Archive for September 13th, 2020

Robert Conquest’s Collected Poems in the TLS – “In all senses, he was: ‘A Man of the World.'”

Sunday, September 13th, 2020
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Conquest at work in his Stanford home (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Poet Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of Robert Conquest‘s Collected Poemsedited by his wife Elizabeth Conquest, is up in the Times Literary Supplement – and for the time being, you can read the whole thing here.  Although a poet long before he became a historian, it is for the latter that he is best known. He is the author of The Great Terror (1968), a groundbreaking exposing the extent Soviet atrocities at a time when they were largely denied in the West. He wrote a dozen books about the Soviet Union. The Stanford poet died at 98 in 2015.

A few excerpts, starting from the beginning:

Robert Conquest edited New Lines (1956), thereby launching, almost accidentally, what became known as the Movement. This did him no good at all. If the Movement poets shared a common persona, it was that of a disgruntled university employee in a provincial city who bristled with lower-middle-class resentment. This was unfair to many of them, but particularly to the half-American Conquest, whose poetry is enviably unconcerned with the issues of class which troubled other Movement writers. Where Philip Larkin deplored poets’ resorting to the “myth-kitty”, a phrase suggestive of unearned or inherited wealth, for Conquest the “myth-kitty” was a fund held in common. Allusion came naturally to him, as when he ended his sonnet “Guided Missiles Experimental Range” (1955) with the missiles’ “target-hunting rigour”:

And by that loveless haste I am reminded
Of Aeschylus’ description of the Furies:
“O barren daughters of the fruitful night”.

***

The most exciting early poem, though, is “In the Marshes” (1947), which won Conquest a Festival of Britain Prize in 1951. It looks at lives in a Bulgarian village during the period from just before the alliance with Germany and the rising of partisans to the communist front government of 1945 and its removal by Stalin, and draws on the poet’s time as a liaison officer with Bulgarian partisans late in the Second World War. In the village we find Ilya, a student preoccupied with his lost love Stoyanka and translating Laforgue. Meanwhile,

In a small but handsome house beyond the village
Lives Professor Mantev, former Minister of Trade
And now in exile.

A girl “dreams of love” while in a hut “By the canal Pirov the lock-keeper / Holds the secret meetings of the party branch”. Professor Mantev is unperturbed by the “accident in the lock” of two days before, which left “Brown blood floating on the scummy water. / This happens occasionally”.

His Texan wife.

In this highly politicized context “Brown” must make us wonder whether the deceased was a Nazi and was murdered. “This happens occasionally”: Conquest catches exactly the slightly know-it-all tone of a young intelligence officer in very unfamiliar territory, anxious to please his superiors.

***

And finally, the poems to his beloved Texan wife, Elizabeth “Liddie” Conquest:

Travel was one of Conquest’s abiding subjects. At the end of his first, 1955, volume we find a kind of round trip in the tonally and formally varied “Sunset under Vitosha”, “Lamartine at Philippopolis”, “Pliska”, “Aegean”, “Messemvria at Noon”, “By Rail through Istria” and “In the Rhodope”. In the ten-page “Coming Across” (1978), the poet and his female companion drive from Florida to California with some diversions, one into Mexico. The zest of the poem is infectious, with “Interstate 10” as its refrain: “Once more we turn southward / Through white Cajun townships / On long, dark, still bayous. / The Bayou Teche leads us / Under intricate live-oaks / And then we are back upon / Interstate 10”. The poem is a vivid picture of places and time as it pretends to freewheel through its bouncy two-stress lines. In “The Idea of Virginia” (2009), Conquest wrote a rich essay-poem about the ideas behind the United States, yet he could almost burlesque his transatlantic sensibility in “Winter Welcome to a West Texan” (2009): “So here you are, lovely: / Arroyos of Kensington / With pekes for coyotes, / Green street-lamp saguaros, / Swirls of fog twisting / Like sidewinders over / The desert macadam”.

Again, read the whole thing here. While you can.