Andrew Motion has now been an acclaimed poet for more than thirty years—he won Oxford University’s Newdigate prize while an undergraduate in 1975—and has been Britain’s poet laureate for the last ten. Surprisingly, he is still a relatively unknown quantity in America. Whether this is due to an American insularism in the poetic world is hard to say. It is, however, quite clear that Motion is a very English writer—his understated, unassuming verse is combined with a stiff-upper-lip mentality and has no fireworks or grand gestures.
The Mower: New & Selected Poems, out this year from Godine, is Motion’s first collection of poetry published in the United States, following Godine’s publication of his childhood memoir, In the Blood, in 2000. Both his selected poems and his memoir are moored by personal moments of revelation or loss—the long coma and eventual death of Motion’s mother after a horse-riding accident while Motion was a teenager is a recurring theme in the collection as well as the central plot point of his memoir. However, the young poet’s discovery of Wordsworth, Hardy, and Larkin in these same years is also a recurring touchstone of the verse. The poems that are primarily in homage to these masters are perhaps the most touching in the collection, revealing the moment of adolescent discovery with unadulterated awe.
Indeed, something boyish remains in Motion’s poems, like the boy skating or boat-stealing in Wordsworth’s Prelude: ecstatic, innocent joy in observation and sensation. And clearly this sense is deliberately drawn from Wordsworth—a vestige of Motion’s literary heritage. This childlike wonder is seldom completely naïve, though; Motion’s poems tend to be memento moris, constantly reminding the reader (and Motion himself) of the passing of time, of life’s continual losses, and of the junctures where personal and public histories meet.
The collection is divided into two sections, with a selection of older, previously published poems, followed by newer ones. And while there are thematic and stylistic continuities between the two halves, Motion shifts over the course of The Mower from elegizing his mother to stoically observing his father’s decline years later. Clearly the most prominent aspect of the collection is the tenderness in Motion’s treatment of his parents; the two halves of the book perform a pas de deux, and the reader is made aware of the fragility of these two lives and a rather uncomplicated narrative of love and loss binding Motion and his parents.
Often this tenderness is displaced to the tangible and emblematic. The mother’s old dresses in an early poem, “In the Attic”—which are made animate in their association with life’s activities, “a green holiday; a red christening”—are partners to the father’s work clothes, his hunting clothes and his “waders hanging in the garage upside down.” These almost-animate objects are not only stand-ins for Motion’s parents but also represent an idealized old England, one in which men and women of a certain social standing still rode to the hunt and engaged in other country pursuits.
Although we know now
your clothes will never
be needed, we keep them,
upstairs in a locked trunk.
Sometimes I kneel there
touching them, trying to relive
time you wore them, to catch
the actual shape of arm and wrist.
My hands push down
between hollow, invisible sleeves,
then take hold and lift:
a green holiday; a red christening;
all your unfinished lives
fading through dark summers,
entering my head as dust.
In his groping for a mythologized England, Motion takes after one of his masters, Philip Larkin. Motion was mentored by the older poet who worked as a librarian at the University of Hull while the younger taught English there in the late 1970s. The best of Motion’s poems dealing with a sense of lost Englishness echo Larkin’s “MCMXIV,” a poem which captures pre-WWI England with all its “moustached archaic faces / Grinning as if it were all / An August Bank Holiday lark.” Larkin ends “MCMXIV” with the pseudo-wistfulness of one who never knew that era himself (Larkin was, after all, born in 1922) and is knowingly reconstructing an England that never was and never will be. The emphatic “nevers” of Larkin’s last few lines erase any chance of regaining lost (or imagined) innocence.
While both poets share a concern with a lost past as well as a stark stylistic clarity, Larkin observed that Motion was “not really tough enough—in his writing, that is.” Indeed, there is little that could be considered “tough” about Motion’s verse, which is often striking in its guileless kid-glove treatment—Motion’s “Anniversary” poems about his mother, for instance, are unabashedly sentimental in their description of a mother slowly dying, living her last “three years without, sight, speech, gesture.”
