Selected and collected editions of a poet’s works should be banned. I don’t mean this seriously, of course, I would never countenance the banning of a book of any kind, but I do think that a conversation needs to take place about what is being lost when we read a poet’s ‘Complete Poems’ rather than the slim, elegant little volumes that they first appear in.
Unfortunately, the representation of these beautiful, organic artefacts, existing at the exact half-way point, length-wise, between a pamphlet and a novella, in my own collection of books is fairly paltry. I have Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Kaddish, and that’s about it. I seem to remember having a copy of Philip Larkin’s High Windows floating around but it seems to float around no more, having been made obsolete by the magisterial Collected Poems, edited by Archie Burnet. I might also have left in my last gaff.
I think this gets to the heart of the issue, that of convenience. I have seen these books in poetry sections of shops and they’ve always done well and will probably continue to do well, as birthday or Christmas presents in a pinch, as they look great and nobody owns them. It is all too frequent that these ‘collected’ and ‘complete’ editions use words like ‘restored’ and ‘re-mastered,’ and furthermore flaunt their academic editorial apparatus, taunting the prospective buyer with its fetish-making of completion. It’s hard to idealistically vow to track down all of Elizabeth Bishop’s published poetry collections, when a couple of them are probably out of print and you’ll probably wind up parting with a lot more cash than the straightforwardly named Poems, which is right in front of you. This is not to deal with poets from the early twentieth century and before. Who has any idea even how to go about reading William Blake’s works in their original states, intending it as he did that they would be read in conjunction with the intricate carvings that surround them?
When I was in the early stages of trying to come to terms with how to understand or to read poetry, one of the most helpful things I heard is that every poem is in dialogue with every other poem. When a contemporary poet writes a sonnet, for example, one should recall that they are engaging a tradition that is older than modern English itself, one helped along by everyone from William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and indeed, Augustus Young at a few points in the m.emoire.
Collected editions have the capacity to overwhelm our sense of how a poet developed over time. Most poets that are out of copyright, such as William Butler Yeats and William Wordsworth I own in bulky Wordsworth editions. Yeats is helpfully divvied up according to the names of the collections in which the poems originally appeared, but there is no sense from looking at the page as to how we are supposed to tell these collections apart, and poems are made to share pages (one of my pet peeves), something Larkin’s Collected is also guilty of, probably to reduce its already absurdly too large page count. As I have said already, these original, slim collections delimit the dialogue that exists between the poems they contain in crucial ways; as the reader makes their way through a volume of poetry, the links that exist between the images, the recurrent phrases, themes and motifs deepen and losing that understanding in a deluge of arbitrarily ordered poetic works seems like a great loss.
This is why it’s great to come across a collection of poetry that is so attuned to its nature as a physical entity, as a thing. Augustus Young’s m.emoire is a beautiful object, its paper feels different, the dust cover is gorgeous and poems rarely occupy more than half the space on the page, giving plenty of space for the reader’s contemplation. The design makes it even more of a joy to read than it would be otherwise.
The m.emoire is a collection of 31 poems in three parts, with eighteen prose sketches, written in memory of M, Augustus Young’s wife who died of cancer in 2012. The poetry is generally devoted to M, her enigmatic personality and the life that she led in Port-Vendres towards the end of her life, though there is ample space given also to straightforward description of domestic rituals and how they are unsettled by her death, as the speaker attempts to come to terms with his grief and live his life without her, at a point in his life and in a house where everything seems to refer back to M.
One of the most surreal aspects of dealing with the death of a person one was close to is the world’s capacity to continue, to somehow move on. I think it’s an almost universal experience and anyone who has ever grieved will be struck by how well this feeling is evoked in many of these poems. This is why so much of this collection is concerned with domestic habit and why the conversation that exists between each of the poems feels particularly poignant or apposite, patterns in our life now, after the event of the death echo patterns of behaviour established before the death and we are reminded, even more starkly of their absence, of the one missing piece, or the part that made it all make sense. In ‘Suspended Rituals,’ Young quotes Pliny the Younger, speaking on the death of Cornelius Rufus:
“When I return I don’t need to shout
It’s only me the garcon rigolé
‘Now I have lost the witness of my life
Henceforth I can live more carelessly.’”
Another poem from this collection that serves as a kind of centrepiece in this context is ‘Knowledge,’ a deceptively simple two-verse text with a big title, subject matter almost fit for a metaphysical poet. However, the nature of ideas and of knowledge takes a secondary role to the primacy of lived experience.
“You knew the names of the stars.
I never learned them from you.
At least I know where they are.
But does looking up suffice to
Know where one stands?”
The last line in this stanza succeeds in a number of different modulations of tone and subject matter. In one sense there is a wish to know where one stands, in a physical, geographical, utilitarian sense, one that evokes the cliché, but also in a more universal, almost cosmic sense of the phrase. There is also the barest dash of comedy in the third line, at least the speaker knows that they’re above him.
Looking at the stars, ostensibly to find out where one is, where one stands, returns in a number of poems, such as in ‘Night Without a Moon,’ and ‘Knowledge’ the self-contained poem built on contrast and parallelism that it is becomes a sort of synecdoche, encompassing the themes of habit, domesticity and mutual friendship that suddenly finds itself one-sided that makes this such a unique and affecting collection.