Book Review: Play With Me, by Michael Pedersen

playwithmepederson

This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 18/06/14

Michael Pedersen’s aptly titled Play With Me is full of the writerly joy of playing with words, a delight in their sound and appearance as much as their meaning. Pedersen is drawn time and again to alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, rhymes and half‐rhymes, as if he is making patterns as much as poems; but his particular skill lies in combining this richly textured word‐play with his powers of storytelling.

‘Colmar’ begins as a straightforward narrative about a school French exchange. It is a self‐effacing poem which mocks the speaker’s past pretentiousness and the faux‐pas of his thirteen‐year‐old self. There are some lovely, whimsical similes here—’linked / together like salted pretzels’—and the long lines and enjambment give the poem a flowing, narrative feel. It’s a comical piece, but at its end the poem makes a serious point about first love and poetry alike:

[…] a poem is like a bomb,
a bomb like a poem; assembled correctly, both
explode, they don’t arrive, become
instantly important—as she did and could again.

‘RIP Porty High School’ concerns the demolition of a school, filled with sci‐fi film imagery—’Armageddon’, ‘space-age’, ‘portals’—undercut with old wifies speaking Scots lingo (‘It’s the parliament / aw over again’) which brings the poem back down to earth. Borderline‐absurd alumni of the school are listed (Gail Porter, Kenny Anderson, James Carlin), and this sense of absurdity is continued with references to ‘Mr Big Banana’, ‘Bojangles’ and ‘Thai brides’. The poem ends with a fantasy of the poet carrying stacks of Collected Poems bearing his name on their spines; he is teasing himself as much as he is teasing others.

‘Midnight Cowboys’ has a mythological feel as a father and son set off to shoot a star down from the sky with a bullet, but instead witness a real shooting star. It’s a fantastical but sad story with a moral at its end, just like a fairy‐tale. The stars become ‘brilliant bulbs’ which ‘dangle like decorations’ or else are plucked from the sky ‘like a thistle from the cairns’. They then move from being bulbs and thistles to fruit, a strangely successful mingling of metaphors: ‘for such beauties are screwed in / tight, falling only when ripe.’

‘Laddie at Heart’ relates the story of the poet’s five‐year‐old self telling a lie about a man trying to abduct him. The police become involved, which earns the boy the attention he craved: ‘tuckshop booty and lip kisses’. This is shown to be a merely silly thing to do aged five, but ‘It’s what I do / at 25 that gets my mother going’, he says, ending the poem with a sting in its tail.

‘Greenhouse Ganglands’ evokes the natural world as sensual and vaguely predatory: ‘Buttercups solicit ladybirds, pansies woo bees, / sparrows raid the strawberries.’ The speaker’s mum peacefully gardens amongst the looming Edinburgh landscape as the place crawls with life. He describes the memory of this as ‘my teenage years’ elixir’, gentle thoughts sustaining him like a magic potion in darker years when personal traumas occurred and ‘beetles / crunched underfoot like celery’.

‘Quitting Cheese’ looks back at a doomed relationship, describing a day spent with an ex‐girlfriend in Nottingham, with all the pubs, parks and picnics that entails:

we
feasted on each other, spinning
the conversational equivalent
of a roly‐poly.

The pair revisits Nottingham but things just aren’t the same; the weather is harsher—’winds / scraped against our bones’—and he has a feeling of ‘a cheese cube too many, / bellyache, that fateful feeling / of having peaked too early.’ ‘Shapes of Every Size’ explores how we can be damaged by a past relationship such as this, whilst attempting to begin a new one:

This is the way to walk
when in love with your new shoes,
still blistered
by the old pair.

‘Feathers and Cream’ likens a story from the past to ‘a secret / conglomerate of crumbs / smooshed into a carpet’. The speaker relates memories of the death of his friend’s father, the strange rumour about his corpse being taken to the dump, ‘tipped from skip to local dump, / where metallic, apocalyptic jaws / minced through his brittle bones.’ The mundane truth is bad enough without this obscene rumour, which his friend is badly damaged by. The poem trips back to a time before the tragedy, when he and his friend were ‘fourteen forever— / paused in fairytale parlours’, a fleeting, sadly sweet image.

‘Owen’, about a lost friendship, is full of startling similes. Owen’s hair is all ‘long black locks / like dirty cat tails’ and his lungs are ‘power stations’. ‘C.J. Easton’ mingles the mundane and exotic—’As pylons streak the sky / a ferocious sun sets over Glasgow, / bleeding, looking almost African’—and paints a lover’s body as ‘that puny frame, its bag of bones / in winsome skin, will coruscate / and carousel’, a gorgeously weird description.

‘Manchester John’, about a friend who becomes brain‐damaged after an overdose, describes drug‐use in a perversely positive and surreal fashion: ‘medical diction fails to touch / on the warm tingling bliss of horse / trotting up the arm’. But now his friend is ‘Zimmer-framed, / shuffling as if you walked / on constant snow’, and the speaker is no more than an ‘ambulance hitchhiker’, filled with guilt and shame at being complicit in his friend’s problem.

‘The Raven by My Writing Desk’, with its shades of Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe, is another self‐flagellating poem. The ravens’ ‘black tongues ooze like poisonous slugs— / medusa among the animals’, and the poet paints himself as equally monstrous:

next time
I wield a conversational pickaxe
with mistimed velocity
or head off on a squint orbit,
bear in mind, I probably ruined my night too.

