Helena Nelson reviews The Big Calls by Glyn Maxwell (Live Canon, 2023)
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Beware of book jackets emblazoned with adjectives. They are everywhere. Six poetry volumes picked at random from my shelves say their contents are (severally): authoritative, beautiful, cerebral, core-shifting, dazzling, eloquent, fearless, liminal, luminous, powerfully moving, pure fire, robust, sublime, visionary, visceral and vital. The one that is ‘pure fire’ has singe-marks on the pages.
So when I picked up Glyn Maxwell’s latest and saw the first word on the jacket was ‘Genius’, I thought ‘Oh no!’ Children at school feel like this all the time about Shakespeare. Everybody says he’s a genius but when you sit at your desk struggling with scene one of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you just feel inadequate. It takes time to get into the Bard. Nobody loves him simply because they’re told to.
Anyway, here I am approaching The Big Calls, a little nervously. Genius alert. Am I up to it? Here be eleven poems and one piece of weird prose. Also a foreword, in which the author explains how all these pieces “closely shadow famous work”, and render it “homage”. He began, he says, with an image of “the body of an innocent woman lying in water”, which reminded him of ‘The Lady of Shalott’. This immediately struck me as odd. It made me think of that painting of Ophelia by Millais – you’ll know the one I mean: very floral, and also dead. Whereas the Lady of Shalott is lying in a boat. Alive. In the Waterhouse painting, she’s even sitting up.
But Maxwell makes the Camelot connection for specific reasons. All the poems being ‘shadowed’ hail from “the Empire years”, and this poet is preoccupied with England’s current “darkness”. He is intentionally speaking in “a voice of English time at a time of English turmoil”. In other words, these poems intend to provide a coherent response to, or out of, the state of post-colonial Englishness.
Maxwell is intentionally speaking in “a voice of English time at a time of English turmoil”. In other words, these poems intend to provide a coherent response to, or out of, the state of post-colonial Englishness
Certainly, the opening poem, ‘Lady’, affected me deeply. It’s clever in multiple ways, but subtle and searching too; I’ve not read anything like it before. It’s not mere pastiche, though it follows Tennyson’s form closely. It has clear moral purpose, calls in and publicises a true, nearly contemporary event, and raises disturbing questions. It manages to be both playful and sensitive at the same time, a skilful balance. The opening lines, drawn directly from the Tennyson poem ‘The Lady of Shalott‘, quickly establish familiar territory. The fourth line is strikingly divergent:
On either side the river lie
long fields of barley and of rye
that clothe the wold and meet the sky.
Damn your thoughts and prayers say I.
This poet is angry. Why? A note tells us that “The central events depicted […] occurred in 2012 in Nanyuki, Kenya.” It’s helpful to look up the story of Agnes Wanjiru before reading Maxwell’s poem. Agnes Wanjiru was only 21 when she was murdered. Her body was found two months later, floating in a septic tank, badly decomposed. Allegedly, she was killed by a British soldier serving in Kenya (he is usually referred to as ‘soldier X’, and in this poem also as ‘Sir Lancelot’).
The Wanjiru case has still not been satisfactorily addressed. Reportedly, Kenya was to request “the soldier’s extradition to face murder charges in Kenya” in 2021. Maxwell’s poem tells us what actually happened:
Local inquest total? One.
Military enquiries? None.
Knights of Camelot
interrogated? None. Inside
the Room D1 the night she died
one mirror, cracked from side to side,
Before reading ‘Lady’, I had forgotten about Agnes Wanjiru. I had read and been chilled by Imperial Reckoning, Caroline Elkins’ account of “the last days of British colonialism in Kenya”, horrified by what the author had exposed; relieved that at least it was over. But it’s not over. Here I am, arrested by events I should have remembered, utterly appalled all over again. Perhaps it is never over.
‘Lady’ is urgent and compelling. At the same time, the rhythm and sound of the poem dance merrily from line to line. This contrast between tone and form is intensely effective:
Help me, help me, X is crying
not shouting, crying as in crying,
gets his shit together sighing
Killed her. That’s what’s what.
