A Ghost in Waterloo Station.
Whenever I open a new collection of poems by Bert Almon I look at the back of the book first--a habit that goes back to the 1980 Edmonton launch of Blue Sunrise, his first Canadian publication after he moved from Texas in 1968 to teach at the University of Alberta. We discovered the title page at the back: the printer had bound the pages in reverse order! With characteristic quickness, he seized the moment and signed his name "nomla treb." A mirror moment, a moment of delight.
Almon ends his ninth collection, A Ghost in Waterloo Station, by paying tribute to hospitable friends. As he sips gin and tonic with them on their patio, his poetic antennae stay on full alert. He ends the poem with "benign chanterelles / in a golden heap on yesterday's toxic headlines / and the toy shark safe in the sheepdog's mouth." It's a peaceful ending for a book that starts edgily, in a surgical theatre, where Almon finds his muse watching a kidney transplant. The medical diction made me wince at first; but the poem shifts from a "golden drop of urine" to "the first drops of water / formed in the Hippocrene Spring"--classical source of poetic inspiration. Almon's muse "doesn't flinch or turn away" from the toxic, difficult or fearful in human experience, but she also inspires him to write about moments of grace, hope, humour and deep feeling. Andrew Motion observed that "Whereas Larkin's poems relied on his saying 'no' or 'perhaps' to life, Keats liked to say 'yes'" (Guardian, 9 September 2006). Bert Almon is clearly with Keats in saying 'yes' to life.
Peripatetic as always, Almon travels in Ghost from Texas to Melbourne, Greece to Heptonstall, London to Montreal, Salzburg to Stettler. Usually someone is with him--his wife, daughter, son, friend, or one of a cast of strangers from butchers to security guards, waiters to taxi drivers. He is content to be solitary and look within, but his poems more often connect with people through time and space, imagination and chance, kinship or choice. Almon also looks outward to the world, enriching his poems with specific details drawn from the sciences, art, philosophy, history, literature, myth, religion, music, popular culture, and nature. But his poetry doesn't sink under the weight of allusion, for his aim is to communicate with his readers rather than confuse or impress or trick them.
We could be seduced into enjoying Almon's poems for content alone; indeed, his informal, conversational style encourages and allows such a reading. His preferred form is free verse, his grammar and syntax standard, his sentences complete. We can look right through these poems and perhaps not even notice their technical skill. For example, at the word level Ghost is filled with the bliss of etymology from "abbatoir" to "spanghew." At the grammatical level, Almon uses the possessive in surprising ways: "My First Alien," "my belated soul," "my first lactating cab driver." At the sentence level, he uses chiasmus as a rhetorical mirror to highlight key moments: "giving / my fears a voice, giving my voice its fear" ("The Undertow"); "I would correct everything / but nothing can be corrected" ("The Only Words of My Bryson Grandmother"); "Christ's parables found the sacred in the ordinary / but here is the ordinary in the sacred" ("Absence of Ultramarine, Presence of Indigo"). He writes highly crafted, concise poetry that gives the impression of ease and spaciousness.
Most of Almon's poems begin in narrative. He is an engaging storyteller and that rarest of narrators--trustworthy. In "Hesitation Before Birth" he says he was born during a hurricane and, yup, Wikipedia confirms that a hurricane hit the Texas coast in July 1943. But how does he narrate his own birth? Through imaginative recreation of the rising waters, where "the alligator's young took refuge in her mouth, / safe in those deadly jaws." And through family stories--his mother's boat ride to the hospital, his Aunt Minnette's canned goods losing their labels in the flood: "Hearing this story told and retold / I learned to be prepared to be unprepared." Rh factor notwithstanding, he finally got born "a squalling red / and I've declined to be blue ever since." This suggests that the overall optimism in his poetry is a matter of choice. He doesn't flinch from autobiography, but he doesn't bother with angst-ridden confession.
The first part of Ghost contains stories of his family and his own little former American self, going to the circus, having a haircut, ogling his neighbour's wife. To help him understand the world, he starts gathering facts early on. "My Brief Career as a Cosmologist" recalls the boy reading science books while his father is in hospital. The poem links Gamow's world-lines and Einstein's world-threads with the cardiograph lines monitoring his father's heart: "I could imagine other shapes for the universe: / cylinders, barbells or the forms like the balloons knotted / into animals at the fair, but the terror was to imagine / any of them, finite or infinite, without my father in it." How to tie a reader's stomach in knots: use the subjunctive mood to link the cosmic and childish, the scientific and subjective.
The title poem presents autobiography as existential mystery. Washing his hands in the toilets at London's Waterloo station, Bert sees not his reflection, 'treb,' not even a ghost in the mirror, a subjunctive 'nomla,' but a glimpse of nothingness. Unbodied by what is actually spatial symmetry in railway lavatory design, he grasps at a bit of remembered folk mythology: "Had I met the kannerezed noz / on a night road without recognizing them, / the ghostly Breton women / who wash the shrouds of the death-fated?" Such an allusion often springs into a poem, as if spontaneously to Almon's mind. Checking again, "I reached out toward my missing body, / and the hand passed through the mirror, / which was not a mirror but empty space." Back on the platform he meets a familiar face, bringing blood back into his body and his feet back onto the floor. The poem captures a fleeting experience viscerally--but a Wittgenstein epigraph and the Breton folk myth signal philosophical and historical contexts in an unforced way. It's a central poem that points backward and forward.
