Review: John Lucas' 'The Long and the Short of It' (Redbeck Press, UK - 2004)

If for no other reason, those of us who do not read Greek should be grateful for this book because it allows us access to the poem "Deathfeast" by Takis Sinopoulos. Lucas’s translation/adaptation, with which The Long and the Short of It concludes, is as magnificently moving as an Angelopoulos film, a 20th century Homer in five pages, lamentation and celebration both, poetry wrung from a war which was fought (and in some sense is still being fought) over causes much more significant than those which led to Troy. Not being able to read the original, I cannot say whether it is Sinopoulos or Lucas who deserves the more praise, only that reading the poem is an unforgettable experience.

Lucas’s own poems in this collection are presented in two sections, the first of which springs from family and includes an elegy for the poet’s mother which manages to be both relaxed and passionate, as well as poems for his wife, children and baby granddaughter. This is no mere cosy domesticity; there are universal themes evoked and poetically explored through the particulars of family life and of specific occasions.

It is in the second section that Lucas’s attitudes towards the wider world infuse poems with a fiercely felt, intelligently applied and satisfyingly integrated humanism, a mordant disdain of pretence, a hatred of exploitation and violence, and an empathy with the downtrodden, especially those who fight back. These latter range from the witty schoolboy rebel in "The Death of the Hat" to Wilfred Page, to whose memory "Beyond the Headlines" is dedicated:

"Wilfred, that plain good man, whose each last act
tells us that decency survives intact."

"Four Reports from the Front", one of my favourite poems in this section, looks at the phenomenon of war from four amazingly diverse viewpoints, none of which perhaps has the Homeric breadth or the plangent intensity of "Deathfeast", but the first three of which, using as starting points respectively the First and Second World Wars and the current conflict in Iraq, work brilliantly while being totally unlike any other war or anti-war poems ever written. The fourth, "Bird’s Eye View", is on one level a comment on the keeping of "companion animals", but the reader is left in no doubt that cats and dogs are not the only beings referred to in the final couplet:

"Good people, have you lost your wits?
If not, why favour Thugs and Shits!"

On the subject of "Thugs and Shits", the third section, "Comic Relief", lists "Bush. Blair. Rumsfeld. Straw." as the equivalent of the Inverness Castle porter’s interlude: a drunken knock-knock joke turned to black satire; the "relief" from TV footage of wasted cities is in the buffoon utterances of those who ordered them laid waste. I have already used more words than Lucas and not mentioned anywhere near all that this short piece contains. One of his many virtues as a poet is his pithiness.

The Long and the Short of It, as might be gathered from the snippets quoted above, has a lot of rhymed poems. Lucas, in fact, in "An Impromptu Fit of Rhyme about Rhyme", gives a quasi-jocular apologia for a formally traditional approach to verse. He sits firmly within that strain which includes Starbuck, Harrison and Wearne, and in which — in contradistinction to, say, Winters, Larkin and McAuley of an earlier generation — an apparently conservative approach to prosody and an enthusiasm for exploring and using its rules by no means equate to a reactionary politics. The devil, as Rowland Hill knew, doesn’t have to have all the good tunes. There is, however, more problematically, the villanelle, "Return to Merrymount", which brings together the form’s tight strictures and the idea of the beneficence of social order. Lucas is no anarchist. This poem is perhaps more usefully read as a cry of despair (albeit couched in the accents of innocent delight) for humanity’s inability to cope with freedom — the dilemma of the institutionalised on release. Or you could read it as just a bit of fun.

A bit of fun certainly is to be had with "Yours Sincerely", which will ring very loud, clear bells for any writer who has been guest speaker at a "literary group", and with the delightfully satirical social comment of "Thorn’s Work-Out Week" and "Randyloins and Murdoch". In the light of the ongoing (if currently somewhat muted) debate about a republic, Australian readers will enjoy (or enjoy being offended by) "Towards the Via Republica". We sometimes forget that republicanism is not only an issue here in the monarch’s more far-flung domains. This poem reminds us that there are plenty of Poms (and even more Scots) who would love to throw off the anachronistic shackles of of the inbred Saxe-Coburg-Gotha clan, even if they don’t all express the sentiment as wittily or with as much personal emotional relevance as Lucas does. What is more, the poem is based on three separate incidents that took place over half a century ago, at a time when we antipodean grovellers were almost unanimous in our parroting of Menzies and our lapping up of tid-bits fed to us via the glossy magazines by the cynical spin merchants in the Windsors’ employ.

This collection is a veritable tour-de-force. Coming only a couple of years after Lucas’s highly acclaimed A World Perhaps: New and Selected Poems, it is far, far from being anticlimactic. If you read only one book of poetry published in the UK in 2004, it must be this one. And that is the long and the short of it.

Other reviews by Tim Thorne

ALVAREZ, Ivy (edited): A Slice of Cherry Pie
ALVAREZ, Ivy (edited): We Don't Stop Here
BENNETT, Stefanie: Symphony for Heart and Stone
KNIGHT, Karen, MATHISON, Robyn, KNIGHT, Norma, REEVES, Lyn, WINFIELD, Liz: Republican Dreaming
LOMER, Kathryn. Extraction of Arrows
MANSELL, Chris: Mortification & Lies
MINTER, Peter: Blue Grass
RIETH, Homer: The Dinng Car Scene
SIMPSON, Matt: In Deep
WEARNE, Alan: Kicking in Danger

Poems from Tim Thorne's 'The Unspeak Poems and other verses

Advice to an Emerging Poet
Clancy of the Cultural Studies Department
The Pentecostal Chillout

Other poems by Tim Thorne

Jonathan Burke McHugo Comes to Town
When in California
Bronte Country

An interview with Tim Thorne

A conversation with Tim Thorne (2007)

Reviews of Tim Thorne's poetry

Taking Queen Victoria to Inveresk (1997)
Best Bitter (2003)
I Con (2009)