Saturday, April 16

Fish. Curs. Titles. (This is a title, sort of)

Review by Clive Allen

Living on the Difference by Mike Barlow
The Dog Who Thinks He’s A Fish by Chris Beckett
(both £6. 99 from Smith/Doorstop Books)

Here are just two more poetry paperbacks that have been sitting on my books-I-need-to-think-of-something-interesting-to-say-about pile for quite a long time now, and that I can no longer put off trying to be interesting about.

First of all then, some generalised and not strictly literary comments. After being in the game (and it is very much a game, fellow poetry fans, I think you’ll agree) for as long as they have, those enterprising people at Smith/Doorstop certainly know how to produce a nice-looking book of poems. Both these titles weigh-in at around sixty pages and sport attractive/interesting/go on, pick me up why don’t you?-style cover images. In addition to the obligatory blurb, each one also has a little inset photo of The Poet Himself on the back cover - often a risky business, particularly if they’re of the madly-staring, photo-booth sort. Happily these aren’t like that. Mike Barlow is bearded and serious and has something of a pained expression in a proper-poet kind of way; whilst Chris Beckett has gone for the grinning-a-bit-wimpishly look (actually I think he looks a bit like me, which is sad for both of us). Gillian Clarke says of Mike Barlow’s book that it ‘… has a cumulative power and a particularly individual voice’ and Fred D’Aguiar thinks Chris Beckett’s collection ‘… is full of memorable riches’. Well, we’ll see, shall we …?

Mike Barlow has worked in the probation service (I wonder if he ever came across that nice Mr. Armitage?) and is a visual artist as well as a poet. Both these biographical details have a bearing on the subject matter of his poetry – inasmuch as many of his poems are about marginalised people and also about the landscape, or at least have a strong visual sense of place. He uses language in a good, plain, unambiguous sort of way which, at its best, has a winning directness to it. ‘Idle Talk’ begins …

That’s all it was – floods and forecasts.
Rain erased the edges of the town,
the swollen river curdled where it swept the quay.
Without a change of tone you said:
My wife’s taken our three year old to live
two hundred miles away with someone else.

Which I think gives a sense of the sort of thing on offer here: it takes a slice of life and stares hard at the layers. And this is no mean feat – there are some enviable moments of bravura descriptive writing in ‘Living on the Difference’. But at times I found myself longing for a bit of humour, because funny is one of the things life is, even when it’s horribly serious, if you know what I mean. Perhaps it’s just a question of taste. Whilst I’m picking at threads, the other failing I found here was the need to tie poems up with a punchy last line or two. You know the sort of thing; we’ve all done it. There’s a rather prose-y poem called ‘Out After Dark’, about a boyhood fishing expedition, a Raymond Carver-ish affair. The tone is plain to the point that had me wondering whether it might not have been more successful as a piece of prose (but that’s another critical tack altogether – which I’m going to ignore for now). This is the last stanza …

For being out late and panicking the family
I went straight to bed. I lay there with the light out,
shivering as I looked up at the ceiling
and imagined the night sky full of fish.

There is no reason for the night sky to be full of (imaginary) fish, is there? That’s just there to tie everything in with the fishing-trip story. The whole thing ends perfectly well with the boy shivering and looking up at the ceiling, which actually is a much more convincing image.

But don’t let that put you off. Go to the Smith/Doorstop website where you can read a sample poem from ‘Living on the Difference’ and if you like that then my guess is you’ll like the rest of the book.

I am a terrible sucker for a good title. I confess it freely. I was once seduced into buying a genuinely abysmal LP just because it was called ‘Vampires Stole My Lunch Money’. If I saw it on CD I think I might even be tempted to buy it again. It’s that much of a problem with me. And ‘The Dog Who Thinks He’s A Fish’ is another top title. It made me want to like the book even before I’d read it.

