Clare Pollard reviews Chris McCabe’s Zeppelins (Salt £12.99), Jacqueline Saphra’s Rock’n’Roll Mamma (Flarestack £3.50) and Mark Waldron’s The Brand New Dark (Salt £12.99)
In Mark Waldron’s striking poem Welcome to Disneyworld, a Mickey-Mouse impersonator is trapped in his suit with an itch, unable to scratch it with his “fat, white fingers” and breathing in the smell “of last night’s beer / and of Minnie”. It ends
Sometimes I think she looks at me
with her unblinking eyes
and her fixed smile.
We are all in Disneyland, the poem implies – isolated in our individual worlds of bingeing and sex; unable to satisfy our itches in a world of surfaces. This is a society where connections between people are superficial, and may even be imaginary. And in such a place, what is the role of a poet? If it is only to entertain, or to wallow in our personal feelings or memories, then perhaps we are no better than the speaker as he breathes the stale air inside his suit. Instead, all three of these new collections suggest that the writer’s role is, as Chris McCabe declares in Amsterdam, “Poet as connexion-maker”.
It is Chris McCabe who perhaps takes this furthest. A blurb from Iain Sinclair, claiming that McCabe “shudders, on public transport, through a topography restored by love” immediately signals McCabe’s interest in psychogeography. As practised by writers such as Sinclair, Will Self and Stewart Home, psychogeography celebrates chance and coincidence, exploring place to find hidden patterns, histories and links. Similarly, in the sonnet sequence The Transmidland Liverpool to London Express, McCabe’s journey becomes a series of unexpected connections and riffs, taking in signage, politics, memory and myth. We encounter a dizzying array of references – Barry MacSweeney, John Peel, Findus Crispy Pancakes, bird flu, St Augustine, the Mona Lisa, Pete Doherty – and learn that “At East Finchley / tube lies McDonalds HQ”.
This is a daring project, and produces mixed results. Sometimes it is exhilarating – a modern poetics that mimics our information overload and displays huge curiosity and breadth. At other times, the endless associations just seem arbitrary and wearing. Whilst The Transmidland works, The Nuptials is a diary of fragments that seems to have forgotten the general reader. It is understandable that the poet wants to memorialise his Spanish honeymoon, but hard to see what the audience is meant to get out of sketchy descriptions like “Off the Ramblas / The Queen Vic pub / with Fosters on tap”, interspersed with verbal sketches of Miros and Picassos, and banal scenes like this:
I write each night
as you take your bath
the poured rioja
connects us together –
‘We’re having a great holiday
McCabe’s constant use of clashing registers also means it can be hard to locate meaning. In this babel of voices, which ones are we supposed to take seriously? It is sometimes hard to credit the writer of such beautiful lines as “chestnuts button-up September streets” with such bad ones as the description of love “Like the foetus of a dove tattooed to hot tarmac” – that odd choice of “foetus”, the strained over-elaborate comparison. Is this deliberately over-the-top? I couldn’t tell.
When McCabe’s project does work, though, there is no doubt he is a poet of great power, and his political poetry is particularly thrilling. Axis is, written after the 7th July bombings, ends brilliantly with the headline: “Blasts Won’t Shake UK Economy”. And Abu Ghraib is an important poem, using a devastating string of images to show how ideology is projected onto flesh:
The body as beggar
The body as banquet
The body as endgame
The body as bed-in
The body as dogbait
The body as batman
The body as party game.
Here McCabe is exposing unexpected links in a way that feels revelatory.
Jacqueline Saphra’s poetry also seems to be about making connections, but rather than the ludic leaps of psychogeography, her work is concerned with the human need to communicate. Many of her poems are addressed to a ‘you’ that the speaker is afraid will not understand or hear. In The White Forest she scatters her “word-seeds” and “a wall of white trees grows between us”. “Can you hear me?” she asks. “I’m trying / to reach you through this blizzard of ink.” Similarly, in Thin Ice “Talking to you is like / skimming twigs across / the dead glass skin / of a lake in winter”. Like Waldron’s Mickey Mouse, her speakers often seem to be isolated. Even those closest to us are unknowable, as in The Boy who Flew in his Sleep where a mother watches her son in his bed – “the flicker of small eyes / under private paper lids”. In the dark Mirror, Mirror a woman jealous of youth has lost any sense of the inner life of her children at all, seeing only “shameless replications; / luscious, taunting shadows”.
