Anthony Lawrence: Headwaters

Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2016, 77pp.

“Murmuration”, the second poem of Anthony Lawrence’s new book, is a meditation on the way flights of birds form and unform shapes with what seems like practised ease. The collective noun for a flock of starlings, a “murmuration”, derives from the sound the flocks make. The word itself is Latin and much of the poem is devoted to examining the similarity of the birds in both Australian and Italian (Roman) contexts: the sound they make, the poem says, is the same as the sound of rain “falling over the Pantheon / or through miles of telegraph poles / on the Monaro Plain”. The poem moves towards conclusion as the birds settle down to roost in both locations: the separate worlds of “columns and skylines” and “remnant stands of box iron-bark”:

and where the sky pours down
               like madder lake
                              into the roosting dark
sturnis vulgaris preens feathers
scaled with metal highlights
buffed into song
               and who could not be moved
                              aside from themselves for this.

There is a lot about language here, about English’s dual heritage of Latin and Germanic (it’s no coincidence that the first word used for the birds is “starlings” and the second is “sturnis vulgaris”) but the poem is as equally interested in the sound of the words as it is in their history. It is even possible that the last two lines – bringing the poem home to the effect of its scene on a viewer – might invoke the Greek word “ekstasis” (our “ecstasy”) whose original meaning “out of place” describes the way we can be moved out of ourselves by something (it is the origin of our phrase “beside myself” used to describe the effects of anger).

So, I think, one of the many things that “Murmuration” wants to say is that words have both a history and a presence. It may even be that Lawrence wants to say that uncovering the etymology of words is a scientific activity whereas responding to the presence, their sound and appearance, is a poetic activity. Certainly the whole of twentieth century linguistics is built on the notion that the word’s relationship to what it refers to is arbitrary but, perhaps, the poetic imagination with its tendency towards porous boundaries (as in synaesthesia) is capable of fighting against such rigid separations.

But “Murmuration” is also about the shapes that the birds make and thus introduces an issue that emerges in other poems in the book. “Bogong Moths”, for example, includes a delphic proposition in the middle of a memorable description of other shapes produced by animals:

. . . . .
          as children on farms, we had learned
                      from migrations
and infestations, that form is a mirror for disorder
that the brown shag pile carpet
a drought had unrolled from silo to kitchen
                               had been made of mice
so numerous and fast they moved as one, a ground-
swell of need, that locusts in swarm make patterns
in the air if you lie under them
                               and let your eyes
lose focus to see congested flight break away
from the linear lines hunger draws tight
across the land . . .

I’ve been puzzling over the implications of “form is a mirror for disorder” since my first reading of this book. Perhaps it means that all apparent disorder can be shown to have shape if viewed from a different perspective. In this case location is important and Lawrence is very clear in “Murmuration” that the starlings are seen from below, here by an observer who (in another challenging proposition) is in a position that

could imply supplication
or simply the attitude of someone
at ease with how grace can be
         divisive or calming . . .

The animals themselves (the starlings, mice and locusts) are driven by straightforward needs but, like the formula whereby endless iteration produces an infinitely complex (and in the case of fractals, an incredibly beautiful) result, the patterns they make, when seen from a perspective far enough away to be able to embrace the whole, are examples of intricate unstable forms. And if form can be a mirror of disorder then, as another poem, “Connective Tissue”, says, “disorder // can be the tradesman’s entrance / to mindfulness”.

I emphasise this issue of form, chaos and perspective because it’s part of Lawrence’s complex poetics that I have never really thought about before. I’d always blandly assumed that the startling precision of his images derives from an intense focus on the thing described so that, in the wonderful first poem of his previous book, the oysters on the rocks of the harbour are described as being like “ceramic fuse plates // sparking and shorting-out in the wash” or, in “Paper Wasps” from this new book, the nest is described as being “like a graphite sketch of a shower rose”. Both of these are close to a Hopkins-like precision and, when meshed in a poetry marked by a strong onward syntactic push they have something like the same effect that they have in the poetry of Bruce Beaver (a poet who is both like and very unlike Lawrence) where they have a throwaway quality so that the verse seems to say, “I’ve more important things to do than wallow in precise ”˜capturing’ of parts of the natural world”.