There’s also a poem, quite early on in Chris Beckett’s collection, called ‘On Hearing Joshua Bell Play Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major while my left leg is in cramp’. (This could well be title heaven, I thought...) But sadly the title is the best thing about the poem, because everything that happens in it has already happened in the title. The poet hears the piece of music, gets cramp in his leg, the poem ends.

The excitement over titles has got me rushing ahead of myself a little here. I think we should have a few facts, by way of a proper introduction… I’d never heard of Chris Beckett, but clearly other people have - Fred D’Aguiar, Pascale Petit and Moniza Alvi, no less. And they all say flattering things about his poetry on the back cover of ‘The Dog Who Thinks He’s A Fish’. His work has appeared in posh-ish mags, like Ambit, and has picked up prizes in, amongst others, the Arvon Competition. So he’s no slouch poetry-wise. He grew up in Ethiopia (there’s a section in the book dedicated to his memories of and reflections about Africa) and, after what sounds like an expensive private education, now trades sugar on the international markets. The poetry has playfulness and a sort of low-voltage surrealism about it. There are lots of high-brow references, too - to the likes of Elizabeth Bishop, Bach, Schubert, Pound, Balzac, Frank O’Hara – which, it has to be said, just occasionally come across as a bit too … knowing.

Half a dozen or so poems, dealing with the poet’s experiences at boarding school, are gathered together under the chapter heading of ‘Odyssey’, and take their titles (Scylla, Polyphemus etc) from Homer’s epic. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but unless the link to Homer is heavily ironic, then it does give the poems quite a bit of allegorical baggage to lug around. All the same I found them relatively engaging and amusing, although there were moments, such as …

…Matron barking at us to change
into our puny swimming trunks,
as though she had six vicious curs
kennelled underneath her skirts

(from ‘Scylla at Whitby’)

… which made me stop and wonder: ‘six vicious curs / kennelled underneath her skirts’? Now, I know just enough Greek mythology to figure out that this is one of those classical references to the story of Scylla (she was half of a very popular double act with her partner Charybdis), but don’t you think it sounds a bit arch, a bit too leaden and contrived? Later on in the poem Matron is on hand to towel down the shivering boys, ply them with lemonade (not lashings of ginger beer?) and make them feel ‘… half / grown up, but more than half still pups’. The pups are simply there to refer us neatly back to those ‘vicious curs’, and let us know the poem is a completed entity. Somehow it feels a tad clunky.

I also winced a bit at a poem called ‘Still Life with Niece and Skull’. This is an otherwise well done piece about mortality – which has appealingly clever and deft references to vanitas painting. However, the concluding line of the first stanza has the niece asking, ‘Uncle, do you miss your youth?’ and in the last line of the poem the uncle answers this with, ‘…no, Katie, I don’t miss my youth. I have yours.’ Which I find so unforgivably sentimental it actually makes my teeth ache.

You know, I’m sounding way too grudging about this book and I don’t mean to, because for all the occasional misfires there are lots of poems that do hit the target. There are plenty of things to enjoy about ‘The Dog Who Thinks He’s A Fish’.

These are, on the whole, very clean poems, very thoughtfully and tidily put together, which sometimes teeter on the brink of smug, but usually manage to tip back into civilised and polite. Rather like Billy Collins poetry – of which much of Chris Beckett’s work reminds me – it’s wonderfully easy to read. That can, of course, be both a good and bad thing; sometimes we need a little resistance in a poem, just to let us know it’s there, make us think about the way it’s working, the way the language is functioning. But when it works well … well, judge for yourself. This is the beginning of ‘What To Do With Clothes’

When I go let me have nothing
that I don’t need with me.
Let me be like the old man
who went hopping down the road
on a Saturday morning, with his
clothes dropping off one by one,
so that when he got to the beach,
he only had his large black shoes,
and those he untied very slowly
while humming a tune …

‘The Dog Who Thinks He’s A Fish’ doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its title, but then again I’m not sure anything could.

© C. J. Allen, 2005

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