A rare mix

The Strangest Thank You, Richard Thomas (Cultured Llama Publishing)

Richard Thomas is a fresh young voice from Plymouth whose work combines a surprisingly direct yet engaging take on the surreal with a more romantic and passionate approach to his subject. In 'Flamingo', for example, we are presented with a build-up of imagery which includes factual information, sharp observation neatly given a skewed twist - the origin of which is clearly related to the curious visual appearance of the bird, - and a beautiful, terse lyricism which is both appealing and feels genuine, from the heart. Thomas' work is a rare mix of the intellectual and the intuitive and it's a real pleasure to read, or hear read, as he's a fine performer of his poetry, also something of an unusual trait:

     Flesh-coloured shrimp-eater,
     wide-winged wired bird,
     raking the dirt pedalling the earth,
     knee-knobbled beanpole legs,
     knee being ankle-joint,
     beak in the ground like a compass,
     dot-eyed wading follower,
     feather-liced idoliser,
     tall social armpit sleeper,
     delightful eyeful not quite parrot,
     ancient Roman delicacy,
     Africa North America
     Central America Europe
     South America Asia
     lava-loving ice-bird,
     mud mounder by mouthful
     cunningly undesirable,
     thirty years of male looking female,
     thirty years of female looking male,
     many accidental bisexual nights,
     lethargy-enthused strawberry sunset
     pinking the waters forever.
          (from 'Flamingo')

That 'pinking the waters forever' has such a wonderful resonance and manages to avoid all the worst excesses of the laboured-over final line.

There's a clear sense of literary tradition in his work, whether that of the 20th century, as in the obvious 'surreal connection', or with an earlier romantic mode of writing. In 'Good Reason to Die' for example, there's a strong hint of an Elizabethan influence yet this is presented with such a down-to-earth 'lack of flourish', which is both very funny and strangely moving:

     In an all white sun I sleep
     figureless, moving closer to myself
to which the Star Sisters hit me up with;
     'Wake from that in which you lie!'
     and so I wake and groggily reply:

     'But the sun is going to die
     so I shall sleep and go out with it,
     a loyal ember, a promise I'll keep,
     and then I can come back as snow
     and be divine in my white flow'.
          (from 'Good Reason to Die')

This is a poem which embraces the idea of 'mutability' without being remotely melancholy or heavy, and its lyricism also has an almost upbeat, humorous, throw-away quality ('groggily reply') which reminds me of Stevie Smith in a less angsty mode. Richard Thomas wears his learning lightly and his poetry is all the better for it.

There's a real mix of material in this very promising first collection - you could say that there's a concern with the 'natural world' that is pervasive - which also includes the unexpected and offbeat. Two poems in this category are 'Bad Movie', which reminds me ever-so-slightly of Brian Patten's 'The Projectionist's Nightmare', and 'Putting the Poem in Danger'. The latter is one of those 'poems about a poem' poems which can go badly wrong if not handled carefully yet this one reads like a dream and again, reminds me slightly of Luke Kennard's work. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a 'school' here:?

     Last night
           on the patio
          a student was talking
         about those who have killed,
        he then went on to say
       he would play murder
      like a drinking game:
     after every killing,
    he, the killer,
      would swallow another shot.
     (from 'Putting the Poem in Danger')

My current favourite poem in The Strangest Thank You is 'Cezanne and His Critics' which reminds me of how I felt about Cezanne in my twenties and makes me want to revisit the paintings (I will, I will):

     Ah, but little did they know

     that one hundred years on
     his hatted card players
     with white pipe would have gone
     for one hundred and sixty million,

     and I can hear Cezanne
     rolling in his grave with laughter,
     'That'll show the bastards'.
          (from 'Cezanne and His Critics')

This is a splendid debut collection and I'm sure we'll be hearing more from Richard Thomas in due course.

     Steve Spence 2013