on 30 December 2012
This is a book of tremendous power, though the would-be buyer might be better to go for the new Yellow Tulips, which contains all or most of the poems in this collection together with a selection of Fenton's earlier and later work.
One thing that makes this volume unusual is the way many of its poems, particularly the political ones, combine raw power, passion and the kind of stripped, muscular, driving rhythms and strong rhymes you find in Kipling's work with subtleties and complexities of thought that suddenly reveal themselves as you reread the poems. Fenton is a great political poet because he knows there are no simple solutions - perhaps ultimately there are no solutions at all - to the problems he writes about. The horrors and atrocities described in poems like "Jerusalem", "Out of the East" and "The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah" grow out of something deeply rooted in our natures, in life itself - as is suggested in "The Milkfish Gatherers" with its lovely music and horrifying images of human and natural predation. The anger of the political poems, it seems to me, is not simply or even primarily directed at the perpetrators of atrocity but at those who fail to see how hard, how nearly impossible it is to break the cycle of atrocity once it has been started, how implicated in it we all are. This is a poetry that opens our eyes, that forces us to see - often uncomfortably - even if seeing only leaves us feeling compassion and remorse.
Of course Fenton is not only a great political poet. This volume also has haunting, often disturbing love lyrics. I don't know whether these draw on his own life or not: his technique is to strip the poems of the kind of circumstantial detail that would lock them into a particular story, occasion or subject's life, to lay bare the emotional essentials of situations in a way that allows us to bring our own stories to them.
If Fenton's vision of life derives in part from his experiences as a war correspondent, technique is of course key to the delicacy and force with which he is able to express it. He's absorbed the lessons of Modernism but also has an extraordinary mastery of older ways of writing. I've mentioned Kipling. Shelley is no less of an influence, and his love poetry draws on the poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The little poem "Beauty, Danger and Dismay" strikes me as astonishing for the incandescent quality he's able to bring these three abstract words by combining the simple devices of implied personification and a skeletal narrative:
Beauty, danger and dismay
Met me on the public way.
Whichever I chose, I chose dismay.
The three concepts are fleshed out in the rest of the volume, and reverberate through it.