February 2010

It is in many ways a great honour to be allowed into this book.[1] The poet, bereft of his wife of 29 years, has written a short poetic memoir that seems neither indulgent nor egotistical, in which he seems to find his effects almost accidentally.

Christopher Reid and Lucinda Gane, 1976 wedding

It will be recalled that on two occasions in the Gospels Jesus utters similar sayings:

“He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”[2]

But again, perhaps more inclusively, he also puts the statement in its reverse form:

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”[3]

These then are the ancestral memories that gather around a word. Christopher may also wish to suggest the scattering of ashes that did not occur for Lucinda (20 October 1949 – 6 October 2005) since, at her request, her body was donated to medical research; as a result, the poet reflects, as he passes the Institute,

I hope they’re treating her kindly.[4]

Published four years after her death from a brain cancer, A Scattering is a book in four sections and benefits from its own organic form:

  1. The Flowers of Crete. These are nine poems chronicling the last holiday the couple took, when they knew she was ill, but were able to accept the invitation of a friend to visit Crete. Lucinda hardly appears in this section, which deals conventionally enough with landscape, monastery, flora, ruins. The ‘husband’ is still preoccupied with his role as ‘poet’.

Glib analogies!

Makeshift rhymes!

Please pardon the crimes

of your husband the poet,

as he mazes the pages

of his notebook, in pursuit

of some safe way out.

  1. Then, quite without warning, we are pitched into the second section, The Unfinished, a section of 11 numbered but untitled poems, which begin with the moment of Lucinda’s death and work chronologically backwards to the occasion of her last hospice admission when she suggests champagne as a favourite drink to the ambulance attendants.
  1. A Widowers Dozen, like a baker’s, consists in 13 titled poems, all written in the aftermath and capably exploring the incidental pitch and roll of the poet’s continuing reactions.
  1. Finally, there is a section closer in form to a notebook than a placard of polished elegiac, and much the better for it, Lucinda’s Way. In this section Lucinda appears in her unique, vibrant and multifarious character, truly a force of nature:

When that quack put you on a punishing diet,

you pedalled a borrowed exercise-bicycle

for however many static miles a day

and learned Italian from a book supported on the handlebars.

Christopher Reid, 2009

Christopher was my poetry editor at Faber and I was privileged to meet Lucinda once or twice.  My previous favourite book of his was Katerina Brac (1985, 2001) which adopted the persona of an East European woman and did so in a consistent way as a sustained act of empathy and historical imagination.  From an early ‘Martian’ emphasis on description shared with his tutor and mentor Craig Raine, publisher of the new volume, both men have moved away into greater emotional depth, Craig notably into an ‘epic’ family history, History: The Home Movie (1995).  Christopher’s more persistent ‘ludic’ tendencies can seem to have something in common with Max Beerbohm’s later preoccupations, but there is very little gaming in the present volume, enlarged by existential challenge.

To give some idea of the enormous, yet also somehow selfless, achievement of this collection, I want to visit certain poems by means of excerpts.

The heart of the book for me is the moment at which the reader feels most privileged, when he is admitted into the room at the moment of Lucinda’s death.  The poet takes his arm off his wife’s chest and

Kisses followed,

to mouth, cheeks, eyelids, forehead,

and rigmarole

of unhurt farewell

kept up as far

as the click of the door.

All this is told just as it is, undecoratively, with the moment’s own grandeur brooking no augmentation. ‘Kisses’ just ‘followed’ (things just happen). But notice that ‘unhurt farewell.’

Here and there, we are treated to the couple’s own deliberate secularism, occasionally to an extent which lapses into obscurity, at least for this reader:

Heaven or Hell,

Whose multitudes meekly receive whatever the design teams

and PR whizzes of religion have conjured up for them.[5]

But of course the facts of the main experience run clean in the opposite direction for a poet whose honesty seems in some mysterious way frequently to transcend such selfhood.

Of the more conventional and ‘finished’ poems, ‘Soul’ comes high among my list of favourites.  Here the poet charmingly describes the internal clankings of what appears to be a kind of pregnancy.  But the poem ends:

It kicks, or thumps, hollowly, and I come to a standstill,

breathless, my whole internal economy primed

to attend without delay to its nursing and nourishment:

memories, sorrows, remorses are what it feeds on.


Luckily, I have no shortage of these to give it,

so that it can continue its murky labours,

quintessential upheavals, noxious bubblings

at the bottom of a flask, as it strives to distil pure tears.[6]

Finally, an actress, weaver and celebratory gardener, Lucinda appears, untrammelled by her husband’s poetic deliberation, in many of her glorious incarnations:

You’re wearing homemade

Turkish trousers,

one of your fearless

unfashion statements;

shirt loose as a tunic;

wild hair bunched

in an ikat[7] bandanna,

for extra buccaneer effect.[8]

Christopher allows himself little that is self-indulgent or even what an entomologist might regard as personal.  At one minute we glimpse ‘a voyeur’ grateful for the fortification

of the strong, health-giving, world-immersed

feminine element

his life has lacked for too long.[9]

And then, most revealing, in the last poem we hear:

Shopping-list, phone message, birthday-present label,

proxy greeting left on the kitchen table:

you told me you never threw away a scrap of my writing

without kissing it first.[10]

These are not isolated moments, but cohere in a natural but ordered outpouring of grief, recollection and resurrection.  What is real in us lives on.

[1] Christopher Reid, A Scattering. Oxford: Areté Books, 2009.

[2] Matthew 12:30, NIV, 1984.

[3] Luke 9:50, NIV, 1984.

[4] Afterlife, p.49.

[5] Afterlife, p. 49.

[6] Soul, p. 39.

[7] I had to look this up: “Fabric made using an Indonesian decorative technique in which warp or weft threads, or both, are tie-dyed before weaving. Malay.” New OED, 2003.

[8] ‘A Faust moment’, p. 59.

[9] An Italian Market, p. 48.

[10] ‘ The documents are gathered’, p. 61.

In rolling royalties he took an innocent delight

but what, in baring his soul, had he really wanted?

Nothing it seemed to him gave anyone the right

to anatomise the growth that he had merely planted.


Those corners that most excited them remained dark for him,

dark and consequential, like a late summer sky

as it banks away towards evening and the stormy rim

of darkness veiling and unveiling hillsides of rye.


He thought it would be enough to tilt his page

to catch the rain-washed strokes of light,

to leave it all incomplete, a cloudy rage,

and throw a tarpaulin over it as one would a boat.


But even then knots of people stood around

wanting a word, a signature, above all information.

Did he feel flattered? So long as they didn’t surround

him he could edge away, pleading engagement, the woes of creation.


He had meant what he said: he stood on the edge

of the known world of noisy, parasitic business,

and on those reckless enough to approach his ridge

had urged safety and caution as one might a straightening of dress.


How many repetitions does it take? The broken sky

leaned dangerously but still the multitude

came on steamily, as if they detected a lie,

and so far he had managed not to be rude.


Here was the earth, the covert, the blanket of red leaves

that discreet October had kindly provided,

a stump wrapped around with the silence of foggy trees,

where nothing further could be exposed or derided.


It wasn’t exactly peace and far from solitude.

There were many theories, but no one thought he was a saint.

With neighbours moving remotely he could avoid a feud

and brood in silence on his mysterious taint.