In love and in war, the former poet laureate teases and tantalises
"The Customs House" – the title poem – is a tease with its suggestion of dues to be paid on "merchandise" and the last-minute sighting of a man labouring with a chest of drawers who seems to relieve the poet of any obligation to come forward with something – or nothing – to declare. The baggage-handling in this collection is adroit. But what sort of a reckoning is going on?
It is Motion's first collection since he retired as poet laureate and is divided between accomplished performances about war and more autobiographical offerings. What the poems share, on all subjects, is an artfully relaxed, well-groomed quality. Not easy to achieve, one assumes, and yet, for the reader, sometimes tantalisingly withheld.
What Motion does with war poetry is akin to what Sebastian Faulks pulls off in some of his novels. There seems to be a compulsion for certain men of a post-war generation to write about fighting almost as a literary substitute for active service. But the relationship to past wars for a writer is complicated. Motion may lack the front-line authority of a Wilfred Owen but he has another weapon: hindsight. This is deployed with skill in "Laurels and Donkeys", describing the 11-year-old Siegfried Sassoon's childhood idyll of a picnic while also anticipating his death. Motion also looks back on his own childhood to salute his father who fought in France on D-Day. In "Now Then", he remembers being handed his father's "enormous boots" to polish: "There was no way I could ever make the toes brighter than they were already." Yet the collection is the poetic equivalent of exactly this: making borrowed boots shine.
There is a splendid elegy for the wonderfully named Harry Patch, who died at 111, in which Motion summons back the veteran's comrades: "…hundreds of thousands of dead who lie there/ immediately rise up, straightening their tunics." It is a volume filled with revenants – a platoon of ghosts – from his father to the poet Mick Imlah, movingly remembered in "The Visit". The book leans towards the elegiac – poetic undertaking in every sense. But there are also attractive exceptions such as "Whale Music", in which Motion offers us a whale's eye view in a poem of marvellous gravity and caprice.
This is a collection that makes one think about how poems earn their keep and the difficulties involved in deciding who the best audience for a poem is. Some of the poems to his third wife, Korean interpreter Kyeong-Soo Kim, feel more like private shorthand than evolved work. I have been puzzling over a line about the shoes that were part of a love at first sight: "With that exciting ridge along their toes like a seam/ which is normally hidden but was plain for all to see." Army boots are perhaps easier to polish.Yet there is, in the same section, a beautiful and fully realised poem, "Holy Island", in which ravens are perfectly described as "weightless cinders" and, without labouring the point, his wife's black hair becomes part of the scene. The poem has an apt, assured ending: "The ravens swoop down and settle among the gorgeous pages of the gospels."
But more often poems end in a wilfully flat manner. Sometimes, this is a recognition that war encourages inarticulacy. He quotes in "The Vallon Men" a soldier: "We have lost a lot of friends/ And we have seen a lot of things that are not ideal." And, with that, the poem halts.