That Andrew Motion’s stately work has been slow to arrive on this side of the pond is a sad reminder of how much fine poetry Americans routinely miss. It’s a shame to miss Motion, whose clear, deceptively simple surfaces belie a rueful and rich colloquy with loss and lost time. Motion, Britain’s poet laureate — a post last occupied by Ted Hughes — ponders things comfortably English: hedgerows and cottages; “Dutch Interiors”; London plane trees; horses and foxes; a hunt for the source of the River Thames.
In theory, this sounds as cozy as tartans and tea; in practice, the very things most classically English — the comfortable middle-class upbringing, the London plane tree, Princess Diana, even the imaginary fox — are also things cut off in their prime, damaged or shattered, things that are at once elusive and emblems of loss. This is not apocalypse; there is no hand-wringing here; instead, in these poems, a luminous surface reminds one of the masterful use of black in a Rembrandt or a Corot. An awareness of mortality shadows each one, and these poems are haunted by the kind of sadnesses that take each of us privately astray. Of course, such private sadness is nothing if not universal: These are poems where time textures us, where time stands in for all the forces that take in trust our youth and joys and all we have, as Raleigh put it somewhere around the turn of the 17th century. In Motion’s work, this harrowing truth — long the province of the best lyric poetry– remains constant.