Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:10 AM 6th February 2024

Review: Before We Go Any Further By Tristram Fane Saunders

Like a man drifting in and out consciousness, Tristram Fane Saunders’ grip on poetic theme and direction is fevered, mediated by his own susceptibility to the surreal, or to alternative landscapes that shape what he sees. More intriguing still that he should prosecute his aim in a range of bravura formal approaches whose framework can never contain the arbitrary image-making of his thinking. As well try to catch light in a sieve.

…which may or may not be Saunders’ point: that form is merely the complementary measure of a poem, subtly insinuated, like the workings of a delicate timepiece, to elucidate and burnish meaning. Or to yield an accurate indication of the hour. The green thought in Saunders’ fine poem ‘The Head’ pays deliberate lip service to Andrew Marvell whose eponymous ‘Garden’ is a sustained metaphor for the unfettered imagination. Here is the Tardis-like microcosm of Saunders’ wider poetic modus: that a whole world may be ventured in a silent garden of repose. And in a kaleidoscope of colour and tincture, he offers us a panorama whose perspective is unrestricted, either by time or place.

The anthropomorphic rumination of ‘Head’, one of a series of lyrical reflections on the hidden corners of Crystal Palace Park, exemplifies the poet’s intense, if wilfully peripatetic, gaze. Mapping layers of meaning from a headless sculpture, or a pen, or the Botanic Gardens in Ventnor; finding, in the latter, intimations of history and the retrospective present in suggestion, Saunders builds a three-dimensional temporal image of a garden whose appearance harbours ghosts of the unknown, and present friends, in the restorative sanatorium of its former utility. If the pace of ‘Health’ is languid – the sestets are dignified by a loose lineation of hexameters and heptameters – then the language is conversational, a dialogue of one whose tone is reflective, empathic, desperate to find hope for the ill. That the warm, moist air was intended to be rehabilitative is one of many sharp ironies, as terminally misplaced a remedy for a consumptive chest as the dispatching of Anne Brontë to Scarborough to take in the ozone:

‘I’d like to bring them here, my friends, tell them everything
they lie in bed and think of doesn’t matter for a while,
that it can wait until they’ve got their breath back in this shelter
we have made from words. The guidebook mentions that the doctor
who founded Ventnor’s institute for sickness of the chest

died here – tuberculosis, yes, despite the warm sea air’.

Saunders’ poems are knowingly self-referential. The temperate tableau at Ventnor is a disordered figment of reality, a noetic construction, a vehicle for placing documented history at the service of the consumptive present. Conscious of the incipient paradox, the narrator concedes ground to an affecting sense of failure: ‘I want to help but all I do is rhyme’. That he fails even to achieve that is one gauge of helplessness in the face of grief, of accepting that remedies are often borne out of propitiatory disheartenment.

Since Saunders’ tenure is leasehold, his observational grip is vertiginous, yet mysteriously persuasive: occupying several psycho-geographical spaces in the tenancy of a stanza, he opens his poems to all manner of possibility. Not least in consideration of the power of the pen, of the Word, in determining both the terrain in which perception is channelled, and the museum of posterity that hallows, and sometimes distorts, the memory of its creator. ‘The Squat Pen’, a fine poem not so much of homage as intellectual uncertainty, is an admission of failure to approximate to artistic integrity, conceived whilst reflecting upon the plastiglass ‘vivarium’ in which Heaney’s pen is suspended. Arch, self-lacerating, the narrator drowns in self-pity whilst failing to hold a candle to the effort of will, the ‘ugly, graceful fight’ between truth and intention, that found a kind of resolution in blottings on Heaney’s writing paper. Saunders’ spare trimeters break when his meditation loses ground to the steadier hand of Heaney. The line between true and honest

‘on which my own words rest,
trying to tilt toward love
but meeting passing faces
with doubt, a misplaced emphasis.’

If ‘The Squat Pen’ gets to grips with the compulsive pursuit of poetic truth, then a poem examining another kind of obsession, that of Bradford Naugler, Nova Scotian sculptor and observer of birds, underlines a drive that is as emetic as it is fevered, as though the two were twin axes of the same state of mind. Naugler’s own self-examination reveals both a commitment to the personification of avian ‘unalikeness’, and a gallows acceptance of his failure to resist:

‘No, I guess I love them.
I love these little bastards,
but not much.’ (‘In my Craft or Sullen Art’)

That twenty wooden seagulls ‘moult’ in Naugler’s coastal shack is a conspicuous reminder of a fixation as all-consuming as that of John James Audubon’s, though without the sense of ownership.

Saunders’ willingness to absorb the ‘pain’ of his subjects is emblematic of a profound sensitivity to suffering, even amongst the surreal plasticity of the terrains he invents for purposes of healing. The process of unfolding reveals the narrative hand as driver, as though the interests of catharsis could only be served by wearing the hairshirt of empathic identification. The character of Greg in ‘Curse’ is an abstraction in a poem of unbearable beauty, whose gentle pentameters evoke pity as effectively as R.S. Thomas. The cruel details of Greg’s metamorphous transformation give way to a direct, and powerfully moving, address to the audience’s own confraternal instincts:

‘I wore them for an hour; Greg, for three
whole stanzas. Reader, you will keep them
until the day when, thumbless, you remaster
the knack of how to turn a page.’