So the poems of Headwaters make one want to look at formal aspects in Lawrence’s poetry, not in the predictable sense of metre, quantity and rhyme scheme but in the sense of the shape of a poem. Starlings may form beautiful and apparently spontaneous shapes but so do poems. The book’s third poem, “Ode to a Whistling Kite”, is worth looking at in detail from this point of view:

I heard you before you appeared. You were hunting
the margins of all things estuarine, tracking the wind-
abbreviated signature of your song.
Descriptions of flight and sound should begin

with how these tidal encampments are home
to three other raptors, and naming them summons
the vowel-driven variousness of your calls:
Osprey, Brahminy Kite, white-bellied sea eagle.

Now I’ll attest to having seen you circle and stall
over the shallows, where mullet were so many
when they turned, the water was lit as though
by bars of polished chrome, and you dropped

to settle in a mangrove, still as the bird below you
in rippling imitation. Often, spur-wing plovers
will fly out to intercept you, the word trespass
broken down into volleys of avian abuse.

Sometimes, if the sky has been reduced to rain
the colour of marsh grass, you will be elsewhere
on the nest you have been shaping and repairing
each year like a busted wicker basket

on a grand scale, or inland, attending a fire
to overrun whatever escapes the flames.
You work the flats for live fish, and turn to carrion
out of season. I turn to you when I need reminding

that wonder and amazement are only a glance away
and that gulls might seem common – that rowdy
beach crowd in white rags craning necks for food - 
yet their beaks and legs are beautiful.

One needs to be reminded of this in full to get some sense of its strange and exciting shape. To begin with, one might see how it seems marked by continuous indirection. Far from focussing obsessively on the thing itself – the highly concentrated, ”mindful” gaze that, allied to a poet’s hyper-expressive language, is supposed to fix the object under view – the poem moves to other matters at every opportunity. It is obviously ecologically correct to say, as the poem does, that you can’t describe an animal properly without describing the animal’s environment as well, but here the poem seems to want to bring in the kite’s fellow raptors just as it wants to bring in the plovers which try to drive it off. It seems entirely deliberate that the poem should conclude not with the bird which is its subject but, first, with an account of how the bird’s effect on the narrator is to remind him that “wonder and amazement are only a glance away” and, second, with seagulls, whose legs and beaks are also beautiful.

This poem so deliberately flaunts the conventions of description, turning away from its subject whenever it can and even refusing that subject a final appearance by letting in a scruffy competitor for attention, that it leads you to wonder what the idea behind it is. It certainly makes for a fascinating shape because the strong onward, enjambed drive of the verse, characteristic of Lawrence, is always deflected from its target. Conceivably the twists and turning asides of the poem reflect, in a mimetic way, the twists and turns of the bird in flight. Also the poem might, like the bird, be hunting on “the margins of all things estuarine”. It could be saying (as it does in passing in the beginning) that you define an animal not by a careful, bird-watcher’s checklist of size, colour, call, habits etc but by locating it in its environment and observing the parts of the natural world which impinge on it, but I think the idea is a little wider than this and is rather about observation, imagination and language in poetry in general. The idea, after all, almost reflects the methods of the French Symbolists whereby the inexpressible is “expressed” by the symbols that surround it; it is also the governing idea behind “negative theology”.
“Ode to a Whistling Kite” makes me think back to the last two poems of the animal section of Lawrence’s previous book, Signal Flare, “Cattle Egret” and “Sightings”, especially the former in which the egrets, “attending stock” become “central // and peripheral” much as the kite does in his own poem. “Cattle Egret” deliberately contrasts the practice of consulting “a text / on wetlands birds // or a guide / to animal husbandry” in favour of “observing // in diffuse, patient ways”. In both cases the result of such observation is an effect on the poet himself, either a reminder that “wonder and amazement are only a glance away” or the experience of having been where “things are companionable / and alive // with possibilities”. And, as in “Ode to a Whistling Kite”, there is a strong emphasis on sound, not in the sense of the bird’s call but in the sense of the consonants and vowels of the animal’s names.
The form of “Ode to a Whistling Kite” is related to that of another Headwaters poem, “Giant Dragonfly”. Here the drive towards finding one of these insects in the hinterland mountains is what gives the poem its relentless forward dimension, but even at the beginning the search is thrown aside by the appearance of other items in the landscape:

In the Nightcap Ranges, in needle-point installations
of light on the rainforest floor, a windfall
of quandong berries
                                 give blue shade a darker hue
and upside down on a palm fringe lit with red beads
a wompoo pigeon is dispersing seeds with a call 
like a mistake: whoops, whoops . . .

