Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review of The Golden Mean by John Glenday (Picador, 2015)

The final poem of Glenday’s previous collection, Grain, states:
                Not one of us will live forever
               The world is far too beautiful for that.
His new collection, The Golden Mean, picks up this thread of cherishing transcience and weaves it into an intriguing narrative of what it means to be alive.  By using the four elements, he takes us on journeys through fire and air, on roads and tracks, on and into the sea and rivers in a search for life’s ‘golden mean’, that perfect balance of proportions. 
However, like the donkey in ‘The Flight into Egypt’ who is ‘on a pointless journey he knows has barely begun’, the poet alerts his readers to the impossibility of finding that balance. So destinations become far less important than the very journeys themselves.  Glenday takes us  ‘somewhere’ where ‘everywhere’s possible’: whether that’s the flight of Noah’s ravens or an imaginary city: ‘Let’s head for a place, neighbouring and impossible’  (Abaton). 
The frequent motif of birds, including his favourite skylark, move from the ground to the air; space, lightness, translucence are the essence of Glenday’s poetry.   The mind’s eye of the reader looks upwards to stars (‘Constellation’) – in other poems to light, to sails, fire, seedheads and skies.  And even within each poem, many of which are short, lie those important spaces which reveal what is missing. 
The spaces in the lines (a post-script note informs this form is a Viking ballad-metre) of ‘The Lost Boy’ serve to highlight the son who is no longer there:
                If fine rhymes        rang like iron
                hammered bright,       hot with meaning
                they might weigh        more in my heart.
                Brave songs don’t       bring the dead home.
As contrast, the earthbound poems reveal harsher realities.  To be bound to the earth, or caged, or imprisoned is the worst thing that can happen to us. The dark fable ‘Ill Will’ is mired in soil both literal and metaphorical; the ‘Humpback Embryo’ never stood a chance:  to bury the séance books in ‘Our Dad’ ‘felt worse/ than burning somehow – imagine words gasping for air.’  The doomed soldiers on the eve of the Battle of the Somme (The Big Push) also imagine gasping for air:
                …Just for a while to have no weight, to go drifting
                clear of thought and world, was utter bliss. 
Glenday wrong-foots us with all his allusions to escape and journeying.  He is not an advocate of looking elsewhere for balance simply because there is too much to appreciate in the world around us. The title of this collection ‘The Golden Mean’ does not simply allude to that perfect balance of proportions.  Glenday celebrates the ‘mean’ – the humble, the ordinary, the common things in life and want us to recognise these as golden.  Keeping clear of ‘rich soil’ because ‘a grain of truth’ will  ‘grow poorly’ there, and behind the apparent flippancy of  ‘This world is nothing much’, his insistence on observing and honouring the ordinary makes it exceptional. British pearls, dismissed by Tacitus as being ‘exceptionally poor’ are worn by ‘their women…as if winter were a jewel.’  There are no poems about large showy flowers,  but primroses or ‘Fireweed’; instead of  grand architecture there’s a dockyard;  no polished marble but a simple ‘White Stone’ or ‘Rubble’; no grand paintings but ‘Self Portrait in a Dirty Window’: no heroic warriors, but the names of the world’s unknown or overlooked soldiers whose names make their own poetry (Lest We Forget):  ‘so many brief, important things’  (My Mother’s Favourite Flower).

‘The Walkers’ of the final poem, those ghosts who cross water, follow dirt roads, return ‘grieving for all the things we could never hold again’  to ask ‘if you might heal the world’.  ‘The Golden Mean’ reminds us of the fragility of life; his recurring motif of hands alerts his readers to hold on to, and cherish, the ordinary, humble, mean things which provide the transcient, overlooked beauty of the world we live in.
Gail Wylie                                                                                  October 2015

No comments: