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David Chaloner
Collected Poems
Salt (2005), £18.99
ISBN 1876857757


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    Geoffrey Hill


It's possible, perhaps, to see two strands of working-class poetic thought emerge in the late fifties: on the one hand, there's the earnest, individualist, self-consciously committed stance of Jon Silkin and the Leeds crew; on the other hand, the affirmative, counter-culture inflected denizens of the small press scene. There are different forms of resistance, and often a condition of their existing at all is a mutual distrust, if not a mutual incomprehension. One might draw up an informative map of contemporary poetry by plotting the points where these opacities of communication occur. At the boundaries of abutting misunderstandings, perhaps, is where poetry might still have some relevance beyond the perpetuation of the neo-lavender. The question of what is and is not representable haunts the poems in David Chaloner's collected, which move between the elegant, almost patrician syntax and eloquent spacing of the poems from Dark Pages  Slow Turns  Brief Salves (1969) to the hovering abstractions and failures of language in some of the later work. His poems are rarely difficult if one knows what to expect: reality pulses in and out of the poems, and its absence is a condition of its presence:

sunlight slants in through the window
clouds are heaped together
                                                   travelling so that
    they obliterate and emphasise
                                                            the blue
I have little appetite
preferring to drink coffee
and read a book of poems
to which I am not giving
my fullest attention

nothing seems very concise today
what is present
is a network
                     of variations
the vague and lethal stillness
a recently discovered
                            lack of reality
            in all its chill and eventless glory

The patterning of words on the page is given close attention in these early poems, as if the determining power of reality over lexical positioning were engaged in a quarrel with the poet over the possibility of representation. The (presumable) whiteness of the clouds 'obliterate[s] and emphasise[s]' the blue, forming a moving, abstract pattern recreated on the page in the staggered margins; while the solitary noun, 'the blue', isolated and thus drained of referential meaning, questions the transparency of language and introduces the 'network / of variations' submerged by the language we use to refer to our quotidian appetites.

Issues of selection, representation, and patterning are a constant theme from the earliest work to the most recent. While it's fashionable to deride as parochial poetry about making poetry, the kind of self-reflexion that structures Chaloner's work is valuable on an Earth swarming with so many mutually-uncomprehending ways of writing poetry that the term has almost become so diffuse as to be meaningless. What Andrew Crozier, on the back of the book, describes as Chaloner's 'core consistency' is the passage from world to language, the event that leaves in its wake the poem. We see this from the evocation, in the early uncollected poem 'leaning overů', of a writer working by the light of his Mallarméan lamp ('surprising then from that // this poem'), to the more recent serial-aphoristic style of poems like 'The Edge': 'And severed patterns emerge / In the diminishing wake of strict attention'. It's worth emphasising that these are severed patterns. His poems are investigations into the relationship between the self and creation, of the line, finally, drawn by the poet around what he knows and is able to represent from the flux around him:
Surface tension segregates the random influence
of a hand sampling water
from the muscular twitch of shining fins.    ('Shoal')
Can a poem contain too much knowledge? How much is enough? Is it something you can see, and does representing something mean knowing it? Gertrude Stein, in her lecture 'What are Master-pieces and why are there so few of them' draws a distinction between knowing and doing:
There is a great deal of nonsense talked about the subject of anything. After all there is always the same subject there are the things you see and there are human beings and animal beings and everybody you might say since the beginning of time knows practically commencing at the beginning and going to the end everything about these things.
The simple adjustment of words or brush-strokes to conform to something seen and known, Stein argues, produces work which may be popular but will always be dull. The true master-piece is the result of a period of non-identity, of entity, and her own poetry represents the struggle to portray the world without resorting to the stack of remembered perceptions piled up in our minds. Chaloner's Collected, generously stocked as it is with love poems, family memoirs, occasional pieces and travel poems, contains more 'doors and windows' (to use Andrew Duncan's phrase) than much experimental poetry. But this letting of the world into the work generates a surface tension which sharpens the edges of these elegant, moving, funny poems.

© Signals 2006