James Aitchison

An Almost Dancer

An Almost Dancer, Robert Nye, Greenwich Exchange, pp. 58, £7.99.


A poem is truly mystical only when it encompasses physical and spiritual orders of reality in a vision that strikes the reader as a spontaneous account of experience. The creative imagination is fired with a gift of grace. Robert Nye has been writing mystical poems throughout his long career.

Nye achieves such visions in his new collection, An Almost Dancer, through the intensity of his gaze. His starting point in the poems, ‘Bicycling with Birds’, ‘Mentchikoffs’, ‘Drinking Hot Chocolate in the Rain’, ‘In Still Winter’ and in the title poem, is solid, physical reality. ‘Drinking Hot Chocolate in the Rain’ begins in a cardboard cup and then soars in pure exaltation:

There in the market by the coffee-stall
I saw the world turned inside-out. The rain
Flew upwards like so many crystal sparks
Returning to the glory of the sun.

The sensuous physicality of the cardboard cup, the vanilla pod and the falling, and rising, rain creates and resolves the great paradox: through the trance-like power of the creative imagination Nye transmutes the mundane to a spiritual experience and yet leaves the physical world intact.

‘Going On’ creates a similar poetic figure. A man carries a coffee pot and a cake along a crowded pavement near Notre Dame. As he walks his simple errand assumes the finality of a last supper and a pilgrimage ‘Towards a room all of his own.’

Three daring poems – the perfect four-line miniature, ‘The Ghost of Chatterton’, ‘Menocchio’s Crime’ and ‘The Lady with the Dog’ – move from pollution to purity. Chatterton’s ghost is detected by the poet’s sense of smell rather than sight: ‘A scent half smegma and half innocence.’ Nye may know that there was, and perhaps still is, an Aztec goddess of filth, Tlazolteotl, who devours excrement and purifies it. Purification rites appear throughout Nye’s work, from his juvenilia to ‘Menocchio’s Crime’ in this new collection. The crime is that Menocchio affirms God and the genealogy of angels through worms he finds in a piece of mouldy cheese: ‘Glory came forth as light from putrefaction!’ The real crime, Nye’s as well as Menocchio’s, is ‘that of any poet/Who dares think big in homely images’; and in a rare explicit statement of religious doctrine Nye concludes:

The only cure for this is still well-known:
To be made clean by purgatorial flame
So that you may be one with the eternal.

Nye is more concerned with mortality – his own and that of others – in An Almost Dancer than in previous collections. ‘Valentinus’, an elegy in rhyming triplets for the poet, critic and biographer, Martin Seymour-Smith, and ‘A Postcard from Crete’, an elegy for the author and literary agent, Giles Gordon, are written in a colloquial style that reads like conversations with the living dead.

When he considers his own mortality Nye writes without morbidity or alarm: death is wholly admissible, wholly natural. ‘Gone Now’ is a song in which the refrain and the simple physical act of a man and woman cutting grass become an original metaphor of flesh and grass. ‘Request’ is a little echo of Nye’s novel, The Late Mr. Shakespeare (soon to be republished) in which the narrator is the fictitious character, Pickleherring. He asks the way to Pickle Herring Street and says: ‘It’s where I lived/When I was happy years ago’ – the place, that is, of the creative imagination at work and at play. ‘Instructions for a Burial’ (first published in The London Magazine, October/November 2010) seemed, on a first reading, similar to R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Requiem’, but the similarity is in the subject matter only. Nye imagines his death more intimately. When he ends the poem with the near-repetition of the opening line, ‘Bury me in a rut on Clay Pit Hill’, he creates the dual effect of sinking back into the earth and recalling the event as if it had already happened.

There is humour, too, in An Almost Dancer. ‘Runes’, the longest poem in the collection, is a ballad of childhood and a delightful piece of serious play. The schoolboy’s faith in the little daily rules of magic and his compulsive, ritual enactment of the rules are the beginnings of his faith in poetry. ‘First Love’ combines a finely controlled pathos with small-boy silliness and innocence: the infatuated boy stands in the rain outside Muriel Lawson’s house until the girl tells him to go away because he is making her father ill. In ‘Matches’, the poem that opens the collection, Nye recalls his four year-old self staring at matchsticks in a patch of melting tar. He realises that even then ‘I stared at them and saw the way love sees’. Since that time he has been ‘Transfixed as always by simplicities’.

An Almost Dancer confirms Robert Nye’s standing as a complete practitioner of the literary illusions of simplicity and inevitability. Simplicity is the effect a poet achieves through his love of and respect for language; he achieves inevitability through the unity and intensity of his vision and through what can be called poetic intelligence. In ‘Valentinus’ Nye writes:

Not that it’s ever simple to make sense
At least when living in the present tense,
Or to be more than your intelligence.

No poet attains complete mastery of the art and craft – there is always a better poem to be written – but Robert Nye comes as close to completeness as any living English-language poet.


Robert Nye was born in London in 1939. He left school at the age of 16, at which time his first poems were published in The London Magazine. He lived for six years in a remote cottage in Wales, working on two collections of poems which won him a Gregory Award in 1963. An Arts Council bursary followed the publication of his third book of poems, Darker Ends (1969). He has prepared editions of other poets with whose work he feels an affinity: Sir Walter Ralegh, William Barnes and Laura Riding, and in 1976 he edited The Faber Book of Sonnets. His previous book from Greenwich Exchange, The Rain and the Glass: 99 Poems, New and Selected (2004), won the Cholmondeley Award in 2007.

James Aitchison was born in Stirlingshire in 1938 and educated at Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities. He went on to publish several collections of poems and the critical study, The Golden Harvester: the vision of Edwin Muir and received a Gregory Award for the poems that formed the basis of his first collection, Sounds Before Sleep (1971), while in 1992 he won the Canadian Writing Wilderness award for the long poem, ‘Canada’, which appeared in Brain Scans (1998), the publication that began an interrogation into the nature of the mind, which remained a major subject within his poetics, along with an increasing interest in conservation and technology, often expressed with an anger at mankind’s failure to look after the world.

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