The Gift of Misgiving

Angela Leighton, Something, I Forget

Carcanet Press, 128pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781800173538

reviewed by Jack Barron

Angela Leighton’s latest collection of poems — her sixth — comes to us under a sign that dissolves at its edges, inaugurating a finely-tuned vagueness, a structural ambiguity; it is a collection framed by those minor oblivions that dog us all: Something, I Forget. And indeed, within its pages, variations on the theme of memory (and its failures) abound: they are poems that, through their rich emphasis on sound and acoustic patterning, repeatedly describe the fringes of language as it comes into contact with its own dissolution:

a perfect blank of thought or paper, verse
or purpose - for the feints of phrase we might call true.
For I was never just mine, you, you.

These lines, from a poem called ‘Snowdrop’, are fairly typical in their acutely managed beauty, in the way in which rhyme is not so much a technique as a way of speaking, and in their emphasis on the qualifications — the blanks, nevers, and mights — that even our most simple acts of communication require, and perhaps desire.

To her digressive thinking Leighton adduces two epigraphs, one from T. S. Eliot’s Marina: ‘I have made this. I have forgotten/ And remember.’; and one from late American poet-critic James Longenbach: ‘A poem will be written if in the grip of memory we are able to forget.’ The latter is a gentle affront to Wordsworth’s recollections in tranquillity, and the rearranged emphasis on loss is a fine backdrop to Leighton’s forgetful orchestrations; but I can’t help but feel that Wordsworth ghosts this work in another guise, as a third epigraph, in lines so deeply absorbed by the text that they seem to have disappeared completely; in his thanks not only for his childhood’s ‘Delight and liberty’,

                     But for those obstinate questionings
                     Of sense and outward things,
                     Fallings from us, vanishings;
                     Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised

As well as anything, these lines from ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ describe the preoccupations of Something, I Forget. We find, in Wordsworth’s rhyme, which at once takes us to the very edge of the line and returns in a dense internal logic, a questioning, similar to Leighton’s, of the mind’s worldly limits: how those ‘outward things’ may fall away from us, or we from them; and why such blank misgivings are natural to any creature that is, as we are, tasked with navigating the realities and unrealities of existence. Both poets poise us awkwardly, but necessarily, between outer and inner worlds, just as the ‘something’ of Leighton’s title describes that most vague particularity our language so often demands.

Throughout all of this, Leighton is academic. Indeed, she is an academic. She is a Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, and has published scholarly works on poetic form, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Percy Shelley and — unsurprisingly — the work of sound in literature. In verse, she is extremely well-versed. She is also a master of technique, and displays her capacity for formal variation through prose poems, riddles, proems, dramaticules, etc., as well as her virtuoso handling of rhythm and line-breaks: ‘while news love meant to keep forever/ is wiped’. She bears, that is, the difficult hyphen of the poet-critic, which combines a thorough scholarliness with an inalienable feeling for doubt, and overwhelmingly leads to Wordsworth’s obstinate questionings: ‘Which way to walk?’; ‘Who’ll take a stand? You kill, I riddle’; ‘Come again, old echoes — Can these old bones live?’ Her work is thereby inflected with the note of inquisition that might also be uncertainty.

But Leighton bears another conjunction worth mentioning: she is the daughter of a Yorkshire father and a Neapolitan mother. This double voice can be heard throughout the poems, as she takes her Englishness to various Italian locales (Pompeii, for instance, or S. Lucilla, Naples); but, perhaps more than a love for the places and objects of Italy, it is the way in which this vocal coincidence affects her use of sound that matters most. I am thinking here of comparisons to Christina Rossetti, whose attempts to Italianise English lent her an ear hypersensitive to melody, and resolved in a persistent acoustic repetitiousness. Leighton, too, writes poems that are riddled with music; she has an unerring sense for the pleasures of sound:

     A bird's chip grades
the silence, incised. Far off l, I imagine a footstep
      clips, then fades.

These three lines end her Pompeii poem. By counterpointing the rhyme-sets with typographic-rhythmic difference, they neatly enact the skittering restlessness of a bird’s movement and song; meanwhile, ‘fades’ reaches back — through ‘incised’ — to ‘grades’, and, at the same time, makes a resonant claim on the silence at the poem’s end, which becomes the page’s response. Much more could be said here — how ‘chirp’ has become ‘chip’, for instance — but there isn’t time, and, anyway, these are poems that instruct a reader on letting go.

There is, however, within the poems’ obvious beauty and cleverness, a niggling feeling that things are all a bit neat, a bit too perfect. Admittedly this is a weird kind of criticism, and mostly we are just impressed by how much she can pack into a line. But when Leighton turns her well-tuned ear and hand to, say, a lost shoe and begins to question it (‘What size? Whose fit?’), you may well ask back: ‘Who cares?’ There is a strange sense of anachronism to some of the poems, as though they were written as a parlour game (write a rhyming poem about X), wherein ‘waves scribble / the memoir of the day’ and a lark becomes a ‘Funny little wind-up soul’. Indeed, there is even a risk of tweeness in the bird-obsession, a feeling that we have left the earth behind in pursuit of melodious lyric ether.

But perhaps my discomfort stems from the sad fact that we are now used to reading poetry that doesn't care for so much technique, for the surprising precisions that can be achieved with rhyme, or for the rhythms that reveal a versatile artificiality possible in all outward things — perhaps I’m simply frightened by my own nostalgia for innocence. And, it should be noted, Leighton does acknowledge certain terrible realities, as in ‘Returns’, which is written in response to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, or through her references to Covid-19. Really, though, the best of these poems — like the sequence For a Roman Shade — show how an intense acoustic introspection can be a kind of action, and how this mode of passionate enjoyment in language is, in itself, political. Of course, we may have our misgivings about this; but certainty is not the point. Something, I Forget reminds us that our understanding of the world depends on doubt, that error is as much a part of memory as remembering is. It is a claim for all those fallings from us: the unsolvable riddles, blanks, and deaths that compose a day on earth. For now, the claim holds true.

Jack Barron grew up in the North East of England and now lives in London. He recently completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge on managing (and/or failing to manage) the poet W. S. Graham. His work has appeared in Cambridge Quarterly, Critical Quarterly, PN Review, The Arts Desk, and elsewhere.