Monday, June 6

A cheese sandwich in the airport, or better than that....

Review by Sandra Tappenden

Collected Poems 1978-2003 by U.A Fanthorpe (Peterloo Poets, £15.00)

This is the second review I have written of this book. I lost half of the first one. Which, I think now, may have been a blessing, as I feel I was too supportive of the poet and not fussy enough about the poetry. We shall see. A week has passed since I finished that ill-fated first version, so here I go again.

Question: when a poem makes you laugh, does it hide the fact that it isn’t very good?
There are quite a few laughs in the collection, which spans eight volumes of poetry. The laughs are clever, appealing to a certain smugness at getting the references, which could be a problem. Here are some things which made me laugh, any road.

I am the two-headed anniversary god,
Lord of the Lupercal and the Letts diary.

(from ‘Janus’)

Even though I only guessed what the Lord of the Lupercal was/is (it’s ok; I’ve looked it up now, thank you) I appreciated the joke, and enjoyed the unlikely yoking (or zeugma, according to my Dictionary of Literary Terms). The poem goes on to do what many Fanthorpe poems do; it takes an idea between it’s teeth and worries it into submission. I admire the poet’s thoroughness. Is it a good poem? Well, it’s not at all bad; the humour is consistently tongue-in-cheek and, like many of the poems, it maintains a cheery tension between smart and undemanding.

In ‘Deus v. Adam and Another’ the joke is in the assumed courtroom-drama tone:

The document in this case refers to fruit.
The accused are vague: she says it was a lemon;
He thinks on the whole a raspberry.

There’s no mystery here, however. No surprises. Many of these poems rely on the chuckle-factor, and pleasure in the skilful writing. As a favourite, I can’t choose between the above poem and ‘What, in our house?’ which has several jokes in its rewriting of Macbeth, and laughs at itself too:

Macduff                                          Your royal father's murdered.
Malcolm                                          O, by whom?
Lady Macbeth         Such donnish syntax at so grave a moment!

Jokes aside, I get a sense of Fanthorpe’s world, and concerns. There is something solid or centred about her writing; no-nonsense, practical, compassionate without preaching. Her hospital poems, rather than give way to outrage or indignation, (which would be interesting, but inauthentic for this poet), examine the difficulty of administering systematised care, without recourse to blame, or histrionics. ‘From the Remand Centre’ gives an idea of Fanthorpeland. It’s restrained in form and length, which mirrors the subject matter. Here’s the whole poem:

Eleven stone and nineteen years of want
Flex inside Koreen. Voices speak to her
In dreams of love. She needs it like a fag,
Ever since Mum, who didn’t think her daft,
Died suddenly in front of her. She holds
Her warder lovingly with powerful palms,
Slings head upon her shoulders, cries Get lost,
Meaning I love you, and her blows caress.

In ‘Casehistory: Alison (head injury)’ a young woman is looking at a photograph of herself:

Poor clever girl! I know
For all my damaged brain, something she doesn’t:
I am her future.

and the idea of lost or stolen potential is there, ( a recurring theme, I suppose), but not in a brutal or bullish way.

Some may be troubled by Fanthorpe’s ventriloquism. I’m not. If I felt the poems were based on an irresponsible/ careless viewpoint, I might be. What I feel about this issue, if it is one, is that the reader is free to see for themselves. And a poem is not a person. It all depends on your experience, identification, beliefs.

The poems are remarkable often, because of their lack of sentimentality. Emotional targetting is generally the opposite of good poetry, I find. It certainly isn’t the same thing. There is a tendency to replace it with irony, mind you, but not all the time, thankfully. The poet propels you inside a problematic ethical consideration, and has the grace to leave it, er, hanging. I don’t feel pressured or shoved in any particular ‘right-minded’ direction. I can see how these poems may be deemed dishonest, via their appropriation of other voices, but you’d have to argue hard to convince me of that. It’s a possibility based on sensibility, not fact.

Stylistically, the poems often introduce themselves by way of ‘postcard’ language; brief, telegraphed sentences which, hmm, set the scene:

Clearly Eden. (the opening sentence of ‘Circus Tricks’)
Foreign ground. (the opening sentence of ‘Rite’)
Plane moves. (the opening sentence of ‘First Flight’).

You get the picture. This sort of thing happens a lot, and can become irritating in its predictability. (See below, re. longer poems). It has the effect of deadening the desire to read more than a handful of poems in one go. But then this is a huge Collected, with 468 pages, and who said anyone had to read more than a handful of poems in one go. It would be nice to not want to read more than a handful etc. because they needed to be taken in and reflected upon, because they amazed in some way, rather than not wanting to read more than etc. because I got a bit tired of the samey-ness. Still, if I hadn’t agreed to review the book, I would have taken my time. At least I do know (a) I want to read all the poems at some point, and based on the work I’d read previously by Fanthorpe (b) I’d have bought this book. At some point.

