THE STRENGTH OF THE GENIE
The Smug Bridegroom by Robert Hamberger. Five Leaves Publications. £6.99
The famous 20th century American poet Robert Frost once identified the hallmark of a poem as being the way in which the sentences are laid in the stanza structure. This test obviously assumes that there is a recognisable standard form (there often isn’t – a fact as true in early 20th century poetry as it is now) and the novelty that he is referring to has to do with rhythm, rhyme, pitch, and varying cadence – what Frost calls ‘prowess’, comparing verbal dexterity with athletic performance. He says elsewhere that “the important thing about a poem is how wilfully, gracefully, naturally, entertainingly and beautifully its rhymes are taken”. All this is pertinent to the sonnets in Robert Hamberger’s most recent collection, ‘The Smug Bridegroom’, and it is the sonnets that make this book worth buying.
The book is divided into four subtitled sections: Mountains; Die Bravely; The Wolf’s Tale, and The Rule of Earth. Though there is a sprinkling of sonnets throughout, the first three sections contain poems which for the most part are written in colloquial (though not unlyrical) diction in fairly loose forms, but it is the last – the extended sonnet-sequence called The Rule of Earth – that is the nerve centre of the book. Here is the ‘The Thought’, the twelfth in twenty-nine sonnets:
If I lose you. Watch how I bear the thought:
if I lose you. Never to sense again
your palm against my face while we explain
the way the day has gone, each night
across the pillows, talking late
with kisses when we could have slept. To remain
in a wood shouting your name among trees when
there’s no more chance of an answer. What
am I doing rehearsing the life I fear most?
Stay a little longer. You help to hold at bay
the emptiness under everything, just
your hand can achieve that, yes, against my
skin. The pressure of your fingers can insist
this is what matters: us. Here. Today.
One can see from this example with what subtlety he handles the imperial discipline of the Miltonic form. Hamberger’s intention here is to keep the rhythms nimble and varied, and he achieves this by making the rhymes unemphatic, both by use of oblique rhyme and by avoiding strong stresses and pauses at the close of each line, a skill which presumably Robert Frost would have admired. The pentameter is made plastic: there can be lines as short as four and as long as fourteen syllables. The tonal register is consistent throughout; the voice intimate, sensitive:
Thinking about commitment,
people we miss and meet again, others we lack,
I lean towards you like a tree that’s leant
the way the wind blows, learning not to break.
What accounts for the poignancy of tone? Is the relationship over? Is the loved-one deceased? Or has his voice become vulnerable in the recognition of the sheer inevitability of such closures? The loose narration of the sequence divulges that his partner has a heart operation, which we are led to feel was successful. There are seventeen years between them. The mood of the poems is touched by the tribulations that their relationship is subjected to, a relationship which is both cautious and consolidated.
Hamberger is a technically competent poet, and it is when he writes in conventional forms especially that we see something separate from the homogeneous bulk of contemporary poetry. As Coleridge noted, speaking of the venerable harness of poetic form, “the strength of the genie comes from his having been confined in a bottle”.
Jim Newcombe, 2005