Dannie Abse. New Selected Poems. The Sheep Meadow Press, 2012.
Dannie Abse is one among a notable group of English-language poets who have made their living as a medical doctor. Thomas Campion and Henry Vaughan were trained physicians, and one thinks most obviously of William Carlos Williams and Keats before him. (Keats had extensive medical training, although he never practiced.) Gael Turnbull, the Scottish poet who spent time in both Canada and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, was also a doctor, and there are many other less well-known examples. Abse turned ninety last year. (Sheep Meadow Press’s publication announcement unaccountably gets his date of birth wrong. He was born in 1923, not 1925.) His career as a writer (he has published novels, criticism, plays and other work in addition to poetry) goes back to the 1940s, and while he writes about his experiences as a doctor relatively seldom in his poetry, it seems clear that his attention to the details of sensory life and his care for people are part of the sensibility of a man trained in medicine. In one poem, he describes the “old doctor,” presumably himself, as a “confidence man for the patient.” One supposes that the con is being played on nature or God, although Abse makes it quite clear that God does not figure strongly in his world.
Abse has been publishing poetry since 1948 or 1949 (there is some confusion in published sources about the date of his first book, After Every Green Thing), and this new selection seems to cover most of his active years of writing. A few poems are dated—usually because they have been revised—but most are not, and there is no indication in the collection of where the poems first appeared in book form. His voice, over a sixty-year period, is remarkably consistent, although he does begin as a more formal poet than he ends. Still, the book’s final poem, “Valediction,” consists of two rhyming couplets and seems to revert to his earlier style. It is hard to say who his influences have been, since he sounds unlike the major British poets of his generation. He was, for example, born just a year after Philip Larkin, but he completely lacks Larkin’s snide quality and his strategic use of rhyme and meter for undisguised anathema. Dylan Thomas (a fellow Welshman) was a decade older and Geoffrey Hill a decade younger, and Abse sounds like neither of them. He is a modernist in Amy Lowell’s sense of concentrating his poems primarily on what she called “exteriority,” but he can also sound more formal than most modernists. Perhaps Auden is his obvious master, certainly more so than D.H. Lawrence or the American modernists like Eliot and Pound.
Most Audenesque perhaps is a wonderful poem entitled “Praise May Thither Fly,” a title taken from a George Herbert poem. While Herbert wants to praise God and King, Abse wishes to praise the “Old Masters,” whose presence in the first line (“Let us praise the blaspheming Old Masters”) inevitably reminds one of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The adamantine rhythms in this poem feel almost ritualistic:
All, all sycophants of magic,
all flea bitten, mosquito bitten, lice infested,
smelly practitioners of the absurd
who by indirections found directions out
—this ordinary man, that ordinary man,
one minute a sinner, the next a seer.
In a different register is the sly and convincing rhythm of Abse’s “Sloppy Love Poem,” a poem that starts out with a direct reference to Catullus V (“‘Let’s kiss 1000 times / and after, count 1000 more’.”) before passing to his own take on Catullus and Lesbia flagrantes:
But one loose kiss or two
undid their duff agenda
for in their douce and moaning
dovecot they hardly knew who
was who or who was what
and forgot to count the number.
(I’m unsure of what “duff” in this context means, but it sounds quite fetching, and “their douce and moaning / dovecot” is a lovely touch.) From here the poem veers predictably into Abse’s own erotic world, and charmingly so. “Come angel-face, ginger eyes, / juicy Joan, let’s grease the pot,” it concludes. This is a different voice from that of “Thither,” but it is equally assured and convincing, funny and emotional at one and the same time. Perhaps any poet who believes that “life’s on lease,” as Abse has Ovid say in “Ovid’s Wish,” will be a good love poet. “A Doctor’s Love Song” is perhaps a little too goofy in its genuflections (“When you’re faraway I’m cold, / when you’re near I almost scald” etc.), and more prosy in its line construction. But in general, Abse is at his most attractive when playing the part of lover.
New Selected Poems concludes with a short series of unrelated longer poems, and these I find less effective. “The Smile Was,” for example, about Abse’s experiences as an attending physician watching women smile after they give birth, feels slack and unformed, too close to prose despite his use of the line as a syntactical pointer:
not for one single death
can I forget we die with the dead,
and the world dies with us;
in one, lonely,
small child’s birth
all the tall dead rise
to break the crust of the imperative earth.
The emotion here is impeccable, but the poetry does not quite rise to become its equal. Two further long poems (“Funland” and “Events Leading to the Conception of Solomon, the Wise Child”) are not especially compelling, and the final piece, “Carnal Knowledge,” in which Abse conjures his training in anatomy and remembers the corpse that was his to work with for months (“you, X, legless, armless, headless Thing / that I dissected so casually”) has its moments, but concludes a bit too obviously in an image of the poet winding a clock before retiring to bed. Time and its predations!
Abse at his most conventional can be awkward (“I have seen, visible, Death’s artefact / like a soldier’s ribbon on a tunic tacked”), but he evolved into a poet of fewer conventionalities as he matured; and although a fine poem like “Praise May Thither Fly” embodies a certain conventional music and is nevertheless of a high quality, Abse is perhaps most accomplished when he combines his doctor’s eye and his lover’s heart with a music that embodies rather than illustrates the particulars he wishes to record. The tragic death of his wife in a car accident a decade ago brought forth the moving memorial poem “Lachrymae,” touchingly placed in this book following a group of love poems written when she was still alive, and here Abse is simple and open-hearted, and his rhyme seems unostentatiously to arise like a natural thing:
Now, solemn, I watch
the spellbound moon again,
its unfocused clone drowned
in Hampstead’s rush-dark pond
where a lone swan sings
without a sound.