Smith/Doorstop Books, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Trevor McCandless, Marcia Menter and Ben Parker
I really liked these poems—in fact, much more than liked them.
There is something about a writer being able to capture life in all its vividness that makes such superb writing an utter joy. And time and again, and in poem after poem, Maitreyabandhu was able to capture life. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he traced these from photographs. They leap from the page. They leave your flesh tingling with the warmth of a stolen touch.
I liked the poems about his father best of all. But if I’m to give you a feel for his poetry, it would be hard to go past this last stanza of ‘Uchida from the Choir Stalls’:
There’s a place in Poland, or so I’m told, where all
the men are carpenters and all the houses wood.
Apple trees crowd around their doors, paths lead to pines
and hewn titanic oaks. All the men have wolf-cub eyes
and make pencil calculations on their walls. Their speech
is large and deliberate like the writing desks they build;
even their breakfast bowls are teak, and all their spoons
and knives. Leaf-light shines in at their rooms, catching
walnut beds and jugs. At night they hum a Polish tune:
it is long and very sad, though no one knows the words.
The three or four poems with childhood or adolescent homosexual encounters are beautifully understated—but then all of his poems are. If there was anything odd, it was that they seemed to have been clustered together, and I would have dispersed them more throughout the collection.
There's a confidence behind the writing here, a certainty that the reader will understand, and that allows the poet just to paint his wonderful images. Pure delight.
First I had to get past the poet’s name, a serious Buddhist one. (‘Maitreya’ is the Buddha of the future, who will return to usher in a new age and teach the principles of enlightenment. ‘Bandhu’ is a Sanskrit term signifying someone bound in friendship or love.) That name was the elephant in the room as I read this little black pamphlet. Would the poet, the author of two books on Buddhism, attempt to enlighten me in some way? (I’d resist that.) Would he subtly or unsubtly imply that he knows things I don’t?
Not a bit. By and large, these are the sort of poems you’d expect to find in a first collection, memoirs of childhood and adolescence. But they are definitely Buddhist poems, in the sense that Buddhism is about trying to see what’s right in front of you—and I mean just see it, not massage it, not interpret it, not tie it up with a bow. They are quiet poems that dwell in their moment and make the moment shimmer.
The boy who enters ‘The Coat Cupboard’ does not find a magical CS Lewis world “where beavers can talk”; he finds a reality that’s stranger still:
is pressed against lambswool, which smells of camphor,
ink and dogs, Your fingers, unaccountably small and white,
ferret in the pockets of a waxed raincoat,
among coins and balled-up silver paper, receipts
and pencil shavings. You find a set of keys without their
brightness or warmth of handling
Ultimately he pulls out his grandmother’s lipstick, “the 50’s pink/ [ . . . ] still shaped to the curve of her lip.” That’s all. Nouns are packed together in this poem like the shoes and garments in that cupboard, and they vibrate the way things do when you really look at them.
There are many resonating images here: old hammers lovingly refurbished by his father, hung in plastic bags to marinate in linseed oil (‘Hammers’). The room where his dead grandmother lies, “cold/ and too clean”, smelling of “iodine and tin”, so quiet “it made/ the air peel off us like a skin” (‘The Viewing’). In one poem, there’s a genuine vision: a boy closes his eyes and sees a boiled egg, which contains a garden, which contains his parents and an enamel bathtub, which contains a mouse at the bottom of the drain, which contains . . . the boy. Nouns inside nouns inside nouns, evoking a consciousness awakening to itself (‘The Small Boy and the Mouse’).
Several poems are about sexual explorations with another boy, and these too are quiet, dwelling on memories of the place where the two would meet, a secret den among “nettles/ and the smell of wild garlic”. The poet is determined to see his own memories as they are, unreliable and easily distorted. The only nakedness here is his own naked eye.
Placed as it is before the contents page, it is hard not to read the poem ‘This’ as a statement of purpose, or at least as a comment on the book that follows. The eight-line poem concerns a thrush singing, observed by the poet. The first stanza defends the poet, “There’s no law against my listening”, while the second defends the thrush, “There’s no law against this singing”. Both stanzas end “Whatever else there is, there’s this as well. There seem to be two related ways of reading this poem, firstly and most straightforwardly, it's a hymn to simple pleasures, the last lines serving as a reminder that whatever other distractions may be available, there is always bird song. The second way to read it, is as a defence of the poem itself, and the type of poem it represents: observational, lyrical, addressed to nature. In this reading, the “Whatever else” can be read as avant-garde or political verse, or writing that is defiantly modern or metropolitan.
Both these readings are supported by the work that follows, concerned as it often is with remembered childhood and youthful discovery, often in pastoral settings. The titles of the poems alone conjure this world: ‘The Small Boy and the Mouse’, ‘A Few Fields’, ‘The Woodpigeon’s Instruction’. Maitreyabandhu is working in a style that breaks no new ground, but the poems he writes are beautiful acts of restrained lyricism that defy the persistent urge to move forward and do not suffer any loss of impact as a result of this.
The highlight of this collection is the narrative that subtly unfolds in the six poems from ‘History’ to ‘Retrospect’. Maitreyabandhu describes how he and another boy, later identified as Stephen, would meet after school and that they “knelt together and touched but hardly ever spoke.”
In the next poem, ‘The Cutting’, this burgeoning relationship has developed to the point where the narrator “managed to lift his shirt and touch his side”.
By the fifth poem the two have a “usual stopping place” and lie down together next to a “fallen willow/ by the brook”. This recalls the willow growing askance a brook where Ophelia drowns, and it ominously foreshadows the final poem in the sequence, which in lines such as “the story won’t make sense, the facts/ you left too small to be given consequence”, seems to imply Stephen has passed away.
It is characteristic of Maitreyabandhu’s poems, and it is where their strengths lie, that the sequence dwells not on the joy of the developing relationship, or on the grief of its tragic end, but rather on careful observations of actions and setting, conjuring the events with far more clarity than more obviously emotional writing.