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This review is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

REVENANTS AND RELICS JOHN FULLER, Ghosts (Chatto and Windus) £8.99
PETER RILEY, Excavations (Reality Street) £9.00

Personal memory and collective history ought to form a harmonious continuum, although this has no implications for the reliability of either mode of understanding. British poets have got used to being circumspect with history. Britain's last one hundred years hardly admits interpretation by a single voice and beyond that a poet must reckon with linguistic change and thus not only changes in historical circumstances, but also changes in how these were expressed. A British poet has to be aware of shifts in meanings even at the level of individual words and therefore how his or her contemporary instrument might fail to render justice to historical experience.

A simple strategy is to confine oneself to the present and only touch on history where it has a significance personal to the poet. A poet works from the concrete tentatively towards abstraction. This is what John Fuller does in his fifteenth collection, Ghosts. The sense of the less than stable connection between memory and knowledge is exactly expressed in the opening and title poem of the collection:

We can only believe in what we believe
To have been absolutely worthy
Of being somehow recoverable.

Not ourselves, certainly, existing
Nowhere but in the imagining
Of such imagining and capture.

The poem elegantly moves from regret over the departure of a partner with images of ghostly presence, 'That cartoon symbol of the departed', which 'invests sleeves with ...


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