Collected Poems, 1948-1976
In a brief introductory note to this volume, Dannie Abse writes that his wish for some time has been “to look upon the world with the eyes of a perpetual convalescent.” The observation is apt, not only because Abse is a poet who happens to be a medical doctor—he has himself suggested the order of his professions—but because it suggests his capacity to confront the abyss yet refuse its call to inertia and resignation. If Abse’s despair is real, occasioned as much by self-doubt as by the obscenities of the Holocaust and Vietnam, it is never mortal. The will is to recovery, never achieved, always precarious, yet never abandoned. “Any man may gather images of despair,” he writes in the aptly titled “Poem of celebration,” but Abse refuses such fashionable cynicism, affirming instead the power of the imagination: “I’ll say ’I will’ and ’I can’/and like an accident breathe in space and air.”
Solace is fleeting yet abiding in a poetic career that spans some thirty years and six volumes of poetry. If, as a post-romantic, Abse lacks the certainty of a transcendental order, he nevertheless retains the spirit of natural piety, his will to believe balanced precariously against a skepticism that can “by doubting first,/believe; believing, doubt” (“The water diviner”). At times piety resides in the wide-awake senses, in the innocent eye that can perceive the quotidian with unabashed wonder. Like William Carlos Williams, Abse finds the miraculous in the common. “Surprise! Surprise!” counsels pristine vision, the capacity to peer at the world with “greenhorn observation,” to discover in a toenail, a tree, a foot, the mystery in the seemingly charted, the strange in the familiar. In the late poem “Mysteries,” acknowledging the impossibility of certainty, either of self or of the divine, he can nevertheless affirm that “I start with the visible/and am startled by the visible.”
Reciprocity between self and world does not, however, always suffice. Several poems from Poems, Golders Green more insistently hunger for spiritual transport, but always with a wry self-deprecation, more puzzled than certain. If, as in “The grand view,” the poet would “flow/into One invisible and still,” it is with the acknowledgment that his spiritual yearning lacks both dogma and icon. “I do not know who/it is that I love,” he concedes, yet withal he will hearken to psychic promptings whispering “visions, visions.” “Watching a cloud” similarly considers the numinous character of life, questioning whether revelations of the divine reside in the poet’s tropes. Answers prove elusive, yet the will to believe persists, as Abse yearns “to be theological, stare through/raw white angel-fabric at holy bits of blue.”
The note of nostalgia that persists in Abse’s work appears to be linked to this need for some intimation of the divine. Like Wallace Stevens, whom he so often resembles in theme, if not always in idiom, Abse seems haunted by a sense of loss and exile, as if in some unspecified past he had possessed a wholeness, now absent, which he yearns to recover. Only the vestigial memory of this wholeness remains, but it is enough to occasion the hope of retrieval. Thus, the odor of the poet’s hand in “Olfactory pursuits,” a poem reminiscent of Stevens’ “The Weeping Burgher,” inspires the search for “old foundations,/buried mosaics, tomb tablets crumbled.” Similarly, the elegiac tone of “Forgotten” suggests a sense of estrangement, as the poet yearns to revisit the “old country” whose name he seems to have forgotten.
Despite his hunger for spiritual transcendence, Abse remains firmly attached to things of this world, especially to the miracle of life, which he continues to celebrate despite his unflinching appraisal of the demonic and the irrational in human life. Occasionally, candor compels a Hobbesian view: the mordant political parable “Emperors of the island” counterpoints the stylistic innocence of its nursery jingles against its theme of human savagery, chronicling how the will to power of five souls marooned on a deserted island results in systematic annihilation, until only five ghosts remain. Or Abse can, in a poem like “No more Mozart,” confront the horror of the Holocaust from the perspective of its six million victims, their vacant eyes fixed on a German landscape “soaped in moonlight,” its streets “clean/like the hands of Lady Macbeth.”
To acknowledge the dark night of the soul is not, however, to deny human possibility. Daringly, Abse can title a poem “The...
(The entire section is 1883 words.)