The ravens haunt him like bad memories, stalking him as weird harbingers of death, and his role as a writer becomes inherent in this.

‘Tom Buchan (1931-1995)’ celebrates the famous Scots poet, whose eloquence is beautifully evoked by Pederson: ‘so / like the comets flew he spoke’. He describes Buchan as ‘a turtle-necked warrior’, painting a funny and affectionate picture of the man, and there is also a sense of affinity here between the old and younger poet: ‘It’s possible we were, at some point, synched / in time and place’. ‘Edinburgh Festival’ evokes the weather and geography of the city with panache, with its rain that ‘skelps make‐up from faces’. The faintly depressing aftermath of the festival is knowingly described: ‘Come September, posters / in gutters turn to pulpy gruel’. No matter how well or badly things go for performers, it will all turn to mush in the end.

The dazzling, stand‐out ‘Cowgate Syvers’ describes Edinburgh stairwells as:

erudite elders: folded skins
and muckle beards they’re twizzling
constantly, each a bard of handsome ken,
a hoarder of cadged chronicles.

It’s a romantic image, but funny too, and wonderfully original:

As for the rats,
gremlins and even more sinister
goings‐on they host … well, we can’t
all choose who comes to visit,
or at what hour they call.

This mixture of horror and humour, the light and the dark, infuses the collection, though ‘Heredity’, written in Scots dialect, is a bleaker affair exploring inherited violence: ‘Like his faither afore him, / ma faither kicked fuck oot ma maither, / ma maither battered us bairns’. The speaker is capable of violence too, except now it’s (apparently) just the pets that get it: ‘clobbering / only the cat.’

‘Jobseeker’ will strike anyone who has ever gone through the degradation of claiming benefits: ‘Like a marsupial conceals / a cub, I cradle a book / of Armitage’s poems’. It is sad that he has to hide this important side of himself, sad that he’s there in the first place. This poem is explicitly about the poet himself (‘come right this way, Mr Pedersen’), though all the poems in Play With Me share this feeling of intimacy and immediacy. ‘When I Fell in the Bog’ recounts the speaker almost drowning as a child, and the strange feeling that came over him when he did: ‘Funny thing— / when it seemed I was going under, / my body relaxed’, a ‘surprisingly Zen’ feeling at odds with the presumably normal response of dire panic.

‘In Marrakesh’ is one of a group of poems set in Cambodia and establishes the difference between tourists and locals, with ‘us piggy visitors’ set alongside the ‘ragged fingers’ of locals. ‘Newscast’ describes red roads that ‘clump, bubble and cook in the heat’ in a country where ‘Bees are bigger, beer is cheaper’. ‘Justice Locale’ recounts the tale of a boy killed by a 4×4 and the driver who is forcibly removed from his vehicle by local folk:

A seventy-strong siege
of swipes and stamps
leave him writhing
a crushed worm.

‘Arching Eyebrows and a Chalked Door’ describes, with hissing resonance, ‘cracked lips, thin as slits on wrists’, and ‘a gravy‐blooded, Xed, hexed body filled with AIDS.’ ‘Hello. I am Cambodia’ personifies the country, contrasting the picturesque ‘pina colada and sugared cherries’ with its bleak past:

I’ve forgotten
the old regime […]
My monuments await
restoration, half my population
is children.

‘Boom Town’ recounts the finding of an unexploded bomb, the differing reactions of tourists and locals: ‘At the whites full of worry, Khmers giggle’. The speaker’s reaction is one of fear: ‘something stirs inside my gut, / disturbs the sticky rice and stomach worms’. ‘From the Right Bank’ mingles humour with romantic imagery as the speaker:

limps
to the bank’s edge and spurts
triumphantly
out into the current
like a rogue pup, as the moon, giddy,
gawks from above.

‘Network: Cambodia’ likens the sun to a gang, a surprising and original image: ‘Sunrise springs from behind dustbins, / pours through alleys, pounds down streets / like a terrible gang’, the alliterative patterns of ‘my belly / bubbles full of fish’ adding to this rhythmic, playful but slightly sinister feel.

‘X Marks the Spot’ scrumptiously evokes the optimism of new love: ‘Life was a sack / of strawberries, the future, jams / and spice’; but then the speaker spies on his new love, looking through her phone and assuming infidelity where there is none, exposing how mistrust can spoil a good thing. ‘Expired Treasure / Broken Bulbs’ describes the wrecks of old vandalised buildings, with ‘mangled prams, / hijacked trolleys, / 80s electronics’ abandoned in a Burn. Pub landlord becomes ‘head honcho with first dibs / on the local munters’ whilst the ‘town beauty’ dreams of escaping abroad. The quotation marks round ‘abroad’ show the girl’s naivety and lack of concrete plans; it’s unlikely that she’ll ever escape.

‘Paris in Spring’ describes the speaker’s body as being wrecked by booze: ‘After three days of heavy saucing, / I am in tatters, bowels barking’. He reads of Paris in Spring from within a damp bus, and the contrast between his reading material and material surroundings could not be more marked. ‘Dead Skin and Stray Fingernails’ recounts the new inhabitants of the house where someone special used to live before ‘tragedy’ struck. He and this special person ‘forgot to finish / our most important conversation’ which sounds as if it will never be concluded. ‘Water Features’ describes a lover being left behind, with the speaker comparing himself and his lost love to water: ‘one of us running, / the other stilled’, ending the collection on a muted note. Playtime is over.

