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

Emily Grosholz, The Hudson Review Vol LXIV, No2, Summer 2011

Towards the end of A Casual Knack of Living: Collected Poems, after poems from A Useless Passion (which Ted Hughes admired) and The Vale of Todmorden (the small Yorkshire town in the Pennines where Herbert Lomas grew up in the 1920s and '30s, another lost world), Lomas organizes his recent poems under the general title Nightlights and subtitles Pastorals, Elegies, Epistles, and Satires. The pastorals and elegies of Nightlights form a natural bridge from some of the last poems about Todmorden. In Goodbye to the Vale, Lomas writes

A Lomas lived at Blackshaw Hall,
the Vale of Todmorden
in the twelve hundreds,
and we were driven out of the Vale
in the depression of '35.

And again in Cross Stone Church, he laments,

When mothers die and they bury them
on snowy mountainsides in black and white
Pennine mornings, after cold service
in millstone grit unheated churches

sons will often bide at gravesides
feeling the ligaments of flesh -
the other end of the cord
now underground ...

Lomas' pastorals are rather abstract and philosophical, but after all when Virgil wrote the Georgics he was reading Lucretius. In the second part of The Edge of Everything, Lomas writes,

It's only half a rainbow
ending in the sky,

its single foot in the ocean,
and firm-so firm

the horizon burns.
Who else but I can see it,

here and not here,
a covenant no more

solid than the bright light
of a dead star?

Many of the elegies insist on the presence of the dead, his wife Mary, or his friends, among them Ted Hughes and Alan Ross, that stubborn persistence of meaning which has passed by and is still passing like the river. In the last of the elegies he invokes Berkeley: One meets oneself and the dead / on street corners in foreign cities. // The world is my idea ... The last of the epistles asks, Am I just a passing phase of something / that once happened or perhaps didn't? And one of the satires, The Artist Seen as a Camel, begins, Only the wild camel of the Taklamakan can drink / the bitter salt water of the Gobi, which no / domestic camel, let alone man, will touch ... There we are, back in central Eurasia! But as the poet becomes more philosophical, we are led back from Zoroaster to Democritus to Lucretius to Berkeley to ... of all people, Buddha, Julian of Norwich, and Henry Miller.