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Norman Buller’s is a masculine, thoughtful poetry, tempered by art and spiritual anguish. It is a craftsmanly poetry of the sort that Larkin could have written had he cared for foreign things, especially works of art. Buller is a poet who casts a cold eye on the things of the world, seeing mortality with an arrogance of despair:

  From meaningless birth to death
  we dream a sense of purpose
  from our drives;
  the rest is meat.

Now this is antithetical to my outlook on life, yet like the bleakness in Larkin, it moves me. Why? Because Buller has brilliantly sculptured it into poetry.

On a lighter, more socially observant note, in the first poem in this collection called Dubrovnik, he speaks of how its history lives in the modern world:

  transfused by local guides
  into foreign veins;
  the camera only pretends to love it
  and tourists always wilt in the end,
  passing like history into quiet hotels.

Such an exemplary, suggestive last line that’s non-metaphorical yet with all the force of a fine metaphor.

Not that his poem-endings always succeed. Quite a good poem on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is confusingly and, therefore, ineffectually ended by a fourth stanza containing too many ideas and referential notions crammed into it. Nor does his metaphoric gift always work. In the poem ‘At the Three Crowns Inn’,…Desultory birds…./ sketch a sporadic music on the wires which is poetically very satisfactory. But the last line of the second stanza in ‘Picasso’s Woman’ ….her second face profiles her first/ like a flaccid penis….is risible whether ekphrastically accurate, intended or not, as the case may be.

On the facing pages 34 and 35 are two fine but utterly different poems. ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent the Tenth’ beginning: Not saintly; more like Chairman of the Board/except for the regalia…’ and finishing with a powerful couplet:

  Velazquez rules on canvas; this upstart
  Dauber’s in charge. Vainglory bows to art.

That last phrase has epigrammatic force – is truly memorable. While on the facing page, Buller has a poem ‘Of Love’ beginning:

  is not he-and-she
  forever whirling
  in nature’s tombola of lust….

Its magisterial tone is never overbearing because it is pared to the point of pure simplicity:

  Love is the bliss of knowing
  without even touching,
  that the other is simply there.

There are lots of poems in this collection that are inspired by great paintings of both modernist and Renaissance provenance; and also a number about, or ‘after’, other poets. But I would like to finish with reference to three further poems. The first is ‘December 25th’whose Last stanza reads thus:

  Oh enviable bird! On
  what impulse do you call?
  You scorn the human burden
  of why we’re here at all.
  Our carols fade against your song.
  In God’s name – where did we go wrong?

Which shows Buller as a poet with a fine view of despair. The ‘Stranger at Her Door’ has the kind of finishing line, finishing touch, that Thom Gunn once praised in Buller:

  He was not sad
  at her being young
  but his being old.

Again that concise, speculative, sardonic wit that also appears in his poem about the 9/11 disaster: …Some leapt to death from windows in their fear./ With what Gods did they plead? Did those Gods hear?

To finish, here is the opening stanza (for a change) to his poem about Paul Klee:

  Here was a child
  who clutched his mother’s skirt
  when the devils he drew
  came menacingly to life;
  pictures were looking at him.

That’s creative empathy for you, ekphrasis. A poet who can achieve such effects in his verse is certainly worth reading.

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