"He (Calvert) to me was the quintessential SF poet, or rather he was."
David W. Hughes, editor of the "mood SF" magazine Works, a magazine which has always used a considerable amount of poetry, made that comment in an interview on Northern Line1. His is, curiously, one of the very few instances I have been able to locate of critical comment on Robert Calvert as poet, as distinct from his role as Hawkwind lyricist and lyricist on his own albums.
Of course it shouldn't need saying, but probably does, that the distinction drawn between song lyrics and poetry is a very arbitrary and in many ways totally artificial one. The Border ballads, for example, which include some of the finest poetry in English, were written to be sung. Nearer our own time, across a whole spectrum of music, people as diverse as blues singer Robert Johnson and Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Bertolt Brecht, have created fully realised and powerful poems which also work with real impact as song lyrics - and those are just a few instances.
Moreover, poetry not written initially for use with music can be, and often is, subsequently so combined - the striking combinations of poetry and jazz which perhaps achieve a peak in Christopher Logue's recording of his poetry with the Tony Kinsey Quartet and Bill Le Sage on "Red Bird Dancing On Ivory", and continue to have many exponents, or the effective musical settings of John Betjeman's poems, are just two areas where the artificiality of setting a divide between poem and lyric and clearly demonstrated.
Nevertheless, in terms of "real life" critical attitudes, it has to be recognised that there is a view which, in some never clearly explained way, regards the poem written as song lyric as in itself somehow tainted with inferiority, not to be considered at the same level as the poem written for the page, or, when "performed", read by the human creator's voice alone.
It is perhaps worth noting, in fairness, that particular problems also arise for any editor wanting to include words which have been used in a recording context in poetry anthologies of the like, in terms of copyright, though such difficulties, daunting and expensive as they may be, cannot fully explain the all but total absence of such material from anthologies - and that applies as much to specialist anthologies of science fiction and other genre poetry as it does to general poetry anthologies.
A circuitous approach to beginning considering the poetry of Robert Calvert? Perhaps, but it seems important to set a context, before looking more closely at the work itself.
The general remarks made above, in fact, apply directly, on the evidence of what did or did not appear where, to Calvert's situation as a poet, or rather to the situation his work encountered.
Science Fiction Poetry anthologies, it must be said, have been few. Indeed since the annus mirabilis of 1969 when two classic ones appeared, "Frontier of Going", edited by John Fairfax and "Holding Your Eight Hands" edited by Edward Lucie-Smith, there had been none in the UK from a commercial publisher, other than of media SF inspired material - Star Trek etc., and only one prior to the late 90s, of any real size and scope even from a small press. To the latter I will return. But, having remarked that it is not particularly surprising that Calvert's work is in neither of the 1969 ones, in view of the early date, it is time to look across at the States. There, anthologies of science fiction poetry have appeared with some regularity. Although a number include work by British poets using genre themes, both "big names" and those predominantly published in the "little magazines"; poetry by Calvert appears in none.
Reasons for this neglect can only be speculation, but the fact itself should be noted. It is also perhaps of relevance that Americans active in the field tend to look on the use of poetry in New Worlds under Michael Moorcock's editorship as a key starting point for current genre poetry, and that a number of the Britons represented in the US anthologies referred to are among those who appeared in the magazine. Calvert, who also appeared there, albeit not among the first after Moorcock introduced poetry, would seem to have been a natural candidate for consideration for such anthologies.
It didn't happen.
Turning back to the one UK genre anthology of any real scope since 1969, this was produced for a special purpose. Lisa Conesa, herself a poet and editor of the notable fanzine Zimri in the early and mid 70's, persuaded the organisers of the 1974 Tynecon convention to include a poetry reading - she called it a Poetry Soiree - in the program. Prior to the event, she approached a variety of writers, including SF professionals who wrote poetry, SF fans ditto, and little magazine poets, for work to include in an anthology to mark the soiree.
Handsomely designed and produced by Harry Turner, the 44-page book, entitled The Purple Hours, includes work by a roll call of British SF names - Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, Moorcock.
It also includes four poems by Robert Calvert - "The Clone's Poem", "The Gremlin", "The First Landing On Medusa", and "The Starfarer's Despatch". Calvert was also among those who read at the poetry soiree itself, along with Brian Aldiss, and South African-born poet Jeni Couzeyn, who wrote a series of poems inspired by Aldiss stories, although she did not appear in The Purple Hours.
As I said, I have been able to trace no other anthology appearances of Calvert's poetry. Genre magazine appearances, to my knowledge (I would be most grateful for any information to prove me wrong, incidentally) of his poetry are limited to New Worlds - "Ode to a Time Flower" in No 5 (this was in 1973 after it had become an Arts Council-aided quarterly, and the issue numbering had as a result recommenced) still under Moorcock's editorship, and again in No 10, 1976 (when it was being edited by Hilary Bailey, Moorcock's wife) with "The Naked and Transparent Man Gives Thanks" (plus an appearance in Science Fiction Monthly suggested by Brian Tawn, from a secondary source).
