Mortality is, of course, a regular concern of poets. How much more pressing might be the need to explore our relationship with death if the poet were born Jewish in 1942? How much weightier yet might that feeling be were he to have sprung from “a long line of rabbis”, and his father, by his own account, a most critical one? Judaic tradition alone, gives such gravity to her sons “When generation lose generations,/ as much as I” (“The Site of Love”). That is not to say that this is a collection drawn from the Holocaust, or any formally recognisable, collective Jewish experience. It is, however, deeply inked with grief and loss.
“Risk of Skin” is named to honour the organ we most expose to the world, and “language is the skin of poetry”. Hence the risk. The very cover image (Botticelli’s illustration to Dante’s Purgatorio) has something of the look of tattooed skin in its lines and colour, “enter on the instant/ my ready broken skin/of many colours” (“The Site of Love”). If death is here, in its many forms, and particularly the death of fathers, (both real and acquired father-figures) and the resultant grief of sons, from that illustration onwards it is not hard to perceive the presence of a phoenix: “as the bird heaves its wings/into a sense of its propitious time/and lifts its burning eyes/ from its own ashes” (“Risk of Skin”).
Certainly, Pollard’s heritage is strong in “Scroll of Darkness”, and particularly, in the two Kaddish poems in the second, elegiac sequence. There are layers of classicism and Shakespeare, as is perhaps to be expected. His dedication is to Simon Jenner, his “sine qua non”, clear influence and perhaps mentor. What is more surprising is that so many of the poems are dense in New Testament imagery, “little resurrections/snagged from something huge”. This is not the document of a conversion, although he references doubting Thomas. There is a sense of post-Jewishness, and a strong line drawn under all those clerical generations, by a poet who has enjoyed many careers, and none tied to the synagogue.
Section II crosses barriers, listening to music, Schubert in particular. This crossing is there throughout, with the wonderfully unexpected, “across the prism of the wind/chameleon sight”. In the visual arts, Pollard responds to that most Prometheus-bound of souls – showing harrowing empathy in “Michelangelo’s Captives” for the entombed slaves, and more, surveying the master’s last work, designed for his own tomb: “the soul’s tectonic closing/into the death of God” (“Michelangelo’s Pieta”) Yet, again, in the midst of this grief, and in the face of finality, there is the sudden gulf of hope. The poet, unlike the sculptor, has not despaired; he has not destroyed his creation.
If blood surges through this collection, the final sequence is uplifting. Fittingly, it is a series of epistles to people long dead; but it is not as grim as that may suggest. There are strong rhythmic echoes of the natural world, Keatsean influences throughout the poems and Pollard has indeed spent considerable time researching the poet, in a way that he acknowledges as “obsessive”. These final works are rich; written to members of Keats’ circle, with the flesh-and-blood easy warmth of the familiar, the intimate – a rewarding end to a difficult and beautiful collection. I have only grazed the collection’s surface in this review; any one of these poems merit the attention of at least six hundred words.