The poems of Graham Nunn are not poems marked by the convoluted technical dexterity; they are direct, they are lyrical, and they are full of hope. The poems of his The First 30 continue this tendency. And they progress towards a unity of focus in the titular sequence. When we consider the warmth and humanity of Nunn’s The First 30, we consider poems that offer us a wisdom and humanity that counters the nihilism so often expressed in contemporary poetry. And, as a result, we are given a worldview that encompasses an optimism and decency that enriches the world rather than detracts from it, that boosts rather than knocks, and that builds up rather than knocks down.
The First 30 is slim and unpaginated, but this does not detract from the verse within it. It is also divided into two rough halves, and the nature of these halves affect both the quality of The First 30 as a whole, and of each other. The first of these halves is the other poems of the subtitle. It is untitled, and heterogenous in terms of subject matter, and basic form, despite the use of a standard free verse throughout. The second half is The First 30, a sequence of thirty poems with a strong stylistic unity, along with its unity of subject matter. More shall be said about this later in this review. First off, there are a few things that need to be said about the first half.
This first half is marked by poems that continues Nunn’s basic stylistic, thematic and tonal concerns. In doing so, there is a customary attention to memorable metaphors derived from Nunn’s environs, in the process of which his world is charged with an emotional intensity. An example of this is the following extended metaphor that equates the poet’s desire with a power surge:
the coffee machine purrs and
the refridgerator simultaneously
sweats and breaks out in goosebumps.
The dishwasher succumbs to hot
flushers and the button on the toaster
turns red and pops.
As can be seen, the language is simplified but not simplistic, eloquent in its basic ordinariness and in its direct vividity. If these poems were part of a single, undivided collection, then it would ordinarily be strong and memorable; there is one problem, though.
This problem is that, for most of the poems, there is no direct connection with the second half. This lessens their charms and power as a result, in their context. Ordinarily this might not be a problem. A full-length collection can sometimes support division into disparate parts and sequences. The problem, however, is that this collection is very slim. It is also dominated by the second half, both physically and thematically. Further, the very slimness of the collection works against this division, and requires a stronger sense of unity in the collection as a whole. Yet this problem is not so great that the strength of the collection is fully compromised: there is a sense that the second half diminishes the first, whether it is read before or after the first. So it helps to understand it better.
The poems in the second half of The First 30 were written on the occasion of the first month of Nunn’s first-born, his son, after his birth. Each was originally written and published online, on each successive day. This was a deliberate choice on Nunn’s part: the birth of his son being of such importance, Nunn marked the occasion by making the poetry of this sequence and dedicating it to him. So it stands as a major creative reaction to a new life, and it explores the joys of being a young father. Other poets, other writers have explored fatherhood, but most without the sense of occasion and vividness that marks The First 30 as a unified poetry sequence. And this sense of occasion is important.
This is because the strength of the focus on Nunn’s son, and the use of the occasional poem as the overall genre, make this the strongpoint of The First 30. I say this because the genre, the themes, the imagery, the form and language display a strong sense of unity. There is also a unity of emotion, of affect revealed through the poet’s actions and responses to his infant son. And this overall unity strengthens and amplifies the effect of the poems. It also makes them stronger, more effective. It can be seen that unity of this sort can outweigh and dominate a more heterogenous collection, and it would be interesting to see if Nunn follows The First 30 with similarly tight collections of verse. And there is something more that can be said about the tone and its delivery here, in relation to the emotion of The First 30.
This tone heightens the effect of that unity through their laconic lyricism, which renders their innate poignancy less dramatic, more tender. This is a function of Nunn’s style, which works well with his verbal delivery, a delivery polished and emphatic, yet unforced and natural. In this way there is a degree of unity between the two halves, one rarely supported by subject matter, and diminished by this lack of stronger connections. And they are all unmistakably poems by Nunn, containing his customary themes and concerns with a deeper warmth and humanity, and a wisdom attendant on becoming a father. And this is, perhaps, what the poems of The First 30 are really offering us: warmth, humanity and wisdom in palpable proportions, and in a language purified of anything worse than love and compassion. This is what we need, and this is what Nunn gives unto us.
The First 30 is Graham Nunn’s strongest book of poetry to date. And it offers unto us a warmth and humanity that is contrariwise to the nihilism and cynicism seen as the dominant tone of our contemporary culture. What it gives us is a worldview of hope and optimism, something decent, not in the shopworn sense of the religious and puritan, but in the sense of possessing a humane decency towards humanity. This allows us to see that the two halves, while unequal due in large part to the strong unity of the sequence, The First 30, are marked by Nunn’s customary concerns, so much so that his poetry conveys a rich and optimistic view of our world.