In the early 70s Calvert's poetry also appeared in the underground magazine Frendz. "Circle Line" won a Capital Radio competition in May 19752,3. The lyric / light poem "The Action Man Explains" was published in "Cheesecake"4. In addition, some will have appeared in print form with records, for example the predominantly prose "Hawklog" was issued as a free booklet with the Hawkwind LP "In Search Of Space" in 19715.
Minor appearances include "Voodoo Child" on a poster for the 1985 staging of Calvert's play "Hendrix - The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice" and "Fountains in the Park" on a poster for the 1986 staging of his play "Test Tube Baby of Mine". And a few lines of his "Welcome to the Future" are quoted in the SF novel by Moorcock and Michael Butterworth, "The Time of the Hawklords (Star Books, 1976).
Except, then, for that handful of appearances, it appears that Calvert's poetry appeared in print, in his own lifetime, only in his own two collections and in the Hawkwind Lyric Book6.
These collections were "Centigrade 232" (Quasar Books, 1978 - Calvert reissued the collection in audio cassette form, read by himself, in 1988 through his Harbour Publications) and "Earth Ritual"7 (Harbour Publications, Ramsgate 1986). The "Hawkwind Lyric Book" appeared from Chaos Inc. In 1989.
"Centigrade 232" includes the pieces that appear in The Purple Hours as well as those used in New Worlds, and those poems are most conveniently considered in the context of what is in effect a "post-review" of what will from now on be abbreviated as C232. But before turning to examining that collection as what can be taken as Calvert's own choice, not just as a representative selection of his poetry in 1978, but one that, a decade on, he felt happy to reissue, it is worth noting that qualities and characteristics, as poems, of a few pieces included in the "Hawkwind Lyric Book" (HLB).
One point worth noting is the way Calvert, who spoke of his ambition "To be a true space age oral poet" - a remark cited in the "Hawkwind Family Tree"8 - uses the repeating and accumulating structures of folk poetry to great effect in a poem like "Ten Seconds of Forever", which for hearer (and indeed reader) builds anticipation through its "tenth second..., ninth second..., eighth second..." etc. movement, towards the last elegiac "first and final second" lines. The 10 down to 1 structure, intriguingly, is also that of the rocket launch countdown, an ingenious use by the poet of echoes from individual and species pasts (nursery rhyme / counting song / ballad) in symbiosis with the icons of the technological present and future.9
The poem, in its ingenious, and moving, mingling of the very personal, the universal, and the futuristic extra-planetary, its drawing, into what begins as one man's final gathering of the fragmentary memories that make up the essence of his life, eventually of the all embracing lament for an ending of the race in some unimaginable far future, is a tour de force that works, and works well.
Because of its strength as a poem it is perhaps worth giving detailed attention to specific aspects of "Ten Second of Forever". First, what I feel is the one weak "second" - that of "the pair of broken shades lying on the tarmac". The only clichéd image of the poem, it is a valuable reminder of the exception that proves the rule, of how successful Calvert normally was in his poetry at avoiding the expected or obvious image. The control and restraint with which emotion is suggested rather than shouted, is worth noting - the beautiful passivity and tenderness of the very first image "I thought of the sea and your white yacht drifting" exemplifies this well. The movement from personal an temporal to universal species emotion builds steadily but subtly, a process aided by the clearly deliberate avoidance of specifying the object(s) of his love at the start, so that it becomes convincing rather than flatulently insincere for the poet to say, in "the fourth second", that he "could remember nothing that I did not love".
Adjectives are used very sparingly, giving them added impact, and also universality - the "warm room, where voices played" is EVERY place of comfort "the long past" is not just the protagonist's life but Mankind's history, without the poet needing to say so.
Despite, moreover, the almost minimalist avoidance of adjectival editorializing, the poem conjures precise physical pictures without individualized specification, in an almost Imagist way - the conjunction like an artist's still life, of "the leaf, the stone, the plastic fragment of the child's toy", or the ambiguous universality (are we safe inside, we who hear or read the poem, or exposed and outside?) when it is a case of "rain against a window and I thought of the wind".
I have devoted considerable space to this poem, partly because of its fully realised nature, deserving of close attention, partly because its inclusion in the HLB so perfectly illustrates the absurdity of the lyric/poem artificial dichotomy discussed earlier. Additionally, there are two final aspects to mention, since both are I think helpful in recognising strengths apparent in other Calvert poems.
