Letting off steam


Dorothy Porter <em>Serpent's Tail</em>, <em>300pp, £8.99</em>

Time to Kill Sparrows

I came across a statistic once suggesting that more people write poetry than go to football matches. Perhaps I dreamt it. There are certainly more people writing poetry than reading it, and those who read but don't write the stuff are rare indeed.

Beyond poetry's famously small readership are those who come across it by accident. Sometimes this is a deliberate accident contrived by the publisher. The best example of this is London's "Poems on the Underground" scheme, where bored commuters scanning adverts discover that they've just read something by Mandelstam or Wordsworth, and perhaps enjoyed it all the more for its being free of its context - the book of poems, with all its difficult associations. This is not to say that poetry should pretend to be something else, just that bumping into it, rather than having it put in your hands, can make it more alluring.

Perhaps the publishers of Dorothy Porter's Akhenaten had this in mind, as the book declares its genre, "a novel in verse", only quietly, on the back cover. Those buying it as a strange and stylish piece of fiction about an obscure ancient Egyptian king won't be disappointed. These short, loose, fragmentary poems slip down easily as they recount Akhenaten's life in a mixture of introspection and outburst.

While the poems are like broken-off pieces of hieroglyphics or mosaic and none quite stands alone, they build into a more complex and darker portrait than their lightness may suggest. Porter takes us through Akhenaten's childhood petulance and pleasures, into his passion for his queen Nefertiti, his obsession with the sun god Aten and his illnesses and anxieties. There is charm, tension and glamour, as well as some fine comedy, which includes Nefertiti hobbling around in a pair of fashionable but crippling sandals.

There is the imagery we would expect, but the cat is a galumphing hunter, the cobra is a lopsided crown on the old king's head, the ibis shits and hippos roll. Akhenaten is consumed by his god, even though he lashes out against superstition. When he falls and cracks his head, "Nefertiti called the servants/who put me to bed/muttering charms//instead they should/have picked the duck-down/from my fallen wig." For all his earthly serenity Akhenaten is attractively fragile, admitting early on that he "will make a frazzled king". In him, Porter has found an intriguing subject and put her unconventional choice of form to good use.

Many people write a poem at some point, usually at a time of upheaval. Time to Kill Sparrows is an anthology of poems by diplomats and their families, and it is the nature of their particular kind of upheaval that gives this book its interest. As one would expect, the main themes are coming and going, being foreign, missing your children and the trials of the cocktail/dinner-party circuit. Many inclusions are by spouses, diplomats' wives whose own careers (teacher, environmental planner, singer) have taken second place. There is wit, irony and real relish for the places in which they find themselves, but one senses that there may be more interesting poems hidden away in which they really let rip.

The anthology, a fund-raising exercise, has a foreword by Douglas Hurd and is packaged as a gift, a well-made illustrated hardback with a comical cover. It has a parochial nature, indicative of the cushioned and contained, albeit global, community of the British diplomatic corps, and should sell well among them. Its editor, Peter Hinchcliffe, is a former ambassador whose modest introduction cheerfully admits that he has included some "office doggerel" and that the collection is more about pleasure than serious poetics. Yet some of the contributors have been published and won awards.

There are two prevailing moods - contemplation and letting off steam - and two styles: the tight rhymes and brisk rhythms of the old school, and the alliteration and over-determined imagery of the new. Both give the impression of being out of touch, which must be a fundamental sensation in that kind of life. Some poems stand out. Lady Coulson (full titles, of course) pours scorn on the village Christmas fete while wishing she were back on Mount Kenya. Richard Daniel Swans describes Covent Garden buskers doing all the things he wasn't allowed to do as a child: "They play with fire, and shout and/throw balls high in the air and/dance and sing and whistle and/make girls squeal." His wistful dream of misbehaviour is echoed elsewhere. Few writers confront the grimmer realities of their postings, although there are mentions of poverty, prostitution and an orphanage. What is most touching is their self- consciousness, their willingness to parody themselves, their yearning for silence and solitude and their honesty about how ill-equipped diplomatic life leaves them for what comes next - the return home.

The anthology's title is taken from one of the best poems in the book, by Mina Dresser. It describes the Chinese mass participation in pest control in the 1950s, when killing sparrows was a revolutionary duty. Perhaps the title was chosen as an image of fragile self-expression being crushed by bureaucratic machinery. Whatever the editor's intention, it's a curiously undiplomatic choice.

The best part of the film Shakespeare in Love was when they got on with acting the play. The energy and austerity of the scenes of Romeo and Juliet shown made it seem like a tantalisingly good production. My impulse after seeing the film was to rush home and read the play, and Faber & Faber is obviously hoping that others will feel the same. Following the success of its reprint of Auden in the guise of Hugh Grant to tie in with Four Weddings and a Funeral, it has packaged a selection of Shakespeare's love poetry punctuated by sepia stills of Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. The lovers look stiff, even gawky, as if posing for a love photo- serial in a teen magazine. They do the text no favours, but they do it no harm either. If people buy it on its looks rather than to read they may surprise themselves and like the poetry all the more for not expecting to do so.

Lavinia Greenlaw is poetry critic of the "New Statesman"

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