All the sounds heard are not the expected one of the dragonfly in flight (“something akin to a low, insistent drone / as when a model aeroplane comes in”) but that of Friar birds, and the quest gets temporarily transferred to the various mimicries of the lyre-bird. Eventually the poem moves away from searching for an insect to the poet himself searching for some kind of identity or peace. Interestingly this too has a language dimension when the word “endanger” is taken apart to make an imperative “end anger”: not something that can be done logically since there is no etymological connection between “danger” and “anger”, but something that works on a non-logical plane. The poem finishes with its searcher “either asleep, or mapping / the area for giant dragonflies” thus, formally, bringing it back to its opening subject while at the same time announcing that that subject has not been found. It also, conceivably, ties the end with the poem’s first line in that the sleep is occurring in the memorably named “Nightcap Ranges”.

Something of this kind of “form through negatives” occurs in a long and difficult poem, “Connective Tissue”, whose title suggests, as does that of a later poem, “Bloodlines”, that the interest is in connections rather than disjunctions. “Connective Tissue” is punctuated by concretised metaphors based on experiences which the poet claims not to have had: the opening lines are a good example:

I have not paused at the summit
of a building or leaned
from the rail of a bridge, waiting

for the wind to turn, and to then
base-jump into the whistling night
my chute thrown clear to open

like an ink bloom in the wake
of the lit canopy of a cuttlefish
but I have stood beside you

as good news came through
the radio-active test site
your body had been . . .

Although the poem is really about connections between the speaker and his past, between the speaker and his partner, one of the things that I think this opening (indeed the whole structure of the poem) wants to say is that an experience can be inhabited imaginatively even though its only function is as a metaphor. The vision is just as intense as in the contemplation of the “real situation” of a medical outcome: witness the memorable comparison of a parachute to the ink bloom behind the canopy of a cuttlefish. In “Giant Dragonfly” the plants and birds which the poem focusses on in the absence of the central insect are realised just as intensely.

These matters of poem-shape, vision, metaphor and language are very complicated and I have the feeling that I should reread all of Lawrence’s previous work to feel comfortable with any of the generalisations. But then, really major poets need to be reread constantly. Certainly many of the other poems of Headwaters can be tied to these issues. “In Extremis” is an unusual poem in that it is ostensibly about an historical figure, Douglas Mawson, but its real interest is in the way Mawson, in a near-fatal situation, finds that his mind creates apparitions or, to put it more relevantly, breaks down the barriers between reality and imagined reality:

. . . . . 
In the late night flare and burn of the Aurora Australis
he finds the arc of a distress signal. In displacements of ice
breaking bone and rifle shots . . .

And, in extremis, he thinks about the origins of his name (we aren’t told whether he thinks of himself as “the son of the gut” or “the son of the sea-mew”), another example of the issue of language hovering alongside perception and imagination. (I’m not sure how relevant it is but it’s difficult not to read this poem alongside Michael Dransfield’s “Bum’s Rush” where the cave in the ice also encourages hallucinations but where the extreme situation is a result of drugs.)

And then there are others. “Loss” is a little poem about forgetfulness and the guilt of forgetting where one’s father’s ashes are – not so much a poem with a perspective from the negative as a poem about something that breaks the connecting tissues. And in “Lies” the lies are imagined to take on a physical form which makes a metaphor concrete – “Saying I had to attend a meeting / when a friend was breaking down / turned my voice into a baling hook / in the wall of a disused wool store . . .” “Paper Wasps”, apparently simply about being stung by wasps might really be about how the fiercely accurate visual sense (the nest, as I’ve quoted before, looks like a drawing of a shower rose) is replaced for a moment in the face of intense pain before reasserting itself in a final image of the wasps’ nest as being like a snow dome with the wasps as snowflakes trailing “live wires”.

It’s a complex and magnificent poetry able to activate our own imaginations in response. The poems’ shapes, which I’ve concentrated on here, are always interesting and challenging, and as a result Lawrence’s poems are never a wodge of imaginative discourse dumped onto the page. At the same time, the strong drive of the verse always means that the aesthetic beauties are never merely effete or self-congratulatory. For those new to this poetry, Headwaters makes an excellent introduction to Lawrence and there is the additional benefit that it comes in such an attractive package. I know I have said this before but it is worth repeating that the poetry series from Pitt Street Poets sets very high standards in book design: these things have certainly improved since I was the publisher of a small press a quarter of a century ago.

Anthony Lawrence: Signal Flare

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 100pp.

