The book contains about 85 poems that according to the poet "chart a life from childhood through to old age but it is not my life nor the life of anyone I know". The title poem suggests that compared to reality, "Stories are simple ... smoothed out and edited" with some metaphors and sense/purpose added, and goes on to query why sense needs to be added. Such stories are what many of these poems are - individually they're tidier than life: they make a single point (sometimes employing a punchline) then end. One needn't spend a lot of time on each, though one should pause to consider their collective impact, so perhaps it's best to read the book twice rather briskly, rather than read it once more slowly. The poems are mostly free-form ("Made-up Truths" is an exception with 5 stanzas of 6/2/6/2 syllabled lines). I needed to look up just one thing - "mene tekel upharsin".
On a first pass through I made a note of the pieces I liked - p.24, 26, 28, 32, 38, 40, 47, 53, 55, 57, 60, 67, 74, 80, 81, 92. Subsequently readings didn't make me change my mind. An Appendix gives a date for each poem (28/4/1979 to 25/5/2010). I found out that the poems I like mostly cluster around 1988-89 and 1997-98, with nothing from the 1999-2006 period. Favourites include "Tears" (a wife is on a saline drip because of all her crying. The nurse says that she can "live without hope or/ a life or even the/ truth as long as she/ can cry about it"), "Making Sense" and "Tweezers".
- Truth - The term's distrusted. "Truth is overrated if you ask me" (p.35), "Truth is the pornography of the self-righteous" (p.56), "Exhuming Truth ... Nothing smells very sweet/ this far down" (p.63), "You can't possibly know/ what truth / is till you've made one up/ yourself" (p.64), "as if truths came bottled./ and too many made you puke" ("Sedatives and Emptiness")
- Emptiness - "Nothing" features heavily in these poems - "and on the inside/ the nothing" (p.46); "there is always something to/ block our view/ of the nothingness that is// coming" (p.86). I'm reminded of
- "God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through" - Paul Valery.
- "There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description" - Bohr.
- Gloom - In "Specks of Dust" grief first "fills up holes/ in sentences", then the "whole damn universe". "And we are so/ very, very/ small". Gloom spreads through this book. Of course, it's a common enough sentiment amongst writers
- "He is this afternoon writing a poem with great spirit: always a sign of well being with him. Needless to say, it is an intensely dismal poem", Florence Hardy, letter to Sidney Cockerell
- "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth", Larkin
One poem's called "4am, Reading Larkin" which is asking for trouble (in "Aubade", Larkin is "Waking at four to soundless dark"). It was Larkin who wrote "Wants" ("Beyond all this, the wish to be alone ... Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs", etc). Detachment can be a valuable artistic aid but in the form of depression and depersonalisation I think it tends to suppress writing.
- Love - It's here in various forms. In "True Love II" we learn how a son used sadness as a way to relate to his father. Elsewhere love is seen as as completion. But we're warned about the risks of attachment - to people and things.
The Poet and I
This poet's not invisible. He gives us an introduction, and says that some of the material is autobiographical. Moreover he and I have exchanged many online messages, so this write-up isn't impersonal. The author tells us that
- "My poetry is actually written primarily to exorcise, to get a specific thought or feeling out of my head so I can examine it"
- "The writing process is more important to me than the finished product"
- "If my poems are throwaways why publish them?"
We see only the product, the words, but the production of these throwaway words presumably affected the poet whose work we see. His interests and mine intersect, and we're part of the same generation. We both know about computers. Our analytic approach is in some ways similar. Perhaps we also share a tolerance for gloominess, at least in our writing. He suggests that my story book dealt with many aspects of sadness. Sadness doesn't inspire me to write, but I find it interesting.
Yet our creative output is different. In this book at least, he wants to be understood, to entertain even. I'm more conspicuously literary, with all the derogatory connotations that implies. I can be inexplicable, pretentious, and ludic, with a weakness for word-play.
Perhaps in consequence I'd like some of these pieces to be crisper, starker (no Maybes), with more word-play, and more poems overtaken by word-play. The poet's written about R.D.Laing (who I've read with interest), and I expected more poems in this book to be like those in Laing's "Knots". I expected more period detail. Music (no REM?) and place hardly feature, nor does memory. On p.94 the poem is called "The Past Must Die". The next poem is "Stale Truth", which begins "I couldn't warm to him" then later says "I tried to avoid him, turned// mirrors to face the wall". The past is by-passed.
Many of the poems have quotable lines. Here are just a few -
- "You can't miss what you've never had, son"// Is that so? I think you've missed the point (p.5)
- "My dad used to give me marks out of ten ... Marks is merely another word for scars" (p.7)
- "It's hard not to look for cracks/ and harder still not to step/ on them" (p.53)
- "You can drown inside yourself you know/ but only a dripping tap can drive you/ insane" (p.81)
- "I've heard say parallel lines never meet./ Sometimes they seem to - in the distance - / they disappear over the horizon/ so no one knows for sure" (p.98)
- "Poems turn up out of the blue these days/ like family/ and usually when things are going badly. .... but you don't turn family away. Not ever" (p.104).
Reviews have been collected on the author's website