Alan Buckley reviews Up Late by Nick Laird (Faber, 2023)
A few months back my good friend and fellow FRIP reviewer Carl Tomlinson referred to what he called ‘the Buckley test’: “Alan […] claims that it’s worth buying a collection if – when you thumb it in the bookshop – you find three poems which make you want to read more”.
I experienced confirmation of this (in a slightly different way) in late May, when I heard Nick Laird read from his new collection Up Late, at an event to mark Faber’s move to its new offices on Hatton Garden. I’ll always have time for someone who, like me, loves Louis MacNeice’s poetry, and who, while acknowledging Auden’s genius, sees MacNeice as both more accessible and more relevant to contemporary readers. However, I’ve not previously considered myself a great fan of Laird’s own poems. They’ve often seemed a little too cerebral and detached for my liking, a little too in thrall to their presiding spirits – in particular, perhaps, Derek Mahon, whose poems frequently feel like diamonds, brilliant but unyielding. While I could respect the significant craft and intelligence behind Laird’s work, it didn’t fully connect with me at a more visceral level.
But at the Faber event I was so captivated by the three poems he read that I not only bought Up Late, but read it cover to cover on the train back to Oxford. His poems are still hard-thinking (and encourage hard thinking in the reader), but there is something else – a rawness and messiness just below the surface – that I hadn’t previously encountered. Laird opened his reading with ‘Night Sky in Tyrone’. Its arresting opening line – “Maybe birds provide the eyes the dead look out of” – carries an immediate sense of the mythic, referencing as it does a belief that spans many cultures, and many centuries. However, the line’s formal, heightened register is immediately set against a wonderfully quotidian (and warmly intimate) image:
Or is it knots in furniture they queue up at
to spy from, bickering, whispering with shock
how grey her hair is now, how skinny he has got.
What follows is a discussion between Laird and his sister about their late father returning as “that portly robin on the lawn” (what a great adjective “portly” is), and offering a commentary on all he sees in what remains – despite his death – his garden. The poem then shifts back into the visionary at its close, with the night sky described as “depths of emptiness and fire.”
There’s no typical poem in Up Late, which is refreshingly wide-ranging in tone (including at times being very funny). But I think that skilfully handled interplay between registers – the formal and timeless set against (and grounded by) colloquial language that describes the everyday – is at the heart of this collection, and is what gives the book its immense sense of drive. The second poem in his reading (‘The Outing’) demonstrates again how the big questions of existence can emerge most clearly from the completely ordinary. It appears at first to be a simple, tightly-observed, poet-meets-bird encounter –
The magpie reasserts its stance
with a testy flap of black on white,
a flash of blue
– but then at the end of the second tercet we get dropped (as the poet has been) into a scene that echoes Frost’s ‘Design’, with its question “What but design of darkness to appall?”:
and the baby rabbit –
what is left of it – keeps screaming
Laird doesn’t hold back from gruesome description: “the socket / of the rabbit’s eye, the one the magpie’s / already emptied out to a plush red nest, // a divot of flesh.” But unlike Frost, Laird isn’t some uninvolved observer. He’s here with his kids, who want to know what he, as an adult, is going to do about the “enormous / pain” they’re witnessing. The narrator is forced to recognise his utter impotence in the face of his children’s demands to in some way make the situation (and by extension the world) better. The only way he can take charge is to become complicit in the horror, to own his own capacity for violence, as he kills the rabbit (on the second attempt) by smashing its head with a stone. As is often the case with Laird, there is the jolt of a double meaning in the title. Some part of the poet is, very much against their wishes, being outed here, as he drives back to a house
that is a little different; harder, sharper,
and where my children will not look at me.
I noticed as I wrote that last paragraph that it felt a struggle to maintain the accepted convention of separating the ‘I’ of the lyric poem from the poet, and to refer to ‘the narrator of the poem’. Laird is clearly capable of writing in voices that aren’t his own – the collection’s second poem, ‘Theodicy’, sees God trying to address the question of why, if they are omniscient and omnipotent, the kind of pain and suffering seen in ‘The Outing’ is allowed to occur. And the tonal variation I referred to earlier is due in no small part to Laird’s fluency at writing from varying personae or performed aspects of himself. But while a poem is never just autobiography with line breaks, given that much of this collection seems so explicitly rooted in direct, lived experience it seems pointless to try and keep pushing Laird out of his poems.
