Probably no two English poets could be less alike than the late U. A. Fanthorpe and the still very much alive Craig Raine. Yet, both are closer to each other in certain tacit aspects of style and outlook than either is to Anthony Thwaite, who occupies a promontory all his own. In How Snow Falls, his first collection in a decade, Raine once again displays the weird and unsettling Martian phosphorescence that brought him early acclaim. He sees the world aslant, often jarringly so. (Who else could say of his dead father in his coffin: "His face was the colour/of old glazed cheddar" and get away with it?) By contrast, Fanthorpe's massive New & Collected Poems, which in its plump, squat thickness wholly commandeers the hand, is quite resolutely of this earth. In "Men on Allotments," from her first collection Side Effects, she wrote that her Sunday gardeners "know how much/Patience and energy and sense of poise/It takes to be an onion". Fanthorpe knew it too; she understood the onion's dense aplomb, as though from within, and all her strongest poems — there are impressively many — have the layered translucence of things fresh plucked from the soil.
Study in chaos: Craig Raine's Oxford room (Photograph courtesy of Eamonn McCabe)
What these two dissimilar poets have in common, perhaps surprisingly, is a quite precise compassion of eye. Their clear-sightedness can appear cruel. In "A la recherche du temps perdu," one of two long, and quite moving, elegies which frame his collection, Raine spares us no detail of a long-dead lover's anatomy; he is precise in describing the facial hair which so distressed her and in fact, he numbers those hairs: "Twenty. Just under the chin." It is "one of the facts" about her, "like the long guard hairs on a fox."
And he is meticulous in evoking the "fine scissors,/made in Germany, curvilinear", with which she clipped them. Such details could veer all too easily into either bathos or farce. By dwelling so insistently, indeed obsessively, on those "tiny, shining, sparse, glint-black" chin hairs, which looked "like surgical stitches", Raine slowly and stubbornly resuscitates his dead lover. She is never named but we feel her sheer physical presence become almost palpable on the page. Raine can even risk a low pun, as when he parodies the first line of Sir Thomas Wyatt's venerable poem as "They fle from me that sometyme did me tweke." Raine's 40-page poem, made of rough, deliberately clanking couplets and drawing on rhymes of every sort — woozy off-rhymes (caffeine/coffin, vanish/varnish), docked echoes (Kleenex/box), macaronic rhymes (moussaka/pukkha), rime riche, the whole assonantal gamut, in fact — is an astonishing tour de force.