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Nothing romantic here.

A Fortnightly Review.













New and Selected Poems (1966-2020)
By Donald Gardner

Grey Suit, London 2021| 228 pp | £14.95


LIKE PESSOA (WHOM he evidences in a poem) and his heteronyms, or – closer – John Berryman with Henry, Donald Gardner works through an alter ego. But without pretending. Gradually, the reader can identify that other ‘I’. Disenchanted (but never cynical); mordant; long-suffering; uncomplaining; an outsider. He belongs in a world of garbage rounds, missed trains, forgotten sandwiches, fierce-lit office blocks, motor cycles… A Woodbine world. As the end of that world approaches, the response is typically bizarre:

…so we made ourselves make something,
fried potatoes, some salad leaves,
no dressing, and a bit of fish…

Gardner might belong to Lowry country, another stick-figure; he has something in common with the tatty world of Philip Larkin.

That ’no dressing’ detail is not only funny in the context of the coming cataclysm; it also says so much about the subject’s life-style, a stroke of genius. The lines are from ‘Hardly News’, one of the gems in this collection, with its mix of wit, the absurd, the down-at-heel, and what approaches surreal craziness – behind which the protagonist hides. Such a got-at, bumbling, inadequate figure – a British Everyman – is the one we mostly meet in this Collection, and Gardner exploits the heteronym to full effect. He might belong to Lowry country, another stick-figure; he has something in common with the tatty world of Philip Larkin. Nothing romantic here.

At its best, these poems are both witty and wickedly pointed. Here is modern man, a poet, never fitting in but always well aware of the banalities and idiocies surrounding him, yes, but also of the underlying pathos of what might be called a commuter lifestyle:

…silence coagulating between passengers.
poker-faced sadnesses behind newspapers.…

As in this memorable poem, ‘Train Drain’, the poet is well aware of the poignancy underlying the grim ordinariness of much urban living. Generally, the impact is registered with a kind of oblique irony. Only occasionally is the mask of this alter ego allowed to slip and the feeling floods in directly, more powerful for the restraint with which it is generally concealed:

…and this is what breaks the heart –
how redundant we have always been … (‘Dust Sheet’).


…It is as if
I’d spent my whole life
in the dentist’s waiting room…

Irony is never far away, and like the unforced humour, it seems like a form of protection, of keeping strong emotion in check. That said, the wit is often delightful in itself, as in the hilarious ‘My Honeymoon With Myself’ where he explores various honeymoon clichés – but with himself as spouse, finishing,

Still the nagging doubt:
I wasn’t quite sure if I was a virgin.

The collection is worth having for this poem alone.

Apart from the humour (according to Kavanagh, ‘the most poetic thing in existence’ and a welcome antidote here to so much modern grimness in poetry – the school of walking into the silence) there are other delights too. I greatly admire Gardner’s mastery of precise, unexpected, everyday imagery: ‘the irritable cough of the unwell’; ‘a crane slices the evening sky’; ‘the counting of small change’; ’Nobody buys our books except in jumble sales’; ‘lifted like a damp towel’. Such facility is a given in this collection and a reminder that Gardner brings a poet’s eye to our everyday, making us see what we had not noticed.

I prefer the later poems, when Gardner’s battle for form is more fully resolved, and could do without the couple of prose poems and the rhyming exercises. That said, I have no hesitation in hailing this book and saluting a different and delightful poetic voice.

DESMOND EGAN’s latest collection is Epic (The Goldsmith Press, 2015).

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