From the Neanderthal
John Kinsella: August 1, 1999
Thorpe seems not to have lost his poetic voice after his increasingly large-scale narrative prose works of recent years. He is a powerful lyric poet, able to evoke place in the manner of Geoffrey Hill. Making connections between a variety of pasts from the primal through to a recent past that is already, in some sense, 'mythical' he demystifies the processes of time. The past and the present are actively interwoven for Thorpe, and even when he writes of his son asking: "'Why aren't our footprints there in front?'", eliciting the reply: "'Because we're not there yet. Footprints come from us'", there is a sense of cyclical inevitability about movement.
Thorpe has great control, and at times when the poems risk preciousness, he has the skill to pull them back. It's tempting to call him a nature poet, so strong is his connection with place, but his sense of history maintains a philosophical distance that prevents us from simply labelling him. We see this in 'Pickings', a modus operandi poem for the book that concisely examines layers of the past
Tins, the tines of forks,
as children pick fragments of things from over the grave of an "old dame". The real skill in this poem is the blending of the materialism of the poem with the dark humour of "'She's much too deep,' I say", regarding the prospect of unearthing her. We see it, too, in the title sequence, which concludes the book, 'From the Neanderthal', a strong, meditative poem on place and inheritance, where the subject 'fades' with the inevitability of the landscape, history, being:
In the upside-down bit of the lake
A subtext of the Thorpe volume is the movement between the earth of England and the earth of France…
Anthony Thwaite: August 8th 1999
Adam Thorpe's third book of poems, From the Neanderthal, has made me feel neglectful for not having read the first two. I knew him as a novelist, especially that strange historical invention Ulverton, and it should have alerted me to the observant intelligence about the past he shows in many of these poems. Not necessarily the remote past, in spite of the book's title: Thorpe can make his delvings among 50-year-old rubbish around a French cottage seem as strange and poignant as more exotic excavations:
Our ogres' steps of earth,
Thorpe weaves together "ancient wrongs" and much more recent events in 'Balkan Tune', of which this is the final stanza:
But what did she do to be killed?
John Burnside: December 4, 1999, SaturdayScottish writers are acclaimed for their own work; but what, and who, do they read? We asked leading Scottish authors for their favourite books of the year:
In a year that was rich in poetry, two volumes passed through the critics' hands a little too quietly for my liking. The first was Adam Thorpe's characteristically brilliant return to the lyric, after a period of fiction writing, with the excellent From the Neanderthal; the other, Michael Symmons Roberts' second book, Raising Sparks, which demonstrated once again a philosophical depth and vision that sets him in a class of his own...
Nine Lessons From The Dark
Anthony Thwaite: March 21, 2004
As in his last book, From the Neanderthal, Adam Thorpe's Nine Lessons from the Dark appeals to me with his fastidious and erudite sense of archaeology, of the remote past pushing itself vividly into the present. Such poems as 'Neolithic', 'Petroglyphs' and 'Fred's Treasure' (an avid collector's accumulation of gathered flint implements) I find very congenial. But the most striking poem is a sequence called 'Nerve', a commemoration of a friend dying of motor neurone disease, in which the voice, the limbs, and indeed all movement, gradually ebb away. Thorpe's exact observation here is both clinical and deeply touching.
David Morley: January 31, 2004
Like calling on the service of a professional surgeon to slice up the Sunday roast, when a good poet turns his or her hand to the making of a novel you expect a subtle, even thorough, technique. The mind's muscle is trained to an unusually cunning degree by years of chivvying language into a poetic line. But what's produced in the end, that lean, self-powered machine called a poem, receives no more than a chimeric response from its diminishing and diminished readers. The novel, however, honours all feast days and grows rounder and richer.
The temptation to retreat from poetry is an old one, as old as hunger probably, and to turn to prose fiction can be as much a pragmatic choice as it is a pondered artistic direction. Many poets make this migration, their literary agents weeping with joy. And many of them acquit themselves with honour, not least Helen Dunmore, John Burnside, and Adam Thorpe himself. In Thorpe's case the intricate layering of narratives in his first novel Ulverton bespeaks the technique of a poet revelling in the relative freedoms of prose, and remaking for himself the difficulties and rules of poetic composition.
