God and the body

The Mystery of Things

Clive Wilmer <em>Carcanet, 96pp, £8.95</em>

ISBN 1857548248

Well-made, well-mannered and somewhat old-fashioned, the poems of Clive Wilmer have addressed themselves largely to matters of history and religion. If they've had an odour, it hasn't been of incense and sex so much as tweed jackets and C of E hassocks. In The Mystery of Things, Wilmer's old strengths are on show, but his preoccupations have gone south. As he puts it in "A Vision", a poem whose narrator describes watching a blow job in Italy:

They're funny, Catholics: so
literal sometimes
About the things of the spirit,
even fleshly.

The Mystery of Things is, in this sense, a very Catholic book.

Wilmer is a Cambridge don, a scholar of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. He has helped translate much modern central European, especially Hungarian, poetry into English, and he has been loyal to his English poetic elders, editing the criticism of Thom Gunn and Donald Davie. Wilmer's poems are of a piece with this background; typically they make reference to Miklós Radnóti, or come dedicated to the Bulgarian Lyubomir Nikolov. Moreover, Wilmer evidently sees nothing wrong with starting a poem the way he would a lecture, as an opening line such as "Great Coxwell tithe barn (William Morris said)" indicates.

In other words, his poetry has been unlikely to set many hearts racing. Which is why it comes as a surprise when, in "The Holy of Holies" (from the new collection), he juxtaposes an encounter with a prostitute on a building site in King's Cross with Flavius's role in the destruction of the Temple. Suddenly both the history and the setting get a little more heated. "Ravishing a building" and ravishing a woman become one and the same.

Part II of the book is given over to "Stigmata", a sequence of poems that addresses religious mystery made flesh through such figures as St Francis and the 20th-century stigmatic Padre Pio, while simultaneously sketching a difficult affair with a woman in Italy. The woman's scarring from a knife wound brings to mind St Teresa's sexualised vision of being stabbed by an angel. Wilmer consciously writes in the tradition of these mystics, but whereas they viewed religious experience in erotic terms, here it is the other way around.

Desire is "an unhealed lesion", lovers and saints have a devotion that is close to blasphemy - the poems evince worship mingled with disgust. While this does not always make for a comfortable read, it is, for Wilmer, a valuable departure. The formal constraints have some real constraining to do; the references to art and literature are felt and lived.

Elsewhere, The Mystery of Things talks of God and nature rather than God and body. The short sequence "The Falls", in which Wilmer deliberately calls on an American poetic and pictorial tradition, is a respectable effort at something different. Yet its language - "The turbulent water with its bloom of froth/Hung like a curtain . . ." - is not as fresh or as potent as that of the erotic poems.

Wilmer's first distinction as a poet was his ability in what an early poem, "Saxon Buckle", called "intricacy worked by skill". His best lyrics have always been like objects whose existence is independent of their maker and the time of their making. "Bottom's Dream" and "Bethel" are two such examples in this collec-tion. However, for all their strength of construction, and that they take their subjects from Shakespeare and the Bible, you can't help but read these new poems in the context of the wider drama of the book. Is it Titania, the divine or the woman in "Stigmata" "who had/ No voice, although she stirred my sense,/Who touched me, though she had no hands"?

The Mystery of Things is precariously poised between the sturdy and the unsettled, the decorous and the uninhibited. Wilmer remains true to his conservative poetic instincts while striking some rare and unusual notes. If it is no longer quite possible to go along with Ruth Padel's judgement that Wilmer's poems "breath an unfashionable, utterly English faith" in a language of "passionate reticence", that is largely to their credit.