In this month’s installment, reviews editor Adam Tavel examines an English poet’s seventh book.
Luna Park by Grevel Lindop
$19.95, 80 pages
published November 2015
In “O Taste and See,” one of her most famous poems, Denise Levertov rejects the brooding grimness that defines Wordsworth’s Industrial Revolution lament “The World Is Too Much With Us.” Though she acknowledges grief and death by name, Levertov ultimately seeks a courage beyond poetic condemnation, beckoning us to go on “living in the orchard and being/hungry, and plucking/the fruit.” Though “O Taste and See” is often hastily misread as a carpe diem poem, Levertov chose the orchard as her final symbol purposefully, since it suggests that the beauty and bounty of our world require patience, cultivation, and protection. I thought of Levertov’s lines while reading Grevel Lindop’s masterful Luna Park, his seventh book of poems, which explores the powerful confluence of landscape, memory, and history. Guided by his adventurer’s heart, Lindop transports us from Oxford to New Orleans in his search for the deeper truths of human perseverance, or, as he writes at the end of “The Apple Pip,” “the room/within the house, within the house.” Marked by its descriptive lushness, its multicultural immersion, and its formal dexterity, Luna Park achieves a rare harmony, proving itself one of last year’s best books.
Pastoral and urban landscapes dominate Luna Park in poems that contemplate our abiding spiritual connection to place. In addition to a handful of still-life studies that meditate on everyday objects such as the marital bed, the pencil, and the pupil of the eye, the early poems in Luna Park traverse Lindop’s native England, including Suffolk, Maryport, and Nottingham, where juxtapositions between rustic rhythms and the digital age are drawn in sharp relief. Similarly, the book’s final poem, “Oxford, Again,” finds the poet returning to his alma mater, pondering the absurd loveliness of masons who “work like Jude the Obscure/replenishing the college’s stone leaves,/lions and saints.” As its pentameter sestets unfold, we realize the university’s timelessness is, ultimately, a well-groomed façade, and like Merlin’s mythological dragons, tradition and rebirth act “like two coiled springs they sleep/in tension, while their torque/empowers the kingdom.” Perhaps the book’s title poem best captures Lindop’s awareness of eternal change and how wistfulness can linger long after our showdowns with nostalgia. In this case, the subject is an abandoned amusement park:
Forget the Opera House, forget everything. What I remember
is Luna Park, unreachable behind
chain link fencing and KEEP OUT signs.
The ghost of a funfair, due for demolition—
a landscape of fantasies that would be
nowhere soon. I could see The Bug,
a giant ladybird, shiny scarlet
with black spots the size of car tyres;
The Clown, vast face coloured like an iced cake
with red nose and corrugated ruff.
No hint of what they did or how you rode them.
The top car of the Ferris wheel teetered
as if each moment about to go
over the top, though it was only the wind
that rode there. The roller-coaster’s three cars were stuck
at the bottom of their downward graph.
I stared a long time through the wire. Then
followed the others away. A pale moon
rose over Bondi, whitening empty breakers. Lights came on
along the rocky shore but Luna Park just faded
into blackness until the moonlight
sketched in a few of those thin girders
exposed by fallen plywood. I still hankered
to find a gap in the fence. Here I am
ten years later, like a child with no money,
hopeful, face pressed to the steel mesh.
Another notable strength of Luna Park is Lindop’s fascination with, and reverent observance of, North and South American cultures. An unexpected inclusion, the book ends with “Hurricane Music,” a marvelous sixteen-page travel essay that profiles New Orleans in 2009, four years after the cataclysmic devastation of Katrina. Lindop’s meticulous detail, character studies, and eager immersion in bayou customs prevent the piece from being a tacked-on afterthought, and like most well-wrought nonfiction, it renders its vignettes—which include a jazz club, a haunted graveyard, and an obliterated suburb—with poetic grace. On the charged issues of faith, politics, and race, Lindop suspends commentary, instead deferring to direct quotations from friends and new acquaintances, all natives of New Orleans, who reveal their own complicated feelings about their beloved and beleaguered city. Similarly, poems such as “For Our Lady of Guadalupe” and “Cigar” chronicle the poet’s travels through South America. Language, ritual, and religious practice aren’t treated as mere exotic curios, but rather as sacraments worthy of our wonder and respect. “The Letters,” the most textured among these, details a makeshift outdoors print shop in Mexico “where you could have your poems printed, or your menu/or the announcement (with a black cross) that your father has died—/each given definition by a man with a black thumb,/spectacles high on his forehead, and a cherished machine….”