Yet there are moments when love can crash through these barriers. “Yesterday / you broke through,” we are told in The White Forest. “You wrote your name // across my heart.” The narrator of Flat Women defies those who live on “carpaccio and air” and embraces life and humanity, with her “daily arms perpetually / outstretched, waiting to let anyone in.” In Lambskin, the constant negotiations in relationships between intimacy and space are beautifully articulated, as the speaker drives her teenage son to his friend’s funeral: “Your long limbs cramping // in the back, the crunch of crisps, the crackled / beat of ipod.” “I reached out to bother you” she says, movingly, acknowledging his discomfort in her longing for physical touch. The themes of loss and maternal love come together in the final, stunning image of:
lambs in the next field, brazen,
in the innocence of nudge and suckle,
their stupid-eyed, impatient mothers
feeding at the very edge of spring.
There are a couple of weaker notes in the collection, such as the cheesy 21st Century Breast that begins “Here we are, heavenly orbs / worshipped anew in this era / of the cleavage.” (There is something inherently icky about the idea of breasts talking, particularly in this cod-poetic way). I’m also a bit unsure about the collection’s lairy pink and yellow cover, and title Rock ‘n’ Roll Mamma – they seem part of an attempt to market Saphra as ‘feisty’, but actually undersell her strengths, making the collection look rather throwaway and glib. Saphra is, in fact, a poet of great delicacy who deserves serious readers.
Mark Waldron’s The Brand New Dark is also very impressive. The biographical note says that he “writes adverts for a living”, so I opened it expecting to find something slick and full of easy profundities. Waldron is certainly a memorable phrase-maker – a queen listens to a “rummaging brook”; the toilet flushes with “a miserably oh, whatever.” In fact, though, this is poetry as anti-advertising – a blistering attack on contemporary mores that makes us wonder about Waldron’s view of his job. Poem after poem points out the folly of our perpetual desire and self-obsession. In the complex Carrier, the speaker acknowledges that he could make the goods container represent almost anything: “Fact: the carrier’s salted sides might be meat, / or my unhappiness, or my father, or something that for the moment, /slips my mind.” The gloss of advertising is continually exposed as disease. In My friend Marcie is on the Insensate Beach we find
She’s squatting in her protest, her hollered rage at me,
her blasphemy, is in the shine on the magazine.
Its gloss is bouncing up all over Marcie like a rash.
Though there is some post-modern fun with poems about The Magic Roundabout, the tone is generally bleak, and contemporary culture shown to be a vast mirage. Even sausages are imaged as “wee circus elephants, / gripping the tail of the one that goes before, / marching uncertainly away from death.” Their lack of resemblance to real meat becomes part of our denial of mortality – they are twee, Disneyfied objects embodying our fear and herd-instinct. In Poor Derek, a reply to Hamlet’s Poor Yorick speech with a “lukewarm brain” in hand, the kind of connections made on cyberspace are exposed as the poem asks
what filth, what porn was conjured here,
was collaged from cut pieces of the world,
from stolen ghosts of girls made to appear
in skin-flicks played on silver screens unfurled
like strips of cartilage within this nut
of thinking meat?
The grand narratives may have collapsed, but this does not stop people constructing their own stories, and in a world devoted to individual satisfaction these can be dangerous. This is urgent, thought-provoking poetry – one of the most important debuts for a long time.
All these poets deal with a recognisable 21st century landscape. We live in fragmented times – a Britain of multiculturalism, broken communities and overwhelming choice – but people still want to find shared meaning and sense. These collections show that the “Poet as connexion-maker” may mimic the dizzying diversity of their world, but can also, at best, create real moments of communication.