Skilfully handled interplay between registers – the formal and timeless set against (and grounded by) colloquial language that describes the everyday – is at the heart of this collection, and is what gives the book its immense sense of drive
That a poem, while not simply memoir, can offer a fine memorial to another, is shown in ‘Attention’, the third poem Laird read on that evening in May. It’s an elegy to his friend Martino Sclavi, who died of a brain tumour in 2020 at the age of 47. Appropriately, given Sclavi’s work as a film producer and writer, ‘Attention’ begins with a superbly cinematic flourish, flowing on from its title into seventeen lines that are the equivalent of an uncut tracking shot, following “a single white marble, translucent with a turquoise wave / breaking within it” as it bounces and rolls through space and time until it “skitters / onto the cobbles to wedge, pearl-like, beneath the tyre of a Vespa.” This tour-de-force opening is immediately followed by the simplest of statements:
Martino, it is evening and raining in London, and I am making tea and we
don’t say that we both know it is the last time we will meet.
Up Late’s main elegiac focus, though, is Laird’s father. The title poem – which forms the middle section of the book – is an exploration (in fifteen sections across sixteen pages) of Laird’s response to his father’s death in hospital with Covid-19, during the period when even close family were not allowed to visit the dying. It begins with Laird describing the nature of time during bereavement in a manner that echoes Denise Riley in its formal intensity:
and at the centre of the crest of this
disintegrating, reassembling nest
the jet of time generates, is consciousness,
the planetary mind, aloft, alone, mine,
jostled and spun like a ping-pong ball.
There’s perhaps a nod too to Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ with that “planetary mind”. However, turn the page and there is (as there often is too with Riley) a lurch into the conversational:
My father died today. Sorry to bolt that on.
You understand the shift required.
Although ‘Up Late’ – which won the 2022 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem – is an elegy, it very much isn’t an idealising panegyric, as it describes in unvarnished detail the realities of Laird’s father’s life –
[…] and after Mum died,
left bewildered, adrift, ordering crap online
[…] before Jackie arrived on the scene,
the bottle blonde who had ‘her demons’,
by which you meant she was a violent alcoholic
– and his death:
[…] This morning
the consultant said your father now is clawing
at the mask and is exhausted and we’ve thrown
everything we have at this. It’s a terrible disease.
There’s no shortage of beautifully crafted images, and moments of philosophical enquiry into the way that death impacts on our experience of time:
One hand on the clock holds the other for a minute
before going on alone. It is death that is implicit
in the ticking.
But overall there’s an eschewing of any kind of lyric perfection in favour of a ragged-edged wholeness, where differing poetic registers continually bump up against each other, as in the opening to the final section, which prefaces a cityscape image redolent of the end of Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ with a both-barrels blast of demotic language:
Alastair Laird is dead. Fuckety fuck. Fuckety
fuck fuck fuck fuck. My dad is dead. Bad luck.
The light breaks and the night breaks and the line
breaks and the day is late assembling. Rows
of terraced houses are clicking into place. Clouds
decelerate and make like everything is normal
Given that favouring of wholeness over perfection it seems only right to say that this isn’t a perfect collection (although I find collections that aspire to a state of highly polished flawlessness tend to feel utterly sterile.) There are, for my taste, too many poems that explicitly address the act of writing poetry, and amongst the wide variations of tone there are occasionally moments that jar – for example in ‘Modest Proposal’, written as a Radio 4 commission celebrating Swift’s satirical essay of the same name, where Laird sounds too much like a middle-aged guy having an “It wasn’t like this in my day” rant about social media:
By means of this enchanted stone
I promise to transform you to a hostile asshole
or failing that a fake-nice nauseating cretin.
