Matthew Caley’s second collection comes wrapped in a bright yellow cover with electric shock hazard warning signs. It doesn’t disappoint. From the first page to the last, the book crackles with linguistic inventiveness – rhymes, puns, alliteration, assonance, formal games and recherché vocabulary. It is also stuffed like a magpie’s nest with scraps of high and low culture. The obvious comparison is with Muldoon – the playfulness, the self-conscious postmodern cleverness, the outrageous rhymes, the formal liberties (especially with the sonnet), and not least, the evident confidence in his own abilities. Yet while Muldoon is at home in the pastoral, Caley is thoroughly urban, letting off his dazzling verbal pyrotechnics on city streets: in a Brixton gutter, where he eulogises a used condom as a “Squished jellyfish of desire, trodden under the fly-boy trainers / Of crack-dealers by the Taxi-rank and noodle-bar”; in “the runneled air out of Seven Sisters” where he eavesdrops on two “old crones… on the prowl / for an Arctic Fleece”; and on the “2A night-bus”, where the ubiquitous “Dandelion & Burdock bottle / worried the whole length of the upper deck”. Another difference between the two poets is that whereas in Muldoon playful ambiguities can be seen partly as a response to the dangers of black-and-white thinking during the Northern Irish Troubles, in Caley they seem more like an attempt to capture the fractured, disorienting quality of 21st-century life. In an article for Magma 29 Caley hailed Ezra Pound as “a contemporary” and a common influence on himself and Muldoon, so it is perhaps Pound who ought to be considered the presiding spirit of this book.
Inevitably, Caley has been called a ‘poet’s poet’ because a love of words and patterns made with words is the most striking characteristic of his work. Though his subjects are interesting and various – including Barbie, nudity, The Dandy, Gethsemane, Manchester City, Muhammad Ali, Walt Disney, LSD, The Un-American Activities Committee, serendipity and Giacommetti – language takes centre stage. And entertains. I could read this book for the rhymes, like the ones in the list I’ve just quoted, all from Serendipity Ode. Within the opening three lines of the first page, Caley rhymes “Trakl” with “wedding-tackle”, the comic mixture of the erudite and erotic setting the tone for the collection. That’s a simple example, but things get more complex as Caley warms to his task. The first three lines of Of Books and their Vicissitudes rhyme “Gerard de Nerval” with “gravel”, “novel” and “navel”; the following poem is called The Novel, and the one after that, The Plot, repeats the rhymes on “gravel” and “novel”. So what? Well, apart from the innocent pleasures of verbal hide-and-seek with the reader, rhyming across poems in this way strengthens the thematic links within this series of poems about novels, narrative, character and plot. Which Caley also handles with remarkable deftness:
So, to précis the story: the birth, the waif,
grown to a rake then led astray; eros/agape; the beau in the feather-boa; the altar; the altercation;
the assignation with the slattern,
the split from the wife;
The Thanatossian glossary of pep-pills; the longeurs, jongleurs, the steep decline
– we can discern the usual pattern:
eros/agape; the gap, the life compiling sheaf by sheaf
until either you or he turn over
a new leaf – somewhere between the flypapers and the endpapers – and suffer
the lack of each other. Put down the biography. Sleep.
(Of Books and their Vicissitudes)
Here, “the usual pattern” of biography is simultaneously revealed and deconstructed by the rhymes and puns, and is itself superimposed on “the usual pattern” of the sonnet; no wonder Caley calls this the “unauthorised” version.
Elsewhere, the prosodic pedant in me was drawn to a poem titled ABBA CD – only to find it was a poem about an ABBA ‘best of’ CD, perfectly capturing the bittersweet feelings of rediscovering an album you associate with an ex-partner – and the irony that the most serious feelings can become associated with a piece of retro kitsch. Somehow Caley makes the poem both hilarious (“those resourceful Swedes … Benny and Bjorn, hamster-faced Svengalis”) and heartbreaking, as the music “raises your spectre back from the dead” and ends as “you retreat down a secret track, in a white shift, etiolated”. And you’ve probably guessed this is another sonnet – rhymed, inevitably, ABBAABBA CDCDCD.
