A quotation by Peter Levi on the back cover of Waiting for the Ferry compares Heather Buck to Philip Larkin, in her use of a certain form to carry transformative personal sensation. It is difficult for me to see how a comparison between these two poets could ever be sustained, unless major tonal qualities such as manner of address were disregarded. The moments of redemption in Larkin, so deeply qualified that they are almost subsumed back into the gloom, depend for all their vivid beauty on the unpromising pessimism which gives rise to them. In the poetry of Heather Buck, the rhythms are quite different; in fact it may be that the formal comparison with Larkin does her little service, if it instils in the reader inevitably disappointed, or redirected, expectations. Redemption is unapologetic and unstinting in these poems, and is directly encountered. Take this example from Buck’s poem ‘Writer’s Block’:
I must arrange my world again,
a holiday has dislocated
everything my brain
had tidied to a trim, acceptable terrain.
My room, my books, are in their place,
it is my mind that finds them strange.
This pen, now in my hand, has nothing new to say,
there are these snapshots in my head,
but what to make of them?
Even the note of confusion here is a thing of enviable comfort, when one remembers Larkin’s own description of ‘writer’s block’ as an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, in his guts, every day for years.
Waiting for the Ferry is a cohesive collection of lyrical reflections on the nature of ageing, especially the experience of love in later life. The gentle plangency of Buck’s style is lightly but definitely informed by a Christian conscience. The volume has a special interest in the potential of moments of time to be transfigured as small epiphanies of the quotidian, a much honoured tradition in English poetry. And this poet has no taste for the continuing fashion for the cryptic in short poems and their titles; a glance down the contents page reveals with clarity and simplicity where her main concerns lie in this collection: ‘To Polish Each Moment of Time’, ‘How Life Solidifies Itself in Things’, ‘When All Things Fall Into Silence’, ‘Arriving’, ‘The Necessary Place’, ‘The Flowering of the Cross’.
The opening poem, ‘To Polish Each Moment of Time’, serves as a good example; this is the final section:
Growing older we no longer squander
our minutes and hours, beginning
to polish each moment of time, like
the kindling of sunlight in glasses
by pouring in pale amber wine
trapping the brilliance, the brightening day
as the air grows golden about us.
The image here, the capture of light in glass and liquid, is well suited to the theme: a benevolent but fleeting radiance is caught, held, tasted and savoured, but not jealously guarded, so that it may then expand to illuminate the world around.
The title poem, which closes the collection, compassionately breaks silence on matters of death and dying, which have hovered uneasily around some of the foregoing pieces. These are the closing lines:
their bodies are so blurred,
almost a shadow of their busy selves,
for waiting is a kind of emptiness
for which we are untrained, being so set
on getting there, our little odysseys
forgotten in the scramble to arrive.
With what relief they cross the crowded quay
to where their lives are walled by certainties;
one morning’s waiting is enough to show
how close the unseen chasm which we pave
in safe, uncomplicated ways,
the stuff from which our worlds are made.
There has been no necessity to force the association with Charon, who ferries the dead across rivers of forgetting in the classical underworld, which the poem’s positioning, projecting into silence at the end of the book, is sufficient eloquence to exploit. And yet the reader is provided with a pointer in the rather fussy pun on ‘odyssey’. In fact the poem is a meditation on a painting, not specified; again, the poet’s interest has been caught by the quality of suspension – the suspended existence of waiting, and the suspension entailed in framing and containing a living moment of people’s lives.
This poem closes with a strange hint of allusion to the Shakespearean quotation ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on.’ The quotation definitely seems to be raised, echoed, what you will. But what is it for? I confess also that I lose the thread of the metaphysical ‘conceit’ which culminates in this phrase. Little appears to be gained by signalling a well known quotation and merely making the reader nostalgic for the original. A similar moment appears in ‘The River Path’, where one of the details which has to carry the religious weight of the poem is ‘Blue flash of a kingfisher’s wing’. I feel this may be a bad lapse. Describe a sudden glimpse of a kingfisher in two words – blue flash, no? A distant, or not so distant, memory of Hopkins, for whom kingfishers ‘catch fire’, leaves a hungry and unfulfilled blandness in Heather Buck’s line.
Again, ‘All My Counterfeit People’ will involve for many readers a reminiscence of the Yeatsian escape of circus animals as a metaphor of poetic development; and again Buck’s poem suffers – not from ‘the comparison’, but from the connection.
Waiting for the Ferry succeeds in being gently moving; stylistically, there is little to quicken the pulse.
Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw