Review by P.J. Kavanagh (NL46, Jul 2002)

Ancestral Haunt, Poems by Glen Cavaliero

Poetry Salzburg 2002; introduction by D. M. de Silva; 107 pp.


Cavaliero sets his tone early-— ‘Land for development’ is the first line of the first poem — ‘this holy well is clogged with plastic mugs, barbed wire’ is the last line of that first poem.Yet he is not merely concerned with regret at change and decay: he has a sharp, almost an anthropologist's, eye; his characters are stereotypes in the sense that they typify, and their inwardness is contained in their externals. ‘The Last Virgins’, about the generation of women denied husbands by the slaughters of the First World War — ‘they seemed to be the men they would have married ... felt hat, stout shoes, / a jumper, stick, companionable dog’ — the generalisations about their kit (did they all wear felt hats?) — works anthropologically because we know the type, and then we relish the poem because we soon see it is packed with military references used aslant: ‘Nightgowns and chemisettes, bust-bodices, / directoire knickers ... / for a soldier boy who never came to rifle / treasures of silk’, and rises to a note of passionate sympathy with these lives. In his imagination the butterflies embroidered on the unworn stockings in their bottom drawer take flight, they ‘soar / delirious with virginity from the guns' unending roar’.

‘The Death of Edward Longbourne’ is another steroetype wittily plumbed: a modish author, outmoded, rediscovered by TV. ‘Laid out for the first Doctorate, he is consummated, properly dead.’

These are people, and Cavaliero writes of others (he can also be funny about a personal mishap; try ‘Stopover’). However, the character that most absorbs him is that of landscape, place, its past, its present, and the way it seems to be saying something we can never quite hear; an insight promised and then, not so much denied as tantalisingly withheld:

So — if there is only one world, seeing is believing
you are relieved to say? And yet believing's also
seeing —

('The Strong Gate')

Landscape as metaphor? 'The Strong Gate (an actual gate also used as metaphor —‘It takes a strong gate to hold apart / two worlds when each one craves the other’) ends by making explicit the good question that hangs inside most of these poems and makes them ring: he wonders whether ‘all we know is language still unspoken’.