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Poetry Salzburg Review No. 13 Spring 2008 by Jeremy Hilton

A poet I should have come across, but hadn’t, is Norman Buller, who achieved some prominence in the 1950s when his poetry apparently had a strong influence on a young Thom Gunn. Buller stopped publishing his work for over twenty years, re-emerging in the 1980s – one presumes, although none of the work in Sleeping with Icons is dated, that this is a selection of work since then. Buller shows a strong preference for the short finished poem….. which has a muscular elegance (one can understand the attraction to Gunn) and a clean economy of line. There is never a sense….of trying to squeeze in too much knowledge or experience. But what runs through most of Buller’s work, if one reads beneath the elegant, clean surface, is a different direction entirely for the short poem, for Buller’s work is subversive at its core.

Some nightmarish qualities are manifest within these tightly controlled pieces:

  He bore his stigma bare before the sun,
  dancing with stricken joy about the sands.
  Then all was still; he stood there quite alone,
  the moon’s cold leprosy upon his hands.
  (‘Stricken’ p 67)

This is a good example of Buller’s work at its most powerful Buller is a traveller too and one with an interest in paintings and visual art, but it is the past which he seeks in everything he observes, not as a refuge from the traumas of the present but as confirmation that the barbarian has always been just outside the door, to

  rape their women,
  crucify their nuns,
  flood up the rivers
  to torch their prizes down.
  (‘The Villa at Lullingstone’ p 63)

‘Broken Kings’ rewrites the journey of the Magi; these are broken men, blindly searching for something to hold onto. In ‘Eyemouth’ there is

  an air that kills….
  the fishing lost. White caravans lay scattered
  like a gull’s shattered wing across the hills.
  (‘Eyemouth’ p 70)

In ‘Budapest’

  Beneath some ancient steps
  an ageing couple argue wearily,
  their quarrel old and hopeless as themselves.

  Elsewhere the lovers lie
  murmuring over and over
  blithe promises of always and forever.
  (‘Budapest’ p77)

Many of these poems rhyme and are tightly shaped, yet at their heart there is a cynicism, a subversion of the dream, both the romantic and the modernist dream, but with little faith in tradition either….The Magi poem is the longest, and it seems as if poetry, for Buller, in all its linguistic skill and tightly controlled shapes, seves as the Christ-child did for the Magi, something for the desperate to hold onto in a broken world. There is strong meat here, and it should come with a health warning for the soul.

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