Simon Mundy’s fourth poetry collection, More for Helen of Troy, is, in many ways, a mixed bag. It ranges from vignettes of Helen of Troy in the opening ten-poem sequence to poems of landscape, personal incident and ideas. And it explores themes as varied as gender relations, war, ageing and ideals. Mundy brings a deftness and lightness of touch to many of his poems, suffusing the collection with poignancy and a yearning for times past. Yet, there is a disappointment about the collection too – not only Mundy’s palpable disappointment with “modern” life, but a certain disappointment, for this reader at least, in the variable quality of the poetry.
The Helen of Troy sequence sets up themes of beauty as casus belli, exploring also the tension between striving for ideals and dealing with the inevitable disappointment which follows. In “Deceptive Beauty”, Mundy likens Helen to peonies –
Her roots will be among the earliest
To sense the death of frost,
There are some lovely sounds and images but the poem also has its jarring moments – often when Mundy is too telling and when his descriptions are not sufficiently accurate:
In full June panoply she seems
Gaspingly beautiful, her white cheeks
Tinged with pink, her neck flecked
With clever hints of colour,
Although the internal rhyme and assonance of these lines are pleasing, the image of Helen’s flecked neck makes me think more of kitchen linoleum than a gaspingly beautiful woman. But then again, in “The Soldier’s Song”, the final line perfectly conveys, in just a few words, the soldier’s feelings:
..the years will leave her
Warm when I am mud.
Similarly, in “Menelaus Reports”, desire is beautifully described as,
….the slow joy of visiting
A half-remembered clearing in the woods
And finding wild strawberries
Growing there, beneath a fallen oak
Just as they always did.
The Helen of Troy sequence is a foil for later poems in which the contemporary, man-made world is presented as a shabby, second-rate source of disappointment in comparison to the classical age of gods and goddesses, and high ideals. In “Mermaid”, the mythical creature could,
Shed the tail, rejoice in legs and bush,
Bask on the warm sands of love
Before the mortal tides creep in
Across the disappointing strand.
No. Keep amphibious. Immortal
Beauty is worth a little weeping.
A key motif throughout the collection is ageing and there is a note of envy of the young and of youthfulness. In “Four”, Mundy opens with the rueful observation,
I’ve lost the key, no
It’s worse than that.
I’ve lost the lock.
The poems ends with the regret,
All I have
Is a list of what has been,
The feeling of missing
Fun, sport, import, point
Within mountains you can trace
That ancient ejaculation
On the knickers of the land.
Overall, there’s such variability in the quality of the collection that even within a single poem, there are successful and unsuccessful lines. In “Summergill”, a beautifully-observed poem of place, I found the phrase, “Major brook, non-commissioned river”, self-consciously and intrusively “clever”. Yet, the line above, “You are the perfect gill for summer” is a playful pun which works for me.