Andrew Motion was the Poet Laureate of England from 1999 until 2009, a task he took on with the declared aim of making poetry as high profile as possible – poetry should be everywhere, he argued, wherever people gather, including football stadia. His enthusiam for poetry is admirable and indeed his tireless efforts to take it out of any perceived ivory towers.
His latest collection, The Customs House bears as its wrap-around cover image Henri Rousseau’s lush, leafy painting of that title, painted circa 1890. There is too a poem called The Customs House inside, loaded with suggestion at its tense finishing line, which sets one thinking about baggage and the things we carry.
The collection opens with an impressive sequence of war poems. These are based on the vividly recounted experiences of ordinary soldiers, beginning with The First World War, through World War Two, to Korea, and recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The poet’s late parents, who were recalled so tangibly in his brilliant 2006 memoir, In the Blood (also available from Faber & Faber) are celebrated in a number of very fine poems in The Customs House.
With the passing of the years, the poet is able to remember his mother and father with an attractive lightness, with emotional control and a supple tone. Typically, in his work, his parents, or the people he remembers when they were alive, are evanescent presences, spirited magically into his field of vision. These fond remembered subjects waft or shimmer out again, as poems neatly close and the vision vanishes. It is a wonderful form of hallucination and the poet has effectively made it his own technical device. Motion’s visually alert earlier poem, The Mower (from his previous collection, The Cinder Path) perfectly exemplifies this approach.
In the poem Sunday, from the present book, Motion recalls how, forty years ago, he used to sit on the hot-plate of the kitchen Aga, watching his mother Gillian, busily preparing Sunday lunch, mincing meat with one of those apparatuses that you clamped to the edge of the table. It ends with a leading question from the woman whose eldest son has contemplated her in poems and prose for so long: “Well, are you ever going to move?” It is indeed a beautiful way to end the poem.
The Scottish poet and rugby fanatic Mick Imlah was a friend from their days in student pubs. He comes through the (very possibly) french window in The Visit.
The very morning death took you away/ you sauntered back through my window.
Conversely, his departed friend steps over the threshold to leave at the poem's close. Imlah was only 53 when he died in 2009, he had been suffering from Motor Neuron Disease.
The final poem in the book, Fall, is a mere four lines:
Now wind has died in the lime trees
I have forgotten what sense they made,
But not the leaf the wind dislodged
That fell between my shoulder blades.
The Customs House is an extremely strong collection of poems from one of the greatest poets presently writing in English.