One is the effective "narrative thrust", the sense of the inescapable onward movement in the poem. Some American speculative / SF poets (Andrew Joron in particular) have argued that genre verse will not reach maturity until it escapes from the "ghost of narrative" which keeps it umbilically tied to prose SF, and so will be free to become a new form in its own right.
Quite apart from the extent to which this analysis demands the impossible10, I think that this poem of Calvert's is a fine indication that "Story" and "Poem" are not mutually exclusive in genre work, and that at the same time, the poem achieves something that a prose account couldn't in terms of the multi-layering of meaning, data density and, in essence, a liberation from the need felt by the fiction writer to specify one set of possible interpretations, and by doing so exclude others.
Secondly, alongside the almost Imagist approach to "timeless, specific, unadjectivised things in themselves"11, goes a very vivid use of images out of what can be called "pulp SF", the Burroughsian matter of the "fifth second of forever" where the "I" of the poem "though of the vermilion deserts of Mars, the duned forests of Venus".
Among other work in HLB, "Robot" refers even more directly to earlier prose SF, with its reference to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics. The poem's dubiety about technological advance ("your life is recorded on a micro-dot, robot, robot you'd hold the whole world in your metal claws") a disillusionment reflected even more sharply in "Welcome to the Future" ("welcome to the oceans in a labelled can") reflects the way, through the SFnal work of Calvert, there is a tension resolved in some poems one way or the other, in many more remaining unsettled and indeed helping give "active life" to the words, between the Sense of Wonder (SOW) at the imagination unleashing possibilities, for escape, liberation, a rebirth free from past constraints of space and the future, and the dystopian possibilities of loss of humanity, loss of species function, loss of nature and planetary ecology, threatened by many aspects of technological advance.12 At his strongest, there is an ability to handle such themes without preaching on the dystopian side or "gee whizzery" on the SOW side, which is the mark of the poetic craftsman in control of his material.
This duality is neatly exemplified in what could almost be called a "weather house" pair of poems: "Born To Go", where humanity, "breaking out of the shell", "hatching... dreams into reality" to find "a way out of the maze that held the human race" offers a joyous use of the egg image which by contrast, in "The Egg" (on the "Bring Me The Head Of Yuri Gagarin" album), has taken on a much darker aspect; "We live in the egg... we have covered the walls with dirty drawings... but what if we were never to hatch?"
The SOW love song "Infinity" implants in outer space imagery which is more Fantasy than SF, though again with enough of an ambiguous double image to avoid the worst excesses of verse in that genre with ease; beautiful pictures like "starbeams grew like trees" or a "palace gate with constellation towers" avoid cloying by oversweetness because the chill at the heart of the relationship offers saving edge - "crystallised eternity", yes, but is that a healthy relationship given that the poet's essence has been turned "to ice", that his state is a sleeper's and that he is locked "In a Dream, Infinity" so, clearly, no real union or communication exists.
More beautiful imagery is deserving of note in the final work from HLB to be mentioned here, "Steppenwolf", word-pictures again with that ambiguous, even dangerous edge to their beauty, just as the almost strident rhymes of the piece echo doubly the padding of a beast, yet likewise the menacing human footsteps behind us in the dark lonely street. "Moons are howling mouth of mercury / Quicksilver quivering in the sky" along with an early mediaeval delight in appropriately evocative alliteration, mingles the lovely and the terrible; the mediaeval werewolf myth leaps straight from the past to futuristic imagery13 in the succeeding lines "It echoes like a cave of chromium / To vacuum up my soul when I die".
Later lines share this cross-genre quality - "the forest has been felled by fog / Exactly a description of my isolation" humanises the half-man; Calvert here, in precise, fresh language, portrays a feeling anyone, not just a were-creature, is likely to have experienced... yet the beast element revives in "I follow my own trail like a dog". While the low-key, never-explicit suggestion that the beast is in some way made, like Frankenstein's monster, rather than born, is subtly suggested in the "science poem" image, "My eyes are convex lenses of ebony embedded in amber."
Moving on now to C232, it perhaps provides continuity to begin with those two poems which, in conjunction, also appear in HLB.
Before doing so, however, it is worth noting the C232 contains over forty poems, many speculative in the wider sense, but only half a dozen or so directly SFnal in content.14 The collection also includes some work which is, in frankness, fairly lightweight, and will be only briefly noted here.
Turning to the two poems which appear as "The Spirit Of The Age" in the HLB, "The Clone's Poem" and "The Starfarer's Despatch"15, the former is an effective depiction of the nightmare quality of life as a clone. Though in the main the situation and its consequences are predictable, Calvert manages enough surprising spins to the development to give the poem life; the unexpectedness of "... consider every weakness / something special of your own. Being a clone / I have no flaws / to identify" is a good instance. So is the bleak wit of payoff "O for the wings of any bird / Other than a battery hen". On the downside, it can be remarked that a self-denigratory quality is unnecessarily shown here (reference in the text to the poem as "doggerel", though not blatantly jarring, as it is smoothly integrated - a few lines later, by contrast, the cliche "word for word" in the reference to the other clones simultaneously writing the same piece is I think a judgement flaw worthy of excision.) This occurs in other places in C232. Doubtless it reflects genuine modesty, but is marginally irritating all the same.
