A brilliant long poem about the abject travels of 'a blundering widower' is the stand-out in Christopher Reid's latest collection
Reading Christopher Reid's Nonsense is like being inside a theatre – a wonderful, oddball auditorium with a cast composed largely of Reid lookalikes. As a poet, Reid has two distinct talents: the ability, close to a novelist or playwright's, to tell a story, as he so brilliantly did in The Song of Lunch, performed as a BBC drama by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. His other, less convivial gift is for unperformable private truths, as in A Scattering, the collection about his late wife which won the Costa Book of the Year and described an untheatrical grief (although the theatre was his wife's world).
Professor Winterthorn's Journey starts this collection, takes up half of it and is by far the best thing in it. To be disguised as another person brings with it freedoms – including the right to depart from any predictable script. Winterthorn is a blundering widower, an indecisive packer, a practised yet somehow abject traveller. He is on his way to a literary conference, to which he seems to have invited himself, on the subject of futility. What Reid excels at is deliberately not editing out tedious parts of travel – or of life – but lending his keen wit to what most of us pretend not to see or to what we tell ourselves is not happening. From now on it will no longer be possible to proceed through airport security and on to duty free without having Professor Winterthorn at one's elbow:
Check-in is slow but goes without a hitch;
he presents passport photo – tiny, yes, but me! –
joins the abattoir shuffle towards baggage inspection
and body frisk; and at last is admitted
to the great, luminous cavern of Duty Free.
The "abattoir shuffle" is a comically dire dance step. The "luminous cavern" beautifully sums up duty free's pretensions. Waiting is dreaded: "the traveller must submit/ to the twin powers/ of commerce and tedium". And one empathises with the professor's nervy thoughts about seat allocation: "…near the back/ Is that good? Or dangerous?" Reid is inspired, too, on the impersonality of hotels, pushing the idea to its limits:
Nothing, of course, to tell you
who has stayed here before,
or who will in the future,
or who is doing so now.
There is, alongside the wit, an unexpected sweetness too. Winterthorn, prone on his bed, is charmingly described as a snoozing "worker bee". In the middle of all this, the professor's question about the loss of his wife comes with tremendous naturalness, a muddled cry from the heart:
When a life ends –
he's fumbling for the words –
where does, not the life,
but the life of the life go?
Reid's repertoire boasts another long, entertaining and subtle poem – about an actress rehearsing Mistress Quickly in Henry IV, Part 2 – in which he is especially deflating about thespian vanity. The shorter poems that wind up the book are, by contrast, inconsequential – a poem about staring into an espresso, though nicely observed, is not going anywhere beyond the cafe table. Another, Last of the Campus Poems, contains a wonderfully apt and absurd line about computers ("The computers stand idle,/ inscrutable as barn owls") but the poem is about electing not to write – a manifestation of the suspended animation that dominates elsewhere too.
Even Chorus seems stuck, hankering after superior performance. Reid makes us more interested in the theatre audience – the shuffling gannets in the perilous upper circle – than in the struggling, bearded actor below. I like to think one of these, possessed of first-rate wings, is Reid himself.