Tuesday, January 11

Roddy Lumsden Isn't Dead

Review by Terry Kelly

Mischief Night – New & Selected Poems by Roddy Lumsden (Bloodaxe, £8.95)

If you want mainstream poetic hip, Roddy Lumsden’s your man. A witty poet, combining technical resourcefulness with a keen eye for the sort of transient cultural detritus my late Mam called “all the go,” Lumsden never seems to strike a wrong note in the halls of hipness. The Bloodaxe blurb to Lumsden’s first book, “Yeah Yeah Yeah” (1997) trumpeted the poet’s previous life as a quiz machine expert and even quizmaster, and his poems are often packed with cultural trivia of all varieties.When Lumsden’s collection “The Book of Love” was selected as the Poetry Book Society Choice for summer 2000, he admitted in a PBS Bulletin to flavouring his work with what he called “strange details and odd facts.” Lumsden goes on to provide examples of these nuggets of literary, personal and cultural arcana. One more than tongue-in-cheek commentary to the poem ‘Love’s Young Dream’ reads: “I deny suggestions that Simon Armitage has been a major influence on my work. However, I fully admit that my knowledge that 615s are trendy jeans was culled from Simon’s packing list for Iceland in Moon Country.” This is wheels-within-wheels literary chat, since the prospective Lumsden reader would need to know that Armitage collaborated with fellow poet Glyn Maxwell on a 1996 book retracing the steps of Auden and MacNeice’s earlier poetic joint effort, ‘Letters from Iceland’, in the 1930s. The PBS notes range from references to ‘mother-blame’ in feminist writings, to a condensed future novel for Alan Warner after he favourably reviewed a Lumdsen collection, to the revelation that a Guardian hack once published a piece of literary gospel spouted by the poet. A poem in “Mischief Night” called ‘My Superstition’ (drawn from his last collection, 2001’s “Roddy Lumsden Is Dead”) takes literary name-dropping to extremes, as the poet watches an insect navigate his bookshelf:

The bug parades past Burnside, Copus,
bypasses Brewer’s, Chambers, Nil Nil…

Most fairly literate readers would spot the references to the famous dictionaries, but how many would pick up on the allusions to contemporary poets John Burnside, Julia Copus and Don Paterson’s Faber debut, “Nil Nil”? Clearly, Lumsden takes no prisoners when it comes to his readers. A fairly comprehensive knowledge of contemporary verse is pretty essential. There’s also a fictive, self-aware quality in even the most autobiographical of Lumsden’s poems, as though he has one eye on his literary audience or even prospective critics. There’s a form of extreme poetic solipsism at work in much of Lumsden’s work. The poet even uses a quotation from a TLS review of one of his previous books as an epigraph to the ironically titled ‘My Pain’:

It’s like what I told the lassie from the local paper:
I do not suffer for my art, I just suffer.

Not afraid of dismantling ironic distance to place himself centre-stage in his own poetic melodrama, this literary strategy reaches its pinnacle in the title sequence, ‘Roddy Lumsden Is Dead’, which is partly an exploration of previous mental illness. His Author’s Note to the earlier collection about this bipolar condition could also be an apt definition for Lumsden’s energetic poetic egotism: “It is sometimes described as ‘filmic,’ ie the sufferer feels himself to be a character in the film of his own life.” Or try this, from ‘My Reflection’:

Late-night and bearded, framed in a mirror
as make-believe Rouault judge, white-faced and counting
his sins and his blessings – although I have neither –

I call myself sufferer, suitor, survivor…

With Lumsden’s authoritative grasp of high, low and various strands of popular culture, the reader is as likely to find references to just-breaking indie bands as Douglas Dunn’s recent ‘break-up book’ “The Year’s Afternoon”. One poem even namechecks the wonderful Denise Riley in its epigraph, proving this Scottish poet has looked beyond the Faberised literary horizon to the outskirts of the Cambridge School. It’s clear Lumsden knows his stuff and possesses the kind of poetic brio most young writers can only dream about. The title poem from his latest collection, “The Drowning Man”, is an example of Lumsden’s ability to make dizzying imaginative connections:

In the elsewhere, I see majorettes, the ends
of rummage sales, the heaving panther
coiling round an oak, I think I see
a dim light from a forest shack, I think I see
the outline of an arm through tinted glass,
my children sliding down the sky, not born.

This welds an Audenesque imaginative reach with a rangy, New York School freedom. Occasionally, the literary knowingness, particularly in the earlier work, can become rather wearing, like Simon Armitage on speed. (In fact, I have a clipping of a review of Lumsden’s first book by the late William Scammell, who suggested the young poet could become a member of an imaginary poetic movement called the “School of Simon Armitage”). But Lumsden strikes me as much sharper than the Bard of Huddersfield. Plus, he can reveal a heart behind the sharp cadences and his shield of hip references:

So many, so many songs
for the suicides, for the lives
docked in middle age;
those taken in the evening hiss…

(from ‘The Tremendous Few’)

Lumsden explored his battle with mental illness in the bravely titled “Roddy Lumsden Is Dead” (Wrecking Ball Press, 2001), which unfortunately sank without trace because of distribution problems (a similar fate beset Brendan Cleary’s last collection with the same press). But it’s Lumsden’s cultural accuracy that repeatedly strikes home:

Wrapped in the The Scotsman,
the family hamster

in a Saxone shoe box
four feet under.

(from 'My Funeral')

That shoe box just had to be from Saxone for the line to work. Lumsden takes his foot off the post-modern accelerator pedal in some of the more emotionally open latest work in this big Bloodaxe selected, proving he can encompass a wide emotional as well as literary-cultural landscape in his glittering poems.

© Terry Kelly, 2005

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