Dual delicacies for the humorous palate

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
THE LAST OF THE WALLENDAS AND OTHER POEMS. By Russell Hoban, Illustrated by Patrick Benson, Hodder Pounds 10.99

THE MYSTERIES OF ZIGOMAR. By Allan Ahlberg, Illustrated by John Lawrence, Walker Pounds 10.99

John Mole finds a mixture of earthly delights in poetryfor children.

Russell Hoban is one of those writers whose watermark is unmistakable. Though he is perhaps least known as a poet, his earlier collection, The Pedalling Man (1969), has been treasured by many as one of the few essential single-poet volumes for children published since the war.

At one bound, Hoban was up there with Walter de la Mare, James Reeves, Charles Causley and Ted Hughes, poets for whom to write poems for the young is to be aware of the youthful reader over their shoulder but never (in Reeves's words) to play to the gallery "by exploiting the mere passing phases of a child's interests".

Hoban's poems are, in the best sense, occasional. They arise, naturally, from an observation, often an odd slant on common experience: a newspaper item which strikes a resonant chord, or a notion which he teases out, improvising with a marvellously inventive relish.

"Crystal Maze", for example, one of the longest poems in this new collection, begins with what could be considered as the Hoban imperative: " 'Think about it, Harry said: 'infinite regress.' That's my brother Harry; he knew how to give me stress." And think about it he does, for four invigorating pages, writing a kind of metaphysical fairground adventure story which takes off from the securely familiar surroundings of "pitchmen shouting, babies crying, punters winning great pink teddy bears" and spirals into a world of thrillingly disconcerting perspectives and challenging questions about identity.

One of Hoban's gifts is to be able to voice, with a kind of companionable adult complicity, the child's refusal to accept the rational brush-off. Like all true poets he knows that things are too various for the mere panacea of common sense. In "Thames Full Moon", for example, noticing all those "broken silver glimmers" of the moon reflected on water, he and an imagined companion move along the riverside from lamppost to lamppost, noting curiously that "a moon is in the water there by each.

"Why is that? Don't say an answer from a book; Look. One moon in the sky; how many in the river?

I don't want an answer from a book.

Look."

Look, think and wonder. Hoban delights in phenomena, haunting dislocations, in the kind of experience which his fellow American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, memorably calls "a dreamy divagation". In "Long Green Dream", he writes, "We journeyed half-again as long as any trip should take, and yet it got me back on time, and brought me to Awake". An alternative title to The Last of the Wallendas (a family circus act, incidentally) could well be "A Place called Awake" in that the whole book's constant alertness, its refreshing poetic intelligence, is what makes it outstanding. Which is not to suggest that it is in any way lacking in sheer fun. There is anecdote, a characteristic tenderness - particularly in the poems about animals - and good jokes aplenty. May The Last of the Wallendas not be the last we get from Russell Hoban the poet.

There are plenty of jokes, too, in Allan Ahlberg's The Mysteries of Zigomar, a miscellaneous collection of stories and poems. The latter range from a schoolroom version of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Deo" ("For I will consider my class of thirty-four children For they are the best (well, second best) class in the whole school. . . ") to a nicely observed reflection on, and of, the act of writing: "Where I sit writing I can see A glowing sky, a darkened tree, Some Sellotape, a saucer . . . me."

At their best Ahlberg's poems are more than just an accomplished, cheerful addition to the hundreds of school-life verses published yearly, though performances like "The Secrets of the Staffroom" do wear a bit familiar. His real strength is as a storyteller, and here The Mysteries of Zigomar scores. "The Paper Boy", about a boy made out of paper, is a tour-de-force of improvisation, and "Snow White Lies"- revealed in the last paragraph to have been written by Grumpy - is hilarious: "Poisoned apple? Bunkum. Glass coffin? Balderdash. Handsome Prince? Wishful thinking."

Allan Ahlberg? Well worth reading.

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