"The Starfarer's Despatch" has a simplicity which on first reading can appear simplistic, but in fact combines craft and restraint. It well exemplifies Dave Hughes' later remarks, in the radio interview already quoted, that "I've always found SF poetry to be the complete essence, if you like, of SF. If you could condense an SF story then what you'd end up with is SF poetry... so beautiful when it works like that (i.e. Calvert's material), it's so sharp, clear and precise."
As an aside, it may be of significance in regard to Calvert's poetry, both in this specific instance and more generally, that, although it is always all too easy to draw conclusions about a writer's work from personal circumstance, without there necessarily being justification for such conclusions, the precise structured quality of his work may well be at least psychologically related to a family background including a builder father, a quantity-surveyor brother, and structural engineering.
Turning back to the poem, it starkly, yet with a black humour that stems, as the best comedy does, from real emotion - in this case, that of a likely future situation - depicts the star traveller, unable to take his love (by now anyway grown aged, back on earth) along on his voyage, has made do with an Android Replica "Still under age", which is "playing up again, / when she comes / she moans / another's name." A wry smile indeed is summoned by a poem difficult to forget, and with few, if any, wasted words. Both of these poems, as mentioned previously, appeared in "The Purple Hours" anthology. So too does "The Gremlin", five rhyming couplets only, witty but not particularly memorable, personifying that archetypal cause of aerial mishaps.
The final poem in C232 which is also in the Tyncon anthology is a longish (42 lines) narrative piece of strong descriptive SF. "The First Landing On Medusa"16 tells of a crew's arrival on a new planet where, as the names hints, some force soon acts to turn them to stone. In powerful language, again using "editorialising" adjectives only where essential, it fuses the "wonder and terror", the excitement and disillusionment, of extra-terrestrial voyaging with great skill. A skill, moreover, sufficiently integrated into the thrust of the poem as to conjure believability rather than suggesting "look at me" cleverness. The poem is rhymed (in some cases half-rhymed) almost throughout, the occasional unrhymed line unobtrusively given emphasis in this way. The rhyme pattern itself is complex, in places successive lines rhyming with each other as couplets, while in others lines that rhyme are separated. This separation, and the occurrence of unrhymed lines, occurs in particular at the points of tension within the poem (or pair of poems in the C232 printing) which compare arrival with birth trauma, and at the poem's end, with irreversible transformation's revelation.
Because the piece is so fully integrated, it is difficult to select an extract or two to give the flavour. The poem's beginning plunges the reader inescapably into involvement: "I'd rather the firestorms of atmospheres / Than this cruel descent, from a hundred years / of dream, into the starkness of the capsule." "Cool tombs of sleep" still hold his crew and as captain he must cut "Worming" tubes and wires, disrupt "The nagging choirs of memory", force his men by "Such midwifery" out of their "Floating in a sac of fluid-dark". This "trauma of... birth" over, the next steps are not a liberation, rather a following of inescapable orders; "We just touched upon a shelf / of rock selected by the Intermind" having in the process to leave "a galaxy of dreams behind". Full waking is painful, "adjusting to the newness of our eyes". Faces "set like masks", subtle premonitions of the poem's end, when, in an elegant portmanteau image, "a stoning charm"... "Had taken hold." I have reservations about the poem's fade-out ending words "and then..." to convey that the captain has too been petrified but, with that small cavil, this should, I think, be seen, at the very least, as a minor genre poetry classic.
Calvert again draws on the image of Medusa, the planet with the power, like its mythical namesake, of turning men to stone - a powerful analogy of both the robot replacing man and of the freezing of feeling, which occurs elsewhere in his work, a kind of psychic parallel to the entrapping egg17 or cloistering can which also forms part of his core range of symbols - in the first of the two poems in C232 which had appeared in New Worlds.
The poem, "Ode To A Time Flower", depicts the poet's hesitation before picking the flower that will offer the gift of stasis, because of its beauty. The description of man "as an angel on his way from slime - almost an encapsulation of the duality within Calvert's poetic agenda - acts as the repeated motif of a piece which, curiously, is at its most telling not in the description of the flower that will enable the protagonist "I" to "hold to the flow of moments past, as I would to my last few seconds here on Earth" (reprising as it does, with less elegiac power, the essence of "Ten Seconds Of Forever", discussed earlier) but in the reference, almost an aside, to "the stoned", an ostensibly awful pun which, in the context, in fact adds layers of meaning by its parallel to the hippie explorers of their own "inner space" with the "explorers of Medusa" who "stalled for time not entered in their log / before they dared the petrified fog / that holds them still in its timeless hold." That fragment, with its multiplicity of meaning, its evocation of doomed human attempts to avoid the inevitable, its "world in a grain of sand" skill at depicting in just a handful of words the price, as well as the lure of immortality, gives this poem depth it would otherwise lack, but would, I feel, have worked better as a coda of chorus to the Medusa poem itself.
