Scannell is one of the grand old men of contemporary English poetry, born in 1922 and publishing since the late 1950s; his 1960 The Masks of Love won the Heinemann Prize, and he’s been turning out verse, fiction, and autobiography for nearly a half-century. His first collection in four years is an engaging compendium of recent work that mines some of his usual themes—the torturous vagaries of love (and lust), the fading of romance and other pleasures of the flesh as age wins out, the increasingly distant but still painful memories of combat. He’s a witty writer, technically proficient in a variety of forms. There are some nicely judged poems in terza rima as well as a darker adventure in the sestina. At the same time, his dry humor undercuts a certain tendency toward sentimentality by signaling that the author doesn’t take himself too seriously. The humorous poetry, which predominates, is reminiscent of late Auden in its casually demonstrated verbal dexterity, and of the unjustly forgotten Samuel Hoffenstein in its playful wryness. The darker moments are somewhat less successful, with the dazzling exceptions of “Good Grief” (part of a cycle called “Delivering the Goods”), which is an eloquent rumination on the paradoxes of loss, and the closing diptych (“On the Oncology Ward”), effective brief poems about hospital routine among the seriously ill.
If this is Scannell’s valedictory, it’s an effective one; if it presages more to come, so much the better.