I’ve looked at two examples in detail because the verbal intricacy of Caley’s writing merits close scrutiny, but I could easily have done the same with another twenty poems. Occasionally the dense texture of sound and allusion becomes slightly overwhelming, and it’s time for a break. But Caley can also be downright funny: Pliny the Elder chats up a redhead, telling her “that Pliny the Younger was actually older than Pliny the Elder”; a monologue finishes with the words “If I’m unapologetic, then I’m sorry”; and received ideas about versification are mercilessly lampooned:
Inversion. We must stamp out inversion
from our prosody. We don’t live in Arcady
and this is real life, not some rhapsody
translated from the Persian.
Perhaps John Stammers is being optimistic when he suggests that Caley has a readership-in-waiting composed of “everyone” – the sheer virtuosity of his technical displays may be too extravagant for some. But again and again, as I devoured The Scene of My Former Triumph, I found myself scratching my head and wondering why such an assured and inventive writer is not better known.
The only flies in the ointment were numerous typos that became more irritating as the book went on. After reading “aperetif” for “apéritif”, “alsation” for “Alsatian”, “raw plugs” for “rawl-plugs”, “Longtitude” for “Longitude”, and “artic fleece” for “arctic fleece” three times in the same poem, I began to wish that the Wrecking Ball Press had invested as much care in their proofreading as they have done in their excellent design and printing. This is particularly important given Caley’s predilection for unusual words – the typos are in danger of spoiling their carefully considered effect.
I was asked to review Sarah Wardle’s Score! “because you like football” – not something that can be taken for granted among poetry reviewers, apparently. Which seems a shame, since football and poetry have a lot in common: Wardle points out in an interview for ideasfactory.com that football is “all about passion and emotion”; as ‘the beautiful game’ it has an aesthetic appeal arguably comparable to poetry (when I say ‘arguably’ I mean this statement usually leads to an argument); and it is one of the few spheres of life in which an oral, anonymous, genuinely demotic form of poetry survives, in the fans’ chants and songs.
Dedicated “To Tottenham Hotspur F.C.”, Score!’s cover sports a back-of-the net photo of Robbie Keane scoring against Burnley, and the first section of the book consists of poems written as Spurs’ Poet-in-Residence. Sadly, I can’t help feeling these ‘football poems’ have fallen between two stools. Wardle has clearly made an effort to make the poems clear and accessible, in keeping with the populist subject-matter, but they lack either the pithy zest of the best football chants or the subtlety of more ‘literary’ verse. Wardle’s preference for half-rhymes serves her well elsewhere in this collection, but some of the Spurs poems are crying out for a rousing full rhyme, as at the end of her sonnet about Jermain Defoe:
Only by adventure can a son lose
the travelled path so as then to find
the true score and green at the tunnel’s end.
When full rhyme is used, however, the result veers perilously close to doggerel:
You can study the laws of physics,
balance equations of speed and spin,
take doctorates in aerodynamics,
or curl it like Keane and get it in.
(Audere Est Facere)
The rhythmic awkwardness of the last line quoted is compounded by the fact that there’s no compelling reason to rhyme on “in”; it’s not an interesting word, nor used in a familiar football phrase unlike, say, ‘curl it in’. Unfortunately this is not the only example of clumsiness (or carelessness) in the book. Others include the loosely written central stanza of By Hart:
I’m filled with longing for the Lane,
the tribe’s contagious madness,
the proximity of agreement,
vocal alliance of the crowd,
multiplying the collective mind,
wearing its heart out loud.