The fact that Signal Flare is Anthony Lawrence’s fourteenth book of poems not only gives some idea of how productive a poet he is but also reminds readers that we don’t really have any excuse for being unfamiliar with his fierce and distinctive poetic world. It’s always bracing and mind- and body- expanding to lower yourself into that world again. I’m intrigued that this book’s cover describes it as extending the “lyrical work” that began with The Sleep of a Learning Man, suggesting that that book, his tenth, marks some kind of new development. I can’t see this myself, finding more continuities in Lawrence than departures. At least on a superficial rereading of his work it seems remarkably of a piece, exploring the same themes and developing the possibilities of his powerful poetic technique. It’s true that The Welfare of My Enemy, his previous book, is rather different in that it explores the single theme of disappearance and perhaps readers of Signal Flare need to be reminded of the way in which it reconnects to books like Bark and The Sleep of a Learning Man but it seems indisputable that Lawrence’s is a poetry of consistent obsessions and consistent exploratory methods.

One of the obsessions of Lawrence’s poetry is with extreme states, and a category of such states (which include a great deal ranging from loss to a passionate engagement with the objects and animals of the world) are those which lead to extreme actions. And one of these extreme actions is suicide. It is something we meet in his first book, Dreaming in Stone, in a piece called “Poem for John”, about someone who tried (and failed) to walk “out from his life” and in “John Berryman’s Death” where suicide is combined with the themes of addiction and poetry. Again, though the act is successful, Berryman, landing on the ground rather than the river, fails to step “out from his life” with style or dignity. At any rate, although one doesn’t want to claim continuities when more evidence is needed, it will come as no surprise that the first poem of the first of Signal Flare’s four sections is a lengthy and powerful threnody for a suicide. It’s written in Lawrence’s full high-style – as a threnody should be – and is a formally made thing: forty-nine stanzas of four lines. The long, winding sentences are shared with poets like Thomas (“A Refusal to Mourn”) and the harbour and ferry setting, together with the idea of “crossing” from life to death, recall Slessor’s “Five Bells” but this isn’t really like either of those poems, a reminder that “high-style” comes in more kinds than one might think. Much of its power derives from an incantatory quality in the syntax – heightened by supressing all stops apart from commas – crossed with the kind of brilliantly observed and “captured” incidental details that are a hallmark of Lawrence’s poetry:

. . . . . 
your faith not enough

to keep you from harm
from the end of harm
the Sydney rock oysters
like ceramic fuse plates

sparking and shorting-out in the wash
a ferry disengaging its drive shaft
as it broadsided waves
into the wharf, and then

you were gone, leaving
a pair of sandals unlaced on a stone
while below the hydraulic hiss . . .

This first section of Signal Flare is introduced by a quotation from August Kleinzahler – “And a moon is never so pretty as in a poisoned sky” – and is generally devoted to poems of distress based on loss of one kind or another: there is a second elegy, for example. But the drive of the poems is to make, and live, a life in the context of loss. And so “Nocturne”, focussing on love against the backdrop of a mechanically conceived body with its inevitable physical decline, still concludes positively, deploying a characteristic Lawrence fishing metaphor in an unusual way:

. . . . . 
                    and we leave the future to itself
          if not caring for a likely loss
of memory and skin
          then at least resigned
                    to the way love works
          in the deep and on the flats
sight-casting to shadows
          on the heart or lung . . .

And “Ripple” deals with the problem – of fundamental importance to any kind of poetry whose energy comes from distress – that overcoming the pain of loss is not actually an unmitigated good. It is typical of the never-cliched quality of Lawrence’s poetry that this is couched in two unusual metaphors so that healing “makes a local history from distance” and an unhealed wound means that “sayings like A rip is easy to read / are not meant to be commentaries on coastal conditions”. There is also a significant poem, “The Art of the Eye”, intriguingly positioned in this first section, which is about the extent to which we can trust the senses, those responses which “marry each other / to make of complexity a wild, accessible form”. It’s a sceptical poem: perhaps it celebrates the “art” of its title which is a skill based on such scepticism but perhaps its position here means we should read it as a lament for another kind of loss, the loss of an immediate and trustworthy response by the senses.

This first section – which I am, perhaps, following a little too mechanically – concludes with two poems , “Moth Orchid” and “Eating Mussels” which are celebrations and not, in any sense that I can see, poems of loss. They focus on two senses: the first is devoted to sound and the second to taste. They have that wonderful tactility which seems inborn in Lawrence’s work so that while the first has a strange quality of being simultaneously aerial and heavy, the second (beginning, “Out from the tidal lowering and raising / of a whitewater scrim over shore stones / rinsed by moonlight”) has a sharp, tangy, “brackish” quality.

