Emotional difficulties lie behind both these pamphlets. For Tait, love ends repeatedly in strange, uplifted sadnesses. For Irving, fear and unreason lie in wait. Overall, Irving’s view is the bleaker, as some of her last lines testify:
“..I stand like a corpse for a crow.” (No Matter)
“wait, at 17, to be destroyed.” (Ittan-Momen)
“breaking your sick, skinny neck.” (Pathogenesis)
Tait concludes his poems more gently and lyrically:
“[these richnesses].. drop as bells through churches.” (Heart)
“.. the clack of the track applauding you.” (Kenilworth)
“..the innumerate miles/of old light between us, and me in answer.” (Self-Portrait with Headtorch)
There’s gritty trouble afoot in Irving’s subjects: trouble understanding the world, relating to it, and expressing it. Poetry provides her with a good pry-bar to shift the weights of mental sickness, jealousy, teenage angst, and witchcraft and uncover what lies below. Her references are rangy – classical mythology, Japanese legend, the Caribbean, 1960s pop! Sometimes I felt she’d overestimated me, though, and I longed to understand better. Reading a Sphinx review by DA Prince, I finally realised that the “Cat” in ‘No Matter’ was Cat Stevens! Only with Prince’s help could I fully appreciate “There’s Cat singing, Here she comes now..” and “Yes, Cat. Her love is indeed oh so/fine…”.
I admired Irving’s prosody – the sustained rhymes throughout ‘No Matter,’ the use of only three different words to end all 24 lines of ‘Three Betrayed Lieutenants’, and the quirky inverted rhymes of ‘Laura’. I liked Irving best for this playfulness. But often, I struggled to locate myself, as for example in ‘Honey Badger’:
To forget me, you square up to a leopard.
He a flecked bullet, you a cluster of iron filings.
To drown me, you bait an alpha hyena.
He’s immense. You shed him like knitting.
These transitions bamboozled me!
‘Ittan-Momen,’ though, is a great poem, helped by notes explaining how this legendary strip of cloth falls from Japan’s sky to kill unsuspecting victims. The poem’s expression of terror in the unknown future is really accomplished. I adored the future victim’s interrogation of the buzz that actually heralds her demise “Bad electrics, a frisbee,/ Bee music?”
David Tait’s poems seem deeply felt. What’s more, he sees and hears interestingly, as in “headlights ricocheted midges” (‘North York Moor’) and “the clack of the track applauding you” (‘Kenilworth’).
In ‘The Night My Grandfather Died,’ an encounter with a rough-lipped farmer, under stark moonlight, is achingly lonely. Tait’s poems say so much, so economically. With his fresh, clear voice, he articulates the terrors and hurts of love without drowning there:
“Years on and not even the hurt
hurts, not even the vows we’ve said.
our love’s loose ends, blurred
to cigarettes, an unmade bed.
I often think of you in thread.” (‘In Thread’)
Although these are all love poems, Tait avoids cliché and often coins bright phrases like: “icy stars chirped through the cold –” (‘The Peacock in their Shed’), “the air ratcheted with pheasants” (‘North York Moor’), “a testament of love to rust in the rain” (‘Luzhkov Bridge’), “the sliding belt of train” (‘Cory and the Summer’). The title ‘Self-Portrait with Headtorch’ epitomises his talent for spotting bright details against dark backgrounds.
Every now and then, Tait treads on conventional pastoral paths, as in “If we went back/would you take my hand // and lead me to those fields.. (‘Wheat Fields Near Blaxhall’) and “one day you’ll be walking/between pylons and wind-farms/and the sound of a cello/will come in on the wind” (‘love chord’). But he offers remarkable release from the easily expected, having the fields “crowd-surf” in the former, and introducing emoticons into the latter, landscape.
What I like best about David Tait is his delightful subversions of our expectations, as explicitly stated in
The clichéd images are under red pen:
I no longer watch the rain fall
and you no longer curl up, sexy
on our sofa. The crackling fireplace,
though much loved, is out on its ear.
Instead, I have placed us in Columbia
which I know is a risk, since neither
of us has actually been there.
And he is good at gleaming newness. In his words, “happiness/comes sudden as a tin of red paint” (‘Cory and the Autumn’).
I want to read more of this poet.
Andrew Sclater has edited Darwin’s letters. His work was shortlisted for the Picador Poetry prize (2010) and has received a Northern Promise award (New Writing North 2011) and a New Writer’s Award (Scottish Book Trust 2012).
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)