But what of the return passage, when the poet-turned-highly-successful-novelist makes his or her way home to poetry and finds the route is via a narrow door to a rather lonely room? It's a thorn-strewn way, and there are bound to be casualties, the soft casualty being the force of language deployed in the post-novel poems. Vikram Seth's poetry before and after A Suitable Boy is the starkest example of the poet lost in the action of prose, however good the prose may be, however profitable.
I have admired Thorpe's poetry ever since his early work featured in New Chatto Poets during the creditable days when Chatto & Windus not only had a poetry list but went about creating anthologies of unknown poets. His first collection, Mornings in the Baltic (1988), was a beautifully astute and big collection (no slim volume for this novelist-in-waiting). His ambition and internationalism grouped him with a number of seriously good British poets, not least Michael Hofmann and Stephen Romer, who were interested in language, translation and the veering politics of contemporary Europe before and after the end of the cold war.
Both Hofmann and Romer have shown themselves as gifted prose stylists, especially as critics, but they remain true to the writing of poetry and the art of translation. But Thorpe's novels were thoroughly exceptional, stretching the edges of the genre with a rare conjunction of responsibility and linguistic panache. Above all, his novels were beautifully made. His continual return to poetry in Meeting Montaigne and From the Neanderthal had kept some internal edge keen. This was a wise bestriding of the genres, for the essential element about Thorpe as poet is that he is unusual among many contemporaries for possessing a superbly honed ear for the cadences of language and speech.
That gift is to the fore throughout Nine Lessons from the Dark. It is sharpened within a poem which is to my mind the most outstanding to emerge from the Iraq crisis of last year, and one that bears comparison, in its subtlety and utter self-control, to Hardy's 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"'. Its strength, like Hardy's poem, is that it resists the temptations of open grief or public grievance by the stating of small essential detail. It is "almost a statement", and is never completely so.Observed and written during "this Easter of war", Thorpe's poem 'Honesty' never strays beyond that single mention of conflict. Instead the poet dwells solely and necessarily on the resilient sprouting of the plant of the same name (in a poem pointedly sub-titled "Lunaria rediviva"): "honesty's look - gawky stems / where petals attempt some point and class / against rough-toothed, careless leaves":
Honesty, though wild, is rare in the wild
The poem, however, does not condemn; it assays its subject of fought-over territory and the pliability of life with a clarity with which a botanist scrutinises a measured quadrangle of living ground. It also demonstrates the strength of Thorpe's concise avowal for the pastoral, not some idealised scouring and greening of the shires, but the precise observation of natural life, as in the Alps, "on a fair day of snow-sheets / we tracked a rabbit / to a sudden hiatus / of blood and fur", or in 'Blueberry Picking in Michigan':
"My son's / showing me how the blue rubs off to a shine as black / as a mouse's eyeball (though black is really blue, deep down) . . ."
When attention is paid to things at this pitch of perception and language, both material and language are themselves enlivened, honoured even. Thorpe's narrative skill similarly enacts a remarkable respect for life. This can be as simple a matter as taking five dogs for a walk "on leads taut / as kitestrings in the freezing winds". Or as complex as the narrative behind this matter, "'The dogs were really Elizabeth's,' he'd say . . . / 'Everything / on the skids since Elizabeth,' he'd say, / talking of her like a reign, not a wife . . ."
The poem that synthesises Thorpe's precise sympathies most completely is the sequence, 'Nerve', addressed to, and telling the moving story of, a paralysed victim of motor-neurone disease who speaks "though the letters / clustered in groups on the square of perspex", a mechanical communication process in which Thorpe discovers:
a magic, though, in that slowed-down spell:
PERT . . . IN . . . what? IN . . . what? IN . . . ENTL?