This is joyful, sensual, frequently heart‐wrenching poetry filled with a richness of language that is brought to life by Pedersen’s startling imagery and storytelling skills. Whether he’s in the gutters of Edinburgh or on the red roads of Marrakesh, his infectious delight in description and pattern‐making makes it a unique pleasure to play with Pedersen.

 
Jacqueline Thompson
Creative Writing PhD student
The University of Edinburgh
J.Thompson‐9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Play With Me by Michael Pedersen is published by Polygon, 2013.

Book Review: Ghost Moon, by Ron Butlin

9781907773778frcvr.indd

This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 18/06/14

Pity the poor heroine of Ron Butlin’s Ghost Moon. Maggie Davies is subjected to more abuse, rejection and humiliation than most mortals can stomach. Cast out of her parents’ home in 1950s Edinburgh for being pregnant and unmarried, we follow her as she veers from place to place, suffering torment after torment in a world that seems firmly set against her from the start. Men are cruel to her, women even crueller, and her pious, judgmental family shows her nothing but disdain. Even in the present day, as Maggie’s adult son Tom visits her in a care home, she is in the cruel grips of dementia, figures and events from her past merging with those of her present as the tangled threads of her life combine to torment her.

Narratives with such grim subject matter can often veer into voyeurism or mere titillation, descending finally into a sort of fictional misery memoir; but in the hands of a writer as skilled as Butlin something rather different happens.

For a start, the gender issues highlighted by Maggie’s status as a victim of misogyny provoke the reader’s righteous rage. The infuriating imbalance between the roles of men and women is expressed strikingly through Maggie’s thoughts:

Yes, far out at sea—that was where she really was. No land in sight and her only cargo her unborn child. Men, it seemed, always had some sort of harbour to make her. That was the nature of their world—a map of place names like Normandy, Amiens, Berlin. For men it was enough to identify aims and objectives, and then draw co‐ordinates—that done, and with bayonets fixed, they marched, marched, marched into the future, whatever the cost.

When Maggie goes against the ‘proper’ way of things and becomes an unmarried mother, the narrow and prescriptive labels stamped onto women at this time are revealed succinctly by Butlin in a few telling lines: ‘Girls became women became wives became mothers—that was the proper way of it, the only way. If a girl couldn’t wait, then she had to marry whoever made her pregnant. Call it divine intervention, call it Russian roulette.’

Worse still is the way in which women are penalised by a religion that operates on a system of breath-taking hypocrisy. The God worshipped by Maggie’s parents insists on neat hair but not on a mother supporting her daughter during a crisis. When a young Maggie sees her mother meticulously combing her hair, despite the fact that she is about to cover it up with a hat, she comments: ‘But no one sees through your hat, Mum’. God does, little one, replies her mother—and so do other women.

A particularly chilling scene involves Maggie’s parents pretending their daughter is simply not in their living room when she is, in fact, standing right in front of them. As she pleads with them to help her, they play the football on the radio louder and louder until they drown her out. When Maggie, defeated, goes upstairs to her bedroom she finds that it has been gutted.

Thank God, then, for the kindness of Maggie’s down-to-earth sister-in-law Jean, a baker who allows Maggie to stay above her place of work when she is cast out by her awful family. Garrulous Jean smokes, talk in a thick Scots dialect and offers Maggie respite from the harrowing events of her life: ‘It’s my own fault, Jean. If I hadn’t let myself be—’, says Maggie, blaming herself for her troubles. ‘Dinna talk daft,’ replies Jean. ‘That’s the wey men talk, but we ken better.’ Maggie, understandably, finds herself ‘storing up Jean’s cheerfulness inside her’ like an antidote.

When we hear how Maggie got pregnant in the first place—inside a thoroughly unpleasant man’s car—we realise she is really not to blame for her predicament:

The smell of the leather seats, the heavy rain clattering onto the thin metal roof only inches above her head. The offer of whisky from his hip flask […] The memory made her want to gag, to turn away like she was still trying to avoid the man’s lips, to squirm away from his touch.

Another upsettingly rape‐like encounter occurs when Norrie, a nasty acquaintance of Maggie’s, forces alcohol into her mouth and clamps his hand over it: ‘Guid lass’, he says. ‘We’ll hae some fun nou, you and me.’ When he realises that the struggling Maggie is pregnant his response is predictably caustic: ‘Fuck’s sake, Maggie. Fuck’s sake. Up the stick, an yer making me work fer it? Ye fucking keelie! […] Fucking hoor!’

And it’s not just men who attack Maggie. When she tries to better herself by getting a job in an office, a young female worker sabotages her chances with a few choice words: ‘Indicating Maggie with a nod of her head, Snooty Junior gave an emphatic cough, then leant down to whisper something into her boss’s ear.’ When Maggie leaves her baby in Woodstock House, an establishment which shelters babies before offering them up for adoption, she is told by the women working there that abandoning her baby is the best option for all concerned: ‘Getting upset like this would only make things worse, they told her. Always best to be separated as soon as possible. It was easier that way. Easier for everyone.’

