A Very Long Title and a Tragic Incident
The Talking Horses, the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, Mark Haddon
[60pp, £7.99, Picador]
Tramp in Flames, Paul Farle, [72pp, £8.99, Picador]
Mark Haddon is renowned for his prose works both for children and adults and has had a phenomenal success with his novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time in the recent past. Both his facility with language and his ability to take on a persona and speak in a specific voice continue to impress in this extremely varied collection of poems. He has a talent for directness and clarity which takes you straight into the marrow of his poems. This combination of objectivity and ventriloquism are his route into a wry and clear sighted appraisal of the vagaries of modern living and of the contradictions and complications that befall his characters and, of course, includes his own take on being a poet. It's very apparent that he wants the reader to enjoy his many little references and asides and it also becomes clear that there is a strong sense of the ridiculous and the surreal at play here.
The first poem 'Go, Litel Book' seems to act as a prelude for all that follows, the twists and turns of imagery, its references to the writing process, the non-sequiturs, the humorous insistence on the poet sweating it out '...like the badger or the mole ./ We work along in darkness, guided by tiny / candles which we do not share, sweating to give birth / to replacement planets where things happen which don't.' And a few lines further on: '...But sometimes we see a swallow in winter time. And the talking horse / and the sad girl and the village under the sea / descend like stars into a land of long evenings / and radically different vegetables / and a flex is run from our hearts into the hearts / of those who do not know the meaning of the words cardigan or sleet.'
There are dire warnings in 'Rough Guide': 'Be polite at the reception desk, / Not all the knives are in the museum.' This is Haddon parodying the bland sentences of the phrase book, but with menaces. His imagery can be startling and vivid, as in 'After a Beheading', which deals with a criminal on the run from his crimes finding sanctuary with a rich benefactor: 'His wife will have perfect breasts / and make the noise of a leopard sleeping. /...There will be many finger bowls. / Your host will say, "Eat...Drink..." // and as your hand hangs like a hawk / above the confusion of forks / you will realise that this / is where the journey starts.'
Indeed, the journey through this book is packed with inventive narratives which include a bunch of nuns at the seaside: 'They're out again, flocking on the esplanade like crows / ...Others lie in deckchairs / and seem unnaturally comfortable / despite the heat. // Their ankles are like flashes/of lightning.'
'Great White' is a evocation of fear itself: ...'Even now, in lakes and rivers,/or ten yards off the beach at Swanage, / I remember what's inside us all / and sense, behind my back, / that grey torpedo entering the shallows. // The conjunction of a small Dorset seaside town such as Swanage and the menace of the shark is inspired.
Haddon writes amusingly in the voices of a dog and a cat, but more tellingly in' The Penguin', as the poem voices an inability to change situations that are so obviously inhumane: 'A basin of blue concrete / and a Humboldt penguin tumbling / in three feet of dirty water. // If only we could slip inside those eyes / and find our way back / to the pack-ice in the Weddell Sea. / Instead we move on to the gibbons.' It's this matter of factness when dealing with major issues that is so moving; there's not a shred of sentimentality.
'The House of The Four Winds', a long sequence which Haddon states is a decimation of the novel by John Buchan conjures up the idea of a dreary English précis but the economy of language where he condenses the events of the novel is compelling. Try Chapter 10, 'Aura': 'So small a thing/that little room of sleep, yet it was sealed to him. / He walked the empty street. / Hot breath of baking. / Garbage in the gutters. / A bicycle. The derelict / torches of the stars. This could be an example in a manual for the way to write poetry, it's so jam packed with vivid imagery.
Distributed amongst the inventions and distractions of this collection are a number of poems based on the 'Odes' of the Roman poet and philosopher Horace. The tone of the narrator is that of a fatherly advisor offering the fruits of his experience to a variety of characters. Each poem evokes the bucolic setting of the Roman landscape where Horace lived and is not so much a translation but a version of his words. I would prefer to
see these positioned consecutively as the mood and atmosphere builds with each one, however that can be achieved with a little judicious page turning.
This is a fine and varied collection which is eminently accessible, it contains elements of complexity combined with humour; a combination which ultimately contributes to its strength.
Paul Farley's 'Tramp in Flames' is his third collection and has an intensity which is equally compelling. Throughout the book the tone is perpetually questioning, trying to make sense of the issues both large and small in his and other people's lives. The title poem is a searing evocation of a vagrant's death: 'Some similes act like heat shield for re-entry/to reality:/ a tramp in flames on the floor./ ...and the smell is like a foot-and-mouth pyre in the middle of the city he was born in'and a pool forms like the way he wet himself / sat on the school floor forty years before, / and then the hand goes up. The hand goes up.'
The poems that stood out for me in this accomplished collection are the longer ones, in particular, his 'Requiem for a Friend'. A note under the title refers to Rainer Maria Rilke and presumably, although there are of course resonances of Rilke both in the title and the content, the poem deals largely with his thoughts and memories of Michael Donaghy, who died in 2004; the volume is dedicated to his memory:
But since you've gone on ahead - forgive the spatial shorthand,
it's all that works in this world - I've been troubled
by the little things: a polystyrene cup
edging across a table on the train
like contact at a seance...
and further on:
Is this what friends
are for: to say the door is always open?
Heart on the latch, I lie awake and listen.
The poem travels through the city, Farley searching for signs of his friend in old haunts which summon up memories of him and take the writer into their shared world of experiences and sensations. 'You showed me how to move about this stage, / so why now are you banging into things / and throwing your weight around? Did you leave clues / strewn like flowers up to your final afternoon?' And later: 'Slip into light. See if I'm afraid / to look you in the face.' The poem ends: 'But don't come back. If you can stand it, stay / dead with the dead. The dead have their own tasks. / But help me, in your own time, in your own way, / as far-off things can help us: deep within.' The resounding repetition of 'dead' three times over would seem to be a conclusive ending and yet this death cannot be a finality for Farley. There is, sadly, only space here to provide an introduction to the power of this poem. Its elegiac nature is both uplifting and totally absorbing and the profundity of the poet's experience written in every day speech makes it all the more accessible for the reader.
In an earlier poem 'Ruin', he deals amusingly with the revelation of seeing things clearly with his new specs. 'The walk home from the optician was full of wonders: birds on wires, the vertical hold of rain, / a bus's destination, // as if I'd climbed out of a mist / onto a peak. I'd missed // a decade's middle distances / but I've been grateful since // as nothing now's too low or small/to honour: one dark brick // stares right back from its newbuild wall / to the ramparts of Uruk.'
It's good to see the more playful poems in a variety of forms, rhyming, haiku, a pantoum fittingly dedicated to his father in Malaya. 'The Heron' displays such exactitude in its description of the clumsy take off of a beautiful bird in flight. 'One of the most begrudging avian take-offs / is the heron's fucking hell, all right, all right, / I'll go to the garage for your flaming fags cranky departure, though once they're up their flight can be extravagant.' and the final lines: 'Seen from antiquity / you gain the Icarus thing; seen from my childhood / that cursing man sets out for Superkings, / though the heron cares for neither as it struggles / into its wings then soars sunwards and throws / its huge overcoat across the earth.'
None of these poems would qualify for an '18 certificate' as set out in lines from one of Haddon's poems: 'The language of a poem may be denser and more powerful than the language you are used to dealing with. And though it makes nothing happen it may, like a piece of ice on a hot stove, ride its own melting into our soul and bring you face to face with the madness of space.'
Both these books made a great deal happen for me and it had nothing to do with madness.
© Genista Lewes 200