July 8, 2011 10:07 pm

Departure, in all its forms

Mark Ford’s ‘Six Children’ and Sean O’Brien’s ‘November’ explore the meaning of longing and loss

Six Children, by Mark Ford, Faber, RRP£9.99, 96 pages

November, by Sean O’Brien, Picador, RRP£8.99, 84 pages

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Mark Ford’s third collection Six Children takes its title from Walt Whitman, who wrote in a letter “though unmarried, I have had six children”. In the title poem Ford imagines himself as Whitman, siring six offspring in scenes from different Americas, modern and mythological. A succession of women find themselves pregnant, from a worker in a Carolina bean field to Pocahontas. The great father of American poetry supposedly died childless, so the poem is a statement of mental, imaginative virility.

In “The death of Petronius”, Ford’s translation of a passage from Tacitus’s Annals, a languid rhythmic pace embodies the courtier’s unhurried, sybaritic lifestyle: “he was a cultured, exquisite master of the subtle arts/Of indulgence”. When his life is threatened by Nero, Petronius chooses a stylish exit – gradual cutting of the wrists, so that “Having dined/As usual, he slipped quietly into sleep – or was it death?”

Six Children is full of curiosity about departures. There is also some sly humour in a poem devoted to the North American passenger pigeon, reduced to the indignity of extinction: “The last known passenger pigeon was called Martha, after Martha/Washington”.

Personal pain comes to the fore in the second half of Six Children, beginning with “After Africa”, which describes Ford’s return from his childhood in Kenya with a still-sad voice remembering in the first line: “After Africa, Surbiton” and later the poignant “Red, African dust spilled from the wheels of our toy/trucks and cars”.

This poem gives way to “Ravishing”, an elegy for the late Mick Imlah. Here there is a beautifully rendered, backwards-looking sting to a social evening’s farewell, with Imlah hailing a cab “so imperiously” and Ford left feeling presciently alone, walking “through the eerily silent/Squares of Bloomsbury”.

Rust and ash – the final crumblings of industry and mortality alike – are the totems of Sean O’Brien’s new collection November, a contrast to the torrents of water that sluiced around his prize-winning The Drowned Book. Everything that should speed us past the inconveniences of time and distance arrives at inevitable decay, in particular the railway lines that seemed to promise “services/in both directions” as O’Brien says in “Sunday in a station of the metro” – alluding to travel between old life and new, past and future. But this magical shuttling never happens. Instead, he observes the physical contours of the railways’ defunct journeys and redundant ruins – the “level-crossing gate/Dividing nowhere off from nowhere else”, as he writes in “Railway lands”. A gentler kind of elegy than The Drowned Book but just as fine.

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