ‘Yellow Tulips’, gives the collection its title suggests that this volume is a signpost to the future rather than a monument over a life’s work. In this title-poem there is a luscious, stately amplitude as lines at times too wide for the page pick out the slim shapes of vase, stem and tulip in a dazzling poem:
 
Looking into the vase, into the calyx, into the water drop,
Looking into the throat of the flower at the pollen stain,
I can see the ambush love sprung once in the summery wood,
I can see the casualties where they lay, till they set forth again.
 
The old themes of love and war are present here, except that now love is war, with its own casualties and ambushes. Here, too, a lifetime’s habit of attention to the smallest elements of both ‘I’ and the physical world blossom in a poem that is a fitting representative of this superb collection.
 
 
15 March 2014