REVIEWS 

ISSUE 6

LOST EARTH: A LIFE OF CEZANNE by PHILIP CALLOW  
(Alison & Busby 11.99 ISBN 0 74900 204 2)

Philip Callow has a novelist's sense of character as well as a strong, clear prose style which makes this a fascinating and intensely pleasurable read. Cezanne was a complex man and in exploring his complexity- his relations with his father, his fear of women, his early friendship with and later estrangement from Zola all played their part-Callow reveals the tormented human being within the great artist. Time and again in reading this book, it occurred to me that had Cezanne not been a talented painter, he would probably have been merely a miserable human specimen, for his torment lay not simply in his struggle to express what he believed to be nature's truth, but in the conflicts of a personality haunted by fear; timidity and the sense of betrayal which so often accompanies them. Yet there was great courage too. Callow has an astute and sensitive understanding of painting and his respect for Cezanne's importance to modern art is convincing. He is good on the influences, both from the world of art and letters, and situates his subject in his time and tradition intelligently and fascinatingly. Not least of the fascinations of this book is its treatment of the Cezanne-Zola relationship. This is a subject for a book of its own, but having known the story only sketchily before reading Callow, I was enlightened and riveted by his poignant portrayal of the characterological differences which, complementing one another in the younger years, led inexorably to the later rupture. This is a first-rate biography which no-one with even a passing interest in modern painting can afford not to have read. Callow is a master of the genre: erudite without ever being pedantic, thorough without overburdening the work with unnecessary minutiae, a superb stylist. It seems that some 400,000 people visited the 1996 Cezanne exhibition at the Tate. They should all buy this book, then they would really understand what is going on in those canvases.

   

PATH THROUGH THE CANEFIELDS by JOSE WATANABE.  
( White Adder Press 6.95 ISBN 0 9520827 2 1)
 

Jose Watanabe is a Peruvian and cannot, therefore, escape the influence of Cesar Vallejo, his country's and probably his continent's greatest poet. He is, however, also of Japanese extraction and is not untouched by influences quite different from those of Peru. Dave Tipton and C.A.de Lomellini in their introduction to their excellent translation point out that Watanabe partakes of the coloquialismo (use of everyday language in poetry) which became prevalent in the sixties and seventies. But Vallejo used everyday language too. Watanabe's poetry may show the influence of translations from English and American poetry, some of it in very plain language, but it retains Vallejo's sense of the fantastic, the unruly, especially in the breadth of its feeling, so distinct from the narrowness, almost pusillanimity, of a lot of contemporary British poetry. One poem begins like this:  

A frog  
emerged from the naked and recently-dead breast  
of my grandfather, Don Calixto Varas.

Nor does this become the basis of a twee joke as it would in the work of many an English poet. It's funny but it isn't. Watanabe knows just how serious humour is. He is not a poet of the everyday in the sense of reduction. His coloquialismo is not a plea to be easily understood or to confer with mass sentiment. These poems are surprising, original in conception, form and image. Tipton and Lomellini believe that he may be the most talented Latin American poet of his generation and that includes the excellent Mario Montalbetti. If you want a breath of fresh air, a break from the cloying atmosphere of much British poetry, Watanabe can provide it. He is brilliant and this selection of forty-four poems from his second and third collections is as good an introduction to his work as you could wish. An indispensable read for anyone whose poetic horizons extend beyond this crowded, self-regarding island.  

 

ALEXIS LYKIARD: SELECTED POEMS 1956-96  
University of Salzburg Press 9.95. ISBN 3 7052 0960 4)

 Treat yourself to this book for Christmas and while the rest of the family play Taboo or Trivial Pursuit for the hundred and third time take yourself off to a quiet comer and relish its variety, wit, honesty, sharpness, anger, tenderness. Forty years of steady, inventive work. Lykiard ought to be one of our best known and highly-regarded poets. Why isn't he ? But let's not get into the sterile state-of-poetry mode. If you like poetry at all you can't fail to be delighted by this. He ranges wide and likes to play with form, but never preciously, leaving you with the sense of a life well-lived in spite of everything; a love of justice, freedom, pleasure, beauty. An excellent collection to be returned to again and again.  

