They’ve made a morning of their own, called Matins
It is humans who give things names. All Francis’s collections delight in words; this one specifically exults in names. It is a collection focused on nature, on landscape, creatures, plant life from roses to fungi, but seeing them all through the eyes, microscopes and imagination of humans. An early poem, “Mere”, sets the tone when its landscape is figured in images drawn from human activity: the windblown water “shivers in its sequins”, the heron, ironically, “mimes a pond ornament”, while a mallard “takes off from its runway of splashes”.
The names we give things are taken from what we see around us, or at least from how we interpret what we see. Hence they are images in their own right, and bring with them a wealth of associations among which Francis’s imagination can happily range – “while the liberty caps rioted on the verge by the police station” (“Liberty Caps”). Nowhere is this more evident than in “Pomona”, a celebration of apples through the seasons, and of the names people have given them. From the names of the winter apple trees, winter emerges:
The air has a bite to it now, White Must, a Hoary Morning.
A Winter Coleman holds out grey arms in the orchard.
A |Pigeon plumps itself in the cold, and mistletoe makes its nests
on the rough battlements of the Tower of Glamis.
In the last verse, apples and those who have named them become one:
When the last Gloria Mundi has fallen, where is our Seek No Further?
The ancient Ribstone Pippin tree slumps on its crutches
while the Ribstone Pippins sleep out the winter in newspaper,
old Ribstone Pippins mulling their spices and parsnippy sugars.
That “parsnippy” is typical of Francis’s uncanny accuracy of observation and word choice. The “seedcake fragrance of aunts” (“Pomona”), the late sky that is “custard curdled with rhubarb” (“Rose Absolute”), the seemingly dead ant that “rose to all its feet” (“Ant”). This is not the desperate search for novelty that causes some poets to scrabble for incongruous words and far-fetched comparisons: it is the freshness that comes of observing closely and describing exactly.
An interest in technical challenges has also always been part of his poetry and surfaces here in the trochaic syllabics of “A Charm for Earwigs” and the single vowel of “Monomoon”, which would be a wonderful one to read aloud:
on woods, wolds,
to crops, cows,
spools of floss, whorls
of cottonwood blossom.
There has always been an exuberant delight in the beauty and variety of the world in Francis’s poems; indeed I sometimes wonder if it has led him to be underrated by those who seem to think serious poetry’s job is to depress the general public. It is very much in evidence here, perhaps more than in any of his other collections, yet behind the upbeat note is a darker one. The end of “Pomona”, with its richness of fruit, is winter, old age and death; the fascinating creatures under Robert Hooke’s microscope are being literally studied to death, and you don’t want to know the recipe for oil of swallows, even if it would cause your aches to “wheel off on long wings”. Other wings in this collection include those of the flies under the microscope, the end-of-summer butterflies in “Wingscape”, beautiful but doomed, and the fatally failing parachute of “Freefall”. The end of this poem,
Sleep on the wing, the way swallows are said to,
sleep on the wing
is a little reminiscent of so many plays of Euripides in which some despairing character cries out a wish to be winged, to fly away from earth and grief. Only they can’t, of course, any more than swallows can actually sleep in flight, and it is this unspoken consciousness of being anchored that shadows the brightness and throws it into deeper relief.