Maggie is told to ‘forget all about’ her son; as if that were humanly possible. She is forbidden to breastfeed him, an infuriating command which goes against nature. Powerless, she is told by the women of Woodstock House: ‘[…] we’ve been very patient with you, letting you come and go as you please, letting you take him for a quick tour round the block from time to time …’, and, finally, is given no further access to her baby.

But Maggie is not just a one‐note victim in all this. She shows flashes of strength and defiance that are joyful to witness. After her parents’ rejection of her, Maggie, tormented by the relentless tick of their grandfather clock, snaps off its pendulum (with pleasingly castration‐like symbolism) and throws it in the sea: ‘Up into the air it rose, glittering as it arced briefly in the afternoon sun, suspended motionless for an instant before falling straight down into the blue‐green depths.’ When she hears her callous mother’s voice inside her head saying You’ve made your bed, now you have to lie on it she responds triumphantly: ‘”I will,” she heard herself reply out loud, “just watch me!”‘

Maggie seeks and finds employment in Fusco’s Fish Restaurant on Gorgie Road by displaying a similar level of gumption. She walks ‘straight in’ to the chip shop and bags herself a job, displaying little timidity. When the women of Woodstock House forbid her to breastfeed her baby she simply ‘shift(s) Tom to her other breast’. She uses fake personas and weaves a web of lies in order to gain a better job: ‘[…] during the week when she visited Tom at Woodstock House she’d say she was out at Gogarburn visiting her invalid husband; at the weekends she’d say she was going to Flotterstone to see Tom. A bit complicated, but couldn’t be helped.’ She proves herself to be a cunning and single‐minded survivor.

Alongside the plight of women, the plight of the elderly is tackled throughout Ghost Moon. When Maggie finds a suitable room to rent she walks in to find the remnants of the past inhabitant’s life:

The dead woman’s bed stood in the corner. Opposite was a family‐sized tombstone of a wardrobe that reeked of shoes, old clothes and camphor. The top of the dresser was a clutter of postcards, photographs, some letters in a rack, a comb, nailfile, a Present from Dunbar ashtray; wisps of greyish hair were tangled among the bristles of the hairbrush. Maggie dumped the lot into an old tartan shopping bag she found hanging behind the door, to go out in the next bin collection.

A whole life reduced to rubbish.

The care home in which present‐day Maggie lives also highlights this plight: ‘High‐backed armchairs lined up against the day‐room walls. Meals, meds, bath, bed […] The sky no longer yours. The TV that’s always on.’ The atmosphere of the old folk’s home is evoked with olfactory explicitness: ‘the overheated hall, into the combined smells of floral air‐freshener, yesterday’s macaroni cheese, urine, today’s stew and vegetables, laundry, disinfectant.’ Days bleed into one another with cloying monotony: ‘Thursday? Monday? Saturday? Different names for the one same day that slides backwards and forwards along one same week that never comes to an end, but keeps starting over keeps starting over keeps starting over …’

Butlin’s first‐person portrayal of Maggie’s struggles with dementia is moving and, at times, distressing. As we enter into Maggie’s head we feel her terror:

Struggling to get to your feet, pointing your finger at the screen: “That poor, poor woman. CAN’T SOMEDOBY DO SOMETHING? CAN’T SOMEBODY HELP HER? HELP HER HELP HER HELP HER!” Next moment it’s all turned to horse‐racing and a red‐faced man talking into a microphone. Which is nothing much, so you sit down again.

The horror of one’s own mind becoming an unreliable place is, for some, worse than death.

In split‐time books such as this there is usually a narrative thread preferred by the reader, and that thread (personally speaking) is usually the one set in the past. Butlin makes a sort of virtue of this imbalance by immersing his plot in the past, breaking it up with interludes set in the here‐and‐now which serve to highlight the themes of the meatier historical narrative. These interludes avoid tediousness thanks largely to Butlin’s poetic knack for stylish brevity. Tom’s point of view is less engaging than Maggie’s, but when we get a first‐person insight into the elderly Maggie’s situation the sadness of her present scenario is revealed by the way it slices cruelly into her thoughts of the past. Thinking of Michael, her great love, Maggie daydreams:

You’ll know him by the touch of his fingertips upon your face, their gentleness, his sightless eyes brimming with—
“Med time, Mrs Stewart.”

Such weighty themes are buoyed by Butlin’s gem‐like style of writing. His use of imagery is consistently playful, injecting light into the darkness of his protagonist’s situation. Whether he is describing Maggie’s bed as a pie (‘she could hardly wait to climb in under that welcoming crust and get baked to sleep’) or linking her longing for rest with the drudgery of her work in the chip shop (‘she’d stay in bed and enjoy a double‐shift of deep‐fried sleep’) his prose elevates the story into pleasurable territory. He captures the atmosphere and geography of 1950s Edinburgh, its streets and trams and shops, with panache, and whilst the subject matter is fraught with sorrow, Butlin’s stylish writing means the painful events of Ghost Moon, though never less than affecting, can be read with relish.

 

Jacqueline Thompson
Creative Writing PhD student
The University of Edinburgh
J.Thompson‐9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin is published by Salt, 2014.

