Attention paid

R. F. Langley

Complete Poems

Complete Poems

R. F. Langley

Carcanet Press Ltd. 2015, 144 pages, $19.99, ISBN 978-1784100643

The forty-eight poems collected in this volume are the sum total completed by R. F. Langley during his seventy-two-year lifespan, but they contain an outsize vibrancy that intensifies on rereading. They are not well known on this side of the Atlantic, but hopefully this book will start to change that. Their range is not wide — indeed, it is consciously circumscribed (recurring subjects include insects and arachnids, Italian Renaissance art, the Suffolk countryside, church interiors, looking, and writing about looking) — but the attention and thinking they condense is considerable. Although darker intimations do intrude, their typical tone is one of gleeful wonder, always tethered to accurate perception and sustained reflection — a species of serious play:

Often. Often. The same
rubbed round bodies of the
stones. Hit after hit. The
thorough hammering. No
cutlery. Brute conflict
and a restful nonsense.
Now five thousand starlings
no one ever counted
have settled in the reeds.[1]

Personification is incessant in Langley’s work, coupled with doubt over the efficacy (and ethics) of personification. From “Depending on the Weather”:

                                                         Dread hunts my ground as a
tiger beetle, reeves my quiet as a wasp.
I learn their manners and disguise myself as
them. But their movements figure out themselves. They
never choke on cake. It’s a mistake to wish
that they could speak. (98)

This pattern repeats: the urge to identify, the catch of thought, the chastened reformulation — and so on.

Langley has affinities with earlier observers of nature such as John Clare and (especially) Gerard Manley Hopkins, but possesses too a distinctly twentieth-century skepticism about the fraught relationship between object, perception, and imagination. Internal rhyme and alliteration — for Hopkins tokens and guarantees of a unified and deliberate creation — become, in Langley’s poems, semi-ironic reminders of the text’s artificial status, warnings that finding the apt and nonbetraying phrase is the subjective poet’s perpetual task and frustration:

The window. The wineglass. A
yew tree inside it, upside
down, far away and very
distinct. A cautious chaffinch
sits tight through the shift of the
consonants. The needles are
green. The bird knows it is pink. (90)

Yet, to the besotted etymologist, words have life and, observed as actively as one might observe a spider or painting, are as fit — inevitable? — a subject as any. Word, object, sight, contemplation are forever merging and disentangling here, merging and disentangling.

Langley’s technical control — seen clearest in those poems in strict syllabics but evident everywhere — is exemplary, and a sort of synecdoche for his whole approach as poet. As the examples above show, the combination of short and long sentences, fragments, brash alliteration, and abrupt enjambment can feel haphazard and questing during the initial experience of reading, but is always deeply pondered and crafted (and crafty). His lines work a management of surprise:

                         Individuals voice their
scorn mixed now with some satisfaction. They

slaughtered birds but represented very
few. Why paint a sorcerer dancing when
you are a sorcerer and can dance? (142)

(A favorite “trick” is to enjamb a line after an article, starting a new line fresh on a sharp noun or precise adjective: “The stanza is a / born dancer” [106]. Thus, the “real” appears to rear up.)

Hinging Langley’s lifework was the discovery of the character “Jack,” and it is a happy consequence of Jeremy Noel-Tod’s loving curatorship — choosing to go with the text of 1994’s Twelve Poems rather than the earlier chapbook publications or later Collected Poems (2002) — that this Complete Poems opens with his advent in “Man Jack”:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.
And he must come along, and he must stay
close, be quick and right, your little cousin
Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on
edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn
face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the
folded leaf, the important straw. (5)

The four further poems that feature Jack explicitly sustain this high pitch of energetic involvement and music, as Jack operates as combination avatar and irritant, scout and conscience, alter ego and unruly charge. Always potential in the earlier poems and lingering in spirit even after Langley retires him, Jack embodies a key aspect of this poetry: that it successfully dramatizes — projects — what are essentially interior philosophic and aesthetic ruminations, and makes them urgent, necessary, universal even. One senses Shakespeare — always a lodestar (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream might still be the answer to everything”[2]) — behind this. Langley’s natural fit is the mid-length “conversation poem,” and even the occasional shorter poems are more considered meditations than blurted lyrics. Yet there is nothing flat or maudlin about them; all is spark and illumination. There is something paradoxical in this; if one imagines the “scene” of most of these poems, one is likely to picture stillness, quiet, intense concentration. Somehow the disjunction — over which Jack resides as familiar spirit — only renders the poems more attractive.

So, all — all! — this book represents is both a set of discrete, wrought objects and a record of one individual human’s irreplaceable sensibility and experience of experience. They are, in the words of one perfect early title, “ecstasy inventories” (15) — welcoming repositories of great gusto and “loved Philology.”[3] Their world is inhabited, minutely, and waiting:

a heron wades and

his deliberations are
proposing ripples

which reflect on
him, run silver

collars up his
neck, chuckle his

chin, then thin to
sting the silence

where he points
his beak.

His round
and rigid eye.

Perhaps he knows
he is caressed. (130)

1. R. F. Langley, Complete Poems, ed. Jeremy Noel-Tod (Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press, 2015), 113.

2. See “R. F. Langley,” The Poetry Archive.

3. Emily Dickinson, “A word made flesh is seldom,” Dickinson Electronic Archives.