“Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend; / nor even the jobsworth slob / with a slow sly scheme to rob / my darling of her mind / that I imagined; / just a tumour.”-Christopher Reid, “The Unfinished”, from A Scattering
Christopher Reid’s A Scattering is a moving tribute to his wife Lucinda, who died of cancer. A respected English poet recommended it to me after reading my piece contrasting Douglass Dunn and Donald Hall, both of whom also wrote elegies under very similar circumstances. In addition to fine poems, in this book I also found certain insights into how a culture grieves, and what it considers good art.
Whereas Douglass Dunn’s elegies take root in his working-class background, Reid signals his place in the upper class early on in the book when, on the island of Crete, he invokes “ghosts of old schoolmasters” whose lessons, in his mouth, have become, “scraps of misremembered Classical Greek.”
In The Daily Telegraph, a periodical more typically aligned with those who studied Classics as school, Tom Payne assessed, “It is a collection that defies criticism in two ways–first, because it feels wrong to pick over such poignant elegies, and also, because so many of these poems are impossible to fault.” What makes this book seem flawless to this particular slice of Britain–and especially when the topic is such a difficult one?
Two elements more common in American expressions of grief are entirely off limits to Reid: invoking religious faith, and outpouring emotion. Instead, educated fascination with the world, and particularly the natural world, takes the place of religion; and self-consciousness and self-deprecation take the place of emotive self-expression.
Throughout the book, Reid celebrates Lucinda’s intelligence and curiosity, recalling her indefatigably identifying flowers on Crete, learning Italian on a stationary exercise bike, and poring over gardening encyclopedias at breakfast. Poignantly reflecting on her voracious multi-tasking at the end of the first section of the poem “Lucinda’s Way”, he asks, “Can’t you now somehow contrive / to be both dead and alive?”
The eponymous poem of the book recalls an iconic scene from a nature documentary. British fascination with the natural and exotic was no more flawlessly satisfied than through the life work of David Attenborough, whose programs I also love. In fact, the scene Reid describes might have been first brought to viewers by him–that of elephants scattering the bones of their dead relatives.
Reid captures the gravitas and alacrity, and concludes with the invocation, “…may their spirit guide me as I place / my own sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.” Though the emotional descriptors “sad” and “hopeful” enter the piece, it is the mind Reid relies upon to order them. It is this love of mind in relation to the world, and especially the natural world, that becomes a life-affirming, even transcendental force throughout these poems.
A self-awareness also pervades these poems, especially in the sections written after Lucinda’s death. In “Soul”, the name he gives to his emptiness, he describes its “murky labours / quintessential upheavals, noxious bubblings / at the bottom of the flask”–endearing him to us for his embarrassed, bodily tone–until the end, when we discover that it is striving “to distil pure tears.”
In “A Reasonable Thing to Ask”, Reid requests an explanation, via Darwin or Freud, for tears themselves. He projects his own experience once more into the theatre of the mind–an act both of altar-making, and of humbling himself before that altar (and his audience) by dealing with the issue of physical outpouring obliquely, though no less self-consciously.
Perhaps, in this way, this collection of elegies can be said to succeed in its cultural context for how deftly it steers, navigating close to the Scylla of sanctity, veering near the Charybdis of wailing, but emerging unscathed by even the critics for how, in doing so, it advances distinctly British traditions in elegy. More moving for their restraint, more celebratory for their naturalist’s keen specificity, this slim volume has given me a deeper and more wistful appreciation of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of elegy, and of modern British grief.