The Italian Visitor, Grey Gowrie, Carcanet, 112pp, £9.95 (paperback)

The title sequence of this collection is a clever and poignant conceit, arising from the fact that Gowrie in his childhood was more than once unconsciously) in the neighbourhood of Eugenio Montale during his time in Britain – more specifically in Scotland – in 1948. The poems look at postwar Britain with an ironic, not unfriendly eye, juxtaposing the sensuous and history-laden sensibility of a European poet with the ‘concentrated/rage to have fun’ prevailing around him at Eastbourne, or with the intense and minatory drabness of Scotland. ‘Ely 1948’, written in Montale’s ownnvoice, as a reworking or reimagining of his own donnée, ends with the powerful lines

All my life I have loved the sun

and the colour of honey. Now I long for the dark

to crouch and soar in; with you, my grave, my cathedral.

The de Havilland flying over the cathedral in the massive empty fenland sky becomes an index of our comfortableness with the ‘humming’ of mechanical mastery; but in such a world we ‘soar’ only in the dark, we find our longings must be reintroduced to obscurity and death, to unknowing.

The final piece in this sequence, ‘Metropolitan Christmas 1948’, is a finely executed, laconic and aphoristic evocation of London, the London seen by the ‘entranced’ Italian poet: it is one of the most accomplished pieces in the book, with something of Auden in the deadpan cataloguing of various facts or moments in the cultural atmosphere of the time, the throwaway generalizations and the muted theological metaphor at the very end.

Here as elsewhere, Gowrie is an eloquent celebrant of London and its byways, literal and symbolic. The ‘Kensington Vespers’ sequence,
particularly the poems on Francis Bacon in Reece Mews and the title poem of the sequence, are at once sharp and elegiac, the latter in particular
evoking the different kinds of crowdedness that jostle the awareness in the streets of Kensington, the physical flow of people and the flow of childhood images: ‘Worse days to go to ground’. There is a neat image (‘marine life, inverted’) for the descent of planes on Heathrow – presumably the steady descent of the jets seen as a mirror of the steady ascent of fish to the sea’s surface.

These two sequences are the best of the collection – wry and rich, with the same generally laconic voice, casually dropping vividly worked metaphors, often at long intervals, into a deceptively conversational continuum. Of the other components of the book, the opening elegy for Leonidas Goulandris (‘The Andrians’) is mostly strongly written, a lament for many things, not only a dead friend, for simpler virtues and  simpler conflicts, with the island, Andros, standing for something still uncertainly but discernibly conserved through the lifetimes of the ‘spoiled/children of Cold War’. As the uneasy, long-lived postwar standoff dissolves, the poet’s generation can look back to more costly conflicts to feel their way into a seriousness almost forgotten and look forward to an age in which starker times (‘the 21st- century/famine wars’) will come again. Clichés about the ‘Homeric’ register tempt the reader, but this is a poem deeply self-conscious about the way it stands at
a historical watershed, not a sentimental evocation of peasant simplicities.

The ‘Fado’ songs, based on Portuguese originals, are very successful transcriptions (though I wonder how far the uneven use of formal technique
is deliberate); I am not quite so sure about the version of Hugo’s Booz endormi, though it has many excellent passages. I think it may be attempting too much for comfort, with the feminist twist in the last but one stanza not quite fully earned in terms of how the rest of the poem has unfolded.

What remains, apart from a brief and moving memorial tribute to Robert Lowell (prose recollection followed by a poem), is occasional verse. Once again, the shade of Auden is somewhere around, especially in ‘Four Eight Two Thousand’; but a lot of this section is simply light verse, mostly skilful and nimble, sometimes rather laboured, and at worst (as the ample footnotes testify) no more than the banter of the group at the next table, an atmosphere of mutual compliments or mild score-settling. Fine as an exercise of skill or a bouquet for a friend, but I am not convinced that they add anything much to the book; and there is some danger that they will prompt some readers/critics to take the real voice of the poet less seriously than it deserves. For there is a deeply serious voice here, speaking for a heavily freighted cultural awareness, a shrewd eye for how easily we slip into the two-dimensional, a genuinely elegiac sensibility. Whether exploring postwar or contemporary London or Ireland or the Aegean, Gowrie writes with clarity and authority, and a sort of dry freshness that at its best is admirably invigorating.

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