Sometimes, when poetry comes a-calling, we're simply not there. At other times, we pursue her fruitlessly through dingy, labyrinthine alleyways. And occasionally, very occasionally, she accosts us -long after we've ceased to regard her as a viable proposition. Such, perhaps, has been the experience of Norman Buller, who began writing in the nineteen fifties, then abandoned his muse (or found it had abandoned him) for several decades before the onset of a significant, late reawakening in the present century.
This kind of trajectory rather warms and reassures me as to a writer: very few of us, consistently, have much of interest to say. I instinctively distrust the careerist, battery-hen fecundity of a Heaney (or a latter-day Simon Armitage), where the critical plaudits arrived early and, misguidedly, continued long after the seam had been exhausted.
Fools and Mirrors is Buller's third collection and finds him in wry form, trying to see things as they really are (rather than as he thinks they should be). The title-poem takes a dispassionate look at the narcissism of coupling, and we're treated to an ingenious rendering of Baudelaire's 'Le Revenant'. Buller is demonstrably exercised by visual art: Mondrian, Picasso, Bacon, Chagall, Munch et al are all given their working-over -but nowhere to more effect than in 'Portrait of Pope Innocent the Tenth' which shrewdly reinterprets Velazquez's depiction of a papal character 'not saintly; more like chairman of the Board'.
Those crimsons flamed on white, that gilded chair.
Inside lurks mere man, The Pontif knows
the painter sees it and the knowledge shows
in that suspicious, vulnerable glare.
Buller's interests are eclectic. We recognise the sincerity of a moving threnody for Paul Celan. 'Hemingway's Bull' evidences a close, undeceived reading of the Nobel laureate's machismo effusions. One wonders if the 'Bull' is a double-entendre: I, too, admire Ernest Hemingway as (anti) stylist, almost as much as I'm appalled by 'Papa' Hemingway, the man.
Here is a poetry that rejoices in the serendipitous discovery of a ten bob note half-a-century ago. Here, too, is a richness born of deliberate, mature reflection. No careerist posturings, these. Verbs are made to carry much of the weight of thought (as, indeed, they should do). Often, they are used conclusively -and this will not have happened by accident. Buller contrasts the natural world's unheeding strife with mankind's heedless striving (in 'December 25th')
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?
He can vividly recreate (in 'My Sister') a childhood both impecunious and golden, before extrapolating through to a desolating full-stop:
It all comes home, the sadness and the grief,
the withered promise and the wasted chance,
the joy that spiralled like an autumn leaf
beyond her grasp without a backward glance.
The fire consumes it all: sick bone, failed breath,
the crumbling limbs, the settlement of death.
(How right 'settlement' seems).
If a perfect collection exists, this is not it (and for more reasons than Waterloo press's persistently and infuriatingly non-stick dust-jacket). If I'm honest, I cared little for evocations of Croatia, Montenegro, Tuscany etc. Perhaps this is because I've never learnt to plausibly relish other people's holiday snaps (and would certainly never inflict mine upon anyone else!). All carnivals are equal, none more equal than others. Once we've noted that an exotic sky is blue/ sea is warm, we shouldn't feel compelled to out-brochure the admen. Nevertheless, this is a highly literate publication -the distillation of a significant portion of a lifetime's thought. Norman Buller is a poet -and was probably still (unconsciously) being a poet during those long, fallow, unpublished years.