Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

The sound of hope: ‘Before We Go Any Further’ by Tristram Fane Saunders

Kevin Gardner

Imbedded in the heart of Before We Go Any Further (Carcanet, 2023) is a wickedly subversive sequence, “Five Songs on a Cruel Instrument”, purporting to contain translations of neglected medieval manuscripts – a ballad from the Anglo-Saxon, a Welsh elegy, an Irish drinking jig, and so forth. The songs, “translated” by the recently deceased scholar “A.E. Pious”, are introduced by Pious’s enamoured student “Margo Pil”, who, on a self-appointed mission to ensure Pious his place in posterity, confesses to bribing a printer to interleave small gatherings of the translations into the manuscripts “of nine minor poets published by a Manchester-based press”. This variorum in miniature is a delightful Scriblerian travesty of the endeavours of high-minded literary scholars.

Readers lacking a heightened appreciation of irony and wordplay should read the name of Margo Pil backwards for the key to unlocking the poem’s linguistic secret (there’s another clue in the translator’s name). Such charms run throughout this very welcome first collection from Tristram Fane Saunders, who offers up an antidote to the Arnoldian seriousness of much contemporary poetry. Saunders, I am happy to find, has a puckish wit bearing some genuine likeness to Rishi Dastidar and Rory Waterman. It’s no wonder then, that when Saunders writes a love poem, it’s infused with the expressionist aesthetics of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or that when he does the ekphrastic thing, he turns to the surrealist Edith Rimmington for inspiration.

In an intentional, disorientating body-check, the title of the opening poem “Home,” (the comma is part of the title) is a verb, and the poem finds its metaphor for the natural “Tug, tug” of home in the “sodden radar” of a pigeon’s homing instinct. The poetic impulse is like this, I think: “we follow / what recognises us / by the usward trail it lays”. Thus Saunders, for all his subversive instincts, is directed inexorably by a kind of poetic homing mechanism, where rhyme and metre and stanzaic intricacy are a “breadcrumb” trail: “Guided, or strung along, amazed, / stumbling home.” And yet Saunders’s home is chockfull of strange and startling objects: a headless statue in Crystal Palace Park, a glass harmonica, Seamus Heaney’s fountain pen, and the board game “Clue”, to name but a few.

Such playfulness underscores even Saunders’s more serious poems. Take “Most Haunted”, for example: the title reverses at once into the idea of England’s least haunted house, one with a lone, part-time ghost who, poignantly, has lost interest in haunting, “a chore / he might neglect”, and whose spectral moans go “unnoticed by the undeceased”. Saunders’s image of a lonely and forgotten ghost suggests the spectral quality of all those who live their lives in isolation though right in plain sight, and the poem thus shades into a subtle meditation on human loneliness.

“Most Haunted” also illustrates Saunders’s formal inventiveness and his awareness of the relation between form and content. The poem, with its A-B-C-D rhyme scheme, comprises six quatrains, each line diminishing in length by a metrical foot: the first line is in iambic tetrameter, the second in trimeter, and the third dimeter, until only a single iamb is left in the fourth line. This diminishment neatly reflects not only the withering away of the spectre’s ghostly activity, but also the decline of human receptivity to the otherworldly and our own growing sense of isolation in the world. Yet in the sixth and final quatrain, the second line is, inexplicably, tetrameter; why, I wonder, since “and him still here, no longer sure” could just as easily have been rendered as “and him still here, unsure” to preserve the second-line pattern of trimeters. I find myself haunted by this extra foot and wonder if Saunders is disrupting – haunting, perhaps – the neat orderliness of our lives, like Forster’s “goblin footfalls”.

Aloneness and disconnection preoccupy much of this collection. A series of poems set in Crystal Palace Park during the pandemic recalls this nightmarish period when we were cut off from friends and family and forced into various kinds of isolation. The persona in this sequence finds companionship with the park’s dinosaurs, headless statues, and sphinxes – and with friends summoned into the poems for imagined conversation. In the first of these, “The Sphinx”, the poet, seemingly entirely alone, straddles the back of the beast while eating his lunch. Never mind the park’s emptiness: the poem teems with visitors conjured by his lively imagination: architect and designer Owen Jones, Blake’s tyger, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Ozymandias (the poet’s “lone and level sandwich” standing in for Shelley’s sands).

Significantly, the poet faces backwards, rather than forward with the sphinx into the future, with which he’s “been struggling to cope”; the speaker expresses cheekily his preference for the past in sprightly iambics:

Although it’s true we don’t see eye-to-eye
(uneager for the future, I’ll keep mine
fixed on what for him’s already gone)
we’ve this in common: neither will admit
we’re going nowhere.

The pandemic-induced isolation is no cause for depression or alarm. After all, “Pandora’s dog-red lunchbox” has already emptied its viral contents of misery into the air. Yet maybe, the poet wonders, there’s something left, and with a wry and unexpected optimism he closes the poem: “Still, why / not give the box a shake. It sounds like hope.”

The sound of hope – that is a fine way to characterise Saunders’s dominant perspective. Before We Go Any Further ends with “2nd Edition”, a poem in loosely rhyming couplets that celebrates the renewal of spring, of relationships, of hope, of love. The crux of the poem is the gift of a book from the speaker’s father on his twenty-first birthday. Saunders has an understandable tendency to hide (or hide from) difficult emotions by raising a mask of irony. The jarring and unexpected intrusion of metrical jingles is one such tactic: the book that arrives is (in a precisely scanning couplet) none other than “The Oxford Book of English Verse / Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch Edition”.

Once we’ve enjoyed the release of a snicker or two and acknowledged the poet’s wit, we’re unsettled to discover that what makes this gift a “second” edition is that the speaker’s father had once, long ago, given the same gift to the speaker’s mother, inscribed with a Beatles line, “with love, from me to you”. With extraordinary sleight of hand, the poet alludes to the irony of reading that inscription long after his parents’ divorce and to the damaged relationship with his father that surely ensued. A painful narrative told by thousands of adult children, yet one made entirely unique through Saunders’s terse couplets. And so, he muses to (or about) his father, “Why / not, for a gift, forgive you?”

Saunders recalls that his father’s inscription had appeared “above a rhyme / for an eight-centuries-dead cuckoo”. (As anyone knows who has ever treasured this particular anthology, as I have for many years, Quiller-Couch started his collection with the “Cuckoo Song”.) The cuckoo provides the answer to the poet’s question of whether to forgive in lines that move from imagined violence to reconciliation:

…I crack the spine
and watch the words spring new:
Sumer is icumen in
lhude sing cuccu

Indeed, “lhude sing cuccu”. Before We Go Any Further is full of song and mirth, a welcome celebration of life and hope and newness, but delivered with dry wit and ironic formality: an excellent debut collection.