Adam Thorpe Home

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From the Neanderthal

Reviews:

Observer

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,
light francs from the war,
each worth what we find
to say about it. . .

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
the plovers are just as good at swimming
as their aerial partners: they imitate
so exactly I have the heretical thought
that they might be the same, that a being
can occupy two places without splitting
and roar to scare the weakness away.

A subtext of the Thorpe volume is the movement between the earth of England and the earth of France…

Sunday Telegraph

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,
dug, yield a trove
of what they used to chuck:
keys stuck in rust's lock,
lots of bits of pot,
jabs in glass for goats
and knobs for doors long shut
from hands; each clink is luck
or a stab of sharp loss…

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?
for here she lies where she's been spilled
by drunks in combat gear for wrongs
trickling from her throat like songs.

Scotsman

John Burnside: December 4, 1999, Saturday

Scottish 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...

Quadrant

Alan Gould


Adam Thorpe's From the Neanderthal is a masterpiece ... The focus is so very steady, the imagining so vivid and calm, the intelligence contemplating past and present, consciousness and oblivion, so very fine and alive.  For art as well made and intently thought as it is in this collection, gratitude is both the immediate enlivening response and the proper one.

Nine Lessons From The Dark

Reviews:

Sunday Telegraph

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.

Guardian

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
yet here it seems to outdo the rest,
the ramsons and knapweed and stitchwort . . .
The honesty
was serried into a square between
a pink rose-bush and the mown lawn
where plastic toys were liberally
scattered; it was almost a statement,
the toys and the honesty . . .
I would have it sown
in thick clouds everywhere, that honesty
might rise, unexpected, from rifts and cracks
in drifts of lilac, like thunder, like seas,
happy with its wildness and not waiting on us
to judge or decide, who know only lies.

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?
Ah! LY! PERTINENTLY SAID, you'd said,
and were saying it now with that ventriloquist's grin
that brooked no short-cuts, not even TEA? - as if
the grammar's knitting of a full-blown phrase . . .
was itself a shield, see-through but unshatterable . . .

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.

Observer

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
over the whispering of marram on the brae,
it stretched up out of a slew of scree
to be this: the peak's thank-offering to the sky,
our hike's lynchpin.

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
of grief or despair, no wild
shaman dances of admiration. . .

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

Reviews:

Financial Times

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."

The Times

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

It is remarkable how many successful novelists have wished they were poets, William Golding and John Fowles among them - the latter noting (in the foreword to his own neglected poems) that excellence in both forms is a rare thing. He put it down to the role of the “private self”, which has little place in a novel, but is the essence of the poem. Fowles decided that a poet’s primary audience is “his or her own self”, but Adam Thorpe, while never oversimplifying or avoiding dark matter, manages to convince us that he is interested in other people reading his poems.

Some of the imagery in Birds with a Broken Wing suggests that he is uneasy about the fate of literature as a whole (books as a burden in 'First Kill', as unread brown-wrapped piles in 'Purposes'), some of his themes might be seen as metaphors for his own poetic uncertainties ('Maiden Flight', 'Lifting the Harp'), but anyone who appreciates the virtues of Thorpe’s prose will find little to trouble them here. He particularly likes unrhymed couplets, deploying internal rhyme at key moments, with perhaps a tendency to heavy footed enjambment: “her door / left . . . “, “to swap / seats . . . “, “we don't / get who . . . “. But throughout this fifth collection there is the feeling of an achieved style. Even in those poems where he reaches for a loftier register or attempts a stylistic shift ('The Ox-Bow’s Heath' with thirty-nine of its forty lines end-stopped; or the superb meditative tercets of 'Light Pollution', which conclude the book), there is a conversational respect for the reader: no pyrotechnics, nothing brashly confessional. We are simply drawn in by Thorpe’s music, his powers of observation and narrative, his ability to connect pieces of light.

The poet certainly has stories to tell, and - like the poet-novelist Thomas Hardy, whose spirit is invoked in lines from 'Afterwards' on the book’s last page - Thorpe knows how to craft an anecdote in verse. 'Invalid' tells of a tactile encounter with a wounded veteran on the Nuremberg train; 'Tidal Times' describes a suicide note giving instructions not to call the police until the tide changes. There are little family incidents that anyone else might have left lying in a diary - the poet’s son calling on the mobile while they are standing “between the portals and the axials” of Drombeg Stone Circle (a characteristic intersection of old and new).