The other poem here which had appeared in New Worlds, "The Naked And Transparent Man Gives Thanks" is a curious - and curiously beautiful - poem. Curious, because it is genre, but only in the sense of being of many genres, depending on the reader for classification, yet in many ways transcending any tidy classification. With elegant and musical ease, its two short - seven lined - stanzas18 present to us the assaying of one lying, perhaps dying or at least terminally weak, on a world itself also in possibly terminal decay, yet rejoicing in the wonder of his very existence. In a sense, this is a poem that exemplifies Calvert's own remark "We make what we make of the world into music and it comes out as SF." Musical this poem certainly is, it's lines and rhymes supple in their accepting quietly joyous recording of existence in an environment SFnal if the reader wishes to take it so, with its "failing sun" over a "moth-holed globe" where the "I" has the ruins of ages strewn / Like wreckage of an unsuccessful Probe" for company, along with "the unfolding of all greenness left".
Yet in its quietitude, and at the same time almost Blakean joy in the physicality of the "vermilion tapestry, living robe and pulsating weave" of the body, the piece is very unlike most current genre poetry. It would not be out of place, as said, in the era of Blake, or further back the Metaphysicals - nor would it have jarred in the company of the "stellar" and "cosmic" poets of the pulps, at their more restrained best, to go alongside Lillith Lorraine, let us say, rather than the "gorgeous decadence" of her less restrained Weird Tales contemporaries.
One more poem which is, directly yet also transcendently, SF remains to be discussed - the book's title poem. This piece, its initial impetus a bookburning which could be Nazi Germany or the world of Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 45119, sweeps back to mediaeval witch-burnings, then forward, chillingly, to nuclear warning. It also succeeds with great intensity in conveying the joy of fire, in destruction, which tugs at all of us and can so easily make the accomplice out of the innocent bystander. The fire is able to "spurn" a double blackness, "night and winter's dark", to offer us "Fierce theatre", "anemones of fire" so that, delighted "to see the dark so well disguised", we forget that books are destroyed, ignore how "witches reared" in agony "against the stake", obsessed as we are with the primitive appeal of "such Aladdin caves of air" which, in the poem's ending mutate into"... mushrooming billows of coral form", that ultimate nightmare of horrid joy, the nuclear holocaust.
The birth of the Sense of Wonder, a time of childhood magic, is nostalgically summoned in "Ode To A Crystal Set": "You were futuristic as Colonel Dare... insect lecture of Morse... alien forces of crackling static", until the young Calvert dreams of "voices among the stars" and, like so many embryo SF enthusiasts, has the moment of feeling a personal communication with the future - "the secret of knowing was mine alone". The poem is marred by a tiresome pun on cat's whiskers and an anticlimax ending, but it is otherwise totally evocative of individual, yet empathised experience.
Not genre as such, but speculative in the wider sense, is a description able to fit many of the remaining pieces. Brian Tawn has commented on "The Swing" with its inversion of the expected, "He was able to see ordinary things from new angles." In a sense this goes with the territory, i.e. it is part of a poet's job description - but the fact that Calvert was able to do so with such innovative and yet unforced skill as in this poem is further proof of his calibre as a poet at this best. Tired from "holding off invasion", the small boy takes to his swing. Evoked first as a machine "that rocks the heavens", then reduced again to one of "rows of empty perches in a cage", it is transformed "with a child to man it" into something more astounding, all-powerful, "an engine to swing a planet through its axis." This vision, noted by Tawn, wherein the child feels himself to be moving the world is true insight back into the "lost viewpoint" of the mind before schooling has done its best to impose "wonder-free" parameters, and the poem as a whole works triumphantly.
To complete this post-review, a brisk gallop with a minimum of pauses, though the remaining poems in C232, since I believe those already explored in some detail are sufficient to give both an introduction to Calvert's strengths and capabilities as a poet, and to those of his concerns of greatest relevance to consideration of his work as an SF poet.
"Fahrenheit 451" again tributing Ray Bradbury's book in its title, but working at more personal level with the burning of unsuccessful poem drafts, and "Cleaning A Rapidograph" both have some interesting images, but are marred by a glib-seeming self-denigration as a writer. "The Siren", an "imagined history" piece, has the entrapped Odysseus expressing his disillusionment that close up the Siren's song is nothing without the "swaying choir of waves" and she herself with her "flint-knife glances" just another waterfront whore, leaving him vainly attempting to escape "on Trades of ink into maps."
