Two men grapple with jumper cables, trying “to make a stand // in this last corner of our realm; machinery . . .” A man on his way to see his therapist encounters a female police officer in an elevator and feels himself regressing to “the original essence, the masculine / criminal salt.” A teenager is tricked into eating a spoonful of lime pickle by his girlfriend’s father. An Englishman in the Catskills ponders the nature of exile, is chased by yellow jackets, gets a haircut. James Lasdun’s subjects are often quotidian–but his treatment of them never is. Under his transformative gaze, the familiar becomes strange, the local becomes foreign, and the minor becomes epic.
Lasdun has been winning acclaim since his first collection, 1988’s A Jump Start–Helen Vendler has lauded his ability to give “brisk shape to contemporary and classical events”; The New York Times has praised the “sharp, slicing imagery” of his work. Now, in Bluestone, which selects from all three of his previous collections and includes poems from his fourth, Water Sessions, previously available only in the U.K., readers will be able to appreciate the full sweep of this capacious talent: his delicate wit, his gift for invention, his keen observational eye. It is a gathering that affirms Lasdun’s position as, to quote Anthony Hecht, one of “the most gifted, vivid, and deft poets now writing in English.”
“He retains the sharp eye of the non-native, but he has gained the insight of the longtime resident, and his verse offers the peculiar wisdom afforded by that combination. James Lasdun’s poetry seems to me to be some of the most interesting now being written in this country, and one only regrets that he has not produced more of it.” —George Bradley, Yale Review
“It Isn’t Me”James Lasdun
Selected by Michael Hofmann for Work in Progress (Farrar Straus Giroux)
“It Isn’t Me is an amazing poem from an ever-more astounding oeuvre. As quietly shattering as Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” as unaccountably and irresistibly doomed as Weldon Kees’s “Robinson,” its human subject is a creature part scapegoat, part Rilke’s unicorn (Sonnets to Orpheus, II iv): an impossible thing in an impossible world, a sort of lubricant, or charm, or assurance to the Pharisees who are now in the majority as well as the ascendancy (“God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are”). Beautifully calibrated, sequential, paid or belayed out (“a life among his neighbors’ lives,” “his diligent forays outward,” “alone in offices or living rooms”), its paired rhymes stalking ahead of disobliging solitaries (“figure” and “him,” “stray” and “me”), it dances Whistlerishly to its wholly unexpected triumph of unsettlement by contagion.—Michael Hofmann
It isn’t me, he’d say,
stepping out of a landscape
that offered, he’d thought, the backdrop
to a plausible existence
until he entered it; It’s just not me,
he’d murmur, walking away.
It’s not quite me, he’d explain,
apologetic but firm,
leaving some job they’d found him.
They found him others: he’d go,
smiling his smile, putting
his best foot forward, till again
he’d find himself reluctantly concluding
that this, too, wasn’t him.
He wanted to get married, make a home,
unfold a life among his neighbors’ lives,
branching and blossoming like a tree,
but when it came to it, It isn’t me
was all he seemed to learn
from all his diligent forays outward.
And why it should be so hard
for someone not so different from themselves,
to find what they’d found, barely even seeking;
what gift he’d not been given, what forlorn
charm of his they’d had the luck to lack,
puzzled them—though not unduly:
they lived inside their lives so fully
they couldn’t, in the end, believe in him,
except as some half-legendary figure
destined, or doomed, to carry on his back
the weight of their own all-but-weightless stray
doubts and discomforts. Only sometimes,
alone in offices or living rooms,
they’d hear that phrase again: It isn’t me,
and wonder, briefly, what they were, and where,
and feel the strangeness of being there.
TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
poem of the week
by James Lasdun; introduced by Andrew McCulloch
Published: 22 September 2015
In a TLS review of James Lasdun’s fourth collection Water Sessions (2012), in which “Stones” is the final poem (it is also included in Bluestone: New and selected poems, published earlier this year in the US), Ben Wilkinson observed that Lasdun’s previous collection Landscape with Chainsaw (2001) had closed with a resolve to abandon poetry for farming (he moved from London to the Catskill Mountains of New York State in 1985): “if I write it’ll be with a seed-drill / a quatrain of greens per bed”. Torn between what Wilkinson called “the frustrating satisfactions of the life of the mind” and the appeal of more straightforward occupations, Lasdun is able, nevertheless, to turn these conflicts to rich poetic account.
As well as entertaining a degree of doubt about the ultimate value of poetry, he is, on the evidence of “Stones”, in two minds about the kind of ingeniously crafted verse he often writes. His poem “Woodpile” – also from Water Sessions – is partly about free verse in its description of the “simple accretion” of a pile of logs, “each row end-stopped / by criss-crossing pairs of parallel logs / stacked up in columns: its one formal touch, and that optional”. In “Stones”, a poem ostensibly about laying a path, the stones are analogous to words that have to be pieced together much more carefully, each “cockeyed bevel or crooked curve” moulded into a line that runs “with an unstoppable, liquid grace”. It ends by wondering whether it matters, “making some old stones / say or be anything but stone, stone, stone”. But for all the speaker’s discouragement, bordering on despair – it clearly does: “these paths might serve some purpose” after all, “might lead me somewhere – inward, onward, upward, anywhere / other than merely back where I began”.
I’m trying to solve the problem of the paths
between the beds. A six-inch cover
of cedar-chips that took a month to lay
rotted in two years and turned to weeds.
I scraped them up and carted them away,
then planted half a sack of clover seeds
for a “living mulch”. I liked that: flowers
strewn along like stars, the cupid’s bow
drawn on each leaf like thumbnail quartermoons,
its easy, springy give – until it spread
under the split trunks framing off each bed,
scribbling them over in its own
green graffiti . . . I ripped it out
and now I’m trying to set these paths in stone.