Poems I have enjoyed the most manage to hold humour, careful attention to the sound of the words, (robust, playful), and a certain tenderness in the balance. Take this from
‘Going Under’:

I turn over pages, you say,
Louder than any woman in Europe…

The dreams waiting for me twitter and bleat.
All the things I ever did wrong
Queue by the bed in order of precedence,
Worst last.

“Twitter and bleat”, and “worst last”, are very Fanthorpe, and I love the crunchiness of these juxtapositions. There’s another delightful poem, ‘Song’, which starts “Don’t eavesdrop on my heart / It’s a sneak.” I would have liked more love poems, in fact.

My surprise discovery has been that Fanthorpe often appears to lack the courage of her (structural) convictions. She has a smackable penchant for overkill, where last lines turn not just into closure, but the whole poem again, in case we didn’t get it. In ‘The Constant Tin Soldier’, the last lines are “I may be only a tin soldier/ but I have been constant.” Well, yes. And in ‘Knowing About Sonnets’, headed by a quote from Terry Eagleton, the reader is hammered, in the last line, by a point already quite expertly expressed. ‘Transitional Object’ is another last-line flop, but now, re-reading it, I think the whole thing not very good, being Very Emotive when I just said she didn’t do that kind of thing:

Sits, holding nurse’s hard reassuring hands
In her own two small ones.

Is terrified. Mews in her supersonic
Panic voice: Help. Help. Please.

and so forth, until

Whispers, Help. Help. Please. Cries for Mummy,
Philip. She is 83,

Resisting childhood as it closes in.

Still, I can’t think of this as the poet’s last minute U- turn appeal to the masses. Or I don’t want to. Oh, and lists. There are far too many lists. Are they padding? Discuss. (Please buy and read the book first.)

The longer poem doesn’t appear to be Fanthorpe`s natural home. I’m not sure what I mean by that exactly, except they bore me a bit, because her style is truncated and choppy rather than expansive. So the longer poems can seem too mannered or contrived or something. What works best is the understatement and thoughtful restraint in much of the (shorter) poetry, marked by drollness, dry wit, and a noticeable lack of angst.(Luckily, much of the selection is “shorter poetry”. I suspect even U.A. herself feels more comfortable with one page of A4). And the apparent fact that Fanthorpe is not faking anything. There’s no pose or side to her writing, which is refreshing enough almost to be deemed quaint. That’s not to say there’s no subtlety or integrity of thought behind the words. These things are just not foregrounded, is all, and hooray.

I read some of these poems with my daughter, whilst she was studying for her English GCSE. I liked sharing them with her. The fact that my daughter remembers them, and fondly. A way in should not be despised. Ok, there’s the possibility that a certain laziness develops with poetry like this. It becomes too easily the bench-mark for what a poem should be. Well, I’m a meat-eater who likes vegetarian food. Does this mean I can’t appreciate the calling? I’m not going to say “don’t read this book because it embodies what is wrong with contemporary poetry by way of its graspableness”, because in the main it does what one can only hope has a valid point; it invites you in. (I think of it as a big hotel, where you can drink at the bar, or book a room, or get a job…)

A more sophisticated poetry-taster would very probably hate this book. I don’t at all; quite the opposite. I will return here, for laughs, for pleasure at a certain knowingness, for compassion, and to remind myself that poetry is many things, not least belief in human possibility, even if sometimes it’s wrapped in cling-film for my convenience. Fanthorpe believes in human possibility. The loss of it is something she is keen to repair in some small way, by showing just that, through mimesis. She may point out “the system” and its crassest failings of care, but always nudges one, albeit very politely and practically, forward into acceptance, via what feels like non-judgemental awareness. (Not all of her poems are assumed voices, I hasten to add.) Anyway, I think that’s what I mean by her centredness. Take it or leave it. (Have a beer and leave, or apply for a job in the kitchens.) Your choice.

So. If you were stuck overnight at an airport, (waiting for your Easyjet flight, no doubt,) with your packed lunch a mere memory, you probably wouldn’t refuse a cheese sandwich. In the departure lounge of all possible poetry, U.A. Fanthorpe’s “Collected Poems” could be that sandwich. It may not be the most adventurous comestible you’d ever eaten, but you’d be grateful.

© Sandra Tappenden, 2005

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