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Poetry - Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxell: Moon Country

This review was written for the Independent on Sunday writing competition in 1997.

Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxell: Moon Country

(Faber, 1996)

Over the insecure course of modern history, Iceland's underpopulated wilderness has held a steady attraction for the civilisation-saturated intelligentsia of the Continent. Most famously, WH Auden and Louis MacNeice took a sabbatical there from the 1930s, that "low dishonest decade", returning with their light-hearted but anxiety-tinged Letters from Iceland; and in August 1994, following in their muddy bootprints, Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell detoured from the British media circuit to record the sounds of Iceland - ranging from interviews with its president to fish-gutting on trawlers - for the benefit of BBC radio listeners. They also collated material for this new collection of poetry and prose, intended as a cheeky sequel to the Auden/MacNeice book.

Whose idea it was, is not clear, but - poetry being the new Rock and Roll, and all that - one suspects marketing suits in the background somewhere. A relief, then - and a testament to the talent and independence of the poets - that Moon Country holds its own as a volume and is far from the coy re-write of Letters from Iceland less assured hands might have made it. Besides, six decades of history suffice to make it a different book, ponies having been displaced by hire cars as the touring poet's mode of transport, and Reykjavik transformed from corrugated-iron shanty town to improbable capital of youth culture.

Anyone familiar with the authors' past form will have bought Moon Country for its poems, and they will not be disappointed: most of these match the best of what either writer has produced independently. The book's real success - and where it improves upon what Auden produced with occasional chippings-in from MacNeice - is its refusal to be dominated by either poet's personality, their widely divergent styles always allowing each other space. Armitage's eccentric imagination gets to work eagerly on Iceland's natural eccentricities ("... ash and willow / pick their way / on tip-toe / through a spoil of stone."), and his poetry's charm and terse simplicity are to the fore throughout. If Private Eye's resident seventeen-year-old epigrammist EJ Thribb received a visitation from talent, this is probably how he would write.

Maxwell's verse could hardly form a sharper contrast: angular and intellectually up-front, it in the past has occasionally been stylised to the point of sterility; but its exposure here to Iceland's other-worldly geography underpins it with a remote and sometimes beautiful rawness. And while the semantic leaps and wonky syntax can make it hard work to apprehend rationally, the deliberate dislocation produces effects of tremendous elemental force, as in From Nothing to the First of You:

When Nothing wants you, wails it doesn't,
howls you into wretched hugging,
strips you from the sea to merely
sling you back half-stiff half-orphan - ...

Auden's and MacNeice's book was held together by a series of open letters to friends, and the fact that no one actually writes letters any more has left Armitage and Maxwell looking elsewhere for the backbone of their collaboration. This is in two strands, a diary by Armitage, and a three-act verse drama by Maxwell, and it is fair to say that both have their weaknesses. Armitage's facetious rechristening of himself and Maxwell as "Petersson" and "Jamesson" jars somewhat, while his prose, for all its humour and sharp description (driving to Heathrow via the M25 he is "like a steel ball into a roulette wheel"), somehow lacks the flow and finish he manages so effortlessly in his poems. Meanwhile, Maxwell's Harald and the Lonely Hearts is an offbeat playlet featuring Harald, an all-night partying Reykjavikite, and his horse-faced brother Huskold, who vie for the friendship of Reykjavik's "Lonely Hearts". All very symbolic and strange, it features trolls, Northern Lights (singing) and somebody called the Nightmare Eco-Model who hauls Icelanders over the coals for overfishing. It makes a kind of sense, and in the hands of a skilled director (Maxwell is a keen amateur thesp) could possibly come to life; but mostly I found myself impatiently awaiting the end of each instalment and the next poem.

Ultimately, however, the book's very appeal is in its diversity, with the raw material given us for reference, studded with its poetic gems. "All ends are strewn like places to start out," meditates Maxwell, condensing the spirit in which this stimulating pot-pourri of a volume has been conceived. The result is a geography in itself: irregular perhaps, yet united by the effects of shaping forces throwing up a richness of intriguing, contrasting and sometimes astonishing features.

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