The second section of Signal Flare – true to its epigraph, “A hen stares at nothing with one eye, / then picks it up” – could be seen as a collection of signatures, visions, appellations and gifts, all words which make up the titles of some of the poems. “Signatures” is a collection, or assemblage, of twenty-one brief, tight poems focussing on traces, sometimes scars, sometimes tracks, which are left in the physical world. The range of these traces is impressive, ranging from “The tannin marbling of dribble stains on your pillow / one of deep sleep’s autographs . . .” to “a fox / making its mark – / an infringement, a wet cough on baited ground”, and they are likely to involve the inner physical world as much as the outer. In a sense these brief poems could be said to belong to an important thread through Lawrence’s work: those poems which deal with the processes by which poetry is made. Although “Signatures” never speaks about poetry, it is tempting to see it as being concerned with the way in which the outer becomes part of the inner awaiting some kind of transformation into poetry.

This may be drawing a longish interpretive bow but there is no doubt that two other poems from this section, “Vision” and “The Pines”, are about the strange processes that make poems. The former, though it begins and ends with what animals see when they are in that nervous, vulnerable state of drinking is really about drinking whisky as a metaphor for processing the natural world into poetry in a state where “as any visionary worth / the length and duration of their gaze will confirm / the spells of darkness and tradition have begun . . .” “The Pines”, on the other hand, enters fully into the crucial issue of how precise observation can be squared with a poet’s imaginative apprehension which registers the wonder and draws other experience in to illuminating it. The poem begins with one of those brilliant observational passages which are simultaneously accurate and evocative – “The pines are dark, with a bleed of sea mist coming through / the brush-worked texture of the air . . .” – then moves on, interestingly, to a burial and finally settles into a meditation the first part of which I will quote at length here, because it is likely to figure in the future when the sluggish freight train of Australian poetry criticism gets moving in Lawrence’s direction:

And while I don’t always look for wonder
in what I see, as I know it’s often best to walk
to let that line of cloud be cloud
not the memory of what I saw in Naples -
Christ under a veil of Carrara marble – I understand
that observation can be just another word
for full immersion, or for skimming the tight skin
of a thought, that it’s transformative, or passive
and when I try to choose between
          taking the air and taking what I need
                    to use for later, for working the rhythms
of breath and blood flow into verse, I mostly fail
in my resolve to leave a scene alone
          knowing what a glance takes in
                    will be changing already as I think of it
the way coastal air unspools . . .

It’s rare for a poet to dwell so overtly on the issues that lie behind his or her craft and, though these are often passed off as difficult to define “spells of darkness and tradition”, write about them so lucidly, exploratively and essayistically.

In the third section of Signal Flare we are in the world of birds though there are also spiders, butterflies and rabbits. The after-effect of “The Pines” is so strong that one wants to read a poem like “Orb Spiders” as some kind of allegory for poets who “harvest blown pollen / which they keep in a sling below the sleeves / that house their fangs” and “What the Koel Wants” – a poem about cuckoos – as being about plagiarism, perhaps, or about the competitive relationship of one poet to another, or even the relationship of poet to publisher! Just as reading the earlier “Signatures” as being about poetic processes may have overstepped interpretive boundaries, so would these readings. But there is no doubt that the last two poems of this section, “Cattle Egret” and “Sightings” are, largely, about poetry.

The former focusses on the symbiotic relationship between bird and cattle, registering the way

     when one
creature moves on
another steps in

to consider or disregard
what stirs within
or rises from the grass . . .

A mild state of over-interpretive critical paranoia might tempt one to see this as about poets (slow-moving bovine creatures) and their parasitic critics but the complex interactions are described in this poem as benevolent and extending to the observer: “we leave // changed ourselves / having been where / things are companionable and alive // with possibilities”. Ultimately “Cattle Egret” seems to be about the drive to understand and interpret – to “consult a text / on wetlands birds // or a guide // to animal husbandry” – versus the way in which, by being engaged in a scene of interaction an observer can, himself, be changed by the enriched possibilities.