The sheer banality of phrases such as “the tribe’s contagious madness”, “the proximity of agreement” or “wearing its heart out loud” give the impression of a poet talking down to her football audience.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Wardle. She shows ambition in attempting to write public poetry – not just in her football poems, but in several pieces dealing with politics, the media and the environment – at a time when many poets are content to limit themselves to the private sphere. She certainly has novelty on her side in To an Ex-OUCA [Oxford University Conservative Association] President, in the year of Margaret Thatcher’s 80th birthday and 30th anniversary of her election as Tory leader. Apart from Philip Larkin, I can’t recall another poet so fulsome in praise of Mrs Thatcher. But an original viewpoint doesn’t count for much when this is the result:
Remember, remember, the traitors’ duplicity,
when the Mother of Parliament faced disloyalty
and Britannia was knifed in the womb of democracy,
as white brethren repudiated matriarchy
with collective ingratitude and insanity,
though she’d steered their party to electoral victory
with a love-hate mandate from her country,
My first thought was that this must be a parody. My second was “McGonagall”. And my third was a hope that “white brethren” has an innocuous meaning of which I am unaware. And there are another five verses with the same rhyme – whereas Caley can make a virtue of a monorhyme, this is merely monotonous. The poem did become slightly more resonant via Google, which informed me that one of the OUCA presidents of the 1980s was one Sarah Wardle of Lincoln College, Oxford.
Score! does pick up towards the end, with a series of touching and memorable poems about family members, such as Premonition, Emily’s Voice and Frederick Maclean Wardle; and Breakthrough and Pacific Storm offer chilling insights into the experience of mental illness. Glimpses like this show that Wardle can write well, and make me wish that more care had been taken to edit out the filler material that is in danger of obscuring her talent in Score!.
After two second collections, I turned to a debut in Christopher James’ The Invention of Butterfly. If Caley’s excellence is in word play, James’ strengths are in narrative and metaphor, revealing the fantastic in the real and giving fantasy the substance of reality. Here are the opening lines of the book, from Bankruptcy at the Sea Dragon Aquarium:
The sea-horses are forlorn,
they sink like keys dropped to the bottom.
Over the years, son, its possible they have
acquired a rudimentary understanding
of book-keeping; by now, they may also suspect
that ten-hour whist-drives in the back room
are not good for business.
The key image is visually exact, with a chunkiness that anchors the mini-fantasia of the sea-horses’ thoughts. It’s a classic example of persuasion by degrees – because James has shown us the sea-horses so vividly and clearly, we are more likely to entertain the idea of their concern for book-keeping and whist. He uses this technique to beguiling effect throughout the book. The following poem is boldly titled Norfolk is Heading Out to Sea, and by the end of the first stanza, with the help of more vivid metaphors, we are half-way to believing it:
It began with the twang of a telegraph wire
snapping like a banjo spring above the trees.
Only the pigs heard the note of caution.
Not until bridges began to stretch like spaghetti
and an entire barn burst like a Christmas cracker,
did they send someone round to take a look.
Detail by absorbing detail, James shows us the county border turn into a “trench”, widen to a “gap” and deepen to a “chasm”, with a cleverly-placed line-break as “Hayfields parted / like the breaking of bread”. By the time he tells us “opinion is divided” we are in a weird landscape, vividly concrete yet suggestively conceptual:
By now, a line had been drawn, from Huntstanton
to Southwold, as if respectful of county borders.
Inevitably, there were whispers of devolution.
Even Government Ministers start producing memorable metaphors, as a Cabinet spokesman announces “East Anglia is breaking off like a piece of cake”. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of this poem is that James never seems to be pursuing a hidden agenda, political or otherwise; though the bizarre fantasy clearly has some serious implications, you get the feeling he is doing the whole thing out of sheer mischief and delight.
These examples illustrate the vividness of James’ imagination, but you have to read the whole book to appreciate its variety. Be prepared for an ice-age in modern London, a fire in an ice house, a musical safecracker, a chocaholic saint, a deep-frozen Victorian cyclist, a handwritten national newspaper, Ernest Hemingway “wrestling with a combination lock” in Covent Garden, and Anthony Trollope in the cockpit of Thunderbird Two. Throughout, James’ Muse is in the details. We have already seen how he uses them to give credence to an unlikely story. Elsewhere the images have a breathtaking cleverness and delicacy, such as the glass false top in the lid of a jewellery box, which protects its contents because “a thief must face his own reflection / before breaking it open” (The Last Prank of the Marionette) or “the single white cloud” that “billowed like a white tent / pitched in a field of English lavender” (Redundancy on the Mass Transit Railway). And in Re-Pointing the Stones the details accrue like clues in a mystery, which I didn’t solve until near the end of the poem. I won’t spoil the surprise, so if you want to know the answer you’ll need to get a copy for yourself.