It isn’t hard to find: the ground here’s littered
with rough-cut slabs, some of them so vast
you’d think a race of giants must have lived here
building some bluestone Carnac or Stonehenge,
us their dwindled offspring, foraging
among their ruins . . . I scavenge
lesser pieces; pry them from the clutches
of tree-roots, lift them out of ditches,
filch them from our own stone wall
guiltily, though they’re mine to take
(at worst it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul),
then wrestle them on board the two-wheeled dolly
and drag them up the driveway to the fence,
where, in a precarious waltz, I tip
and twist them backward, tilting all their weight
first on one corner, then the other
and dance them slowly through the garden gate.
The hard part’s next, piecing them together;
a matter of blind luck and infinite pains:
one eye open for the god-given fit –
this stone’s jagged key to that one’s lock –
the other quietly gauging how to fudge it:
split the difference on angles, cram the gaps
with stone-dust filler; hoping what the rains
don’t wash away, the frost will pack and harden . . .
A chipmunk blinks and watches from his rock,
wondering if I’ve lost my mind perhaps.
Perhaps I have; out here every day,
cultivating – no, not even that;
tending the inverse spaces of my garden
(it’s like a blueprint, now, for Bluebeard’s castle),
while outside, by degrees, the planet slips
– a locking piece – into apocalypse,
but somehow I can’t tear myself away:
I like the drudgery; I seem to revel
in pitting myself against the sheer
recalcitrance of the stones; using
their awkwardness – each cupped or bulging face,
every cockeyed bevel or crooked curve,
each quirk of outline (this one a cracked lyre,
that one more like a severed head) –
to send a flickering pulse along the border
so that it seems to ripple round each bed
with an unstoppable, liquid grace:
“the best stones in the best possible order”
or some such half-remembered rule in mind,
as if it mattered, making some old stones
say or be anything but stone, stone, stone;
as if these paths might serve some purpose
aside from making nothing happen; as if
their lapidary line might lead me somewhere –
inward, onward, upward, anywhere
other than merely back where I began,
wondering where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
JAMES LASDUN (2006)
In recent months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released two poetry collections that encapsulate much of what I love about poetry: James Lasdun’s Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched. Lasdun and Johnston are quite different in style and subject matter, but they are both masters of the subtle shift, the poem that starts in an unassuming place and leads you away from the old logical paths to a fresh perspective.
[….]Johnston is, by comparison to James Lasdun, something of a rural poet. Throughout Bluestone, Lasdun is more bristly and urbane. My favorite poems are probably the ones selected from 1997’s Woman Police Officer in Elevator, but among the new poems are several gems. In “Mr. W.H.” Lasdun teases out the similarities between himself and W.H. Auden in order to establish a line of poetic inheritance. Lasdun has some of Auden’s wit and bounce, certainly, and his anxious desire to prove it is funny and vulnerable.
Of course every poet
appoints his own ancestors
but that’s one thing if you’re Auden
enlisting Byron, another
if you’re nobody claiming Auden.
Let me present, then
(like one of those not quite kosher
relations in Jane Austen)
my mite of collateral evidence
connecting me with Wystan. (p. 118)
Lasdun finds that in most respects, Auden’s life—especially Auden’s political challenges—was discouragingly grander in scale than his own. Compared to Auden, who was so somebody, how can a poet like Lasdun think of himself as anything more than a nobody? From the final stanza:
… I look out over the barn porch
where the old hollow hearted apple
all dad—what’s the word?
daddock—all daddock and moss
and sagging, swirling-grained bulges
stands like a fossilized
beggarwoman or sage:
dead, I’d thought, till I noticed
a cluster of green apples
like a branchful of underworld eyes
my empty page. (pp. 122-3)
Lasdun stumbles over the word daddock, meaning a rotted tree, so that it becomes dad. This intentional stumble reveals a double meaning: the poetic predecessor as father figure is dead. Auden isn’t a guiding sage but the mere fossil of a sage. It’s not Auden looming over Lasdun but Auden’s fruit, his poetry. The whole history of poetry watches over the blank page for what will come next. It’s a serious burden, but a very different kind of burden from the Oedipal struggle that the poet was stuck with at the beginning of the poem.
In both poems there is a sense of transition. It’s the subtle shifts of mind that are the hardest to accomplish, something lost in novels of grand historical sweep or dramatic emotional tension. Lasdun and Johnston don’t try to take us far, which is exactly what makes their poetry so powerful.
“Clive James’ contention (passim, Poetry Notebook, 2015) that a firm grasp of form is essential to a poet is resoundingly verified by James Lasdun. In the transplanted (to the U.S.) Englishman’s work, sonnet, rime royal, quatrain, and others are so ingrained as to be resonant pentimenti infusing his own particular forms, such as a seven-line stanza that end-rhymes thrice and a five-liner with two end-rhymes. Moreover, the harmonics of language are his habitual playground, so that assonance, alliteration, and variant pronunciations are constantly making up for “rhyme-poor” English in his verse. Yet it’s quite possible to read Lasdun without noticing his technical excellence, especially when seized by a poem’s subject, as it’s usually impossible not to be. Lasdun writes about relationships—in earlier poems, love affairs that didn’t take (e.g., “Timing,” a sonnet appropriately seething with off-rhymes); later, marriage, parenthood, fandom, man and dog (see the single, definitely free-verse marvel here, “Dog Days”); and throughout, in various settings, of person and place (heroically in the poems concerned with settling into rural New York from Landscape with Chainsaw, 2001). While there’s reflection and rumination aplenty in Lasdun’s work, there are also good anecdotes, memoirs, and even stories, including, at considerable length in “Erysichton,” a modern, satirical variation on a cautionary tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” — Ray Olson Booklist (starred review)
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