Poetry Review: Yellow & Blue, by Thomas A. Clark

yellowandblue

This review first appeared in The Literateur Thursday 24 April 2014

The experience of reading Thomas A. Clark’s Yellow & Blue is much like taking a walk. The small and unassuming stanzas, resting in the clean white space of a page without capital letters or punctuation, lead us on a journey past sea rocks and skerries, gables and gardens, sandwort and shells, bog-cotton and birch, mountains and moss. Clark delights in simple, natural things and the power and beauty inherent in them:

 

————————————after rain
————————————briar leaves
————————————have a scent
————————————of apples

 

This is quiet, contemplative, Zen-like poetry that records what Kathleen Jamie termed a ‘walking-pace life’; a life in which time is taken to pay close and careful heed to the natural world surrounding us. As Clark puts it: ‘If we have been given the gift of the world, the very least we can do in return is give it our attention.’ His poems act as ‘little spaces of quiet where things can be seen clearly’.

Though Clark’s is a peaceful sort of poetry, Yellow & Blue is filled with a sense of liveliness and humour. It is poetry with a wink:

 

————————————here is a garden
————————————of tansy run riot
————————————around anyone
————————————bright enough
————————————to neglect it

 

Though he revels in rivers, flowers and mountains, he does not turn his back on human life. The stanzas which linger awhile on domestic scenes are some of the most powerful sections of Yellow & Blue:

 

————————————in a back parlour
————————————the best furniture
————————————is seldom used
————————————linen is folded
————————————neatly in a drawer
————————————fresh for an occasion
————————————that never arrives
————————————the clock ticking

 

The apparent simplicity of such stanzas belie the close attention Clark pays to language and sound. Indeed, this is poetry for the ear as well as the eye:

 

————————————in a wilderness
————————————or bewilderment
————————————of sandwort
————————————and bladder-wrack
————————————small shell place
————————————sheltered

 

So much is going on beneath the still surface of these lines; Clark’s work may be quiet and contemplative, but it is bustling with life. The visual and half-rhyming repetition of ‘wild’ in ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’ evokes the untamed nature of the landscape Clark is describing, and the alliterative quality of ‘shell’ and ‘sheltered’ gives an onomatopoeic effect of a hushing shush, the quiet nature of this sheltered place. Visual and aural patterns are created by the assonance of the ‘i’ in ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’, the ‘a’ in ‘sandwort’, ‘bladder’ and ‘wrack’, and the ‘e’ in ‘shell’ and ‘sheltered’, as well as by the consonance of the ‘d’ and ‘r’ in ‘wilderness’, ‘bewilderment’, ‘sandwort’, ‘bladder’ and ‘sheltered’. These patterns aptly echo the rhythmic, flowing quality of a well-paced walk.

There are so many layers to this one small stanza, which reflects the multi-faceted nature of the landscape Clark is describing; the open land may appear vast and clear, but look closer and you will find it packed full of the intricate details of living things. Such richly textured evocations of a peculiarly Scottish landscape are brought to life by the cadences and lilt of Clark’s words, their rhythmic quality and the patterns of sound that emerge as each line progresses. The multisyllabic ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’ are reduced to the shorter ‘sandwort’ and ‘bladder-wrack’, followed by the monosyllabic ‘small shell place’, ending in the one-word line ‘sheltered’, the hard ‘d’ acting as an aural full-stop and mirroring the simplifying, quieting act of finding shelter, of being enclosed and protected from the noisy elements.

Clark’s literary snapshots of his journey could be classified as ‘the art of the ordinary’, a term which highlights the painterly nature of his verbal landscapes. Robert Stacey has commented on the three categories into which Clark’s work falls – still life, landscape and domestic interior – referring to his poetry as ‘a still life in action’. This can be seen most clearly in lines like:

 

————————————by a window
————————————blue cornflowers
————————————in a yellow cup
————————————continually
————————————wake up

 

These ordinary objects are brought to life by Clark’s close attention, and the titular colours of yellow and blue are a recurring theme in his work. In one of his installations, the phrase ‘one blue moment’ is printed in blue on a white wall in a room containing a blue bedspread, and in another room the phrase:

 

————————————Anyone
————————————who comes
————————————to yellow
————————————wants more

 

is printed in yellow on a white wall beside a yellow wall. Such rooms, in which Clark’s words find the space to breath, demonstrate how his work does not fit quite so comfortably in magazines; the texts require a different kind of reading process. In book form, their spare, isolated situation on the pages of collections like Yellow & Blue provide this crucial breathing space. Poetry outside the clustered pages of a conventional book or magazine, in Clark’s words, ‘takes you by surprise’. Rather than being tucked away out of sight, arrived at through deliberate searching, it can be stumbled upon accidentally.

The sense of poetry being part of our everyday world, whether it is placed in a hospital in Glasgow or an old kimono shop in Nagoya (where Clark’s poems have appeared), makes poetry accessible rather than lofty. Clark’s belief in ‘poetry as making, as a practical rather than an intellectual activity’ underlines this down-to-earth appeal. Though the poems of Yellow & Blue appear in book form, there is still a craftsman-like quality to their shape and movement; they could just as easily be carved into stone or painted on a wall. Indeed Clark’s own publishing endeavour Moschatel Press, which he runs with the artist Laurie Clark, produces hand-made artist books that bear out this sense of poetry as craft or practice.

