It is in many ways a great honour to be allowed into this book. 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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:
- 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’.
Please pardon the crimes
of your husband the poet,
as he mazes the pages
of his notebook, in pursuit
of some safe way out.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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
to mouth, cheeks, eyelids, forehead,
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.
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.
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
one of your fearless
shirt loose as a tunic;
wild hair bunched
in an ikat bandanna,
for extra buccaneer effect.
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
his life has lacked for too long.
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.
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.
 Christopher Reid, A Scattering. Oxford: Areté Books, 2009.
 Matthew 12:30, NIV, 1984.
 Luke 9:50, NIV, 1984.
 Afterlife, p.49.
 Afterlife, p. 49.
 Soul, p. 39.
 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.
 ‘A Faust moment’, p. 59.
 An Italian Market, p. 48.
 ‘ The documents are gathered’, p. 61.