The Magazine

A Nervy Business

Glyn Maxwell's latest volume of poetry.

Apr 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 31 • By DAVID MASON
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The Nerve

by Glyn Maxwell

Mariner, 64 pp., $13

IF W.H. AUDEN and Robert Frost were reincarnated in one body--try not to think too hard about this--and that body belonged to a forty-one-year-old British poet living in America, he might write something like Glyn Maxwell.

I mean that as a compliment. From Auden, Maxwell gets a facility with multiple forms, a fondness for occasional syntactical contortions, and an example for how to face his generation's largely suburban experience. Maxwell is a substantial writer, but he can turn out deft comic lyrics like "Deep Sorriness Atonement Song" from The Breakage (1998):

All the people who were rubbish when we needed them to do it,

Whose wires crossed, whose spirits failed, who ballsed it up or blew it,

All notchers of nul points and all who have a problem Houston,

At least they weren't at Kensington when they should have been at Euston.

For I didn't build the Wall

And I didn't cause the Fall

But I'm sorry, Lord I'm sorry,

I'm the sorriest of all.

There's more than a dash of Auden's friend Louis MacNeice in this as well. One of Maxwell's exploits has been to journey to Iceland, just as Auden and MacNeice did in the 1930s. Maxwell traveled with Simon Armitage, another bright star of the "New Generation Poets" (as they were dubbed by England's Poetry Review). Parallels with Auden also include Maxwell's gargantuan productivity--plays, opera libretti, novels in verse and prose, a travel book, and of course the volumes of poetry.

Frost's influence is another matter, offering cagey strategies for dealing with life's seriousness without becoming maudlin. There are at least two apparent suicides in The Nerve, Maxwell's most recent collection, yet it never feels dreary because, like Frost, he understands the place of suffering and can work with a light touch, referring at one point to "Recurring errors I could term a style." His place in contemporary poetry is quieter than Auden's, but growing in power: He's now on the faculty at Princeton and has for more than two years acted as poetry editor for the New Republic.

The fact that Maxwell is riding high would mean little if he were not also writing well. The Nerve confirms the impression that he is among the best poets of his generation. His obvious verbal gifts often serve brief narratives, rather like the lyrics of Thomas Hardy and E.A. Robinson. "The Man Who Held His Funeral," for example, appears to be about a chauffeur or professional driver of some sort. "Refugees in Massachusetts" is about what its title promises, and all the more au courant for that. And "A Hunting Man" is about one of those ambiguous suicides--enough material for a novella conveyed in twenty-four understated lines.

These and other poems evoke a variety of lives with fresh compassion and just enough ironic distance, never condescending to his subjects. Surely he enjoys his own gift for verbal games, but he's well beyond adolescent self-displays. "Stopit and Nomore" contains this terse description of domestic catastrophe: Her Cerberus / of a parent / primed his gun and scribbled his last bark. And this about the daughter left behind:

She was thirteen. Given everything, she thrived,

was told the names for this and that, it seems

too late for them to hold. She lived in homes


to scientists and careers, then she lived

in foster homes. It went to court. In time

it fell to her exonerated mother

to take her back. And back she went forever.

I found her

cited in a book I read, Genome,

proving what she proves, or at least supports,

though some say it's too muddied by the life

to pass for science. I say words arrive

too late

for love, or love is gone too soon for words.

There are less unsettling poems about Maxwell's own family life, and the collection is framed by two poems about an inscrutable natural world--sea and snow--and about how our minds touch upon such things with a Frostian skepticism.

One drawback to ironic deftness is that it prevents some poems from building or opening up their fuller implications, and The Nerve contains a few poems, such as "Today" and "The Year in Pictures," that simply stop rather than finding the right closure. Others need several readings before their meanings come clear. But Maxwell is never off-putting or dismissive of his readers, and he can be charming in brief poems too, as in the four lines of "Colorado Morning": Loping around the more or less dead straight / lines where skiers were, / some shy, nocturnal creature's one and only / shot at its signature.