This meticulous, crafted and objective quality grounds Clark’s poems in their linguistic materiality and in that of the natural world they gesture towards; they are pastoral but never Utopian. As John Freeman has commented of Clark’s work: ‘To value the light is to be aware of the darkness’. Though the beauty and joy to be found in natural things is felt throughout Yellow & Blue, they are not quite idealised. There is a sense, felt in the silences around the words, that these things we cherish might someday be lost. The act of valuing something stands alongside the horror of losing it, and how awful would it be to lose our connection to certain landscapes and the things they contain through apathy and negligence?

Recording and revelling in a particularly Celtic type of landscape that might someday be lost brings to life shades of myth and folklore, found in lines such as:

 

————————————sylphs and nymphs and kelpies
————————————might slip between
————————————silks and shocks and sulks
————————————of water into real bodies

 

Such images escape the pages of fairy-tales and emerge into the very real world witnessed throughout Clark’s walking poem. Yellow & Blue closes on another stanza in which the fantastical is placed in the real, a magical image that could have emerged straight out of a tale of bygone days:

 

————————————a lamp of fish oil
————————————with a wick of rushes
————————————gathered by the light
————————————of a full moon

 

Through taking this imaginary journey with Clark, we come to realise that we have not yet lost our connection to a host of precious places and things. They are there, waiting to be discovered and treasured, if we would only take the time to walk and listen and look.

TV Review: Inside No 9

Inside No 9

BBC2 Wednesday 10pm

* * * *

Image for Sardines

This review first appeared in The Student, Tuesday 11 February 2014

Inside No 9, the macabre new comedy penned by The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, shares the hallmarks of their last offering, the terrific Psychoville; it’s familiar but uncanny, funny but unsettling, a joy to watch but at the same time ever so slightly distressing.

At the doomed engagement party of repressed Rebecca (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson) and dullard Jeremy, a game of ‘sardines’ takes place inside an antique wardrobe which looms over a bedroom filled with symbolic old baggage. The episode is set entirely within this bedroom, giving a claustrophobic atmosphere which intensifies as each character in turn squeezes into the wardrobe.

The cast is impressive, from Anna Chancellor and Julian Rhind-Tutt’s randy posho couple to Marc Wootton’s ‘Stinky John’, a man so traumatised by some past event that he cannot bear to bathe. Shearsmith is reliably excellent as aggressively gay Stu, slinking about and speaking with a campness bordering on the vicious, making innuendos about ‘having wood’ and ‘secreting himself’. Pemberton’s portrayal of Stu’s closeted lover Carl is a master-class in simmering resentment and suppressed horrors.

Tim Key is quietly brilliant as IT man Ian, looking like a worm in a suit, blinking behind naff spectacles and saying wholly inappropriate things in a creepily butter-soft voice. Key and Shearsmith get the best lines but there is some subtly brilliant physical comedy going on, especially from Parkinson, whose facial expressions steal scenes. Everything about the look of this episode is spot-on, from the hair and make-up to the costumes and set design, and the scratchy violins of the incidental music add to the oppressive, eerie feel of the place.

Each episode of Inside No 9 is a self-contained story, so it’s not really a series in the conventional sense, more like a collection of one-offs. This anthology style mirrors that of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88), a comically gruesome series with twist endings which clearly influenced Shearsmith and Pemberton. Future episodes are bound to share the same grimly comedic tone, but the introduction of a new narrative each time ensures an unpredictability which suits the unhinged subject matter.

The sting in this episode’s tail is satisfyingly sinister, prompting shudders and smiles in equal measures, a pleasurable combination which has come to be expected of Shearsmith and Pemberton. Long may their creative partnership give us goosebumps.

You Talkin’ To Me?: Book Review

You-Talkin-To-Me-Rhetoric-fr

I wrote this for The Scotsman last year but it never saw the light of day…until now!

Rhetoric: it’s a bit of a dry topic, isn’t it?  Full of old men in togas droning on, Latin words you can barely wrap your tongue around and all manner of complicated rules?  Not so in Sam Leith’s wonderfully witty and informative new book You Talkin’ To Me?  Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.

In this book, Leith, a regular contributor to the Guardian, Evening Standard, Wall Street Journal and Spectator, sets out to prove that “this is not a subject that needs to be intimidating.” Ever wondered why you can never remember what page number you read something on but you can remember its location on the page?  Leith’s musings on rhetoric and memory will enlighten you.  Ever considered the phrase “pure rhetoric” to be an insult?  Leith will change your mind on that matter.  After reading this book, you will never again be able to listen to a politician’s speech without a knowing smile creeping over your face and thoughts like “what an obvious attempt at exordium” entering your head.

Rhetoric is, as Leith puts it, “the art of persuasion: the attempt by one human being to influence another in words.  It is no more complicated than that.”  It can be formal, used by the likes of priests and politicians to influence their audience, but it can also be as ordinary as a man chatting up a woman in a nightclub or someone trying to wriggle out of getting a parking-ticket.  That’s what’s so refreshing about Leith’s book; he takes a topic often thought of as archaic, dusts it down, and brings it slap bang into the twenty-first century.

