Intellectually vigorous, witty, touching and humane
DM Black is a Scottish poet, much published in the 1960s and 70s, who was in Penguin's Modern Poets series (alongside Peter Redgrove and DM Thomas). This is his first collection for 20 years and is written in a spirit of inquiry. What makes his poems unusually attractive is their clarity: you never have the sense - as sometimes you do with modern poetry - of any solipsistic disdain towards the reader. These poems are intellectually vigorous, witty, touching and humane.
The collection begins with Kew Gardens, an imagined conversation with Black's late father, a scientist. This questing poem is at once a loving tribute and a reflection on a difference of opinion, a bid for the idea that there must be more to the world than science, and his father, allow:
But I want to sing an excess which is not so simply explainable,
To say that the beauty of the autumn is a redundant beauty,
That the sky had no need to be this particular shade of blue...
It is more than a nod in beauty's direction; it is, in its modest way, a defence of poetry itself. And yet there is a puzzle about DM Black's writing. It can seem almost wilfully prosaic. Occasionally, the choice of words is stuffy, over-formal or peculiarly biblical (using the verb beget). Yet its earthed intelligence renders such objections trifling. He is especially brilliant on the collapsible scale of things - as able to think about lowly creatures as lofty spiritual questions. He describes in For and against the Environment an ant rushing at immense speed over the
lifeless plains of the rose-bed/Which are not plains to her but ridged and crested with salts and terrible canyons, and is then stopped short by the sense that his own thinking may be no more than a blind lobe on the body of the great creature of Evolution.
His poems are meditations characterised by wit. There is a charming poem concerning the fate of a bumblebee:
But I invited him to step onto a compliments slip from the British Journal of Psychiatry
and languidly, like a child with flu, he consented - one leg, two...
It is easier to contemplate the bumblebee's assured trajectory than to take on, as he also does, the subject of the Iraq war. In Reflections on the eve of the Iraq war, he concludes:
Perhaps there is nothing good but conversation with what we love. It is an awkward line partly because, once again, of scale - there is only so much an individual can do.
DM Black sees it as his duty to be clear about complex, subtle, painful things: in I allot the honours in the Second World War, for instance, he explains the toll war took on the domestic front when his father returned from fighting. The collection covers a huge range of subjects: childhood, mortality and love. Only one poem refuses to give up its secrets and it is, against the odds, a beauty. Some People Just Aren't Reliable is a tightly written, enigmatic piece describing a separation and a landscape stunned by doubt. I also particularly enjoyed the compendious The Colour Yellow (although he does not mention that yellow is thought to help depressives), a brave poem about sexual desire (The Sunlit Surfaces) and a terrifically entertaining poem in praise of Birmingham.
DM Black, as has already been mentioned, praises creatures great and small. And his penultimate poem made me weep: Pippin remembers a family dog with the touching respect that distinguishes the entire collection.
Some People Just Aren't Reliable
Now they were nowhere to be seen. The day
Became oppressive. Trees reached silently
Against the light-filled, unapproachable sky.
The glossy pool lay shtum, and would not play.
What had come over the sun he could not judge.
The petunias' puce had never seemed so hot.
A fly whined its unique and languid note.
Time which speeds by stood fast and would not budge.
Then they came back. They were subdued and kind,
As if to assure him he was in their mind
In that weird interval when the world was static.
And time started again. Trees became normal,
Flies buzzed as usual. But they still seemed formal -
Almost, he thought, they seemed apologetic.