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Above the clouds: The rear air gunner. View fr...

Above the clouds: The rear air gunner. View from the cockpit (Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)

On Andrew Motion‘s last night as Poet Laureate he decided to return to his old school to speak and read from his recently released collection, The Cinder Path. A teacher there had single-handedly discovered and nurtured his interest in poetry. Motion found the laureateship nigh on impossible; his poetry often stems from deep, personal stimuli and he soon discovered that his public office was tantamount to a gagging order. The Cinder Path marks his return to writing and the collection includes some fine war poetry and elegy.

In Coming in to Land, Andrew Motion has created a cold, lonely beauty from the journal of a World War Two Mosquito pilot. Technical details and lyricism merge to create a beguiling strangeness: ‘With airspeed // at 85 mph, the surging roar has ceased, and now / the old kite rests on the air slightly nose-down / and sighing. No vibration; both engines muted; / the props meandering round minute after minute / while the distant world imperceptibly approaches // with small clouds anchored like white Zeppelins / and flashing lakes and river-bends beyond them’. The sense of calm and beauty in the poem is arresting: a ‘feathered’ propeller really does spin slowly in the wind, yet this ‘meandering’ chimes with the young pilot’s musings on his past, present and future. The Mosquito lands and ‘We bounce a little and bump again – // bump (pause) bump, bump bump bump bump – / settling in quicker until we are easy. A grand life. / Sooner or later we shall come into line with the rest / and stop. Then the engines will cut, the props jerking stickily to a halt. Then the silence will sing to me’. The final line evokes TS Eliot‘s Prufrock and we wonder whether the young pilot has achieved a Zen-like calm, or whether his thoughts are darker.

Motion works with diaries and interviews to powerful, restrained effect. In the sonnet sequence Harry Patch ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, he is able to salvage something from his time as Poet Laureate by interviewing Patch, the last survivor of The Great War’s trenches. Patch’s apple scrumping shenanigans create a nostalgic view of childhood innocence, as he is ‘down / on all fours, stomach hard to the ground, / slinking along a furrow between the potatoes’, an image which also casts the shadow of the infantryman’s fate over the child. The first two poems present Patch as an Englishman, rooted to the landscape and it is refreshing to read war poems in which the combatant’s humanity is not compromised: ‘First the hard facts of not wanting to fight, / and the kindness of deciding to shoot men / in the legs but no higher unless needs must’. Motion handles his fragile source material with sensitivity, creating human, nuanced poems which find dignity in even the darkest of times.

The loss of his father prompted the writing of Passing On, an almost unbearably unflinching, gentle treatment of death. ‘By noon your breathing had changed from normal / to shallow and panicky. That’s when the nurse said / Nearly there now, in the gentle voice of a parent / comforting a child used to failure, slipping her arms / beneath your shoulders to hoist you up to the pillows, / then pressing a startling gauze pad under your jaw’. The poem is powerfully juxtaposed with the proceeding The Mower, which recreates an absurd memory of Motion’s father in his prime,  taming the grass with a lawn-mower possessed of free will. ‘Off came the brake and off charged the machine, dragging you down to the blazing Tree of Heaven // at the garden end’. The poem gently evokes Andrew Marvell‘s Mower poems, lightens the mortality of Passing On and connects Motion to the English line of landscape poets.

In The Cinder Path, Motion’s England is a limpid, nostalgic memory. These memories are distilled to a power and purity that lifts them far beyond the picture postcard, allowing him to use the landscape to explore universal themes with lyricism and beauty.