 

KEN WORPOLE: STAYING CLOSE TO THE RIVER  
Reflections on travel and politics  ( Lawrence & Wishart 9.99 ISBN 0 85315 820 7)

 This book is the account of Ken Worpole's travels between the end of 1990 and the beginning of 1993. So it's a travel book but not one of those silly, irritating things full of banal observations about the locals and foolish attempts to be witty. Worpole's destinations are as far apart as Sweden and Australia, but all the way ha relates his experience to the state of the world. He tells at one point the story of a girl he went out with as a young man whose father, a car worker and communist, saw no point in painting their council house because he truly believed the revolution was at hand and everyone would get a new house. Behind the mindlessness of this, however, is Worpole's serious point that there has virtually disappeared from the modern world any sense of an escape from the iniquities and stupidities of the way we live now. I'm always suspicious of travel books and I approached this one warily. My hesitation proved unnecessary. This is real literature, solid thought. It offers no answers but if you care about the state of contemporary society and if you are aware of the lacuna left by the collapse of socialism (and if you like swimming!), you will enjoy and be stimulated and even heartened by this book.  

 

NOWHERE SPECIAL by ANDY CROFT ( Flambard Press 6.95 ISBN 1 873226 22 5)  

Andy Croft was a member of the British Communist Party until its very end, so History gets a capital letter often in this collection. He is nostalgic for teleology: where are the great patterns in social movements, where are we heading, what can we hope for ? A collection then by an economic and social radical. Strange, some might say, to find within it what, in poetic terms, is traditional. There are two longish rhyming poems PECULIAR and STRANGE FELLOWSHIP whose regularity may be redolent of the liking for form amongst those working people to whom Croft has taught and teaches literature. I don't say this in a condescending way for I found both these poems very well put together, full of neat ideas and nice wit and very pleasurable to read. But different realms move at different speeds and the cultural has forged ahead of the economic, the social and the political. As a poet, Croft has, in a way, been left behind He shows little modernist influence here. But he does what he does so well that it is impossible not to warm to his work. He is a very accomplished poet and his rhyming verse far surpasses that of some of the fashionable rhymsters, including the doggerel that Tony Harrison sent back from Bosnia. This is not, in poetic terms, any kind of ground-breaking collection, but it is a lovely read and an important one because which other British poet has written about the disappearance of socialism ? Read most poetry and it is as if it never happened. I would like to see Andy Croft turn his radical mind to poetic questions, but in the meantime I defy you not to like this.

 

BIRTH OF THE OWL BUTTERFLIES by RUTH SHARMAN ( Picador 6.99 ISBN 0 330 35265 2)  

Ruth Sharman, so the blurb tells, has a Phd from Cambridge. The trouble with Phds is that they're written for duty or ambition, not out of what is necessarily truly felt. There is the same feel to a lot of these poems. Only one did I find memorable, and that because its subject is adolescent sexuality and cruelty The rest feel for the most part like exercises in poetry. Perhaps the academy encourages that with its clever dick essays written to please. But only that one poem would I want to reread and for a collection to be worth keeping on your shelves you would want it to contain at least half a dozen poems that endure in the mind. Sharman is competent with words, but bland, passionless, not sufficiently in awe of the impersonal power of language. The publicity says she " charts a journey of loss, fear and pain and explores the darkest aspects of the psyche through fantasies of violence and revenge". But the language isn't equal to this. The hype makes you think of Lear, but there is no derangement through anguish here, just as there wouldn't be in a Cambridge Phd.  

 

BADDY by STEVEN BLYTH  ( Peterloo Poets 6.95 ISBN 1 871471 68 0)  

Steven Blyth's second collection contains some of the poems from his first and continues in their vein. It is easy to see why his work is widely published: it's easy to read, makes no great demands, sticks with the ordinary in both experience and language. As I remarked when I reviewed The Gox, there's a kind of bewilderment behind the poems and the somewhat faux-naif tales they tell. Blyth likes the narrative form: you can almost imagine him in a cosy snug, by the coal fire, easing anecdote after anecdote from his memory: "I'll tell you what...." or " I remember this bloke  " or " Last week my dad threw another wobbler..." this last being the actual beginning to one of the pieces. Accept him on his own terms and the poems work and make for a readable selection but it's easy to see how this kind of writing might be difficult to sustain over several collections. The danger of being a tap-room raconteur is that you become a tap-room bore and while he touches on the tragic as in Great Aunty Jean where the decline into old age and the loss of powers once enjoyed and prided on is neatly and sensitively revealed, there is still a turning away from the public, a concentration on the domestic or intimate which threatens to become a defence against themes which might demand more from the writing. I'm sure Blyth is heading for popularity in the small world of poetry, but I think he needs to be braver if he wants to write poems that will reward being returned to when that transient popularity has faded. Nonetheless, this is worth a read and contains one or two truly poetic moments, which is perhaps all we should expect from most collections.