When I first saw this book, with the ghost-like figures on its cover, and that slightly nervy title, I was inevitably reminded of Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?/ When I count, there are only you and I together./ But when I look ahead up the white road/ There is always another one walking beside you’. Anne Compton’s fine new book doesn’t contain Eliot’s febrile undermining of appearances, Compton’s world is far, far more domestic, but it does examine the fragility of what gives us comfort. And it carries out that examination with a meticulous attention.
The last time I reviewed Anne Compton in these pages, I mentioned the sense of ecriture feminine in her writing. In Compton’s case, this kind of address, the charge if you like, of the poem is present in almost all of her miraculous opening lines: ‘Even in this room, the unlived life’s a draft of ionized air’ ‘Steeple’; ‘The day of the linens in spring is a set-aside’ ‘Rope Handles’; ‘They are hungry when they arrive, a hunger wide and deep, no edge to it.’ ‘Bread’. In these lines, Compton picks a particular object or moment and establishes that it is both those things, both object and time. Thus, objects are stages in a process which Compton develops with a meticulous care. And, as noted, that process can be domestic, but it is a domesticity which is a striking combination of both the crystalline and the fragile.
What is fragile is the sense of available time, time with partners, with children, with the world itself. In the first poem in the book, ‘The Poet as Invalid’, Compton conflates a lover with something far more transcendent,
‘There’s sleep towards morning. The edges of it,
the short way back to everything he knows.
God’s breath is the mist in the garden at daybreak,
a deer moving through it.
That’s me talking. He believes in the deer.
He’d be the one to notice a man cupping a hand over a smoke;
a woman, freshening her lips in the café after lunch. No mirror.
So the fragility here is the loss of the partner who provides insight, who notices things that the writer possibly misses. This is the partner who adds another dimension, a kind of omniscience to the life of the writer, and it is clear that this dimension is under threat. Whereas the writer of the poem is ‘talking’ it is the man who does the ‘believing’, who sees, perhaps, the life in the deer.
The deer reoccurs in another of the best poems in the book, ‘The biographer addresses the railing’, which begins ‘This morning at eight, a doe in the garden stood quietly/ while I spoke to her from behind the verandah railing.’ This quiet moment of communion with the silent animal spurs the ‘biographer’ into a lyrical essay on the relationship between the way animals do without language and the way language, words, may end up, however innocently, falsifying the record. Compton’s great achievement is to create a poetry which both worries away at the world and reconstitutes it; for whom the world is not fragile so much as wondrous and delicate.