the guardian Fri 11 May 2012
Voluntary, Adam Thorpe's sixth collection, ranges widely across time and space: from the pawprint left by an ancient Roman dog in a still-wet floor tile to evidence of climate change along modern-day Estonia's Baltic shore and a windfarm off the Scottish coast. A fascination with "history's mood-swings" has characterised Thorpe's work since his first collection, the Whitbread-shortlisted Mornings in the Baltic, and most notably in his debut novel, Ulverton. That book may have had an intensely English focus on 350 years in the life of a Berkshire village, but in many ways Thorpe, who was born in Paris, was brought up in India, Cameroon and Britain and now lives in France, has a more European sensibility than his UK-bound peers.
The sense of a set of personal stories constantly bleeding into a wider panorama of recorded history is evident throughout Voluntary. "Fuel" is the simple, simply told story of a springtime encounter with an old woman who is bringing in wood to see her through the next winter and determinedly refuses the narrator's offer of help. The next time he passes her house, it's obvious that she hasn't survived to finish the job. The poet's awareness of an all-embracing chain of such stories, of which this is an unexceptional example, is what grants it pathos, though in the end it's the individual tale that gives emotional meaning to the broader canvas:
Millennia ago they'd have made
a pyre against the greater cold
or carried the lot to her tomb's shade
for time to consume.
Sufficient for the life after.
Or enough to resume:
this was the pith
of her, always ahead of the first
frost. This was her faith.
This effacement of the specific by the general can work the other way round, too, when well-known events, or received structures of historical meaning, are overwritten by an individual's memory. In "Spring Class", Thorpe uses a jump-cut effect to enact the process by which different perspectives on the same moment in time perform a kind of shuffle dance as each takes its turn in the spotlight. The speaker, who is teaching the poetry of Sylvia Plath, is fleetingly aware of the sunlight outside the classroom window, but inside "It's that winter in Fitzroy Road [...] and the long freeze of '63 that I / recall as a bout of sledging ... being old enough / at six." This noted, the poem then returns us briefly to the class, then back to Plath's suicide, but eventually the personal memory will edge out all else, for "what's really hiding // behind the steam of words is a lost reference / to my brother and I as we squeal down the track's / schillerised slope [...] Amazing, after the earthquake / of it all, to find I am here in class, instead."
These poems are constantly telescoping the passage of years, in a restless search for some evidence of an organising principle. On occasion, though, the linkages between past, present and future are too minimal or hard to grasp, and the speaker is forced to admit that "there's nothing / but a vague skein like silk or torchlight / connecting this to that". A poem about the photograph of a soon-to-be-demolished wainwright's shop in Hungerford in the 1950s concerns time's inevitable destruction of common memory, of mundane certainties that have been made strange by the dereliction into which their very names have fallen: thill, strouters, shutlock. "And all this was obliterated / as so many facts are in history ... turning that practical good into something // no one needed".
The nostalgic glow that surrounds Thorpe's regretted wainwrights, inevitably, does not extend to our modern-day mundanities: the "heedless Fords" that have replaced carriages and carts, the "reek of garage", the southern French town, run by the Front National, whose "peeling, piss-smelling // streets are sinister". But on the other side of the balance sheet, there's the world of painting, literature and music. In "Underground", those sinister streets also provide the venue for a performance of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame. In the contest between cloistered art and grim life, the result looks very much like a draw: "the beauty and the bleakness so beguiling together, / like faith; like the government of faith by grief".
"Flaubert's Drafts" gives us another take on art and life, one major difference between the two being that the act of writing creates "its own landscape / that alters according to the climber's will", whereas in reality there's no going back to correct what was badly done, or what went wrong - "our one, uncorrectable line" is all we mortals have to play with. But after all, change is life, though we don't always like to admit it: "And what a frightening thought, that everything / is always on its way to somewhere else, / whatever route we pick". That notion of picking out our own route, of going solo against the weight of expectation or received wisdom, is addressed by the title poem, which rounds out this excellent collection. A flock of geese rise, raggedly, over a Norfolk marsh and "shape, if vaguely, // their conventional V". All apart from one bird, which heads out alone, determined to follow its own course regardless of the consequences: "probability's / the curve it pursues / until its dot // assumes its own extinction ... a voluntary / exile, free at last".