Saturday 4 December 2010

Review of Craig Raine's How Snow Falls

The shadow of morbidity hangs over this collection
Reviewed by James Kidd

Sunday, 28 November 2010

How Snow Falls is Craig Raine's second publication of the year. The first, Heartbreak, was a novel that will be remembered as much for its reviews (bad) as its content (weird). The follow-up sees Raine return to his first literary love: poetry. The blurb proclaims it his first collection in a decade. This is slightly cheeky given that the final poem, "A la recherche du temps perdu", is as original as its title: it was published in book form in 2000.

Nevertheless, its dishevelled rhymed couplets fit the tone of the collection perfectly. An elegy for a former lover who died of Aids in 1995, the poem contemplates ageing, the body's vulnerability and death with unflinching honesty. It is also a reminder of Raine's poetic method: an attempt to realise highly personal experience through a series of visual images and high-brow allusions.

There are characteristic bursts of sexual frankness that you don't quite know what to do with: "I'd fucked you half dressed,/ wearing a leather vest." And through it all runs a vigorous tussle with language, a barrage of puns, as if Raine is trying to transfigure words, ideas and even the remembered woman herself into corporeal form: "...this is my purpose./ To make you real./ To make you see, to make you feel,/ to make you hear./ To make you here."

Death is clearly on Raine's brain. There is a delicate memorial for Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent and wife of Julian Barnes, who died in 2008. Elsewhere, "I Remember my Mother Dying" is a meandering and poignant elegy that begins at his father's funeral and catalogues his mother's slow death by cancer. Her suffering casts a shadow across everything. Even an off-hand piece of literary witchery is recalled as providing momentary shelter from the storm: "I remember/ sitting in the hospital cafeteria/ ...snorting with laughter and ripping the piss/ out of Philip Hensher's High-Table prose."

Best of all is "On the Slopes". Raine has noted that, "It's really fucking difficult to write a good poem about skiing." "On the Slopes" is a pretty good effort: the juddering stanzas offering a fair approximation of Raine's bumpy ride, both physical and metaphysical. As he struggles through deep snow towards his son and daughter, Raine collides with a grim thought: "this is what my dying will be like./ A few feet away, close/ yet in another country,/ my children simply watching./ Concerned, but unable to help./ Nothing to be done. Or said." "Nothing to be done. Or said," except that Raine believes verse can say something about these darkest moments, even if he uses Samuel Beckett to do so.

Death is not Raine's only subject. There is a strange poetic adaptation of Rashomon. (I assume this is Akira Kurosawa's film, although smart-alec Raine is probably thinking of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story.) And in "Marcel's Fancy-Dress Party", dedicated to the translator Jan Eijkelboom on his 80th birthday, Raine ponders a new form of love poetry: "You wonder,/ is it possible to flirt/ in this foreign language?" He is talking about Eijkelboom, but 65-year-old Raine is doubtless thinking about himself as well. Death may be everywhere he looks, but How Snow Falls suggests there is also life in the old dog yet.How Snow Falls - by Craig Raine
Atlantic £14.99

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