Nine Lessons from the Dark is a superbly realised new volume that demonstrates how advanced and trustworthy a writer can become as storyteller when they fully recognise how to listen to the multivalent noise of poetic language. Thorpe is the kind of writer who also acknowledges, through his own practice, how and why the routes of narrative passed through poetry into prose rather lately in human terms. And that one honest way forward for the making of new fiction involves an alertness to the elaborate concentrations and orchestrations of sound in poetry, and to the tautness and precision required to transmit that various, vast music.
Matthew Sweeney: February 22, 2004
Adam Thorpe has published six novels. He began as a poet, however, and I have always found his poetry to have an attractive immediacy. The first poem, 'Cairn' [in Nine Lessons from the Dark], opens like this:
Like a person, spookish, spying from on high
Another very likeable poem, 'The Causeway', deals with an unnamed island (Skye?) which, before a causeway linked it to the mainland, bred its own species of cars: "unlicensed, dented, mirrorless, / treads as if sea-smoothed. . ." And 'Blueberry Picking in Michigan' stands out, with its vivid portrayal of the final harvest of a farm that's about to be sold and its beautifully caught voices. This is one of Thorpe's strengths and it is tempting to see it as coming from the fiction. One of his weaknesses - an over-reliance on abstraction - may also be encouraged by the fiction -
. . . no sudden ululations
This is too spelt out for poetry. The fine last poem shows how it can be done. 'Honesty' deals with the plant of that name and the only allusion to its abstract meaning is in the ending where the plant "happy with its wildness" is not waiting on us - "who know only lies" - to judge or decide.
Birds with a Broken Wing
Natalie Whittle: 5th May, 2007
Poets all have ontological habits that are hard to kick. Adam Thorpe’s study of existence in Birds with a Broken Wing is honest and finely sensitive, aiming not at lofty places but at the constantly elusive mystery of the everyday. The collection has the rich, retrospective warmth of a memoir, with scenes of family life, wistful memories and rites of young adulthood. Thorpe plugs his personal concerns into a much bigger grid, however; with a healthy respect for the powers of the cosmos, ancestors and religion. The language is understated but has punch; ‘First Kill’, a hunting poem, shows Thorpe’s acute translation of the visual: "My shot/corrected the hare’s zigzag with a spin."
Elaine Feinstein: 22nd September, 2007
Adam Thorpe is an accomplished poet, and although he describes himself as a “preened and patted public school type” in his moving elegy for Richard France, the voice of the best poems in Birds with a Broken Wing transcend that ironic self-characterisation.
In a poem on his mother’s blindness, I was overwhelmed by the honesty of his mother’s voice, and the way that his own becomes more direct as he describes… the indignities of her bumping into walls, or smiling at grandchildrens’ drawings. His pain at her dying in a glorious autumn that she cannot see is raw and poignant. He has other voices, some quietly witty, some, as in a poem about light pollution, appropriately aware of “the pitch/black of the medieval room, or of woods/strung by nothing but the moon”.
Times Literary Supplement
John Greening: 8th February 2008
Adam Newey: May 11th 2012
Voluntary, Adam Thorpe's sixth collection, ranges widely across time and space: from the pawprint left by an ancient Roman dog in a still-wet floor tile to evidence of climate change along modern-day Estonia's Baltic shore and a windfarm off the Scottish coast. A fascination with "history's mood-swings" has characterised Thorpe's work since his first collection, the Whitbread-shortlisted Mornings in the Baltic, and most notably in his debut novel, Ulverton. That book may have had an intensely English focus on 350 years in the life of a Berkshire village, but in many ways Thorpe, who was born in Paris, was brought up in India, Cameroon and Britain and now lives in France, has a more European sensibility than his UK-bound peers.
