On the Poetry of Oliver Reynolds

By Ball, Angela | Hollins Critic, June 2012 | Go to article overview

On the Poetry of Oliver Reynolds


Ball, Angela, Hollins Critic


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The British poetry world intersects the American at only a few familiar points--Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Carol Ann Duffy--and it seems clear that we should be reading more of each other.

If a poet has taught or edited in America, he or she is more likely to be known here. Though he has been a writer-in-residence at schools in the U.K., Oliver Reynolds is very much outside what is known as the "academy." My explanation--oversimplified, no doubt--is that he chooses not to submit himself or his poetry to a bureaucracy: its hierarchy of largely artificial credentials, its decorums, its ways of both inflating and trivializing the work done by its constituents. Instead, he has chosen a life of listening: to poetry, his own and others', and to music: the music he ushers audiences to in his job for the Royal Opera, a quiet job in service of a grand form of human noise.

The work of Oliver Reynolds, born in Wales but at home in London, fits no cubbyhole, though he has sometimes been termed a Martian (a reference to A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, by Craig Raine).

Unlike America, Britain is conversant with Europe's long political and intellectual history, which Reynolds' poetry effortlessly accommodates--but never to intimidate. Its business is to come clean, to use language as illumination. The tone is often self-deprecating: this is no mannerism, but pure candor.

Reynolds' exact combination of hard-won artistic verve, playful humor, and raw emotion is not to be found elsewhere. Those who love only the tragic will not be at home in his poems, whose world is a comic one in which evils often triumph when no one is watching (no one is watching), and in which the very intensity of effort often insures failure--failures of deeds or words or both. Yet words and their histories (and the histories recorded in them) form a welcome communion. In love and otherwise, we remake the same mistakes, but they are the gods' mistakes, too.

Reynolds studied drama at the University of Hull, and his readings of life are suffused in drama, in the notion of life as performance. Always, we are separate from the audience, which includes the other players. A gap yawns between experience and representation--something imperfect, something impermanent. If, as Henry James would have it, "Art makes life, makes meaning, makes importance," there is always some artifice in life, in meaning, in importance. The show must go on, and does. Sometimes it uplifts; sometimes horrifies.

Reynolds' first book is named for a torture device, Skevington's Daughter. His second, The Player Queen's Wife, describes the horrific ritual of early shock therapy. It also includes a poem spoken by Hamlet's best friend and confidant, Horatio. His is a rueful comic voice:

    I would have named a son after him,
   but we only had girls.
   It might have been an exorcism,
   a ridding of the half-life left to me
   when he hugged death to himself--
   'Selfish to the end.' That's the wife's view,
   but she was sick of it all, long ago. 

Reynolds' poems insist again and again on a truth too seldom realized--nothing really wraps. Though we may try to jump to them, there are no solid conclusions. Take Hamlet for example. Sure, all the stars die, but the story is cut off, incomplete. As Horatio says, "The rest is silence."

Reynolds' work takes the task of filling or mitigating some of the most fraught silences we own: the silence left in the wake of burned books and authors; the silence that attends the mentally disturbed. Skevington's Daughter's first poem describes an encounter between Dr. Murray, original editor of the O.E.D., and Dr. Minor, one of its main contributors. Supplied only with an address, Murray finds himself in "Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum."

    They let Minor work on his own.
   He had a study in East 4
   And every week deliveries would arrive
   From the booksellers. … 

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