The Customs House, by Andrew Motion, Faber, RRP£12.99, 96 pages
Sir Andrew Motion, who has just turned 60, is a poet of debatable standing. In a literary career spanning three decades, his output has included biographies of Philip Larkin and John Keats, poems in praise of the Queen Mother and Prince Charles, as well as novels and critical works. In 2009 he was knighted for services to literature.
The Customs House, Motion’s first poetry collection since he stood down as poet laureate three years ago, is at times unremarkable (“pigs rootling in the husky moonlight”). Yet it contains affecting meditations on war, and the moral and material ruins of postwar Europe. Motion’s father, a Territorial Army officer, had seen action in France on D-Day; the collection can be read, in part, as an act of filial devotion.
In “Now Then”, the poet recollects his father’s “enormous” army boots and Sam Browne harness, which he was allowed to polish as a child. The poem takes a dark turn with mention of Belsen; Motion’s father had seen the naked, decomposed corpses when the camp was liberated in April 1945.
Typically, though, Motion records the horrors of war in plain, everyday speech. “We have lost a lot of friends” a Royal Marine says in “The Vallon Men”, adding bathetically: “And we have seen a lot of things that are not ideal.” The volume’s patchwork of newspaper quotations and allusions to poems by Siegfried Sassoon and Keith Douglas, among others, recalls PJ Harvey’s dark, Somme-haunted album Let England Shake (“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget”). Motion, like Harvey, laments the dirt and dust of conflict-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as D-Day.
The war poems inevitably chronicle human loss. Through poison gas, shellfire and machine gun, the 1914-18 conflict killed and wounded more than 35m people, both military and civilian. “An Equal Voice” communicates the pity of that war in unsparing detail. (“Rats emerged from the cavities of bodies”, says a combatant.) One of the best poems here, “The Death of Harry Patch”, honours the last known English survivor of the trenches: “hundreds of thousands of dead who lie there/ immediately rise up, straightening their tunics … They have left a space/ for the last recruit of all to join them”.
Elsewhere, Motion writes in dulcet tones about his third wife, the Korean interpreter Kyeong-Soo Kim (“Your black hair blows into my eyes”). His travels with her through South Korea, chronicled in “Pyongsan” and “Yong’In”, recall the Korean poems by the British war poet and former London Magazine editor Alan Ross, whom Motion certainly knew.
A recurrent theme is the consolation afforded by women. Motion’s adored mother, who died in 1978 as a result of a riding accident years earlier, is recollected in “Sunday”, where the boy Andrew is seen in conversation with her.
Though patchy, The Customs House is a bracingly lucid work, by turns tender and appalled. It is a relief not to have any more poems about Prince William.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Biography’ (Vintage)