“You forget parties”

Much Possessed
John Foggin
(Smith / Doorstop, £9.95)

Reviewed by Helena Nelson

Much Possessed is packed with people. Nearly a quarter of the poems are dramatic monologues from characters as various as Lucifer, Richard III, Myra Hindley, and one of John Milton’s daughters. John Foggin is an excellent entertainer: there are numerous switches and changes of costume, as well as considerable skill in voice and technique. The acknowledgements confirm the poet as a competition winner several times, and this comes as no surprise. Again and again I had the sense of satisfying and pleasurable performance, well executed.

But the pieces I most remember feel personal, though of course one is never wholly sure whether it’s another mask. ‘Cold Comfort’, for example, recalls a teenage party from the point of view of an older man:

the way you made do
with being thin and wearing black
and James-Dean-squinting through the smoke.
Enigmatic dark and tragic
except that it was Orbison, except that it was
Only the Lonely, except that it was
When will I be loved

Yes, I feel I’ve ‘been there’. And although the musical references date the occasion, I think the situation’s timeless. I specially like the way the poet uses second person to draw the reader in, and then switches inside one stanza from second to first – so there’s a shock of immediacy as he ‘owns’ the experience:

[ … ] and you really
love her because that’s what you do
and that’s what I did, then,

which is why when she said
that someone else had gone
and would I walk her home
then that’s what I did

The simplicity of the language here – its naked honesty – is disarming. The sort-of-a-joke about the teenager with his James-Dean squint has gone. He does what he does. Because. And the night is unutterably cold but beautiful. And though the poem begins “You forget parties”, it ends with something he can’t ever forget—those fields “glittery as glee”; “the light turned upon its head” and the sky “orange-blue like the nimbus of a moon”. Now there’s a memory for you!

There’s something similar in ‘It was a morning like this’ and ‘A Weak Force’. Each starts in the second person and later switches to an ‘I’ account. You could describe the first of these as a dramatic monologue – but it feels true:

[ … ]                The sun shone.
It was July. It was a morning like this,
your ex-wife at the back door,
and why would she tell you
your son was dead, or had died,
or had been in an accident
on a morning like this still
not fully woken, a morning of sun

Maybe I think it’s true precisely because of the reticence at the start. There are experiences you don’t want to own, although you must. By the end of the poem, the speaking voice has moved from ‘you,’ via ‘we’, to ‘I’:

one young copper saying that
he didn’t think it made sense
for cannabis to be illegal and
what harm did it do really and
how it wasted everybody’s time
and I don’t know why I’d remember
that except it was a morning like this
I learned what waste might mean.

I don’t want to suggest that personal writing is more valuable than the other kind – that I’d rather read John Foggin’s experience than John Milton’s daughter’s – but there is a point at which an accomplished entertainer becomes more than that. I think the poet achieves this several times in his memorable debut collection.

*

In Magma 68, you’ll also find reviews by Helena Nelson of Field by Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman) and The Occupant by Jane Draycott (Carcanet, £9.99).