The Poetry of Alan Jenkins

In the Hot House (1988)

Greenheart (1990)

Harm (1994)

The Drift (2000)

The Shorter Life (2005)

 

By David Harrolsson

Carol Ann Duffy wrote “ To read him is to understand what it is to be male.” This is the “erotic energy, rage, sorrow and confusion” David Lehman found. Other contributions praise his ‘technical finesse”, “wit and astuteness”.

His first two books are striking for their open narratives of erotic misadventure, his courage to follow up the naïve mindsets of youth, and to allow equal measure to all. There are no winners in these shifting panoramas of relationships: people meet or not meet, miss to find out later where in fact they did meet etc

The background music to these poems, and he is at pains to give us the music of the time: Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’, Cream… I would suggest is the deep music of Leonard Cohen. Jenkins' heroes are damaged survivors.

The monotone belies the variousness of Jenkins' elegiac; he acknowledges: “I was once told… there is a tension… between a very English understated, conversational voice, and a residue of the French symbolist poets ….”

The erotic adventures take on the guise of a search for meaning, within relationships, with parents, but also with society, culture. There is an ongoing discourse with European art and literature. We have poems set around the Mediterranean, and inevitably Northern Ireland, North America; also London, Paris.

What first drew me to his writing was the expertise, the deft handling of personal lyric, warping it out into greater resonances, disconcerting realms. His first book I find the rawness of subject matter unappealing:

                        … when one of them, sucking ostentatiously

                         on the remains of a joint  and extinguishing the rest

                         just below your left breast

                         slams back the bolt

                         of a hand-gun he has slid….,    (Politics)

 - it spirals into B-movie hell. For me the best is Greenheart, the subject matter is viewed through frames, lenses: Isaac preparing for his sacrifice transforms into a painter’s model, by way of painter’s catamount, and the poem’s focus the portrait contemplated.

The poise that this framing allows enables greater flexibility:

                              …………………………

                              Do you hear? The rain falls

                              on this abandoned

                              forest-growth

                              with a rustling

                              that comes and goes

                              deepens, fades on the air…..

                               ………………………

                                                             (Rain in the Pine-Forest (from D’Annunzio))

The lightness of touch is exquisite without becoming precious. The Island Muse is a sequence of nine poems after the nine muses, and all in sonnet form. Each poems’ last line begins the next.

Is Carol Ann Duffy correct: is this what it is to be male?

There is a kind of reductionism going on. Combine this with, “(his) work always relished exposure… pulling back the sheet… lifting up the stone… reopening the old wound…”: he is paring back to get at the core of relationships. All he has found is pain.

The subject matter seems more character-specific than gender-specific.

He asserts Freud says the elegiac is “connected with the death-instinct”, “a negativity”; it comes as little surprise the stripped-back visceral rawness would lead us to Harm. What is distinctive in this volume, sends up a ‘Beware’ signal, is the relish in the onrush; the rhythms are more pronounced, the music less. We have, now:

                        …………………..

                        when every good intended

                        like the harm unmended

                        is stripped and flayed by sodium light

                        all that I’ve kept hidden

                        comes back unbidden,

                        and nothing, now, will be all right.  

                                                          (Nocturne)

 

Harm won the 1995 Forward Prize. Where does Harm leave us?

There he was, on the tv! The programme was about Depression, about the efficacy of Prozac as a treatment. He agreed to try it, not without a deal of trepidation.

With The Drift and The Shorter Life the poems on his dead parents are there as always ; a new structure to these books is apparent; “ecologues to the recently dead (Brodsky, Kathy Acker…)”; the “failed relationships”; and the ”evocations of “ south “London family life” in late fifties, early sixties.

The poise and delicacy of Greenheart has become “lamp-eyed brooding” (D J Taylor) with echoes of Eliot’s Prufrock in Galatea, Betjeman in Tales of the Riverbank. But the scarifying honesty is still there. There is also a possibility of a kind of redemption, through compassion. This is new. This is more than expected:

       ………………………………..

         Young women with damp hollows, downy arms,

         bare burnished legs - you see them striding

         towards their plant-filled  offices, riding

         bicycles to flatshares after work; lunchtimes, you stare

         as secretaries, backpackers tanned from birth

         peel off their things and stretch on sun-warmed earth.

         A few of them stare back... As if they'd share

         their world of holidays and weekend farms 

 

         with you!

        …………………………………..

         they seem to say, beyond the mortgage, car and wife -

         I am what you deserve, I am the buried life

 

         you will never live.

         ……………………

                                           (The Love of Unknown Women,

                                               The Black Book limited edition)