Matthew Francis's modernist tricks of the light are full of suspense and charisma
Between 1663 and 1665 Andrew Marvell travelled round Russia on a fantastical and, as it turned out, pointless trade mission to the tsar. Arriving in Archangel, he was dragged by a team of serfs on a sled all the way to Moscow where he caused a diplomatic incident by mistakenly addressing the duke of Muscovy in Latin as illustrissime rather than serenissime. Travelling home he pulled his pistols on a waggoner in a fit of temper and was lucky not to be killed. Three and a half centuries later, the first benefit to humanity at large of the whole affair is the inspiration it has provided to Matthew Francis for the title poem of his fourth collection, Muscovy.
Francis's Marvell is less interested in diplomacy than colours and textures, food and furs ("you must cosset the person / in marten, sable, fox or beaver, and sleep / shivering on sheepskin in the furry dark"). As in the Arctic poems of Lavinia Greenlaw's Minsk, the northern latitudes come trailing an icy mystique: "The cold finds you in your sleep. You flee from it / the way one does in dreams, not touching the ground, / across a flatness that is always the same." Marvell is a ghostlike presence in the poem, tasked with writing his companions' way in and out of the tsar's distant, frozen embassy. He is not alone: this collection is full of ghosts, from a teenage Shelley and his new bride come to "live among rocks" at Cwm Elan, to Robert Boyle casting shadows with phosphorus, which burns like "the spooklights of bog country".
Then there are the ghost stories, deft narrative poems which open the collection and conjure a historical world of flickering candlelight and folk superstition, strongly reminiscent of Le Fanu and MR James with their fog‑shrouded encounters and premonitions of death. In a long poem skilfully woven from one sentence, a tampering poltergeist makes himself at home; in "Corpse Candle" an inn-goer meets the departing soul of a servant on its way to the churchyard; and elsewhere a walker lost in a storm finds his route merged with a mountain wraith's:
She was a crinkle in the outline of rock,
a shrug of the rain. I would lose her at every jink of the path.
She seemed to wait without slowing down,
her form as watchful as a coat on a hook.
Seeing her was sure proof I was lost: it was she that made me so,
as she had been all these rainswept years.
Of course, not all ghosts take such familiar forms, and Francis gradually sheds them to make way for the spectres of 20th-century experimentalism. It may be paradoxical to feel nostalgia for the postmodern, but Francis's Oulipian tributes capture a bygone age as much as any skulking phantom of the Gothic tradition. "Perec Suite" sketches a portrait of the great writer in a series of lipograms omitting each of the five vowels in turn, on the model of Perec's novel La disparition, written without using the letter e and translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void. Touchingly, the "e"‑avoiding stanza of this sequence describes the famous photograph of Perec with his cat atop his shoulder: "It sits on a ramp of cardigan / that tilts as if to hold it up, or as if this listing man is / a Long John just off his ship who thinks his cat's a parrot." It's true that in the picture Perec wears "a shyly triumphant look as of a magician in mid-flourish / who without knowing how has drawn a cat from a waft of silk."
English poetry has taken an Oulipian turn of late, not just in Francis's work but that of Matthew Welton, Jon Stone and Jeremy Over, and here the incoming tide of a beach scene "er / a / s / ess / andca / stl / es", and not just sandcastles, but also the surface of words. In "Enigma Variations" Francis continues in the same vein by supplying the alphabet with a series of playful extensions, treating us to the delights of "%um" and "%osom", a "printer's $evil" and an "©nv©lop©". Nathan Hamilton's anthology Dear World & Everyone In It offered one solution to old oppositions of mainstream and experimental by, in the nicest possible way, blithely ignoring them. Francis's combination of Victorian gas lamps – what we might call his De la Marean side – and Joycean "curios of allaphbeds" show the same resolve.
"Thing That Make the Heart Beat Faster" is a piece of Japanoiserie that lingers with delight over its obscure and mysterious objects. "I have made this out of what does not last", we read of a basket of snow presented with a poem to the empress.
Francis has edited the poems of WS Graham, one of whose books is titled Implements in Their Places, but the implements in these poems are often misplaced or at an oblique angle to mere utility. The risk is that whimsy or stylisation become ends in themselves and short-circuit these poems' capacity for drama. Some of the poems go on too long, swapping edginess for ambience, but at their best these tales of the unexpected are a treat, melding modernist tricks of the light with the phosphoric glow of "the long night called / the nineteenth century", full of suspense and charisma.