REVIEW by Michael Malay

01/11/2012

Homuncular Misfit

by David Greenslade

David Greenslade has lived a varied and unorthodox life, and his latest collection of poems, Homuncular Misfit, shows it. Subjects vary from Welsh valleys to Tibetan humming bowls, and descriptions of the Severn Bridge juxtapose with Jabal Ahkdar (a mountain range in Oman). If the diversity of these references threatens to unbalance the poems, however, by creating an idiolect that only the poet can understand, Greenslade does an admirable job of making them accessible. That is perhaps another aspect of his unorthodoxy – his ability to work the most esoteric references into the plain surface of his poems.

But the strength of this collection – Greenslade’s distaste for affectation and his resistance to intricacy – is sometimes also its weakness. The writing could do with more artifice, more wrought torsions of grammar, in order to impress itself upon the reader’s mind more memorably. Plainness can be a virtue in poetry, but it becomes a liability when it merges into the shapes and rhythms of prose:

Following an overnight fast, I feel good
Despite battling a mild but constant headache.
I’m trying my best to keep the night
For sleep. It’s morning and I’m still awake. (‘Lettuce Pearl’)


Not of all of Greenslade’s poems suffer from this fault, however, and there are moments when his technique of direct, unadorned speech, in conjunction with his lucid observation of particular detail, illuminate his gifts as a poet. Among these is a facility for entering the life of mute objects and making them speak, as in this description of a candle-flame in ‘Candle’:

sharp as a pinprick,
the spark – flaring
just above the charcoal trace of it.


Or a description of young mushrooms in ‘False Chanterelles’: their ‘tightly gleaming button heads not yet unfolded/ into inside out umbrellas’.

There are obvious debts to Ted Hughes in this collection, particularly to Crow. And as with Hughes, there is a fascination with inner disturbances, and a deliberate perusal of them, since they are connected (in the poet’s mind) with the regeneration of spent energies, or the discovery of new ones. On occasion, Greenslade’s treatment of psychological states in extremis can feel forced, particularly when he advertises their own authenticity: ‘I’d rather have authentic trouble […] / At least I want a bigger struggle / my greed for that is clear’ (‘In Recovery’). But more often than not his portrayal of interior strife is convincing and unsettling, as in ‘Uncertain but Returning Wing’:


I plot a course
to breach a threshold interview,
peal a chime to clarify obscure
feelings while, like a bag of steps,
I dive towards them.



‘Threshold interview’ is just right, and the image of a diving ‘bag of steps’ – both obscure and clear – enacts the kind of odd shock that the poem traces.

Animals play a prominent role in Greenslade’s poetry, and in a tradition which extends from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Hughes’ Crow, they are adapted as symbols for the threshold states so often described in this collection:

Sometimes a panic lands in my belly
as delicately as the paw of a wounded tiger
and I know there’s no escape. (‘Sometimes a Panic’)

That night all the help lines were closed
I had to fight the blue-tongued lions
clawing my solar plexus. (‘Lion in the Soul’)



Not all these animal encounters, however, lead to the vertigo of inward displacement, and tucked among the frenetic eddies are moments of hushed equanimity, as in this midnight meeting with a crow, ‘Brân the Blessed’, which calms the speaker into agreement with the natural world:

[…] soft, slow, pearls of rain
sparkling by kitchen light
fell in glistening strings,
dollops of scintillating guan
puddled freshly opened oysters
on the courtyard’s medieval tiles (‘“Myn Brain i – Fe Wnes”’)


Greenslade has lived in Japan and Oman, and his cosmopolitanism is undeniably an important influence on this collection, providing the poet with esoteric spiritual resources and a stock of stimulating images and experiences. But among his best poems are the ones that delight in the intimate comforts and oddities of home, poems which find the faraway near at hand.

It’s the faraway look that attracts me
more than the faraway place.
I prefer local chaos [… ]

Offered another way, my own slip-free ticket,
virgin passport, foreign currency,
I returned to the glue of familiar rivers
particularly walks between Ogwr and Cynffig […] (‘Otter Boy’)


There is a discernible calm in this passage, a quietness of tone and imagery entirely in keeping with the speaker’s absorption into the natural world. Greenslade’s writing is not as consistent as one may wish, but poems such as ‘Otter Boy’ and phrases such as ‘the glue of familiar rivers’ partly redeem whatever shortcomings this collection might have.









       


previous review: Married Love
next review: Thrown into Nature



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