True, all the old familiars are here: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, but so are a wide and often surprising range of other famous figures, from Satan and Sarah Palin to JFK and Jennifer Lopez.  The fact that George Galloway, Gandhi and Art Garfunkel (unusual bedfellows by anyone’s standards) lie together in the book’s index is an indication of how far-reaching and entertaining Leith’s examples of rhetoric are.  When ancient figures are discussed – and they’re discussed throughout the book – the information imparted is genuinely enlightening.

The book has a sometimes scholarly feel – Leith certainly knows his onions – but whenever it risks becoming too “high-brow” Leith pulls it back down to earth by quoting a song from South Park or relating an amusing anecdote involving Piers Morgan’s doomed appearance on Have I Got News For You?, a programme which, interestingly, uses a rhetorical question for its title (you start to notice these things after reading the book).  In this way, the drier, more complicated information is rendered accessible and sits more readily in the reader’s memory.

An example of this is when Leith tells us about “Judicial Rhetoric” – rhetoric that looks to the past in order to convict or exonerate – and uses a scene from the 1992 courtroom drama A Few Good Men to illustrate his point.  By describing an exchange between Tom Cruise’s character Daniel Kaffee and Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep, Leith is able to use heady terms such as “conjectural stasis”, “qualitative and/or translative stasis”, “ethos appeal” and “pronominal movement” and actually make sense of them.

The tone is winningly direct but full of amusing flourishes, such as when Leith refers to the time when rhetoric becomes lofty as “when rhetoric puts on a dinner jacket and polishes its dancing shoes”, or describes a drunk girl as having had “a baker’s dozen of Bacardi Breezers”.

The book is happily organised into bite-size chunks, making the often weighty topics more digestible.  Some of the content is unavoidably dense – I’m still trying to wrap my tongue (and head) around words such as “anadiplosis” and “occultation” – but there’s a handy glossary at the back of the book for when things get a bit tricky.

From the origins of rhetoric in the far-off climes of Ancient Greece to the rhetorical tricks used by the likes of David Cameron today, Leith’s book covers vast ground and gives an excellent overview of a topic that is, as it turns out, extremely interesting and, as Leith puts it, “gathers in the folds of its robes everything that makes us human”.  Who knew?

Next to Love: Book Review

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This review first appeared in The Scotsman October 2011

Can a novel focussing on the lives of three women span three complex, earth-shattering decades without being reductive?  This is what U.S. author Ellen Feldman (shortlisted for the Orange prize for her 2009 novel Scottsboro) seeks to do in her new novel Next to Love.

The story follows three friends living in a small town in Massachusetts between 1941 and 1964. Babe, Grace and Millie are each left behind as their men go off to fight in WWII.  Those who return are maimed terribly, and not just in the physical sense.  Babe’s shell-shocked husband Claude has seen so much that his missing fingers are genuinely insignificant to him.

Babe is dropped from her job in a telegraph office as soon as the soldiers return, and spends the novel railing against discrimination, not just against women but black people too.  Grace and Millie seem unaware of any discrimination, or if they’re aware of it they don’t let it bother them.  Grace has no problem being a housewife, except that she’s missing a husband and can’t seem to function without him.  The quickly re-married Millie appears to have dealt with the grief of losing her husband astonishingly well, but appearances can be deceptive.

Throughout the narrative, we learn many things: that Jewish soldiers were told by the U.S. Army to ‘Eat ham for Uncle Sam’, their necks looped with dog-tags stamped ‘H’ for Hebrew; that black soldiers lived by the myth that their time on the battlefield would earn them equality back home; that countless working women were sent home (just like Grace is) to be cinched-in by full skirts and tight bodices, condemned to the kitchen to cook elaborate meals for men with the trembles.  Despite the new material wealth (when industries, swollen by producing military equipment, poured their resources into peacetime needs) the women’s hearts and men’s minds were still breaking.

Broken hearts and shell-shocked minds are bad enough, but it’s how their trauma is dealt with that causes the greatest damage to these characters.  The three women’s husbands may have been ‘startlingly articulate’ in their letters home, but sharing is seen as unmanly and the unspeakable remains unspoken.  Women like Millie seem to deal with their grief by painting lipstick smiles on their faces and taping things up in boxes.  That’s what the men had been fighting for, after all: the image of the ‘good Christian wife’.  When the men return, having seen ‘dead bodies with twisted limbs, staring eyes, and oozing intestines’, how can they find such beauty and such innocence so unsettling?

It takes decades for terms like ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ to make sense of their condition, to give the terrifying thing a name.  Until that time, broken men like Claude harm themselves, harm their wives, thrash around in bed at night, sweating and screaming and unravelling in the dark.  Some end up like Joe Dumbrowsky, ‘who fought his way through France and Germany only to go into the garage in his own backyard, close the door, and turn on the car engine.’

It isn’t just the men.  The three women in the novel turn to drink, develop obsessions and crumble like their meticulously-crafted pastries.  Overwhelming, suppressed grief is to blame, but so is the chilling ‘Housewife’s Syndrome’, cured, according to Babe’s doctor, by gardening, needlepoint and painting by numbers.  The doctor is keen to try the last himself but doesn’t have the time.