“Sightings”, on the other hand, is about authenticity and the complexities of both defining it and the role it plays in poetry. The poem begins with a highly symbolic scene – a rabbit on its hind legs in a Cootamundra wattle as though trying “to sample the last dregs / of light from the trees golden strings / or to investigate the sky / from a different perspective”. But since the scene was viewed from a car travelling at speed, the “authenticity” of the poet’s observation can be challenged. The poem settles into a dialogue about the real and the imagined and asks which of the two is the more expansive:

knowing, as you do, how I live
for the imagination, at the expense
you say, of the here and now
or the expanse, I say, in response
of each rare sighting and its afterglow
of each against-the-odds moment that intersects
with the commonplace . . .

an aesthetically insoluble issue which gets resolved, at the end of the poem, in “make-up sex”.

Although the first three sections of Signal Flare exhibit a clear thematic structure (even though the poems’ tones may be quite different) it’s less easy to be confident about how the final section, prefaced by an extract from Michael Donaghy’s “Haunts”, is organised. The opening poems are about fish, fishing and water but the rest involve personal crises. “Domestic Emergencies” is, like “Signatures”, a collage piece and is made up of short poems about problems “in the house”, ranging from an accident with a knife to relationship issues. There is a narrative poem about a saved suicide, another (comic, I think) about a Legionnaire’s Disease “scare”. And just as Signal Flare opened with a poem exploring the state of mind of a suicide, so it finishes with a poem, “Winging It”, exploring the state of a person with an incurable disease: “you can’t shake this sense / that it’s all about to be explained, if not forever / then for good”. Of all these poems, the one that most stays with me is the first, “Klaxon”. It’s worth quoting in full:

At the end of the breakwall I waited
for a tanker – some long labouring shadow
in from Singapore or Taiwan
its decks lit up like a townhouse
in the stacked, unballasted dark.

A maritime pilot had been choppered out
to take the wheel
five storeys over the swell.
The tugs had arrived
and were idling under gulls, smoke and spray.
When a tanker arrived
I could see the pilot’s face, pale and green
in the glow of instruments, his expression
intense and otherworldly.

I caught a crab and held it
as I’d once held the brooch of a Cooktown orchid – tenderly -
an offering to myself.

The crab was glazed and red
from the lamp of a marker buoy
and was changing in shape and colour.
It reminded me of the night
I saw crabs on the wharf at Circular Quay -
I was exhausted, and because my darling
had walked off from where we’d been, unhappily
they looked like spiders
laying snares at the base of a capstan.

When I released the crab it helmeted away
as the tanker sounded its horn
which went on and on
like my incorrect use of, and enduring love for
the word klaxon.

There’s a lot one would want to say about this poem. Of course, much is speculative but that’s the fate of criticism which is, after all, no more than intense and committed reading. The first thing to enjoy is the restless focus, not of the poet but of the poem itself: this isn’t going to be a poem unified by its object. The first line, introducing the protagonist in the scene, announces that it isn’t going to be a poem about oil tankers, despite the fact that their weird physicality, their fate (to move oil over water), their function in global economies etc, all make them lively candidates for a poet’s sharp vision or for allegorisation into various meanings. The existence of an “I” waiting at the end of a breakwall leads us to think – especially in Lawrence’s case – that behind the opening there will be a crisis of some kind, most likely “domestic”. So you feel that the poem’s move from quickly introducing the protagonist to speaking about the tanker and then moving to focus on a pilot’s face above the ships instruments (something which, like the vision of the rabbit in “Sightings”, seems hardly possible and more an imaginative expansion than an “I-was-there” piece of authenticity) is actually a shying away from emotional pain. And I think this is the essence of the poem’s magic. Structurally it looks at first like a set of unpredictable modulations, almost a challenge to the poem to hold them together into some kind of unity. But the unity is an expressive one. The way I read the poem is that its constant shifts – finishing with that memorable comment about misuse of the word “klaxon” – are the self’s protective shyings away from the pain at the centre.

Whether or not this is what “Klaxon” tries to do, it is hard not to register the complexity and sophistication of its form. Lawrence’s poems almost always have an exciting shape to them, beginning at an angle that makes us think ahead to the way in which the poem will play out its shape, something that is rarely predictable and which holds quite a few surprises. But “Klaxon” wouldn’t be the powerful poem that it is if its formal pleasures were not matched with the accuracy and physicality of its images. A labouring shadow in the unballasted dark is a sharp and accurate description which argues that it has come from a magical interaction of the world and the word. The poem which follows it, “The Trawler”, has, apart from an interesting and complex shape, a similar visual acuity, describing a trawler coming upriver as being “like an old shed / held together by wires and light / blue wood”. This visual intensity is only part of the compound intensities that make up Lawrence’s poetry, but it ensures that the poems like these fix themselves limpet-like in any reader’s mind.