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January 31, 2013

Almost Happiness

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A review of Andrew Motion, The Customs House, Faber and Faber, £12.99 Hb / £9.99 ebook, ISBN: 978-0-571-28810-6

Reading Andrew Motion’s lucid, brilliant, melancholic poetry collection The Customs House I was reminded of Edward Thomas’s moodily captivating essay ‘One Green Field’ in which Thomas realises how, ‘Happiness is not to be pursued, though pleasure may be; but I have long thought that I should recognize happiness could I ever achieve it... I never achieved it, and am fated to be almost happy in many different circumstances...’. The Customs House is a strong, searing and sad book. I think it is certainly his most achieved collection. It signals a central change to the way he is thinking and feeling in language. He is letting the world back into him. Not the public world and restive politics of the Laureateship, but a private world of understanding, humility and love. Andrew Motion is developing a late style that is far more open to possibility, one that is ‘almost happy in many different circumstances’:

The last colour to see when the sun goes down

will be blue, which now turns out to be not

only one colour but legion – as if I never knew.

from ‘Gospel Stories’

Edward Said believed the late style of creative artists ‘is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality’. I would argue (and I have heard the poet state as much) that Motion’s stint as Laureate pushed him to abdicate the rights of his poetry to the reality of that public responsibility. Writing of the final poems of Cavafy, Said commended ‘the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile’. The Customs House possesses and is possessed by a bare, pared-down tone stripped of hubris and unashamed of its fallibility. Andrew Motion has fully returned from the public exile of self-conscious art. He returns scorched but wiser. Like the poets of The English Line – Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Keith Douglas, Philip Larkin, Motion himself - the mature subjectivity of tone is of course a never-to-be-realised happiness, a restlessness of feeling, a scarred understanding that yields fine, heart-rending language and the grace and pressure of precise memory:

Now wind has died in the lime trees

I have forgotten what sense they made,

but not the leaf the wind dislodged

that fell between my shoulder blades.


Motion’s poetry has always possessed an affecting tonal vulnerability. It is a quality that draws a reader closer - and to his famously hushed presence when he reads in public. It is a silence made of unwritten sentences. Of the feel of not to feel it. Almost (if not quite) of self-annihilation. Yet it is also the brilliance of concentration in which both tone and image lean into each other without falling, and hold each other and proffer some slight consolation. Like his hero Edward Thomas, Motion can create images and tones of such word-carried, world-wearied sadness that you accept their truth while simultaneously believing in their fictive grace. Truth and beauty: those dissimulators. Andrew Motion used to be their master. But in poem-sequences such as ‘Gospel Stories’, ‘Whale Music’, ‘A Glass Child’ and ‘The Death of Francesco Borromini’, Motion is now – in his late style - humble before them. The Customs House is redemptive. He has served his term. These poems are true poems.

Is the music of his poetry as finely judged as their tone? The first section of this book is something of an experiment. It comprises a series of war poems. These are ‘found poems’ – which is to say (Motion notes) ‘they contain various kinds of collaboration’. And the collaborations find their origins in oral and written reportage, and in war-time stories from veterans of the World Wars and the recent and current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, in ‘The Golden Hour’ (which refers to the time required to keep a traumatised patient alive in surgery), an army surgeon addresses the reader:

For instance: one patient I remember had been in a blast situation

with no visible injury but we were not ventilating very well at all.

I put two openings in both sides of his chest with a big scalpel blade;

then I could stick my fingers in, and knew his right lung was down

because I could not feel it. However, I was now releasing trapped air

and the lung came up again. He has responded within the golden hour.

Because I could not feel it. The verbal truth of the war poems is fascinating in that their poetic music is almost completely surrendered in order to honour the spoken clarity of factual experience. This requires a sensitively engineered ear for line-break. Some of the material swings close to the prosaic, yet Motion’s deft lineation and deletions work double-time to preserve the true sense of natural speech. And Motion is generous as a translator of experience. He allows the hard-won details and voices to carry their own poetry. The voices of the war poems shift from the panoptic to a microscopic focus. Tight scenes possess intense light and energy. There is no desire to press a bright-red anti-war poetry button; no call for the trickery of literature; and no call above the quiet truths and sensibilities of those on the front-line. In terms of poetry and in terms of truth, The Customs House is an honourable, humbling achievement.

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