Unsettling music and invention

By Rob A Mackenzie

Rob A Mackenzie reviews Roddy Lumsden’s Third Wish Wasted (Bloodaxe, £7.95), C L Dallat’s The Year of Not Dancing (Blackstaff, £12.99), and Angela Kirby’s Dirty Work (Shoestring, £8.95)

Readers familiar with Roddy Lumsden’s work will find much that’s characteristic in Third Wish Wasted: playfully semi-reliable self-reference, intense and musical lyricism, imaginative lists, dissections of relationships, self-deprecating humour, and a wilful oddity that seems, for example, unable to resist giving advice to cook chicken wings by zapping them “for twice as long as they need, stirring once” (The Microwave). In this, his fifth collection, he possibly probes deeper than before and utilises more tangential connections of word, sound and image to do so.

The book’s theme is human desire. Three poems of the same length, form and rhyme scheme expose the potential and limitations of life. Lumsden’s address to The Young is bittersweet – “Chances/ dance off your wrists, each day ready,// sprites in your bones and spite not yet/ swollen, not yet set.” Carelessness mingles with confidence and there is an obvious attraction in the openness of the young to the new; also, however, a lack of perspective among those who believe that “Now/ is not a pinpoint but
a sprawling realm.”The poem is neither an attack on the young, nor mild regret at lost chances, but an angry reflection on how opportunities arise at the very stage in life when people are often ill-equipped to take meaningful advantage of them.

Confronted by The Beautiful, the plain feel an ache “to prize and praise.” Ultimately, we:

desire them but cannot want such order.
We stand, mouths open, and cannot help
stammering our secrets, nailed to water.

We stammer (which made me think of ‘hammer’ by association) out what’s most precious to us in the absence of aesthetic advantage, but it’s all useless. The devastating, Keatsian “nailed to water” recalls that, earlier, the plain are “walked past/ in the drowned streets” while the beautiful are “vessels of wonder” who nevertheless “drift unapproached, gazed never-selves.”The subtle imagery complicates the poem’s ideas. There is a world of both difference and similarity between those who are “nailed to water” and those who “drift unapproached.” By the time we read The Damned, which bitterly recounts the British obsession with taking down those it previously raised to fame and fortune, youth and beauty have become a backdrop to a country “simmering with hatred.”

Lumsden’s poems have never been straightforward. On one level, they are usually easy to make sense of, but there’s more going on than meets the eye, and their tension – whether between ugly and beautiful, man and woman, real and imaginary – isn’t simplistically delineated or resolved. Jackpot outlines the “season’s triumphs” – not the obvious triumphs, but “brackish water gleaming,” a barnyard reeling “with shadowy dens for hiding in.” Lumsden notes the cruel depths below a bridge and that no one yet:

will venture a name for
this stout boy striding out
whose fate it is to plunge
into the mile-deep pool
and rope the great bell, lost to us
these thousand years.

The shift from a skewed pastoral description to mythical journey and mysterious treasure resists summary or explanation. The fabulous lengths (“mile-deep”, “thousand years”) and the determinism of “whose fate it is” make the bell seem vital, but why the desire for an ancient bell? Perhaps it’s the myth that counts, the recovery of the missing and unsettling that matters.

Third Wish Wasted takes time to absorb, but it’s time worth spending. The forms blend experiment and tradition, the humour has serious (but not portentous) intent, and the language sings with unsettling music and invention.

C L Dallat’s The Year of Not Dancing largely pivots around the theme of memory and, in particular, the author’s mother who died when he was eleven. Not that most of the poems directly concern death, but they do keep visible what time would otherwise melt like snow, the “stuff we thought was lost, bright suddenness/ falling through a faded day” (In a Cold Climate). Like old songs, poems become a locus of memory and, therefore, of core identity.