"Buster Keaton And The Virgin Dancer" is a lively oddity, with a darker implied sub-text about uncomprehending relationships - "He wastes his breath on a candle's flame / that refuses to be blown out / while she rolls all night in the stuntman's arms."
The oddities and tendernesses of human relationships are depicted well in two poems. In "When It Is Your Time" the menstrual woman is both threat ("Your touch can blast a vineyard / fade purple cloth / evacuate beehives") and blessing ("calm the seas / safeguard from barrenness")20; the man is left to "wait", reduced to "wrinkled worm". "A Refusal To Mourn The Removal By Surgery Of Two Benign Tumours" contains the haunting image of the surgeon's pre-op marks on the flesh as being like the passout stamp on the participant at an orgy, ending with a tender reuse of Calvert's recurring egg image: "rouse you from your anaesthetic shell... albumen-covered sheets as exquisite as though you were newly hatched."
"Some Sketches Of A Hand" is a somewhat naively obvious look at its subject, make interesting by an odd and oddly telling ending: "for a creature that only has one head, one pair of hands seems quite enough." Brief sharp observation denotes "Lady With A Looking Glass" ("She catches little wriggling smiles and releases them to the silver of freedom") and "Circle Line" ("a snooker shot of glances aimed against the glass... our images safely imprisoned / in the hurting stillness of the glass.")
"Fly On The Screen", a vivid picture of how the insect as it "crawled among the Saigon refugees... traversing smoke-filled skies and war-torn borders", defuses the meaning of news and news readers, offers an ironic parallel with the way TV itself does this to reality. But, instead of stopping with the effective depiction of how the insect "one of those tiny ones they use in experiments" had "made mockery of the images", Calvert again succumbs to the urge to pun, with a line about the fly "making headline news" which comes as a defusing anti-climax, as if he had lost confidence in the piece's strong beginning.
A brilliantly effective tiny snapshot of the (then) nearish past, "Lines From A Conception Card", shows a couple on their last leave in wartime, when the "Wellingtons fly for Bremen." With "Mars... in the ascendant", they turn out the light, for the inextricable twining of sex and death made incarnate - "the bomb doors opened / the child making moment flared."
There are a number of poems which are a reflection of the close links between the speculative poem and the surreal.21
"An Unposted Letter" begins realistically, if rather self-pityingly; its imagery though overused, is intermittently effective - "I wore my deception like a wedding mask." Then suddenly "reality" gives way - "The envelope is swelling / already the desk has collapsed under its weight, / the instruments are smashed, / the surrounding houses are being evacuated."
"The Clerk" too, begins realistically - the 9-5er whose telephone, typewriter and head alike ring. Then he discovers that a hole in his desk is the only source of air for his department - and the poem ends with a sardonic snapshot of his gleeful arrival next day with a wad of chewing gum and an aqualung in his briefcase. Surreal, but also an "extended conceit" poem, almost a reduction to the absurd of an ongoing image, "The Pause", which begins "When the Stillness of the Beginning Was Shattered by the Word", has a surviving fragment of that stillness undergoing adventures, mildly funny or serious, until squashed by a small boy stepping on an ant.22
Calvert's interest in Alfred Jarry, the proto-Dadaist writer, and his theory of Pataphysics, the science of imaginary or bogus solutions, is perhaps reflected in "A Letter Of Complaint To The Council", demanding attention to a hole in the roof which is giving admittance to one impossibility after another - "planes like dead flies are floating in our soup... our dining table is cluttered with scraps of could and Dutchmen's trousers" (i.e. patches of blue sky)... "stars descend like flakes of dandruff." Despite precautions ("a bucket strategically placed to catch the Moon") things can only get worse; "our carpet is ruined by the yolk of broken galaxies" - the egg image again haunting Calvert even in an overtly playful absurdist poem. The mixture of the absurd and he SOW image builds effectively up to a point, but in my opinion the deadpan framework of the letter is not sufficiently developed, the poem is either too long or too short (i.e. the list of events develops for long enough to develop an element of overkill, particularly when wilderness and desert come through the floor, without extending far enough to take on the hypnotic litany-like quality of a "list poem") and overall is a missed opportunity.
"Dance Steps" is a poem the swirling movement of which cries out for the right music, jazz perhaps or some Kurt Weill dance tune. It is a surreal encounter, reminiscent of the transformation songs of folk music, in which the man morphs from cloud to rain to sea to swimmer to giraffe-like being, the she of the pair from bare tree to leaf-covered one to island to bubble to Moon to rider of the storm. Finally, as the pair collapse together exhausted, the "circle of her yawn" widens to become a giant teacup!
