Heartache in His Head
How Snow Falls
Atlantic Books, 2010
How Snow Falls, Craig Raine’s new collection of poems, exhibits a fascination with irreverent and surprising elegy. In “I Remember My Mother Dying”, the second poem in the book, Raine has borrowed the central device of I Remember (1970), a memoir-cum-poem by the American writer and artist Joe Brainard. Brainard’s bright, idiosyncratic bricolage took shape around the refrain, “I Remember”, but Raine has used the same phrase to build something sparser and sadder, a poem of reified memory-flashes leaping from the ignoble to the transfixingly weird. The poem is not polite: “Every time a hair was plucked, / she sighed, almost like someone being slowly fucked.” Raine rhymes obtrusively, the shock lies as much in the line-break as in the image itself; there’s no getting past that second verb, and nobody can make this elegy make nice. Raine’s world is full of raw, solid things. His dead are very dead, and not pretty (his mother’s lips are “wide open, vampiric, chapped”).
Equally controversial is the collection’s final poem, “A la recherche du temps perdu”, previously released by Picador in 2000. On its publication, John Kinsella attacked the poem as self-centred, a clever-clever misappropriation of its subject (a lover who died from the AIDS virus). This is an odd charge to level at Raine, since it seems to demand that mourning be purged of egotism, an elegiac model which both “A la recherche” and “I Remember My Mother Dying” seek to undo. Raine has often praised the moment when Dickens permits a young David Copperfield to feel “important in my affliction”, dignified among schoolboys by his mother’s death, and many of the poems in How Snow Falls are interested in sweeping away pieties to examine such perverse nuances of grief.
Death and debility are ubiquitous presences in the collection. “La Médica Harkevitch” defiantly exchanges the poet’s vision for conventional mourning, with its insistent, emboldened phrase: “I prefer to think of you alive.” Raine focuses his poetic microscope on a parting kiss; pretending to observe an unobservable level of detail, lips are pressed together and seem to wound the air:
But then you pressed
her hand, made your mouth make a kiss.
Its laminates compressed,
the bow was strung with waxed cord.
Atoms on the inside were crushed,
outside atoms were lonely.
Even when the poems are not overtly concerned with dying or with old age, they nevertheless reach for metaphorical language drawn from medicine and physical pain: snuffing up snow is like “the sinusitis of perfume / without the perfume”, and a magnolia tree “parts with its petals / as if by a course of chemo”. “On the Slopes” turns on two corresponding struggles: climbing through deep snow after a fall while skiing, and the difficult, imagined business of dying. There are no minutely observed last kisses here. The poet is caught in a spasm of effort which seems lonely, yet oddly pure, reminiscent of Donne’s questing traveller, who “about must and about must go” to reach, at the top of a vast hill, a distant “Truth”. In “On the Slopes”, the stated ideal is a place “where it will be possible to stop”, but Raine has shrunk the hill and emphasised its ambiguity. Anyone might struggle with a big, Donnean crag; this hill is “small”, but even so, impossible, difficult, and inescapable.
Such intimate and overwhelming difficulties also lie behind one of the best moments in “High Table”, otherwise a racy Oxbridge poem crisply satirising a gaggle of dons. Alan Howard, the music fellow, hears a visiting geneticist argue for the elimination of “mistakes”, and is moved to confess his intense shame at having spina bifida, causing his inability to “take my clothes off… / even for a prostitute.” Reflecting Raine’s interest in the transposition of devotional writing to a fleshier key, Howard has “a line of George Herbert / like heartache in his head: / ‘Love bade me welcome…’” The frightened drawing-back of the soul imagined by Herbert has been replaced with a more contemporary form of self-disgust: the disabled body intruding upon on era that demands perfection. A crushing sense of restraint governs Howard’s last lines:
Close to tears
which he keeps from his voice:
“But I wouldn’t want
to be weeded out. By anyone.”
The state of being close to tears does not equate with what Raine called, in his recent novel Heartbreak (2010), the “non-negotiable, fixed rate moral currency” of tears themselves; it is less-than-weeping, just as Alan Howard’s desire remains less-than-loving, yet even this diminished grief must be scrubbed from his voice like a stain. The withering of feeling is Raine’s bête noire, yet he seems compelled to revisit those who play out such games of loss. Indeed, Howard’s desolate turning-away from desire parallels the most critically admired strand of Raine’s Heartbreak, which explored similar themes.
How Snow Falls is far less gloomy than Raine’s preoccupations might lead us to expect, however. The collection includes effervescent, playful pieces, such as “51 Ways to Lose a Balloon”, which mimics a child’s observational acuities, and “A Festive Poem for Albie Marber”, in which Raine re-deploys the audacious rhymes of “A la recherche du temps perdu”, but without the tragedy. The poems are studded with the striking images which made Raine’s name: in “Davos Documentary B&W”, snow-wrapped chalets are “packed in Styrofoam”; the college Butler, half-out of his motorcycle leathers, is “Marsyas / upper body hanging, peeled / to the pubic bone.” Raine’s poetics of verbal surprise are most effective in two particular contexts. One is the widening of his mimetic lens from static, if brilliant, instants of visual correspondence to more extended actions, as when the Samurai’s wife, in “Rashomon”, pushes through the undergrowth: “The bamboo squeezed itself against her flesh / as if the place itself were passionate.” Here, desire has soaked into the description itself; in “Venice”, Raine’s approach is different, and the emotion that lifts the image above easy comparisons is simply stated:
I love the waiters going home,
bow ties undone,
like a pair of shades
in their fly-fronted shirts.
The poet does not say he loves to watch these waiters, although watching is implied: he sees, then writes. The truth is that he loves not just his own response, nor the eventual poem—but them, the real men who pass by as he sits “shelling walnuts”. This moment unites the two qualities which help How Snow Falls to resist its dominant theme of inexorable, realist grief: a commitment to describing life’s good, actual things, and the admission of a stubborn love for them.
Chloe Stopa-Hunt graduated in 2010 with a BA in English from New College, Oxford.