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

A CASUAL KNACK OF LIVING, COLLECTED POEMS, by Herbert Lomas is a doorstopping 427 pages consisting of all nine of his published books, plus some previously unpublished work. It is interesting to read that this distinguished poet goes far enough back to have been encouraged by both W.H. Auden and Robert Graves. Lomas uses rhyme and also free verse. Many of the poems have a light, almost facetious surface, often leading up to something darker:

Now here's a cosy photo:
two seekers who look like fun -
both of them holding roses
and with curious costume on.
one is a mystical lama,
the other a lunatic don...

ending, cryptically,

But something's gone right with the lama
and something's gone wrong with the don.

from 24, Letters in the Dark) from 1986

Many of the poems are religious, with erudite references. While the lama is Eastern, the core religious theme is Christian. There is a playful poem, 22 of the same section,

St. Cuthbert's hopping
cassock on the shore -
at two ravens rooting with their beaks
in the thatch he's heaved in the North Wind's roar.

There follows dialogue between ravens, St. Herbert and St. Cuthbert. A particularly
moving poem in this vein is 1.

I lay awake writing letters to you
in the dark
so I got up, felt alone,
and put on the light. I need someone.
There's a kind of intimacy that's closer than the bone...

He goes on to say

In the purgatory of the small hours the person
God might have first imagined stirs on the rock,
pushes the vulture from his liver and begins to turn
his anguish into intimate words...

The style is almost chatty at times, morphing into a profound observation:

The dead are somehow refined, or are being refined.
When they answer back it's in disembodied voices...

This is satisfying poetry that embraces many themes. A strong emphasis is relationships between people and, more firmly, observations as if between the poet, other individuals and more complex phenomena connected with mental processes.

She can read me: her senses are quicker
than ours, and she corkscrews at my applause -
which is entirely in my head...

He considers a range of horrors in the name of sacrifice in 20:

So here's the alarming silly tale again:
our father Abraham's call to murder a son -
hearing a voice near a Bradford grave
advising the Ripper to dekink casual love
with hammer, axe and sharpened tool;
gouge and bash those girls just out of school...

He concludes,

Yet Abraham's caught by the horn: the mind can lie...
We Israelites, the wandering heirs
of a bewildered dervish, are taught distrust in prayer.