Things haven’t changed enough for black people either.  Many black veterans are unofficially diverted from college towards Trade School, despite the G.I. Bill promising to take care of their education.  They’re still employed as servants, banned from the local pool, accused of spreading Polio.  Their boys are still beaten to death for whistling at white ladies.  It’s the same for Jews; Millie is still excluded from ladies’ groups for marrying one, her son is still beaten in the schoolyard for being a ‘Jewboy’.  As one good Christian man jokes: ‘I pray to heaven the English will stop Hitler… but not too soon.’

Feldman manages to cover all these wide and weighty problems whilst remaining deeply personal and engaging, her prose never forced or preaching.  In fiction it’s often better to go narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow, but Feldman manages to go both wide and deep.  By selecting each excellently drawn character, she is able to demonstrate a particular concern through their thoughts, actions and the things that happen to them, whether it’s Babe and her opinions on equality, Grace and her obsession with a ghost, or Millie and the anti-Semitism her family endures.

So can a novel focussing on the lives of three women span as many decades without being reductive?  The answer to that is yes, so long as you’re in the hands of a writer as skilled as Feldman.

The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour: Review

ELPTOUR

This article first appeared on The Culture Trip website:

http://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/the-edinburgh-literary-pub-tour/

Pints and Poets

Old Edinburgh was a city of two halves: the grimy, poverty-stricken Old Town, full of overcrowded filthy tenements and taverns bustling with workers, criminals and prostitutes; and the gentile New Town, home to intellectuals and professionals with plenty of cash, clean hankies and impeccable manners. Between these two strikingly different halves, the city’s most famous literary figures – from Robert Burns and Walter Scott to Robert Louis Stevenson – came out to play.

The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour seizes on this intriguing duality by presenting two very different fictional characters as guides: ‘Clart’, the literary bohemian who revels in the murkier side of Edinburgh’s literary past; and ‘McBrain’, the more refined intellectual who would rather dwell on the loftier side of things. Through their musings, we get to hear of the dark underbelly of Old Edinburgh (or ‘Auld Reekie’ as it was known) as well as the more polite society of fancy drawing rooms. This duel of wits is the tour’s high-point.

The fact that these roles are performed by professional actors rather than academics or guides reciting from books will come as a welcome tonic to many a weary tour-goer. The actors, though incredibly knowledgeable, never become bogged down in too many dry details, selecting only the juiciest aspects of the city’s literary past on which to elaborate.

Leading us through the wynds and courtyards of Edinburgh’s Old and New Town, Clart and McBrain guide us from the Grassmarket’s warm and sumptuous Beehive Inn to the Royal Mile’s cosy and atmospheric Jolly Judge and lively Ensign Ewart, finishing in the rather grand Kenilworth on Rose Street. Along the way we are led through Makars’ Court, a strangely silent, moonlit pocket of the city and a particularly atmospheric part of the tour. As we stood within the peace of the court, quotations from famous Scottish writers engraved on the stones on which we stood, we listened to the chilling tale of Deacon Brodie, who himself reflects the city’s exciting duality.

Brodie was a respected locksmith and City Councillor by day and a thief by night. As Clart reflects: ‘Now, this man finds that he cannot control this other side to him and he falls even deeper into a life of crime, terrorising his own fellow citizens, invading their homes.  And all the while, the other man, the man of day, progresses up the social and political ladder until he can no longer keep up the facade, his dark self is revealed and his fate is sealed.’ McBrain continues:  ‘A famous Edinburgh villain who led a double life… I know what you’re leading up to Clart – Brodie was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.’

Stevenson does indeed detail the perils of the double life – and double self – in Jekyll and Hyde, as Clart muses: ‘Stevenson was exploring the hypocrisy of the individual – and as Stevenson said “man is not truly one, but truly two…” but we are not one or the other, we are both!  Edinburgh is both!’ which is precisely what the tour reflects so brilliantly.

Another literary figure from Edinburgh explored throughout the tour is Walter Scott, who grew up in the filth and clutter of the Old Town tenements and, even when he was a respected writer, returned to the seedy taverns for a good day or night out. As McBrain says of Scott: ‘… Edinburgh at that time did seem to celebrate, in some quarters, the rather seamier side of life.  And I do admit it had the reputation of being one of the most insanitary cities.  But the stage was set for a great figure to arise from the dirt and filth of the old town to a golden age.’ What the tour does so effectively is show that you cannot separate this dirt and filth from the gold: like Stevenson, Scott, Burns and all the others, these writers’ imaginations were fired by what they experienced in the city, by the squalor every bit as much as the beauty.

Established in 1996, it’s little wonder that the tour has continued for as long as it has, encompassing as it does over 300 years of Edinburgh’s literary history, right through to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Trainspotting (and even a cheeky reference to Harry Potter). It’s an impressive piece of theatre, a celebration of Edinburgh’s cultural heritage, and an important part of the city’s tourism. If you enjoy palatable chunks of literary history, stellar performances, storytelling, song, comical tales and stunning venues – with the opportunity to drink as much or as little as you care to indulge in – this is certainly the tour for you. An Auld Reekie must-see.

The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour is available: May-Sep (Everyday); Oct & Apr (Thur-Sun); Jan-March (Fri & Sun) and Nov-Dec (Fri). Meeting point is outside The Beehive Inn, Grassmarket, at 7.15pm. Tickets are £14 (£10 concession) and are available at the meeting point on the day or online at: http://www.edinburghliterarypubtour.co.uk/the-tour/buy-tickets