O rococo clock
Wing, Matthew Francis, Faber & Faber, 80pp, £14.99 (hardback)
No sooner than I started reading Wing, Matthew Francis’s latest collection of nature poems, did I want to read it out loud to the nearest person who would listen. ‘Longhouse Autumn’, the first, is a pungent broth of imagery, stuffed with suety metaphors: a remote Welsh beach is covered with ‘pick-and-mix shingle’, stippled with the ‘semolina and jam’ of pigeon droppings, concealing a ‘leathery mummified dogfish.’ Francis’s poetry has always explored the natural world with a sense of awe, but the range and acuity of his observation, present in previous collections such as Blizzard and Muscovy, is more concentrated here. It is so concentrated, in fact, that it threatens to overpower.
With its description of an ‘anthracite harvest’ of blackberries and ‘flotation-pods of seaweed’, the opening poem introduces us to Francis’s scientific nerdiness — his microscopic interest in technical jargon, which is consistent in his language. In less capable hands, this has the potential to bog poems down, but Francis’s joy is infectious: he finds beauty in their Latinate sounds. He is a little too fond of words such as ‘cumulus’; but when the imagery is as evocative as ‘a fluff cumulus like the beard on old jam’, who can protest?
The scientific lingo contributes to the poems’ wonder at the natural world. It encourages us to look afresh at how life has evolved to be so astonishingly specialised that it requires such complex taxonomy: the ‘chitin stylus’ of an earwig, for example, or how the ‘fibres that lock the mesh’ of a bird’s feather are mostly air, ‘crammed with a white pith of bubbles’. Francis’s scientific interest culminates in the second of the book’s three parts, which imagines the great seventeenth-century natural philosopher Robert Hooke at work: peering through his microscope; studying and drawing; formulating his thoughts at the chamber-pot (quite literally a ‘stream of consciousness’); watching a louse sucking blood from his finger; dunking an ant in brandy. As Hooke would have recognised, a sense of wonder at the natural world is shared by the best scientists and poets alike.
Wonder has a dark edge, however. Just as Blizzard, Francis’s second collection, wrestled with existential terror, death is never far away in Wing. The lives of the creatures under Hooke’s microscope are snuffed out, and ‘Freefall’ breathtakingly reimagines the death of Francis’s friend who was killed in a parachute accident; the soft fields below transforming into ‘a hurtling bludgeon’. Elsewhere, ‘A Charm for Earwigs’ unsettles us for more playful purposes — its trochaic metre, favoured also by the witches in Macbeth, resembles an occult incantation, summoning the insect in the dead of night:
no-one heard you as you clambered
up the nursery slopes of pillow…
‘Earwigging’ is slang for eavesdropping. Like Hooke, Francis frequently seems like a silent observer of nature’s clandestine conversations, as his narrators scribble away at windowsills and in front of the microscope. Acts of reading and writing (and our distracted struggles to do so) are woven throughout the collection. Circling the air, a tern is described as ‘an absent-minded reader / whose eyes keep sliding to the end of the paragraph / and back again’. Through its diverting movement the bird realises the pun in its name, while the poet shuttles us across the page in zigzag lines. There is even an ode to the typewriter, harking back to the era of ‘the angelus ting that marked the end of a line / the slap of the silver lever that jerked time forward’. What have we lost, Francis muses, by moving to a less tactile, involved way of writing, without Tipp-Ex and ‘ribbonsmudge’?
Francis is clearly interested in the dialogue of reading, in the conversation between poets, past and present. He writes one poem after his fellow Welshman Dafydd ap Gwilym; a mélange of haikus in the manner of Bashō; and even a list of ‘Elixirs’ like the Old English Lacnunga. All of these tributes engage with an older, more mysterious world of leechdoms and wortcunning, where writers were both closer to nature and farther away from it, without our modern scientific vocabulary.
‘Monomoon’ is perhaps the most self-consciously poetic of the collection: riffing on that most time-honoured of subjects, the moon, by only using words containing poetry’s favourite and most abused letter:
crown of fool’s gold,
stook of corn…
crock of frost,
brow of horn,
Inevitably, some of these images work better than others, but the limitation also brings forth a delightful ingenuity. One of my fondest memories from my first year at university was hearing the late Geoffrey Hill hold forth on the difference between the ‘vocative O’ and the ‘oratorical O’, both of which are here: that second capital ‘O’ is an interjection as much as it is a form of address, a sort of swooning exclamation of delight. When a poet sets out to write a poem about the moon, or indeed any aspect of nature, Francis seems to ask, do they not also set out to write a poem about every other poem that has been written on that subject, either consciously or unconsciously?
I suspect Wing will chime especially well in our current situation. For those lucky enough to be quarantined near it, nature has been a great comfort. For those unable to stroll down the beaches of Wales, Francis’s writing is the next best thing to being there: so vivid and joyous, it may just reproduce some of that calming effect. As with the Bonfire Night poem ‘Devil Among the Tailors’, his images have taken on an unexpected resonance: ‘We’ll meet at arm’s length, lighting one sparkler from another / in a metal kiss.’
Words by James Riding.
For more information and to buy Wing by Matthew Francis, visit Faber’s website.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.