Although this twentieth-century poet says, acidly, “Diplomacy / makes nothing happen, just like me, / like thoughts and prayers and poetry”, he has surely done something in publishing this poem. Not as much, perhaps, as MP Jess Phillips, who crowdfunded a substantial payment to help the victim’s family. But at least ‘Lady’ offers a lasting memorial for a beautiful young girl – a mother, too – who died brutally. In reading this arresting poem, I take proper notice of her fate. Because – unlike the Lady of Shalott – Agnes Wanjiru was a real person, and I will now remember her.
‘Lady’, affected me deeply. It’s clever in multiple ways, but subtle and searching too; I’ve not read anything like it before
Tennyson’s long elegy, ‘In Memoriam’, was also inspired by a real person, and is ‘shadowed’ here. Most of us have heard of it, though perhaps not everyone has read all 133 cantos. Inspired by the premature death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson took no fewer than seventeen years to compile his 2,916 lines of iambic tetrameter, publishing the results in 1850, the year he took up the post of Poet Laureate.
So did ‘In Memoriam’ ensure poor Hallam was remembered? Probably not. The dedication quotes merely his initials. What we remember, I believe, is the intensity of the poet’s grief. Will Glyn Maxwell be remembered for ‘Memo’, his shadowed version? The book as a whole has been recommended by the PBS. (It’s a start.) ‘Memo’ “charts the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic” and instead of numbering its stanzas, like Tennyson’s poem, separates them with the growing statistics of deaths. Thankfully, this elegy has only fifty-two stanzas (the original had over seven hundred).
But is ‘Memo’ an elegy? Grief is not the poem’s abiding emotion; it unleashes a barrage of sarcastic criticism at a well-known former UK Prime Minister. The Covid story is currently familiar to us, and undeniably tragic. But live audiences aren’t quite sure how to respond to fifty-two stanzas of irony. If you listen to Maxwell reading ‘the poem’Memo’ on YouTube, you’ll notice listeners chuckling or giggling nervously at various points. But ‘Memo’ isn’t funny. Nor does it open with a direct lift of any of the famous lines about loss. Instead, it patiently explains how the chosen verse form suits grief:
[…] Let’s start with why
it’s fit for that: a walking beat
iamb, iamb, alone on foot
and always soon the stop and sigh.
Well, this is true. The iambic form suits Tennyson’s lament perfectly: we all know it is “better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”. But Maxwell’s poem is angry, not anguished. Conversational fragments dominate the cadence and mood, interrupting that ‘walking beat’: “How’s that look / these days, old lad? And how’s your book / On Shakespeare?” To me, this doesn’t feel or sound like ‘In Memoriam’.
Few of the poems in The Big Calls clearly evoke their predecessors. Without Maxwell’s notes I wouldn’t automatically make a connection between, for example, ‘Wreck’ and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. ‘Wreck’ may follow Hopkins’ rhyme and stanza pattern, but not his signature sprung rhythm and alliterative bite. And though ‘Wreck’ does commemorate a contemporary loss (a group of migrants, real people, lost during a channel crossing in 2021), it mingles their story with a fictional narrative involving English schoolboys in a school dormitory. For me, the parallel stories are too complicated for the emotional burden of the poem.
Few of the poems in The Big Calls clearly evoke their predecessors
Another example: Maxwell says the poem ‘Us’ “shadows the form” of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Theocritus, A Villanelle’. But Wilde’s villanelle is in tetrameter, while Maxwell’s is iambic pentameter. Wilde follows the traditional rhyming form; Maxwell does something stranger. No fewer than thirteen of the eighteen lines conclude with the word “there”. I’m not doing justice to Maxwell’s silver hammer here, but if this is a shadow, I’ll eat my hat. The given reason for selecting Wilde’s villanelle is “because it calls upon Persephone”. But actually Wilde calls upon Theocritus, whom he addresses as “O singer of Persephone”.
