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This review is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

Cover of Take Us the Little Foxes: collected poems
N.S. ThompsonA MappemondeMiles Burrows, Take Us the Little Foxes: collected poems (Carcanet) £14.99
In a 1962 essay ‘The Creative Process’, James Baldwin wrote, ‘A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.’ Indeed, as he says in the same essay, ‘the artist must be an incorrigible disturber of the peace’. One way he or she may do this, as Wallace Stevens wrote in The Necessary Angel, is by ‘the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality’. The most obvious way the imagination can do this is by presenting some kind of heightened or altered state over everyday reality, but that would be to regress into Romanticism or the many -isms that followed it. Miles Burrows has long created his own mischievous form of disruption and now gathers the results in his collected poems, Take Us The Little Foxes, just over half a century after he was discovered at a reading in London by Cape editor Tom Maschler, who subsequently published a first volume in 1966, A Vulture’s Egg. Bizarrely, the world had to wait five decades for a second collection, perhaps aptly titled Waiting for the Nightingale (2017), published by Carcanet, whose publisher Michael Schmidt is acknowledged for the present volume not as a necessary angel, perhaps, but even more as a ‘Deus ex machina’.

However, it is not as if the poet had been living in obscurity, rather a life stretched to the full as a medical practitioner in various parts of the world, both as a GP and a psychiatrist. He had also achieved wide recognition in Edward Lucie Smith’s Penguin anthology British Poetry Since 1945 (1970), which included his memorably witty ‘minipoet’ in the ‘Post-Movement’ section:

– slim, inexpensive, easy to discard
nippy rather than resonant, unpretentious.
we found them produced in increasing numbers
from oxford, home of pressed steel.

This ‘nippy’ little poet is contrasted with the traditional ‘lumbering’, ‘well-upholstered’ figure of the ‘archpoet’, whom ‘we had to coax, persuade him he had wings’. More than a dig at the Movement poets, as Lucie-Smith assumes, it also prods at the sleek new 60s freedom from form and escape from the confines of capital letters. This early example shows the rhythmic conversational mode that saves his work from the plod into which so much free verse descends. Indeed, here he copies the sprightly mode and direct address of the advertising copywriter.

But it was not always thus. The lower case dig at Oxford belies the truth that he spent many years there, firstly as an undergraduate reading Greats (classics) and then Medicine. In fact, his first book reflects that first degree in the many references to the Latin poets and the matter of Troy in particular. There is a striking variety of forms, ranging from beautifully well-wrought sonnets to quatrains that could well have come out of the Movement, to dialogues, squibs and even a dramatic dialogue in the style of Beckett in ‘Detective Story’:

Lady:             The unfortunate lodger is dead.
Boy:               Unfortunately, the lodger is dead.
Interpreter:    The lodger is dead, unfortunately.
Inspector:      The dead lodger is unfortunate.

As this example shows, the salient feature of Burrows’s work is its obliquity. Appropriating the term from astronomy, in Obliquity (2010) the economist David Kay defined it as ‘characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them’. This seems the best description of the kaleidoscopic way this poet aims to disturb the peace and throw a curved ball at it. Another take on Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’? Not really. Dickinson expected some truth eventually to be revealed. More pertinent perhaps is her following line ‘Success in circuit lies.’ Burrows’s successful vision lies in the tangential, without any hankering after a solid circle on which the tangent rests. And yet the circle often feels solid from the vast range of the poet’s references. A good example from Waiting for the Nightingale is ‘The Flight from Meaning’:

Doreen looked back at me, her face like a Tacitus unseen.
I like difficult poets who tease you, difficult girls
Pulling their hair over their faces and running away.
Though this could get tiresome.
Soon it will be time to cycle through the rain to yoga.
I wish I was mysterious.
All I wanted was to be opaque and cryptic.

The persona’s aspiration here is fully borne out in the whole collection, which adds up to an oblique critique of poetry itself, undermining its standard tropes and observations. Looking over the privet hedge of our insular gentility, ‘English Provincial Poetry’ is a devastatingly tongue-in-cheek list of Dos and Don’ts. One can also note the gradual incursion into the poetry of genteel female figures that seem to have escaped from the talking heads of Alan Bennett: Doreen, Madge, Glynis and Daphne to mention a few.

One of the collection’s most opaque and cryptic set of references is in the title poem ‘Take Us the Little Foxes’. We learn from a footnote that the Song of Solomon ‘suddenly interrupts itself with an instruction about catching little foxes’ because, as the Song itself says (2:15), they ‘spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes’. The footnote goes on to say this reference has had many mystical and erotic interpretations, but that others believe it is a ‘practical instruction for market gardeners’. This humour reflects the poem’s subtly humorous interplay of times and people. It starts with the Natural History Group in the (Sinai?) desert, the Queen of Sheba’s palace being ‘somewhere round here’. The speaking voice then becomes the Queen herself waiting for Solomon’s visit, a Solomon who becomes Bob Dylan and they discuss many things, including her famous Arrival (pace Handel). We then understand this meeting could have been imagined by a Dr Ruffidge of the Natural History Group, but the voice becomes Sheba again talking to Sol(omon) as if both were living New Yorkers and she even ‘sings’ the King James’s translation of verse 2:15. Finally we end on the Natural History Group returning home, not having found the Palace of the Queen, but with the voice over of a beautiful fade:

From the minarets in the town far below
Came the sound of tannoyed imprecations.
As darkness fell
The mosques were bathed in flickering green lights, suggesting horror films.
But for the Bedu, the flickering green
Suggested grass, green pastures, calmer moods.

These shifts are deft and harmonious and always held together by a speaking voice. We never imagine the poet labouring over an impersonal description, it comes from a voice that is always embedded in a setting. But a setting that turns and changes in a kaleidoscopic manner, calling just about everything into question with wit, erudition and often laugh-out-loud humour as it most incorrigibly disturbs the peace. And for this reviewer the real tour-de-force of the collection is the almost parody of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Sea Surface Full Of Clouds’ in ‘Wallace in Undieland’:

Her made to measure mental camisole
Fluffed a little at the edges, holds
Suggestions of Byzantium, in green,
Its acrobatic hemlines, year by year,
Trace with acutest sighs a mappemonde.
Phenomenal cadenzas of the real!

Phenomenal they may be, but we are made to question the reality of that ‘real’ in the most engaging and oblique manner.

This review is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

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