Michael Tolkien

The Marching Bands             (Seren)

(Publ in Ambit 147: 1997)


   Graham is an authority on Keith Douglas whom he emulates in showing the gruesomely intimate impact of war. There are elegies on him and five other World War poets. Echoes of style and 'associative' detail suggest that their immortality is intact. He is convincing as poet to poet, but less so later on as observer of painters and their lives and art. 'For Edward Thomas' re-enacts his hopes and disappointments and ends fittingly:

                            you could tell

             what the rain said, what those lay

             in the thick of, far away, elsewhere,

             on the other side, where you went under,

             so violently silenced in France.

The opening poem, After Great Changes, reminds us with coolly observed sights and sounds that nature and humankind don't change:

                 'mushrooms were gathered again

                 with only the fear of fall-out.'

These are glimpses of renewal which turn into irrepressible energies in the very last poem 'For Milena', ending an appealing series about his baby daughter, associated with improbably large creatures and forces, even Marching Bands when still in the womb. Like the sea,' she laps at the cot side/  with a smile sun misses / and no pink of horizon could muster.' These are poems that inspire the fear and hope that the smallest things have imponderable powers.

  Sometimes bustling and uncompromising syntax jostles us past too many objects, images, or inaccessible memories. The stringy starkness of form can also reduce poems to columns of unremarkable words. But he strikes a balance in poems about eccentrics. Affection arises from details which also endear them to us. There's big-hearted 'Little Nana,' an Irish sage in her tenement box, and 'The Accompanist', a dab-handed harmonium player who encouraged his singing and is defended against his father's mockery.




Desmond Graham