I'm starting to appreciate the ethos of this particular
poetry publisher. Philip Terry's new collection combines an interest in
process with a surreal sense of humour and a liking for a strange beauty,
which may well be a product of the first two tendencies.
The opening number - '50 and a half Crime Novels for Beginners' - is exactly
that, each justified block of text a variant on a précis of a crime fiction,
mixing humour with absurdity with gory detail and repeated journalistic
tropes which add to the stylistic effect of the overall piece. Details from
the individual paragraphs are merged and cut into other sections with slight
alterations, producing variants which are as madly humorous as they are
disturbingly 'real'. I imagine the starting point for this fiction was the
crime section of a variety of newspapers but it's also a spoof on the genre
of hard-boiled crime fiction, as well as providing an absurd commentary on
the darker recesses of the human imagination:
There is a
phone call in the night. A week later an eyeball turns
up in the
oxtail soup. Seeing no alternative, the
agree to pay. As instructed, the
money is left in
six identical soup tins in the
toilet of a transit café. Police
(from '50 and a half Crime Novels for Beginners')
It's harder to see the starting point for 'Advanced Immorality', the second
section of the collection, though I may figure this out given time. Each page
consists of what appears to be a separate poem and the format of each is
pretty much identical in terms of layout, so, for example, on page 33
(chosen, pretty much at random), we get this:
Growling dog Panting dog
Static rabbit Purring
tiger Purple gorilla
the blind traveller
On the crowded plain
a swarm of flies
Jumping frog Stationary wasp
(from 'Advanced Immorality')
Taken in isolation, each page feels less impressive than the cumulative
effect of reading the whole piece, and while some poems are clearly stronger
than others, the reader begins to build up a sense of the whole process when
he or she has read it through a few times. There are the sonic effects, the
strange dislocation of the phrasing - the often incongruous juxtaposition of
words and phrases - plus a kind of haunting lyric beauty which feels at odds
with what I take to be the methods of construction. Slightly unnerving and
full of interest.
Terry has a liking for formal structures, both traditional and of the Oulipo
variety. 'Clop Clop', for example, is a madly deviant sestina which hints at
Edwin Morgan and Bob Cobbing (each line ends with 'clop') and looks as though
it would sound wonderful when read out loud - ' Gene clop rush clop hot clop
lung clop' - while 'First Steps in Phonology' is a poem in nine parts, each
part having three, three-line stanzas, with the last stanza of each section
following a similar format - thus:
couple happened to know our region.
these green cages.
'First Steps in Phonology, VIII')
The variations in this piece are inventive and witty though I felt the
tension between the formal restrictions and the poem's underlying anarchy
less creatively fruitful than in some of the other writing here.
'Hamlet' is a four-page, bold
block of justified text, relating, unsurprisingly, to Shakespeare's play. It
mixes the expected archaisms with modern humour and is hilariously funny in
parts - ''Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on / than a pipe? Do
you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of / a camel?' - yet there are
echoes which seem to have come from other sources altogether and the overall
feel of the piece is almost one of slapstick comedy - 'Why does he suffer
this rude knave now to knock him about / the sconce with a dirty shovel, …'.
'A Berlin Notebook' is a longer,
more relaxed piece, combining observation with a listing device (suggesting
movement, as from a train) which has an immediacy and a 'snapshot' feel which
is appropriate to travel writing, and I guess this is a kind of travel
writing, as highlighted by the title. I love the dry, throwaway wit of -
'They call this the “Shepherd's Meadow”, but there are no shepherds around
here.' - for example. There's a minimalist lyrical quality to Terry's lists,
which as well as suggesting movement and 'the moment', locates you in the
world with mere suggestion yet which also implies something more permanent
and lasting, a trick perhaps, but it feels authentic:
palace. Green bridge. Green bench. Gold lions. Gilded pagoda.
water. Moored boat. Squeaking truck. Pointed
Falling leaf. Diving swallow.
'Days', the penultimate section, is also a list of observations, thoughts and
feelings, which build incrementally, yet often works on a line-by-line basis,
mixing the banal and everyday with those moments of 'minor epiphany' - '
Afternoons when you plan to go out for a walk and it starts / snowing, hard.
You go out anyway - the beauty of the snow.' It's a mildly existential
approach which Terry brings off brilliantly - this kind of writing is easy to
do badly - and provides an interesting contrast to his more obviously formal
and game-playing work, though this isn't to say that the formal qualities are
lacking in 'Days', just that the writing feels more relaxed and 'at home'.
There is angst and there is 'bad stuff' but the overall mood here is one of a
'laid-back' existence, aided perhaps by the repetition of the
I loved reading these poems. Terry seems to be a natural writer, prolific,
wide-ranging in terms of an expertise in formal constraint, as well as being
an astute observer of the here and now, yet there's an interest also in
history and 'how things get put together' (particularly in 'A Berlin
Notebook') which embraces the snapshot while suggesting a deeper engagement.
Relaxation and control, a wonderful combination. Great stuff.