Book review: Grain, by John Glenday
Love furnishes the wings, and that same love
Will watch over us as we drown.
The soul makes a thousand crossings, the heart, just one.
("Landscape with flying man"")
JOHN Glenday from Carnoustie is a deeply committed but not a prolific poet. He is 57 and Grain is only his third collection. Those who greatly value and
admire his work – of whom I am one – may regret this, but it can also be a guarantor of value. None of these 43 short poems feel dutiful or manufactured or habitual. A sense of quiet necessity, integrity and truthfulness to being alive glow out of them.
He is probably tired of having been characterised from the off as a "spiritual poet". Yet that is as natural a characterisation of these numinous, luminous poems as it was of his earlier work. For a serious modern poet, he is unusually prepared to use words like "soul" and "spirit" and "heart", and Adam, serpents, God and apples do move through these poems. It is something in the tone, and also in a gaze that simultaneously goes out and inwards, trying to hold these realms mindfully in balance with each other – and what else would "spiritual" signify?
The more I read these, the more it is clear that though Glenday has intelligence, learning and technique enough to afford to downplay them, his poetry's source is not in these but the heart. The heart and the noticing eye. Perhaps more accurately, a calm receptivity that watches from behind the heart.
This is my formula for the fall of things:
We come to a river we always knew we'd have to cross.
This quiet, conversational yet charged tone is typical. He uses an unusual amount of "you" and "we", the collusive mode of address. It is a poetry that feels anchored, specific and personal, yet is stripped of the specifics of autobiography. A river, the sky, a bird, the wind, darkness and the light – these are his reference points. "Things" is one of his favourite words, concrete and general at once. His world is anything but abstract, yet it is universal.
The collection opens with four or five very fine poems that echo something of the charismatic, elegiac, intimate lyric murmur of the American poet Mark Strand. Some poets write from the pulpit, others from the study, the therapy session or the theatre. Glenday's poems come from a quietness, an unrhetorical clarity; they have the sound of someone contemplating – more a listening than a speaking.
Later on this tone modulates into something slightly more anchored and urgent, less velvety. "The Garden", "Landscape", "Remember those wild apples" – these grow with every reading. For me, this mode reaches its pinnacle in "The Ugly", which calls forth the bizarre, contorted, nightmarish fish of the black ocean depths,
whom God built to trawl
endless cathedrals of darkness,
their bland eyes gaping like sores;
who would choke down hunger itself,
had it pith and gristle enough;
who carry on their foreheads
The trembling light of the world.
Lest it all seem too solemn – though Glenday is certainly serious, a different thing – there are a number of playful poems. "St Orage" has inventive fun with apocryphal saints names; "Tin" is a rather wonderful love poem that turns on the tin can having been invented 48 years before the can-opener; "A Fairy Tale" runs the Beauty and the Beast story backwards. Yet at a closer look all these take a more poignant, even troubling twist towards the end. Much more than entertainments, they are a promising new line.
Seven prose poems are spaced through the collection. For me these are less successful. Perhaps it is because the tone goes, or the clarity – these are consciously muddled, perplexing, un-understood, though "The Afterlife" builds to a disturbing, powerful, troubled end.
For personal but also I hope aesthetic reasons I am particularly fond of a group of late poems arising from Orkney: "Noust", "A Westray Prayer", "Mill Bay", "Yesnaby" – interesting that he is happy to have specifics in the titles, but seldom in the poems.
The stripped and elemental nature of Orkney, at once highly charged, physical yet universal, is a natural focus for the Glenday vision.
That vision is embodied in the opening to the last of these, and its marrying of sorrow and affirmation is typical of this new collection's clear-eyed, truthful and lovely poems:
None of us will live for ever –
The world is far too beautiful for that.