Laird’s addressing of issues around identity politics – in ‘The Politics of Feeling’, ‘Politics’, and ‘Privilege’ – feels much sharper, and more achieved. I can imagine some people raising an eyebrow at a poet engaging in this debate who is not only a middle-aged guy, but is also white, and is published by a press often regarded as being central to the ‘poetry establishment’. However, it’s worth remembering just where (and when) Laird was born. In ‘The Politics of Feeling’ the poet comments
[…] by the time this poem appears I expect I will be even
whiter. As you are no doubt aware the Irish only recently got to be white
In ‘Politics’, which directly references Laird’s upbringing in a pre-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland riven by sectarian conflict, he writes
[…] I know that every
evil act I ever saw committed
had at its core identity.
He goes on to describe the aftermath of the 1992 IRA bombing at Teebane, in which his friend Davy Harkness was killed, and where
[…] it had not
been possible to identify them all
and that’s one kind of irony, yes.
In ‘A General Introduction for my Work’ Yeats famously began by saying that “even when the poet seems most himself […] he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast”. Although I’m sure Laird would note that at least one or two women were writing poetry in 1937 alongside the men, I’m also pretty certain he’d agree with the main thrust of what Yeats is saying. The poet is always bringing a shaping, imaginative presence to their material; straightforward memoir isn’t, of itself, enough. The gift of the well-written poem is that “nature has grown intelligible, and by so doing a part of our creative power.” Although ‘Up Late’ emerged during the ten days his father was dying (in an interview in The Irish Times Laird says that “I stayed in London and, not fit for company, sat in my writing shed at the end of the garden and wrote through it”), it’s clearly a constructed poem, not a series of spontaneous journal entries.
There’s no shortage of beautifully crafted images, and moments of philosophical enquiry into the way that death impacts on our experience of time … But overall there’s an eschewing of any kind of lyric perfection in favour of a ragged-edged wholeness
But I think the reason Up Late has connected with me so strongly is the degree to which Laird, in this book, is willing to allow that “bundle of accident and incoherence” to be clearly present in the poems – in a manner that in some ways takes me back to MacNeice, in particular Autumn Journal. I’ve noticed that increasingly I’m more open to surrendering to a writer’s visionary moments when they’re also prepared to write themselves a little ugly, or foolish, or just plain error-prone in the way we can all be. A wonderful example of this is the book’s antepenultimate poem ‘Ode on the Adult SoulUrn’. ‘SoulUrns’ is the name of an actual company, whose brochure provides the footnotes to a poem that begins in farce:
It is only the usual universal deeply particular normal
sad ridiculous basic absurd. I didn’t check the size
before I ordered them
Laird is left kneeling in a bath, trying to decant his quarter-share of both his parents’ ashes from Tupperware containers into two urns the size of “Military shells. Slightly fascistic-looking”, while wondering how he’s going to get the urns a) to fit in his luggage, and b) through airport security. But then the poem shifts out of the comedic, and into the last days of his mother’s life, “when the pain became / really just unbearable”. Here a “lovely nurse” was able to offer a very different response to the one Laird himself was forced to make when confronted with that “enormous pain” in ’The Outing’. We’re told that Laird’s mother, encouraged by the nurse to imagine a peaceful place, chose a lavender field. What follows, with its blending of the lyrical and the conversational, is simply one of the most memorable and moving endings to a poem I’ve read in a long time:
and had she ever seen such a thing in real life,
some summer night driving up for the ferry through France,
[…] the dusk beginning, us children asleep
in the back and the green fields giving way to a sudden dark,
these lanes of lavender, waves of lavender shadow growing
darker in their blueness, into their blue darkness, layers
of darkness, I don’t know, and won’t now, and I lay there
in the empty bathtub thinking about that for a fair while
with the urns, heavy old things, hugging them to me.
Alan Buckley is the author of two pamphlets, Shiver and The Long Haul, and his first collection Touched (HappenStance Press) was published in 2020. He was a founding editor of ignitionpress, and has taught creative writing to young people with both Arvon and First Story. He also works as a psychotherapist.