Matt Simpson’s latest book shows that he still has one of the surest touches of any poet in English. The fact that its second half, "November Song" is what he calls "an uncompleted sequence" of love poems would raise in any reader with experience of his work expectations that a rare treat was in store. These expectations are well and truly met.
One does not have to wait for the volume’s second half, however. The first section contains a range of poems, from the light (but perfectly deft) "A Package to the Wrong Address" to the wonderful "The Day We Saw Dolphins", each of which makes a satisfying read. The latter is a resounding paean to friendship, a ringing celebration which works because it totally avoids the sentimental, and because, as is the case in every one of Simpson’s poems, the language is spare, clear, unpadded, yet precisely of the strength needed to carry the poem’s weight.
What I have always admired in Simpson’s work is his utter lack of pretension, his ability to carry not only his knowledge but his passions lightly. A poem such as "Stops Along the Way", constructed as it is along a rail journey, invites comparisons with Larkin, but is at the same time more intensely personal and more compellingly public in its concerns. Unlike, say, "The Whitsun Weddings" with its condescension towards the poet’s working class fellow passengers, this poem savours the "bonhomie" in the carriage, shares unselfconsciously in the delight at countryside, the nostalgia for "hedgerows, lanes, and timbered pubs", but within the context of a sense of history that is grimmer. The poem begins, "The first day of the second Iraq war…" and there are references to the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger, the bombs of World War II and the decay of the docklands. Even the elderly ramblers are "off to invade the country…" The train trip is paralleled by an autobiographical account of the stops, in which Simpson’s background is set out, and its destination is where he will listen to music with a friend. The music, revealed in the poem’s final line, is Holst’s "Mars/ the relentless Bringer of War, Venus the benighted Bringer of Peace." Thus the circle is closed; not just a day’s outing but a whole world is circumscribed by the evil of our times.
Less grim, but just as well balanced, are the poems in this section which take music as their starting point. Whether it is Julie London’s "molten mezzo", Miles Davis "listening to the music explore itself", a Russian choir in King’s Chapel or his slightly disreputable uncle who played "smoochy dance-band trumpet", Simpson shows he has a keen ear and an ability to go beyond the music to exult in the humanity that has created it.
It is, however, in the book’s second part that Simpson rises to his acme. What he has titled "November Song: an unfinished sequence" consists of about 30 poems which relate, contemplate and celebrate a long-term love relationship. The "November" of the title refers to the couple’s age, to the fact that, as one of the section’s epigraphs says, "The days dwindle down". The days in this case stretch for forty years, from occupied Germany in the immediate post-war years to today and "...a man with a black attaché case / come to help us rearrange our wills".
"Tongues" is a delightful exploration of the situation where the lovers have different native languages, playful (" ‘How’s your German?" people ask. / ‘She’s fine,’ I answer...") but hinting also at the tension of "Hitler words" and posing the question, "Do we measure love by what we sacrifice?" "Red Shoes" takes the risk, ever-present in love poems, of straying towards the sentimental, but emerges not only unscathed but enhanced. The dominant images in this piece are of hair and its changing colour, and, considering all the hackneyed songs and poems that have used this metaphor, it takes a poet of huge talent to carry it off in an original and memorable way. Simpson’s success is due largely to the way the hair colour is tied to external but still personally relevant references. The red shared by the beloved and Moira Shearer is part of the "tackiness" of the glamour industry, from which she escaped to find love. At the very end of the poem the grey is compared to "...weathered straggles of wool / snatched at by barbed wire." We glimpse not only age, but all those problems and sorrows life deals out. It is just that - a glimpse - and all the more poignant and piercing for not dwelling on the details. The sharpness of the image is enough to fix the idea inextricably in the reader’s mind.
The poems expand out from the relationship, setting love in the context of a wider history, of war and the representations of war, in poems like "Reported Missing" and "Casablanca", beyond Earth, even, in "Star Gazing", but what really gives this sequence its power is what is In Deep, the edginess and the honestly faced wavering, the doubts that have to be entertained before being overcome, the inner core of the relationship. The courage to contemplate (in the poem "Nervous Disposition") "wine that turns to acid in my craw" but to follow that line immediately with "maybe write nervy and self-justifying things like these" is an essential component of this love, along with "the hope / of rejoicing / in being vulnerable again" ("The Courage of Tenderness").
The sequence within a sequence, "Voices from an Island" recalls Simpson’s fascination, as expressed in earlier collections, with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In this context the roles of Shakespeare’s characters take on added, personalised meanings. It is as if Simpson has borrowed them in order to make a series of points about his own life, rather than merely putting his own words into their mouths. When Sycorax says, "we all find our own ways of surviving" or when Gonzalo is "simply trying to make the best of it", their lines echo in the book’s final poem, "The River on a Black Day", in which the poet contemplates the strewing of his ashes "into watery anywhere … finally, fatally adrift".
This is a fine collection, a book that, in eschewing alike the loud and the cryptic, says what it says straight from the heart. It takes a brave poet to rely so much on simplicity; the same kind of bravery is required to be uncertain when it is fashionable to be self-assured. The result is that the reader has truly been invited In Deep, has engaged with what in those depths is essentially human and therefore essentially poetic.