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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Classical music's agony aunt,
ALICE McVEIGH, on poetry

Another question my readers never ask me is, what's clicking, good-looking? (Just kidding.)

Another question my readers never bloody ask is: Hi Alice, read any great new poetry lately?

Now before you all rush to click 'down' in the vain hope that the next question will be sexier, let me first say (a) have I ever! and (b) the ones I've just finished reading are dead sexy.

And the reason I've been reading them is all because of a mix-up with my first novel, when, about eight years after meeting violinist Gregory Warren Wilson on a London Mozart Players tour, exactly two thirds of his name resurfaced in what I'm pleased to call my brain when searching for a name for a stimulating, Giotto-loving, poetry-reading violinist for my first novel. Bingo, I thought, Warren Wilson! That's a good name! (No, not Gregory WW, thank God. Not that that's an excuse. I'm just quite simply diabolical at names, and have a memory that would shame a sieve.) So, when Sebastian Comberti told me that the real live Gregory Warren Wilson was annoyed, when we were messing about with the Hanover Band in New York, I was absolutely mortified.

Because, while my conscious mind was surfing along breezily, thinking about my characters, my subconscious was clearly on red alert, for the real Gregory Warren Wilson is not just a marvellous violinist, acute, stimulating and quite seriously Italianophilic, but is also and much more rarely a real poet, the genuine article, one who writes Emily Dickinson's immortal description of poetry: 'When it feels as if the top of my head has been taken off I know it is poetry. This is the only way I know it. Is there any other way?'

Anyway, thanks to Sebastian, the breach was healed and we met for lunch in London about a decade after our first meeting in the Mozart Players. I apologised for my dizzy stupidity, and G W W was most feelingly generous towards my novel which had precipitated the crisis.

But I was the gainer, because, although Greg might have mentioned writing poetry himself on our first meeting, that affliction is frankly too widespread to have made much of an impression on me. To the eternal credit of these isles (Ireland especially) poetry is one of its most widespread secret vices. Why, in England alone, tens of thousands of poets ply their trade in private, trading phone numbers, manuscripts, and the rest of the paraphernalia of the seriously shameful. (Only death and serious drug-addiction rank any lower, frankly, on the social scale, and even for those there is usually some plea in mitigation, such as not being able to help it.)

How do I know? Because I myself wrote poetry -- mainly rotten -- during my first three decades, all miles too personal to be rehashed here, though, bizarrely, one of the few poetry publishers to have plucked a few out of the slush-pile for publication (Staple) was the very poetry press which published Greg's first book. That book, Preserving Lemons, was his first collection, and the sheer vitality and feeling of the language impressed me so profoundly that I can still recall some of it from memory. I keep returning to it, for the energy of its imagery, its erotic charge and its entrancing delicacy. (U A Fanthorpe, one of modern poetry's greats, describes Greg as having 'that rarest of rarities, a perfect ear') and reading his poetry makes me feel as if the sense of hearing is cleansed, made whole and pure and new again.

Here is one of my favourites.

('Any other way' by Gregory Warren Wilson)

He would not like it much, were I to say
it was his wrists, remembering his wrists
which tightened tiny draw-strings round my heart.

The photo in my fiddle-case of him in snow --
smiling huddled in a shabby coat -- shows
why I love him.  He would not have it so.

Who can resist the make believe
that keeps us at our best, glimpsed
by candlelight in antique mirrors,

or tousled by the sea, grinning ruggedly?
But it is not so.  Today it snowed,
and I remembered him -- his wrists

thin as plant stems, and his hands
opening in unprompted acts of kindness.
If I did not tell him, would he ever know

I thought of him today as it began to snow,
as whiteness made particular
each leaf I'd overlooked, as quietness

settled unobtrusively?  Would he know
the snow made each frail cyclamen ache,
and that I would not have it any other way?

But his most recent collection, Jeopardy, published only this month by the prestigious Enitharmon Press, is, if anything, still more resonant. This is part of his insightful and terrifyingly personal series of poems from a ventriloquist's dummy to its puppeteer:

Watch me -- artless, artful, anything

but simple.  Just you try upstaging me.
I'd con the halo off an apostle and filch

the readies from a pimp's cache-pot.
Irresistible in my own way.

Stand back Lazarus you one night stand.

In this whole series of poems, GWW quietly oils off the layers that separate audience from artist, until nothing is left except the bare bones of emotional reality. All this, and still the choice of words breathtakingly audacious, and unerringly rhythmic in the sense that most of us secret poetry vice-lovers can only dream of.

And even -- aren't you glad you carried on reading, even though it is about poetry??? -- so warmly erotic. Here is GWW on the peel of a navel orange:

Now you're going halfway round the world;
what can I give you
that's light and flatpacks
into an envelope?

Something bitter
sweet; here's the peel
from a navel orange
all in one piece,

the bits that's left behind
when the flesh has gone.
Mercator's projection?
No ... One strip

thumb-scooped from pole to pole
and two half globes.
Press its creamy pith
against your belly

navel to navel
skin to skin
and think of me ...

If interested (you'll never regret it) please contact Enitharmon Press on, or order Greg's Jeopardy from a bookshop (ISBN 1 900564 63 7).

And tell them Alice sent you.

Copyright © 11 July 2003 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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