Similarly, ‘Market’ (which shadows Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’) doesn’t instantly remind the reader of the original, though form and length are similar. In this nineteen-page, fictional narrative, I confess I didn’t really understand what was going on and quickly lost interest. I did understand Maxwell’s ‘If’ (which naturally shadows Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’) but I don’t think it’s a patch on the original, voted Britain’s favourite poem in 1996. Remember the way Kipling’s ‘If’ ends? After its sequence of eleven conditional clauses, the last two lines resolve the accumulated expectation:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Maxwell, on the other hand, resolves several ‘if’ sentences before the end of the poem (“if these compounds took a test and failed it, / You might rename them slightly, let it slide”). His analysis of what went wrong at with Grenfell Tower even moves into unconditional statement: “They all stay put because of an instruction / Meant for buildings where a fire can’t spread”. There’s no attempt to mirror the splendid syntax of Kipling’s poem, or its thundering resolution. Here is the end of the Maxwell’s version:
Ours is not the world and all that’s in it,
Ours is how we live and if we care,
Ours is everyone’s last passing minute;
Now you can’t say you didn’t meet them there.
Glyn Maxwell is a skilled formalist. But not here. Read the last two lines aloud. Compare them with Kipling’s. Tell me there isn’t a problem.
Glyn Maxwell is a skilled formalist. But not here
The Big Calls is an interesting experiment that, for me, is only partially successful. In the Foreword Maxwell writes, “Once I had written ‘Lady’ the process evolved into a wider endeavour”. He clearly had an urgent drive to write about the Agnes Wanjiru case, and an inspired relationship with Tennyson’s famous poem. This produced something remarkable. But perhaps it wasn’t possible to do it again. The idea of ‘shadowing’ an earlier poem interests me, but only if the shadow pursues something of a relationship with the original, as ‘Lady’ does, deliberately de-romanticising the wistful chivalric mode.
In terms of post-colonial enquiry, there was certainly scope to interrogate certain poems here. Wasn’t Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’ begging to be answered? The original poem is enormously complex in its emotive manipulation. The shadow ‘Burden’ (focussing on the UK’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021) is relatively straightforward. Again the prevailing tone is bitter sarcasm. ‘Burden’ follows Kipling’s “rhyme, metre and length” but loses the traditional indents. It echoes neither Kipling’s authoritative tone, nor his cracking turn of phrase. When Maxwell quotes four lines from the original (in homage?), he actually misquotes slightly and omits the capital G at the start of ‘Gods’.
It seems clear that this idea of ‘shadowing’ needs to be more carefully defined. Otherwise, the poet may be doing little more than using a traditional form (as in the ABBA stanza pattern of ‘In Memoriam’) for his own purposes, as we have all done for centuries. Still, it was good being despatched to the shadowed texts, all of which are easy to track down. I had never previously read ‘The Mouse’s Petition’ by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, nor John Clare’s prose account of his ‘Journey Out of Essex’. But the texts Glyn Maxwell ‘shadows’ here didn’t become classics because of their shapes / forms. The finest of them (not all are masterpieces) accomplish an inexplicable fusion of form and purpose and tone and sound and urgency and emotion and conviction and relevance, a fusion that works magic. I’m not sure this is something you can shadow. In fact, doesn’t everything have to come together before we invoke a term like ‘genius’?
Helena Nelson is a poet, critic, and publisher, founding editor of HappenStance Press and Sphinx Review, and Consulting Editor at The Friday Poem. Her first collection, Starlight on Water (Rialto, 2003), was a Jerwood / Aldeburgh First Collection winner. Her second was Plot and Counterplot (Shoestring, 2010). She also writes and publishes light verse, including Down With Poetry! (HappenStance, 2016) and Branded (Red Squirrel, 2019). Her most recent collection is PEARLS: The Complete Mr & Mrs Philpott Poems (HappenStance, 2022).