- Amber Hunt
- Cardiff, Wales
Oliver Reynolds was born in 1957 in Cardiff, Wales. He was educated at the University of Hull, where he studied Drama. After graduating he returned to Wales and worked as Assistant to the Director for Theatre Wales. He is the author of four volumes of poetry and has held writing residencies at universities in England, Scotland and Sweden.
Oliver Reynolds lives in London.
'How could writing not be about/difficulty…' Oliver Reynolds observes in his most recent collection, Almost (1999).
Indeed, for all their attractive sense of ease, difficulty is in a sense what his poems are 'about'. This can be difficulty of a formal poetic kind (easily surmounted); the cultural dilemma of his Anglo-Welsh identity (evident throughout), or - most intractable of all - difficulty with the love relationship. Reynolds' cultural identity is the mainspring of much of his work, though his Celtic credentials are divided, being born in Cardiff but conducting almost his entire career in England. He has a theatre background; after studying drama, he early on adapted Sinbad for puppets and The Snow Queen for pantomime. He now regularly reviews theatrical productions, films, and art exhibitions for the Time Literary Supplement and works at the Albert Hall.
In 'The Calling', a latterly jaundiced poem about the poet's craft, he ruefully reflects that: 'I wanted a voice/ as abstracted as air: / skittish, astringent, clear. / Instead…?'. What everyone notes about Reynolds as a poet is his highly literary wit, his conspicuously clever facility, and his gift for formal variety. His poems can be intricately rhymed, or short-lined free verse; they can display 'a charged minimalism' (Paul Groves) in the form of aphoristic notes, or be organised for visual effect. They take on the tricky genres of the prose poem, light verse and even 'nonsense'. Or they can be versions of Baudelaire, Rilke, Ovid or Seneca. Sensual love poems are at the heart of each of his collections, but he is equally a cerebral writer who reflects upon words and language; for him, quoting Baudelaire, 'Nature is a vast dictionary' ('Pastoral'). Reynolds likes puns, mock-learned jokes, obsolete and recherché words, taking vocabulary from languages such as Welsh or Norwegian. We learn, for instance, that there are ten nouns for different states of sand in Acholba; that O is the only letter common to all 66 world alphabets; while one poem explores the letter Q. His collections have notes at the back, and readers may need them.
Reynolds' progression has been to evolve from a young, somewhat dandified disciple of the 'Martian School' (the style of intricate similes and metaphors associated with Craig Raine, his mentor and first editor at Faber) towards being a poet of historical consciousness, and latterly of deep falling. He also writes well on art, and obliquely on politics. His theatre background comes out in a number of poems about actors and acting (such as the title poem of The Player Queen's Wife (1987), a sardonic rejoinder to Hamlet's criticism of strolling players). And like those actors, Reynolds found that his 'stage was Europe'. Probably his most enduring poems are tense imaginary narratives of dark episodes in European history; the burning to death of a bible printer in sixteenth century France ('From the Second Hell'), a German prisoner on the Russian front whose severed frozen legs turn him into 'a Teutonic Ozymandias' ('Cold War'). His detached visual style works equally well in a lighter mode, as with 'Seven sonnets on Frederick the Great' and more recently in 'Brandenburg Variations', a brilliantly compressed history of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Skevington's Daughter (1985) (the title refers to an instrument of torture in the Tower of London) was a conspicuous debut that made him one of the most envied and talked-about young poets in Britain. The lengthy opening poem 'Victoriana' finds a nineteenth century editor of the Oxford English Dictionary visiting one of his most prolific contributors - a prisoner in Broadmoor. Reynolds 'exchanges Arcady for the brick of Cardiff', with poems about photography and family history. Then, in the most strikingly original feature, there's a sequence, with titles in Welsh, contemplating the state of Wales from a number of angles: 'Ch', one sound in the language ('A train in labour/ stalled at the mouth/ of the throat's tunnel'), its passion for rugby, the de-industrialisation of the Valley's, from mines to lingerie factories. Most characteristic is the eroticism of 'Asgwrn Cefn y Beic' (crossbar): 'A while now since he dismounted'.
The Player Queen's Wife showed Reynolds at the height of his nerve. 'On Entering the Aviary' wittily acknowledges becoming one of the Faber poets, albeit as an 'awkward fledgling': 'Though the plarkin/ is of a great and wry beauty, / the roost is ruled/ by thughes'. Other poems, 'Baudelaire's Pipe' and 'Auden Hotel', also comment on writers' art and lives. The book includes 'Rorschach Writing' a lengthy poem displaying his trait of viewing with a detached forensic eye, which won the 1985 Arvon Prize, apparently inspired by his student gap year as a porter in a mental hospital. A sequence of love poems concludes the book, notably 'Tone Poem' (punning on the name of his Norwegian girlfriend) and 'Thirteen Days in a Northern City': 'In your bed, we sleep tighter/ than fossils in stone'. In these poems, conspicuously echoing Ovid's Metamorphoses, changing from one thing to become another, the love object is a horse, a tree, a constellation of stars, a fish. By The Oslo Tram (1991), the affair is in full flow, and in the title poem the lovers are transformed into a tram, imagining her 'reincarnated/ on my front seat'. The poet wishes that 'I was as fluent in Norwegian/ as your tongue is/ in my mouth'. These are celebratory; of their love, and of their upward social mobility, 'Oliver and Tone have moved to Chelsea'.
Eight years later, with his most recent collection Almost, Reynolds became a poet of deeper, even agonised feeling. Most of the poems are of impending and actual loss, going over and over again what soured their relationship. An opening four-line palinode ('What I wrote was untrue') sets the tone, bitter and bewildered, and seems to retract his previous love poems. The book is, however, highly organised, so that a central sequence of fraught and emotional poems contrasts with short sardonic ones such as 'Caveat': 'Lovers are often blind. / And Poets lie on oath. / You're in a double bind/ Trusting those who are both'. 'The Gap' and 'The Abridgement' are poems of despair. But sensuality takes hold as the love nears its end: 'nothing between us then but a shimmering of sweat, / paused above me…' (Elegiacs, Almost'). The most moving of these poems is 'The Almost': 'our bedside candle is the wavering doubt/ lovemaking left us too tired to blow out'. It takes off from an intended gift to her, (a reproduction Rembrandt drawing which forms the cover), and its ends by seeing in the background a figure 'anonymous to myself, self-doubting, an unfilled outline'. But Reynolds' formal panache hasn't deserted him: 'The Usual' is a fine elegy, organised in sections that correspond to the first half of the Welsh alphabet. 'Well' is a long thin poem that looks like - a well. Almost is - almost - his best collection, and certainly his most deeply felt. Yet, like Reynolds' work as a whole, undeniable virtuosity nevertheless leave one with mixed feelings, a sense of something unfulfilled.
Dr Jules Smith, 2003