Brown Smarties are my favourites and Blue are second favourites. Can I tell the difference between them and Blue Smarties? Absolutely (as long as you don’t put this to the test and just take my word for it!). I like Blue Smarties but I don’t love them. I love Brown Smarties though. And that’s what I felt about Louis De Bernieres first published poetry collection “Imagining Alexandria”. There are lots of Blue Smarties, with the odd Brown Smarties gem here and there!
The collection is very deliberately influenced by the work of the Greek poet Cavafy. And before you go thinking I’m dead clever working that out, De Bernieres tells you this and more in his engaging introduction to the collection. Apparently De Bernieres carries a book of Cavafy poetry round in his pocket and reads it every day. Well since I’d never heard of or read Cavafy before I read this, I gave Cavafy a go – and I’ll sum up his poetry by saying that Cavafy and I won’t be meeting up on a daily basis over coffee! But that doesn’t detract anything from Imagining Alexandria. Its particularly fortunate that Louis De Bernieres is true to his word, for he tells you in that intro that he’ll be steering clear of Cavafy’s “beautiful young men” celebrations and he does, thank god, for of all the Cavafy poems, these were the ones I struggled with the most!
Cavafy influences aside, I approached this with a mix of relish and apprehension – Louis De Bernieres is simply my favourite author so I couldn’t help looking forward to this. But of course, as his first foray into publishing poetry, I was worried it wouldn’t be good – and I so wanted it to be. I needn’t have worried – he’s just far too good a writer not to be able to deliver poetry that’s great. Overall I thought it was a hugely enjoyable read and it’s got some real gems in this collection. There are also one or two that are a bit flat and didn’t work for me – but they are small in number and certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the collection.
His writing style from his novels lends itself easily. Generally I found the work which had a “here and now” feel much more enjoyable. Given how wonderfully he handled the theme of love in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it’s probably not surprising that the poems on love were the strongest for me. With the odd exception, I found the poems of Ancient Rome and Greece less enjoyable. Though even there, I loved the whimsical but ultimately rather tragic poem “Marcus Severus, Of Late Memory.”
Marcus Severus, of late memory, was so
Prodigiously endowed that
When he attended the public baths
The bathers stood and cheered.
With modest pleasure, he acknowledged this applause.
There are a couple of areas where this humour is given full rein but the best of the collection is reserved for his observations of relationships. The beautiful and haunting Your Brighton Dress tells the story of a man looking back on how he spent the last few quid in his wallet on a dress for a woman he was in love with at that time, and it includes the gorgeous lines, “Such slices of time have fallen away. I’ve scarcely seen you/ For longer than we’d been alive./It was back in a former life, but I like to remember/ False though this may be/That when I and you were there/You were bringing me Mexican presents/Wearing a silver necklace/Wearing your Brighton dress”.
In a similar vein I loved the poems “At The Sorbonne”, “Two Thousand Nights” and “Their Mutual Vows”. There’s such a gentle, slightly sad feel to these and others. But great as these are, De Bernieres saves his best for last – quite literally, The final poem in the collection is “When The Time Comes” – it’s haunting, and touching and absolutely beautiful in places. It begins….
When the time comes, it is better that death be welcome,
As an old fried who embraces and forgives
Seize advantage of what little time is left,
And if imagination serves, if strength endures, if memory lives
Ponder on those vanished loves, those jesting faces.
Take once more their hands and press them to your cheek,
Think of you and them as young again, as running in the fields,
As drinking wine and laughing.
It was always going to be a tough ask for me to love De Bernieres poetry as much as I love his fiction. One of his books is simply my favourite book of all time – and no it’s not Captain Corelli (though it’s in my top ten!). Actually three books of his combined are my favourite three books ever – the trilogy, War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lords, and The Troublesome Offspring Of Cardinal Guzman. In the end I didn’t love all of his poetry as much as I did those novels which are such wonderful flights of imagination and invention. But some of it is right up there – Imagining Alexandria has stuff that I can’t help loving as much as I love Senor Vivo, Cardinal Guzman, Don Emanuel and of course as much as I love Brown Smarties.