Poetry book of the month: Wing by Matthew Francis – review

This shimmering new collection dissects the natural world with a wondering, meticulous eye

It is becoming harder to find modern poetry that is unequivocally at the service of nature. I am not sure why the ability to observe in an unmediated way – with the humility involved – is so often sidelined or treated as second-rate. Matthew Francis has earned the bouquets thrown his way – he has been nominated for the Forward prize a couple of times – but should be more vigorously championed.

His gifts are quiet but his name deserves to be broadcast loudly. Nature does not go out of fashion and we need poetry of this quality more than ever. Wing, his new collection, is a joy.

Francis is a Welsh poet – occasionally recalling Dylan Thomas, only that he goes gently into his subject matter, more interested in what he sees than in himself. He is – a further pleasure – incapable of being anything other than clear. His opening poem, Longhouse Autumn, is hospitable and specific. He situates himself in a Welsh longhouse, a “whitewashed slump of stone in the crook of a lane”. He shares what he sees – blackberries in the hedgerows, pigeon droppings on the path, a church “weatherproofed with slate/and tending its flock of gravestones”. This last image is typical in its graceful insight. I’d never thought of a church’s relationship to its graves this way and now always will.

Insects abound and the poems celebrate the world’s creepy-crawly beauty. A marvellous sequence is based on Robert Hooke’s scientific treatise of 1668 in which ice, snow, sand, feathers, fish scales and moss are put under the microscope in astonishing, otherworldly detail.

Francis is an inspiring miniaturist whose witty connectivity delights. In Ladybird Summer, a plague of ladybirds is described “mating like Tiddlywinks”. This arresting poem then slides into a lament for a gone-wrong season. Francis finds a wonderfully unforced way of expressing it: “There was too much summer”. (Elsewhere, he arrives at a similar simplicity: “When I switch off the day” or “Evening keeps gaining on us”).

Another unsettlingly funny poem, A Charm for Earwigs – an earwig’s view – describes an earwig making its way up the “nursery slopes of pillow” and into a sleeping ear. You will never look at an earwig the same way again (but no spoilers – consult the poem to find out what happens).

In Ant, Francis startlingly dunks an ant in a glass of brandy and takes a good look: “the spherical head,/the hairlike feelers,/ the grinning vice of its sideways jaw,/ the metallic carapace/ with its scattered spines”. But sharpness of eye on its own does not make a poet. What is needed is the breeze that then blows the insect away and chases the lines into poetry: “Some draught stirred it then. It rose to all/ its feet, and set off across/ the rough miles of desk”.

Many wonders seem to have been produced at this desk. Typewriter will produce a pang in anyone able to remember laborious days of typewriting, including the ache in the little finger brought on by the letter Q. But reminiscence is not always easy. It is hard to rise to the terrible subject of a fall. In Freefall, Francis writes about the death of a friend in a parachute fall – an imagined descent where imagining is all.

Other, merrier, poems celebrate language – including place names and covetable Middle English words – with a collector’s zeal. And there is a tremendous poem about mushrooming: Liberty Caps (“the giant puffball resting its meringue bulk on the field” is accurate perfection). More than anything, this collection is a spur never to overlook. It convinces that secular devotion can be enough: a wing without a prayer.

Wing by Matthew Francis is published by Faber & Faber (£14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

Nettle, Bee-Sting

You have been ambushed among the hedgerow’s foliage
by such a leaf. You know its dragon-tooth outline,
the frizz of pale hairs that had it in for you.
But now look at it. Each hair is a spike
fit to impale a traitor’s head on,
hollow, clear as an icicle.
I brush it with my finger.
I see the molten-glass
sap rise in it, feel
its wisp of fire.

And this harpoon
with its cat-claw hooks,
its tip that protrudes from
a sheath with hooks of its own
to pierce, grapple, inject and pump,
self-willed engine of gripe and spasm
that tears the innards out of the wielder,
is the whole point of a bee, the argument
a posteriori, what those hummed undertones
in summer lanes were getting at, the price of honey.


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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