(Faber, 2012); hbk. £12.99
In a Guardian Interview, Andrew Motion remarked, “Pretty much the day I stopped being laureate, the poems that had been few and far between came back to me, like birds in the evening nesting in a tree.’” Motion’s new work, The Customs House, is a challenging post-laureate collection, strongly underscored with a melancholy that brings together reflections on war, place and the passage of time.
The opening sequence, ”Laurels and Donkeys”, was first published as a pamphlet on Armistice Day 2010. The poems are superbly observant. In the most personal and metaphorical poem in this sequence, “Now Then”, Motion describes how when polishing his father’s boots his attention was“fixed on the long face looming in his toe-caps”.
Nevertheless, many of these poems read like lyric pieces of prose chivvied into line lengths and stanzas. It therefore comes as no surprise to find that these are “found” poems, often quoting directly from recorded personal experience and from journalism. This creates the effect that there is someone in the same room reciting the words to themselves while you, the reader, overhear a fragment.
This effect is most obvious in “An Equal Voice”, a series of short portraits of the psychiatric damage caused by war, that have been drawn from recounted experience. The accounts range from the description of the dropping bomb – “A soft siffle, high in the air like a distant lark,/ or the note of a penny whistle, faint and falling” – to the stark realities of maintaining the motivation of the troops – “Naturally it can save a good deal of time if men,/ before battle, have pictures from the Hate Room hung/ in their minds of things the enemy have already done”. Read back to back, these different perspectives build layer upon layer. The poems are calmly delivered, often understated, yet the combined effect is ultimately both terrifying and moving.
In the second part of this collection, the candid poems are full of subtle metaphor and quiet detail, as in the description of the song of the dipper –“…a flinty note/scraped against the softer sound/of everything that water does.” (“Of All the Birds”). They draw heavily on images from the natural world and are frequently poignant. In “Sunday”, an evocative poem remembering his mother, Motion describes the hot plate of the Aga, where he sat as a boy, with its top dented “like/ the form a hare leaves when it has slept/ in long grass, faint but unmistakeable.”
These poems are restrained, often short, but nevertheless focus on things happening. There is narrative and consequence: “I was filled with regret/ the moment/ I lifted that sparrow’s egg/ then emptied it” (“Gospel Stories”). But the tone is quiet, never taking a stance, neither in these nor in the earlier war sequence. The poet simply says, and does not judge. The result is a contemplative collection which gently sets out to observe and record human frailty and which is filled with humanity.