Clear and Entertaining
Missing the Boat, John Daniel (Etruscan Books)
I really began to enjoy John Daniel's poetry as I re-read this collection, a beautifully designed artefact from the Etruscan stable. It's a slightly odd choice for Nicholas Johnson, the editor, though, as most of his other authors are in the various compartments of the 'avant-garde' if such a thing still exists these days. No matter, this is a very welcome shift in emphasis, or even a one-off to even the balance a little.
The real strength of these poems is that Daniel rarely puts a word wrong, whether he is writing about looking after his elderly mother (Pushing 100), being in the supermarket or the launderette, his early memories of the beginning of WW2 or musings on the painting of a friend (Peter Archer's Chimney and Tree), the narratives are always clear and entertaining. Indeed, humour is what fuels most of the work included here (with the exception of a few more serious pieces) and re-reading them on the page induces the lucky reader to recall John reading them aloud, with deliberation and a sense of climactic progression which is extremely entertaining.
Let's take Upside Down in the Barbican, where Daniel recalls an episode where a teaching colleague named Steve Crook fell in to the waters of Plymouth's Barbican after a drinking session. The trigger is coming upon Crook's name years afterwards while searching a computerised catalogue system. Daniel's witty use of language is a treat throughout and the way he slips in erudite references without it feeling remotely like showing-off is quite expert:
...............Luckily the tide was out,
and luckier still he corkscrewed around
as he stepped off into the blackness
and landed on his back in the deep mud
spreadeagled like a starfish
staring up at the stars, Cassiopea, Orion
It must have been that moment
he conceived Foundationalism and anti-Foundationalism
in Radical Social Theory
feeling the sinking mud at his back
while he stared up at the heavens and they stared back at him
until the dawn came up over the Katherine and May
and The Dolphin.
Hilarious and beautifully put together.
In the Supermarket is a shorter poem which posits the persona as 'voyeur', being enchanted by 'a lady of unbelievable sexuality' who has caught his attention while shopping. It's an extremely amusing poem which captures a moment of male confusion and vulnerability and ends with a fantastically unforgettable simile:
as she swims out
disturbing the entire lake,
and I follow
my two plastic bags
banging against each other
like giant testicles
There's also a lot of nostalgia in these poems but it's a nostalgia which avoids sentimentality and thus earns its keep. Conkers is a poem which is essentially about age and youth and their different perspectives, a beautiful encapsulation which is quite perfect.
When I was young
conkers were old
dangling from gallows
baked, swung across thumbs
taut as a bowstring,
lives reckoned in battles,
splintered and quartered.
Now I am old
conkers are young,
cradled in cribs
of white velvet,
on brown and green fingers
touching the earth.
It's a poem filled with shared experience that an audience can respond to without difficulty, although it's obviously easier for an older person to relate to. Some would argue that the mood or 'intent' of the piece closes down the readers' options, that it's not open-ended and thus limited in what it can achieve, but I think there's still room for such poetry and in the hands of someone as skilled as Daniel it's a pleasure to read. He has a neat line in cracking similes as well!
Special Delivery is a revenge fantasy which hints at the Monty Python Grail film
and gets very personal indeed. A letter arrives at the door announcing the redundancy of a loved one and the protagonist gets busy with his (imagined!) weapon - a samurai sword - attacking the college dean with an obvious relish:
I chased him into the Staff Room
and cut off one of his legs
under the portraits of past principals
the silver arc taking it clear off
a spurt of blood landing on
Michael Roberts' glasses
dribbling down the gold frame.
The fact that said protagonist has been reading What the Buddha Taught just prior to receiving such bad news sets up a comic element which is sustained throughout the poem and offsets its obvious savagery. Barry Tebb will be jealous if he ever reads this poem!
Marie Celeste is another poem of nostalgia, this time evoking the wonderful imagination of boyhood as well as its frustrations - 'My parents were leading their meaningless landlocked lives' - and is as usual free of faults, on its own terms it's a near-perfect poem.
War is a subject which creeps into Daniel's work and Church Murals, Black Boughton, Oxfordshire, is a poem which deals with the invasion of Iraq with a controlled anger which is impressive and effective. When in serious mode, Daniel is capable of taking his work to a higher level and I'd love to see a larger collection of his poetry which includes more of this:
Perhaps the churches should paint the walls again
the boy with no arms in Iraq, Bush's rockets
the soldiers shelling a farmhouse
Then we could whitewash over the top
and unpeel them later, venerable relics
the Massacre of the Innocents
something for the people to look at
the stoning of Kelly, a lesson to the illiterate
bright colours, a focus
instead of these plaques to the gentry, Oxonian squires.
It's the quiet almost-cynicism of this which really makes it work, an indictment of a pointless conflict (aren't they all, in the end?) which knows it will make no difference, but sometimes there's a need to stand up and be counted and poems can be useful in such a situation.
As I've already said, I really enjoyed reading this collection and I look forward to a more complete rendering in due course.
© Steve Spence 2008