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Review: James Lasdun's Water Sessions

With Water Sessions, his first book of poems in a decade, James Lasdun puts paid to concerns that the closing sentiment of his last collection, Landscape with Chainsaw (2001), was a deadly serious one. The final poem of that book was a farewell to poetry in favour of working the land, specifically the wooded Catskill Mountains of New York State, to which the poet and his family had moved from England. It offered a wishful resolve to the tension, acutely felt throughout the book, between the social complexities of life and the no-nonsense appeal of nature. "And if I write, it'll be with a seed-drill", declared our poet, perhaps with a nod to the young Seamus Heaney of "Digging"; "a quatrain of greens per bed, no sweat". But Landscape with Chainsaw was a slim volume of large achievement. Beyond its postmodern pastorals, Lasdun brought a conversationally discursive yet formally incisive style to bear on notions of home and flight, identity and heritage, and masculine dealings with sex, love, family and power. The book's overall tenor was so pensive, wavering and seriously playful, it clearly implied more was to come.

Water Sessions does not represent, either stylistically or thematically, a great departure from its predecessor, but instead develops Lasdun's recognized gifts. Yet, for a poet as gifted as Lasdun, this presents fewer problems than it might suggest. Also a novelist, he excels at bringing telling description and snatches of dialogue to convincing narrative poems. "The Question" summons a domestic setting with judicious detail, before hinging on a son's weighty query: "'Dad, / is America good or bad?'". This gives rise to a spiralling internal monologue that deftly merges personal and public concerns, even if it ultimately leaves the poet hesitant, unable to "say a damn thing".

The suggestion recurring throughout Water Sessions is that intelligent reflection, for all its merits and necessity, can result in paralysis. The book's title poem explores this idea in full flow. A witty psychoanalytic dialogue, it finds a therapist intent on getting at the facts, and a patient refusing straightforwardly to discuss an argument with his partner, instead comparing himself to a host of hapless mythological characters. As often with Lasdun, the poem streams on in nimble, recalcitrant and wryly comic fashion, but also delves deep into complex emotion, catching an unforced epiphany at its close. If Larkin's presence can be plainly detected in a handful of these poems - a short lyric, "Last Harvest", looks on at abandoned houses while knowingly recalling "Home is so Sad" - it appears more meaningfully in the striking manner in which Lasdun proves himself a poet of moral discourse. "To a Pessimist" is typical, again finding a deft balance between gravitas and humour: "To be born ... / argues, does it not, that one might be allowed / if not to aspire / to outright happiness, then at least to resist / abject despair?".

Torn between the frustrating satisfactions of the life of the mind and throwing away his pen to make woodpiles that give "the exact ratio of effort to result", Lasdun remains an especially fidgety poet. He does well to, since from this attitude stems his best work. "But did you imagine it would wait", he wonders in "The Event", "its fuse already lit, while you laboured / day and night for the exact word / to name what it was?". Inescapably enquiring, yet dissatisfied with the life this engenders, the richest poems here recall Yeats's maxim that "out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry", while, at the same time, issuing from a trustworthy autobiographical voice, they wear their engagement with difficult themes lightly.

Not all of these poems are rivers winding and flowing; some are content to tread water, while a few vignettes peter out before they get started. Yet the book's opening poem, "The Skaters", a sweeping tale of punctured naivety in the face of life's vicissitudes and painful inevitabilities, is alone worth the price of entry. "It Isn't Me" will doubtless elicit a pang of recognition from many readers; "Blues for Samson", a candid but measured take on the capricious male libido, also deserves mention. In their reflective patter, formal dexterity, serio-comic tones and depth of feeling, these are the stand-out poems in an excellent book.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, December 7 2012