Don't Count on Decency
The Chronicles of Dave Turnip, Paul Sutton (9pp, £2.50, original plus)
It's safe to say that Paul Sutton doesn't pull any punches. The Chronicles… is a character-based sequence that pokes a stick into cultural squalor and stirs it up, the titular Turnip screwing and scrambling through an apparently ongoing teen to mid-life crisis (involving lots of sex, violence, and lost faith in poetry, modernism, communism, capitalism etc.) using all of the endearing social skills of a self-obsessed beaten faux-boho out of his time, class, and depth. But the poems themselves are taut and objective, chipping away at Dave's insalubrious facade to sculpt a mockingly unsympathetic, and occasionally stoned, cartoon gargoyle. Think Tarantino crossed with The League of Gentlemen in syllabics and slacks if you can. Here's Dave in the first poem, 'Turnip Adrift':
Kicks a habit and starts to chronicle.
Project born of his spunk in skinny girls,
hooded or straggling.
What is it with girls found in water,
on flooded fields and painters' light
under bridges (no Ophelia references,
I beg you cunt).
“In the feral darkness
I tasted fire and sex.
In waste-grounds and B & Q carparks,
I saw myself saviour,
Lawrence of Arabia;
to the erstwhile urchins,
I was Bilbo Baggins.”
If I'm reading this poem right, Turnip is outlining his putative Arts Council England Project, which is, needless to say, rejected. It's a somewhat strange situation: the pamphlet's central character invents a patronising project that sketches squalid characters onto which he pins his hang-ups, within the context of a pamphlet in which the poet invents a squalid character on which to pin his hang-ups. I'm not sure if this is, to quote a friend, 'seriously meta, man' (sarcastic voice), and therefore knowingly self-mocking and deliberate, or if it's just a slightly unpleasant cock-up. I hope and suspect it's all goofy-goofy and deliberate, as Paul Sutton seems too sharp not to know what he's up to. In fact I'll stick my neck out and say that it is clever-clever knowing and deliberate, so slap my cynical wrists and by all means skip this bit of the review.
Moving on, Dave is a traveller: the Central African Republic, France, Glastonbury, Suffolk, he's seen it all and considers himself something of an Orwellian authority as a result (more on this later). He's also a chancer. The ACE project of the first poem is either a pretty woeful attempt to jump on the bandwagon of politically popular community arts projects (5:2 favourite) or a sign that by the second poem 'Turnip in Love' he's kicked whatever leftist sympathies he may once have had with the downtrodden and is now getting on with kicking them himself (10:1 - doesn't want to meet Roger Federer in the quarter finals, but nothing's impossible):
Bus stop indignities, you all alone,
moron mutterings praised and paid in full.
The good feelings caused this, the Left to blame,
stamping, eating to shit successfully.
But Turnip isn't just a nasty piece of work, he's also a psychic cipher for the opinions and fears we'd rather not have. His exaggerated lack of charity questions our own prejudices and emphasises how easy it is to get so entangled in our own assumptions that we don't realise how lucky we are, then suddenly, without being self-aware enough to notice, we've become the bigots we'd sworn never to be.
Turnip's a disappointed artist who's kept trying in the face of failure and this pamphlet chronicles, semi-ironically I think, the risks inherent in that stance. Accordingly, the poems teeter between warped elitist idealism and muttering 'fuck the lot of you'. It's a poetry of alienation, mostly self-inflicted, but partly encouraged by a world-view ideologically focussed on the appearance and the trappings of 'success' (many of which Turnip actually has by dint of redundancies and annuities, we're told, but it seems it's the way he sees himself that counts, at least for him). And it's a frightening, sobering little book for anyone who's unlikely to live up to their ideals or their self-projections, i.e. pretty much everyone. As Turnip says (ibid.), 'Don't count on decency, brains scream in the night'.
There's also a nihilistic implication that the writing to which Turnip has devoted himself doesn't matter all that much, even to him:
bored with the seven counting,
headshakes, like birds pulling worms,
Decides on prose poetry,
reads Celine, distilling rage,
attempting his ellipsis.
[from 'The Haunting of Turnip']
It's a nice ironic touch that each line runs to seven syllables.
So, The Chronicles of Dave Turnip has plenty to say, agreed? Good. And as far as the nitty-gritty how-he-says-it stuff goes, style-wise, two of the four poems are pretty strict ten syllable affairs that approximate good old iambic pentameter, while the other two alternate between the ten-syllable and seven-syllable stuff with a side-swipe at prose poetry for good measure. It's a cumulatively powerful combination and Paul Sutton is formally both subtle and supple: his syllabic approach avoids the annoyingly rum-tee-tum and when he breaks from it you don't feel tripped up. It's all natural, and pretty slick. It's economical and concentrated writing too. There's no wastage:
feverish notes to himself
scrawled under swinging lamplight.
Deft, isn't it? This is powerful stuff, if maybe a bit in-your-face for some. The writing is never obscure, nothing's shied away from (except perhaps shyness) and it's all presented with great technical verve and a knowingly evil grin. I can honestly say that I can't think of anybody else who writes like this and pulls it off without sounding forced, so it's pretty original to boot. Any gripes? Well, yes, as it happens, but they're not really Paul Sutton's fault:
1.It's nine pages long. That's right, nine! And it's printed in a big and very horrible font.
2. There's an extended version available for free on the internet (in a much nicer font). I won't tell you where, because it doesn't seem right to.
Sorry, but that's not really good enough - unlike Paul Sutton's poetry, which is more than good enough. It's clever, it's visceral, and it deserves better. That said, the cover design, by Sutton himself, is pretty funky and makes the pamphlet well worth shelling out £2.50. And I should also point out that original plus has an eclectic and pretty damn fine list, including the wonderful and weirdly underrated Sandra Tappenden: sort out the font guys and you're up there with the best.
Oh, and the Orwell thing I promised to come back to? It's in one of the poems not included here (why, I don't know). Check it out on the net and go figure.
© Nathan Thompson 2009