Saunders’ ‘garden’, to stretch Marvell’s metaphor to breaking point, teems, and it is entirely possible that the curse his narrator describes is also that of the modern human condition, not least of our diminished attention spans: the enforced and frightening retreat of Greg from daily observances resembles, if only obliquely, our own wilful abandonment to the narcosis of digital technology.

The poet’s astonishingly wide range of interests is well served by a chameleonic capacity for inhabitation of theme and form. The five songs and ballads that are preceded by an ‘obituary’ for, and reproduced as fictitious translations in the name of, US academic A.E. Pious, represent another shape-shift for Saunders, a displacement of narratorial sense, and a further indication of a de-centering of the line. And whilst the titular Songs of a Cruel Instrument has been published previously elsewhere, the poems melt counter-intuitively into the present collection’s protean drift, as if writer’s hand and editorial tiller were indistinguishable.

Poems of real beauty, rendered in ancient ballad forms but here and there reinvented in modern idioms, the ‘Songs’ locate universal truths in the dialectic, whilst identifying, in the very act of putting pen to paper, the nature of obsession. And it is somehow fitting that the watchful ballad, ‘That Dark Harp’, whose sense of the Fall dovetails neatly with the heavy symbolism of the following elegy ‘Llewellyn’, should collapse, like religious credulity, into the folk fable of ‘Wych Brook’. Saunders’ attention to the rudiments of tradition – his poem is conceived in rhyming iambic dimeters and is heavily alliterative – suggest a mind given to research and close-reading. The son of the figure in a haunted landscape embarks on a quest no less compelling than the poet’s own:

‘Row north, my son,
By soft moonglow,
To cold Wych Brook,
By frost, by snow.’

This collection, whose eclectic mix of historical and cultural signifiers makes it near-impervious to review, at least without the requisite critical space, is a Funhouse whose wobbling travelator shifts perspective at every step, where the ceiling hoves in just as the floor opens up, the helpless reader hangs on to taglines for stability, and is thrown into a maelstrom of references, erudite diversions and, sometimes, blind alleys. We are left to marvel at the poet’s ingenuity and proclivity for introducing counter-intuitive moments seamlessly: the manic, insomniac figure in ‘Monkfish’ who ‘levels’ her disordered perception with frenetic bursts of biological ephemera at 4am is doomed to remain adrift, her mental condition dignified by Saunders’ profoundly sympathetic, and metaphorically contiguous, final lines: ‘Your call / is inaudible to divers. Your call / is inaudible to all the undrowned’.

For love is one of the fixed points in an architecture of enormous complexity. Whilst the intense, sensory focus of a simple octet illuminates love’s transformative power indirectly, against the backdrop of a bonfire in Battersea Park, where the ‘cold-toed’, be-hatted celebrants ‘huddle’…

‘Bonfire, bon chance, bon nuit. My hands
In your pockets, your hair in my face.
Like a beating toffee apple, my heart in your mouth.’ (‘Bonfire’)

…the narrator of ‘Under’ yields utterly to a loved other in terms that express the selfless imagination’s extremity in the form of a panegyric, whose acrobatic metaphors approach self-parody yet somehow remain precisely calibrated to the degree of emotional investment tendered. Offering the poem as a distilled representation of self, an unlikely dredger for the silt of despair, Saunders returns to earth with movingly focused sincerity: ‘Hold it up / like you hold me, that it may lead you, / however far it’s able, / homeward, dry.’

The poet is at his best at such moments: the articulation of love, and of its sometime consequence, loss, by circuitous but always compelling, figurative means. The ‘Continental Drift’ that acts as a repeated and supposedly apt metaphor for a relationship breakdown in the affecting, eponymous poem, is obliged towards a symmetrical renegotiation, whose modern geological definition yields a more fitting simulacrum. From the narrator’s concise scientific description of Plate Tectonics, the reader may infer the achingly slow dissipation of an emotional bond:

‘There is no centrifugal pseudo-force, only a slow
subduction. Heat is lost. Plates ‘grow’ apart, not ‘drift’.

The parental divorce, whose painful memory lies at the heart of the final poem of this remarkable collection, may also have been a consequence of ‘heat loss’, of a growing apart. And in ‘2nd Edition’ the central figure on which the narrative hangs is a gift, a book, whose wider semantic serviceability in a poem of love and ritual, is double-edged, shot through with irony. Parcelled off from father to wife, and subsequently from father to son, bearing the same laboured dedication upon which the son can barely gaze, the latter yet finds consolation in the odd juxtaposition of a sentimental inscription – ‘with love, from me to you’ - and the hopeful innocence of lines from an eighth-century poem whose inherent musicality invokes, in the storied imagination, a kind of connection in despite. In this most Larkinesque of poems, Saunders finds a way through the thicket of half-truths and barely-meant intentions to hear the rhythms of acceptance:

‘Early bird and earworm tied
like a joke, or something true.

Foolish, inseparable. Why
not, for a gift, forgive you ?

It’s April 1st. I crack the spine
and watch the words spring new:

Sumer is icumen in
Ihude sing cuccu

Before We Go Any Further is published by Carcanet. More information here.