reviewed by Ned Carter Miles
There is a particular pleasure to reading a book like John Freeman's White Wings, with its new and selected poems from an output spanning nearly forty years and seven collections: following those elements of style and thought that the poet has seen fit to change and, perhaps more interestingly, those he has not. In reading these thirty-six prose poems of varying length and density we get many such insights, both formal and philosophical.
Prose poems from nearly forty years of output provide an insight into the development of a poet and a thinker
Earlier poems in the book and Freeman's career, like the 1975 debut collection's eponymous Snow Corridors, make use of irregular, unpunctuated stanzas where multiple possible meanings lie in wait for attentive eyes: 'a few handfuls of loose snow not many and systematically we aren't the right age any more that's a pity'. Later pieces, however, are more akin to narrative prose. Certain poems, the particularly touching Meringues among them, have only slight transgressions of syntax to distinguish them from (very) short stories. As a fitting culmination of styles the extended final poem A Summer Next the Sea, a series of observations and sketches from a family holiday, gives a sense of narrative and tone that artfully bridges a gap between poetry and standard prose.
Much of this development can be seen in terms of the poems' relationship with romanticism and modernism. Though their other content might differ, references to Keats, Leopardi and Shelley may be found in both collected poems [Alla Luna] and new ones [Not a Girl].
In the earlier poems, moreover, we see a melding of borrowings from the two movements. There are plays on Keats, for example: 'beauty is truth, truth beauty is truth, truth beauty, until it teases us out of thought' [Strawberry Hill], alongside passages whose syntax evokes something of the experimental prose of Gertrude Stein's Ida: 'And so the talker exists on that what exists does exist and the remedies do not exist what does exist is the situation what is the situation' [What the Matter Can Be].
Although such experimentations are fun, in the earlier poems they are sometimes subsumed in a particularly dense style and unfortunately lose something of their effect. In these earlier works Freeman's strength is rather to be found in his poignant, aphoristic observations: 'the war of the fruit and the growing is endless, each by its nature cancels the other; tree is the name we give to the conflict' [Two Percussion Pieces].
Despite the stopping power of such moments there is a more sustained enjoyment to be drawn from Freeman's phenomenological approach to his subject matter, which, to this collection's credit, we are able to see becoming more and more a central part of his poetry. The description of a Hearth and its possible functions in Homes is so rich in its personal and universal germaneness that it is impossible to do justice to it here without quoting the whole thing.
With this increased attention to physical perception Freeman hones an oblique approach towards the truth that is far more effective than the direct, prolix lines mentioned above. Towards the kind of insight such an approach may provide, we are told that the poet wants 'to be free, not of consciousness but of the burden of consciousness, the burden of conscious dissatisfaction'; he later settles on the potential satisfaction in being 'the consciousness of this air and earth and grass, a consciousness that need not be burdensome.' [A Summer Next the Sea]. It is also interesting to note that one of the poems with the most metaphysically minded titles is also one of the most grounded in the physicality of things: 'a boy's bare knees', a train's 'green shiny leather seats', and a camera's 'shiny brown button, like a large unmelting lighter shade of Smartie' [Eternity]. There are even direct if humorous references to this penchant for the phenomenological. In Falling Asleep the poet jokes that he 'would repeat the word phenomenology to our daughter so that it would be the first she spoke'.
It's doubtless a tendency towards romanticism, phenomenology and observation that, often for the better, wins out over the sometimes overly obscure language and philosophising of earlier work; however, some later poems do show a problematic romanticising of class and generational difference that could be seen as a failure to engage with the subject. Of a cider seller, for instance, we are told that he has the 'authenticity and lack of some kinds of falsity and decadence that a life of regular prolonged manual work, skilled work, gives people. I liked him and admired him, though under no illusion that the feeling was mutual' [A Summer Next the Sea]. This is likely more a comment on the poet's own inveterate attitudes, and that is certainly the effect, but there is nonetheless a seeming lack of self-awareness in this kind of typology that undermines the astuteness permeating the rest of the collection.
For the most part - and more than any direct questions or wordplay - it is this astuteness that shines here. Employing it to the full, towards the end of White Wings Freeman seems to put aside the eternal and the universal for themes that are quite literally closer to home, from the poet's own childhood in Not a Girl and Sweet Prince to observations on fatherhood and grandfatherhood.
Freeman ultimately succeeds in carving out his own small corner of the truth not through grandiose questions, but through the family, his shifting roles within it, and his keen observations of the objects that intermediate these relationships: a hearth [home], a meringue [meringue], an apple tree and its fruit [Apples on a Tree], a table-football table [A Summer Next the Sea]... In spite of its density, White Wings is a rewarding collection because it invites us to see this corner being carved and provides a glimpse of a poet and a man's continued approach to a problem he defines himself: 'I endlessly philosophise the image when it is the image alone that carries primary poignancy, a higher vibration' [The Red Check Shirt].