Edge to Edge: New & Selected Poems 1968-96 ( Anvil )
(Accepted but not published by London Magazine: 1996-7)
Anvil's substantial exposé of over thirty years' work makes up for Dale's
small-press appearances. If technical virtuosity and preoccupation with the unstable
bases of relationships have marginalised him as a poet's poet, it's now easier to
appreciate his diverse standpoints and the tensions between romantic nostalgia and
‘Thrush' from 1968 anticipates his capacity to share rather than impose
surprising connections: a fluttering womb, a shadow that might be a tile falling,
vanishing wings, presented with detachment that belies wonder. But in the early work
he is mostly an acute, sometimes anguished poet-observer, shifting ground to inspect
others' values, and assumptions. Contiguous, contrasting poems avoid draining one
occasion with too many angles, unlike the more extensive, insistently formal attempts
in MORTAL FIRE (1976) to fuse complex thought with ‘off the cuff' confessionalism.
‘Damages' poignantly divides adult and child over a maimed butterfly, but turns to
his own childhood, even insecticide, and loses itself in a welter of toy mending.
‘Full Circle' is a reading to pupils that swamps the ironic prefiguring of their
futures with his and their antics. It feels as if there were probably several poems
Concurrently, in ‘THE GOING', the short poem sheds its haikuesque chrysalis
for lyricism that links the gestures and physique of the loved one with plants,
trees, birds, effects of light and sky-scapes. When images have their say I am reminded
of Ian Hamilton's elliptical suggestiveness, as in ‘Silver Birch':
My hands could span the trunk
arched into darkness
like your throat
thrown back in love...'
But the explicit ‘gather an inkling/ my angle of you,/ your head thrown back.' typifies
a tendency to dilute. Cryptic intimacies or patronising digests are worse. ‘Returns'
retraces familiar paths and ends with: ‘We cover the same ground./ Your life fits
In the foreword to ONE ANOTHER (1978), Dale admits his work suffers from ‘solepsism
of experience', but these 58 rhymed sonnets depicting the changes and conflicts of
profound love, transmute the particular through subtle elaboration and illuminating
contrasts of dual voices. Moments of tenderness, sensual directness, sureally imagised
tension, remind us that artifice and feeling are compatible, though there are wrenched
significances, patches of aureate diction and fussy imperatives like:
Move, love; finger the fallen petal there
(Your palate's curvature, its touch to me)
Now feel the micro-hesitance and know
The sense my hands have of your skin…
Yet this is countered by the woman's inscrutability: ‘...He'd like/ to crack my codes,
edge deep into the skull.' She is incisive, even caustic; he seeks patterns and is
tortured by incompleteness. After her death his elegiac and ghostly reminiscences
draw on the consistent ‘world' of associative objects that unify the sequence.
Further recollections of ‘the beloved' add little to these haunting sonnets.
In comparison those of ‘Mirrors, Windows' (from EARTH LIGHT, 1991), a grimly humorous
dialogue of middle-aged man and dead father, are packed with ingenious ‘conceits’
in monotonously curt syntax, though the sense of scores being settled makes the impasse
less than moving. In contrast I welcomed the light and airy spaces of Dale's expansive
landscape, ‘Like a Vow', celebrated with the ‘eye' and elegance of Edward Thomas.
Much of Dale’s verse from this decade is ‘occasional', though the latest grapples
with tortured emotions. Taut lyrical measures adapt verbal and rhythmic patterns
to quirks and paradoxes, shared moments, observed idiosyncrasies. But elaborate ploys
can fall flat for lack of substance. A cleverly donned mask lost at the wrong moment,
exposes a voice out of synch with its role. But Dale's well-integrated poems have
the grace of Horace's slighter odes, or Martial's tongue-in-cheek confidings. Unfashionable
qualities: light-heartedness without gaucherie, cool anger, or an unaffected gravity,
instanced in ‘Homage to Robinson Jeffers', imagising the seaview room he died in,
and ending: ‘You whose words live on / have given me, unlike the Christ /a place