Another hand reaches for a missing body in the triptych "Olympia." As familiar with Greek myth as with his own hand, Almon gazes at Praxiteles' statue of Hermes "holding the infant Dionysus / in the crook of his left elbow." But time and accident have done damage: "The baby stretches toward / something he can see and we can't: / an absent cluster of grapes / held in the missing forearm of Hermes." The poem revives what is missing, then gives an example of trompe l'oeil--carved fabric that looks like "a rag hanging on the sculpture." Almon applauds "crafty Praxiteles" and makes us feel we know him too, whether or not we have been to Greece (I haven't), whether or not we are classically educated (I'm not). The next stanza is poetry of such power that we are there on Olympia with poet, sculptor, god and infant:
Wine implicit in the grapes, a god of wine implicit in the baby, a vision implicit in the viewer: the marble poise of movements and countermovements in every muscle of the figures adds up to a zero sum of motion that you feel in your own clenched muscles as you stop yourself from reaching too. Change your life? You already have.
The way Almon links classical, literary and personal ghosts and absences with his immediate present and our reading experience is sheer poetic joy.
The middle section of "Olympia" allows us to catch our breath in the tourist shop, where the saleswoman "had the rarest of human eyes, a pure grey." Almon names this gift of unexpected beauty as he pays for a CD: "Theophanies never show up / on my credit card statement." The final section considers Phidias, who sculpted a gigantic Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But Almon ignores the monumental in favour of the throwaway: a small bottle in shards with "I belong to Phidias" scratched on the bottom. He finds beauty and truth in brokenness: "his only surviving signature, on a cheap jug."
"A window can look into a world as well as out on it." This memorable hinge-line begins and ends "A Corona for Grinling Gibbons." Almon seldom uses a closed poetic form, but a corona is just right for honouring a master wood carver. The poet stands beside the 17th century diarist John Evelyn and the 21st century reader, and we all peer through a cottage window at Gibbons carving an intricate crucifixion scene with more than a hundred figures. Almon celebrates the "small perfections formed by the chisel and gouge." His own poetic art leans toward small perfections rather than grand designs.
But A Ghost in Waterloo Station also revels in the art of the unexpected, the art of the I-don't-know. Not one for theorizing, Almon comes close to a poetic manifesto in "The Shot Tower", an approach to epistemology and aesthetics which is both delicate and blunt, rooted in a clever device for making bullets. Curiosity and science, precision and metaphor, meet in this symmetrically balanced poem. It says it wants objective, symbolic perfection; what it delivers is poetry out of human imperfection, missed targets, guys who can't shoot straight.
Almon enjoys reading and writing prose biography, and his poems often juxtapose the lives of the famous and unknown. The main subject of "D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson" is a Scottish professor who published a key biology text, On Growth and Form in 1917. Yet the point of a poem is not to rattle off research. Almon highlights the beauty of the natural forms and processes Thompson observed: "the growth / of the nautilus shell with logarithmic spirals" and "why a moth flies to the lamp in a decaying orbit / rather than a straight line." Using a similar circling technique, Almon begins and ends the poem with a mother who "worked for the Ideal Laundry" and"feared those instruments of order: / the wringer, the mangle, the trouser-press". She is as important to the poem as the brilliant Thompson, his baffled students, and a cheeky lad who confronts him on a tram. This poem both admires order and blesses the accidental, "delivering us from accuracy and the jaws of the mangle."
Almon quotes Keats in an epigraph which could apply to all of Ghost: "axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proven on our pulses." But he sometimes puts philosophy's tongue firmly in his cheek. Overhearing two old men in a second-hand shop, he identifies their argument as one about the "metaphysics of destiny." Well, the poem and the store aren't called "Value Village" for nothing. In another poem, syllogisms don't clean the fridge in the Philosophy Lounge. And when philosophy goes too far, Almon takes the mickey out of Wittgenstein in a Cambridge pub called The Flying Pig, "where a signboard behind the bar always read: Realist Cheap Night / A pint for the price of a pint? Oink!"
The third and final part of the book shows other inspirations for poetry: the pleasure of watching a hummingbird on a honeysuckle branch; the terror of accidental fire; the oddity of small-town Texas or Alberta. Almon can also indulge in earthy humour and romance, honouring his ladylove with an ode to a hot water bottle, quoting her self-description of her eyes as "the colour of spring run-off', celebrating Valentine's Day with her by fetching a side of beef from her brother's farm. And he enjoys the mock heroic mode, casting himself as a modern Odysseus stranded in North America in "Austin Odyssey" and "My Winter Sport." His wicked wit updates the seven deadly sins to include road rage, the hedge fund trader's greed, the couch potato's sloth.
But when emotions are deep, he shows gentleness and restraint, a lightness of touch never more effective than in "Ada Sweet," which praises the woman who cared for his dying mother. When his wife cries in a poignant final scene Almon remarks, "The stern Fathers of the Church overlooked / tears as a corporal work of mercy." Stem literary critics beware: this is a deeply moving poem.
A Ghost in Waterloo Station offers a way of writing poetry and of approaching life that pays close attention to the world, its people and the self in relationship to them. I'm inclined to say yes to life anyway, but I seldom say yes so unreservedly to a book of poetry.