Sympathetic Magic reviewed by David Bircumshaw in Stanza

Sympathetic Magic by Brian Fewster
Poor Tom's Press, 2008. Price: 6.00
ISBN 978-0-9543-3715-5


Brian Fewster's substantial collection, bearing a mask from the Torres Strait on its cover, is long overdue but worth the waiting for. Previously he has published two chapbook-length volumes but it requires a fuller assembly to represent the voices within his voice, the tonal range of his poetry.

Those who know his writing will be unsurprised at the formal accomplishment exhibited, which can border on the formidable, but what will delight is the abundance of humour, a humour hard-won and tempered in adversity.

I would hazard to place his writing as being somewhere midway between the Auden-stream of English poetry and the Larkinesque, with perhaps the shades of William Empson and Norman Cameron in fitful attendance. By this I mean in inclination not derivation, he is wholly his own man. Like the early Auden, he is political, and unafraid of his own intelligence; while like Larkin he can be unafraid of the wry and rueful, inclining somewhat towards a slowly leaking personal pessimism.

It is a very English voice, but not parochial, and though he favours formality he retains the flexibility of response to dabble when required in free verse. He can be very funny about the tightness of tradition:

"Won't somebody help me? I'm trapped inside a sestina";
He can be like the Alexander Pope of The Dunciad or The Essay on Man:
" Beset by gibbering mouths on every side
and overrun by chaos, I can hide
in hollow artefacts contrived by spells"
This from the title poem. The reader will not fail to notice the nuances of "hollow artefacts". There is a plangency within the author's protests, just as there was in the disabled Pope's. The poem begins with an imagined space: "a clear enclosure where, alone,/ light spills and settles over whitewashed stone" then revokes its dream for the reality of a Larkin-like innerscape of an often unmade and unshared bed and junk post that merges with life's promises and reprimands, of a life that verges on the shabby, that is almost solitary, before looking back, further over its historical shoulder, to the masks and talismans of Stone Age cultures and finds a glittering mask for its "crumpled face/ dreaming about simplicity and space" where domestic seediness is transformed into an implied ecological Eden. For this rationalist is a magician too, as befits a poet, an animal which Eliot characterized as both the most sophisticated and primitive of its tribe.

Most affectingly, he can directly move the reader, as in the triple-poem sequence in memory of his sister Jane. And, secretly, he has a covert eye for nature, this, from one would think of as primarily an urban poet, on a flock of birds, caught on the wing and on the eye:

"A racing crew
with downbeat bright
as feathers catch
the level light"
I buy that. And so should you, from the author, price pounds sterling six.