Jewelled poetic craft joins something more profound in Maxwell's new collection – which darkly conjures unconscious process, writes Ruth Padel
Pluto is a companion volume to Glyn Maxwell's brilliant essay collection On Poetry. Both conjure a life of making patterns from the litter of experience. Both suggest a poet is someone for whom making poems is the only defence against the dark.
The poems – funny, wry and multi-faceted – think all the time about being poetry but know that writing it won't help you live better. A momentous day (of parting, perhaps) gets a poem written about it even though it doesn't want one. "In no uncertain terms / did it say no gifts, no cake, no fuss, / no speeches, hugs, and christ no poems."
Opening with a negative and a contradiction, "Never have met me, know me well", the book is ruled by the classic lyric contradiction: total control expressing total lack of it. Form, language, voice and tone are perfect. Each poem is differently playful, designed, inventive, compelling. But what they are all about is losing it, losing love, the girl, oneself.
When we reach the first line of the last poem,"Homeward Orpheus" ("He knew it could not be done and he knew it could be") we realise this persona (echoing contradictions in Czeslaw Milosz's "Orpheus and Eurydice", "He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith"; "Unable to weep, he wept") is the ancient mythic lover-poet himself, whose contradictions play into those of Pluto, underworld king, the coldest, most distant planet, whose orbit is chaotic but is still the astrological ruler of obsession.
Yet Pluto is the planet of transformation, too. By this last poem, negative is positive. Orpheus is alone, yes, but with the "skill they gave him" he goes on singing. Being Orpheus means choosing life or art and Pluto's poet is clear which side he's on. The songs "have to be all about it" (recurrent loss, presumably) but the voice is flawless and poems are what matter.
Women matter, too ("one of us said those chicks / were really hot I've a horrible feeling I did") because poems need another "you" as well as the reader. The cost of "your" perpetual interchangeability is the Hades of eternal regret. "Girls … I wonder where the gang went. / And you / means what? The months go by and you go by – / brunette, petite, licentious, lippy, young." There are evanescent shades of lost "you" at every turn of the line.
And losing "you" loses you "I", too. "I would snog in a heartbeat, pausing only / to think about it. Where the hell did she go? / Where the hell did they all go? Where did I go?" But poems last, relationships don't. "Whoever's trailing me out to the end of this line / probably doesn't think he or she has need / of a guide to tour these ruins, would be just fine/alone with earphones … / and he or she would be right … / they drift together away in the dust while you lot/stay to the end, which means the world to me."
A bravura long poem, "The Case of After", states the dilemma in terms of grammar. "The genitive you are mine / is a phrase I cherished only when I'd moved on / and couldn't use it. Then I kind of craved it. / Bored researchers timing a lab-rat / showed more surprise than you at my saying that."
So Orpheus logs on to an internet dating site. "I decided it was easy on a laptop, / love." In the password-protected space of the screen (and poem) he meets an underworld of soul-shadows as real, and not, as he. "My other great date I can honestly say I've not met. / I'm not talking (and sort of am) about Guardian Soulmates."
He finds someone. "She wore dark glasses in the only photo / I could access yet. I was at that window / like Peter sodding Quint I had the blue glow / on me." Her user name crystallises the question of whether Self finds Other real. "She went by Notthefaintest and I went by / damned if I'll tell you lot. By the way, / Notthefaintest, said I wrote poetry/didn't I, Lynn. Not her real name, I mean / her real name on the site."
The poem mocks the Soulmates grammar of love ("Together would be easy ... We sent some messages, Lynn & Greg, made a date … She texted me some shite / about her kid being ill and I had to write / I hope he gets better soon while harbouring doubts / he was ever born"). It also queries the ghostly honesty of its own Peter Quintlike maker. "I gave my name / as honestly as I'll speak when the padre murmurs / Do you take Notthefaintest? Christ yes. / She had this exquisite jawline …"
Notthefaintest with her exquisite jawline doesn't know what she's getting into, if she exists; even more if she doesn't. The brilliance of Pluto lies not only in a powerful subterranean unconscious shining through jewelled craft, but in the way Maxwell mirrors dangerously unconscious projections that govern affairs in the equally cellar- and inter-stellar-driven projections that make poems. As in On Poetry, "the situation grows in the space".
Pluto seems the book Maxwell was born to write. As if, after a quarter-century as dazzling craftsman, he has felt "the blue glow" on him and grown fully into his art.