Some say that ‘satire’ is dead. Perhaps ‘light verse’ has gone the same way; after all, much recent poetry has increasingly eluded strict classifications like ‘serious’ or ‘light’, preferring to throw everything in for a kaleidoscopic look at life. If Evans-Bush’s wide-ranging, coherent second collection is anything to go by, I’m glad. In it, readers are transported into tradition and back again; into an American childhood then a present London. We encounter forms, registers and dictions both baroque and contemporary. We explore art, music, love, religion (‘Meditation on a Freudian’s Lip’ bends and warps the line “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet”, demonstrating how religious rhetoric gets run through the mill of authentic life and experience). We reconsider famous faces including Jesus, Freud and Bob Dylan (‘Overland Homesick Blues’ also evokes the rhythm and rhyme patterns of neo-folk legend Tom Waits).
This intermingling is evident from the very first line-break, which bumps comedy against perhaps more typical ‘poetic’ expectations: “So I said to Mark, this is no time for more / whimsical gravitas!” (‘Talk’). The poem crams its lines with the breathless banter of the cosmopolitan everyplace. Dashes are scattered throughout to introduce interrupting speakers. I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes to blend units of meaning, image and sound for brevity, discomfort and a mischievous ambiguity:
…But then Gavin interrupt – And what’s
the point of talking about this stuff anyway. I hate
talking about this stuff. You think anybody even – We had
Patti here last month and interestingly enough she
agree – Well swivel your chair, you’re not the one
listening are you?
‘The Love Ditty of an ‘eartsick Pirate’ is one of the collection’s strongest mission statements, being both a parody of, and homage to, Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’: “It’s time we be goin’, me hearty, avast! / When the night’s nailed up its colours to its mast / Like some swab loaded to the gunn’les ‘n’ lashed to the plank”. Its vibrant revelling in language makes it both farcical and highly respectful to its sources. Even formal details of Eliot’s original are kept, like repetition: “Arrr, th’mist what do rub itself upon yon portholes, / The ghoulish-coloured mist that be rubbin’ its muzzle on yon portholes.” The questioning of received tradition is a major theme in the collection, and the poem which most plainly demonstrates the postmodern voice challenging things as they say they are is also, possibly, the shortest: “it says it isn’t / a pipe / but it is” (‘dear m magritte’).
Humour is never far away from poignant lyricism, however. In ‘The Best Scarf in London: a Picaresque’: “I always love the moment you appear, / sudden and entire, where just a second / ago was air.” Later, our egg gets printed, when the scarf “spreads like the egg that promises everything, / new life and fragile shell, the broken secret, / delicate murmur light as your breath by my ear”.
‘Hammershoi’ is a moving sequence of five ekphrastic vignettes around the Danish artist. In ‘Interior, With Coffeepot’:
‘Not only is the artist’, he says, ‘a child.’
‘He is an only child.’ His wife sits by herself.
He sits by himself. They are joined together
by the two ends of the brush.’
These poems enact this whole collection’s achievement: to ‘join together’ elements oft-considered mutually exclusive for a funny, serious, intelligent whole. When printed, Evans-Bush reminds us, “an egg is never just an egg”: it’s a never-changing image of things always changing; a container showing us life as it was, is, and will be. Egg Printing Explained is more than a collection: it’s a record.
Egg Printing Explained by Katy Evans-Bush is published by Salt, 2011, £7.99.