The sense of a set of personal stories constantly bleeding into a wider panorama of recorded history is evident throughout Voluntary. 'Fuel' is the simple, simply told story of a springtime encounter with an old woman who is bringing in wood to see her through the next winter and determinedly refuses the narrator's offer of help. The next time he passes her house, it's obvious that she hasn't survived to finish the job. The poet's awareness of an all-embracing chain of such stories, of which this is an unexceptional example, is what grants it pathos, though in the end it's the individual tale that gives emotional meaning to the broader canvas:
Millennia ago they'd have made
This effacement of the specific by the general can work the other way round,
too, when well-known events, or received structures of historical meaning,
are overwritten by an individual's memory. In 'Spring Class', Thorpe uses
a jump-cut effect to enact the process by which different perspectives on the
same moment in time perform a kind of shuffle dance as each takes its turn
in the spotlight. The speaker, who is teaching the poetry of Sylvia Plath, is
fleetingly aware of the sunlight outside the classroom window, but inside "It's
that winter in Fitzroy Road [...] and the long freeze of '63 that I / recall as a bout
of sledging ... being old enough / at six." This noted, the poem then returns us
briefly to the class, then back to Plath's suicide, but eventually the personal
memory will edge out all else, for "what's really hiding // behind the steam of
words is a lost reference / to my brother and I as we squeal down the track's /
schillerised slope [...] Amazing, after the earthquake / of it all, to find I am here
in class, instead."
Tara Bergin: Summer 2012
Adam Thorpe’s Voluntary is similarly, if more gently, exemplary in its use of
poetic form and music. Particularly striking is his instinct for choosing the
right form for the right subject-matter: if a line breaks in order to accomodate
a rhyme, it often works to accentuate meaning too. In the poignant ‘Home
Videos,’ for example, the ordinary details of a child’s party, once jerkily and haphazardly filmed, become precious but painful indicators of the passing of
time: “the slow/lighting of the candles that refuse to light”.
I reach into the bowels of your oldest files:
In these perfectly-pitched pieces even Thorpe’s description of the bin-bags are good. Voluntary may contain some poems which seem too private and opaque, but this is nevertheless an emotional, vivid and spell-binding collection.
Edmund Prestwich: September 2012
Long sentences subtly inflected by metre and stanza pattern are characteristic of Adam Thorpe’s style and essential to what he does. He’s a poet of complex, nuanced reflection, a poet who weaves things together rather than isolating them, who makes you feel whole sequences of ideas taking light from, generating and collapsing into others. The deepest pleasures and illuminations of his writing are to be found in following these long tracking movements of feeling and thought….
None of Thorpe’s poems stay where they start; all move through wide circles of association, most gathering a considerable weight of implication and reflection on the way. A number involve striking quasi-Metaphysical conceits, like ‘Subtraction’, a poem set in the Carthaginian quarry, which begins “El Haouaria, where they hollowed out/Carthage, is now a vaulted omega of absence”, and explores this thought and its implications for another 22 lines. In a sense a Metaphysical conceit is very abstract in that it uses a concrete vehicle to define abstract ideas.
What is impressive in Thorpe’s poetry, though, is how much the intellectual and abstract returns to the concrete. In my last quotation, an abstract idea is given a wonderful physical presence by language. Equally important is something I’d relate to Thorpe’s status as novelist as well as poet. Ideas in this book are always developing out of and returning to richly evoked experiences, to situations and stories – in this case the actual experience of visiting the quarry, the imagined experience of the slaves who worked there (“Beneath the silence you can hear the moans”) and Thorpe’s concern for his own children.
Parents, children, hollowing, absence. There’s a powerful group of poems on the death of the poet’s father in which the hollowing out of the father and his absence after death are strongly felt, and generate subtle thoughts about the emptiness underlying all life. This group in the middle of the volume perhaps forms its imaginative core. And yet these pieces, and the book as a whole, are anything but depressing. Poem after poem glints with wit, sometimes darkly sardonic, sometimes humorous and warm, sometimes both at once…
Voluntary richly repays reading and rereading for the range of its subject matter, the sensitivity and depth of its feeling for life and the way it enlarges one’s sense of the possibilities of poetic expression.