Jackie Wills's new collection Party from Leviathan is a very good-looking book indeed. A hard-back with a stylish paper jacket, it highlights how flimsy and disposable most modern paperbacks have become. Her first collection Powder Tower, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was short listed for the 1995 T.S.Eliot Prize. With such an impressive start to her career it is understandable that she wanted to publish as many poems as possible in this collection, but 60 poems is a lot, and a further refining of the collection would have perhaps, like the homeopath’s dose, made it stronger. In his wonderful essay, Poetry and Psychoanalysis, from Promises, Promises, published by Faber, the writer and psychotherapist Adam Philips quotes one of the early British analysts, Ella Sharpe, as saying “The genuine poet is an intuitive psychologist.” Jackie Wills is at her strongest when she taps the arena, beloved by both psychologist and psychoanalyst, of childhood and daily memory. The book opens with a poem Regatta, that locates her childhood, in the unlikely poetic breeding ground of Aldershot.
This is interesting because unexpected, a childhood neither poeticised as a rural idyll nor exoticised as gritty urban poverty. We are not used to poets who come from backgrounds that include, as part of their daily lives, Exocets and Tomahawks, the drilling of soldiers. Willis works best when she keeps her canvas small and her images tight such as in the tender poem to her mother Gagarin’s Moon.
Anyone old enough to have also been a child then will immediately be transported to early 60s suburbia by the accuracy of tone and period detail. The poem concludes with a small epiphanal moment in the image of the moon as a symbol of closeness between mother and daughter.
But elsewhere these epiphanies tend to be missing and the poems too often become simply competent descriptions that do not lead to that ‘psychological’ insight Sharpe claimed for the best poems. At times the language seems forced, as in Cavern. Here the well-observed violent relationship between teenage girls is diluted by a lacing of alternative stanzas with the names of various types of contemporary music: “Raggae, ska, soul and funk/US Garage, R&B”. But this has the air of a borrowed rather than an experienced language, one that the poet has appropriated, rather than a manner of speaking that forms the patina of her natural speech. While in Blue Mountains the image of the blue veins in the weightlifter’s neck, which are compared with a view of blue mountains, seems strained, a striving for the artful metaphor – for we never hear of the weightlifter again and he only seems to be included to provide the comparative conceit – rather than an organic and integral part of the emotion of the poem. There is also a tendency to rely, when writing about place, rather too heavily on description, albeit highly competent, and therefore a failure to provide a sufficiently satisfying movement through the body of the poem from genesis to conclusion. A fault, perhaps, of writing too much, or including too many poems in this ample collection. The poems that linger longest in the mind are those where all the images build together, as in the moving poem The Man who Speaks Four Languages. Here both the emotional force and the narrative are carried by the single image of a post-war European refugee offering the poet’s grandfather – presumably a doctor – a small statue as barter for treatment.
Here Jackie Wills has found, with skill and empathy, a perfect objective correlative to stand for loss and pain, which carries the poem toward its moving denouement.
The Book Of Love
Published by Bloodaxe
Staying recently in a strange house after giving a reading, I chanced, in my room, upon an ancient copy of Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving. Fromm defines love, unfashionably, as a decision rather than a form of barter where marketable assets are traded in a sexual exchange for the best available model. For Fromm, love is largely a choice, not an overwhelming obsession projected onto the love object. Fromm’s humanistic image of constancy seems now almost quaintly old fashioned, as if it belonged to an age before the ‘invention’ of what Tom Woolfe defined as the ‘me’ generation with its sense of alienation and belief in the divine right to instant gratification and happiness. Maybe according to this thesis Roddy Lumsden’s new book from Bloodaxe should be called The Book of Obsession, but one presumes that the title The Book of Love is knowingly ‘post-modern’ and therefore self-mockingly ironic. Love these days usually comes dressed in inverted commas. Lumsden very effectively creates an edgy urban world of male fantasists for whom love is often closer to solipsistic obsession than to anything Fromm might have recognised. Incident in a Filing Cupboard, the first poem in the collection, sets the tone. This is office love, where every look, even a meeting in the filing cupboard, is interpreted as a sign, “as if an intimacy had just occurred between us.” Lumsden’s characters are outsiders, ‘wannabees’, slight misfits with an often grandiose sense of their own sexual prowess. There is the boastful encounter with An Older Woman in “Mid-1990s, Scotland, dead of winter/And more than old enough to be my mother” in “A Brookes & Simmons dress … bra and knickers/ … in contrasting colours”. We are also party to the fantasies of Love’s Young Dream, an implied loser, who according to “the guys at work” “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell”, despite the excess of cologne and hair gelled “up in an Elvis lick.” There are Tricks for the Barmaid to get her into bed, “It’s only a matter of time before she sleeps with me” and unrealised fantasies of Troilism – where despite obsessive day-dreaming the poet decides - “a small moon … above a harvest field” is just as “ … satisfying, in its own way, enough.”
Lumsden is at his best when, with verve and panache, he plunders his idiosyncratic word-hoard, which borrows not only from his vernacular Scottish but also from the language of games, slang, art and street culture. This he does with economy and style in the pair of poems Glasgow and Edinburgh that in tone recall something of the opening of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings.
Yet despite the air of bravura laddishness and quick-witted banter Roddy Lumsden reveals himself, in fact, as a bit of modern-day romantic in Against Naturism.
He has an astute ear for the cadences of contemporary speech. Like the bloke in the pub, who fancies himself as a bit of a raconteur, he wants to keep us amused with a good tale well told. One poem, though, points to a deeper darker side. East of Eden is a shocking poem about a mugging. But it is not the mugging that shocks. The violent youth sorts through the contents of his female victim’s handbag rejecting “the greasy snibs of lipstick”, “the sixty quid in tenners”. He then dumps it and sets it alight leaving only a postcard with “Just two words. The first is BLAME./(I see her now.) The second is my mother’s name.” Despite the literary mask, the anger seems raw, felt, experienced.
Published by Faber & Faber
Michael Longley once dubbed Patrick Kavanagh “a mythologist of ordinary things.” In that sense Maurice Riordan’s new book from Faber, Floods owes a debt both to Kavanagh and to his heir Heaney, in its fidelity to the actual lives of real people. Born in County Cork in 1953, Riordan is part of that wave of Irish poets that Evan Boland once described as belonging to the ‘Global Village’, a generation concerned with the ironies of identity, language, history and culture. Riordan’s indebtedness to a nostalgic, humanistic Heaneyesque sensibility can be see in the parallels between the opening lines of Heaney’s poem A Sofa in the Forties from The Spirit Level:
and Riordan’s opening of The Rug:
But being nearly a generation younger than Heaney, Riordan not only celebrates the fast disappearing world of rural Ireland remembered from his childhood but also tosses in, with a practiced casualness, words and phrases culled from contemporary culture. In a mythic poem The Boy Turned into a Stag after Ferenc Juhasz, he opens with the Heaneyesque lines:
yet only three pages later the narrator surprisingly compares himself to “a reggae guitarist who shakes/His locks above the dance floor.”
In a poem such as Bilberry he celebrates memory and tradition with a vignette of the closely observed and quotidian in the manner of Kavanagh describing the life of Paddy Maguire:
while in Caisson he explores a fascination with science, playing with theoretical possibilities and impossibilities in an extended intellectual conceit: