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Review: A Casual Knack of Living: Collected Poems, by Herbert Lomas

Bertie Lomas's handsome Collected Poems is a formidable volume. There is something strangely moving as it travels serenely from collection to collection, poem to poem. In the surprisingly short A Word, by way of introduction, Lomas quotes Tennyson approvingly: men may rise on stepping stones / of their dead selves. He doesn't share with us, however, whether he succumbed to the potential madness of attempting to bring poems written years before up to date. Was there tinkering? If he was embarrassed by his cockier, younger selves - to paraphrase Peter Porter - he doesn't act the prig to them. Either way, the harvest, or at least the majority of the harvest, is in, and the book weighs heavy in the hand.

It moves in a sort of cyclical motion, starting out with the poem Chimpanzees are Blameless Creatures, in 1969, and ending, forty-one years later - though there's a sense that only five minutes might have elapsed - with The Skin is Greater than the Banana. Tonally and existentially, these two expansive titles and the poems that accrete to them seem to have much in common with one another. To put it another way, the book starts out with one of our principal evolutionary relatives and ends with what they are fed.

What's most impressive about Lomas's oeuvre, seen in one grasp, is the alacrity with which his former selves animate themselves on the page. The Tennysonian stepping stones are well demarcated. Here is the young post-Georgian in 1969, subverting the love-lyric, from True Love:

In the dark scented air
of coal dust and cat piss
two infant lovers stare
and shyly kiss.

Here is his rather less gauche successor, some twelve years later, showing younger and older poets alike what it takes to obviate the potential euphonic death-rattle of a villanelle, with some dynamism, in Retreat to the Sheets, from Public Footpath:

My cat approves of these long slow afternoons -
A day in bed, a headache, grey outside.
These days in bed are always opportune.

Despair's close by - and who can be immune?
You need new time, to brew unoccupied,
Which makes my cat enjoy these afternoons.

And here he is, some sixty or more years later, from the unpublished sequence Nightlights, seven years into the new millennium, still retaining all the old mischief; final proof the essential twinkle of his first collection in 1969
is still twinkling:

A turd
is neither obscene nor absurd.
A turd
is a divine invention,
like a bird

These extracts of a man's evolution first come together as scraps of footage in the mind. No one would expect them to cohere into an ordered poetic consciousness. Thought and emotional intelligence rarely develop in a straight line. The extracts sharpen and blur, move on. They offer up, instead, the fragments of which the consciousness is comprised - the bits and pieces, the consistencies and contradictions which glue together to make Lomas the man and poet he is. Once I'd closed the book I was left with the likeness of an Arcimboldo portrait - a man carrying in his countenance all he had ever been, ever would be. This is a haunting book. Its principle strengths are diversity, movement, the intensity of world-wonder. Reinforcing Larkin's dictum that we have no choice about the poetry we write, however much Lomas's poetry changes, it somehow remains the same; however much it remains the same, it changes.