The inner lumberjack
Landscape With Chainsaw
James Lasdun Cape Poetry, 52pp, £8
The chainsaw hovers about this book, which is James Lasdun's third collection, like some greasy mechanical incubus, cropping up in a diverse series of poems about watching bears, about birch trees, about being and nothingness. Sometimes it is the central character; at other times it has no more than a bit-part. It's not so much a tool as a force of nature and, as such, a figure of moral ambiguity. You could say that the poet becomes a tool in the machine's grip, which works as an endlessly variegated symbol of man's (and especially a rather diffident Englishman's) ambivalent relationship with the American wilderness.
The chainsaw makes its first major appearance in "Returning the Gift", where a horrified narrator unwraps a birthday present from his wife - "a shiny blue Makita,/big as our child" - covered with warning stickers about the dangers of imminent death from exploding fuel and mis-felled trees. There follows a marvellous scene back at the hardware store, where the bearded backwoodsman of a sales assistant, "Molson-muscle swelling his green plaid shirt", does his best to convince the narrator to overcome his fear of the blade and reconnect with his inner lumberjack: "Problem is, if you don't clear your woods,/they'll sure as hell clear you. That's how it is/here in America.
"Maybe where you're from/you get to live as if that wasn't so;/as if your needs all balanced long ago/and everything fit snugly in its home,/but things aren't like that here."
Indeed, they are not. The landscape that forms the setting for most of these poems - the mountains of upstate New York, where Lasdun now lives - is all "wooded bluestone crags, crannied/by hollows and gullies, where nothing/human ever quite flourishes or quite/abandons - as it doubtless should - all hope". It is alarmingly populated with porcupines, wild turkeys, bears - indeed, "any animal/or, for that matter, human, less flesh and blood/than tooth or talon, bristle, antler or quill". The chainsaw turns out to be the poet's only and necessary defence.
And he seems to need defending, not just against the all too evident fleshly depredations of nature, but against an eternal estrangement, whether as a Jew in England, as an Englishman in America, or as a human being in the wilderness. Roots, both physical and metaphorical, lurk large beneath the soil of this book. Technically, Lasdun's use of and variation from form is deft and precise, whether in the expert slant-rhymes of a poem such as "Property: the bear" or the elegant quintains of "The Apostate". And yet a poem, as a made thing, stands in awkward apposition to those teeming, formless hollows and crags.
This point is made with great force at the end of the book, in "Happy the Man". Here the poet has reached some kind of accommodation with both landscape and chainsaw, with "the crack and grain/of real things". But it comes at a price: he will give up poetry in favour of raising goats and growing lettuces, so that in future (usurping Seamus Heaney's famous line about digging with his pen) "if I write, it'll be with a seed-drill;/a quatrain of greens per bed, no sweat". I only hope Lasdun is having us on here, because this is a terrific book and I hope to hear more from him.
Adam Newey is the New Statesman's poetry critic