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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Time's Fool

Glyn Maxwell

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To purchase Time's Fool

Title: Time's Fool
Author: Glyn Maxwell
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2000
Length: 396 pages
Availability: Time's Fool - US
Time's Fool - UK
  • A Tale in Verse

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odd but largely successful roaming tale in verse

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/11/2000 Langdon Hammer
TLS . 7/12/2001 John Greening

  From the Reviews:
  • "Maxwell's deeper concern is with the solitude and emptiness of Edmund's suspended existence. (...) Edmund experiences time as a featureless medium passed through and viewed, not grasped and lived in. He is the embodiment of an expatriate writer's homelessness. (...) (T)here are passages where the writing thins out, and Maxwell's calculated slipperiness begins to feel like sloppiness." - Langdon Hammer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "One of the book's achievements is the way myth, literary reference and psychic possibility are kept gleaming on the horizon as the terza rima rattles on." - John Greening, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Time's Fool is an ambitious tale in verse, nearly four-hundred pages long, covering (basically in seven year intervals -- though not entirely chronologically) the span from 1970 to 2019. The number of pages is somewhat misleading: this volume is not as densely packed as other recent novels in verse, such as Les Murray's Fredy Neptune (see our review) or W.S.Merwin's The Folding Cliffs. There are nine chapters, each prefaced by a prose introduction and summary. Each chapter is further divided into five sections; the verse throughout consists of terza rima (three-lined, ABA, then BCB, etc.-rhymed stanzas (more or less)) -- with the concluding lines of each section a rhymed couplet. The poetry fairly bounces along, the language (and structure) never overly complex. It is, for such a long book, a sprightly read.
       Time's Fool is "a tale in verse" -- and the tale is an unusual one. The fool of the title is Edmund Lea, his fate a Flying Dutchman-like existence aboard a train, travelling endlessly to nowhere while remaining always the same age: seventeen. His only respite is a break every seven years, on Christmas Eve, when he returns to his hometown of Hartisle.
       Most of the books focusses on Edmund's brief visits back home, as he tries to escape his terrible fate and as he watches the lives of all he knew advance away from him.
       The poem begins in 1984, when Edmund has already been travelling for fourteen years. He meets a poet aboard his train -- "Glen" -- and tells his tale. Glen does not see it as all that terrible a fate:

       It's not as if you've missed
Apocalypse. You missed the movie, man,

but you can rent them nowadays. You missed
the Falklands, yes, but that one's going to sound
at least as unconvincing as this last

light entertainment.
       It is not initially clear why Edmund is condemned to ride the rails without aging: "A thing did happen that I don't see yet", he tells Glen, but it is a while before the deed is revealed. Edmund's story reminds Glen of that of the Flying Dutchman, though he is not entirely clear on what happened there ("He was doomed to, like a curse, / because of something earlier it seems / I missed"). Still, the Wagnerian conclusion seems obvious to the poet:
       Get the girl,
get the promise, bring it all back home,

end of your awayday, Admiral.
       Would that it were that easy. The girl is Clare, but as she ages away from Edmund, marrying, having a daughter, it does not seem that redemption can come there. On his brief visits back home every seven years he does meet her and others -- his parents, friends, acquaintances. At first he is taken to be the son of the mysteriously vanished Edmund Lea, looking so much like him. Eventually his story catches on and is used by a variety of people. He is even worshipped, his arrival eagerly awaited every seven years.
       Two friends, Polly and Wasgood, remain closest to him over the years, though occasionally also using him for there own ends. Edmund, largely isolated for the long intervals between his brief appearances, remains above the fray most of the time, but he is easily led during his visits to Hartisle, desperate for release.
       During his long voyaging Edmund tries to record his experiences -- to write and draw. He is most successful with the poetry that he can keep in his head; everything he sets down on paper is gone the next day:
       Every syllable
or sentence written, every stroke or dab
of paint or pastel spiralled to a hole

like water and was gone when I woke up.
       Another figure -- Cole, similarly accursed, and at the root of Edmund's predicament -- reappears several times during the narrative. "You're the stupidest immortal / ever to be honoured so" he insists, arguing that Edmund should revel in his eternal youth. Edmund, however, wants redemption, and ultimately he does find release.

       It is an odd tale that Maxwell weaves, but a surprisingly beguiling one. The change in the world is convincingly presented (all the way into the uncertain future of 2019), as is isolated Edmund's static status in a world that seems largely to have passed him by. Turns such as Edmund's peculiar fate being embraced by others as he becomes a cult-figure are also handled well by Maxwell, as is his ultimate and sudden release.
       Time's Fool is a rich story, presented in straightforward verse that moves along with the reassuring steadiness of a train clacking over tracks. By and large the poem works very well. An enjoyable ride.

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Time's Fool: Reviews: Glyn Maxwell: Other books by Glyn Maxwell under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English poet Glyn Maxwell was born in 1962. He studied at Oxford and Boston University and currently teaches at Amherst College. He has received the Somerset Maugham Prize and the E.M.Forster Prize.

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