"Overslept" effectively surrealises the everyday experience of confusion at the interface of sleep and waking, the poet finding his bedroom has been pulled into a children's playground while he slept. The imagery is again vivid, his beard crackling "like earphones against the sheets", the clock unleashing swarms of ticks, the kettle boiling like mortar shells. The poem also tributes Kafka's famous story "Metamorphosis" as Calvert wishes for a multitude of legs to assist in getting up to face the day as instinctively as does an insect.
The absence of sleep, in "Insomnia", is presented as a precise, almost Japanese miniature, which is at the same time surreal and almost paranoid, SFnal; a switch to turn stillness on exists, and the poet has somehow tripped it.
In "Snowfall", the alien, SFnal quality the natural phenomena of our own planet can so easily appear to possess is powerfully conveyed - "spores" from a "bloated sky" teem, grow "a new world to explore", one which is "Craterless" as some Jovian moon. "An undefiled planet" until, that is, houses are sighted, powerfully imaged as "invading... brick-walled / Spacecraft" - the poet's eyes, attuned to the alien, extends alienation even to human works.
"Storm" moves, in twelve lines, from the work of nature - "a mountain of rain" - to the way disaster provokes media attention inhuman in its technological overkill - "All around / Huge microphones" assault the briefly "famous" in McLuhan's fifteen-minute sense, while "flash bulbs / Blind our windows."
Communication, and the processes that disrupt it or render it fallible, is the essence of another, in a sense, Logos poem, though one where Creation is stopped part-way, almost Medusa-wise, as "Fountains In The Park", although offering "an everlasting / cascading word" are also "blind and deaf / And ever in mid-speech."
That inability to convey the true message underlies, too, the effective narrative poem "The Day We Hunted Birdsong" - the protagonist is reluctantly caught up in a schoolfriend's plan to shoot birds on the marches. "Screwed-u- lenses / x-raying me for cowardice, "he raises no objection, although the distaste is clear in the harsh image of his friend taking out the shotgun, opening the case in the same cold way he gutted fish / or fingered girls," The shot deafens the shooter, leaving his "Tilted eyes strangely vacant" even while he had "One finger raised for hush," a startling symbol of incomprehension of the communication breakdown's cause.
In a simpler poem's picture of a loss, then recovery, of communications sense, the poet regains scents after a heavy cold, though still surrounded by piles of "tissues like failed drafts of a fevered poet". Hinting the precarious and contingent quality of both input and output of senses and our ability to communicate both with them and through them, this poem's implied theme is echoed more overtly in the bleak humour of "Churchill's Secret Rock Deal" (in his parallel universe, the record company mogul with whom he must deal, proves, after he has made the compromises the A&R man demands, to be Hitler), and more subtly in the powerful "The Red Baron Regrets", in which , calling for his words to be read "In accordance with Brecht" by a de-individualising chorus, the air ace disavows the heroic image foisted upon him.
In a sense too, the static of missed or miscommunication is at the heart of the gently surreal "The Legend Of Ezra Pound" - the dry wit of bizarrely imagined dealings with Wyndham Lewis, Hemingway and Eliot (having edited "The Waste Land" with cavalry sword and shotgun, from the leftover pages "he made a little flight of suicide planes"), full of comic book violence, darkens into a dreamlike account of Pound's involvement with Fascism, the postwar imprisonment - about which Calvert also planned a play - until the defining moment when, in an attempt to escape the harassing military guards and probing psychologists "he swallowed himself feet first / and turned himself inside out so that no one could hear him / speak.", later release leaving a shadow in his daughter's castle ("in Spain" for the poem, a wistful echo of earlier hopes, though in fact in South Tyrol) - a shadow bestriding the corridors by night "reciting shadows", and completing at a darker level the poem's cycle which began with a Wild West shootout between writers in London's Cafe Royale, the "firing" not a literary rivals, but at absences, "the echoes of the past / with his guns of silence."
In the Hendrix tribute, "Voodoo Child", silence is again an enemy, though one that the musician, in Calvert's view, triumphantly overcame - "He split the dungeon drumskin of silence" even if what was released was its "demon prisoner" - the poem's hurting word-torrent ends with Blakean fervour "Truly he sang the body electric."
Other poems focus sharply on peculiarities - nail biting; the adoption of a caterpillar, well meant, which kills it; "The Last Kitten"P, treated as loveable but n fact, true to its nature, a killer of other life - in each case conveying the need to understand the unchangeable and unreachable aspects of what is other.
In another poem, a lost key leads to a hair-raising climb through a window - the poem conveys strongly the unexpected nature of the way the mind works at such a time, imagining the possibility of a fall as rakehead air with concrete handle ready to come up and hit, bringing the gravity-defier down to where a dead weasel lies in the garden - a focussed moment which at the same time strongly brings out the doubleness of doing and observing self do.
