04 October 2008

Book review

Dennis Scott, After-Image. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2008.

What’s human about us is what we create, and it is what we create that endures. That’s the one lesson the poet teaches. Reading this selection of Dennis Scott’s last poems, made by his friend Mervyn Morris, and published seventeen years after Dennis’s death at fifty-one, that lesson is borne in with extraordinary force.

The collection is bracketed by death. From the title poem, which begins the collection, and which weaves metaphors of plant and machine under that punning title, to the last poem in which death is presented as an editor who will ‘justify all’ (again, a pun) but containing also the image of a black hole (‘The event/horizon collapses’ – Dennis was a science fiction fan, and allowed a younger version of myself to use his collection as a lending library) and ending with an unpunctuated, unfinished line, that also seems to be a satisfactory ending point.

Death is a presence in this book. A poem about the murdered Cuban student activist of the 1920s, Juan Antonio Mella, becomes a meditation about death in the abstract:

I’ll sing you a song under my breath:

the name of the president is Death.

But death is not the only presence. There are poems containing simple, direct observations of life. Poems about love. Poems about sexuality. Poems about politics. Some are extraordinarily direct:

Let us practice, for want

of anything

to do today,


Dennis does not lose the capacity to surprise. His poem Third World Blues, a brief meditation on Creole identity, is a sonnet containing octave and sestet. But a sonnet with an unconventional rhyme scheme, neither Shakespearean nor Petrarchan. This formalism is a shock in the rhythmic freedom of the work, though it is by no means the only poem with a formal structure in the book.

The equally formal, and most enigmatic, Unicorn, with its odd echoes of Robert Graves, is, perhaps, the most unusual, and most untypical, poem he ever wrote. Its closing couplet is a paradox as strange as any in literature:

For where’s the wind I thought would always blow?

Gone. Every beauty but this breath will go.

Almost every poem in this collection has the shadow of death upon it. And yet there are moments of simple happiness, and love, for his wife, for his children, for the world he sees that have the true intensity of passion, the smiling vision and understanding that, along with a sardonic realism that was never far from the surface, marked his best work. I read these poems, and I hear Dennis Scott’s voice, speaking, as he always did, the truth.


http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Fragano, great review here.


FSJL said...

Thanks, Geoffrey. I just did my best.