Clutag Press, 2013
Alan Jenkins is a major voice in contemporary English poetry, but that doesn’t make him a household name among American poets. For whatever reason, we remain peculiarly distracted by ourselves; and though we allot a certain amount of reverence to poets in translation, we are, on the whole, remarkably ignorant of poets from around the world who are writing new work in our own language.
Not surprisingly, devotion to the old is eroding in American literature classrooms, yet the traditional English canon is still their bedrock; and it seems to me that a poet such as Alan Jenkins could be a sturdy bridge between our interactions with that past and our immersion in the present. Jenkins, as Clive James writes, “really does have an unusual degree of authority, at least partly derived from his determination to back up even the most anarchic thematic boldness with a scrupulously formal structure.” This scrupulous formality can be breath-taking, not least because it is so often disguised as modesty. By this I mean that Jenkins doesn’t necessarily use his technical prowess as an opportunity for singing. Yet he is in no way an accidental poet: he goes out of his way to direct his dazzling formal powers into poems that purposely collapse into themselves, both structurally and emotionally.
In “The Death of the Moth,” for instance, he creates a ten-line rhyme scheme that, over the course of its four stanzas, eases into three alternative patterns that are also a sort of disintegration. The poem (which ponders a dead moth shut between the pages of a book) shares none of the rich musicality that I so often hear in the lines of Richard Wilbur and other master rhymers. There is something painful, difficult, acid about these lines. They are tormented.
The wall of light that teacher, clerk
Or housewife in their reading hour
Held open, and that drew it on
From its furred world to theirs
Was closed and put back on the shelf,
And every sign of it was gone
Until now, as I browse Sons and Heirs:
Families of England in this shop,
Who have none of those myself,
And don’t know when my life will stop.
Jenkins is perpetually grappling with the past, whether through narrative, style, or influence. There are many echoes here—Thomas, Larkin, Housman, Dante, Stevens, Kipling, Tennyson. He veers toward them and away, toward them and away. His subject matter is often nostalgic, often classically male—war, duty, sports, family, country, sexual agonies and satisfactions. But the poems themselves arise from some other source: a place of cracked mirrors and wavery Victrolas, a place where humor or affection may also be the everyday eruption of evil. In “Some Version of the Pastoral,” Jenkins layers transparencies: memory, a debauched England, a verse tradition. In “Sisters,” a chirpy speaker invents the stereotyped history of a pair of spinster sisters, and in their very predictability the preconceptions become ominous, terrifying, disastrous. Jenkins insistently pushes a reader past the anecdotes into discomfort, into questions of morality and culpability, into the knowledge that some blithe errors can never be repaired.
It’s interesting that what to me feels like the centerpiece poem of this collection, “Vainglory,” is mentioned in the acknowledgments as a translation, though I didn’t discover this until I’d finished reading the book. I’d just automatically assumed that Jenkins could write as effectively in Anglo-Saxon syllables as he could in terza rima: this is how convincing he is as a formalist. Moreover, “Vainglory” seems to encapsulate the moral contortions of the human condition that have so fascinated me throughout Revenants:
He twists and turns outwits truth-traps
shoots his arrow-showers shafts of hatred
shame does not shield him from harm
he sheds about him hates his betters
virtue vexes him envy’s volleys
break down battlements breach the bastion
God once bade him guard with his life.
Writing of the American poet Hayden Carruth, Shaun Griffin says, “His poetry was varied and difficult to label. He wanted to create the most meaningful art he could. . . . His primary reason for writing was the reader. That was an uncommon threshold with which to begin a poem. . . . Carruth’s forms were designed to let the reader in, to avoid separation between poet, poem, and reader.” It seems to me that Alan Jenkins has taken on a similar task, and in Revenants he has largely succeeded. The collection is gnarled and blunt, plain and ambiguous. The book demands my attention. Like the best conversations, it is urgent and personal. As the poet writes in “Ladbroke Grove,”
These airless nights
The eyes of strangers
Catch me out
As I haunt myself
On streets I knew in life,
Only by the dead . . .
Whose is that cry
From an open window
On an attic floor,
Whose the laughter
A dark pub door?
And those notes
On a saxophone, who
Are they yearning for?
[A version of this review first appeared in New Walk (autumn/winter 2013-14).]