Despite being altogether less knowing, less ironic, and more childishly earnest than the librarian from Hull, Motion’s collection is buoyed and even redeemed by its awareness of joy. Even while remembering visits to the hospital ward where his mother spent her last years, Motion keenly recalls—and seems to luxuriate in—the “raw sunset,” the “dazzling dark,” and the way his shadow played “across open fields, out of my reach for ever.” In another poem elegizing his mother, Motion can’t help but describe the “jittery light” of the stars “stabbing though heaven” — a strange, childish moment of wonder in an otherwise restrained and somber poem.
This measured exuberance is paired with Larkin’s clarity of image and language. Motion’s shadow chasing—grasping at unreachable shifting light—recalls the “sun-comprehending glass” in Larkin’s poem “High Windows” with its “deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” Like Larkin, Motion constantly pairs images of light—the sky, the heavens, the clear air of the “Anniversary” poems and others—with simple, Germanic (rather than Latinate) diction. Much of Motion’s work—including “Look,” in which he moves between images of his wife sleeping and his mother dying—is marked by heavily monosyllabic words and unadorned, informal diction. The first few lines of “Look” are notable for their simple description, free of adjectival moderation, and written almost entirely in Germanic monosyllables,
I pull back the curtains
and what do I see
but my wife on a sheet
and the screen beside her
showing our twins[.]
There is no ornamentation here, no smoke-and-mirrors. For Motion, this transparency of image, language, and thought is intrinsic to his aesthetic. As he explains on his profile page at the British Council’s online database of cotemporary writers, “I want my writing to be as clear as water. No ornate language; very few obvious tricks. I want readers to be able to see all the down through its surfaces into the swamp.”
The question one might ask is, Where is the swamp underneath? The language is so cleaned up that the reader feels there is no swamp—no messy, human turmoil at all—underneath. At times, Motion’s clear and simple poems appear as constructed and full of artifice as the most ornate verse. He shows his hand—intentionally or not — when he discusses the tropes of painting in one of the new poems, “My Masterpiece.” Here the speaker imagines himself a Renaissance painter who has just completed his masterpiece “Madonna in a Window.” Tellingly, the painter is most proud not of the Madonna herself, but of “the view / extending behind her, / the mile upon mile / of blue-green hills / with their miniature lives”—in other words, the mastery of detail and the controlled organization of all the little lives being lived in the background. He affectionately remarks upon the humble folk far behind the Madonna: the miller, the poacher-boy, the bare-headed-girl. The painter, the creator of the scene, is in control of and revels in this sense of order. While he is pleased with his Madonna, however, he is unnerved by the others. Does the painter, he ask, have full control over what he has painted? He realizes that he knows the secret of the Madonna, but, as for these other folk,
Their [secret] escapes me,
in much the same way
that a perilous sun-shaft
flees through a landscape
and just for a second
fulfils what it strikes
before galleon clouds
storm in behind it
and drop their anchors.
There is a struggle between order and chaos; while the painter cannot control the weather, he can determine and capture the particular play of light which “flees through a landscape.” This painterly gaze—the obsession with “fixing” and controlling a scene—appears again in “A Dutch Interior.” Again, Motion finds himself occupied with how to fix what is transitory—even the flickering of shadow and light.
Like the painter, the poet is concerned with getting things down on paper and making them last (however artificial the representation created may be). As much as Motion’s poems are memento moris, they are also memorials, there to be preserved long after the poet’s mother and father have died, and even after the poet himself is dead. It is the poet’s prerogative of remembering and fixing a moment in time, of ordering the poetic universe as he sees fit. Like Wordsworth revisiting Tintern Abbey and pinning down his sensations in words, Motion attempts to recreate imaginatively on the page what the eye and ear once perceived—the play of light in a painting, his mother’s dress, the hand gesture Motion recalls his father making on his deathbed, “either showing I should stay / or pushing me away.” Each detail is finely preserved in language that is as stark and clear as Larkin’s but with a clipped English optimism that is uniquely Motion’s own.
Nora Delaney is a poet, translator, and critic. She received her PhD from the Editorial Institute of Boston University. Her writing can be found in Literary Imagination, Two Lines Online, Absinthe: New European Writing, Subtropics, Pusteblume, Little Star, Fulcrum, The Arts Fuse, and elsewhere.