The poems explore ideas with variety of form, voice and subject matter. Dallat often uses long sentences, stretching syntax to the limit, as if to echo complex thought processes that aren’t content to break off until they find some form of resolution. Dandelion Clock is an eighteen-line, single sentence poem, which begins with a split-second glance when you know how the person closest to you feels, but the poem is contingent:

if he’d woven at that very point
in the fractions that make up a life,
a tentative net of abstractions
to fling at the exiting moment,
at the light illusory flittering
schmetterling of oncelongago

If the ‘he’ of the poem had indeed woven his net before the metaphorical schmetterling’s (butterfly’s) flight, a necessary decision would have been made, but Dallat doesn’t consign this to an abstract realm. The decisions we later regard as vital to life and love can be practical or mundane. If the ‘he’ of the poem had indeed woven his net:

they’d have bought a paintshop in Redcar –
perhaps then he’d have known for sure.

It is the specificity of the penultimate line which makes the final observation arresting and, in many poems, Dallat specifically names people, places and brands. He is grappling with real questions of loss and memory, nothing theoretical. The Last Mortician concerns the death of an undertaker uncle, how it fell to Dallat’s father to build the coffin, just as it had fallen to the now deceased brother before him. Underpinning this is the unspoken memory of Dallat’s mother – unspoken, but overwhelmingly present in the closing stanza:

…what my father turned his hand to
he’d make a job of, as his new wife called us
to our own yard to take him tea
and her sugared, crumbling shortbread.

The “new wife” may be physically present but the presence of Dallat’s mother is palpable, as if she occupies the space of all grief since her death.

These are affecting and well-written poems. Close attention has been given to the rhythmic, sonic quality of words. Love on a Rock features “lighthouse children” out in the world, traumatised by loss of natural habitat, who yet display a spirit of survival, powered by memory. It illustrates subtle manipulation of sound and rhythm, and contains my favourite image from the book. Readers are asked to:

know them playing ecksy-oseys in winter,
hopscotching the one slab of cement
between storm door and fairweather jetty.

Slapstick, pathos, alarm and sheer determination – all captured and released inside three lines.

Angela Kirby’s second collection, Dirty Work, begins with a “most excellent donkey” (Trizonia) and zooms in on breasts, religion, nightclubs, sex, dinners and men before finishing off with parakeets. Her particular strengths lie in narrative pace and comic timing, in picking apart the nuances of familial relationships and in letting sharp humour and intelligence loose on virtually any subject.

Threlkeld’s Bull, a prose poem, starts with the intriguing “At the beginning it is the tulip curtains, the light pouring through them, the dustfish rising and falling in the light…”The poem focuses on a church sports day. The tone is humorous, happy – except that subtle shadows fall on the scenes: a sheet’s warmth is “brief ”, the cherry-bright cheeks of the men may be “TB roses”, the widow Batty- Patty “runs here, there and everywhere.” Tragedy strikes, and at Mass, “To God who gives joy to my youth, say the altar-boys, but the choir sings De profundis, and where now is the joy?” The poem’s imagery makes clear that unadulterated joy was a child’s illusion, but also questions what is lost by this discovery.

I was impressed by Kirby’s lyrical pieces, such as In The Family with its memorable opening line (“A nonconformist wind comes coldly off the Broads”) and creatively disturbing imagery, in which men sit to eat:

their jaws churning like tractor wheels
in mud, but the girl at the kitchen window

is silent, hemmed in by a triangulation of webs.
She leans against the sink, stares into a garden

drenched in cuckoo-spit

This distorted pastoral scene sets up the horror to come in a convincing and affecting way.

A few poems were less effective, in particular, I Want To Tell Her, which concerns a sad woman. The narrator wants to tell the woman she hopes a man will kiss her “down-turned mouth/ back into laughter.” The writing is flat, but expresses sentiment that seems sincere. However, the noticeable repetition of “with a bit of luck” towards the end gave me an impression of cynical irony over the woman’s chances, which was confusing. That said, these poems aren’t representative of this strong collection. The closing poem, A Question of Green Parakeets, was a highlight, a humorous and intelligent reflection on time (whether linear or circular) and the joy of good food and company in the here and now. Where is the joy? Some of it, balanced by loss and tragedy, is right here in this book.

« Back to Magma 45