Harpercroft, 2011 £5.95
Reviewed by Charles Whalley, Kirsten Irvine and Matt Merritt
A poet who has long practised her/his craft often develops a peculiar idiosyncrasy, as if they’ve been writing long enough to become their own influence (which is either good or bad). Christopher Salvesen writes with a distinctive voice, using long, far-reaching sentences that travel by separate phrases. This can seem asthmatic and clogged, but at its best the phrases are pulses that spread the poem in multiple directions. Each phrase is like a wing-beat, and so it is a shame when the speaker sometimes hovers fussily over one subject. For example, in ‘A Pianist in Peace and War’, there is occasionally the sense of stifled progress:
[ . . . ] The interval came, I stood apart,
On national service, derisive term,
A soldier of sorts, off duty, I watched.
Elsewhere, though, Salvesen has the patience and breadth to soar around his subject, with a euphony which means the poems glide along on first reading, but require work to untangle. To quote the first sentence of ‘The Estuary’ (from which I have borrowed my flight metaphor):
Once more north over the Border, remembering
Home and the hills, Criffel, the Solway, loving
The love of childhood and the life of birds,
A secret and a cold unfruitful love
Compared with the grown-up following years,
But I sent myself, through its places, out
Into far flights I could never have reached
In more social, more examined days.
It’s a powerful mode to be carried along by, and one which seems to encompass a whole set of mind.
This style means Salvesen writes very well about art. ‘Taking Dictation from the Muse’, on Michael Dahl’s portraits of Alexander Pope and Queen Christina, is arguably the strongest poem in the pamphlet, as the spreading associations of the poem matches the painter’s contemplation on the subject—“He saw beyond his subject”—Pope’s pose of contemplation in his portrait, and the poet’s contemplation. There is something in this indicative of Salvesen’s main strength.
In Poetry in the Making, Ted Hughes describes poetic composition as like a fisherman concentrating on his lure—to paraphrase badly from memory—focusing the imagination on a single point until that focus spreads out to encompass the fish beneath. It is this mode of thought, dramatizing a quiet but memorable set of mind, which makes up the poems of Crossing the Border, and which shows the work of a mature and confident poet.
There are two or three tender poems in Crossing the Border that really reach out to a reader. ‘Chiaroscuro’ is an honest and highly descriptive dunk into memory’s waters, as the speaker recalls the rich experiences of a rural childhood, including his father’s gruff anger, before bringing the poem full circle with the mention of his own family. ‘With Both Feet off the Ground’, a “Velocipedalean Ode”, is a study of the evolution of the bicycle, from the “first ‘pure’ invention” to a close family memory, via a tragic Tour de France run and the “perfect locomotion” of Oxford posture.
Frustratingly, though, the majority of poems in this short collection suffer from over-explanation. Roughly a third are based on historical events (‘Taking Dictation from the Muse’ depicts Michael Dahl painting Alexander Pope) or the lives of famous figures (Boniface, pianist Elly Ney and Paul the Apostle), and these tend to drift into potted bio territory. Notes accompany several poems, and while I enjoyed the casual aside to ‘Merovingian Days’ informing us that the region described produced fine wine, most of the extra details needlessly summarise or tack on extra context. It is as though Salvesen doesn’t trust the reader to recognise his references and is determined that no ambiguity should interfere with the faithfulness of his narrative. Bizarrely, ‘Waldeinsamkeit’, a short, spare piece, is one of the few poems without notes, when a sentence could have assisted those who do not speak German to get a foothold.
Even ‘Bear Play’, which opens brilliantly with “One way of taming a bear/ is to stretch him into a bear rug”, suffers from overwriting. We follow the speaker initially as he explores his father’s den of grisly hunting trophies, coming face to face at last with a huge stuffed bear, and this in itself is a striking moment. Salvesen goes on, however, to take us on a nature documentary-style description of wild bears, before imagining a wild bear marrying a “firm, self-loving blonde.” This fairytale-like third section would sit well with the initial scene, but the middle explanation breaks the spell.
Salvesen is at his strongest when writing intimately, and of childhood in particular. Each poem that takes on a more biographical approach tries to acquire rights to an existing interesting anecdote, and instead ends up too enamoured of the original scene to rework it into something new.
Crossing the Border is a somewhat loose title for this collection. With the exception of opener ‘The Estuary’, which describes going “north over the border”, I struggled to tie the title to the rest of the pamphlet, short of cheaply linking it to Salvesen’s Scottishness. The blurb isn’t terribly helpful either to someone, like me, unfamiliar with the author’s body of work, explaining that these poems include continuations of sequences from previous works and pieces that simply didn’t fit into one collection.
There's a density to Christopher Salvesen's poetry that, just for a moment, might daunt the casual reader, but once you've taken the plunge, you quickly realise that there's great depth, too.
That's partly because he shows great patience as a writer—he favours long, often broadly iambic lines, and many of the poems here stretch well beyond a page. This isn't a poet writing with one eye on competitions, or even magazines.
Through that unhurried (although never casual or half-formed) style, he approaches his subjects and themes with a quietly musical insistence that serves to fix them in the mind. As the title might suggest, the landscape of the Borders is always present, a place in which land, sea and sky bleed into each other, as in the opening poem The Estuary:
Above all the curlew, its evening call
Long carried carrying loud across the sky,
So like the land out over which it spills
Telling of running water, wiry grass,
Wind on the grey stones and the cold blue clarity
That deepens with the coming on of night.
History and religion, both pet subjects of mine, are two of the areas he visits repeatedly, yet the real highlights of the book for me are the pieces centred on his Second World War childhood, a subject which he views with that same "cold blue clarity" already evoked.
Chiaroscuro, for instance, opens with:
"I knew my father's anger was his love":
It sounds a line to end with, and it was,
Those many childless years ago I wrote it,
Part of a poem left in disarray.
This isn't mere nostalgia—Salvesen remembers everything, and tells it to the reader unflinchingly.
If I had a gripe, it was that the shorter, sometimes strictly rhymed poems were concentrated towards the end of the book rather than interspersed throughout, which gave a slight feeling of running out of steam. That said, they were done with all the skill and restraint Salvesen shows elsewhere, and do nothing to diminish the pleasure of reading this admirable collection.