"Coots", beautifully sharp in its imagery - of sky as a giant sail collapsed, for example, or the unexpected yet telling "tiny as a turnip's head" - basically turns on a fairly simplistic contrast of the greyly busy birds of the title and idly dandified mandarin duck.
It does, though, provide a companion piece, to the sinisterly imagined birds of "Seagulls, for Richard Bach"23, bodies made of jellyfish, beaks of driftwood, feet of frog legs painted red, which provides a gateway into an intriguing sequence of seaside poems; these in a variety of ways explore the doubleness of the way we are drawn back to the ocean edge where land-dwelling animal life's uneasy journey began.
"Ragworm" portrays a kind of miniature Kraken, as alien as an off-world being as it guzzles "like a living nose of sand."
In another poem, a walk on the beach with a small son shows the father as a child might see him, his great strides jangling stars, able to do such feats as are expected by the very young. The Sun is "prised" from a "pebble of could", so the boy can watch it "scrabble sideways" like a rockpool crab. Finally, in a memorably surreal image, sandseeds are collected so that they can grow sand in a window box at home, in other words freeze the holiday moment of happiness forever.
From that brief but impossible hope, other poems move into darker waters. The poet imagines himself and his family as rock pool creatures, years spent living in a coiled shell, "only just out of reach of claws", "kept awake by eight-legged scraping", fearful of some final tidal wave to disrupt their refuge, yet telling the infants of the sun they will see when escape is possible.
Two ostensible seaside love poems in fact undercut any facile message. In one, a night of love is paralleled by the drowning of a sailor - as he surfaces for the third and final time, sky flaps like a flag at the window, a threat echoed in the dawn onset of seagulls. A resort to rather silly puns at the end weakens the poem, unfortunately, as does the line "our love was all at sea" at the end of "Recollections Of A Seaside Love Affair" with its bleakly truthful depiction of the working of memory as it so often really is - the poet recalls, not the face of the girl, but the rockpools and skies of the place itself.
Perhaps the most fully realised of these seaside poems, and one which can be interpreted on a variety of levels, is "John Keats at Margate"24. Already, as the poet leaves the station, there is something clearly wrong - "a silence so high pitched it made the ears ring", an absence of trees, frozen shadows. There IS life about - children mock Keats' appearance. He goes to put his tongue out at them, and it is "green" and "Veined at the edges like a leaf". Then, in a condensed almost mythical evocation of the power of the poet's utterance, a "word whispered to himself / flew from his piercing lips" (piercing is a fine example of Calvert's gift for the unexpected, yet meaningful, word choice). It falls "like a spiked mine" onto "the glass-like surface of the sea" to leave "a crack with branches which reached for the heart of shadows."25 Then superficial normality resumes - Keats plays pinball and fruit machines with immediate success. He celebrates, and attests his presence, by carving his name on the leg of a seagull26. The gull, as he watches, then flies "towards the west, a forest in its beak."
In this poem we have a picture of the poet as isolated, solipsist, strange, yet capable of everyday playfulness, whether or not genuinely enjoyed or merely willed - those seaside amusements. Yet we also have a time travel poem, at one level, and at another a poem of limbo afterlife. A world of the dead attempting unsuccessfully to intrude on the living - if the mocking children are themselves alive - and a place in which the poet's word can damage but not liberate, disrupt the stillness but not release it back to living growth - indeed, by the end he has triggered the removal of "the forest" towards the west, traditionally the place of death.
Interpretable, in SFnal, in surreal, or in death-haunted terms, (is the green tongue, not a magical expression of the liberating poetical voice, but a symptom merely of Keat's final illness?)27, this poem effectively exemplifies Calvert's ability to build multiple ambiguities into a short and apparently simple poem using the shortest and clearest of words - a Blakean approach which demands, for his most successful poems, re-readings with the possibility of reinterpretation each time, appropriately so in view of his clear interest in the paradoxes of frustrated and partial communication.
And so this preliminary exploration of the poetry of Robert Calvert reaches its end. Can, indeed should, any sort of verdict be given? The body of work, though small in total, is diverse indeed, in theme, style and quality. Yet even the weakest poem has aspects of interest; the best, it can certainly be said, merits the description as the very best of minor genre classic. As a genre poet, he was, if not perhaps "the", certainly, a "quintessential SF poet" and as his poems show, he was capable of many other directions also, from the precise evocation of personal and collective pasts to the metaphysical use of "extended conceit" and the dreamlike playfulness of the surreal.
Above all, he can make us confront the face that turns the heart to stone and begin to confront the question of whether that face is the Future's, inevitable or no, or more frightening still, the mirror of our inmost self. What more can we ask a poet to do?