One of the first and simplest ways a reader gets his bearings when exploring the unfamiliar territory of a poet’s work is by learning to recognize the poet’s favorite subjects. Eventually, you move on to the subtler signatures of rhythm, imagery, and metaphor; but it’s only after you know, roughly speaking, what the poet writes about that you become confident enough to start examining how he writes about it. To say that Robert Frost is a poet of New England country life, or Elizabeth Bishop a poet of travel, is not to say very much about them, but it’s enough to start making their acquaintance—much as a person at a party might be introduced with “Mary is a lawyer” or “John is from Chicago.”
It follows that one of the most disconcerting things a poet can do is to appear to have no favorite subjects, no recurrent themes. Such a poet appears unplaceable; like someone who conceals his native accent, or stays deliberately vague about what he does for a living, he is a little disconcerting. What kind of a person refuses to resemble himself, after all, except a con-man or a sociopath? Such poets put us on guard, making us work unusually hard to figure them out, and it’s no coincidence that the modern poets who have a reputation for difficulty—from Robert Browning to Ezra Pound to Paul Muldoon—are all masters of the persona and the dramatic monologue.
Mick Imlah is one of those elusive, brilliantly unsettling poets. Open his new Selected Poems and you will find poems about mountain-climbing and the battle of Culloden, rugby and zoology, alcoholism and religious pilgrims. Among the speakers Imlah channels are an aborted fetus, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, a Cockney social climber, an eighty-three-year-old Scotchwoman at a bus stop, and the Edwardian politician Lord Rosebery. Even his own name, he writes in “Namely,” carries a jumble of paradoxical associations: “this mongrel and seeming-
Islamical m. imlah,/ the smith, j. of phonebooks from Fez to the Indian Ocean,” is not actually Arabic but Scottish.
Imlah’s anonymity is nearly complete in the United States, but he was a well-known and well-liked member of the British literary world, a longtime editor at the tls (where I worked with him on a number of articles, though we never met). When he died in 2009, at the age of just fifty-three, he was widely mourned by British writers. Imlah’s Selected Poems comes with a long, affectionate introduction/memoir by the Booker Prize–winning novelist Alan Hollinghurst, his former Oxford tutor, who describes Imlah’s love of sport, his fascination with Scottish literature and history, and his reticence about publishing his own work. In his lifetime, Imlah issued just two collections: Birthmarks,in 1988, and The Lost Leader, twenty years later. “For at least ten years before its publication,” Hollinghurst writes, “the second book was expected, its name was chosen, it was about to be sent to a publisher—on occasion was sent, and then retracted.” When it finally did appear, it was highly praised, winning the ForwardPrize.
Hollinghurst introduces the reader to Imlah the man, but getting to know Imlah the poet is more of a challenge. Like all poets who love masking, Imlah recognizes that it presents a wonderful stylistic challenge: if your face is disguised, your voice must be all the more distinctive to be recognizable. From Browning on, “persona” poets have cultivated extremely individual, even eccentric, styles, and Imlah carries on the tradition. His fastidious diction, his erudite references, and the elegant movement of his verse suggest a very literary writer, and Imlah is certainly that. But the power of his work, especially his early work, comes from the uncanniness of hearing that voice tell such weird and astonishing stories.
Take “Abortion,” in which the title does not seem to match the poem it introduces. It starts out as the tale of a ship’s passenger who wakes up with a hangover: “Uncurled at noon,/ As dry as a Dead Sea Scroll,/ I rose and wobbled/ Blank about the cabin like a reclaimed monster/ Learning to eat.” Suddenly the ship begins to rock violently, and a menacing noise is heard—“Like something familiar mistaken, becoming/ As I struggled to call it a pump or the cistern/ Neither, nothing else, and very loud.” The payoff, as in a horror story by Poe, comes at the very end:
I passed clean out
And was lucky to survive; the boat
Melted in blood, but I stiffened safely,
A rabbit’s foot, gristly
In someone’s cabinet.
Now the title becomes clear, and we understand that the rabbit’s foot is a preserved fetus in a jar; the pumping noise came from the hose used during the abortion procedure; and the passenger was really an unborn child, afloat in the ocean of the womb. The metaphor is so baroque, and so internally incoherent, as to become grotesque—and it shocks us into seeing the subject in an unforgettable fashion.
In Birthmarks, Imlah relishes these kinds of surreal disjunctions; he obviously enjoys making the reader’s skin creep. In “The Zoologist’s Bath,” a Victorian scientist—fictional, though Imlah prefaces the poem with a fake biographical note from a fake scholarly book—propounds a theory that human beings are evolving back into fish, and in the bathtub, he apparently grows a fin himself. In the sequence “Mountains,” Imlah offers a prose poem about a polar explorer who realizes that the ice he has been walking on is full of “beaks . . . it became unpleasantly clear that we had been climbing in the mist on a sort of frosted mud made of penguins, for miles and miles.”
The best of the early poems are those in which a startling, creepy image is made to serve some larger metaphorical purpose. That is what happens in the first poem in Selected Poems,“Tusking,” in which Imlah briskly and elliptically describes a hunting expedition by English schoolboys who saw the tusks off of sleeping elephants. Exactly what is going on in the poem is hard to figure out—confusingly, the “foolish boys” themselves are described as “Harrow Elephants,” after the English public school—and Imlah’s tone at first sounds half scolding, half amused: “The English elephant/ Never lies!” But the second half of the poem concentrates on the piteous image of elephant corpses:
Out in the bush
Is silence now:
Have islands now,
With fly-blown faces
In this way, the poem resolves into a little allegory about imperialism and its lingering cost. What might seem sentimental or familiarly polemical, if stated directly, becomes newly powerful when Imlah tells it slant.
