Retrieving Retrieved Attachments
Written or revised between early April 2017 (‘Night in Nigawa’) and August 2021 (‘Behind the Shops’), the poems in Retrieved Attachments chronologically overlap with those in Ravishing Europa (2019) and Bonjour Mr Inshaw (2020). They are all parts of an evolving response to the turmoil through which we have been living, the one that has given us five prime ministers in the time it has taken me to write and publish three poetry books.
The first in this triptych of publications evidently concerns the fracturing of relations both within this country and with its neighbours, whether those in the British Isles or across Europe, caused by the consequences of the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union. The second is a tribute to the painter David Inshaw, who I first met in 1977, lost touch with, and was then fortunately able to renew our friendship some forty years later. Retrieved Attachments tries to address, among other things, the consequences of the first by employing themes from the second. It began to find its form through another meeting of friends separated for many years.
The origins of the book, though, are a four-month stay in Japan between April and July 2017, when I was a visiting professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, on the railway line from Osaka to Kobe. My wife and I hadn’t been back to the country where I lived between 1989 and 2007, and where our two daughters would spend their early years, for exactly a decade. I was in the middle of writing poems prompted by the breaking of relations that withdrawing from the European Union inevitably involved, and this four-month idyll in Japan came as an interruption in which much revisiting of old haunts took place, where old friendships were renewed, and new acquaintances made. It produced a set of poems that didn’t fit those in Ravishing Europa, whose poems were written both before, during, and after that stay. The Japan-based poems were being accepted for publication in magazines, but what would become of them beyond that I had no idea.
The poems for David Inshaw were written in a rush of inspiration in the first months of 2019. Not long after they were drafted, someone else I’d lost touch with sent an email saying she had returned to England after many years living in Colombia, and perhaps we might meet. We did, on three occasions before the pandemic descended upon us, and from them came ‘The Revenants’ – which took me back to a poem I had written years before and not included in Collected Poems 1976–2016 (2017), one called ‘Imaginary Portrait’ from Entertaining Fates (1992), whose very addressee had just made contact out of the blue. I revised it to go with the new one and gave it the title ‘Retrieved Attachments’, getting the word ‘Retrieved’ from a posthumous gathering of uncollected Frank O’Hara called Poems Retrieved and ‘Attachments’ both from rummaging around in my laptop to find old drafts and the happy experience of being reunited with people lost for many years.
And it was the dawning realisation of implications in that phrase ‘Retrieved Attachments’ that helped bring together the five sequences which make up the book: the ones written during that return to Japan, those composed out of visits to Switzerland to see my elder daughter and her boyfriend who were attempting to make a life together on the outskirts of Winterthur, a sequence devoted to the district of Parma, Italy, where my wife comes from, written and revised when we couldn’t visit because of the pandemic, various elegies and other poems prompted by partings and losses, as well as a group written during the isolation in our house through lockdowns, when we were allowed out only to exercise, during which I really got to know my neighbourhood in Reading through repeatedly walking its streets and parks.
Living in different time zones, like being on the defeated side in a culture-changing political watershed, is likely to prompt thoughts along the lines of the what-if and might-have-been. It suggests the idea of times running in parallel, like trains on adjacent tracks, the one you are in which will take you wherever it goes, and the one you are not, but wanted to be or should have been on. This sort of theme, not planned, since that is not how the collection emerged, but detectable throughout, gains in definition with the later sections of the book and can be found fully formed in ‘Manifestos for a Lost Cause’, whose ambiguous title, borrowed from a painting by Paula Rego, points in the two directions that many of these poems straddle, like those two trains on parallel but diverging lines.
Retrieved Attachments is being published in what I hope is a new era of renewed relationships, meetings with friends and colleagues not seen for years because of the pandemic. I’ve spent much of my creative life thinking about what the formal orchestrations of poems can or might mean, and the tensions and conflicts I’ve been talking about provide the unshapely disorders that will naturally, in my case at least, prompt the urge to engage with the kinds of coordination in sound and rhythm that poetry foregrounds.
As my book comes out, it enters a world in which the threats of further conflicts and global depredation prompt calls for us to rebuild bridges, enter into new agreements, find accords in place of age-old difference. Fretted with some of the frictions and disappointments indicated above, these poems employ their orchestration to encourage such developments. ‘To explain anything we go back,’ Adrian Stokes writes in Living in Ticino, and if my new collection achieves that, well, perhaps it does so in order to take a great leap forward.
30 January 2023