Having launched the 2014 StAnza festival here in St. Andrews, and self-admittedly having been outed by a poet at the St Andrews Poetry Festival, author of the international bestseller Captain Corelli’s Mandolin Louis de Bernière has an intangible connection to the town. With appearances in Toppings & Co., and a poem in this very collection named You Came To See Me In St Andrews, de Bernière’s work seemed fitting to review and provide a précis for.
Though its formality in places was lamented in The Independent’s review of this collection last year, the author displays a striking and multifaceted command of form, structure, language, and striking metonymic imagery. The title obviously hints toward the content of the writing within: poems of love and desire, a select few stunningly illustrated by Donald Sammut, related to us through remarkably diverse verse: haikus, sonnets, and a poem about fishing, metrically designed in the shape of a fish. de Bernière’s skill and pain abounds in this assortment of poems both joyous and melancholic, his breakup with his partner of eleven years and following custody battle marked upon the more wistful, painful works like Angel. This is a poem wherein the narrator spends months collecting feathers, painstakingly making them into wings for his beloved and, obsessed by flight, his love “Becoming the angel I’d guessed in you” was gone, with nothing left but “a long white feather / You’d shed by the window / And the golden ring I’d gone downstairs to fetch.”
With inspiration from Classical Greek myth and verse, along with other influences, de Bernière weaves a wondrous book of poetry that at once begets laughter (in Doves, two eponymous birds sidle up to each other, then fly apart, and then cyclically repeat), hope (“We loved when we were young, not well, / But well enough and questingly” in For Sylvie, Who Believed In Reincarnation), and tears (in Message To Rumi, the first and second stanzas end respectively “For lovers do not finally meet, / They’re in each other from the start. (…) And now I’m old and think I’ll never reach / The one I loved within me from the start.”).
The final poem I wanted to address in this brief, lightning review, is the touching You Came To See Me In St Andrews, for obvious reasons. In it, the narrator is visited by another on a coach, and the juxtaposition of “we wondered what to do. / I don’t know what we did, / But walk the streets in rain” suggests an aimless longing, one of missed opportunity that is explored further. The testament to this sonnet’s aching fourteen lines is that in its mix of metres and lack of apparent rhyme, its beautiful image of a coach arriving and leaving with a person within carries all the gravitas of an early Romantic conceit: “And when you left on the same coach, / You mimed with one finger, / The wiping away of a tear from / The pale cheek that mine would never seek / To press again.”
So when next you walk these streets in rain, think on de Bernière’s tragically magnificent lines.