Peter Redgrove, A Speaker for the Silver Goddess

reviewed by Michael Peverett

Peter Redgrove's death in 2003 has not, as yet, stinted the flow of new poetry collections in his name. Stride published Sheen in 2004, describing it as his final book. Last year Cape announced The Harper for publication in mid-2006, also calling it his final book. But that's now been overtaken by A Speaker for the Silver Goddess, which I wasn't expecting at all.

In the absence of any explanation I find myself speculating about the origins of these poems; since all but one are written in the 3-step lines that were first seen in From the Virgil Caverns (2002), they are certainly late work. In the poem that then introduced them ("Arrivals") the form was compared with a winding stair and was associated with last words before departure:

        Close to the ghost:
                his knowledge went, and mine followed,
                        catch it before
        It leaves like a ghost,
                on these stepped verses;
                        on these stairs met together,
        These radii.

Here the idea is re-meditated in "The Ayenbite of Inwet":

        Outness or the vaporisation
                of myself, the mist within
                        that rooms itself
        Into steps like pages

Redgrove undoubtedly admitted a degree of vaporisation into these poems of his last phase; he knew he was dying and allowed himself new, more intuitive methods of transcribing the psychic material. As in the thrillingly optimistic vision of Death described here in "The Wall", he was trying to seize an opportunity to make new observations while "At last / The Wall is down". The vaporisation is as much about connections as disconnections; thus "The Immense Dew of Falmouth" begins with a self-quotation from another poem, "Who is the Higher Penis Here?" – the quotation concerns the harmonious oil of doorlocks, but the two poems take it in completely different directions.

Nevertheless, I think some of this writing is in an unfinished state. For instance (later in "The Ayenbite of Inwet"):

                having hoped to be relieved
                        from a depression by the wind
        The impending rain falls
                while the urban poets cannot understand
                        these struggles or submit...
        As for the presence of a loved one's
                internal fountains...
        While in the clairvoyant’s house
                all the mirrors deepen etc

It's a tricky judgment to make, but to me these disjunctions (so familiar elsewhere) do not seem Redgrovian. He is essentially a poet of semantic clarity: a poet who amazes you by effortlessly saying what you would think semantic clarity couldn’t say. I think this is only half a poem, half painful notes.

There are indications of unfinishedness elsewhere, too. The opening line of "Mystery Tale"

        After my beloved parents have tasted of Life

promises a main clause in the present or future tense, but we never get one. And in "Underneathness" – but this is much too good not to quote at length:

                        while, further indoors
        Under my shirt-tails
                a minute medallion of shit-stain
                        from a fart:
        Its tiny ginger shines like gold
                in my sky-blue underpants.
                        'The sun that shines in the dark,'
        Remarks Satinhammer
                in her name the Source,
                        'Somewhere, I am sure,
        Liszt wrote piano for this gas, his
                priestly silver mane
                        black with sweat,
        His heavenly energy expounded in Grand Pianism;
                under his cassock,
                        horse-farts in a minor key.

Even in this shorn extract you can see the speed of Redgrove's thinking. It all seems so relaxed, this development towards a resounding image, but just try summarizing it! However, "name the Source" is surely an authorial memo that was meant to be replaced by some outrageously fanciful book-title, and "Somewhere" is the beginning of a new sentence by the author, not a continuation of Satinhammer's words.

The corpus of Redgrove's poems is vast, and the kind of thing he does is something most of us feel we are by now extremely familiar with. My lurking question (I suspect other readers' too) is how seriously to think about him. When I consider the fertility of his achievements, the quantifiable value of what he has had to say to me, I see few British poets of the last half-century come close to him. His range of knowledge is formidable, though he has rivals, but perhaps in none of them is the knowledge more relevant, in other words turned to more continuously poetic account.

But in many ways he hardly fits my idea of a great poet, an "important" poet. He has never been urgently and irately discussed like Pound or Ashbery, nor even Hughes or Larkin; his solid middle-class pragmatism seems to have been a way of avoiding what seem like the critical artistic questions for a poet in our time; he was a good chap. He did not provoke torrents of bourgeois indignation – it was only literary critics who occasionally said "this isn't poetry". The sunniness and buffoonery (in fact a triumph over bipolar depression) don't strike us as having the "high seriousness" we still residually associate with a great poet; among the canonized, you have to go back to Chaucer and Langland (a major influence on Redgrove) to find anything like such "low seriousness". Perhaps it's best to just enjoy this. Perhaps we are all deferring judgment in case biographies show him not to have been quite such a good chap after all; paradoxically, he might then seem more important.

I suppose the question for most readers is how far "A Speaker for the Silver Goddess" adds to this immense body of achievement. Sometimes, it's true, what fires my enthusiasm is only a moment in a looser continuum:

        [of a dish of mercury]
                        a splash running in bright orbits

        Jellyfish meat
                as clear as glass

                        their shrill,
        Intolerably short mating-calls,

But there are a few more poems here that do add substantially to my idea of what he can do: "In the Garden of the Well", "Shit and Spirit", "Scrotal Education", "At the University"... I'm so pleased that these poems weren't condemned to await a cramped afterlife in the appendices of scholarship, but now, in their own time, have a chance to flaunt their colours.

[£8.50, pbk, ISBN 1905024169, February 2006, Stride]

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