William Palmer, The Water Steps (Rack Press, £9.95).
There is a corner of English poetry which is forever Georgian. It traces its roots back to Edward Thomas and tends to go there directly; it does not pass Larkin and has a nodding genuflection to Yeats, but it goes straight to Thomas. This means that it is often resolutely English, though without Hill’s fossicking in the long barrow of English civil conflict, and without Auden’s partiality for the mechanisms of geology or the industrial revolution. But that does not mean that it is pallid or etiolated. It gazes directly and without favour on the world it finds around it. One of its most important members, Nicholas Murray, is an accomplished satirist, whose A Dog’s Brexit was reviewed here recently. And Murray’s dog was not a quiet lap dog but, though pettable, was happy to bite the ankles of the Coalition and the May government. And that Englishness should not be confused with ‘little-Englandism’; Murray has also written sympathetically and empathetically of the refugees coming over the Mediterranean. But the poetics of the neo-Georgians tend to the short lyric, and English under-statement is often the watch word, although under that understatement is a reservoir of deep feeling and focused attention.
William Palmer’s The Water Steps, published by Murray’s Rack Press may be a representative of that grouping, but Palmer’s is a particularised and individual voice. In ‘The Exhumation of Lizzie Siddall,’ muse to another very British grouping, the Pre-Raphaelites, Siddall’s body is not the focus of the poem. Instead, it is ‘The book wrapped/ in her lovely hair [that] is mildewed,’ which is the focus of the ‘narrative’ of this sixteen line poem. When the body is exhumed, by some ‘miracle,/ she is quite unchanged.’ But it is this book, whose nature is never defined or described, which is the object of the exhumation, and which ‘the poet’s representative’ takes. Thus Palmer’s quiet lyric accretes a real sense of the uncanny, and the process of the exhumation, and the resealing of the coffin after the book is retrieved, achieves a striking, yet understated, horror.
Palmer is a master, if one is allowed to use that gendered word, of not only the uncanny but the sense that the world he writes about sits at a slight tangent to whatever we might call ‘normal.’ In ‘The Priest of Dreams,’ the priest ‘rises as the birds/ take shape and call,’ and when he reads it is ‘from the saints – all those/ uninnocent, other men/ – until the trees unshroud/ and stand about.’ Palmer’s achievement here is the deft, beguiling placement of a few words which just nudge the view out of kilter, ‘the birds take shape,’ ‘those uninnocent, other men’ and ‘the trees unshroud.’ There’s a quiet, technical mastery in the choices which gives Palmer’s ‘out-of-kilter’ a strength and reality which anchors these uncanny moments. Thus these small narratives both settle and reach out at the same time; there’s a feeling of trust engendered in these poems; we feel we can believe the text worlds Palmer describes.
Palmer is also a poet of deep empathies. In ‘Letter to my Daughter,’ he uses a line from Keats ‘The Eve of St Agnes,’ ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,’ to meditate on the love a father can and cannot give a daughter, culminating in the heart-breaking, ‘that what’s not given can never be returned,/ that words not given when they’re sought/ limp, tremble, rot into a frozen ground.’
This is a book of beautiful poems, each of which catches a different facet of the light and uses it to shine upon a different corner of a singular, and beautifully achieved world. It is a book to be noticed.