reviewed by Harry Giles
In Night Journey's opening poem, 'Dream of the Dead', Lambert invokes a dead son who “dreams us all alive”. The poem conjures a world of night and dreams in which are both strange reversals – “Let Virgil dream of Dante / and not the other way round” – and lucid insights. The piece introduces well the concerns of the collection, which maps the territory of night: dreams, restless sleep, grotty hotels, film noir, foxes, moths, bedside lamps, empty train stations. It is a poetry of loss and absence, where “we hold the night within our arms / as if it gave us something, which it does not” ('The Station in the City').
Many of the poems take place where a night-time urban landscape meets a forceful nature, as in the corridor of 'Scenes from the Late Hotel':
To walk down its centre is to walk
down something potentially dangerous,
like a track in a forest.
This same meeting runs throughout the extended sequence of 'To the Sea', located at the borders where urban ports meet the ocean:
the angled wood and iron gates
no longer hold a fortune but
the liquid that bubbles and spurts
as mud silts, and stains, the harbour wall
Though this is a form of nature poetry, it is not a romanticised nature, and the creatures met in it are not wild and free, but rather domesticated scavengers and nocturnal garden beasts. We meet 'The Hedgehog' which “looked just old and small, / a pile of leaves or woodlandness / against a neighbour's wall”, and the deer in 'Creatures' which is “at the edge / of the car door, clattering off like the heart.” Unwild wildlife is also found in similes and metaphors for the city's structures, as in “The falling letters / of the departure board / clattering like a hundred blackbirds.”
A loving tribute to all that McGlinchey has gained and lost in the process of treading the paths of the global nomad.
Humans and nature are not here in opposition, nor are urban and rural separated or even particularly contrasted – rather, the collection reflects on the integration of the two: it is a study of what is gained and what is lost by their now inevitable meeting and merging. Gardens and half-wild places offer refuge and respite, as we might expect, but it chastises the poet as often as it consoles, and its birds and animals are as often tired and lonely as they are rich and free. Meanwhile, the urban nightscape flickers between concrete and unreal, where “only the river is flowing, only the glow / from windows real” ('The Station in the City'). After all, as Lambert writes in 'Waves' “The city / was a kind of dream anyway”.
This last poem brings us to another of the major trends in the collection: the exploration of psychology through geography, with the mind spread across the landscape. The collection is rarely obviously psychological: thoughts and feelings are instead found in the descriptions of actions and environments.
'Veronica and Henry', for example, describes a couple at morning hotel breakfast, in a series of sparse but gentle couplets. There is almost no interiority, just a description of what happens – “She'd bought her map, considered their itinerary, / asked Henry what he thought when he sat down” – so much so that when emotion does come, it takes only simple enjambment and word-choice for it to seem sudden and shocking:
Veronica moved her hand
and, before the sense was half-way out, felt
At this point the poem retreats vertiginously into nature, as if nothing else can explain the intrusion of feeling: “A cloud shifted / and touched the wall, somewhere overhead.”
A similar move occurs in 'The Stairwell', which narrates the moments after an undescribed but tremendous event:
All I remember is what happened next,
the scrape of my sole on the concrete step
echoing up the stairwell.
This poem actively avoids giving the event itself any reality – only “The light was real, // and the stairwell. This much is true.” The effect is not to empty the poem of emotion or be clinically descriptive: it is more as if feeling is welling up behind every word.
This is relevant again to the way Lambert approaches nature poetry. Only occasionally does he narrate his own brushes with nature, or his own feelings on being there; rather, the description is haiku-like in its terse observation and rejection of explicated psychology. Excursions into a confessional mode are brief and infrequent. The result is a series richly-summoned stories and encounters, which can be enjoyed in and of themselves, and as a metaphor or conduit for the reader's own experiences. Most simply of all, in 'Towards Avonmouth', Lambert admits:
How rare a thing
Throughout the collection, the language is seldom showy – Lambert aims for grace and transparency in his word-choice and structures – but there are occasional gems of assonance or metaphor. The opening poem features a particular favourite of mine for sheer pleasure in sound and sense: “Let the boy who jinked and clinked / to the top of sky-loud mountains / shine likewise in his gleefulness.”
Just occasionally the poems seem to under- or over-reach. Lambert's talents are in poise and measured observation, so the weakest parts are those which say too little or attempt to claim too much. 'The Birth' sticks out in its high-ironic myth-making, while at the other end of the scale wee pieces like 'Once, in a park in London …' seem more bland in their observation of nature than the majority of the collection. But these are small flaws in a consistent, careful body of poems.
Though definitely themed and structured, the project is not so forcefully planned as to forbid glorious digressions: the daft but poignant 'Thompson and Thompson' is a good example, with its tender questioning of Tintin's bowler-hatted Brits. Nor does Lambert's taste for restrained description ban virtuoso experiments in form: 'Burnham-on-Sea' is a rigorous and complex form of dodecina (or possibly pentina) that ends each line on one of five words, determined through a powerful pattern. Even here, the choice of end-words – things, sea, room, sand, here – exemplifies the author's thematic concerns and direct expression.
For a book that so often avoids the personal, it is remarkable how clear and original an outlook it obtains throughout the poems. There are occasional excursions into memory and relationships, but it is in the descriptions of bees, lakes and abandoned offices where we meet the poet's voice most distinctly: rich melancholy and warm-hearted wishes for the world. Without making it too obvious, the collection is a journey through that nighttime vision, and one that ends in 'Stuff' where:
Soon there's nothing but […]
bits of mind,
to lay there against the dusk.