REVIEW by Laura WainwrightNWR Issue 100
by Matthew Francis
The poems in this exhilarating collection pursue and bare witness to the fantastical in the familiar, the otherworldly in the worldly, the imaginary in the real.
In ‘The Man in the Moon’, the dream-like opening poem from Matthew Francis’s fourth Faber collection, Muscovy
, a man looks down from his ingenious goose-powered flying machine at the world below:
Earth carried on in the gaps between the clouds,
blue and green, fabulous with distance.
How had I lived there? […]
[…] The geese rose above me
like a surge of white weather.
It was their season
to vanish into the sky,
and I went with them.
Like the intrepid speaker of ‘The Man in the Moon’, gazing on his earthly home ‘made fabulous with distance’, the poems in this exhilarating collection pursue and bare witness to the fantastical in the familiar, the otherworldly in the worldly, the imaginary in the real – and they take the reader ‘with them’.
In ‘Walker’, a man encounters a spectral woman on a rain-swept mountain: ‘I would lose her/ at every jink of the path’, he reveals, ‘She seemed to wait without slowing down’. And in ‘Familiar Spirit’, another ghost finds a home in a Welsh cottage, and a haunting poetic voice. In the grotesquely funny and – as in ‘Walker’ and ‘Familiar Spirit’ – self-consciously archaic ‘Corpse Candle’, on the other hand, the speaker watches a mysterious, mercurial light leave the body of a dying ‘servant’ and follow the future route of his coffin to the churchyard. ‘This happened’, we are assured, ‘though some will deny it.’
Through this ironic claim to historical authenticity and reliability, Francis draws attention to the appeal of the imagination – of the ‘fabulous’ – inherent in our understandings of history. Echoes of this are found throughout the collection. In ‘Noctiluca’, for example, which envisages the seventeenth-century scientist, Robert Boyle’s experiments with phosphorus; and in ‘Muscovy’ itself, which records the British Muscovy Company merchants’ travels to Russia:
The firs grow thick as grass. Wolves and bears live here.
In the sweltry glades the flies hum like your thoughts.
Light sets them in amber. Shadows net your feet.
In ‘Cwm Elan’, Francis recalls the flooding, in the nineteenth century, of the Elan and Claerwen valleys in Powys, to form reservoirs supplying water to Birmingham. The poem alludes to the drowning of the village of Nantgwyllt, along with the Nantgwyllt and Cwm Elan mansion houses, beloved of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his ‘new bride’, Harriet. ‘But here one summer’, the modern-day speaker insists, ‘the level fell / and the stones of the old house reared up / dripping, into the dry.’
There is a lyrical richness but also a shining clarity to Muscovy
that renders even its most fantastical or marvellous excursions, simultaneously knowable and tangible, like the vision of Earth ‘carr[ying] on in the gaps between the clouds’ in ‘The Man in the Moon’. And yet Francis’s style, like his subject matter, is never predictable, and can also be more ludic, formally experimental and challenging – as in ‘Poem in Sea’ and ‘The Enigma Variations’. These poems play on musical themes, while ‘Macros’ performs a kind of poetic close-up photography, magnifying and revealing the otherworldly details of ordinary terrestrial things. Sand, an ant, and the alien anatomy of an unassuming imported South African flower – ‘Greenish feelers, writhing/ Mandelbrot curlicues, sprout from a bed of goo’ – are all captured in this poem’s powerful lens.
Indeed, even the rain has a ‘fabulous’ quality in Muscovy
. In the playful ‘What Rain Means’, this most mundane of events has the character of a poltergeist or ‘familiar spirit’ (to recall the title of an earlier poem) ‘drumming its fingers’ on your window:
[…] it paces up and down the street, waiting.
Being shut out suits it. That’s when it speaks
with its usual show-off onomatopoeia.
If it tells you it loves you it doesn’t mean it.
It says that to everyone, just wants your attention,
would play with you but it has no sense of fun,
has a point to get across, forgets what it is,
but whatever it’s saying it says it a lot….
delights in the forgetting and re-remembering or re-imagining of the world – in daring the reader to look at the world afresh, like the speaker of ‘The Man in the Moon’, and wonder ‘How had I lived there?’
is an online and print contributor to NWR.
previous review: Gwilym Prichard: A Lifetime’s Gazing
next review: Literature, Ecology, Ethics: Recent Trends in Ecocriticism