The strangeness of Imlah’s second book, The Lost Leader, is less stark and willful. But it is in some ways even more formidable for an American reader because it is so densely and playfully allusive, saturated in British and especially Scottish culture and history. There is a long sequence of poems about important Scottish figures, including the medieval theologian and alchemist Michael Scot, Robert the Bruce, and Sir Walter Scott. (The series seems to culminate in “Gordon Brown,” but this is a characteristic Imlah joke: the subject of the poem is not the Scottish-born Prime Minister, but a rugby player of the same name, known as “the Ayrshire Bull.”)
The terse World War I elegy “London Scottish” is a good example of Imlah’s method. The title counts on the reader knowing (or discovering on the internet, as I did) that it is the name of both a football club and an army regiment. When Imlah writes that sixty players for the club “volunteered for the touring squad” in 1914, he means that they enlisted to fight in France. There, the poem tells us, “three-quarters died,” and the survivors “sometimes drank to ‘The Forty-Five’:/ Neither a humorous nor an idle toast.” Here the toast refers to the forty-five players killed in combat, but it is also the way Jacobites—supporters of the Stuart dynasty—referred to the Rebellion of 1745, which ended when the Scottish supporters of the Young Pretender, Charles Stuart, were routed at Culloden.
In this way, Imlah draws an indirect but thematically crucial link between two wars and calls them both into question. That questioning becomes explicit in the book’s title poem, which turns directly to “the ’45” and the role of the Scots’ “lost leader,” Bonnie Prince Charlie. (Typically of Imlah, it’s impossible to capture the title’s full flavor without recognizing that it alludes to Browning’s famous poem of the same name, which denounced the political betrayal of Wordsworth.) With the Battle of Culloden lost, Imlah writes, the prince told his followers “Let each seek his own safety/ The best way he can,” before escaping “To France at last, your safety,/ Prince, Your Highness,/ Your brandy, gout and syphilis.” The leader is not worthy of his country’s devotion, much as the British generals in World War I were not worthy of their troops’ sacrifices. Yet Imlah finishes “The Lost Leader” by declaring, “The cause was light,/ A flower worn in the heart . . . / And all we did was sweetened by it.”
This kind of patriotism, loyal not to Scotland’s official heroes but to its people and their capacity for self-sacrifice, is at the heart of the book. The first poem in the Scottish-history sequence, “Muck,” depicts Saint Kevin, the sixth-century Irish monk, leading his followers on an expedition to the island of Mull. But this leader literally gets lost, ending up on Muck, which is as unpromising as its name suggests: “a/ black upturned platter of rock, stained/ with sea-lichen and scummy pools/ of barge flies and crab water.” In “Braveheart,” Imlah narrates in heroic couplets the less-than-heroic attempt of Robert the Bruce’s followers to bury his heart in the Holy Land. They get as far as Spain before being ambushed by Moors, and the heart ends up stomped “into mince.”
Still, Imlah shows, that’s not the end of the story—even after this ill-treatment, Bruce’s heart keeps going, “trailing his pipes,” and it is buried today in Melrose Abbey. This kind of endurance, this taciturn resilience in the face of defeat, seems to be Imlah’s ideal of Scottishness. The most genuinely heroic figure we meet in The Lost Leader is the abandoned sailor in “Maroon,” a “man of Fife” who refuses to “dwell . . . on the rights and wrongs of his own case,” but gets to work making himself at home on his deserted island:
and since he is unquestionably marooned—
four hundred to the west of Valpareez—
he might as well settle to whittle the staves
of his new place: a basic shelter first,
until in time a house of logs should crown
all these unlikely acres.
The poems of The Lost Leader are definitely more bookish than those of Birthmarks, and sometimes Imlah mixes the roles of poet and critic. Long poems on Walter Scott and James Thomson, while brimming with affection and biographical detail, are at a lower temperature than his more original work. But “Gray’s Elegy,” one of Imlah’s most slyly moving poems, puts literary history to an almost confessional purpose. It’s always dangerous, with Imlah, to take any story as autobiographical, but the poem at least professes to be a memory of one of the poet’s schoolmasters, a distracted and ineffective figure.
When the class asks him about the meaning of the title Far from the Madding Crowd, he replies, “the man you’d have to ask/ Is Thomas Gray,” and it says something about his lack of authority that “the sharper boys” all assume he has made a mistake—“You mean, Thomas Hardy.” But as the teacher explains, Hardy took the title of his novel from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” He “brightens briefly” at the prospect of having the class read the poem, but it turns out that “there were no Grays left in the stock room,/ So we talked about Hardy’s wives till the bell went.”
To appreciate what Imlah is up to in this skillfully compressed character-study, the reader has to be better acquainted with Gray than the schoolboys are and remember the elegy’s concern with the forgotten and the obscure: “Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault/ If Memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise.” Imlah’s “Gray’s Elegy” is just such a trophy over a forgotten man. The school-bell that dismisses the class and sends the teacher back to the shades of oblivion echoes the church-bell with which the Elegy opens: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.” Here, as in all of Imlah’s best work, subtlety is allied to sentiment, and the pleasure of figuring things out gives way to the deeper pleasure of serious feeling.
Selected Poems, by Mick Imlah; Faber and Faber, 176 pages, £12.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 8, on page 9
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