‘parallel texts’ by Dai Vaughan

-Reviewed by Fiona Moore


The structure of this small pamphlet is unusual: the title’s texts are two sequences of love poems, one written in the early 1960’s and the other nearly 50 years later. Fourteen Love Poems and Hindsights don’t form a narrative; nevertheless they contain a story, all the more intriguing for being left mostly untold. As the poet asks in Hindsights: ‘Do loves never return? / Into what are they translated?’

The parallel text concept can’t not raise questions in the reader’s mind: how will the early and late work compare, and will the style of each reflect its times?  Each text is an extended meditation, in 14 poems of varying lengths, on life and love. The voice is intensely personal, so it seems right to refer to ‘the poet’ rather than ‘the speaker’. In Fourteen Love Poems, he’s often walking through London, mostly at night, alone or with his lover:

‘foliage putrescent
In green flood-lighting, the lions
Of the Water-gate corroded
Shapeless as a cough, the voyeurs
Of the law probing the bushes’

These descriptions have a strong period feel. Here the poet has missed the last bus home:

On bicycles with airguns had
Extinguished all the lights with well-
Aimed shots; and as I came upon
The bomb-site with its smitten arm-

Despite clues such as the line-end hyphens above, it took me a while to realise that the whole book is written in syllabics – eight syllables a line throughout, short lines which must have been hard to sustain. It’s skilfully done, and helps to unify the two halves of the book. Strong enjambment gives the poems urgency, and adds a curtness to the tone which cuts across the stream-of-consciousness flow. The form doesn’t hinder lyrical passages, as in poem 7 whose five lines read like an extended haiku:

‘A cinder falls in the grate, and
An ember fades in the gloom. What
Has happened to the spilt fire of
Our two-hour-old communion?
You lie asleep, away from me.’

The initial capitalisation may get in the way – I suppose it’s of its time for the earlier text, and Vaughan must have decided to keep it for Hindsights.

Hindsights includes less walking and some complaints about old age and modern times. There is a quote from Apollinaire, flâneur of both river banks, as an epigraph: ‘… the days go by yet I remain’. Minor themes from the earlier text recur – the dawn chorus, street lamps. The style is flatter as the poet enacts his own awkwardness.

‘I haven’t written a poem
For three decades; yet some still dub
Me bard, which I find a trifle
Embarrassing. Must try harder.’

We know that the two lovers parted: ‘Life that’s carved a course without you…’  In the final poem, they meet again.

‘And you whom I have not seen for
Forty years sit opposite me
And pick up the conversation
As if our coffee had scarcely

This poem and the book’s postscript give a sense of completion. Yet they are lightly done; we are told very little, and almost nothing about the forty years in between, or the affair itself. What’s most poignant is that there’s already a strong sense in Fourteen Love Poems of love’s transience and the nearness of death, so that those early poems prefigure the nostalgia in Hindsights.

Vaughan was a distinguished editor of documentary films, which explains one of the stronger late poems, a lament for the pre-digital age:

‘No, I dream on equipment knocked
Together from scrapyards, from crashed
Lancaster bombers, found in crypts
Beneath abandoned studios.’

Vaughan died in 2012. I feel sorry that I won’t be able to bump into him at some poetry event and ask about his two texts, question his theory that there can’t be left and right banks on tidal rivers, and say that his opening three lines made me think I was reading W.S. Graham:

‘In an after-image you stand
By the switch as I feel the warmth
Of you slip down by my cheek.’

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