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This item is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

In 1975 the South African poet David Wright sent me a long poem by Julian Orde Abercrombie entitled ‘The Conjurors’. The first of its thirty rhymed seven-line stanzas, charting the metamorphosis of a caterpillar from grub to chrysalis to imago, reads,
This crusty July, blackfly
        And other small, moist flies –
               Whiskers so thin
               They are not felt on skin –
Liking a dry July
        Interrupted the performance
        Of the opening of some flowers.
This poem featured in Poetry Nation VI (1976). Two issues earlier we published Wright’s elegy to Orde, evoking their long friendship. It refused to abandon the present tense. Shared friendships, art, intimacy, the Blitz, illuminate its lines:
The summer of pilotless planes,
Of searchlit nights and soft,
When once upon a scare
Together we ran out

Into the naked garden
High over Archway, and
The warm leaves of laurel
Trembled in no wind.
Vicki Beatson, heir of the Wright papers, and James Keery, well known to readers of PN Review, are giving shape to the correspondence of David Wright. Orde and Wright come alive. The elegiac stanzas and the letters are close up in a new age of pilotless planes and invasive events.
And there remains a large room full of flowers
    Imaged on canvases, the real ones still in the garden,
And books and objects I’ve known for thirty years.
    Unknown to me I am taking a final leave of them

And the woman no longer young but more beautiful
    Than the young girl had been, who held all these together.
Yet that web woven over so long shall not unravel,
    Though the lives and bonds disperse like the furniture

To disassociation. Eternity, when one thinks of it,
    Exists in what has been, there residing. […]
Orde appeared again in PN Review 2 (1978) with a selection of fifteen poems made by Wright and accompanied by a memoir that regrets he had not seen, appreciated and promoted the later work. His advocacy in 1978 was an act of restitution. He sent the poems to several editors. One of them was me.

His elegy prepared the ground, a powerful set of formal memory fragments which brought the ‘Jill of all trades’ to life. ‘The Conjurors’ followed the elegy a few months later. I took to it in the way I came to love Marianne Moore’s ‘The Steeplejack’ and Elizabeth Bishop’s obliquely confessional ‘Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance’. Then Wright sent a selection from the typescript Orde’s daughter assembled after her death. (Geoffrey Hill, in a private letter to him, remarked, ‘At the risk of being misunderstood, I’d say someone as good as this had a duty to herself to be consistently better.’)

We ran our long selection of her poems, then Wright sent me the typescript itself.

For some reason I shilly-shallied. I did not rise to the challenge. But I was haunted. By the time I wanted to revisit the poems, Wright had died, the script could not be found. I was dogged by my indecision (which was a kind of decision). The book hadn’t gone elsewhere: it had gone.

Wright had a substantial impact on Carcanet and PN Review in their early years. Vicki Beatson in 2012 contacted me about Wright’s letters, with the proposal that we consider them for publication. They opened a window on many – most – of my favourite mid-twentieth-century poets including Sisson, Graham, Barker, Singer, as well as painters and other artists. James Keery, who edited the Carcanet anthology Apocalypse, began collaborating with Vicki. Was it possible that they might find, or reconstruct, the Orde collection? The degree of my original interest was clear from Wright’s letters: he even told Orde’s daughter in the 1970s that I had said I would publish.

In the long-term event, he was not wrong. Five decades later the book is scheduled to appear in September under the title Conjurors. Editing is sometimes a geologically slow process: the fates of Charlotte Mew, Stevie Smith, Rosemary Tonks, Miles Burrows, E.J. Scovell, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and many others are evidence that poetry publishing is not always about today and tomorrow. Some illuminating, illuminated tomorrows are to be found among all our yesterdays. Reading James Keery’s Apocalypse anthology, the twentieth century reconfigures itself. As David Wright reflects in his PNR Orde memoir:
The neo-romanticism of the 1940s infected nearly the whole generation that was born around the Great War in time for the next. Everybody had it, like measles; even those who are not now thought of as neo-romantics – Keith Douglas, Philip Larkin, Norman MacCaig for example – caught the infection to begin with. Few recovered; but I think that those who did, eventually wrote the better for that inoculation. The fever (for it was more of a malady than a fashion) was I think due to the impact of the sprung verse of Hopkins (whose Wreck of the Deutschland opened Michael Roberts’s influential Faber Book of Modern Verse in ١٩٣٦), and to the almost coincident publication of Finnegans Wake and Yeats’s last poems with the outbreak of a long-expected war; also to the near-mesmeric influence of two contemporary exploiters of language, George Barker and Dylan Thomas, whose poems caught the apocalyptic feel of the times and offered our generation a different fare to the politico-
sociological gruel served by their immediate predecessors […] [T]he poems of Julian’s that I knew were nearly all ‘forties’ poems, many of them smudged by the surreal imagery of the period. Yet the best now seem to me to be better than most of the stuff that appeared in the magazines and slim volumes of those days, and of these days, come to think of it.
It’s hard for me to imagine the middle of the twentieth century now without Julian Orde Abercrombie. It’s my extraordinary good luck to publish her thanks to James Keery’s and Vicki Beatson’s archaeology, at last honouring a promise not quite made by PN Review in its early years. Sometimes editors can serve the whirligig of time, to the benefit of readers for whom poetry is never a settled canon. The past, even the recent past, is at least as rich in resource and surprise as the present.

This item is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

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