All this is in a direct line from Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas. Like many of the Georgians, whose maligned aesthetic Thorpe gives a twenty-first-century revamp, he is a lover of flowers, a follower of obscure paths, forgotten roads, attentive to family (in a heart-rending elegy on his mother’s blindness), but also to the wider world. War is very much within earshot ('Two Beirut Poems', 'Before the War', 'My Grandfather’s War'), and there is a continuous undercurrent of potential violence and past danger - leaping into a hole and falling sixty feet; nearly shooting his foot off while jumping from a gate; discovering that the stranger who bought his Hornby train-set later went and “blasted the check-out girl” at Waitrose. The accounts of such incidents are generally measured and crystalline, but just as Edward Thomas was once unable to contain his anger ('This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong'), nor can Thorpe: earlier it was 'Fuck the Bypass', here (mellowed to a russet satire) it is 'In Tesco’s', where apples have “been photographed seventy times / by a Greefa Intelligent Quality Sorter / for blush, for green, for blush-on green / to the square millimetre”, while he remembers and delights in “scrunchlings scattered / on the verge in the Corrèze, wrinkled / as bollocks, sweet as sin, with the worm / still in”.

Perhaps Thorpe’s effectiveness as poet and novelist is connected to his Anglo-French existence. French landscapes, places, acquaintances dominate here, and urban England seems increasingly bewildering ('Somewhere', 'The Taxi-Driver’s Tale'), the resulting poems less fruitful. History and Natural History are Adam Thorpe’s true twin homes, gleaming through every memory, every encounter. Indeed, the best of these poems read as if etched on glass - a sense only reinforced by a poem which begins “I feel transparent. / I want to be transparent / in everything I do and say”.

 

 
 

Voluntary

Reviews:

Guardian

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
a pyre against the greater cold
or carried the lot to her tomb's shade
for time to consume.
Sufficient for the life after.
Or enough to resume:
this was the pith
of her, always ahead of the first
frost. This was her faith.

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."

These poems are constantly telescoping the passage of years, in a restless search for some evidence of an organising principle. On occasion, though, the linkages between past, present and future are too minimal or hard to grasp, and the speaker is forced to admit that "there's nothing / but a vague skein like silk or torchlight / connecting this to that". A poem about the photograph of a soon-to-be-demolished wainwright's shop in Hungerford in the 1950s concerns time's inevitable destruction of common memory, of mundane certainties that have been made strange by the dereliction into which their very names have fallen: thill, strouters, shutlock. "And all this was obliterated / as so many facts are in history ... turning that practical good into something // no one needed".

The nostalgic glow that surrounds Thorpe's regretted wainwrights, inevitably, does not extend to our modern-day mundanities: the "heedless Fords" that have replaced carriages and carts, the "reek of garage", the southern French town, run by the Front National, whose "peeling, piss-smelling // streets are sinister". But on the other side of the balance sheet, there's the world of painting, literature and music. In 'Underground', those sinister streets also provide the venue for a performance of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame. In the contest between cloistered art and grim life, the result looks very much like a draw: "the beauty and the bleakness so beguiling together, / like faith; like the government of faith by grief". 'Flaubert's Drafts' gives us another take on art and life, one major difference between the two being that the act of writing creates "its own landscape / that alters according to the climber's will", whereas in reality there's no going back to correct what was badly done, or what went wrong - "our one, uncorrectable line" is all we mortals have to play with. But after all, change is life, though we don't always like to admit it: "And what a frightening thought, that everything / is always on its way to somewhere else, / whatever route we pick". That notion of picking out our own route, of going solo against the weight of expectation or received wisdom, is addressed by the title poem, which rounds out this excellent collection. A flock of geese rise, raggedly, over a Norfolk marsh and "shape, if vaguely, // their conventional V". All apart from one bird, which heads out alone, determined to follow its own course regardless of the consequences: "probability's / the curve it pursues / until its dot // assumes its own extinction ... a voluntary / exile, free at last".

Poetry Review

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”.

These are very personal poems, and Thorpe manages to inhabit the poems while remaining outside them, expertly producing vivid pictures of a real life. Packed full of strong feelings, these poems can produce strong feelings in the reader, too.
The “Father” poems, such as ‘Summing Up’ or ‘Clearing Your Study’ are especially moving:

I reach into the bowels of your oldest files:
what are lives but the illusion that all this
matters? So easily scattered, it slides
into the third bin-bag, already obese,
in a landslip of receipts (mostly shillings)
from long-dead stores, more recently-accumulated miles
never used, the special offers milling
with ancient reminders marked, in biro,

Replied to.

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.

Acumen

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.