by Nigel Humphreys
by Nigel Humphreys
Arbor Vitae Press
Nigel Humphreys’ of moment is an extraordinarily difficult book to review. Usually with poetry one can lift a pithy stanza or two to demonstrate some point or other, but with this one, it’s the whole poem or the entire sequence that’s required. This is the thing with poetry: if it’s done properly, it can’t be segmented and diced – one can’t present an elegantly turned phrase on a plate and expect it to represent the whole. I’ve opened the book at random on page 27 and have just re-read ‘leaving the scene’, an astonishingly beautiful poem in which Humphreys leaves behind the humour and wry observation that is much in evidence elsewhere and gives us instead a hauntingly beautiful poem that brings tears to the eyes without the reader ever knowing precisely how this has happened. I don’t want to analyse the poetic ‘tricks’ that have produced this effect. I might in a poetry workshop, true, but in a workshop it’s unfinished; it’s not ‘it’ until it’s ‘it’ – but in this collection, it most assuredly is ‘it’. The time for analysis is over. This is the time to savour the final result.
I’ve heard this poet read, so I know what he sounds like, but even so, I don’t hear these poems in his voice. Not precisely. The voice in my head might start as Humphreys’ but it quickly morphs into pure Richard Burton, which is handy as there are plenty of Burton’s recordings of poetry around, so anyone can look him up to see how he sounded and use that as an aural template. Burton’s voice works particularly well in the extended sequence that is the ‘Aberystwyth Odyssey’ – this is Humphreys at his most keenly observational and earthy. If you don’t know the town, you will by the end. This is a drunken romp, the pub crawl to end all pub crawls, but as our guide is Nigel Humphreys, typically enough the whole thing is written in cywyddau – a traditional metered and rhyming form that dates from the fourteenth century, if not earlier. Humphreys’ great gift with these ancient forms is to forget about being obsequious and grave in the presence of history, but rather to re-create the bawdy style that quite likely was the mainstay of the form when it was first popularised, and in this sequence he succeeds with a vengeance.
I love the London underground – for me, it’s a womblike place, full of childhood memories. For Humphreys, it’s emphatically not. The first poem of ‘The London Suite’ – City underground – gives a shivery different perspective, that’s shocking in its forthright observation of what’s really going on. Or is it? This is the thing with Humphreys’ poems. He takes you to one side and says, ‘You think you know this? Think again,’ and gives you a completely oblique and unexpected perspective that’s totally convincing while you’re in the world of the poem. Afterwards, you might think, ‘Hang on a minute. It’s not really like that. Is it?’ but by then it’s too late. You’ll never see the underground in quite the same way again.
Humphreys haunts art galleries, as I do. I’ve even been round a few with him, but I haven’t stood next to him in front of the specific artworks that have inspired some of the ekphrastic poems in this collection – despite this, I find we’ve both written about the same artworks. There is Poussin’s exquisite ‘Dance to the Music of Time’, for example, that turns up in the third of the Sisyphus poems in this collection, and which I think has much the same effect on Humphreys as it does on me. I’ve written it into a novel rather than a poem, but this painting cries out to be written more than almost any I’ve ever seen, and I was with Humphreys all the way in this poem. This makes it all the more surprising that another work we have both written about, ‘How it is’ by Miroslav Balka, affected us in such entirely different ways. I found it transcendental. Humphreys found it... and here I’m at a loss for words. You’ll have to read this utterly bleak poem for yourself. I remember talking to Humphreys about this artwork when it was first displayed in Tate Modern, and being interested in how he had a completely different take on it. That was some years ago, but I think it’s one of the most powerful artworks Tate Modern ever displayed, and the memory remains strong – now that I read his poem, I can see what he saw. He uses stark economy to produce the most chilling poem in the collection. Again, while I’m reading the poem, I am completely convinced. No question. It’s only later, as I recover, as I move onto different things that I remember how I saw this work of art. My own reactions.
However, one must not forget that Humphreys is also the funniest and most erudite of men. His mischievous take on the opening of Paradise Lost (‘Paradise Repossessed’) is an absolute joy. Scathingly incisive, this is a poem for our times like no other. Quite what John Milton would have made of it, I have no idea. Let’s just say he would have admired the craft.
I’ve only touched on a very small number of poems in this magnificent collection. If I were to write about them all, this review would turn into an extended essay of thousands of words. You don’t want to read that – you want to read the collection. This one’s a keeper. Buy it.