A triumph of love after death
As he prepares for a reading on Monday that forms part of this year’s Kinsale Arts Week, the 2009 Costa Award-winner Christopher Reid talks to Adam Wyeth about love, loss and his acclaimed poetry collection about both
WHEN Christopher Reid’s latest book of poetry, A Scattering, won the 2009 Costa Poetry Prize for best collection, he was thrilled. When it went on to scoop the overall Costa Award book of the year, Reid said he felt overwhelmed and bewildered. Such was the surprise for a poet to win one of Britain’s most prestigious and commercial prizes, worth £30,000 (€36,000), against a host of heavyweight writers, including the odds-on favourite, Colm Tóibín, for his novel Brooklyn.
A Scatteringseems further proof that we are going through a poetry renaissance. A sign of the times. Like the small and sleek designs of new technology, our eyes are beginning to readjust to the slim and light poetry volume. A Scatteringis just over 50 pages long, yet the beauty and depth contained within are boundless.
Written about Reid’s late wife, Lucinda Gane, who died of brain cancer in 2005, A Scatteringcontains some of the most evocatively heartfelt poetry and has been described as “beautiful and moving” and “a masterwork”. Despite the tragic theme of Reid’s personal grief and loss, A Scatteringis not a resentful, “rage, rage against the dying of the light” kind of tribute. The poems are down to earth, full of bitter-sweet moments, exploring grief and love in all its aspects, from the minutiae of a seed case to the peculiar habits of elephants. The poems also contain a generous scattering of laughs, making Reid’s poetry all the more touching.
“My wife was a woman of abundant wit and humour,” he says. “She was also, as she died, entirely without complaint or self-pity. Those qualities could not have been left out of any account of her that set out to be truthful.”
Born in Hong Kong in 1949, Reid was educated in England and studied at Oxford. Reid’s first poetry collection, Arcadia, published in 1978, won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Hawthornden Prize. Since then he has published several other award-winning collections, was poetry editor at Faber and recently edited Ted Hughes’s Letters. But it is undoubtedly A Scatteringthat has won him the most success and that Reid himself describes as his strongest work yet.
Josephine Hart, who was chairwoman of the Costa judges, said: “What Christopher Reid did was to take a personal tragedy and to make the emotion and the situation universal. It is bizarrely life-enhancing because it speaks of the triumph of love before and after death.” Another judge said: “ A Scatteringwas a book for everyone.” A rare thing to be said about modern poetry.
The Costa prize was certainly a boost, not just in prestige and prize money but in book sales as well. Even established poets are lucky to sell more than 1,000 copies of a collection. So did Reid set out to write a book that would be so successful and accessible? “No,” he says. “Though I’m glad if I’ve reached such a readership.”
A Scattering consists of four poetic sequences. The first, The Flowers of Crete, begins with Reid and his wife on their final holiday together. Despite the sunshine and flowers of the island their time is overshadowed “with an immediate threat: / your skulking sarcoma”. Reid turns inwards, to his writing, “in pursuit / of some safe way out”, while his wife turns to the outside world, “willing to climb / the rockiest, thorniest slope / with abundant hope / in her heart”.
The poems in the second sequence, The Unfinished, take place at the sickbed. Rather than building the collection to its inevitable conclusion, the first poem begins: “Sparse breaths, then none – / and it was done.” It is this kind of emotional restraint and succinct description of death that makes these poems so powerful. Reid is not asking to “stop all the clocks”; his immediate tone is one of “ultimate calm”.
The third and fourth sections, A Widower’s Dozen and Lucinda’s Way, are a series of lyrics that explore the period after his wife’s death. Many of the poems in these sequences turn familiar aspects on their head, such as the title poem. Rather than being about scattering ashes, as we may suppose, the poem depicts the way elephants mysteriously scatter the bones of their own dead. Likewise, the poem Afterlifeexplores how Reid’s wife lives on, not as a ghostly presence but by giving her body to medical science: “her organs and tissues are educating young doctors / or helping researchers outwit the disease that outwitted her.”
Here, Reid’s Martian past begins to resurface. Martianism was a school of poetry started by Reid’s mentor, Craig Raine, in the 1970s; it set about defamiliarising the domestic world through metaphor and simile. Martianism (a term coined by James Fenton) helped bring Reid’s work wider attention.
“I’ve always been proud of my association with Craig Raine, who is supposed to have established the Martian school,” Reid says. “He helped me a great deal as I was learning to write. But we never actually shared the sort of programme or dogma that would entitle us to be called a school. We were just friends, improvising away with the sort of energy and ambition that young writers tend to have.”
Collections such as A Scatteringwinning major commercial prizes such as the Costa means not only that will Reid win many new readers but that many new readers will begin to turn to contemporary poetry. But has writing the book helped him deal with his loss? “It hasn’t quietened the grief, but it’s helped me think more clearly,” he says.
Reid is looking forward to his latest reading in Ireland. “I’ve been to Dublin many times,” he says. ‘But never to Kinsale. I can’t wait.”
Christopher Reid reads, preceeded by Gerard Smyth, at the Friary Centre, Kinsale, Co Cork, at 6pm on Monday. €12. kinsaleartsweek.com