A Scattering, Christopher Reid
Areté Books Ltd, 62 pages (Paperback)
Recently, on the British literary scene, poets have tended to play Bertha Mason to prose writers’ Rochester: enigmatic, bewilderingly ‘other’, rarely discussed in polite company. Consequently, it was considered a major surprise when Christopher Reid was let down from the attic –or perhaps the garret – to be given the 2009 Costa Book of the Year award.
Reid’s triumph was encouraging: the prevailing view had seemed to be either that ‘traditional’ poetry should be left to die quietly, or that the moribund form should be poked and prodded until it morphed into something closer to rap. Reading A Scattering, it’s hard not to view the collection in its prize-winning context. Why has it garnered more critical acclaim than almost anything else published this millennium?
Similarities with previous Costa Prize winners are immediately apparent: of the four poets to have been awarded Book of the Year, three (Douglas Dunn, Ted Hughes and now Reid) were writing collections based on, or around, dead wives. The other winner, Seamus Heaney, was translating Beowulf, but perhaps Heaney has always been a special case. A Scattering is a response to the death of Lucinda Gane, Reid’s partner for nearly three decades, and it sets out to map her illness and its aftermath in unflinching detail.
Understandably, the poems –three long sequences and twelve shorter pieces under the collective title ‘A Widower’s Dozen’ –are deeply personal, and the reader occasionally feels as though they are intruding on Reid’s grief. At his most successful, Reid opens the poems out to explore wider resonances, as in these stanzas from The Flowers of Crete, which acknowledge the obvious limitations of writing:
You don’t want their botched text.
You want the breath, pulse and footfall
of the girl who dashed out
into sunlight like today’s
through where maybe that door was –
then slammed it behind her.
The title poem functions as a muted mission statement: Reid describes the way in which ‘elephants,/ finding bones of one of their own kind/ dropped by the wayside’ will ‘chuck them this way and that way’, a ‘scattering’ which ‘has an air/of deliberate ritual’. The closing lines surely mark the first time that a poet has placed an elephant in the role of muse:
may their spirit guide me as I place
my own sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.
‘Sad’ may strike certain readers as an underwhelming choice of adjective, but it typifies the collection’s overall tone. Reid realises that poetical pyrotechnics become meaningless in the presence of deep grief, and A Scattering is consistently restrained, sombre, achingly elegant. Schubert is invoked in ‘The Unfinished’ –a quartet that ‘weighs in the balance/ the relative merits/ of major and minor/ and struggles to postpone the choice.’
Of course, Reid is fully capable of shifting into a major key when he considers it necessary. Throughout the collection, there are flashes of humour, of defiance. Occasionally his ethereal free verse forms itself into rhyme, as in ‘Exasperated Piety’, ostensibly an account of Henry James’ last days in London, which ends on an image of ‘an old writer, gagging on the ghost-rich air.’
Early in his career, Reid was burdened with misleading comparisons to Craig Raine, his teacher for a brief period at Oxford and a fellow poetry editor for Faber. However, as Michael O’Neill points out, ‘Raine admires Picasso’s bold distortions; Reid invokes the intimate interiors of Vermeer and Vuillard.’ A Scattering sees Reid at his most intimate, and from that intimacy –as with Vermeer and Vuillard –emerges genuine art.
Jacob Silkstone blogs about books and the publishing industry at Alone in Babel. Check it out!