Throughout, Lindop impresses with his fluid migrations between metrical cadences and sonorous free verse. “Shugborough Eclogues,” the book’s most ambitious poem, recalls early modernist sequences in its seasonal study of a great hall near Staffordshire, where 18th century monuments remain, ethereal and half-forgotten. Densely allusive—the poem conjures Francis Bacon, the goddess Diana, and a host of other literary and historical references—its sections modulate from smooth, even meters to broken, jazzy lines, as in the third section of “Autumn.” While many contemporary poetry collections suffer from tonal monotony in their pursuit of cohesiveness, it’s striking that Lindop can achieve the fabling slant rhymes of “Man and Fox,” the lilting, half-mocking trimeter of “William Wordworth, Jr.,” and the tersely enjambed imagism of “Epiphyte” in the span of twenty pages. “The Graveyard Yew” endures as the book’s most stunning formal achievement, and follows here despite its length:
A root to every mouth, the legends say:
and how long must it take, growing by night
(surely it grows by night?) needling its way,
drawn by that faint magnetic field,
the sleepless memory of the new dead—
to pry through elm and lead,
till some weak joint or tarnished fold will yield
and let the roothairs in to feed
on the rich knot those loosening jaws held tight?
A negative of infants in their cots,
thinned by the black teat sucking at each face—
so you imagine it; the features blots
of shadow blurred and discomposed
around the fingers of a black suede
glove, the digits splayed
to point where each short story has been closed
in earth mid-sentence, softly laid
aside with only this to mark the place.
No: the yew’s flesh is white, mottled blood-red.
You might carve two chess-armies from one trunk,
the scarlet-marbled buttermilk that’s spread
like bull’s flesh, or the fat that laps
the human struggles of a stopped heart
no voltage will restart.
On dark and day its rings are fed, it traps
those opposites with patient art,
the branches shading where the roots are sunk.
Once as the chainsaw bit into an oak
it kicked, sparked, stalled. Within the grain,
notched by steel teeth, acrid with the smoke
of sap and friction, two headstones
were bedded, swallowed by the live tree.
Those slabs of masonry
with name and date had parted from their bones
two hundred years, at length to be
carved out again, and set to stand upright
a few more centuries. In echoing air
a church spills mourners onto grass. Through tears
some step finding their way uncertain where
a hope still strains a heart, a ring
still burns a finger to the bare bone.
The yew’s dark monotone
spreads underneath the organ, offering
a certain comfort now you stand alone.
The church is younger by a thousand years.
The poor poems in Luna Park are few indeed. “Cuba Café” unfurls pleasantly enough as a catalog of the colorful décor in a themed bar, but ends weakly; the delayed revelation that the poem is set in Manchester and not Cuba fails to titillate. Written in the second person, “Aril” studies the fruit of the yew tree, but feels repetitive and incomplete, while its closing lines—though reminiscent of those by Levertov referenced earlier—uncharacteristically yap at the reader: “Taste the fruit, taste it—/a reluctant faint sweetness./Taste it, taste it./You have been told.” “How Often” strains to express something universal about the grief of losing our parents, but stumbles by making some unwise assumptions, since many readers won’t relate to the assertion that their mothers and fathers were “godlike once adored, godlike feared or hated,/givers of everything.” These selections aside, Lindop’s poems show remarkable range, maintaining their intricacy, musicality, and globetrotting curiosity throughout. For American readers unfamiliar with his substantial body of work, Luna Park should earn Grevel Lindop new fans and high praise for his “dry garden on the pages.”
You can reach reviews editor Adam Tavel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Plume’s review policy can be found here.