In 1663 the poet and politician Andrew Marvell embarked on a trade mission that would encompass Russia, Sweden, Denmark and two gruelling years. As a business venture it was a certifiable failure. As poetic subject matter it is a certified success. Marvell’s voyage of diplomacy inspires the title poem of Matthew Francis’s fourth collection Muscovy, a diary of sinewy lyricism and exquisite music recorded by ‘one more fellow / who can dip a pen, write our way in and out.’

Francis’s voice is elusive and ghostly: perhaps ‘voice’ is the wrong word, as he adopts a number of tones and personae quite apart from Marvell. Robert Boyle’s experiments with phosphorus in 1680 are documented with a scientist’s brain and a painter’s eye, as we zoom out from the ‘empyreumatic oil’ to see ‘what’s in us that shines, / Our hot gold.’ By contrast, the Japanese imagism of ‘Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster’ sets an appropriately sensual scene of a lovers’ tryst. The figures of Percy and Mary Shelley appears in ‘Cwm Elan’, and in the first poem of the collection a man makes for the moon in a contraption drawn by geese. This last fantastic scenario is a springboard from which Francis can launch his imagination, looking down on an earth ‘smudged with forests, doodled with coastlines. / That flashing sheet of metal /…the Atlantic.’

Poets are expected to labour over every last syllable, but for Francis it is clearly a labour of love. Many of the poems are built around patterns of individual characters, whilst avoiding the dangers of dry constructivism. The ‘Enigma Variations’ are twenty-six quatrains, each one substituting a keyboard symbol for a particular letter. We get ‘%um and %osom’, ‘$olorous stroke!’ and the gloriously serpentine ampersand ‘Cur&ed to go on it& belly / con&piring in whi&pers, / to tangle endle&&ly / plural and po&&e&&ive.’ Cynics might view these poems as trivial sketches, but their inventiveness and, indeed, wit is undeniable.

Francis’s short line is not always convincing; his music suffers squashed into tight Heaneyan boxes (the last piece, ‘Streetlamps’, a notable exception). When the poetry is allowed to breathe, as it is in ‘Muscovy’, it is breathtaking: ‘So they race forward, wind scathing their faces / and the water’s carapace fending them off, // the air fraught with a noise like war, scrape and sing.’ Muscovy is predominantly an exhibition of a writer flexing his descriptive muscles across a strong, supple line, one that should fire him into the front rank of contemporary poets.